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Fate Fixes Infinity War

Chapter Text

A trainee stood before Fate. He quivered in his spot until she noticed him. Then he really began to quake in fear.

“What is it?” she snapped. “I put up the Do Not Disturb sign for a reason.”

“Y-you might want t-to see what’s ha-happening on Earth,” he said.

“I have no time for that,” she said. “Unbonded souls have been pinging back here and I don’t know why. Some of them aren’t even my souls.”

“Um…”

She sighed.

“I suppose it can wait until later,” she said. “But if these other souls are destined for…” She checked the readings she had taken. “Valhalla, then why did they come to me? That’s not my department.”

“P-please?”

Reluctantly, Fate left her workshop and followed the trainee to the communications hall. She realised immediately why she’d been summoned.

It was chaos. On a scale she hadn’t seen since… since the dawn of time itself. Even then, the chaos was that of creation. Assigning tasks to people. Discovering what jobs needed to be founded and how to carry them out.

This was the chaos of destruction. And a tug on her body soon told her why.

She sank to the ground. The Soul Stone.

“What has happened?” she demanded.

“Half of Knowhere’s population has… has died!” a technician exclaimed.

Fate’s eyes flashed as she dug her nails into her palms. She and her other soul creators had all been born from the Soul Stone. It called to her, as it called to them.

“Where is the being who possesses the Soul Stone?” she said.

Frantically, people began to search screens, radars, and other machines. More soul creators gravitated out of their workshops. The Xandarian soul creator was too busy, and the Asgardian soul creator had been busy for a few days. Both of them were most likely handling the influx of returned souls, from lives which had been ended too early. Fate didn’t envy them. She’d hate to…

A shockwave shot through her. She was already on the ground, but the rest of the soul creators fell to the floor. Everyone did.

“No… one stone… could have that power,” Fate said, struggling to her feet. She returned to her room and saw her shelves filling with returned souls. Most of them had appeared as one, but more of them appeared slowly.

She ran back out of the room, grabbing her cloak on the way.

“D-do you need he-help?” the trainee asked, trailing her to the double doors.

“No,” Fate said. She pointed to one of the screens. “He used the Infinity Stones on Earth. The last planet he decimated is my planet. I’m going to stop him. Just keep my room from overflowing with souls.”

She swept out the doors, cape flowing behind her, and summoned her sleigh with a snap of her fingers. She boarded it and, with a single thought, set out.

According to the reports she was receiving from headquarters, the being controlling the Infinity Stones was a Titan named Thanos. He had now left Earth for his home planet. Technically someone else’s domain, but that particular soul creator had retired long ago, after nearly everyone died. Apparently one lonely soul remained, without its other half.

Fate landed her sleigh on the top of a desert hill. She surveyed the land, searching for the remaining Titan.

“Where are you?” she murmured.

Eventually she found him. A large being, just as his soul creator had been. This one had light purple skin and vertical markings on his chin. He looked surprised to see anyone else around.

“How did you get here?” he asked.

“You are misusing the Infinity Stones,” Fate said. “The one who created your soul would be disappointed that his remaining creation has caused so much destruction. Not to mention an inordinate amount of paperwork for us.”

“How would you know who created my soul?” Thanos said.

“I am a soul creator,” she said, crossing her arms. “The gems will not work on me.”

“All of them, or just the Soul Stone?” he asked, glancing down at the gauntlet on his hand with an evil smile.

Fate’s eyes narrowed.

SMACK.

Thanos’s head whipped to the right. Fate’s hand tingled from the hard slap she had delivered to him. He stared at her incredulously, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Hand me that gauntlet,” she said, holding out her hand. “Now.”

“I do not answer to humans.”

“I am no human.”

Fate summoned her sleigh. It bowled over Thanos, sending him sprawling to the ground, and returned to settle over his arm. Fate stomped on his lower arm with the sharp heel of her left shoe, and used the cover of her sleigh to bend down, grab the gauntlet, and haul it off. Thanos growled angrily, but couldn’t move his arm until Fate was back in the sleigh, the gauntlet between her feet, and rode into the sky.

 

“So you can reverse the damage he has done since the gauntlet came into his possession?” Knowhere’s soul creator asked.

The Grandmaster, as he now called himself, looked over the gauntlet that Fate had retrieved from Thanos. He sighed.

“Sure, it’s an easy fix,” he said. “But what are you going to do about Thanos? I can reverse the deaths he’s caused, but a lot of people will still be angry with him. People have been punished by the Infinity Stones before, and we can’t risk them hurting him until the damage has been repaired first.”

“He is still on Titan, now that he no longer has the gauntlet,” Fate said.

“A couple of people are in hiding on Titan, by the way,” En Dwi Gast said. “You might want to check on them. Oh!” He rubbed the stones. “A bunch of people died there, actually. So you’ll have seven or eight people to get off Titan, I think.” He frowned as he caressed each jewel, sensing what Thanos had done. “Yes. Mostly humans. That’s your domain, Fate.”

She nodded.

“Can you tell the Infinity Stones not to punish Thanos yet?” she asked.

“The whole universe will want to punish him. Their collective will could sway the gems. So we’ll have to be quick.”

“We should leave Titan until last,” Xandar’s soul creator said, pushing stray hairs out of her eyes. Her clothes were in disarray from chasing after the souls which had been returned to her. “Then the stones can punish him as they see fit.”

“We’ll tackle the Asgardian bodies floating in space first of all,” En Dwi Gast said, heading to the doors. The soul creators trailed after him, needing a break after all of the paperwork which had suddenly built up. “If only that Thunder Lord hadn’t stolen my orgy ship, we could have taken that to Titan.”

The soul creators looked at each other and collectively grimaced.

En Dwi Gast’s arm was comically dwarfed by the dwarf-forged gauntlet, but no one laughed as he curled the fingers, feeling out the strands of magic until he was able to pull everything back to the way it was.

As he’d repair each planet, its soul creator would return to their workshop and check the returned souls. Then they would travel to their planet to make sure that everyone was alright and that chaos was at a minimum.

The Asgardian soul creator was the first to venture out. His chosen mode of transport was a winged chariot. He returned after half of the other soul creators had also left, and aided in the search for Titan’s long-lost soul creator.

Fate had offered to go last. Earth was one of the most populated planets, so it would take longer than most to return the souls. But once her workshop was back in order, she jumped into her sleigh and set off for Earth. She circumnavigated the globe swiftly, double-checking the places where Infinity Stones had last been located. She kept out of sight while Wakanda and New York were set to rights.

She returned to Titan, hot on the Grandmaster’s tail, and found the humans trapped on the planet. They were all relieved to be together again.

“I didn’t foresee this particular victory,” one man said. His red cloak fluttered around his body. “It shouldn’t be possible.”

“Does it matter?” another said. “The bad guy’s powerless and you’re all alive again. Except the blue chick here. She didn’t die.”

“But Gamora did,” another man said.

“Perhaps if the Soul Stone is returned, she will come back,” the blue woman said.

“Hey, who’s that?” a boy said, pointing towards Thanos and the Grandmaster.

“I… have no idea,” the second man said. “But he brought a spacecraft. We should commandeer it to get back to Earth.”

Fate revealed herself.

“I can return you to your home,” she said. They all jumped. “You will fit in my sleigh, I promise you.”

“What about Gamora?” the third man asked.

“Leave that to En Dwi Gast,” Fate said. “If she can be saved, he will save her.”

“We’ll stay here until she’s back,” he said.

“Speak for yourself,” the second man said. “Some of us have homes to return to.”

He, the first man, and the boy climbed into Fate’s sleigh. She drew a blanket over their laps to keep them warm and secure. With one last glance to Titan’s soul creator, who was speaking softly to Thanos, she set the sleigh in motion.

Chapter Text

Despite Tony’s angry comments about their former team-mates, it was the thought of Sam which forced Rhodey to continue his physical therapy, even on the worst days.

They’d met at one of Tony’s We-Saved-the-World parties. After they’d realised that the only way to talk to each other was to shout over the blaring music, Rhodey and Sam needled each other, about the army and air force respectively. Sam was out of the service by then, so technically he wasn’t being insubordinate when he teased Rhodey about the patriotic paint job the army had given his armour.

Rhodey still gave him shit about his drone, even when Sam pointed out that Tony had made that particular upgrade.

Sam was still busy helping Steve a lot of the time, and Rhodey still answered to men like Secretary Ross, so most of their communications were via text and email. Sam would send anecdotes about Steve’s reaction to whatever movie Sam showed him, and Rhodey would reply with… whatever he could think of. A story from Tony’s college days, suggestions about what to show Cap next, something stupid which had happened that day.

Then the Sokovia Accords happened. Rhodey should’ve known Sam would remain loyal to Steve Rogers.

He’d give anything to regain that stolen time now, as he looked out through the panoramic window that King T’Challa favoured. The… late king.

Rhodey had been court martialled, so he didn’t bother contact his commanders. He chose to rest his forehead against the warm glass, feeling vulnerable without his suit and without his… his Sam.

Not that he’d been his Sam. Rhodey wanted it, but it wasn’t to be.

Now that Sam was gone, he wasn’t sure whether it was better that they’d never tried for something. Would things have turned out differently? Wanda had died with the Vision, so maybe soulmates weren’t parted.

But he wasn’t Sam’s soulmate.

Rhodey’s hands clenched into fists as he realised that he’d never seen Sam’s writing, and they hadn’t been able to hear each other when they’d met. He figured that he had to be able to make out the words of his soulmark, but maybe his soulmate only had to say them? What if…?

“Your turn, Colonel Rhodes,” Shuri said, ushering him to a chair. “I wish we could do this in medical, but my assistants are still searching for spies.”

“The armour protected me,” Rhodey said. “Your Highness.”

Shuri pursed her lips. She’d refused the title of queen, determined to find out how to bring her brother, and the rest of the fallen, back from the dead. If they even were dead, and not in another dimension.

“You do not feel any pain?” she asked.

“There’s kind of an itch on my back. I may’ve scratched it, or it got a bump from the armour. If it’s bleeding, I’ll need a band-aid.”

“Band-aid. Unbelievable,” she muttered, raising the back of his shirt. “I cannot see any mark here. Where does it itch?” She poked his skin.

“Bit higher,” Rhodey said. “Bit more… to the middle… yeah. Just there.”

“Hmm.” She stepped back. “I will get a microscope.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said.

“The worst injuries have been dealt with,” she said sharply. “At least let me grab a magnifying glass. Maybe something in Wakanda disagrees with you. I don’t want you to have an allergic reaction on my watch.”

Rhodey nodded and Shuri bustled off. She returned with binoculars.

“These are the best I can do for now,” she said.

“I’m surprised you don’t have something in your beads that can magnify stuff,” he said, gazing out the window again to feel less awkward about the teenager studying his bare back.

She cursed.

“What is it?”

“My head is not in this,” Shuri said. “I forgot about the beads.”

She twisted something. There was a slight hum coming from her wrist, and a prickle of warmth when she moved it closer to his body.

“There is no visible rash,” she said. “No spots. Does the itch grow worse when I scratch your skin like this?”

“It’s just… getting worse generally,” Rhodey said, shuffling in his seat.

Steve sighed, making them both jump. He’d been still as a statue and just as silent since he’d taken up position beside Rhodey at the window. Only the tears trickling down his cheeks betrayed the fact that he was alive.

“If only I’d gotten the gauntlet off him,” Steve said. He thumped a fist against the glass. Surprisingly, it didn’t crack, but he winced nonetheless as he looked back at Shuri. “I’m sorry.”

“It can take my brother’s strength,” Shuri said. “It can handle yours.”

Steve turned his back on the grounds and rubbed his face.

“What do we do now?” he said hopelessly.

“Get in touch with everyone we can find who can help us to fight Thanos,” Rhodey said. “That’s all we can do. The military can’t help, unless Thor can work out how to improve their weapons.” Shuri cleared her throat. “Both of you, I mean.”

Steve slid to the ground and hugged his knees, lowering his head to rest on his arms.

“Colonel,” Shuri said, tapping him on the shoulder. “I can see something on your skin. It’s getting light.”

“What?”

“There’s a mark… I think… they look like words. It’s a soulmark!”

“Impossible,” Rhodey said, craning his head to look.

“Don’t put your neck out. I’ll get a mirror.”

“But there should already be a mark there. That’s where my soulmark is.”

“There weren’t any words there a minute ago,” Shuri said firmly, still searching for a mirror. Finally, she gave up and took a picture on her phone. Then she showed it to Rhodey, who could barely hold onto it.

I heard you calling my name, but it was too late.

Angrily, Rhodey handed the phone back to her.

“Same person as before,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happened to change my soul words, but it’s the same handwriting.”

“Thanos has the Reality Stone,” Steve said. “Maybe whatever he did also changed how you’d meet your soulmate?”

“As long as I get to meet them,” Rhodey said.

The words reminded him too much of Sam. It was too late for them.

Now that the mystery of the itch had been solved, he marched over to the window and resumed his parade rest, staring out at the work being done below. He squinted when he saw the sunlight catch on something metallic headed their way. Was Tony finally back? Or was it a renewed attack by Thanos?

No, those looked like wings.

“Sam,” he breathed.

“What?” Steve said.

Rhodey ran to the doorway and out to the helicopter pad in front of the palace. Steve followed him, probably looking for something to do. Or maybe he thought it was the enemy. But Rhodey wasn’t so sure.

“It’s Sam,” he said, clutching Steve’s arm. “Look!”

Steve remained silent until the Falcon was close enough to land in front of them. He lifted his goggles onto his head and shrugged, panting, as he tried to find words.

“We thought you were dead,” Rhodey said. Was this a hallucination? He wanted to reach out and check, but he couldn’t bring himself to shatter the dream. Not yet.

“I heard you calling my name,” Sam said, catching his breath, “but it was too late.”

Shuri gasped softly. Rhodey blinked.

“Checked your soulmark?” he asked.

“Oh God, I didn’t even think of that,” Sam said. He moved the band around his arm out of the way and checked. His eyes widened as he looked up at Rhodey. Rhodey simply turned around and lifted his shirt.

“Next time I see Tony, I’m yelling at him about the volume of music at his parties,” he said.

“Join the line,” Sam replied, looking stunned.

“But we really did think you were dead,” Steve said, ruining the moment. Sam shook his head.

“Uh, yeah, we think we were,” he said. “But suddenly we were back. Vision’s still dead, though. I came ahead to ask for someone to bring his body back. Wanda’s… not good. T’Challa’s promised a warrior’s funeral for him.”

“My brother,” Shuri said. “He is alive?”

“He sure is,” Sam said, smiling. “So is Bucky.”

Steve looked relieved and Shuri burst into tears. Steve pulled her close as she wept, and Sam and Rhodey wandered off a distance, partly to give Shuri privacy and partly to get some privacy for themselves.

“Should’ve got you to repeat your words to me, when we met,” Sam said. “Instead of complaining about Tony straight away.”

“Oh, your words to me were definitely complaining about Tony,” Rhodey said. “But they weren’t exactly the same. And I didn’t even think about my soulmark at the time. If I’d known I’d end up wanting it to be you, I would’ve done things differently right from the start.”

“So you want me?”

“Yes. In every way you’ll let me.”

“That’s an awful lot of ways,” Sam said, glancing at Rhodey’s lips.

“Maybe we should let the others figure out what we’re gonna do next, to fight Thanos,” Rhodey said. “You and me, we should ask where we can have some private time together.”

“It feels wrong, when so many are in mourning,” Sam said, grabbing hold of Rhodey’s biceps. “You should’ve seen Wanda. But… but I don’t wanna wait any longer to bond with you.”

“There’s nothing strange about wanting to reaffirm life with someone,” Rhodey pointed out. “It’s a common coping strategy.”

“And I don’t want our first time to be like that,” Sam said.

“We don’t have to bond straight away. We can just talk. And hold each other.”

Sam nodded, smiling hesitantly.

“I’d like that,” he said.

Chapter Text

Bucky was trembling as he pulled the shock blanket tighter around his shoulders.

Most of the others were talking and shouting and crying in relief. Or, in Wanda’s case, just crying. He didn’t blame her. If anyone could relate to how she felt right now, it was Bucky.

He wished he hadn’t been brought back to life.

Whatever had happened, he knew he’d been dead. It was kind of empty, not the heaven the priest back in Brooklyn had preached about. Not the hell that Bucky had feared was in store for him.

Just… blankness. Rest.

It was peaceful. And now they were back and waiting for Thanos to make his next move, whatever it would be. Wherever it would be.

Steve had looked overjoyed when Bucky and the others rocked up. He’d held Bucky so tightly that Bucky thought his arm would pop right off. Then Rocket would probably run off with it and Shuri would have to make him a new one.

He was torn. Steve was still sobbing tears of relief, mostly looking over at Bucky and saying something about getting another chance.

But Bucky didn’t want to be here. He wanted that peace again. He wanted to be dead and done with it all, and he had to keep reminding himself that this was his shot at redemption. No pun intended.

T’Challa was keeping close to Shuri, at her tearful insistence, and the Dora Milaje were keeping an eye out for more threats. Everett Ross was haranguing everyone about putting themselves in danger, his voice loud from T’Challa’s beads. Bucky ducked behind his shock blanket.

“Still no contact from Tony?” Natasha asked. She sighed. “Okay. Let us know as soon as you hear from him, Pepper. Yeah, we’re good. Happy’s okay? No, none of them have said what they saw when they were… you know.”

It became too much. Bucky dropped his shock blanket and moved around the others until he could rush to the bathroom. He dropped before the toilet, feeling sick, but nothing came up. The bout of nausea passed and he settled on the floor, hot tears spilling down his cheeks.

He’d had a moment where he considered drowning himself in the toilet bowl, and the thought of what it would do to Steve was the only thing that stopped him.

He should’ve been thinking of his soulmate, whoever it was, but for all Bucky knew they’d died long ago. Maybe HYDRA had even forced him to kill them. He’d probably never know.

“Bucky?” Steve called, knocking on the door. “You okay in there?”

“I’m fine.”

“Just making sure. You’d disappeared, and I thought…”

“You thought that someone I’d become dust again.”

Steve exhaled slowly.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I did.”

“I’ll be out soon.”

“Okay.”

Bucky washed his face and dried off, then checked his abdomen. He was surprised to find that the incomprehensible language had changed to English, but it was still the same handwriting. Kind of juvenile but sweet and flowery. Too innocent for someone as tainted as Bucky. His soulmate deserved better.

He lowered his shirt again and tugged his vest into place.

He returned to the impromptu party going on outside. It was mostly food for the hungry fighters, Shuri and her team checking everyone over for injuries, and a lot of chatter about Thanos. Steve relaxed when he saw Bucky again.

He would’ve had time to yank Bucky’s head out of the toilet and resuscitate him.

Bucky tried to smile, but it was more like a grimace.

“Something is coming in on the radar!” Shuri snapped.

Everyone jumped into action. Steve’s shield went up, T’Challa’s mask settled over his face. Bucky reached for his gun and found that Rocket had already stolen it. The raccoon handed it back grudgingly, and they all raced for the front doors.

A magnificent silver sleigh settled on the ground in front of them, sliding to a smooth stop. An ethereal woman sat in the front, a robe rippling around her body and her hair floating as though she were suspended in water. Three people climbed out of the back of the sleigh.

Bucky only recognised Tony Stark, and he only had to. He hid behind Sam, hissing at him to open his wings.

“Yeah, if you wanna draw attention to yourself,” Sam muttered back.

“I’m pretty sure the Dora Milaje will protect me,” Bucky said, but he wasn’t all that confident. They were all overprotective of T’Challa since he’d come back to life.

“I think he looks too tired to attack you.”

“You didn’t see him last time, bird brain.”

“You really wanna insult the guy you’re hiding behind?”

Stark introduced Doctor Strange and Spider-Man. Bucky had been right in his suspicions; Spider-Man was more like Spider-Kid. What was he, twelve?

“So Thanos has actually been defeated?” T’Challa said.

That got Bucky’s attention.

“Yes, he has,” the woman on the sleigh said. Even her voice didn’t seem human.

“What about the Infinity Stones?” Steve asked.

“They will be returned,” she said. “I believe one of them was in one of your friends?”

“It powered him.”

She nodded.

“I will ensure the Grandmaster brings it to you,” she said.

“He’ll bring back the Time Stone as well, right?” Doctor Strange said.

“Yes. We know what you were trying to do when you handed it to Thanos.”

“It was the only way we would win.”

She bowed her head again and the sleigh soundlessly flew into the sky.

“Let’s get inside,” Stark said. “I’m starving and I need to call Pep. Maybe I can still make that reservation tonight. What day is it? And what time zone are we in?”

Bucky kept out of sight. As soon as he had the chance, he jumped over the edge of the helipad and scaled down. Then he strolled out into the grounds, determined to keep out of Stark’s way..

He saw the light when someone – presumably the Grandmaster – arrived in a swirl of colour. He definitely saw the glow inside the palace when Vision’s Mind Stone was returned, and the cheers of an ecstatic crowd.

Bucky almost wished he could be there.

 

En Dwi Gast had left Thanos and the Titans’ soul creator behind while he warped the Guardians of the Galaxy to Vormir. He had a short conversation with the man who was supposed to guard the Soul Stone, until the cloaked man relented. Then the Grandmaster raised his arms, shouting some words, and threw the Soul Stone into a purple cloud. After a minute, Gamora’s body floated up to the snow before him.

Drax had to hold Peter back from jumping out of the ship. He fought against Drax’s arms until Gamora was standing again, and the Grandmaster was leading her over to the ship. She laughed at something he said and Peter sagged in relief.

As soon as she was on board, Gamora was swamped with hugs. Mantis waited her turn, still keeping physical contact to a minimum. She suspected that the others’ feelings would overwhelm her.

“We were all dead,” Mantis told Gamora as she hugged her. It was a mistake. The wave of fear and sorrow nearly knocked her over. “But we are alright now.”

“I was left alone with a human named Tony Stark,” Nebula said. “I would have preferred death.”

“We haven’t heard from Rocket or Groot yet,” Peter said.

“Or that handsome, muscular Thor,” Drax added. Peter rolled his eyes.

“The Grandmaster has to return one of the Infinity Stones to Earth, so I’m gonna take the chance to return to Missouri and track down whoever’s left of my family.”

“But Thanos,” Gamora said.

“He’s being dealt with,” En Dwi Gast said. “Trust me. Now buckle up, everyone. Unless you wanna take a ride on my seat.” He patted his knees with an awkward blink. No one took him up on his offer.

He followed Fate’s sleigh, but a dome prevented him from entering the country. He cursed as he parked outside of the dome.

“Give me a minute to break through this,” he said, rolling up his sleeves.

It took more like ten minutes, time to tell Gamora all about the battle on Titan. She was annoyed about missing the action.

The Grandmaster set off for the palace in the distance. The others followed more slowly. The humans clearing up bodies around the field stared at them. Mantis lowered her head and stayed close to Nebula for protection.

As they neared the palace, Mantis noticed a man standing in the shade. His arms were wrapped around his body and he kept looking up at the palace behind him. His body language screamed loneliness.

Mantis left the group and walked over to him. He looked up, startled.

“You look like you need a friend,” Mantis said, careful to speak human. Peter had been teaching her to speak, read, and write his own language.

The man stood up straight, his mouth dropping open.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I am Mantis,” she said.

“I’m Bucky,” he replied. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, you… you said my soul words.”

“I did?” Mantis said, tilting her head. He nodded.

“I used to have different words, but then I died because of Thanos.”

“I died because of Thanos, too!” she said.

“Then I checked my soulmark and the words had changed, but the writing was the same,” Bucky said. “Do you wanna see my soulmark?”

Mantis nodded.

“I have not been learning how to write for very long,” she said as Bucky bared his stomach. Mantis brightened. “But that is what my writing looks like!”

“What about your soulmark?” he asked.

“My old soulmark said ‘What’s cookin’, good-lookin’?’,” she said. Bucky groaned and covered his face. “I did not realise it would change after dying and then coming back to life. You should check it.” She parted the back of her clothing. “It was on my back before.”

“I can see words,” he said, parting her clothing further. “It’s my writing! Those are the words.” Mantis looked over her shoulder and saw tears in his eyes. His lips trembled in a smile. “I… I can’t believe it. I found you.”

I found you,” Mantis corrected.

She wasn’t prepared for Bucky running his finger along her soulmark.

His disbelief and sorrow and happiness and fear bowled her over. She nearly fell to the ground from the force of it. Bucky held her up.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Sorry, I should’ve asked—”

“You… you are in so much pain,” Mantis said, tears falling down her cheeks. “And you are so happy to find me, but so scared. You’re so scared.” She turned around in his arms. “I am an empath. I can tell what you are feeling.”

“Like… that’s your super power? You can feel my feelings?”

“Anyone’s feelings, when I touch them,” she said. “I subdued Thanos on Titan, and we almost had the gauntlet off when Peter lost his temper.”

“The Spider-Man?”

“No, Star-Lord,” she said.

“Oh.”

“I can make you feel happier,” Mantis offered. “I can help you sleep.”

“I just need you to be there,” Bucky said. “I never thought I’d find you.”

“I can tell,” she said, resting her forehead against his chest.

“Can I kiss you? Please?”

Mantis was sure her cheeks felt warm.

“I have never kissed anyone,” she said.

“I don’t wanna disappoint you.”

Mantis had learned a bit about flirting from watching Peter and Gamora.

“Show me,” she said, raising her chin.

Bucky smiled tentatively and cupped her face. He leaned in close, and from his touch Mantis could feel nervousness, lust, and a heart-fluttering burst of affection. Mantis touched his hands and projected her feelings of hope and desire. With confidence, Bucky swooped down and pressed their lips together. He started softly. He wound one arm around her waist, pulling her close, and Mantis held onto his shoulders.

“Hey, what’re you doing? Hands off of her!”

Mantis sighed as Bucky reluctantly broke the kiss.

“That is Peter the Star-Lord,” she said.

“What’s going on here?” Peter demanded, marching over to them.

“I found my soulmate!” Mantis said cheerfully.

“Well, come on, we’d better get inside,” Peter said. “I wanna know if they’d heard from Groot and Rocket.”

“And Thor,” Drax reminded him. Peter huffed and rolled his eyes again.

“Yeah, him too,” he said.

“They’re all here,” Bucky said. “Rocket wants to steal my arm.” He rapped his knuckles along the mechanical limb.

“He will not take it,” Mantis said.

“Doesn’t matter, as long as I’ve got you.”

“Oh, gag me,” Peter said, striding away. Gamora smacked his arm.

“Can we stay here for a couple of minutes?” Bucky asked Mantis. “I don’t wanna lose you just yet.”

“You won’t lose me, Bucky.”

“You’re so pretty,” he said, running his hand through her hair.

“I am not human like you,” she said.

“So?”

“And Drax told me that I am not beautiful.”

“Then Drax is an idiot,” Bucky said fiercely, cupping the back of her head.

This time, their kiss lasted much longer.

Chapter Text

When the first person dissipated, Everett assumed his eyes were playing tricks on him. When more people began to turn to dust, he revised his theory to an isolated incident, or a prank involving incredibly advanced holograms and flour bombs.

Then he switched on the news and realised it was happening all over the world, taking people from all stations of life, all countries, religions, socioeconomic status, gender, age, sexuality…

“Shit,” he muttered, pulling out his phone.

He tracked the news while he calling everyone he could think of. Secretary Ross wasn’t picking up. Sharon Carter only had time for a brief hello, because she was flying a plane after the pilots vanished into thin air. T’Challa didn’t pick up, likely in crisis mode. Queen Ramonda’s beads went unanswered. That left one person.

“Hello?”

“Shuri! Thank God. It’s nuts here. People have been disappearing all over the place. I think it’s something to do with an alien spaceship which was seen in New York—”

“Everett?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry. But I’m so relieved to hear from you. I’ve only been able to get hold of one other person. Your brother’s too busy, I’ll bet, but your mother’s beads weren’t responding to my call. Is there something wrong with them?”

There was a hitch in Shuri’s breath.

“N-no,” she said. “No technical problems.”

“Oh good. She has guards with her, right?”

“Yes, she h-had guards.”

“Do you need my help, or are you all doing alright over there?”

Shuri’s breath shuddered. Everett sat up straight in his chair.

“What is it?” he asked sharply.

“Some support w-would be welcome,” she said. “Thank you.”

Everett grabbed his coat and ran out the door immediately.

“No one’s with you?” he said. “T’Challa should’ve made sure you wouldn’t be alone for this. Listen, Shuri, find your mother and support each other. I hate to suggest it, but M’Baku could probably help. Make sure T’Challa lets him help with running things. I hope Wakanda wasn’t too badly hit by whatever—”

“Everett.”

“—it was that’s been hitting America, Canada, Asia. I saw reports about Africa—”

“Everett.”

“I hope Nakia’s okay—”

“Agent Ross!”

He stopped. He’d never heard Shuri’s voice like that.

“Yes, princess?” he said.

There was a sniffle. Oh God. He’d upset her. She would’ve been looking forward to Nakia becoming her sister-in-law, and now he’d just told her that Nakia might be…

“My queen?” Okoye said in the background.

“Y-yes, Okoye?” Shuri whispered, her voice wobbling.

Everett’s heart stopped.

“Queen?” he said.

“Captain Rogers wishes to call a meeting,” Okoye said. “He requests permission to use the throne room, as it is the biggest room. You will have to lead the meeting, as queen of Wakanda.”

“Queen?” Everett repeated.

“V-very well, Okoye,” Shuri said. “I will be there s-soon.”

Queen?”

“I didn’t know h-how to tell you,” she said. Her voice cracked. “I’m so sorry. I…”

She wailed, and Everett heard the swish of beads and cloth as she fell to knees.

“No,” Everett said, sinking to the floor of the corridor. “No. Shuri, tell me it’s not true. T’Challa’s not dead. He can’t be.”

“O-Okoye saw it herself,” Shuri said, sobbing. “S-she was on the ground, and h-he was going to h-help her up. But then he t-turned to dust. And the guards, my mother’s guards, they saw her turn to dust as well. I’ve watched the security footage and I s-still can’t believe it.”

Everett could hardly breathe as he listened to Shuri weep uncontrollably.

“What happened?” he asked.

Thanos,” she spat. “He erased half the world with a snap of his fingers. Please come here. Everett, please. I need you. I can’t do this by myself. I’m the only one left. My father was dead, and now my mother and brother are as well. Please.”

“I’m on my way,” Everett said, struggling to his feet.

He didn’t meet any opposition on his way through the building. It seemed that any of the CIA left in the building had either become dust or had left to help others.

No one was there when he commandeered their fastest jet and set the co-ordinates for Wakanda.

No one was there when he broke down in tears.

 

“How are you, Agent Ross?”

They weren’t unique words. He’d heard them many times since he joined the CIA, even before he was an official agent. Not that he slacked off and became used to the words. He needed to notice them.

But the day came when he finally identified the difference between hearing ordinary words and hearing his soul words. He was introduced to Prince T’Challa after the bombing in Austria. He replied ‘I’m well, thank you, your highness’. Which, in hindsight, T’Challa might’ve heard all the time as well.

It wasn’t until T’Challa signed the papers which allowed him to leave the CIA – and pursue the Winter Soldier – that Everett realised he hadn’t been imagining things. He really had felt different when T’Challa spoke the words of his soulmark.

They didn’t meet again until the casino.

Shuri must’ve seen his soulmark during surgery. She must have. Whoever worked on his spinal injury must’ve known T’Challa’s handwriting. So why didn’t they say anything to him, at least before Killmonger showed up?

On the other hand, maybe he imagined it all. Convinced himself that T’Challa’s writing matched the mark on his skin. Pretend that there something more behind T’Challa bringing him to Wakanda to heal.

Maybe he meant nothing.

Everett sighed, his throat aching from sobs, as he came in to land at Wakanda. No one stopped him from landing. The grounds were strewn with battle damage and alien bodies, which could explain why the dome was down.

He landed on the helipad, which was otherwise empty. He took several deep breaths, checked his red eyes in the mirror and decided nothing could be done to disguise the fact that he’d been crying. He shrugged, unbuckled his seatbelt, and climbed out of the jet.

Shuri came running out the front doors. Grinning. It was a huge turn around from their conversation a few hours ago. Or was she just that happy to see him?

“You’re here!” she said, jumping into his arms. Everett squeezed her.

“That’s not fitting behaviour for a queen,” he admonished her gently.

“Or for a princess,” she said, slipping out of his arms.

Before he could ask what she meant, he noticed someone walking up behind her.

“How are you, Agent Ross?” T’Challa asked, looking decidedly not-dead.

“You… you said that to me,” Everett said, dazed. “Before.”

T’Challa’s eyes widened. Shuri squeezed Everett’s arm.

“They all came back to life,” she said. “All of them. Everything Thanos did, it’s all been undone. We were going to start celebrating, but I knew you were on your way and made them wait.”

“You said my soul words,” T’Challa said, studying Everett.

“You said mine.”

“No, but my new ones. I have a new soulmark after coming back to life.”

“But… Nakia,” Everett said, glancing at Shuri.

“She was never my soulmate,” T’Challa said. “The writing hasn’t changed, only the words. You were my soulmate all along.”

“I told you his handwriting matched,” Shuri said, glaring at T’Challa. “And that he had your handwriting on his back. The bullet missed it by that much.”

“Well, my mark won’t have changed,” Everett said. “You said the exact same thing to me that you did when we first met.”

“Did you know all along?”

“I was pretty sure, but you never said anything. And then you were with Nakia, and I couldn’t screw that up for you, so I…”

“Stayed silent?”

“Yeah.”

“If I have learnt nothing else from my brief foray into death,” T’Challa said, stepping towards Everett while Shuri backed off, “it is that I should be with my soulmate. Okoye was the only one there when I died. It should have been you.”

“I couldn’t have watched you die,” Everett said.

“I do no intend to die again for a very long time, kitten,” T’Challa said, reaching out to stroke Everett’s chin. “I wish to have a long life with you first.”

“Would your people accept me? I’m not Wakandan.”

“We cannot have children, so it doesn’t matter, does it?”

Everett blushed at the idea of trying for children with T’Challa.

“I guess I’d better stick around then,” Everett said. “I’m just gonna get into trouble if everyone at work has returned, and discover this plane is missing. I didn’t fill out paperwork for it. Shuri needed me here. That’s all I was thinking about. That, and… and you were dead.” He felt tears track down his cheeks again. T’Challa stepped closer to him, protective and warm.

“You will not ever have to leave Wakanda again, if you do not want to,” he said, kissing away the tears.

Everett buried his face in T’Challa’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

Chapter Text

En Dwi Gast stroked the Infinity Gauntlet, his fingers tracing over each stone in turn.

He’d been hiding in his pretend prison on Sakaar – no one could actually keep an Elder locked away forever – when he felt an itch on his chest. He found, to his horror, that his soulmark was disappearing.

He tore the prison apart in his escape, out of anger and despair more than a desire to wreak havoc on those who’d imprisoned him.

His little god of mischief was dead.

It was bad enough that the Thunder Lord had stolen him in the first place, along with the Grandmaster’s favourite champion. Now his soulmate was well and truly gone, and it was all the Thunder Lord’s fault.

The universe was too large for him to search the entire thing. If he wanted to find the remains of his soulmate, and see if it was possible to bring him back to life, then En would have to find someone who knew where to look.

When the soul creators requested his help in dealing with the destruction that Thanos had wrought, he accepted. One of them would have created his soulmate’s soul. He could request their help in return for his aid in their hour of need.

He dutifully returned the universe to the state it had been in previous to Thanos’s finger snap. It wasn’t as easy as just snapping the fingers of the glove again. It required precision, finding the threads created by using the Infinity Stones, and following their paths to discover what had been changed. His arm was aching from the weight of the gauntlet by the time he had restored the lost lives.

One glance at his chest showed that Loki remained dead.

The Grandmaster needed to return the Infinity Stones to their rightful places. While Fate, the soul creator of the humans, sped off in her stylish sleigh, En allowed the Guardians onto his spacecraft, leaving Thanos and the Titan soul creator behind. He listened to the Guardians’ inane chatter as he directed the craft to Vormir.

“…whether Groot, Rocket, and Thor finished building their weapon.”

“Thor?” En asked. Wasn’t that the Thunder Lord’s name?

“He is a magnificent specimen,” the grey-and-red creature said. The Grandmaster ignored him.

“Where did you last see them?” he said.

“After we picked up Thor, he and our friends left us to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos,” the yellow lady said, her antenna flashing dully. “Thor was the only one left of his kind. All of the other bodies were scattered.”

“Dead,” the human said. “Just like Gamora.”

“I’m going to bring your friend back if I can,” the Grandmaster said. “But first I need you to give me the co-ordinates of the place where you picked up your friend Thor.”

“If the distress signal is still broadcasting, you can probably find it that way.”

Fortunately, after they picked up the green woman named Gamora, she remembered the co-ordinates. Instead of finding them a new craft immediately, En set off to find his soulmate, ignoring their questions.

The sight was horrific. So many floating dead drifting away from the wreckage of a spacecraft which… looked awfully familiar. He pursed his lips. Another of his ships stolen. Well, he’d deal with that later. If he could bring Loki back to life, he wouldn’t take out his anger by destroying Sakaar and everyone on it.

“Wait in here,” he said. “I won’t be long. And don’t even think about making off with my ship. I’m the only one who can control it.”

“Grouch,” the human remarked, looking sulky even while he held Gamora.

En called on his Elder powers to space-walk from his current ship to his other one, unbothered by the lack of breathable atmosphere. He made it onto the craft easily.

His heart dropped when he saw the bloated face, red eyes, and still body of his soulmate lying on the floor.

“Loki!” He knelt beside the corpse. Broken neck was the ultimate cause of death, but clearly his soulmate had suffered first. En nearly screamed, his anger against Thanos building in his chest. He slammed his bare fist against the metal floor.

It was time to get to work.

First, he dragged the floating bodies into the ship. There was no point in leaving them out there. Then he used the Space Stone to create an isolating dome around the whole craft while he used the Time Stone to repair it first, and then reverse the deaths.

They all happened at once. People were gasping for breath all over the place and exclaiming over finding their friends and soulmates again. But the Grandmaster had eyes only for one being, and knelt at his side again. Loki looked around carefully before he sat up, arching an eyebrow when he noticed En beside him.

“Grandmaster,” he said. “What brings you here? Are you dead as well?”

“I’m here to, to rescue you, soulmate,” En said, stroking his cheek. “Mine.”

“You knew all the time.”

“Of course.”

“Why did you never say anything? Why did the orgies continue? I expect fidelity from my soulmate.”

“Oh, I’ll be faithful now, I promise,” En replied. “I have to return the, uh, Infinity Stones to their rightful places, a-and destroy the glove. But then I’m all yours.”

“Very well,” Loki said warily. “Where is Thor? Did he make it? Is he alive?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“He’s my brother.”

“I guess we’ll have to find him then.” En couldn’t stop touching his soulmate, and eventually pulled him into his arms. “It’s okay. If he’s dead, I’ll find some way to bring him back. I promise. That’s what I’ve been doing today. B-bringing people back to life.”

Loki stood up and approached one of the windows.

“Is that yours?” he asked, pointing.

The Guardians of the Galaxy were stealing away with his ship. Assholes.

“It was,” En said. “But so was this ship.”

“Ah.” Loki blushed. “I can explain.”

“I look forward to you making it up to me,” he said, waggling his eyebrows.

 

En had always loved the colour blue. He loved using it in makeup, in his clothes. In the clothes of his consort. He loved seeing Loki’s natural blue skin. And he loved the colour of the Space Stone, hanging in a chandelier high above their bed in their palace on Sakaar.

Thor was alright, of course. He’d never been dead, not like Loki. He still didn’t approve of the Grandmaster, although seeing their soulmarks softened his attitude a little bit. He was too relieved with the restoration of lives to be angry that his baby brother was being stolen away.

If he wasn’t going to return the Grandmaster’s champion, the Grandmaster wasn’t going to return his brother.

“I still have nightmares about it,” Loki confessed quietly.

“About what, pet?”

“Thanos. He tortured me before. I’d rather have gone through that again, than…”

“Being killed.”

Loki sighed, burrowing further under the covers.

“Yes,” he said. “I can still feel his fingers around my neck sometimes.”

En leaned in close and kissed the side of Loki’s neck.

“Think about, about that instead,” he said. “He won’t hurt you again. Not ever.”

“I can’t believe I’m soulmated to an Elder of the Universe,” Loki said. “And yet you act like such a child.”

“Speaking of children,” En said, ghosting his fingers down Loki’s front to his flat abdomen. “What do you think, hmm?”

Loki gave him a withering glare.

Chapter Text

It was too much.

Too much loss.

Too much guilt.

If he’d been just a little bit stronger, managed to pull off even one of the gauntlet’s fingers, Steve wouldn’t be curled up in a corner of Shuri’s lab, staring at Wakanda’s underground tunnels. They were still and silent with the death of so many.

A tear slid down his cheek.

“There is no time for a coronation,” Shuri was saying. “And Killmonger destroyed the rest of the flowers. I can’t become the next Black Panther. Sit still, Okoye. My brother didn’t want you to die in the forest. I’m not letting you die in my lab.”

“Your highness, you must take up the crown of Wakanda,” Okoye said. “Your mother has not been found.”

“Who is there to rule?” Shuri said stubbornly. “There are so few left now. It hardly seems worth having separate kingdoms.”

“There are still a few billion people left on Earth,” Everett Ross said from one of the screens. Fortunately, he chose not to comment on the fact that Captain America was sitting nearby. “It’s like hell has descended over here. The public… needs a show of strength. The world is fractured.”

“No one can glue it back together this time,” Steve said. The CIA agent paused.

“The American public needs you,” he said. “You’re no longer considered a fugitive. Be glad about that.”

“I can’t be glad again,” Steve retorted, glaring at the screen. “Neither can Thor. Both of us have lost everything. My soulmark has even disappeared. My soulmate is dead, and I never got to meet them.”

“You’re not the only one who’s lost a soulmate, Captain Rogers.”

“I’ve lost the only man who was a brother to me! The only one with a shared experience. And we don’t know where Tony is. Miss Potts keeps calling Colonel Rhodes for updates which… which we don’t have.” His shoulders slumped. “I give up. Thanos has won. We should just… get on. Living. Those of us who can.”

He slowly marched out of the lab. He had to call a meeting as soon as all of the wounded were patched up and ready to talk.

But really… what was the point?

Steve found himself staring out another window when he was once more aboveground, hoping that Bucky had finally found some peace. With Peggy, Howard, and the rest of the Howling Commandoes.

Now it was just Steve left.

He didn’t even have Sam to fill the void that Bucky had left. Now he had two voids for his two best friends, the one Bucky had left on that train over Austria, and the one in the space Sam created the first time they shook hands.

Another tear fell.

Steve wandered outside. He walked until he found himself staring up at the panther-shaped mountain. If he jumped from there, would he die? Would his body give up healing him now that he was so broken on the inside?

Irreparably shattered.

He sank to his knees, but this time there were no words. No ‘Oh God’. Just him, the grass, the sky, and the breeze.

He pulled apart the front of his Captain America suit, tearing the material, and stared at the blank space where his soulmark used to be. Immediately, he bent double and wept. Lost family. Lost friends. Lost love.

Lost opportunities.

His stomach ached as he cried. Tears crawled into his beard. His body convulsed with each sob. Birds flew, startled, as he wailed uncontrollably.

The cold sank into his knees as he lost all energy and fell to his side. He pulled his legs up close to his chest, letting his neck loll at an awkward angle. None of the pain mattered now. All that mattered was that he’d failed for the last time, and he couldn’t trust his own body to let go and give him salvation from the loss. What was the point in grabbing a gun and ending it, or drowning, or splattering his body on the grass below a mountain peak? His body would work to save him every time.

He’d never realised just how much he could relate to Bruce Banner until now.

But as Steve was mourning, so was everyone else. Did he really want to add himself to their loss? Did he want to give up when there could still be a chance…

No. He couldn’t kid himself that there was a chance of defeating Thanos and undoing all of the damage. But if he killed himself, more people would give up. People who were looking to him for strength.

Once again, he would have to be Captain America. He would live and die as the mask, not the man.

Steve staggered to his feet, scratching absently at the bare patch of his chest. He turned back to the palace, only glancing at the line of the forest once.

And did a double-take.

More enemies? Who was over there?

Steve set off at a run, wishing he had his shield. But no one was watching, and he was angry enough to rip off the skulls of anyone who dared to attack while Wakanda was so vulnerable.

As he neared, his vision focussed on the straggling figures. One jumped into the air and began flying towards him.

Sam flew right over his head, shouting a greeting. Steve stared, wondering whether he’d finally cracked and was hallucinating. If he was hallucinating his lost friends, he’d welcome a straitjacket.

The other figures continued to near him, and he realised they were carrying a grey-ish body between them. That’s when it sank in that he wasn’t hallucinating, or Vision would be alive.

He met them halfway and immediately wrapped Bucky in his arms.

“I’ll carry him,” he whispered, and he took Vision from them. T’Challa and Bucky flanked Wanda, who was carrying Groot, and they supported each other as they walked slowly up towards the grounds to the palace.

“How long has it been?” T’Challa asked.

“Hours,” Steve said. He wasn’t sure himself. “Shuri will be so relieved to see that you’re still alive. She was refusing to have a coronation.”

“Good thing we were already on the ground,” Bucky said. “What if people who were driving cars or flying planes disappeared? They’ll reappear in the middle of the road or the sky…”

“Let’s hope that whatever happened, that problem will be solved as well. Do you know what happened?”

“No idea.” He squinted. “You been cryin’, punk?”

“No.”

“Liar.”

“Jerk.”

“I am Groot,” the tree piped up.

Some of the Dora Milaje came running down to meet them. They ushered everyone inside, leaving Steve and Bucky to walk in together.

“You okay?” Bucky asked. “Seriously, Steve.”

“You were dead,” Steve said quietly. “Again. I had to watch you die again.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Nah, I mean, it’s so… too soon. I don’t want you to die, but we barely got a chance to hang out with each other again before you were taken away. And if I’m asleep and I wake up to find this was all a dream, I’m gonna be pissed off.”

“Would Vision be dead in your dream?” Bucky said.

“…No.”

“Then I’m pretty sure we’re both awake.”

Steve sighed, watching Wanda’s hunched shoulders.

“I’m not sure that makes it any better,” he said.

“Hey,” Bucky said, stopping Steve with a hand on his arm. “Your soulmark.”

“It’s disappeared, I know.”

“No, it’s changed.”

Steve craned his head down to look. New words were there, but the handwriting was the same. He shifted the fabric to cover it out of habit.

“It… it disappeared after everyone became dust,” he said, feeling light-headed. “Now that it’s been reversed… it hasn’t just been reversed here. My soulmate’s alive!”

Bucky squeezed his arm, grinning.

“I’m happy for you,” he said.

“Incoming!” Shuri said, entering the room. She was studying a holograph of the dome over Wakanda. “It isn’t showing on the radar. No wings, no rotors. It almost looks like…” She zoomed in on the image. “Santa’s sleigh.”

“Santa Claus is visiting Wakanda?” Bucky said.

“No reindeer,” Shuri said. T’Challa pulled away from his mother and embraced his sister. She rubbed her head against his shoulder. “It does look like a sleigh.”

“It could be anything,” Steve said, straightening his spine. “I’m checking it out.”

“I’m going with you,” Bucky said.

“So am I,” Sam added.

“No, you two are going straight to my lab so I can check you over,” Shuri said.

Bucky looked set to argue with the princess, but the sleigh was landing. Steve ran out the door, followed by many of the others, despite Shuri’s protests.

The woman driving the sleigh was difficult to ignore, but most of Steve’s attention was on the three men in the back of the sleigh.

Well, one was a teenager, but he was Spider-Man, not Spider-Boy.

He noticed Bucky immediately head back inside out of the corner of his eye, and saw Tony watching him with suspicion.

“Does this mean that Thanos is no longer a threat?” Steve asked, reminding Tony of the real enemy.

“He is no longer in possession of the Infinity Stones,” the woman said. “You are free to go about your lives now.” She half-smiled. “As close to a normal life as you can manage, captain.”

“You know who I am?”

“I created your soul,” she said, with an elegant lift of her shoulders. She checked to make sure that her passengers had disembarked. Then she flew off again.

“That… was Fate,” Steve said.

“Yeah, it was,” Tony said. “Cap.”

“Thanks for getting Bruce to call me,” Steve said. “It gave us time to prepare.”

“We almost had him,” Tony said. “We were so damn close to getting that gauntlet.”

“So were we, once he got here. But it doesn’t matter. Everything’s okay again.” He noticed the makeshift bandages. “See what Shuri can do for you.”

“Uh, maybe after she’s finished with Bucky,” Sam muttered to him.

“I need to call Pepper,” Tony said. “Somewhere I can talk in private?”

“I know a few places,” T’Challa said. “Come, Stark.”

Spider-Man trailed behind them, staring around at everything. Then he began to attack the others with questions about what happened, and tell them about everything that had happened while he was trapped in outer space.

Steve turned to the third sleigh passenger, who arched an eyebrow.

“Pleasure to finally meet you, captain,” the man said, holding out a hand.

Steve’s breath caught in his throat. He suppressed a cough.

“It’s all mine,” he said. “The pleasure is, I mean. It’s mine. You are. Damn it.” He covered his face, instead of shaking his soulmate’s hand. “I’m such an idiot.”

“Huh. Glad I checked my soulmark before, because that’s definitely not what you were originally supposed to say to me.”

“Oh God. Please tell me it was better. Or worse? I don’t know which I prefer.”

“You were more eloquent, but much briefer. Nowhere near as unique.” He continued to hold out his hand, and Steve finally shook it. “I’m Dr. Stephen Strange.”

“Captain Steve Rogers,” Steve said.

“I know who you are, even under that beard,” Stephen said. And that was going to be awkward, having nearly the same first name. But Steve couldn’t care less.

“I only grew it because I was on the run from the government.”

“It’s your choice,” Stephen said, stepping closer. His red cloak billowed around him, even though the breeze had died down. “This is the Cloak of Levitation.”

“Uh… hey, Cloak of Levitation,” Steve said. He’d already talked to a raccoon and a tree today. Why not a piece of clothing?

He moved the patch of material covering his soulmark so that Stephen could see it for himself. The doctor raised a trembling hand and caressed some of the letters. Steve shivered, sparks prickling beneath his skin.

“I don’t wanna wait,” he blurted out. “We’ll get to know each other later. Right now I just wanna hold you. Bond with you. Please? I’ve got a room here for when I visit. No one will miss us. Unless you have someone you need to call?” He hoped the ring on his soulmate’s finger wasn’t a wedding or engagement ring.

“I should let Wong know that I’m alive, since he’s guarding the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York by himself,” Stephen said. “Hang on. I won’t be long.”

He moved his hands back and forth and a golden circle formed. Steve saw an ornate foyer in the middle of the circle. He watched, amazed, as Stephen walked through and began calling out for someone. It echoed through the room. An Asiatic man walked into the frame. Stephen talked to him, and the man replied. Stephen clapped him on the shoulder, then turned around and walked back through the circle to Steve’s side. Steve waved awkwardly at the man, who he could only assume was Wong. Stephen dispersed the golden circle and took Steve’s hand.

“Show me to your room, captain,” he said.

“Call me Steve.”

“Good thing I go by Stephen. I used to be a surgeon, so I’m fairly narcissistic, but not that narcissistic.”

Steve chuckled, ignoring Sam’s wolf whistle as he and Stephen passed the others.

“You got game, Cap!” Rhodey called.

“I still don’t know what that means,” Steve said, glad when he and Stephen escaped into a corridor.

“They think you’ve seduced me pretty quickly,” Stephen replied.

“I wouldn’t go to bed with anyone who wasn’t my soulmate, and they should know that,” Steve said stubbornly.

“Going to bed so soon, captain?” Stephen said, a teasing lilt to his deep voice. “I’m not that easy.”

“I-I mean—”

“But I guess I could be, for my soulmate.” He leaned in and gently pecked Steve on the lips.

Chapter Text

Aunt May always told Peter that his soulmate would complete him in a way that no one else could. Uncle Ben was her soulmate, and without him she felt lost.

Peter was feeling lost right now, waking up on his back. Tony Stark was hovering over him, tears in his eyes as he shook Peter’s shoulders.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Mr. Stark? What happened?”

“You d… you were gone,” he said.

“I was dead,” Peter said, realising. That’s why he’d felt sick. “Are the others okay?”

“I didn’t die,” Tony said. “Neither did Nebula. But everyone else did at the same time as you. They’re all back now. Thanos isn’t here anymore, so we have no idea what’s going on. I’m just hoping it’s not some kind of illusion.”

“What did I do?” Star-Lord said weakly, looking around.

“You prevented us from defeating Thanos,” Drax said.

“We need to find out what happened,” Tony said, staving off any arguments. “Doc, got any answers?”

Doctor Strange looked around, his brow furrowed.

“This isn’t how we were supposed to win,” he said. “Which means either we didn’t, or there was one more possibility, something I had no control over.”

“I guess you’re not infallible after all,” Tony snarked.

“But how do we get back to Earth?” Peter asked. “We’re supposed to write about the field trip we went on today, and I didn’t even get there. I’ll have to ask Ned all about it. Unless h-he also died.” His heart sank. Ned was his best friend.

“Thanos would’ve gone to Earth,” Tony said. “That’s where the Mind Stone was. Is. We have to get there.”

“What the hell is that?” Doctor Strange said, staring over their heads. Peter and Tony turned around and followed his gaze.

A white… sleigh?

 

Rocket wouldn’t let Groot out of his sight. Princess Shuri had found an old video game player for them, so Groot wouldn’t get bored while the adults talked. His arm had regrown, but the words carved under it had changed. Rocket asked him about it.

“I am Groot.”

“You never told me you had a soulmate!”

Groot shrugged.

“I am Groot,” he replied.

“I shouldn’t have to ask. I never saw…”

He trailed off. This wasn’t the old Groot. This was the next generation. The old Groot didn’t have a soulmate, as far as Rocket knew. But this one did.

“Aren’t you just full of surprises.”

“I am Groot,” Groot mimicked.

“Cut that out.”

“They’re back!” Thor said, walking into the room with a significant bounce. “The Man of Iron, the sorcerer, and the boy spider have arrived. They say that your friends will come by to pick you up after they have found Gamora. She is to be restored to life once they take the Soul Stone back to Vormir.”

“Gamora died?” Rocket said.

“They all did, but for Nebula and Stark,” Thor said gravely. “They are restored to life like the rest of our friends, however.”

“Except Gamora.”

“I am Groot.”

“We’ll find out what happens when they get here. Quill will probably wanna find his family or something. Humies are too sentimental,” he added, wiping away a tear.

“I am Groot.”

“I’m not crying, you’re crying. Stupid tree.”

“Your feelings are nothing to be ashamed of, Rabbit,” Thor said. “Come. We must celebrate the return of my friends. When your friends arrive, we shall welcome them with open arms and plates of food.”

“Food? Why didn’t you say so?”

 

Peter couldn’t believe he was getting a sleigh ride with Fate herself. Just wait until Ned heard about this. He might not mention it to Aunt May, though. She’d already grounded him for life. He wouldn’t even mention outer space to her, or she’d flip like she’d never flipped before. She’d flip better than Spider-Man could flip.

He was thinking the word ‘flip’ too much.

“This must be Wakanda,” Tony said, staring at the grounds below them.

“King T’Challa wasn’t kidding when he said that it wasn’t a little farming country,” Doctor Strange said. “How did they keep all of this hidden?”

“I have to meet the people behind it,” Tony said. “T’Challa, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

“Isn’t that from that really old TV show I Love Lucy?” Peter asked.

Doctor Strange snorted.

“He called Alien really old,” Tony said.

“Jesus. Puts our ages in perspective.”

Your age.”

“Everyone knows how old you are, Stark. It’s not exactly a secret.”

“Probably because everyone knows who I am.”

“Really? We’re playing that game?”

“We are about to land,” Fate said, and Peter silently thanked her for breaking up the argument before it could get any worse.

Peter held on tight to the bench, but the landing was as soft as falling onto a nest of pillows in a blanket fort. He had to make another of those some time. Now that he was no longer dead.

Tony was out of the sleigh first, and helped Peter down (even though it wasn’t all that far to the ground, and hello, Peter was Spider-Man). Doctor Strange climbed out the other side, thanking Fate for bringing them back to Earth.

“Yeah, thanks,” Peter said. “You really helped us out there.”

Fate raised an eyebrow and then flew off.

“I have to check the Sanctum Sanctorum,” Doctor Strange said. He summoned one of those cool portals and stepped through, waving goodbye. Peter waved back. Tony was already pulling out his phone.

“Hey, Pep, I’m back,” he said. “Yeah… yeah, I know, I did another stupid thing, but it’s all good now. I’m in Wakanda. Well, that’s where Fa… uh, where we were dropped off. You can send a plane if you want. I’ve gotta take Peter back to New York. No, I did not ask him to come to outer space with me, he sort of followed me there. And I will be talking to him about it…”

Peter was overwhelmed seeing Captain America again. He left Tony talking to Miss Potts and walked over to greet Colonel Rhodes and the Black Widow. The Falcon stood nearby, his arms crossed as he glared at Tony and Peter.

“Good to know you’re alive,” Black Widow said.

“I was dead for, like, a few minutes, I think,” Peter said.

“It was a couple of hours here,” Captain America said.

“Oh. Well, uh, I’d better call Aunt May. Um, I left my backpack somewhere while I was following the spaceship and the wizard guy. Does anyone have a phone I can borrow?”

“We’ll sort you out,” Colonel Rhodes said.

Peter’s eyes nearly fell out of his head when he saw a raccoon with a gun talking to a tree with eyes and… was that one of those old Gameboys? Cool.

“Whoa,” he whispered. “Is this day even real?”

“I’ve asked myself that every day since I met Tony Stark.”

“But, like, is that an actual tree?”

“Ah!” Thor exclaimed. “This is the Spider-Man! I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Peter said, shaking his hand, awestruck. “Mr. Stark kind of inducted me into the Avengers while we were in outer space, but I think it still counts. He tapped me on the shoulders and everything.”

“My friend Banner is around somewhere,” Thor said. “But allow me to introduce you to my other friends.”

“I’m Rocket,” the raccoon said, waving.

“Hi,” Peter said.

“I am Groot,” the tree said, not looking up from his game.

“What are you playing?” Peter asked.

Groot finally looked up.

“I am Groot,” it – he? – repeated.

“Yeah, you told me that,” Peter said.

“Clearly you don’t speak Groot,” Rocket said.

“That’s… that’s a language?”

“Yeah. Unless you know the language, everything they say sounds like ‘I am Groot’, or sometimes ‘We are Groot’. This one hasn’t got that far yet.” He kicked one of the branches. “The first thing he said to you translates pretty much to ‘Don’t interrupt me or I’ll stab you’.”

Peter’s eyes widened.

“But… that’s my soulmark!” he said.

“Yeah, I wondered when you said his words. Put that down if you’re not playing it. Now gimme… yeah, your arm. Here, kid,” he said to Peter, displaying the underside of Groot’s right arm. “This look like your writing?”

Peter bent closer and nodded.

“Yeah. Uh, here.” He pulled down one corner of his suit. Tony had found that his own soulmark had changed, and insisted on everyone checking theirs to see if they found the same thing. Peter’s hadn’t changed, strangely enough. The same words in the same, spiky writing on his left shoulder. “Looks like he’s supposed to lean on me or something to bond.”

“What’s going on here?” Tony asked, drawing up beside him. “What’re you doing?”

“Groot’s my soulmate,” Peter said. “Isn’t that cool? A talking tree is my soulmate!”

“A what-now?” Tony said, looking down at Rocket and Groot. “Ri-ight.”

“Isn’t that the most awesome thing ever, Mr. Stark?”

“I’m… trying hard not to think too much about it.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re too young to bond, for starters,” Tony said. “And it probably comes from outer space—”

“He.”

“And you need to stay on Earth to finish your education,” he continued. “You can be soulmates from a distance, but that’s it.”

“He could stay on Earth for a little while, can’t he?” Peter said, glancing at Rocket, since Groot was now playing his game again.

“I am Groot,” Groot said, kicking his branch legs a little.

“He’s inviting you to join him,” Rocket translated. “He can’t finish level seven.”

“I can help!” Peter said, and he sat beside Groot, who showed him the screen. “Oh, this game? Yeah, the boss is pretty difficult, but the next few levels are super easy. We learnt about it in history of computer science. Okay, what you’ve gotta do…”

“This is gonna be a nightmare,” Tony said, running his fingers through his hair. “This is the thing which will make my hair turn white.”

“Groot’s been a nightmare since he became a teenager,” Rocket said. “We can barely pull him away from his games. This kid’s just gonna enable him.”

“I’m more worried about what his aunt’s going to say,” Tony admitted. “She hates him being Spider-Man. Finding out his soulmate’s a tree?”

“A Groot,” Rocket corrected.

“His name is his species.”

“No, his name is… okay, that’s a good point. For a humie.”

“Thanks.”

“See?” Peter said. “You got it!”

“I am Groot,” his soulmate said, quite pleased with himself.

Chapter Text

“I saw Pietro there,” Wanda said.

“Oh,” Steve said. He rubbed her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Wanda.”

“I wish I hadn’t come back. H-he told me it wasn’t my time yet, but what’s the point when… when…”

“Yeah, I felt the same way,” Steve said. “But you’re all back. I just hope Tony is okay, wherever he is. Just because we don’t see eye-to-eye—”

“On anything at all.”

“Doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” he continued. “And we both want to protect the world. At least… I did. Now I just want to protect my own little world. The world of my friends. I don’t need anything more.” He kicked off his boots. “Let other people fight the battles. I’m done with it.”

“I’m done with everything,” Wanda said.

“Hey, now, Princess Shuri has a copy of Vision’s design,” he said. “If anyone can bring him back, she can.”

“Will he be the same person inside, or will it just be his parts that are the same?”

“Well… I don’t know,” Steve admitted. “But don’t give up hope. You and the others came back. Maybe Vision will just take a bit longer since he’s not human?”

“No,” she said, clenching her fists. “He can’t come back, not like we did. Thanos ripped the Mind Stone out of his head. I should’ve destroyed it earlier, like the others wanted. Like Vis wanted. And n-now he can’t want anything a-again.”

She buried her face in her hands. Steve was relieved to see Clint walk in the door, and let the archer take his place. Clint pulled Wanda close, murmuring to her.

Steve felt like he’d be intruding if he stayed, so he roamed the palace instead. He headed outside, wondering whether he could help with the clean-up. The bodies had been removed, and the alien corpses were on a pyre.

But the stench of blood and the red patches all over the lawn were a terrible reminder of what they’d lost. He made a mental note to ask Thor if he could direct some rain over Wakanda to rinse away the worst of the stains.

He was halfway down the lawn when he saw something silvery catching the light as it flew silently through the sky and landed on the helipad. There was no immediate alert from Shuri; and with his enhanced vision, Steve realised that Tony was one of the passengers. He sat on the ground, not ready to face the man yet. He hoped someone would hide Bucky while Tony was around. Steve didn’t want a repeat of Siberia.

Whoever had brought them took off again. Steve watched as the sun began to set over Wakanda, and eventually stood up. The sky was a patchwork of glorious colours which Steve itched to paint. But he didn’t have any art supplies.

He’d barely set foot on the helipad, feeling it was time to face the music, when a man appeared out of nowhere. He wore a golden robe, his hair was greying, and he had a vertical blue stripe on his chin. What?

“Fate told me the bring the Mind Stone here,” the man said, holding out the yellow stone which belonged in Vision’s forehead. “Something about a robot being powered by it. Could you show me the way, handsome?” He looked Steve up and down and licked his lips.

But Steve was focussed only on the stone.

“Right this way,” he said, grabbing the man’s sleeve.

Shuri looked up from Vision’s body. Wanda was close by. Clint had an arm around her shoulders as he glared at Tony, daring him to come near. Tony was ignoring them and staring at Vision.

“Uh, this guy’s brought the stone?” Steve said, pulling the stranger forward.

“Oh God,” Bruce said, backing away when he saw the man. He hid behind Tony while the stranger gave him a weird look.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“Uh… no.”

“Bring the stone here,” Shuri demanded. “I’ve managed to reattach everything else, but it will take too long to recreate the gem.”

“No recreating dangerous things!” Steve said.

“That’s how we made Vision,” Tony said. “Where’s your murder buddy, Rogers?”

“How’s Pepper?” Steve retorted. Tony opened his mouth and closed it again.

“Shit, I knew I was forgetting something,” he said, pulling out his phone, Bucky now forgotten as Tony dialled a number. He wandered off to a corner, leaving Bruce to hide behind Steve instead.

“You can bring him back now?” Wanda asked. “He’ll be as he was before?”

“He should be,” the stranger said. “I won’t leave until you’ve made sure. I don’t want to risk Fate kicking my ass. She already bitch-slapped Thanos.”

“We have a lot to thank her for,” Steve remarked.

“Don’t draw attention to me!” Bruce hissed. But the man in the golden robe didn’t notice either of them.

Shuri carefully lowered the Mind Stone into the depression on Vision’s head. Colour swiftly returned to his body and Wanda gasped.

“Vis,” she whispered, her hands trembling as she clutched them together.

Soon, Vision’s eyes were open. He looked around the room, meeting their eyes, until he found Wanda. His face softened into a smile and he tentatively held out his hand to her. She rushed forward and grabbed it, bursting into tears again.

“I still love you,” Vision told her.

Shuri squealed and covered her mouth, backing away from the table. Steve could see the corners of her smile behind her hands. Tony sighed heavily and reassured Pepper that Vision was conscious and seemed to be functioning well. Clint crossed his arms again, smiling. Bruce rested his head against Steve’s back.

“It looks like my work here is done,” the stranger in gold said. He winked at Steve as he sauntered out of the room. “Come visit me in Sakaar and I’ll show you a good time, handsome.”

Steve blushed furiously.

 

Wanda wouldn’t let go of Vision. Shuri and Tony pelted him with questions to make sure that he was one hundred percent there, while Bruce used Shuri’s tech to scan Vision’s body for abnormalities. But everything was okay, and he and Wanda were shown to a guest room. Nearly everyone else was already in bed, exhausted after the long day of fighting and emotional turmoil.

“I was so scared without you,” Wanda said, curled up against Vision’s chest. “When I came back, and you were still dead, I wanted to curse the gods for ruining my life again. Just when I was so happy…” She nuzzled his shoulder, fighting tears.

“The others have spoken of renewed soulmarks,” Vision said, rubbing her outer arm slowly. “Have you…?”

“Have I what? Found a soulmark where there never was one before?” she asked. “Of course not. You’ve seen my body. I didn’t have a soulmark then and I don’t have one now. Pietro and I were both unmarked. He died young… and I thought I would as well. But you saved my life, and now… now you’ve saved it again, by coming back to me.”

“I still do not have a soulmark,” he said.

“I know.”

“Wanda, it’s likely that I don’t have a soul.”

She frowned, even though he couldn’t see it, and dug her nails into his skin.

“We had a dog in Sokovia,” she said. “Before the bombs. He didn’t have a soulmark, but I always knew he had a soul.”

“It’s not quite the same.”

“Are you saying that I don’t have a soul? That my brother didn’t have a soul?”

“You’re human,” Vision argued. “You’re born with souls.”

“Then why does it make any difference?” Wanda said. “If I live a hundred years and never have a soulmate, but I still have a soul, maybe I was supposed to be with you all along. Because you don’t have a soulmark, either. Maybe we’re meant to be… us.”

“Destiny hasn’t given you a guiding hand, Wanda.”

“That makes this more special,” she said decisively. “Because you are my choice. I’ve chosen you, Vis.”

“Marry me?”

She processed his words and then looked up at him.

“Yes,” she said.

 

Wanda was convinced that Tony hated her, and she certainly hated him right back. That was unlikely ever to change. Tony also had his own wedding to organise. He was invited because he, Bruce, and Thor were all technically Vision’s parents. So was Helen Cho, but she was too busy to fly out to Wakanda at such short notice, even for a wedding.

Clint was giving Wanda away, naturally, so Thor stood as best man, since he was indifferent about Wanda and she wasn’t scared of him.

T’Challa had offered to fly in materials for traditional Western wedding clothes, but Vision and Wanda were too impatient. Besides, the Wakandan dresses were beautiful, so Wanda was happy to borrow an outfit from Shuri while T’Challa lent one of his formal robes to Vision.

Bucky and Sam worked together to whip up an extraordinary wedding cake using one of Sam’s mother’s recipes, and Steve helped them decorate it. The rest of the food was traditional Wakanda wedding fare, made by the palace’s kitchen staff.

“You look beautiful,” Shuri said, tugging at the robe to make sure that it fell properly around Wanda’s body. “I’ve never seen a white woman in one of these dresses.”

“Thank you so much for helping me,” Wanda said. “You’re the closest person I have to a sister.”

“Stop,” Shuri said. “We’re only supposed to cry during the wedding, not before it.”

Wanda laughed gaily, while Ramonda placed a necklace around her neck.

“He will not be able to take his eyes off you,” Ramonda said, patting her on the shoulders. “Did you know that the last time a wedding was held in the palace, in the throne room, it was when I married T’Chaka?”

“Oh,” Wanda said, her eyes widening. “Are you sure this is alright? We could marry on the grounds, or in one of the conference rooms—”

“My dear, I am hoping this will encourage T’Challa to wed his soulmate as soon as possible,” Ramonda said, smirking. “You are doing me a favour by reminding him of his duty.”

Shuri snickered. Ramonda smacked her hand lightly.

“Behave yourself, daughter.”

“I’ll try.”

 

Clint had given Vision the shovel talk beforehand. It was kind of unnecessary, since Wanda had proven that she could overpower Vision, but Clint was more worried about Wanda’s feelings being hurt. She’d suffered enough losing her parents, then Pietro, then her freedom, and then Vision. He knew what it felt like to be waiting for the next disaster to strike.

With any luck, that wouldn’t happen again. Not to Wanda.

He didn’t say anything when he picked her up from her room. Shuri was wearing her bridesmaid dress and Ramonda went ahead of them to join the others. He offered his elbow and Wanda held his arm lightly. There were no nerves at all. Her eyes shone and her smile was radiant. The colour of her hair was enhanced by the reds and oranges in her borrowed dress and there was a definite spring in her step.

They followed Shuri to the throne room and waited just out of sight of the doors. An instrument began to play as Shuri walked down between the groups of people sitting and standing at the sides of the room. Bucky was half-hidden behind Steve, who was already wiping away tears of happiness. And the ceremony hadn’t even begun.

Then Wanda and Clint entered, and the official photographer began snapping away a multitude of pictures. Clint glanced at Wanda, whose gaze was on Vision. Vision only had eyes for his bride, standing perfectly still and watching her approach.

The service was short and simple. No one was sure how to classify Vision, and as such whether the marriage could be considered legal anywhere. But as they weren’t soulmates, no one was likely to care.

They’d chosen each other. It was a match which transcended Fate.

Chapter Text

2012

 

The man with the eye-patch was back, along with the stern-looking brunette. They kept glancing at him as the doctors explained the amnesia.

“He can’t possibly go back to work. He needs to rest. If enough of his memories return, then he’ll know how to find you, director. But until then, you have to let him go. It’s the only way he can heal.”

His visitors left silently. He settled back with the book they’d brought him the first day after he’d woken up, not knowing who he was, why he was in hospital, and were those aliens on the news?

He hid behind the book about Captain America. Who, it seemed, was actually alive and well in the twenty-first century, and not a day older than when his plane went down in nineteen forty-five.

“Director Fury will organise a new identity for you, and arrange somewhere safe for you to recuperate and recover your memory,” one of the nurses said. “Just choose a name for yourself and he’ll do the rest.”

He looked at his book, annoyed that they wouldn’t tell him his true name. Apparently he worked for a covert government organisation, and his enemies could track him down while he’s vulnerable.

He rolled his eyes and looked at the picture in the book. Captain America with his original unit, before the super soldier serum. The scowling CO reminded him of his father. He checked the caption.

“Cole Phillips,” he said. The nurse looked startled.

“Uh… that stands for Colonel,” she said.

“Yeah. But the name. Cole. C-O-L-E. Cole Phillips. That can be my new name.”

She looked defeated, but nodded and left the room.

Why the fuss? It’s not like he’d accidentally chosen his real name.

He checked the soulmark on the side of his body. He was glad it was there. Maybe, once he found his soulmate, they could tell him who he was? He’d have to know his birth name, or whatever he’d been using, so he wouldn’t start their relationship off with a lie.

Remembering his name was going to be his priority.

 

“You’ve become obsessed,” Natasha said as Clint continued to pace. “Loki is out of your head now.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “Thing is, I’m sure it was Coulson I met when I was in the circus all those years ago. He offered me a job. I’m sure it was him.” He hit the side of his head. “Some things came loose in there. Clear. But he never told me. I had no reason to recognise him, but he sure as hell should’ve remembered me.”

“Does it matter?” she asked, her voice hollow. “He’s dead.”

“Thing is,” Clint said, stopping in place and shaking a finger at her. “The man who offered me a job while I was in the circus… was my soulmate. Which means Coulson is my soulmate.”

Natasha’s cheeks turned pale. Paler than usual.

“He was your soulmate?” she said.

“No, is,” Clint said.

He pulled down the sleeve he used to hide his soulmark, the SHIELD-issued covering, and showed Natasha the words inscribed there.

That was quite a performance you put on, and I’m not talking about the one with the bow and arrow.

“You didn’t pounce on the man you knew to be your soulmate?” Natasha asked.

“My word to him was ‘Hi’,” Clint said, disgusted with himself. “He was in a suit and tie, and his accent screamed ‘educated Bostonian’. What did I have to offer him? Besides, I was spying on Carson at the time. I couldn’t drop everything to try for a better life. The others needed me.”

“You’re too good for your own good,” she said.

“Yeah, that’s me alright,” he muttered. “But, Nat, look. Does that look like the writing from all that paperwork he does? You know I can’t read well close-up, but it looks—”

“It is,” she said slowly, staring at the soulmark. “So he’s alive.”

“But where?” Clint said.

Natasha pursed her lips.

“I’m calling Hill,” she said.

Maria told them that Coulson was taking an extended vacation due to his injuries, and they were unsure when he’d return. He wasn’t using his real name, so he’d be safe during his recovery.

And that was all she’d tell them. She wouldn’t say any more on the matter.

 

2018

 

Cole Phillips was somewhat obsessed with superheroes. It was probably because he’d worked for the government, maybe in an X-Files or Men in Black kind of department, because he found himself unsurprised by so much of what went on in the world.

Donut-shaped spaceships had been spotted in Scotland and New York. Alien-like creatures had been running around, like in Greenwich. And like New York six years ago, when Cole had been injured terribly and lost so much blood that parts of his brain had malfunctioned, leaving him with no memory of his previous life.

Now, he sat on the edge of his sofa in terror, as reports flew in. The twenty-four hour news channel was his best friend.

He must have blacked out, because he woke to a darker apartment and a different time on the clock. Different broadcasters were on, but were soon interrupted when their co-workers suddenly appeared on the floor behind them.

Phil wasn’t all that surprised. He’d seen weirder things at SHIELD…

SHIELD.

“Oh my God,” he whispered.

He ran to his bedroom, using muscle memory to navigate this unfamiliar place. He switched on the light and stripped off his shirt. He checked over his body in the mirror, taking in the scars from Loki’s sceptre, and noticed his soulmark slowly reappearing on his side. He moved closer to the mirror and saw a much longer mark, no longer just the word ‘Hi’. He had more handwriting to go on.

Fury. He had to contact Fury, because he sure as hell had lost time.

While searching for his phone, he recalled the diagnosis of amnesia. How long had he been… Cole Phillips, according to the card he found in his wallet. Really? He couldn’t come up with something less obvious? Geez, the amnesia really had been absolute.

Not incurable, though.

He returned to the living/dining/kitchen area with his phone and wallet, and began to piece together his current life while the news continued in the background.

“…the people who died have come back to life after only a few hours, in what’s being considered a real miracle,” the announcer said. Phil glanced up at that, and he smiled when he heard a familiar voice answer the cell phone.

“Hey, Nick, it’s me,” he said. “I remember who I am.”

“Coulson? Thank f—”

“Language, sir.”

Fury growled.

“It’s been nearly six goddamn years,” he said. “Don’t you sass me just because I’m no longer in charge of SHIELD.”

“Wait, what happened to… oh my God, HYDRA. I remember that from the news. And… ow, my head.”

“Don’t force yourself to remember too much all at once,” Fury said. “Listen, I’m gonna send a jet to pick you up. You need to take up the reins of the Avengers again. They split up, probably because they didn’t have you as their handler. You need to pull them into line before the next crisis pops up, assuming this one is even over.”

“Roger that, sir,” Phil said, snapping into agent mode. “I’ll need I.D.”

“I’ll send Hill.”

 

“Well,” Clint said, kicking back on a lounge seat beside Natasha. “My soulmark disappeared but then it returned. Still Phil’s handwriting. Just different words.”

“You think he’ll come back?”

“I think that if he was really on a long-term undercover mission this time, everything will now be in disarray,” he said. “He may as well come back to us. And this time, I’m not letting him go.” He leaned his head back against the cushion. “I’ll kiss him and kiss him, and never let him out of my sight again. He won’t be able to get rid of me. I’ll be a barnacle if I have to.”

“That’s a sight I’d like to see,” Natasha remarked, smiling as they both basked in the Wakandan sun. Most of the traces of battle had worn off since yesterday. Someone was walking the border tribe’s rhinos in the distance.

It was peaceful. Clint wished his soulmate could be there to see it, too. How many people got to witness semi-tame rhinos being led around like dogs?

Nothing disturbed the new peace until T’Challa had to grant permission for a small plane to land on the grounds. It was from America, so the fugitives hid just in case.

Clint was peeping, of course. There weren’t any vents, but Shuri was a blessing in teenager form, and had all the best spying tech. He would’ve recruited her if SHIELD still existed.

“That’s Maria Hill,” he said, recognising the woman stepping from the back of the plane onto the tiled ground. “And…”

He ran up the stairs from the lab, through the corridors – startling the guards – and pelted through the palace until he reached the front doors.

“Phil!” he shouted. “You’re back! You’re here!”

Phil met his eyes.

“Hello, Clint,” he said, smiling as Clint skidded to a halt in front of him.

“Barton,” Hill said.

“You’re really here,” Clint said, ignoring her as he caught his soulmate’s lapels.

“I forgot,” Phil said. “After Loki stabbed me, I lost a lot of blood. I got amnesia. I only remembered everything after I came back to life. I hope someone around here can explain what happened, because that’s an experience I don’t wanna repeat.”

“I’m not letting you die again,” Clint said fiercely.

“You’re my soulmate, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry your soulmark was so crappy before.”

“It’ll always be beautiful, `cause it’s yours,” Phil said.

Clint crushed his mouth to Phil’s, winding his arms around him. He did as he claimed he would, and clung to Phil like a barnacle, not letting him go as T’Challa and Hill walked away, discussing the battle. He didn’t let up the kiss, breathing through his nose instead, until Natasha cleared her throat nearby.

“Good to have you back, Coulson,” she said.

“Good to finally be back, Romanov,” he said. “God, I missed you both so much, and I didn’t even know it.”

“Amnesia,” Clint explained, when Natasha looked confused.

“Seriously?” she said.

“Ugh, don’t remind me that I’ve been living a cliché,” Phil said. “Now tell me what’s been going on. All I know is what was on the news.”

“Aw, Phil, no,” Clint said. “You’re just gonna lecture us. Except Thor and Bruce. They weren’t around for Berlin.”

“Berlin? You mean… that fight at the airport?”

“Now you’ve done it,” Natasha muttered.

Chapter Text

Natasha sighed as she checked her skin again.

She knew her soulmark had disappeared before everyone had begun turning to dust; she’d felt the itch of something changing, and she’d checked once they returned to the palace. This further proved it; the others had returned, but her soulmate was dead.

She pulled her shirt back into position and went in search of Bruce. At least now there was nothing he could object to. He’d initially rejected her because they weren’t soulmates. Without a soulmark, Natasha was free. It was up to Bruce now.

He was sitting with Rhodey, Tony, Strange, Steve, and Sam. Bucky was clearly still hiding from Tony, and T’Challa had arranged for Spider-Man to be sent back to New York as soon as possible. As Tony pointed out, his aunt May wouldn’t let Wakanda’s protective dome get between her and her nephew.

“Hey,” Natasha said, perching on the arm of Bruce’s armchair. “What’d Pepper say?”

“She told me to stay here and sort everything out before coming home,” Tony said. “I would’ve gone with Peter if I could, but Pep’s word is law.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Getting the grand tour or mourning Vision,” Rhodey said.

“Oh.” Her heart sank. Poor Wanda. She’d chosen her soulmate, even without marks to say they should be together. That was something she admired.

“Friends!” Thor said, striding into the room. “Banner, have you been regaling them with tales of your time on Sakaar?”

“Well, that was the big guy,” Bruce said, shrinking back in his chair. “Not me.”

“I hadn’t participated in gladiatorial combat in centuries,” Thor said. “I only wish I could have seen it for myself.”

“Yeah, are you sure you beat me? Because I still think it’s pretty unlikely.”

“I almost defeated Thanos,” Thor said. “And he nearly killed you. So yes, it’s very likely indeed.”

“Okay,” Bruce said uncertainly.

“I’m sure you gave it your best shot,” Natasha said, patting his shoulder.

Bruce tensed up.

“I have no idea how many people the other guy killed for those two years,” he said.

“At least you had Valkyrie’s friendship,” Thor said.

“Did Heimdall send her back when he tried to get everyone off the ship?”

Thor’s face fell.

“I do not know,” he said.

“Was she nice?” Natasha asked carefully. Bruce nodded.

“So what’s happening with you two?” Sam asked Natasha and Bruce.

“I need to find out what’s up with the Hulk,” Bruce said. “He’s refusing to come out. Maybe he’s tired after the last couple of years. I don’t know, but I need to find out.”

“Yeah, you’re invited to my wedding,” Tony said. “But Pepper doesn’t want the jolly green giant.”

“I don’t blame her.”

T’Challa returned to show them to their rooms, so Natasha didn’t have a chance to talk to Bruce, or even ask him to join her in her bedroom.

She’d have to talk to him tomorrow. She couldn’t leave this unresolved.

 

All her plans were scuppered at breakfast the very next morning. She entered the dining hall to find T’Challa and Tony chatting with a group of people. Only one of them was human.

“You’re here!” Rocket shouted, running into the room. Groot was hot on his heels.

“Rocket!” the human said, squatting down. He hugged both the raccoon and the tree.

“Guys, this is the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov,” Tony said. “Widow, these are the Guardians of the Galaxy.”

The being with antennae waved. The grey man with red tattoos greeted her solemnly before he resumed eating. The human was busy talking to his friends. The blue cyborg ignored her. The green woman nodded at Natasha, and pulled out the seat next to her. Natasha helped herself to the buffet and then sat down.

“What’s your specialty?” Natasha asked her politely. The woman’s eyes widened and she glanced at the human before returning her attention to Natasha.

“Combat,” she said. “What about you?”

Natasha choked on her spiced porridge. She chugged half a glass of water while the others watched her. The green woman’s cheeks darkened.

“The same,” Natasha said hoarsely. “Combat.”

“I see.” The woman held out her hand. “I’m Gamora.”

“You’re the one who took Thanos to Vormir.”

“It was easier for the Elder to bring me back when Thanos’s love for me wasn’t strong enough,” Gamora said. “He loved me more as a possession, and what I could do for him, than a person.”

“I’ve been there,” Natasha said.

“But then I found my friends and they became my family,” Gamora said. “Thanos failed the test. If you don’t love someone enough to refuse to sacrifice them, to get the Soul Stone, it becomes their weakness. That’s why we could be brought back.”

“But my soulmark…” Natasha tugged the front of her pyjama shirt away from her chest. It was back, the same words as before. “It didn’t return when everyone else was brought back to life.”

“It wouldn’t,” Gamora said. “I was brought back to life later.”

“What’s going on?” the human Guardian asked, glancing between them.

“We’re soulmates,” Natasha said. She was still dazed over the revelation.

Gamora awkwardly introduced Natasha to the other guardians. The human, Peter Quill, took his seat again, his eyes shuttered as he pushed his food around. When Gamora was done, he cleared his throat.

“You should probably both talk about this,” he said softly.

“Peter,” Gamora said.

“No, it’s something you’ve gotta do,” he insisted. “I’m… gonna take a walk. Clear my head. Wakanda looks like a nice place. And I should look up my family back in Missouri. Find out if any of them are still alive. I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later.”

He left the room without another word.

“Peter and Gamora are in a romantic relationship,” Drax said, and he shovelled more food into his mouth.

“Drax!” Gamora hissed.

“Oh,” Natasha said. She wasn’t sure whether she felt relieved. “That’s okay. If you want to stay with him… I have work and a life on Earth. We don’t even need to bond. And I’ve got someone else here.”

“Hardly,” Tony muttered. “He’s avoiding you.”

Natasha sent him a death glare. He shrugged dismissively. T’Challa watched them all like it was his favourite soap opera.

Does Wakanda have soap operas? Natasha wondered.

“So how long are we gonna be stuck here?” Rocket asked. “I vote we take Thor with us when we go.”

“Peter won’t like that,” Gamora said.

“Maybe he will stay here,” Mantis said. “He misses Earth sometimes. I can tell when he talks to me about his mother. He will want to see where she is buried.”

“Oh, Vision is back, by the way,” Tony said. “I forgot to tell you.”

“He’s back?” Natasha said.

“Yeah. The guy who brought the Guardians this morning also restored Vision’s Mind Stone. I think he and Wanda are getting to know each other again.”

“I thought they were having sex?” Drax said.

“That’s what he means,” T’Challa said.

“Ah. Another metaphor.”

“Euphemism,” Natasha corrected. She looked at Gamora, who was picking at her food. “Quill’s right. After breakfast we should find somewhere to talk.”

Gamora nodded silently. Her gaze kept straying to the door Peter had left through.

 

Peter was keeping himself to himself when Groot and Rocket found him.

“My mom didn’t have a soulmark,” Peter said. “That’s probably why she liked my dad. He didn’t have one, either. Or maybe he did, and he kept it hidden so he could seduce her. I don’t know.” He wrapped his arms around his knees, staring across the lawn. Groot played with the grass while Rocket pretended not to be listening. “I really hoped that one day my soulmate would come along and take us away from Missouri. Then I hoped they’d rescue me from the Ravagers, or break me outta jail. But it never happened.”

“Glad I don’t have these worries,” Rocket said.

“I am Groot,” Groot agreed.

“Yeah, you guys are lucky,” Peter said. “You won’t have your hearts broken.”

“Look, why would Gamora choose that blonde over you?” Rocket said. “She’s a Guardian. She belongs with us. Why would she stay on Earth?”

“They probably have a bunch of things in common.”

“Gamora likes your music now. She can sing along.”

“I am Groot,” Groot said.

“Yeah, that’s right. We’re saviours of the universe.”

“But they’re marked for each other,” Peter said. “I can’t come between that.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“It’s not up to me.”

“Well, if you’ve got one of those soul things, you should find your soulmate,” Rocket said. “If you want them, and Gamora wants that widow chick, there’s your problem solved. Everyone’s happy.”

“But…” He sighed. “If mom had a soulmate—”

“You wouldn’t be here.”

“And she’d still be alive. The universe wouldn’t have been put at risk by Ego.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Rocket said.

“Or if I’d been born, I would’ve been on Earth the whole time. I wouldn’t have been kidnapped by the Ravagers.”

“But you wouldn’t have met us!”

Peter laughed half-heartedly.

“Okay, yeah, I guess it hasn’t been too bad,” he admitted. “But it still sucks that we were getting so close. I love her. I love Gamora and she loves me.”

“Could you love your soulmate more?” Rocket asked.

“I… I don’t know. I’m supposed to be able to. But maybe we’re just meant to be friends. It happens that way.”

“Good, because we were getting kinda worried that you’d stay here,” Rocket said.

“I am Groot.”

“Thanks, buddy,” Peter said, patting Groot’s shoulder. “I’d miss you, too. I’m not leaving the Guardians. It’s just gonna be hard. I knew we weren’t soulmates, but I never thought we’d actually find our soulmates. Stupid. Fate doesn’t work that way.”

“But you wanted to be with Gamora,” Rocket said.

“Yeah.”

“Look, I’m not good at this comfort thing. A friend would tell you to do whatever makes you happy. Fight for Gamora. But if you really wanna find your soulmate, we can stay as long as it takes.”

“I don’t know how people find soulmates nowadays,” Peter said. “We used to send pictures of our soulmarks and samples of our writing to the government, and they’d search for our match.”

“Whatever we gotta do, we’ll do it,” Rocket said.

“Thanks, Rocket. Or are we calling you ‘Rabbit’ now?”

“Don’t push your luck, Quill.”

 

Gamora and Natasha settled on a training area for their talk. It seemed appropriate, given their respective backgrounds. Both trained to be assassins from an early age by people who wanted weapons, not children. Both having worked for different sides of the law. Both having been the first women on predominantly male teams.

Both pining after men so completely different from them. At least Peter was eager to be in a relationship with Gamora. Bruce was always hesitant, though that could’ve been because of the Hulk.

“I’m sorry if I’ve messed things up for you,” Natasha said. “Bruce was already keeping away from me, but at least you had something going with Star-Lord.”

“Maybe we’re meant to be friends,” Gamora suggested. “You’re pretty, and I don’t have a type, but I’ve grown to… care about Peter.”

“Love him?”

“Yes,” Gamora said.

“I don’t want to ruin that,” Natasha said. “You’ll be leaving for Missouri soon. I’m still on the run from the American government. All of the United Nations, actually.”

“I don’t know what the United Nations is, but it sounds like you need to hide out for awhile.”

“T’Challa’s been helpful, and Steve’s made sure we stay undercover. Fighting aliens in outer space sounds like it could be fun, though.”

“You’re assuming that was an invitation,” Gamora said, smirking. Natasha looked at her, about to speak, and noticed the smile. She laughed.

Is it an invitation?” she asked.

“Maybe,” Gamora said, her eyes twinkling. She joined the laughter, leaning against Natasha’s shoulder where they sat on the bleachers.

“Then maybe I’d accept,” Natasha said, still chuckling.

She turned her head to look at Gamora and was nearly nose-to-nose with her.

Their laughter trailed off as they stared at each other.

“Good thing I found you like this, and not Quill,” Rocket said, his arms crossed as he leaned against the doorway. Gamora and Natasha quickly pulled apart. “Oh yeah, like that makes it any less suspicious. We’re about to head to Missouri. Quill wants to show us where he grew up and went to school. Are you coming?”

“I.” Gamora looked at Natasha, holding her gaze for a moment. “I might stay here. You can tell me about it later. But we need to talk.”

“If you haven’t been talking all this time – and you sure as hell weren’t talking when I got here – what’ve you been doing?” he said. “Nah, don’t answer that. I don’t wanna know. I’ll tell Quill you’re staying in Wakanda. We’ll be back in a few days. That’ll give you time to actually talk.”

Gamora gripped the edge of her seat with pale knuckles as he left. Natasha slumped back against the next row.

“You know,” she said slowly. “We haven’t even compared soulmarks yet.”

Gamora began to smile again.

“We should definitely do that,” she said.

They held hands as they helped each other down the bleachers.

They didn’t let go as they left the training room.

Chapter Text

Peter’s heart sank as he saw Gamora and the Black Widow walking hand in hand down the corridor. Thankfully, in the opposite direction to him. Groot tugged his sleeve and led him away.

T’Challa was being a pal and sending them to the States. The Guardians weren’t fugitives like Captain America (and seriously, who banned Captain America from America?), the Falcon, and… Gamora’s soulmate.

He checked out the plane after they boarded. Some of the others had mentioned the fact that their soulmarks had changed after the universe was restored. He wondered whether his had changed as well. He sneaked into the bathroom, stripped off his leather jacket, and raised the back of his shirt.

I’m so sorry.

That wasn’t promising. At least his previous mark had been ‘Who… who are you?’, which was way less negative. Why were they sorry? ‘Sorry, but I’m not interested in you.’ ‘Sorry, but I’m already with someone.’ Why was his soulmate sorry?

He straightened his clothes and found a seat. Rocket was arguing with the pilot over who should fly. Groot was playing with a game Princess Shuri had found for him, to replace the one he’d lost at the forge.

Peter ground his teeth, thinking of Thor. He should’ve known. Gamora was way more attracted to the muscular type. Sure, the Black Widow wasn’t bulky, but she probably had strength that Peter didn’t. Hell, she was probably exactly like Gamora, which Peter sure wasn’t.

Drax was right. Find someone like you.

He shook his head. He was attracted to people who were different, not the same as him. It’s why he’d slept with so many non-humans.

Would his soulmate be exactly like him, or would Peter’s soulmate be incredibly different in some way?

He caught up on the world during the journey to America. Shuri had given him her own version of the Starkpad, which was kind of like the technology they used in Xandar. He was able to read up on modern history from the eighties onwards. He also had a replacement for his Zune, which had been lost somewhere, maybe on Titan. One more reason to hate Thanos, aside from the obvious.

Shuri had laughed for seven minutes straight after Peter mentioned the Zune, before giving him something far more up-to-date with room for even more songs. He asked why she was being so generous with their tech. She pointed out that she was a princess, and that Peter could repay them with information about spaceships.

His head bopped along as he listened to Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’. Tapping his feet, he opened a new tab and looked up information about the aftermath of Titan’s attack on the universe.

The death toll was too high. It was already in the thousands. Planes, cars, trucks, trains, buses; so many had crashed, or been crashed into, after their pilots/drivers disappeared into thin air. When they reappeared, it was either in the middle of the ocean, burning wreckage, or roads busy with emergency services. Helicopters had crashed into tall buildings, killing office workers as well.

Tears fell silently. If Peter hadn’t been so attached to Gamora, someone who wasn’t even his soulmate, he wouldn’t have lost his temper so easily and hit Thanos. He wouldn’t have thrown off Mantis’s concentration and they would’ve removed the gauntlet without any trouble.

These people’s deaths were on him.

Mantis sat beside him and laid a hand on his arm. Her eyes filled with tears.

“No,” she said. “You are not entirely to blame. If I had not told you how Thanos was feeling, Nebula would not have realised what had happened to Gamora. And if she had not told us what she had realised, you would not have known until Thanos was disarmed. It is as much my fault as yours.”

“I just wanted to know what happened to her,” he said. His throat was tight. “And because of that, all these people are dead. We’re all okay, because we weren’t doing anything big when we died. We’d finished fighting. Undoing what Thanos did wasn’t as simple as bringing all those dusted people back. Others died. They can’t be brought back. The Grandmaster told us that.”

“Please, Peter,” she said, clutching his arm. “Do not do this to yourself. You cannot take all of the blame.”

“I really can.”

“Steve Rogers blames himself for it as well.”

He glanced at her.

“Captain America?” he said.

“He fought Thanos for control of the gauntlet,” she said. “He told me. I could feel his guilt without touching him. He feels that he failed by not removing the gauntlet.”

“But Thanos was really strong,” Peter protested.

“Thor also blames himself,” she continued. “Had he aimed for Thanos’s head or arm, instead of his chest, Thanos would not have had control of the gauntlet and could not have snapped his fingers.”

“Yeah, well,” Peter mumbled, staring out the window. He had to look away, because damn, this plane was fast. Imagine if they could integrate this tech into the Milano.

“We were not in Xandar in time to protect the stone there, or in Knowhere to get the stone from the Collector,” she said. “We did not come to the Asgardians’ aid in time to prevent Thanos from gaining the stone in their possession. The Avengers could not protect the stones on Earth. The people of Xandar failed to keep their stone safe. The Collector failed to keep his safe. The Asgardians also failed.”

“They’re all dead,” Peter said.

“And they failed to stop Thanos as much as we did,” Mantis said.

Peter felt a sob rise in his throat. He slung an arm around Mantis, pulling her in close, and she rested her head on his shoulder. They both cried silently; Peter, because of his guilt and losing Gamora; and Mantis, because she could feel the pain of everyone in the universe who’d lost a loved one.

 

Bruce found Wakanda to be the most peaceful place he’d ever been.

He spent his days either roaming the land, taking advantage of the Hulk’s silence to bask in the glorious sunrises and sunsets, swimming in the lakes and listening to the rushing waterfalls, and even lazing in the sun-drenched grass.

He spent his evenings in Shuri’s lab, learning all that he could from the precocious teenaged princess. Sometimes Tony called from New York, usually with Pepper in the background, to check up on them. But Bruce was happy to stay where he was until he had to leave for the wedding.

At night, alone in his bedroom, Bruce would trace the words of his soulmark.

He’d been half-grieved, half-relieved when Natasha revealed that she’d found her soulmate, making it clear that she couldn’t pursue anything with Bruce. Their almost-relationship had been weird. Their one kiss had been a distraction to bring out the Hulk to fight in Sokovia… and Bruce had remained the Hulk for two whole years, until Thanos finally liberated him.

So there was that.

He wanted peace and quiet. And intellectual stimulation, but he got the latter from Tony and, now, Princess Shuri. His constant thirst for knowledge was being assuaged in Wakanda, but at least Tony could be counted on to be full of surprises.

Unless he planned to retire Iron Man and focus on Stark Industries and being a good husband to Pepper. Bruce wouldn’t blame him. He wanted to retire the Hulk and… maybe return to Calcutta. The intellectual stimulation would be missing, but he’d be doing good in the world, and he needed to do that. He’d broken too much. He had to fix something.

In the meantime, he was teaching himself Wakandan. T’Challa had dispatched some of his people to other parts of the world, to help them recover. Wakanda had been the least affected country after everyone was returned, since everyone had been focussed on either escaping or fighting. No lives had been lost at all, which couldn’t be said for the rest of the world.

So Bruce, with no one to tutor him in the language, was using a program Shuri had made after T’Challa revealed Wakanda’s secrets to the world. He was so busy with the earphones and following the digital dictionary that he wasn’t looking where he was going. He collided with someone.

“I’m so sorry,” Bruce blurted out, yanking the earphones out of his ears.

“It’s okay, dude, it happens,” the man replied.

Bruce’s hand went to his stomach where his soulmark rested. He swallowed.

“I’m the Hulk,” he said, holding out his other hand. “Bruce Banner.”

“Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill.” They shook hands.

“You’ve returned from Missouri?”

“Yeah. You knew about that?”

“I heard,” Bruce said. He fidgeted with his earphones. “Um, listen, this sounds kind of crazy, but you said my soul words.”

Peter’s eyebrows rose and his mouth dropped.

“Oh my God!” he exclaimed. “I thought… I saw my words, and I thought it was a rejection, but it’s… you ran into me. That’s why you were apologising.”

“Why would I reject you?” Bruce asked, blinking twice.

“Well, Gamora ran off with the Black Widow, even though we’d sort of been dating, so…” He shrugged.

“Natasha wanted to date me, I think, but she found her soulmate,” Bruce said.

“Ah.” His eyes widened. “Wait. Our exes are soulmates… and we’re soulmates.”

“So it seems,” Bruce said. He unbuttoned the part of his shirt hiding his soulmark and parted the sides. “Is it your writing? Your words were pretty unique. No one’s ever called me ‘dude’, not even Tony. He’s got a host of other nicknames for me, but not that one.”

Peter studied the soulmark and then ran his fingers over the letters, smiling up at Bruce. Bruce shivered at the tingling sensation.

He wasn’t prepared for Peter to launch himself into Bruce’s arms and kiss him.

“Geez, talk about gettin’ over your ex.”

Peter groaned and pulled back.

“I just found my soulmate, Rocket,” he said. “Could you give us a minute?”

“I am Groot,” the tree said.

“Yeah, okay,” the raccoon said. “We’ll see you around.”

Bruce smiled shyly at Peter.

“Can I show you my favourite hiding spot?” he asked. “It’s probably not a secret to T’Challa or Shuri, or any of the Wakandans, but no one’s bothered me there yet.”

“Sounds good,” Peter said. He brushed his hand against Bruce’s, the hesitation a contrast to the fierce kiss from a few seconds ago. Bruce liked both of these sides Peter was showing him.

Bruce’s hiding place was a small cover of trees near a river. The sound of streaming water had lulled him to sleep a few times. He rested with his back against one tree, and Peter settled opposite. The space was small enough for their knees to touch.

“How long will you be on Earth?” Bruce asked.

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “We haven’t been invited to Stark’s wedding, though I guess Gamora will be the Black Widow’s plus one if she’s invited.”

“I think Pepper invited her,” Bruce said.

“Then we’ll wait around until it’s over. After that, it’s back to outer space. We have to check up on Xandar. The Xandarians died fighting Thanos, but the Grandmaster promised to bring them back if he could.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“I don’t have a fixed address,” Peter said.

“What about your family? In Missouri? Did you find them?”

“Found my grandparents in a nursing home. They didn’t recognise me. I don’t look enough like my mom. Or my dad. They started crying when they heard my name, so that’s something. A bad something, but at least they remember the idea of me. The others, my cousins, aunts, uncles, they’d all moved somewhere else. I didn’t have time to track them down. I did show the other guys my school, though. And I got to see my mom’s grave.”

He pulled out his phone and showed Bruce a picture. It was plain, like a pauper’s grave, and Peter’s disappearance was mentioned on the headstone.

“I put fresh flowers there,” he said, pulling back. “Cleaned it up first. There were all these dead leaves. No dead flowers. No one visits her.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You could see it yourself. When you go back to America for the wedding, you could go to Missouri. I could meet you there.”

“You could come as my plus one,” Bruce said.

“I don’t think Stark wants me there.”

“But I do, and I’m his friend. Not his best man; he didn’t know when I’d be back, and he’s known Happy a lot longer. And it’s wise to have Pepper’s personal body guard close by.”

Peter smiled, shifting closer.

“I’d like to be your plus one,” he said.

“You would?”

“Yeah.” Bruce blushed and Peter grinned. “You haven’t seen my soulmark yet.”

“I know you’re my soulmate—”

“C’mon, don’t you wanna see it?”

Bruce nodded, his cheeks feeling warmer. Maybe it was the spark in Peter’s eyes, or the fact that… oh, he was removing his jacket. And his shirt.

“Uh—”

Peter turned around, showing Bruce his back. Bruce swallowed again, feeling his heart race. But the Hulk was, thankfully, silent.

He reached out and touched the words in his own handwriting. He never thought he’d get the chance to see his soulmate’s mark. He figured they’d always run the other way, especially if they already knew about the Hulk.

But Peter was still there. Peter was turning around again. Peter was kissing him.

“Come to space with me,” he murmured against Bruce’s lips.

“I don’t know,” Bruce mumbled, shifting closer. Peter began to undo his buttons.

“You’re a doctor. We don’t have one of those. You could patch us up when we get hurt. And you’re learning Wakandan. You could learn Groot as well. And learn all about other alien species. You don’t even have to fight, if you don’t want to.” He spoke between kisses. Bruce shivered as his upper body was bared.

“Would there be room for me?” he said, running his hands up and down Peter’s arms.

“My bed’s big enough,” Peter said. “I haven’t had anyone else in it, but we’ll fit. You’re not all that big when you’re like this.”

“Hey!”

“You’re smaller than the Hulk. And if he needs a place to sleep on his own any time, we can make a bed like the one we made for Drax. Only bigger. Hell, Drax would love to fight the Hulk. He probably thinks he can beat you up.”

“I don’t want to hurt your friends,” Bruce said, as Peter pulled him down onto the soft, cool grass.

“Drax can handle it.”

“I…” Bruce steadied his breathing as Peter lay beside him. “I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere. Not anymore. I barely know myself.”

“Let me know you,” Peter said, running his fingers through the hair on Bruce’s chest.

“What if I Hulk out at the wrong moment?”

“You’ve got him under control right now.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s still scared of Thanos showing up.”

Peter leaned over and kissed Bruce again.

“I won’t ever hurt you,” he vowed. “And if we bond, I’ll be able to help you. Mantis could also calm you down. She nearly put Thanos to sleep on Titan, and she used to send my dad to sleep every night. He could hear the whole universe in his head, so he couldn’t sleep without her help. She could totally handle the Hulk.”

It sounded ideal. Someone putting the Hulk down without anyone getting hurt. A universe to explore and learn about. The chance to put his medical skills to use. And being with his soulmate, like he’d dreamed about when he still believed in true love.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

Peter’s face lit up.

“Bond with me now?” he said.

“Roll over.”

Peter shuffled onto his other side, vibrating with excitement. Bruce moved closer, wrapped his arms around his soulmate, and pressed against his back.

Immediately, light and warmth emanated from their united soulmarks as the bond formed. Bruce kissed the back of Peter’s neck. Peter laid his arms over Bruce’s and snuggled back.

Birds sang, the river ran over stones with a gentle swish, and the Hulk felt the peace that Bruce had always craved.

Chapter Text

Nakia was deep undercover when people around her started to disappear, becoming particles of dust instead. Chaos ensued. The traffickers began firing at each other and shouting, while Nakia hid behind an overturned table loading her gun. A young prostitute ran into the room and told them what was happening… before she, too, crumbled to dust.

Then everyone ran, some becoming dust, some managing to escape. The mission could definitely be considered a bust. But more than that, Nakia knew this would have affected Wakanda. If it was happening to the rest of the world, her own country would not be unaffected.

T’Challa did not answer her calls. No one did.

She rented a car in Johannesburg, since hers had been totalled when an unmanned two-seater jet had crashed into it, and broke the speed limits all the way. She only paused to refuel the car and herself, before continuing on.

After a few hours on the road, passing accidents on the highway, she had to swerve when someone appeared out of nowhere. She slammed on the brakes and opened the window.

“Are you alright?” she called.

The person looked shaken but nodded. Then more people began to appear beside cars, some of them appearing in blazing wrecks and burning to death before help could arrive. Nakia could do nothing but drive on.

Reports flooded the radio about people’s loved ones coming back. Not in time to save those who’d killed themselves when their soulmates turned to dust, unfortunately, and people were being advised to call a suicide helpline or try CPR on their unresponsive partners. It broke her heart when one woman called in to report that she had died while bathing her child, and her husband had been at work. By the time he arrived home, the child had drowned.

Nakia had to pull over to the side of the road to collect herself after that call.

She arrived at the border of Wakanda with worn tyres and hyped up on caffeine. She noticed smoke through the trees near the edge of the dome, loaded her gun, and stepped out of the rental. She followed the smoke to a clearing, where a small spacecraft had landed. Three people were standing outside of it. One of them, a woman with long, dark hair, was kicking the craft.

“I couldn’t land with the other Asgardians, oh no, I had to end up with you two, and you crashed my pod!” she shrieked. “I am never picking up another human again, so long as I live. Where’s a drink when I need it?”

Nakia approached. She recognised Tony Stark from the back. He swung around and saw her, waved, and turned back to the woman who was still shouting.

“Hey, uh, we’ve got company?” he said.

The woman and the blue cyborg turned to face Nakia, going for their weapons. Nakia held up her hands.

“I can see that you are armed,” the woman said.

“I cannot reach for my gun that quickly,” Nakia said, raising an eyebrow. “Are you looking for Wakanda?”

“Yeah, we couldn’t land in there for some reason,” Stark said, jerking his finger towards the dome. “Are you from here?”

“Yes.”

“Great! So you know T’Challa. We need to find some pals of mine. We have to stop Thanos. He’s killed off half the people in the universe.”

“So that’s what it was,” Nakia said. “Who is Thanos?”

“Big purple guy, Infinity Gauntlet, too much power.”

“Purple?”

“Are you gonna take us to T’Challa or what?” he asked.

“You are aware that the people who turned to dust have been restored?” Nakia said.

The trio looked at each other and shook their heads.

“Wait, so I left Spider-Man on Titan with a bunch of strangers?” Stark said. “I have to get back there. Now.”

“You broke my ship!” the woman reminded him, kicking his leg. He swore and hopped around, holding his shin.

“Okay, that’s gonna bruise,” he said. “Didn’t Thor ever tell you that Asgardians are stronger than humans?”

“I am Nebula,” the cyborg said in a female voice. Nakia nodded. “This is Tony Stark and Valkyrie.”

“I am pleased to meet you,” Nakia said. “Come with me. I’ll take you to the palace. There’s room in the car.”

They piled in, Valkyrie taking the passenger seat beside Nakia, Stark and Nebula scrambling into the back.

“Seatbelts on,” Nakia said.

“Seatbelts are for losers,” Stark said. Nakia glared at him in the rear view mirror. He paled and buckled his seatbelt. Then they set off. Finally Shuri answered her beads and opened the barrier for Nakia to drive through.

There were a great many introductions when they arrived. T’Challa was so relieved to see Nakia that he hugged her in front of everyone. Shuri leapt into her arms for a bear hug and Ramonda welcomed her home.

“The mission was left incomplete,” Nakia told Okoye regretfully.

“Yours will not be the only mission disrupted,” Okoye said. “Agent Ross told us of his own troubles when he called to check on us earlier.”

“How is he?”

“Alive.”

 

Thor swept Valkyrie into a hug while Rocket and Groot climbed over Nebula, making sure she was alright. Tony was on his phone to Pepper almost immediately, telling her that he needed to rescue Peter.

Bruce tentatively greeted Valkyrie. She nearly broke his back hugging him in return.

“My friend, I am so glad you are alive,” she said.

“How are the Asgardians I sent with you?” Thor asked.

“I do not know where the other escape pods went,” she said. “My own pod landed on Titan, where I found Nebula and Stark. I offered to bring them to Earth to find their friends. We lost one Asgardian from my landing party. According to the woman who drove us here everyone has been returned to life?”

“Those who were erased by Thanos were indeed returned,” Thor said. “But that does not include Loki or Heimdall.”

“Oh,” Valkyrie said, touching his arm. “I’m sorry, your highness.”

“Perhaps the Grandmaster will be able to restore them as he restored the rest of the universe,” Thor said. “At least you were unharmed.”

“As soon as my pod is repaired, I will return to Titan.”

“If that is where Thanos is, you must rescue the Asgardians from there,” Thor said.

“If all of the inhabitants of Titan are gone, perhaps Asgard could start afresh on that planet,” Valkyrie suggested. Thor frowned.

“I am not sure that I like the idea,” he said. “But if Loki and Heimdall are returned to me, unharmed, I am sure I can be persuaded into anything.”

“We will have to hope that the Grandmaster returns with good news,” Valkyrie said, though she didn’t relish the thought of seeing her former master.

Before the escape pod could be repaired, another craft landed just outside the border to Wakanda. Ayo brought the visitors to the palace, where a celebration was now in full swing. The Grandmaster had picked up the Asgardians floating in space and stranded on Titan, taken them all to Xandar, and then returned to fetch the Guardians, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. He left after he dropped them off, along with Heimdall and Loki. Loki and Strange were arguing with each other.

Valkyrie was taking advantage of the king’s generous stock of alcohol to get rip-roaringly drunk, until Thor and Loki had to carry her to bed.

“It seems powerful,” Thor said. “I thought only Asgardian drinks could affect her like that.”

“Oh really, brother,” Loki said, grinning as Valkyrie glared at him from lowered eyelids, “do you have no faith in me?”

He held up a flask of like Asgardian mead, and Valkyrie only had time to swear at him and then pass out.

 

Nakia had finished debriefing Okoye and T’Challa after the party wound down, before retiring to her bedroom in the palace. It was too far to walk home after such a long day, and she was starting to crash from the caffeine.

She tossed off her clothes, had a cursory wash at the basin, and flopped straight onto her bed. She groaned and rolled onto her back, resting an arm over her eyes to block out the light.

Then she sat up straight and stared at the underside of her arm.

Her soulmark had changed. When did that happen? Now that she thought about it, she remembered hearing other people mention that the words of their soulmarks had changed, though not the handwriting. She wriggled back in her bed, towards the lamp on her nightstand, and checked the new mark.

I can see that you are armed.

Nakia’s head shot up. She had heard those words recently. She’d talked to so many new people that day, but the only one who’d commented on her weaponry was…

Valkyrie.

Woozy from the caffeine crash, Nakia slipped under her covers, switched off her light, and decided that she needed to sleep before going in search of her soulmate.

 

Valkyrie dreamt of her girlfriend that night. She didn’t relive Hel’s slaughter. She instead recalled the day that she had discovered a soulmark. She’d never had one before, and didn’t want one. She was still in mourning.

But her spirit had visited Valkyrie, whispering her name on the wind and telling her to be happy once more.

She hadn’t taken that advice. Not once.

Perhaps it was time that she should.

She woke, not quite fresh, but she’d had worse hangovers. She remembered the previous day and night well enough. It wasn’t quite the feasts they’d had in Asgard once upon a time, but it was pretty good. And Valkyrie’s standards had dropped over the centuries.

She stretched in front of the mirror in the bedroom where Loki and Thor had left her last night. She was mid-twist when she noticed a mark on her side.

It wasn’t her old soulmark. It was a new one.

I cannot reach for my gun that quickly. Are you looking for Wakanda?

It was the woman from yesterday. She’d never given them her name, and Valkyrie hadn’t thought to ask anyone if they knew it. How would she find her soulmate if she didn’t know her name?

“I am such a mess,” Valkyrie sighed. She examined herself critically in the mirror, noticing her glazed eyes and messy hair. Her clothes were the same ones she’d been wearing on Sakaar, and she had no replacements. There’d been nothing on board the Grandmaster’s ship (nothing a person could wear in polite company, that is).

Week-old clothing would have to do for now.

She felt refreshed after having a shower. She hurried out of the room, unsure where to go, and tried to remember the path the princes had taken last night.

While wandering the corridors, trying to retrace their steps, she found the woman who was on her mind. They stared at each other for a moment, cheeks darkening.

“Are you my soulmate?” Valkyrie said. The other woman nodded. “What is your name?”

“Nakia,” she said. “And you are Valkyrie.”

“I used to be one of the Valkyrie,” she said. “I am the only one left, so that is what Thor calls me. But I used to be named Brunnhilde.”

“What would you like me to call you?”

She thought about it.

“Just call me Val,” she said.

Nakia smiled and held out her hand. Then she led Valkyrie through the palace in search of food.

Perhaps everything would be okay now.

Chapter Text

Maria woke up on the road in time to see a car heading her way. She rolled towards the sidewalk, missing the car by inches. Then she leapt to her feet and looked around.

More and more people were appearing out of thin air, the same way they’d all disappeared. She walked back into the middle of the street and waved her hands, bringing the traffic to a halt.

“—ucker,” Fury said, as soon as he materialised on the ground beside her. Maria raised her eyebrows; it was clear what he’d apparently been saying as he turned into dust. She picked up his pager.

“Do we need to cancel this message to Danvers?” she asked.

“What time is it?” her former boss said, standing up. “What the hell happened?”

“It’s… it’s been a few hours, sir,” Maria said, checking her watch. “It’s sixteen hundred thirty-two hours.”

“Call the Avengers. Now.”

She handed over his pager and pulled out her Starkphone. She scrolled through her contacts and called Pepper.

“Tony?”

“No, it’s Hill. You don’t know where Stark is?”

“H-he was heading into outer space. The line was patchy and we lost contact. Where is he?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call as soon as I find out.”

“Maria?”

“Yes?”

“He had Spider-Man with him. He’s only a kid. His name’s Peter Parker.”

“Thanks for letting me know.

Fury was in the car again, listening to the radio. He gestured for Maria to join him.

“…outside the borders of Wakanda. No one from there has made contact yet. We can only hope the new king and his technologically advanced nation survived the massacre. We’re starting to get reports that people who turned to dust are now turning up alive. As of right now, we don’t know the death toll from what appears to have been an attack from space. The question on everyone’s minds is: where are the Avengers, and will the Sokovia Accords be scrapped to allow them the freedom to act without the government’s permission?”

“I have an idea about where they are,” Fury said dryly.

“Wakanda?”

“Wakanda.” He dialled a number. “Agent Ross? I need to find the Avengers. You were in Wakanda recently. I think they might be there. How do I contact… Fine, whatever, give them my number. Just make sure someone calls me.” He hung up, grumbling, “I used to intimidate the CIA a lot more than that.”

“Do you think we need to make it to a safe house now?” Maria said.

“I think we should get to an airfield.”

They were following the GPS when a call came through. Maria took it while Fury concentrated on driving, the radio turned down low.

“Hill,” she said.

“This is Romanov.”

“Where are the Avengers?” Maria asked, putting the cell phone on speaker.

“We don’t know where Stark is,” Romanov said. “We’re waiting to hear from him. Could you check on Pepper for us?”

“I already called her. She hasn’t heard from him.”

“No, she wouldn’t. I doubt they have cell phone reception for Earth on other planets.”

“You want me to comfort her,” Maria said, realising what the Black Widow meant.

“Not just her,” Romanov said.

“Who else?”

“Whoever needs it.”

“Pepper said that Spider-Man went with Stark,” Maria said. “Do you know anything about him?”

“No.”

“We’ll see what we can find out. Keep us up-to-date. Fury’s here as well.”

“Okay. We’re not sure what Thanos is up to. Why would he bring back all the people he erased? Something’s going on.”

“I’m gonna need a full debrief on the situation, Romanov,” Fury said. “We’re on our way to Wakanda.”

“Apparently I’m not,” Maria said. “You’d better drop me off at Stark Tower.”

“We’ll organise a flight from this end,” Romanov said. “Thanks, Hill. Sir.”

Maria ended the call as Fury pulled up outside Stark Tower. She climbed out.

“I hope Pepper knows more about Spider-Man,” she said.

“You’ll be fine, Hill. She doesn’t bite.”

“Keep in touch and stay safe, sir.”

Fury nodded. Maria closed the door and walked up to the doors. She let herself in with her security card and made her way to Pepper’s suite. According to FRIDAY, that’s where the head of SI was currently located.

“Thanks,” Maria said as the door opened. She walked through the space. Pepper had insisted on having a separate room for times she was mad at Tony, or if he was on an engineering binge and she didn’t want to be alone in his bed. Maria paused when she heard crying from Pepper’s room. She cleared her throat and sat on one end of the couch. Eventually, Pepper emerged, her eyes red but makeup intact.

“You didn’t have to come here,” she said, sitting in the opposite armchair. “But I’m glad you did. Happy’s too busy to stay with me, and the board… I’ve told them to wait, not to do anything rash, but the stock market’s all over the place. If they do anything now they’ll just regret it.”

“If anyone can find their way back from outer space, it’s Tony Stark,” Maria said.

“Yeah, I know.” Pepper sniffed wetly. “But we’re supposed to be getting married. We were talking about children while we were walking in a park, like a normal couple, when this guy with a goatee appeared out of nowhere and took Tony away to fight monsters. Aliens.”

“You said something about Spider-Man,” Maria said. She couldn’t deal with feelings all that well. She wanted to stick to business.

“He followed Tony there, I think. It was really hard to make out the words towards the end of the call. It felt like… New York, all over again.”

Maria nodded.

“Does he have family?” she asked.

“Tony?”

“No, Spider-Man.”

“Oh, Peter. Yes. He has an aunt. I’ve already sent someone to bring her here. She shouldn’t be alone. I asked about her soulmate, but her husband’s long gone. She wouldn’t tell me anything else. At least she didn’t die.”

“Did you?” Pepper nodded. “Me too.”

“My soulmark is still there, but Tony’s words have changed. What about you?”

“I didn’t even think of it,” Maria admitted. “I had bigger things on my mind.”

“You can check if you want,” Pepper said, gesturing to her bedroom.

“No need for privacy,” Maria said. She removed her jacket and pulled up her right sleeve. On the underside of her arm was her soulmark. “Yeah, the words are different. Now they say ‘Please tell me you have tissues or I’ll start crying again’.” She grimaced Someone overly emotional? “I can’t imagine how those could be someone’s first words.”

“You’ll probably speak first,” Pepper said. “Maybe you’ll meet your soulmate while they’re watching a sad movie, or they’ll mistake you for a supermarket worker while you’re in the tissue aisle?”

“Best case scenarios,” Maria said. “So. Do you want to watch a sad movie?”

“I can’t bring myself to watch anything until I know that Tony’s safe.”

“Miss Potts, May Parker is on her way up in the elevator,” FRIDAY said.

“Alright. Brave faces on,” Pepper said, standing up and smoothing her skirt.

The elevator dinged. Pepper walked forward to meet a brunette who was clearly at the end of her tether. She was clutching her cell phone in one hand and her handbag in the other, and she was holding herself together by a mere thread. Her cheeks were dry, but there were still tears on her eyelashes.

“I’m Pepper, and this is Maria.”

May nodded.

“Thanks,” she said to Pepper. She looked at Maria. “Please tell me you have tissues or I’ll start crying again.”

Pepper’s head swivelled to Maria, who was frozen in place.

“Over here,” Pepper said quickly, leading Maria to the other end of the couch. Sure enough, there was a large box of tissues there. May sat down. Maria followed her example, dazed and surprised. Pepper half-smiled as she looked between them. She coughed pointedly as she looked at Maria.

“I’m sorry, I’m no good at this,” Maria said. May’s head jerked up. “Comforting. It’s not my forte.”

“Oh,” May said softly. She dropped her things on the sofa between them. “These are really the worst circumstances we could’ve met under, aren’t they?”

“Kind of,” Maria said.

“I wondered if it’d be today,” May said. She plucked a tissue from the box. “I hoped I wouldn’t be meeting my soulmate at my nephew’s funeral.”

“Oh yeah.” Maria winced. “That… would’ve been bad.”

“You really aren’t good at this, are you?” May said, smiling as she dabbed at her eyes gently.

“I warned you.”

“So you did.”

“I’ll… just get a bin,” Pepper said. “For the tissues. You want tea? We still have a lot of Bruce’s special blends in the kitchen cupboard.”

“That’s on the common floor,” Maria said.

“You can both stay here,” Pepper said. “I won’t be long. This is my suite, not one of the guest ones.”

Maria felt her cheeks heat up. May coughed out a laugh. Pepper left them alone in the least subtle way, pretending she couldn’t even see them.

“You’re married,” Maria said, even though she couldn’t see a ring.

“What?”

“Pepper called you Mrs. Parker.”

“Oh. I was.” May sniffled, and blew her nose noisily. “It’s not something I want to think about while I’m waiting to hear whether Peter’s d-dead… or alive.”

“I’ll let the Black Widow know that the three of us are hanging out together so she won’t worry,” Maria said.

“I think Pepper’s expecting an awful lot from us, under the circumstances,” May said.

“She probably wants to give us a moment.” Maria sent off the text to Romanov and then sent one to Fury. She reminded him to keep her updated.

“I need a friend,” May said. “I loved my husband.”

“Where’s your soulmark?” Maria asked.

“Back of my shoulders, right here.” May tapped between her shoulder blades, just below the neck.

“Well, if you’re wearing a sleeveless top, or something with a low collar at the back, I can just rest my arm around your shoulders,” Maria said, showing May the soulmark on her arm. “But we don’t have to bond yet. Or at all. It’s optional.”

“I’d still like to be friends,” May said.

“It feels awkward to talk about this, with everything that’s going on.”

“It does.”

“We should just wait for Pepper to get back.”

“Yeah.”

They sat in an awkward silence until Pepper returned with a tray holding a teapot, cups, saucers, milk, and sugar.

“I only have a coffee maker in my kitchenette, not a tea maker,” she said. “And all of Bruce’s teas are downstairs. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we used them.”

“He always told the others to have some if they needed it,” Maria said.

“We’ve totally earned this,” May said.

Maria could tell that Pepper was dying to ask what they’d talked about. But they were all distracted when her phone went off. She answered it, her hands shaking.

“Hello? Tony! Oh my God, where are you? Wakanda? How did you… a sleigh ride. Driven by Fate. Uh-huh. Okay, you really need some sleep. Just as long as… no, of course I believe you. I’ll believe you even more once you’ve had a decent amount of sleep and you’ve recovered from being in space. Are the others… Peter’s with you?”

“Oh, thank God!” May said, sinking her head into her hands.

“So Peter Parker is back? Great. Get him to call his aunt as soon as possible. She’s right here… Natasha told you. Good. Listen, you stay there overnight. The reservations don’t matter. But you need to sleep. Yeah, I wanna see you, too, but your health is more important. What? Wait…”

A golden oval appeared in the room. Maria pulled out her gun and stepped in front of May. A man poked his head through, nodded when he saw Pepper, and then stepped out of the way. He pushed Stark into the room.

Natasha breathed a sign of relief as Pepper leapt to her feet and rushed to her fiancé.

“Thank you,” Maria said to the man with the goatee. The other man with the goatee.

“Here’s the other one,” he said. And then he pushed a young man into the room.

May rushed past Maria and enveloped her nephew in a fierce hug. Maria stood out of the way. The oval slowly closed up and disappeared.

“You’re never doing that again, you hear me? Do I have to lock you up in your room and home school you? Don’t you ever do that to me again.”

“I had to help, May!”

“Not this time, you didn’t.”

“But we would’ve lost—”

“We did lose, temporarily,” Stark said. “Some old guy in a cloak managed to get the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos – I’m kind of hazy on the details – but it was definitely Fate who picked us up from Titan and brought us to Wakanda. We only lost for a few hours, really. Glad to hear you came to check up on my girl,” he added, addressing Maria. “Even better, I missed seeing Fury. Is he as fast and furious as ever?”

Maria rolled her eyes.

“I found my soulmate,” May told Peter. “This is her.”

“Maria Hill,” Maria said, holding out her hand. Peter shook it, looking her over.

“You treat my aunt right,” he said, trying to be intimidating. It failed.

“Wait, Hill is May’s…” Stark trailed off and then burst out laughing. Pepper hit him on the arm. “Okay, sorry. My bad. Let’s go someplace else. We can still make those reservations.”

“I don’t care about the reservations,” Pepper said.

“Why don’t I get these two home?” Maria said. “We can leave you to it.”

Pepper mouthed her thanks. Maria ushered May and Peter to the elevator. FRIDAY took them swiftly to the ground floor. The driver who’d brought May was waiting in the lobby.

“Where do you live?” Maria asked.

“Queens,” Peter and May both piped up. They grinned at each other. May wound her arm around Peter and kissed the top of his head. Maria ordered the driver to take them straight back to Queens.

“So what do you do for a living, Ms. Hill?” Peter asked as they drove along.

“I work for Mr. Stark,” she said.

“Oh.”

“I used to be the deputy director of SHIELD.”

“Oh!” Now he perked up. May looked impressed. “Wow, you must be awesome. And you can protect Aunt May when I’m not around.”

“Just see if I ever let you out of my sight again,” May muttered.

“I’ve gotta call Ned, tell him I’m okay,” Peter said.

“Call him when you get home,” May said. She glanced at Maria. “Want to come in for awhile? I’d prefer to talk where I know Tony Stark’s tech isn’t recording every thing I say and do.”

“Thanks,” Maria said. Home. “That sounds nice.”

Chapter Text

Tony stared at the dust on his hands. Like ash from a cremation. It was no less horrifying that it had happened to a teenager. But unlike a post-funeral cremation, this was sudden. It shouldn’t have happened.

Technically it’s your fault I’m here. Truer words were never spoken.

Nebula sat beside Tony.

“I’ve never had a soulmark,” she said. “Thanos replaced so much of my body with machine parts that there’s no skin. I used to hope it meant that I’d die young.”

“Wishing that right now?” Tony asked. Nebula nodded.

“You have someone to fight for,” she said. “Don’t you?”

“I’m marrying my soulmate soon,” Tony said. “If I ever get back to Earth.”

Nebula looked around Titan.

“I’ve never built a ship from scratch,” she said.

“I don’t think I can concentrate on that right now,” he said. “Just… give me a minute. To mourn. Don’t you have to mourn your sister?”

She fell silent, her hands clenched together as she stared into the distance. Tony looked over her, wondering how the gauntlet had selected who to kill and who to leave behind. If she really didn’t have a soulmate, why was she still here? Why didn’t she die young, like she thought she would?

He thought of Pepper, how frantic she must be. He slipped his cleaner hand beneath his shirt, searching for the comfort of words.

…Nothing. No warmth from Pepper thinking about him as well, like there had been when the Ten Rings held him captive. He lifted his shirt.

“No, no, no, no, no,” he chanted, staring at the bare skin. “Oh God, no.”

“What is it?” Nebula asked.

“My soulmark’s gone.”

Her eyebrows rose and her lips parted.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry, Mr. Stark.”

“C-call me Tony,” he said, lowering his head.

She laid a hesitant hand on his upper back while his shoulders shook with suppressed sobs. He covered his face, smearing Peter’s ashes on his wet cheeks.

They remained like that for over an hour, grieving quietly, until Nebula tensed up and clutched Tony’s shoulder. She leaned close to his ear.

“A ship is about to land close by,” she whispered.

“Where?”

“South-west of here. What units of measurement do you use on Earth?”

“Uh, let’s not worry about distance right now,” Tony said, standing up. “We’d better find cover until we know who we’re dealing with. We’re not prepared for another battle at the moment.” He glared at the remnants of his suit. He should’ve made it stronger. He’d failed – they’d all failed – and now Pepper was gone. What was the point of trying to get back to Earth when there wouldn’t be a wedding?

He and Nebula hid behind one of the panels of the ship they’d crash-landed. They peered through holes where light bulbs or small windows had been.

Thanos stepped out of the distant ship and staggered up a hill.

“I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch,” Tony growled. Nebula held his arm.

“We are not prepared for it,” she hissed.

“I don’t care!”

“I don’t want to be alone!” She tugged him to the ground and held him against the metal. “You are the only ally I have, unless someone else is on another continent.”

“You know, I’ve never thought of continents on other planets, but I guess they’re big enough for more colonies, just like Earth,” Tony said. He breathed steadily. “Okay. Let’s follow him. We won’t attack. And once we’ve seen his hideout, we’ll come back here and create weapons. If we can get the gauntlet back, we might be able to undo… whatever he did.”

“He erased half the universe, like he always wanted to,” Nebula said. Tony inhaled sharply. He couldn’t even imagine something of that scale.

“Yeah,” he said. “And if we can’t save the universe, at least we can avenge it.”

Nebula helped him to his feet. He winced as the skin pulled where Thanos had stabbed him. There was still an ache beneath the skin. He’d have to get that checked out when… if he returned to Earth. And if he died killing Thanos, at least he’d die doing the right thing.

How many more of his friends were dead? Was Rhodey alright? Happy? Vision?

…Steve?

They crept along a ledge, where there was a large cave. They were nearly there when Nebula gripped Tony’s arm. He followed her gaze to some kind of flying craft in the sky. On the off-chance that it was one of Thanos’s children, they hid behind the cave beneath some dead trees.

The person in the front of the sleigh looked human, but even more. Maybe she was an Asgardian? Thor always had that ‘something more’ about him. It could’ve been the lightning, but maybe it was an alien thing.

The conversation was too quiet for either of them to hear, and Tony really regretted not having his suit.

But the slap the woman gave Thanos echoed around the valleys and hills. Nebula smiled, the first time Tony had seen her do that. He could relate. The sound was so damn satisfying.

The woman took the gauntlet – just took it right off him! – and climbed back into her sleigh. She flew off, chin held high, and Thanos slumped on the ground.

It’d be so easy to go for him right now, when he was unarmed and stunned. But he could still overpower them with sheer size and strength. They needed a weapon.

Thanos retreated to his cave and Nebula and Tony climbed back down the hill. They began to scavenge for stuff they could turn into weapons. Tony had to ask Nebula to clarify some of the parts, since he’d never seen anything like them. He almost felt like he was back at school… but even then he’d always been the smartest in the room, as he reminded his teachers every day.

They dropped everything with a clatter when Drax reappeared. Then Strange showed up, followed by the Peters and Mantis. Tony ran to his Peter and scooped him into a hug. He was really there. It wasn’t just something he was hallucinating in the non-Earth atmosphere. Peter was alive again.

Why? How? Was it the woman who’d taken the Infinity Gauntlet?

“What happened?” Peter asked.

“You’re back,” Tony said, studying him. “You feelin’ okay, kid?”

“I am now. A little light-headed, and terrified of what Aunt May’s gonna say.”

“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to speaking to Pepper.” A blatant lie.

“We can still take down Thanos,” Nebula said. “We have to take the opportunity while we can.”

“Come on, you can help me with this,” Tony told Peter. “You’ve still got your Iron Spider suit! Great. We might need its help, too.”

They’d almost assembled a weapon to fight Thanos when the sleigh returned, closely followed by another spacecraft. A man strode out of the spaceship, wearing the gauntlet, followed by an elderly purple man. Thanos’s father? Was the universal punishment for bad behaviour getting the ‘I’m disappointed in you’ look?

The woman in the sleigh, who Tony had mentally dubbed Mrs. Claus, introduced herself as Fate, the creator of human souls. She invited them for a ride to Earth. The Guardians chose to remain, since they needed to look for Gamora if she could be rescued, but Tony, Peter, and Strange all climbed into Fate’s sleigh. She tucked a blanket over their legs.

“You’ll need this to protect yourselves from the atmosphere,” she said. “Or it could prove fatal.”

“Yeah, I don’t wanna die again today,” Peter said, clutching the blanket. “Aunt May will kill me.”

 

Tony would’ve preferred to go to New York and straight to Pepper’s side, but they had to make a pit stop at Wakanda first.

It wasn’t the best reunion he could’ve wanted. Vision was dead, though Strange reassured them that there’d be a way. Fate had promised to do what she could, and she’d already restored half the universe.

Barnes kept ducking out of sight, which really just drew Tony’s attention. Sam kept stepping between them, his arms crossed as he glared Tony down. Steve had this strained looked of nervousness and confusion. Strange had to explain a couple of times how Fate had fixed things before Steve could believe it.

Tony’s phone rang incessantly. The longer he took before he answered it, the longer he could pretend that Pepper had been brought back to life, that she’d turned to dust like everyone else instead of dying some other way. He excused himself, not to answer his phone but to check his soul words.

Still Pepper’s writing, the neat calligraphy she’d used for their wedding invitations.

Not the same words, but that didn’t matter.

He hurried out of the bathroom and tracked down T’Challa.

“Hey, what’s the quickest way back to New York from here?” he asked.

“I believe I can help with that,” Strange said, making Tony jump.

“I’m putting a bell on you,” he said. “And your little cape, too.”

“Cloak.”

“Whatever.”

“Do you want my help or not?”

“I’d like to return to New York,” Peter said, tugging his sleeve. The cloak curled around him and patted his head. “You like me now? But you didn’t before. Aw, I like you too, cloak.”

Strange rolled his eyes.

“Which part of New York?” he asked.

“Queens.”

“Will you be able to find your way home?”

“Yeah. Hold on a sec.” Peter pulled on his mask. “Okay. I’m ready.”

Strange formed one of his portals. Peter pumped his fist, thanked the doc, and then stepped through. The last Tony saw, he was swinging along the buildings.

“I’ve passed Stark Tower before, so I can drop you straight home,” Strange said.

“Thanks, Dumbledore,” Tony said. Strange frowned.

“Or I could send you to the other end of the Earth,” he said.

“…Not Dumbledore. Thank you, Doctor Strange.”

This time Strange formed a portal at the foot of Stark Tower. Tony paused.

“Let me know if Vision comes good, okay?” he asked Rhodey.

“I sure will,” Rhodey said. “I’m gonna be facing a court martial when I get back to America, so I don’t think I’ll be able to make the wedding after all.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Tony said. Then he stepped through the portal and onto the sidewalk outside his building. He looked back to see the portal shrink to nothing and then strolled inside.

The workers in the lobby all stopped and stared. Tony ignored them and spoke to FRIDAY, asking for Pepper’s location.

“I will take you there, Mr. Stark,” FRIDAY said.

“Thanks, FRIDAY.”

He hopped into the elevator, bouncing on his toes all the way up to the suite he was going to share with Pepper once they were married. He asked FRIDAY to keep quiet and crept over to the couch, where he could see Pepper curled around a cushion. He leaned down close and tapped her shoulder.

Immediately, he was knocked off his feet as electricity jolted through his body. He groaned when his vocal chords resumed working. He looked up at Pepper, who was clutching her taser and staring at him in shock.

“Always knew you were a powerful woman,” he said.

“Oh my God, you’re back. Oh my God, Tony.”

“You might have to help me up here.”

Pepper hauled Tony to his feet, showing that her physical training was paying off. He yanked her into a hug, more interested in feeling that she was there. She pressed against him, weeping into his shoulder.

“I t-thought you were dead,” she said.

“I knew you were,” Tony whispered. “My soulmark disappeared.”

“Happy saw me turn to dust. He was so worried about how he was gonna break the news to you.”

“Yeah, FRIDAY, let Happy know I’m alive. Let everyone know I’m back, okay?”

“Yes, Mr. Stark.”

“Then engage privacy mode. I need sleep.”

“The danger’s over?” Pepper asked as the blinds pulled down and the lights lowered, while the security cameras blinked off.

“It is,” he said.

Then he kissed his fiancée.

Chapter Text

Darcy held the bag of pastries under one arm, coffee cup tray in hand, and opened the door with her card. She tucked it into her pocket, keeping the door open with her hip, and entered the lab.

“Time for food, Janey,” she said.

It wasn’t unusual for Jane not to answer. She was probably deep in Science. Darcy placed the coffee and pastries on the small table farthest from the equipment. When she turned around and couldn’t see Jane, again, it wasn’t unusual. Her boss was most likely tinkering with something. Just because there was no sound coming from her didn’t mean she wasn’t there.

Darcy searched anyhow, and raised her eyebrows when she saw the pile of dust on the floor. Where the heck did that come from? She and Jane kept the equipment in tip-top condition, which meant dust-free.

“Did you… somehow import a heap of star dust, Jane?” she called, looking around.

She checked in all of the cupboards, anywhere Jane could hide. Which was a lot of places, especially since Jane kept forgetting to eat and was skinny as a rake.

With a sigh, Darcy figured that Jane had wandered off. Her phone was still there, so she was still in the building.

Darcy sat down and began sipping her coffee. She flipped through the news on her phone until she found a reference to Tony Stark. He was missing? He’d been missing for a few hours? Probably some Avengers thing.

But the hash-tag #dustpeople was trending. Her heart skipped and she began to feel sick as she read through all the breaking news reports. Slowly, she looked up from her phone and across the lab to the pile of dust at Jane’s work station. Tears in her eyes, she ran to the bank of security cameras and rewound to the point where she left the lab, while Jane was still working. She turned up the sound.

Only a couple of minutes before Darcy returned, Jane got closer one of the machines which had been recording a lot of interstellar activity, more than usual. Heimdall created a bridge a few hours ago. Even though Jane and Thor had broken up, she grew excited every time there was evidence that he might be on Earth. (Darcy preferred to know if there was going to be some kind of superhero vs supervillain battle, so she could keep out of the way.)

Jane began to exclaimed excitedly and actually turned to look for Darcy. When she couldn’t find her, she frowned. Then her expression changed to confusion.

“D-Darcy, something’s—” Then her hands turned to dust, half of her face, then the rest of her body.

Darcy ran to the bathroom and threw up. She coughed, her body heaving multiple times. Snot ran into her mouth as she sobbed in fear and sorrow. Her best friend had just disintegrated, seconds before Darcy returned. She was alone when she died.

And Darcy was still here.

She stayed at the toilet, crying uncontrollably, until the smell of the bile threatened to make her sick again. She wiped her face with tissue paper and flushed everything. She tidied herself up at the sink and rinsed her mouth.

“Okay, focus,” she told her reflection. “Who do I call? Can I call anyone?”

There’d definitely been a bridge. Maybe Thor was around. He probably didn’t have a cell phone on him, but if anyone could find him it was Tony Stark…

Who was missing. Damn.

Selvig wasn’t answering his phone. Darcy even tried Ian, whose phone went to voice mail when he didn’t pick up. Now fearing for their lives as well, Darcy called Pepper on the number she’d been given ‘just in case’. Pepper didn’t answer, but Happy Hogan did.

“Oh, Miss Lewis,” he said hollowly.

“Happy, what’s wrong?”

“Miss Potts just… she turned to dust. Right in front of my eyes. And Tony isn’t here. What the hell do I do?”

“Jane turned to dust, too. I don’t know. Um…” She ran her fingers through her hair, messing it up even more. “Do you know if Thor’s around?”

“No.”

“Right. Can you contact… Captain America?”

“I think I might have his number. Tony… I mean, Mr. Stark gave it to me…”

“Just in case.”

“Yeah.”

Darcy copied Cap’s number on a scrap piece of paper. After she’d finished talking to Happy, she called Cap.

“H-hey.”

“Who’s this?” Darcy asked.

“It’s Bruce.”

“Bruce! Oh my God, it’s Darcy.”

“Oh, hey.”

“Um, Jane sort of… just became dust. Do you guys know anything about that?”

Bruce inhaled and exhaled unsteadily. Darcy’s heart sank. Oh no.

“This maniac, Thanos, erased half the universe with a snap of his fingers,” he said.

He explained everything to Darcy, with a lot of pauses to calm his breathing. And then he listed those who’d died and disappeared.

“Pepper’s gone, too,” Darcy said. She wiped away fresh tears. “Happy told me.”

“Then maybe it’s better if Tony’s…”

“Not if he can somehow undo all of this,” Darcy said fiercely.

“Uh, Darcy, Thor wants to talk to you.”

“I just wanna be there with you guys,” she said. A sob rose in her throat. “I can’t be on my own like this. I think Selvig’s gone.”

“I don’t think any planes will be flying yet, unless they’re private jets,” Bruce said.

“I don’t have a private jet, Bruce!”

“Where are you?”

“Rhode Island.”

“It’s not too far from New York. Call Happy again and get him to send you one of Tony’s suits. Tell FRIDAY to program the co-ordinates for Wakanda. That’s where we are.”

“You think Happy will do that for me?”

“Everyone likes you, Darcy. Tell him to call me on Steve’s phone if he wants tconfirmation. I used to have exclusive access to the suits. I fought in the Hulkbuster today because the other guy didn’t want to come out.”

“Okay,” Darcy said, nodding. “I’ll… I’ll do that. See you soon, I guess.”

Happy obliged. Maybe he was still frantic because of Pepper. He’d lost contact with Maria Hill as well. Of all the times not to have SHIELD, it just had to be now.

Darcy changed into comfortable clothes. If she was going to have a flat-chested metal suit around her body, she didn’t want an under-wire bra and a low-cut top. She didn’t pack her taser, either. There didn’t seem any point if she was going to be flying around in something way more powerful.

She changed in the bathroom and noticed something in the mirror. She twisted round and saw the soulmark on her back. She clenched her hands into fists. She’d always been Thor’s soulmate, but he and Jane seemed to click, so she’d left them to it. Now she was wondering whether that’d been the right thing to do.

The Iron Man armour arrived sooner than Darcy expected. She stepped into it and was impressed that the armour fit. The helmet came down over her face and she couldn’t help feeling the teeniest bit super-excited.

FRIDAY set the destination for Wakanda. She kept Darcy company during the long flight and kept her up-to-date on the news. Darcy’s heart broke for the people who’d lost family, friends, and soulmates, in many cases right in front of their eyes. Or their loved ones had been in accidents caused by drivers and pilots becoming piles of dust.

“Wait, FRIDAY, stop!” Darcy said. She could see the water below through the eye slits in the armour.

“Miss Lewis?”

“Down below, the boats! Are there survivors? We have to make sure they’re okay.”

The armour swooped down. There were people clinging to wreckage. They waved when they saw the armour, calling out.

“Can I speak to them?” Darcy asked.

“Yes, Miss Lewis.”

“Hi,” Darcy said. She could hear her voice coming out of the armour. “I’m not actually Tony Stark. You can probably tell. But I’m here to help you. There’s land, uh, not too far from here. Right, FRIDAY?”

“A rescue boat is headed this way, Miss Lewis.”

“Oh, great. My girl FRIDAY says help’s on its way.” She hovered in front of the survivors. “Um, can we somehow… I don’t know, weld all this scrap metal together to make a bigger platform?”

FRIDAY helped Darcy do so, using the lasers in the armour’s hands to heat the metal long enough to attach it together. Soon they had a large sheet cobbled together, and the survivors piled onto it. Darcy found a few more caught in bits of wreckage and flew them to the others. It looked like the pilots of at least one boat had disappeared, causing the crash.

“Miss Lewis, we must move the survivors further away before a spark near the fuel leak causes both ships to erupt in flames,” FRIDAY said.

“Okay, okay, just scan for any more life forms on board.”

“Negative. No life forms among the wreckage. Only the survivors you have found.”

“Right. Let’s go.”

She pushed from behind, the rockets in the boots causing them to speed along. At least the armour was waterproof. Darcy didn’t need to conduct a flash of electricity through the metal and electrocute the people she’d just rescued.

The rescue boat was unmanned – FRIDAY had taken control of it – but there were crew members among the people Darcy had rescued. They could call for backup.

She waved to them, and then FRIDAY returned Darcy to her Africa-bound course.

She called ahead, connecting to Steve’s phone.

“It’s Darcy again,” she said.

“It’s Steve this time,” Steve said.

“I’m just about to enter Wakanda in one of Tony’s suits. Do I have clear airspace?”

“You just need permission from T’Challa, I think,” Steve said. “Hang on.” She heard him consult someone. “Okay, Darcy, you’re right to come in.”

“Hello, I’m Princess Shuri,” someone said inside the armour. Darcy swore. “That wasn’t very polite.”

“How are you in the suit?”

“Shuri,” Steve said sternly. It was his Captain America voice.

“I’m just leading her to the helipad,” Shuri said.

“Miss Lewis, Princess Shuri has somehow taken control of the suit,” FRIDAY said.

“Oh, this is gold,” Darcy cackled. “I can’t wait to tell Tony about this.”

“Did you really save those boat survivors?” Shuri asked.

“That was mostly the suit and FRIDAY,” Darcy said.

“We heard about it,” Steve said. “We thought maybe Tony was back.”

Darcy winced.

“Sorry, Cap,” she said. “But I couldn’t leave them there, and I wanted to see you guys so bad, make sure you were okay.”

“I’ve just lost two of my best friends today and… I’ve lost all hope,” Steve said. “I’m so tired of losing all the people I care about, Darcy.”

“No, no, it’ll be okay,” Darcy said. “Don’t give up hope. I’m nearly there.”

FRIDAY hung up as the suit landed neatly on the helipad. The armour opened and Darcy stepped out, sweaty from being in a small, enclosed metal box for hours. Even with the super-boosters on, Africa was still far away from America.

Thor met her at the doors to the palace and held her tightly.

“Loki is now dead,” he said. “My father as well. Loki died trying to protect me.”

“I… I’m sorry, Thor. Jane’s dead, too. I wasn’t there. Half a minute later and I would’ve been. But she was all alone.”

“Thanos killed half of the Asgardians,” Thor said. “My sister decimated so many before that. We thought we were safe as we escaped, and then Thanos found us. He killed Heimdall and Loki and those of my people who were unable to escape in time.”

Darcy sighed as she rested against his chest.

“Yeah, Bruce told me some of it,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“At least Thanos did not take my soulmate,” Thor said.

“…Huh?”

“Jane was not my soulmate.”

“That didn’t seem to matter to either of you,” Darcy said, feeling the old resentment return. She immediately felt bad about it.

“I was greatly confused when I came to Midgard,” Thor said. “I was not sure who had spoken my soul words. Jane—”

“Appealed to you?”

“She argued with me but her attraction was obvious,” Thor said.

“And I wasn’t obvious?”

“You did not mention my words to you,” he reminded her.

“Well, I was the unpaid intern, Jane was my boss and best friend. She never noticed guys until you, not since Donald.”

“I should have been with you. You should have been with me,” Thor said, frowning.

“I’m sorry,” Darcy said. She couldn’t stop apologising. “But I wanted you to be happy. I thought maybe we were only supposed to be friends. You called me your Lightning Sister. I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“You are not like a sister to me,” Thor said.

“Well, she killed a bunch of Asgardians, so I hope not.”

“My feelings for you are not of those of a brother to a sister, Darcy. I had not looked at my soulmark for a long time. We keep them hidden in Asgard until we are bonded with our soulmate. I have seen Jane’s writing many times, and yours.” He sighed. “I wanted to see if Jane was alright, but when I saw that it was your writing, and still there, I could only feel relief that you were safe. I forgot about Jane.”

“I miss her.” Tears sprang up in Darcy’s eyes again. She’d thought she didn’t have any left to shed. Thor brushed them away gently and pressed a kiss to her cheek. He rested his head against hers.

“We will never forget our fallen friends,” he said. “And when we renew the war against Thanos, you must fight alongside us in the Man of Iron’s armour. I hate to risk you, but after your impressive display saving those people on the way here, it would be foolish not to ask for your help when you are so capable.”

“You need me, I’m right there, big guy.”

“Thank you,” he said solemnly. He pecked her on the lips.

“Thor?”

“Yes?”

“What happened to your hair?”

Chapter Text

Nick woke to someone shaking his shoulders.

“Get up, sir. Come on. We can’t stay here.”

“Five more minutes.”

“Fine, if you want to sleep in the middle of the road and be run over.”

He sighed.

“You’re no fun, Hill,” he said, standing up. He dusted off his coat and looked around at the debris. A building was on fire. Cars were piling up. He looked at the ground and saw that he’d dropped his pager. That’s right. He summoned Danvers because the world was going to shit. Again. And he had no idea where the Avengers were right now.

“Before you say it, don’t,” Hill said. “I can’t brief you. I’ve been out of it.”

“You were turning to dust or ashes or something,” Nick said, staring at her. “I remember that now. And… the same thing happened to me.”

“And now we’ve been… re-assembled.” Her lips twitched at the corners. He’d allow her that one.

“I suggest we get to Stark Tower,” he said. “Make it command central until Stark gets back and can take over. Wish I knew where the others were.”

“Those damn Accords.”

“I know.”

“Why didn’t you let me kill Secretary Ross?”

“Because someone else would’ve instituted the Accords anyway,” Nick said. “The only difference is that it’d be less personal.”

“Maybe it’d be a good time to release the Abomination,” Hill said. “If another battle ensues we’ll need all the reinforcements we can get.”

“Call Hawkeye. And Romanov.”

“The Widow cut off all communication, but I know the number to Clint’s safe house.”

“Say hi to Laura for me.”

“I will.”

While Hill dealt with the Barton family, Fury did a sweep of the car. It was driveable, which was good enough for him. They only needed it to last until they got to Stark Tower. Then it could fall to pieces, for all he cared. There were bigger things at stake right now.

He just wished he knew what they were.

 

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE ALRIGHT?”

Steve Rogers cleared his throat, looking abashed.

“Tony’s about to go home,” he said. “Come home, I guess, from your point-of-view. He’s bringing Spider-Man so he can get home to his family. Do any of you want to come here? We’re having kind of a party, since Thanos has been defeated. We didn’t even really have to do anything, but we’re all tired, so T’Challa says we’ve earned it. Shuri’s just grateful she doesn’t have to be queen. And I’m glad that Bucky’s back to normal. I think we’re both gonna retire from saving the world and go someplace else. Somewhere quiet where we can grow old together.”

“How romantic,” Nick said through gritted teeth. “I’m gonna join you in Wakanda. I need a debrief from all of you.”

“Even though SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore?”

Nick glanced at Hill and sighed.

“Would you rather debrief to the government or use me as your middle man?” he said.

“I think we’d prefer you, sir,” Steve said.

“Good. I’ll organise a flight.”

“No need. Doctor Strange is going to build a portal to Stark Tower. Tony’s showing him some pictures so he can get it ri… Ah. They’re starting.”

Pepper yelped as golden sparks appeared right beside her. She backed into Hill as an oval shape formed in the middle of the sparks, gradually growing until it was as tall as Nick. Tony stepped through nonchalantly, followed by Spider-Man. Pepper wrapped Tony in a hug immediately, while Spider-Man waited at the side.

“I’ll get back as soon as possible,” Nick told Hill.

“Yes, sir. I’ll let the relevant people know.”

He walked through the portal like he did this every day. Like hell was he gonna be shown up by Tony Stark. Doctor Strange closed the portal and then held out a hand for Nick to shake.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Nick said. “Are you really a doctor?”

“Former surgeon, so yes, I’m a doctor. You’re the former head of SHIELD?”

“That’s right.”

“I think I’ve had a few of your agents on my table before,” Strange said.

“I thought I recognised the name.”

“Director Fury,” the king of Wakanda said, walking towards him.

“Your highness,” Nick said. “And I’m not the director anymore.”

“I think you will always be the director to them,” T’Challa said. “But as you wish. Mr. Fury, one of our conference rooms is available for you. We have moved as many chairs and tables as we can fit in there.”

“Thank you, your highness. I appreciate the trouble you’ve gone to.”

“It is no trouble at all. Would you like something to eat or drink before we start?”

Fury was munching on something like a fruit mince pie when a woman with a golden necklace approached. One of the Dora Milaje, he was guessing. Was this the one who’d threatened Romanov?

“All is prepared, your highness,” she said. “Is this really necessary?”

“It is one way to gain perspective on the situation, work out how to improve, and bring everyone back down to Earth after such an ordeal,” T’Challa said. “I am sure that Mr. Fury agrees with me.” Nick nodded.

“Very well. Will you need me?”

“You were on the front lines and you saw me die. Of course I need you there.”

Nick saw something pass through her eyes, a muted pain. He could relate. He’d seen Hill disintegrate in front of his own eyes. Seeing his former second-in-command die was hard enough. Imagine seeing a well-respected king become dust in front of you and being unable to stop it.

“I will ensure that everyone is in place, your highness.”

“Thank you, Okoye.”

As she walked away, T’Challa sighed.

“It has been hard for the general lately,” he said. “Her husband is from the border tribe, and he was one of my best friends. But he fought alongside the usurper to the throne even after I returned. He was angry, and forgot his loyalty to the throne in his anger. Okoye had to fight her own husband. And then she was injured in the fight against Thanos. I went to help her stand up and instead… became dust. She has not left my side since we returned.”

Nick followed T’Challa into the meeting room and stood at the head of the table beside the king. Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy were able to fill in most of the details about what had happened on Titan. Initially, Strange didn’t know what had happened between losing consciousness and waking up to strips of metal piercing his body, but Stark and Spider-Man had filled him in on the way to Titan.

Nick mostly took notes while T’Challa prompted the others to speak. Shuri was recording the debriefing as well, so they’d have a full record. Everyone was slowly able to relax, full of good food and drink and pulling apart the harrowing events of the day. They were able to see where they went wrong and how they could improve for the future.

It was like being back at SHIELD. Nick felt homesick for those simpler days.

“General, your soldiers worked smoothly,” T’Challa said.

“Yes, well done,” Nick said to her. “I’m very impressed by what I’ve seen.”

Okoye’s shoulders stiffened. Her eyes narrowed.

“I am sure that is a great compliment, coming from you,” she said.

“Trust me, it is,” Rogers muttered.

“But we need more soldiers,” Okoye said. “We lost too many people in the battle against Killmonger. The children who are left are too young to train. There are very few old enough to join us.”

“Perhaps if we took in any girls who have been orphaned in this tragedy, they will be able to train for the Dora Milaje,” T’Challa said. “Wakanda needs fresh blood. If they choose not to stay, at least they will be prepared to defend themselves once they are no longer within our borders.”

“Assuming they do not come back and fight against us,” Okoye said.

“We shall discuss this later. Mr. Fury, do you have anything to add?”

“I think I’ve got everything,” Nick said, tapping his Starkpad. “I’ll have to share this with the World Security Council, unless you have any objections?”

“None. And you must share it with the United Nations. Perhaps then they will get rid of the Sokovia Accords.”

“Leave out the part about Fate helping us,” Romanov said. “We need to prove that we’re useful, and that there are times when we can’t wait for instructions from the government.”

“Agreed,” Nick said.

“May I speak with you alone, Mr. Fury?” Okoye asked, standing up. Surprised and curious, he agreed and followed her out of the room. They stopped in the corridor outside one of the bathrooms.

“What’s this about?” he asked.

“Many soulmarks changed after everyone – nearly everyone – was restored to life,” she said. “Have you checked your soulmark?”

“I haven’t had time.”

“Please check it now.”

He was starting to understand why she’d wanted to talk to him. He entered the bathroom and stripped off his coat. He unbuttoned his trousers and pushed them down until he could see the outside of his left thigh.

I am sure that is a great compliment, coming from you.

“Uh-huh,” he said. He pulled his pants up again, pulled his coat back on, and left the bathroom. Okoye studied him warily. “So we’re soulmates?”

“It seems so.”

“T’Challa mentioned your husband—”

Ex-husband. We are no longer married. I will not remain married to anyone who is not loyal to Wakanda and the throne.”

“Consider me loyal to both from now on,” Nick said. “And to you.”

Okoye smiled.

Chapter Text

Shuri blinked back the moisture building up in her eyes as she stared at her mother’s ashes in the throne room. Some of the tribe elders remained, but not Ramonda.

“Until we are certain of my brother’s fate, we will not be holding a coronation,” Shuri said. She twisted her thumbs together, unsure how to continue. M’Baku gave her an encouraging gesture. “But I will lead our country as well as I can until… until a more suitable ruler can be found. I welcome all advice with a grateful heart. But today,” she straightened her spine, “we must tidy up after the battle. We shall leave… the dust where it is.” Her gaze strayed to her mother’s remains. “Out of respect, we must not treat it as garbage. But we will burn the bodies of the aliens who attacked Wakanda. And tomorrow we will commence the traditional period of mourning, not only for our fallen king but our families and friends as well. T-thank you.”

She hurried down the steps and left the room before her legs could give from under her. She sent messages to Nakia and Everett, informing them of the situation, and then proceeded to her bedroom.

She needed a minute to think and to feel.

Shuri was still in the clothes she had been wearing while she worked on Vision. Now that she was queen of Wakanda, she had to wear something regal. One of her formal outfits would do until she could be fitted for something else.

A tear crept down her cheek as she stripped off her work clothes. She not only grieved for her mother and brother, but also for the life she would no longer lead. She could no longer spend all day in her lab working on her beloved projects. She would be expected to attend many different functions, spend time with the leaders of the other tribes, travel overseas, and even marry one day. She never wanted to marry, and now she would be forced into marriage to keep the royal bloodline going.

Perhaps M’Baku would be happy to rule instead?

Shuri shook these thoughts away as she shook the wrinkles from her shirt. Her family would be disappointed at the thought of her giving away the throne of Wakanda, no matter how worthy M’Baku was. They would think of her as a weak little girl, giving up her responsibilities to play with her toys.

She was eighteen, no longer a little girl, but everyone still saw her as a child, simply because she was younger than them. Did all her work mean nothing to them?

The glimpse of white on her skin caught her attention. She opened her right arm and looked at the words of her soulmark. It stood out strong and bold, much like her own writing. And it was an innocent location for a mark. There was no suggestion that she had to have sexual relations with her soulmate, which was a great relief.

She stroked the words, taking comfort in the fact that her soulmate was still alive, somewhere in the vast world. She hoped that her soulmate was looking at her writing and taking comfort that their mark remained as well.

There was a knock at the door.

“Your highness?”

“Yes, Ayo?”

“Dr. Banner has offered his help in tending to the wounded.”

Shuri sighed.

“Accept his aid,” she said. “He has my permission. I am officially naming him a healer of the palace until this crisis is dealt with. I will join him in the medical wing soon, but please go on without me.”

“Yes, my queen.”

Shuri found a red and black coat and black trousers in her cupboard. She rarely wore them, but she had heard of commanders who wore red to hide blood when they fought, to give their soldiers courage. And the black signified mourning. It was appropriate.

She left her hair alone. It was too much to decide on a new hairstyle right now. No doubt she would have to arrange it into something more befitting a queen. Nothing practical for lab work. Only practical for wearing a crown.

She wiped away the last of her tears as she pulled on a new pair of shoes. They were comfortable and clean. There was no time for a shower, so this would have to do.

She would have to do.

Holding her head high, Shuri emerged from her suite and led her guards through the hallways to the medical wing of the palace. Many of her people were bustling around, and one of the guards was translating for Dr. Banner. Some of the soldiers were too wounded from battle to remember how to speak English.

“Thank you for your help, Dr. Banner,” she said.

“I wasn’t much help before,” he said with a shrug. “At least I can do something.”

“I will not be able to assist with medical treatment after this,” Shuri replied. “So I am offering you a position in the palace for as long as you want to stay. We have opened the doors of Wakanda to the world. This is a good way to start.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

“Not at all. It is practical.”

“Thanks. I’ll help as long as I can.”

Shuri nodded. She walked around the beds, checking her people. She made sure they were comfortable and that there was enough equipment for the staff. She sent for more supplies from the lab and then returned to the throne room. The others had left, leaving her with a few guards and some piles of dust.

“Mother,” she whispered, and she covered her face with her hands.

After a long while, she used her kimoyo beads to contact the remaining kitchen staff and ask them to prepare as much food as possible to feed the survivors. She ordered wine to be brought from the cellars as well. She could not afford to get drunk, but others could.

She passed her condolences to the heroes who had tried to save the day. Before she could move on, Thor grabbed her shoulder.

“I understand your pain,” he said. “When my father died, there was a power struggle with my older sister. She had been imprisoned for centuries, but she was technically next in line to the throne. She was responsible for the deaths of many Asgardians. The only way to stop her was to kill her, and our entire planet with it.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Shuri said.

“I became king of Asgard through the death of my father and older sibling,” Thor continued. Shuri realised what he was getting at. “And we have immediately been plunged into another crisis, with no family to support or guide us.”

Tears pricked at the corners of Shuri’s eyes. This time, she let them fall.

“You are right,” she said.

“Half of my people are gone, and many of yours have perished as well. Together, we will avenge them.”

“And I will help you find your people, if I can,” Shuri promised.

“Thank you, Queen Shuri.”

“Thank you, King Thor.”

He gave her a moment to dry her tears. He shed a few of his own. The others looked away politely.

“My queen, where would you like supper to be served?” Ayo asked through the beads.

“Wherever there is enough room,” Shuri said. “Not the throne room. Perhaps the foyer? There is plenty of space, and so many are already gathered here.”

“Very well, your highness.”

Shuri organised tables and chairs to be spread around. Cutlery, china, and glasses were left on one table, along with fine linen napkins. Carafes of water were brought first, then the food, followed by the wine.

“Not much of a party,” Rhodey said.

“It is not meant to be one,” Shuri said. He winced when he realised that she’d overheard his comment. “But you must refresh yourselves. Later can you shower and sleep, but you all look dead on your feet.”

Some of the wounded were released from medical, and Bruce accompanied them to make sure that they ate and drank. He was relieved to discover that many vegetarian dishes had been made. He was soon swapping recipes with M’Baku.

Shuri nearly spilled her water when one of her beads buzzed. She twisted it.

Her brother’s face appeared.

“Shuri, send a stretcher down to the forest,” he said.

“T’Challa?”

“Yes.” He looked exhausted. “At first we thought the sun had set quickly, but then we noticed that we were alone and everything was silent. How much time have we lost?”

Shuri bit her lip, trying to contain a sob.

“You were dead,” she blurted out. “For hours, T’Challa! You and mother!”

“Oh, Shuri…”

“Don’t ‘Oh, Shuri’ me! I thought I had to be queen! You get your butt up here as soon as you can, T’Challa, or I’ll never speak to you again.”

“The stretcher—”

“Is on its way.” She twisted the kimoyo bead again, and then unlocked one of the floating stretchers from storage. She sent it through the top of the palace and down to the forest. She ordered a driver to pick up the rest of the people.

Then she ran to the medical wing, with Bruce on her heels.

 

Scott rubbed the inside of his elbow while he held Cassie close.

She wasn’t hurt in the crash, but Maggie and Paxton were gone. They’d disappeared while driving, and Cassie couldn’t stop the car from swerving into a tree.

Scott was training with Hope when he got the call. He left right away, and called Luis to meet him at the hospital. When Cassie was given the all-clear, Luis drove them home while Hope picked up takeaway. They left after an hour, leaving Scott comforting Cassie while she cried for her mother.

“M-my soulmark’s gone. They c-checked me all over a-at the hospital, and it w-wasn’t there anymore.”

Scott’s heart broke for her. He pulled her closer into his arms and cuddled back against the sofa, letting her lie across his body.

“Please, Cassie, don’t cry,” he begged. “It’ll be okay. Whatever’s happened, I’m sure the Avengers will fix it.”

“B-but you’re an Avenger, Daddy.”

“And I can’t leave the house. You know that.” He hated to let her down like this.

Cassie was dozing, her breath wheezing from tears, when the phone rang. It made Scott, who was almost asleep himself, jump, jostling Cassie. He picked up his phone and mumbled a greeting.

“Scott, did you have something to do with this?”

“With… Maggie?” Cassie’s head rose.

“Yes,” Maggie said, sounding annoyed. “Paxton and I just woke up beside this tree, and there are skid marks on the road, but no Cassie. Who did you piss off this time?”

“You’re alive?”

“Mommy?” Cassie whispered.

“What, are we supposed to be dead?” Maggie retorted.

“…Mags, half the population was suddenly wiped out, all turned into dust. You and Paxton were driving along, and Cassie was in the backseat, when you just suddenly disappeared. The car crashed…”

“Oh my God, Cassie?”

“She’s fine. Little bruised and shocked, but she’s here with me.”

He put the phone on speaker so Cassie and Maggie could talk to each other. Cassie was in tears again, but her faith in Scott was restored. The Avengers apparently did fix whatever went wrong, and her mother and stepfather were back.

 

The long and short of it was that the United Nations scrapped the Sokovia Accords (and sacked Secretary Ross for enforcing them and imprisoning the Avengers, which made Scott grin). If the Avengers hadn’t been divided they would’ve been able to fight more effectively and so many wouldn’t have died. If some of the superheroes hadn’t been hiding out – or under house arrest – they could’ve fought from the beginning instead of sitting around, waiting for news. It could’ve made all the difference to the battle’s outcome, and the public now hated the government and loved the superheroes, property destruction and all.

So Scott was a free man, Cassie was happy again, and they were both on their way to Wakanda. The government had given Scott a nice cash payout for the whole wrongful imprisonment thing, which was why he had decided to splurge by taking Cassie on her first overseas trip to see the other Avengers.

Scott kept looking at the words on the inside of his elbow. He didn’t want any more romantic entanglements, even though Cassie was the best thing that’d ever happened to him. He just wanted to be free to help people and use his engineering degree, instead of taking more minimum wage jobs and living with the van Dyne family. He didn’t want to rely on charity anymore. He wanted to be useful, maybe with someone like-minded. As long as they adored his daughter, of course.

“I think we’re nearly there,” Scott said, nudging Cassie. She woke up and stretched her legs, then looked out the window at the airport below. “We stop here, then we have to wait for someone to pick us up.”

They were picked up by a private jet, of all things. Their luggage was stowed in the back and Cassie was shown to a nice play area, where she occupied herself with holographic games. Scott’s mouth watered as he marvelled over the technology.

“Eat your heart out, Stark,” he said, grinning. Howard or Tony, it didn’t matter. They were still the same. Untrustworthy, just like Hank said.

The flight to Wakanda was short. Scott mourned the days when he used to pick Cassie up and carry her everywhere, but she was too big for him to do that now. She held his hand as they walked down the back of the plane, grabbing their hand luggage, while the flight crew carried their normal luggage.

“Wow,” Cassie said, staring up at the palace before them.

“This is so cool,” Scott said.

“Welcome!” T’Challa said, walking forward with his arms open. “We’re so glad you could make it.”

“Thanks, your highness,” Scott said. Cassie curtsied without being prompted.

“We do not do that,” T’Challa said. “There is no need to curtsy or bow.”

“But I practised!” Cassie said.

“I can tell. Now, why don’t you both come with me? There are many people waiting to meet you.”

Cassie looked awed as T’Challa offered her his hand. She slipped her small hand into his and Scott followed behind, beaming like the proud father he was.

“Can I just say how awesome that plane was?” he said. “And the holographic games! I’ve never seen those before. It’s like virtual reality without the glasses, but better, because you’re more aware of your surroundings so you don’t knock priceless vases off shelves. Are you thinking about marketing them?”

“Not yet,” T’Challa said. “They would be too expensive for the average household to purchase. But my sister will soon be going to America to train children and teenagers in science and technology.”

“Hey, does she need someone to teach engineering? Because I’ve got a degree. And I’m unemployed.”

“You can ask her yourself,” T’Challa said, smiling, while Cassie whispered “Don’t be a dork, Daddy.”

A young woman approached them. She barely noticed Scott before she saw Cassie, and her eyes lit up.

“Hello!” she said. “I am Princess Shuri. Welcome to Wakanda. You must be Cassie Lang.” She held out her hand. “It is an honour to meet you.”

“You’re a real live princess?” Cassie asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“You’re even prettier than the Disney princesses,” Cassie said, her eyes sparkling as she jumped up and down.

“You think so?” Shuri said.

“Yeah-huh! Boy, wait `til I tell my friends I’ve met a real princess! They’re gonna be so jealous, aren’t they, Daddy?”

“They sure will,” Scott said. He smiled at Shuri. “She won’t ever shut up about this, I’m telling you now.”

“Hey!” Cassie protested. Shuri looked at Scott with wide eyes. Had he messed up some kind of royal protocol? Judging from T’Challa’s glower, it seemed so.

“I do not mind what she says,” Shuri said.

Oh shit. Scott knew he’d received his soulmark late in life, but it was another thing altogether to actually meet his eighteen-year-old soulmate.

“I’m Scott,” he said. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Princess Shuri.”

“Just call me Shuri,” she said. She looked down at Cassie. “You could call me Aunt Shuri, if you like.”

Could I?” Cassie exclaimed. “Daddy, can I call her Aunt Shuri? Can I? Can I?”

“Sure,” Scott said.

“We should talk, Mr. Lang,” T’Challa said. Scott gulped.

“I will come with you,” Shuri said firmly. “Cassie, my mother is over here. Would you like to meet a queen?”

Yeah, of course I would!”

“I’ll join you in a moment,” Shuri told T’Challa and Scott. Then T’Challa led Scott away. Shuri was with them in less than a minute.

“We need to discuss this,” T’Challa said sternly, crossing his arms.

“I’m guessing you know what your sister’s soulmark says,” Scott said, shrinking back.

“Yes.”

“W-where is it?”

Shuri bared the inside of her elbow. Scott heaved a sigh of relief and showed where his mark was. They only needed to link arms to bond, if they chose to.

“Look, I already have a kid, and you’re only eight years older than her,” Scott said. “I really don’t think I’d make anyone a good boyfriend. I sure as hell didn’t make a good enough husband. Okay, that’s more because I got arrested exposing a corrupt company’s secrets… well, for the breaking and entering part. Kind of killed the marriage. But… what I’m saying is, I’m not looking for a girlfriend. Especially one half my age. I want someone to work with. I was asking your brother about working for you, back in America. I just… did I offend you?”

Shuri laughed and T’Challa began to smile.

“I’m relieved,” she said. “I’m not interested in relationships at all. Not romantic ones. I was worried that I would be forced into marriage when I thought I had to be queen. But then my brother came back. Now I can continue my work. And I would love to have your help. You and Cassie.”

“You’re so great with her. She can be a little overwhelming to new people.”

“She’s very sweet,” Shuri said. “And she said I’m prettier than a Disney princess.”

“You won’t let that go, will you?” T’Challa said.

“Do you know nothing about me, brother?”

Chapter Text

Everyone else was being reunited with their soulmates, or at least finding out that their soulmarks had returned.

Not Stephen.

He sat in front of a full-length mirror in the guest room T’Challa had assigned to him, his body twisted to the side as he studied the skin on his outer thigh. Blank.

It used to say I have been falling for thirty minutes!

Now it said nothing.

Thor had explained how Loki had died heroically. After hearing how Loki had tried to commit suicide and literally fell in Thanos’s hands, Stephen felt bad about trapping Loki the way he had. A box would’ve done the trick. But falling? That was just rubbing salt into a wound he hadn’t known about.

He should’ve known that it would still be traumatic, even for a ‘god’.

He remembered dismissing the two brothers as he sent them to Odin. He remembered Loki’s shocked face as he glanced back. The first and last time their eyes met.

Stephen turned away from his reflection when tears trickled down his cheeks and into his beard. He couldn’t see himself cry. It was bad enough the bin would be full of tissues by the morning. He didn’t need to see what a mess he was about to become.

“I’m sorry, Loki,” he whispered, lying on the bed. He pulled the blankets over his body, not because he was cold but because he needed the comforting weight. It was a common treatment for people with anxiety and victims of shock. Right now, he wasn’t sure which he was, but at least he could pretend that he was being held by someone. It wasn’t his soulmate… it would never be his soulmate…

Stephen buried his face in the pillow and sobbed.

 

He couldn’t find any consolation in Thor. It was the next day, the day after Thanos won and then lost, and there was no sign of the people who’d been left behind in space. No word from the Asgardians of the other Guardians of the Galaxy. Since Fate left them in Wakanda, no one had visited. No Mind Stone for Vision. No Time Stone for Stephen to take back to Wong.

And no guarantee that Loki could be brought back to them. While Thor openly spoke of his sorrow to his friends, who were trying to comfort him, Stephen suffered in silence. Thor clearly didn’t know about his brother’s soulmate, so what was the point in mentioning it?

Stephen scratched his thigh as he thought about the voice he’d never get to hear again, posh and indignant.

“Are you okay?” Wilson asked.

“I’m fine.”

“Because with some of us, our soulmarks itched when they reappeared.”

“I doubt my soulmark will reappear,” Stephen said.

“Is that where it was before?”

“Yes.”

“You might wanna check, is all I’m saying.”

Stephen sighed. He may as well. If nothing else, he could discover a rash which needed to be seen to immediately.

“Alright,” he said. “Don’t do anything fun without me.”

Wilson raised his eyebrows but didn’t reply. Stephen left the room without a word and found the nearest bathroom. There was a mirror over the sink. He yanked down the sweatpants Wong had sent. Since he was only lounging among other people who were dressed down, he didn’t care what he wore.

He bit his lip and turned, keeping his eyes above his legs. He didn’t want to raise any false hope. He exhaled slowly and forced himself to look down.

Tears formed again. He blinked them back and lifted his leg to get a better look.

I’m back.

“You are?” he whispered.

He pulled up his sweatpants and wished he was wearing nicer clothes. If Loki was alive again – he was alive again – then Stephen wanted to look good while reuniting with his soulmate.

If… if Loki wanted to acknowledge it. He hadn’t told Thor. That wasn’t promising.

He schooled his features so no one would notice how excited he was. Wilson studied him when he returned to the lounge, but Stephen shrugged and didn’t give anything away. Wilson rolled his eyes and tuned back into the conversation.

 

It was evening by the time Shuri’s machines registered that a spaceship was arriving in Wakanda. Everyone was on alert for possible danger, but Stephen’s heart leapt into his throat. He’d been on edge all day. Was his patience about to be rewarded?

“Hold your weapons!” Thor bellowed. “It is my brother!”

“Not a great reason to hold our weapons,” Rogers muttered.

“The Grandmaster is with him!”

“Okay, I’ll be elsewhere until he’s gone,” Banner said, retreating out of sight.

“Who else is with them?” Rocket asked, running up beside Thor.

“It looks as though your friends are here, Rabbit,” Thor said, beaming at the raccoon.

“I am Groot,” the tree said, waving his branches.

“Soon,” Rocket said, hopping from one foot to the other.

“I am Groot.”

“I’m not excited. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

The man in the golden robe returned to his space craft, while everyone else walked forward. Loki trailed after them, content to walk at his own pace, while the Guardians of the Galaxy ran forward, clutching Thanos’s gauntlet. A green-skinned woman, presumably Gamora, smiled as she embraced her friends. Thor welcomed them to Wakanda and pointed them to the leftovers from yesterday’s celebration. But then he was focussed solely on Loki.

So was Stephen.

Loki greeted Thor. He seemed surprised when Thor swept him into a hug, which would break most people’s bones. Loki relaxed into it.

“You said that the sun would shine on us again, brother, and you were right,” Thor said, his voice somewhat muffled in Loki’s hair.

“It is no longer daytime, Thor,” Loki said.

“But it will be tomorrow, and every day after that,” Thor said delightedly.

“I was able to track down the escape pods and send the ship to meet them. I have the co-ordinates for New Asgard. When we are ready to leave, the Guardians will take us there. No, they are not called the Morons. I don’t know where you got that idea.”

“You did not stay to see our people settled in?” Thor asked.

“Of course I did, else I would have been here sooner. It was difficult enough fending off the Grandmaster’s advances. And… I wished to visit Earth. Again.”

“The last time you were here you nearly got New York nuked,” Rogers said.

“That wasn’t the last time I was here,” Loki said. He glanced around until his gaze settled on Stephen.

“What other trouble have you caused?” Rhodes asked. Loki glared at him.

“It was quite the other way around, I assure you,” he said.

Stephen ducked his head. So Loki still resented that? It wasn’t all that long ago, and it probably felt even shorter to someone who’d been alive for over a millennium.

Thor introduced Loki to the people he hadn’t met. Stephen stayed back, tempted to excuse himself and return to the Sanctum Sanctorum as soon as he was alone.

“And of course you must remember the sorcerer Doctor Strange,” Thor said. “He led us to Father.”

Loki nodded as Thor gestured Stephen forward. Loki ran his eyes all over Stephen and then met his gaze. For the second time in their lives.

Then he launched himself at Stephen and crushed their mouths together.

Stephen gathered him close without thinking and kissed him back. Loki tasted divine and felt even better. He felt whole and warm and alive. Stephen inhaled his smell as their lips parted.

“I’m back,” Loki whispered.

“Yes,” Stephen said. “You are.”

“Loki, what is the meaning of this?” Thor said.

“I never told you that I found my soulmate, did I, brother?” Loki said.

“Son of a bitch,” Wilson said, staring at Stephen. “So your soulmark did return?”

“Take me somewhere,” Loki said, tugging on Stephen’s sleeves. “Anywhere. Just as long as we’re alone.”

“Y-yes,” Stephen said.

While Thor lambasted Loki for not telling him sooner, Stephen created a portal leading to his bedroom at the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York. Then he pulled Loki away mid-conversation, closed the portal, and pushed his soulmate onto the bed.

“How aggressive you are,” Loki drawled.

“Shut up. You wanted to talk to me. So talk.”

“I cannot shut up and talk at the same time. You must choose one.”

Talk, Loki.”

“Oh, I never said I wanted to talk,” Loki said.

“Then what did you want?” Stephen asked. Loki rolled his eyes.

“Didn’t you hear me?” he said. “I told you to take me somewhere. I thought that was fairly blunt.”

“Oh.” Stephen’s cheeks coloured. “You don’t want to talk first? I haven’t had a chance to apologise for the portal. After Thor told me about you falling through space that time, I felt terrible.”

“It didn’t bring up the best memories,” Loki admitted. “But I understand your caution. And you couldn’t have known about my attempt at ending my life, nor the method.”

“You can’t do that again. You can’t die again. No pretending. No actual death. I can’t go through what I went through when I thought I’d lost you forever. I didn’t even notice that my soulmark was gone until after Thor told us you were dead.”

“I was relieved to find that my own soulmark was intact, although changed,” Loki said. “Much shorter than before.”

“So is mine.”

“Show me?” Stephen arched an eyebrow. Loki huffed. “Please?”

“If you show me yours,” Stephen said, kicking off his shoes.

Loki looked intrigued, his lips tilting in a smirk as he removed his shoes and socks and unbuckled his trousers. He shoved them down and cocked one leg open.

Stephen nearly tripped over when he saw the short soulmark in his semi-legible writing. He tugged off both socks and his sweatpants and climbed onto the bed. He shuffled between Loki’s legs and lifted his knee to get a better look. Loki sat up and traced his fingers along the mark on Stephen’s outer thigh.

“The day my soulmark appeared was one of the many days when Thor had been victorious,” he said. “Father always held celebrations for him. I told my mother the next day instead, so she would not think that I had been neglected.”

“Even though you were,” Stephen said.

“It hardly matters now.”

Stephen tilted his chin up, forcing Loki to meet his eyes.

“I will never neglect you, Loki,” he vowed.

“Is that a promise?”

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

When Nebula discovered her soulmark, it was the first time that Thanos replaced a part of her body without Gamora beating her. When the mark pushed through and appeared on her belly, she covered it with clothing and bought paint as soon as she could. She always kept a can around to keep the words covered. It was safer for her. It was safer for her soulmate as well.

Sometimes she was tempted to remove the paint and check her words. But the second a patch would flake off and display part of a letter, she would pull out a paintbrush and touch it up. She lost track of how many layers covered her soulmark.

Now, stranded on Titan with Tony Stark, she scratched at the paint idly. She looked around Titan, wishing it was as lush and green as it had once been. At least it would be a more interesting landscape.

“What do we do now?” Tony said, also gazing around. He met her eyes. “I’ve got a fiancée back home. I have to make it back for the wedding. We have reservations tonight. Do you have a spare spaceship around somewhere?”

Nebula shook her head reluctantly.

“We cannot just leave them here,” she said, taking in the piles of dust.

“And I can’t stay on this planet forever,” he said. “Its atmosphere can’t support a human system forever.”

“Or mine,” Nebula said. “Only Thanos could survive it.”

“The bastard,” Tony whispered, clenching his fists. “Why Peter? He’s only a kid.”

“Oh, the child. I thought you meant Peter Quill.”

“He screwed up, big time. I thought I screwed up with Ultron, but this was way worse. Only Sokovia was at risk from Ultron. Well, okay, the whole world, but not the entire universe. And I was only trying to protect people, not avenge my dead girlfriend. Was she even his soulmate?”

“Does it make any difference?” Nebula snapped. Soulmates were a sore topic. “His feelings were true. And so were… are… mine. She was my sister. We were only just starting to get along when I left to kill Thanos. He caught and tortured me, and used me to force the Soul Stone’s location out of Gamora. Why didn’t she lie? She could have led him somewhere else, bought us time.”

“I forgot she was your sister. I’m sorry.”

“Are you marrying your soulmate?”

“Yeah. What about you? Do you have a soulmate?”

“I am not sure,” she said.

“What do you mean? How can you not be sure?”

“I had a mark, but what if my soulmate has died with the others?”

“Check your soulmark. I’ve checked mine and it’s still there.”

“I can’t.” Tony cocked his head. “Thanos replaced most of my body with metal parts. That includes where my soulmark was.”

“Oh.”

“I have painted over the mark many times. I cannot check it unless I remove the paint first. Can you do that?”

“I didn’t bring any paint stripper with me,” he said. “Sorry. If you come back to Earth with me we’ll search my workshop for some. If I don’t have any left, I’ll use something else. Or buy paint stripper.”

“That is… nice of you.”

“I can be nice, contrary to popular opinion.”

“Thanos thought highly of you,” she reminded him.

“Yeah, I don’t consider that a compliment.” He huffed and leaned back against the rocky ground. “Okay. There should be enough parts around here to build something. I’ve never built an actual spaceship. Rockets, yeah. One of my favourite things when I was a kid. Have you built anything like that before? Something big enough to take us back to Earth?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. I’m a genius and you probably know stuff that I don’t. We can do it. Let’s just do it as quickly as possible. We can’t stay here forever.”

“And Thanos may return,” Nebula said. “If he has completed the Infinity Gauntlet he could restore Titan. Not the people; they have been gone for too long. But this is what he has been leading up to.”

“Scrap that,” Tony said, his expression darkening. “Let’s build a weapon and blow up the asshole until he’s only pieces of flesh and bone left.”

“Then we can use the gauntlet to restore our friends and go to Earth,” Nebula said. “And perhaps we can also bring my sister back.”

“Okay, that’s an even better idea. We’ll go with that instead. You think ahead. I like that. I need to be more like that.” He looked around. “Energy source, energy source. If you see anything which looks like it powers an engine, let me know. I’m gonna grab every moving mechanism I can find.”

They weren’t any tools to work with, but Tony was creative. And Nebula’s own weapons were useful. Already a large gun was taking shape.

“How do your space guns working?” Tony asked. “We use gunpowder on Earth.”

“We use lasers.”

“Sweet,” he said, nodding. “Once I’ve got this working, it should be big enough to blow a hole in space, but we’ll only get one shot. So we’ll have to get close to Thanos so we blow him up, instead of creating a black hole. We don’t even have Stephen Hawking to appreciate it if we did create a black hole.”

Something stirred. Nebula and Tony ducked as a spaceship landed far in the distance.

“If that’s Thanos, we’re gonna have to carry this all the way there,” Tony whispered.

“Why are you whispering?”

“I don’t know how good his hearing is.”

“Can we carry this without setting it off?” Nebula asked, looking at the weapon dubiously. Tony snorted and waved a hand.

“Of course,” he said. “I haven’t armed it yet.”

They’d barely moved more than a few steps when Drax assembled in a flurry of dust particles. The others also materialised one by one.

“What’s that?” Star-Lord asked, pointing at their weapon.

“We were going to nuke Thanos, but there doesn’t seem much point now,” Tony said, setting his end of the weapon down. Nebula did the same.

“How have you returned to us?” she said, studying them cautiously.

“Uh… you’re the ones who suddenly have some kind of gun,” Star-Lord said.

“Don’t you remember?” the other Peter said, staring at his hands. “We disappeared.”

“Not all of us, kid,” Tony said. “Two of us survived. The rest of you… vanished.”

“I knew that would happen,” Strange said. “But this wasn’t how we were supposed to win. Where’s Thanos?”

“Over there somewhere,” Tony said, gesturing.

“I wonder what happened.”

“You and me both.”

“That sentence makes no sense,” Drax said.

None of this makes sense,” Strange said. “I have to talk to Wong.”

“You’re leaving us here?” Tony said. “You can’t do that! How are we supposed to get back to Earth?”

“You’re a genius. You’ll figure something out.”

“But I have school,” young Peter said. “We were going on a field trip.”

“I’m pretty sure the field trip’s been cancelled,” Tony said.

“Let’s hope the bus driver didn’t turn to dust,” Strange muttered.

Their conversation was interrupted by an unexpected visitor.

 

Nebula wanted to go with the humans, but she also wanted to know whether Gamora could be brought back to life. In the end, her loyalty to her sister was stronger than her desire to see how humans lived.

En Dwi Gast was able to restore Gamora. Peter waited until the others had greeted her before dragging her off to a private room.

“We must find Rocket and Groot,” Mantis said. “They will still be with Thor.”

“Thor?” the Grandmaster said. “That champion-stealing thunder lord? Oh, I am gonna help you track him down so hard.”

Mantis blinked and shrank back behind Drax.

On the way to Earth, they found a ship of Asgardians. The one named Loki volunteered to travel to Earth with them. He held the Grandmaster’s attention for the rest of the voyage, keeping Mantis safe.

They were landing on Earth just as Gamora and Peter emerged, clothing torn in places and rumpled obscenely. Mantis blushed simply being near them, and this time used Nebula as her shield.

It was a good move. Thor summoned lightning as soon as he saw the Grandmaster, but his anger faded and a smile crossed his face when Loki emerged from the ship behind the Elder.

“Loki!” he bellowed. “Brother, you live!”

“I thought this would not be the end for me,” Loki said, allowing himself to be embraced by his brother.

Nebula was pleased to see Tony Stark again.

“I waited for you to arrive,” he said. “Now you’re here, I’m going home. You’re invited to the wedding, by the way. I’ll give you my number. Call before you come so we can make sure there’s a guest room for you.”

“Thank you,” Nebula said, stunned. “But are you sure you want me there?”

“If you weren’t there, I probably would’ve charged in to kill Thanos and gotten myself killed instead. Pepper – the bride – wants to thank you in person. You know, for not getting me killed.”

“Then I will be there.”

Even Groot and Rocket were pleased to see her. Groot hugged her leg and she stroked his head as gently as she could. What did metal feel like to him? She couldn’t remember what metal felt like against skin, not without pain.

“You are Nebula, yes?”

“Yes. Who are you?”

“I am Shuri, the princess of Wakanda,” the young woman said. “Stark told me that you needed paint stripper. Is it true?”

“It is.”

“Come to my lab. I will have something less abrasive.”

Nebula wanted to meet the other humans, but there was time for that later. As she walked the halls with the princess, she explained how most of her body had been replaced on Thanos’s orders. She confessed to painting over her soulmark.

“Does this hurt?” Shuri asked, poking her arm. There were still muscles beneath it and Nebula inhaled sharply. “Yes. Something less abrasive than paint stripper is needed for this.”

Nebula stripped off her shirt and sat on the hospital bed. Shuri rustled through a drawer of bottles, a cloth in one hand, until she stood up with a triumphant sound.

“This should remove the paint without any of the sting,” she said, kicking a stool along the floor until it was in front of Nebula. She sat down and removed the lid of the bottle. “Please tell me if it does start to hurt.”

The pain was no greater than usual, so Nebula held her tongue. She watched with fascination as Shuri gently wiped away the paint, as delicately as though Nebula still had skin. Some bits of paint flaked onto the floor, but most of it stained the cloth.

Three cloths later, no more paint remained. Nebula swallowed. She was too scared to look down.

“It’s there,” Shuri said. “The words may have changed. My soulmate died, but once everyone was restored so was my mark. It was different, but it was the same writing.”

“I have not looked at my soulmark in years,” Nebula said.

“Let me find a reverse mirror for you.” Shuri returned to the bed with a handheld device. She pressed a button on the side and a mirror appeared. But instead of showing a reflection, it showed a true image. Shuri lowered it to Nebula’s belly so that she could see the words.

Unarmed and disarming, if you will.

“Aw, how sweet,” Shuri said, grinning brightly. “I hope I am there to see it.”

Nebula pulled her shirt back on, shy and wrong-footed.

“No one would want to be my soulmate,” she said.

“Someone clearly is, Nebula. You must accept that.”

“Why?”

“You’re the one who met Fate. I missed seeing her. You should have asked her. The words are there; your other half is alive.”

Shuri led Nebula upstairs. There were many arguments taking place. Mantis was backing away, looking for someone else to hide behind. Her face was twisted in the anger she must have been feeling from everyone who was shouting.

A tall man with light hair began to move towards her. Nebula started towards them, reaching for her knives. Someone else grabbed her arm. She glared at him.

“Remove your hand from my arm or I will remove it for you,” she said.

The human’s jaw dropped. Shuri giggled. Then he smiled, let go of Nebula, and pulled off his entire left arm. He held it out. Nebula took it, confused.

“Unarmed and disarming, if you will,” he said.

She looked at the arm. Then she began to laugh. And laugh. She nearly dropped the arm as she bent double. Her soulmate smirked at her.

“Nebula, are you alright?” Gamora asked, touching her shoulder.

“Yes, sister,” Nebula said, forcing herself to stand up straight and stop laughing. “I have met my soulmate.”

“I’m Bucky,” he said.

“I am Nebula.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Nebula.”

 

Although Bucky said that he liked her just as she was, Nebula felt that she wasn’t enough. She didn’t look human. She had seen old pictures of him with women and they all looked so different from her.

“I told you she doesn’t need to change anything, Mantis!”

Nebula hid the book she had been reading beneath a cushion as Bucky and Mantis entered the room.

“Tell him,” Mantis said, crossing her arms in an attempt to look intimidating.

“Tell him what?” Nebula asked.

“How much pain you are in. Everything Thanos did has left you in pain all the time. I have felt it without even touching you, Nebula. If there is a way to give back everything Thanos took away, you must take it. Then you will not hurt anymore.”

“Wait, really?” Bucky said, his eyebrows furrowing as he looked at Nebula. “You’re always in pain? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I am used to it,” Nebula said.

“When people get used to pain, they no longer feel it. If you’re always feeling pain, something is really wrong. You have to take up Dr. Cho’s offer.”

“You said that I didn’t need to change,” she said.

“I don’t care what you look like, but I do care if you’re in pain. Please, at least let her examine you. Maybe the pain is from something else. We need to know, either way. Is… is this why you won’t bond with me? Because it’d hurt you? Or because I’d find out that you’re in pain all the damn time?”

Nebula sighed and glared at Mantis. But Mantis wouldn’t back down. She wasn’t swayed by Nebula’s fiercest faces anymore.

“Very well,” she said. “If she can fix me and make me look more human… I will still have blue skin.”

“It’s my favourite colour, baby,” Bucky murmured, stroking her cheek.

Chapter Text

Mantis coughed on the dust of Titan. It was not the dust she had seen others become, but regular orange dirt from the planet’s surface.

Drax helped her stand. She could feel his anger at being unable to defeat Thanos, in a group or single-handed. Some of the sorrow over his late wife and child welled up, causing her to let go of his hand quickly. She was already feeling too much of the rest of the universe’s sorrow; to feel any more would be overwhelming.

“We need to find Gamora… Gamora’s body,” Peter said. “And Thanos will pay.”

“You know, if you hadn’t knocked your friend off and distracted him, none of this would’ve happened!” Tony snapped.

“Whoa, is this gonna be like that song from Into the Woods?” the other Peter said.

“You should’ve been faster!”

“You should’ve been better!”

“He killed my girlfriend!”

“And my soulmate was dead because of him! And you!”

“Please, stop,” Mantis begged softly. She swayed against a rock, their anger pouring into her body. “Stop!”

“Mantis, are you feeling sick?” Drax said. “Will you throw up?”

“I… do not think so,” she said.

Then she sank to the ground.

 

The Guardians sent Mantis with the humans and Fate. Nebula threatened them not to hurt Mantis, or she and Gamora would track them down and kill them. Peter looked terrified, but Tony and Strange shrugged it off.

When they reached Wakanda, they lifted her down. Strange carried her, since Tony was still in pain and kept holding Peter’s sleeve to prevent him from running away and getting lost.

“She needs a bed,” Strange said.

“We all do,” Tony pointed out. “What’s wrong with her?”

“When she’s in bed, I’ll enter her mind and find out what caused her to pass out.”

T’Challa didn’t ask questions. He led them straight to the highest tech lab Tony had ever seen (that wasn’t his own). He gazed around in wonder, occasionally pulling Peter back from checking something out.

“The kid here needs to get back to New York,” Tony said. “He’s got homework.”

“I haven’t finished building a teleporter yet,” Princess Shuri said. “He will have to take a plane. Ours cannot be spared at the moment.”

“Not until we know for certain what is going on,” T’Challa clarified. “You will need to return to New York as well. We may as well send you together.”

“Looks like I’d better call Aunt May,” Peter said. “Uh… what’s the code to dial out of here?”

One of the lab techs helped Peter call his aunt and reassure her that he was alive, while Tony called Pepper to do the same thing. She yelled at him for at least ten minutes, until Strange had to tell him to go away because Pepper was breaking his concentration.

Finally, they had a diagnosis.

“She can feel the suffering of everyone in the universe,” Strange said. “She would’ve been fine, except you and Star-Lord started yelling at each other. The pure hatred and anger, added to everyone else’s pain, overwhelmed her. That’s why she fainted.”

“So you’re saying it’s my fault?” Tony said. Strange rolled his eyes. Rude.

“Don’t start that again,” he said.

“How do we treat this?” Shuri asked.

“We surround her with good feelings. Make her feel safe and happy. She needs to be woken up, and more anger isn’t going to help. Nor self-blame. Then she’ll blame herself and make it harder to wake her up. Only positive thoughts, okay? And she should be placed in a soundproof room with ambient music and soft lighting. That’ll encourage positive thoughts and feelings. The soundproofing might help to shut out the universe.”

“True love’s kiss would be quicker,” Tony muttered. He sighed. “I don’t think I’m cut out for positive thoughts at the moment.”

“None of us are, but we have to try.”

“Okay. But I’m going back to New York with Peter.”

“I’ll send you there and save Wakanda the fuel,” Strange said. “I’ll stay to monitor her. Wong will send me what I need. If that’s alright with you, your highness?”

“Of course,” T’Challa said.

“It will be a nice change to work on someone who isn’t Wakandan or a broken white man,” Shuri said.

T’Challa face-palmed. Tony raised an eyebrow. Okoye stifled a laugh.

“So we’re going home now?” Peter said. “Aunt May’s gonna ground me anyhow, so I don’t mind staying.”

“I don’t want Pepper to ground me, so yes, we’re going now,” Tony said. “If… when Mantis wakes up, tell her she’s invited to the wedding.”

“She’ll wake up,” Strange said. “I’ll do everything I can to help her.”

 

Positive thoughts. Positive feelings. He could do this.

Steve looked across the room at Bucky, who was discussing the effectiveness of the arm Shuri had made for him. Sam was perched on a stool nearby, his feet swinging as he watched the conversation with amusement.

It was Steve’s turn to see if he could wake up the alien girl. But he held so many bitter feelings. The only thing that made him happy was the relief that Bucky and Sam were back by his side, sniping at each other but alive. For a few hours Steve felt like nothing would ever be right again. It was his lowest point.

But for all his happiness at having his friends back, a possible reconciliation with Tony on the way, plus a pardon from the United Nations, he still couldn’t get the death toll out of his head. Too many people had remained dead, even after Fate fixed all that she could, because they hadn’t been erased by Thanos. Those who were erased were restored; those who died as a consequence of other people being turned to dust… they stayed dead.

He brushed his fingers absently over the skin below his navel, where his soulmark was. It disappeared for a few hours there, compounding his grief. The first sign that (nearly) everything had been reversed was the itch as his soul words reappeared.

Remembering that feeling, he sat beside the bed. Strange was on the other side, nose buried in a book. Steve reached out and touched Mantis’s arm.

What was she feeling right now? Did she know what it was like to have her own feelings, or could she only feel those of other people? Was he giving her enough happy thoughts to wake her up, or was sorrow his predominant emotion?

“Just keep trying,” Strange said from behind his book. “Shuri made some progress yesterday. Fortunately she let go of Mantis when she fell asleep, or her nightmares would’ve made things worse.”

“I don’t know whether I can do this.”

“Fixate on a happy memory, if you have to. Like meeting your soulmate.”

“I don’t… I haven’t met my soulmate.”

Strange emerged from his book.

“I thought you and Barnes… or you and Carter… even Wilson?”

“Nope.”

“Huh.” He looked thoughtful. “Did your soulmark disappear and then come back?”

“Yes.”

“So focus on that. You must’ve felt some happiness.”

“I did.” Steve curled his hand around Mantis’s. “That was the best moment. I lost all hope after Thanos… did what he did. And then I found my soulmark gone. But a few hours later I felt an itch. I checked, and the words were appearing. Different ones, but my soulmate was alive. And I realised maybe everyone else would come back. I started to hope again. It was… beautiful. And then I saw Sam and Bucky walking up the lawn, bickering like usual. My soulmate gave me hope, and I just wanna meet them and tell `em so.”

There was a small moan. Mantis smiled.

“I like that,” she mumbled. “It feels good.”

Steve’s heart leapt to his throat and he squeezed her hand. Strange strode to the bed and placed his hands on either side of Mantis’s head. Steve felt a surge of jealousy but reminded himself that the man was a doctor.

“Keep doing what you were doing,” Strange said. “She’s not fully conscious yet.”

But Steve didn’t have to do the same thing. He’d finally found his soulmate. He willed her to wake up so he could meet her properly. Then he could court her just like his momma taught him to. And they could work out what to do with their future, where they’d go, what they’d do. And they could get married, maybe even have children. Get a couple of dogs. Live next door to their best friends and have them over for barbecues every weekend. Or hell, they could spend the rest of their lives travelling through space with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Steve didn’t care. He just wanted to meet his soulmate and love her.

Mantis opened her eyes. She didn’t notice Strange; her gaze was fixed on Steve.

“Hey there, beautiful,” Steve said softly. Strange pulled back and looked up at him.

“That’s pretty forward of you,” he said.

“She’s my soulmate.”

“Oh!” Mantis said, smiling widely.

“I’m Steve.”

“Hello, Steve.”

“I see I’m not needed anymore,” Strange said. He smiled. “I’d better get back to work. You take it easy, Mantis. Okay? You need your strength back. You’ve been fed and hydrated intravenously since yesterday. Eat some proper food, drink plenty of water, and you’ll be healthy again in no time.”

“Thank you, Doctor Strange,” she said.

“Yeah. Thanks, doc.”

“Not at all, captain. Take care of yourself, Mantis.”

Strange formed a portal and went through it quickly. The golden sparks attracted the others’ attention, and they hurried into the room.

“She’s awake!” Shuri said. “Hello. I’m Princess Shuri. Welcome to Wakanda.”

“Wakanda forever,” Bucky said.

“Don’t you start that,” Sam said. “That’s all I hear around here.”

“Asshole.”

“Don’t swear in front of my soulmate,” Steve scolded.

“You’re worse than m… soulmate?”

“Mantis is my soulmate.” Steve smiled down at her. Her big, dark eyes watched him and her antennae pulsed brightly. “The doctor said she needs food and water. Uh, how do we get some down here?”

“I’ll call room service,” Shuri said, powering up one of her beads. Sam crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.

“So what’re your plans?” he asked.

“We haven’t discussed it yet,” Steve said. “We’ll wait until Mantis is stronger.”

“My mind is still strong,” Mantis said. “I do not mind what we do.”

“Neither do I,” Steve said, perching on the bed beside her. “As long as we’re together, I don’t care where we go or what we do.”

“You’re such a sap,” Bucky said, punching him on the shoulder. “But we’ll stand guard until the food arrives.”

“Thanks,” Steve said. He couldn’t draw his eyes away from Mantis, even as the door closed with a click behind Sam and Bucky. “So what do you want to do? I guess if you’re up to talking about the future, we should do that.”

“I saw some of your ideas while I was asleep,” Mantis said. “It woke me up more than any of your feelings. I wanted to comfort you. And when I realised that I was the soulmate in your fantasies, I had to wake up.”

“I’m glad you did,” Steve said. “I know what it’s like to sleep for a long time. I’d hate to miss even one second I could be spending with you.”

“Oh.” Her cheeks darkened. “Really?”

“You’re my soulmate,” he said. It was that simple. Right?

“But I am not human.”

“And I’m not… whatever you are. Does that matter? One of my team-mates, Wanda, is with a man who started out as an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark, then was brought to life as a robot. That’s even more unusual than… well, us.”

“I am unattractive.”

“You’re not,” Steve said indignantly. “Who told you that? They’re wrong. I’ve never met anyone like you, but even if I had you’re my soulmate. We’re a match. We belong together.”

“Do you truly want me?”

“More than anything. And if the world doesn’t like it, the world can take a hike. You’re mine, and I’ve waited so damn long to meet you. Now that I have, I’m never letting you go. You’re mine and I’m yours. If you want me.”

“Oh yes. You are a very nice specimen. Much like Thor.”

“Thanks. That’s definitely a compliment.”

“It is,” she said earnestly.

“Can I kiss you now?”

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

Peter just wanted to go.

Wakanda was nice and all, but he wasn’t interested in seeing Missouri or tracking down his family. He’d found a picture of his mother’s grave online. The thought of visiting it, while the weight of his failures still weighed on him, hurt too much. He couldn’t face her like this.

Why? Why couldn’t they bring back Gamora? They’d been able to restore the people who’d been erased, but not the others. The finger snap could be reversed; the Time Stone could only go back so far.

He dipped his feet in the cool water. Strangely, he remembered the dead frog. The one he’d been bullied over. Maybe it was because he could hear other frogs croaking away in the forest surrounding him. It didn’t matter. He’d screwed up royally and Gamora was dead. That part wasn’t his fault; it was Thanos, as Drax pointed out. But nearly all the other deaths throughout the universe were on him.

Peter lifted his feet, letting the water drip from them, and the ripples obscured the reflection of his soulmark. He pulled his left foot onto the bank and traced the words inscribed there in a writing he didn’t recognise. He recognised it from his ankle, but nowhere else. He knew it wasn’t Gamora’s, but that never bothered him before. Why should it? He had free will. Why should he do what anyone else said?

The words were different from before. I know what you are thinking. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to remember what the words had been before. His feet were usually covered. Even when he had sex he kept his socks on so no one would ask the obvious question.

“Where’s your soulmate, Star-Lord?”

He swallowed and closed his eyes. He didn’t know.

The sound of someone tramping through the undergrowth caused Peter to plunge his feet back into the water. It was instinct to hide his mark. He hunched his shoulders, trying to appear smaller. He didn’t feel like boasting or puffing up.

His self-pity was interrupted when Thor entered the glade.

He grimaced when he remembered the way the others fawned over the god of thunder. What was so special about him that Peter didn’t have? Sure, he wasn’t as buff or toned, but he didn’t need to be. He could kick ass just the way he was, with good old-fashioned guns. No hammers or axes or whatever Thor’s weapon was.

Thor looked at Peter. Peter looked away. He wasn’t in the mood for a chat.

“I know what you are thinking,” Thor said. Peter’s patience grew thin.

“So now you’re a mind-reader?” he snapped. “Is there anything you can’t do?”

Thor flinched like Peter had hit him. On second thoughts, Peter probably wouldn’t be able to punch him without breaking his hand.

“I am sorry to bother you,” Thor said. “But your spirits have been low and I thought I could help.”

“How? How could you possibly help? Everyone on my team likes you more than they like me. Seeing you makes it worse, okay? I don’t need your help. I just wanna be alone.”

“As you wish,” Thor said. “But before you go, I must remind you that I, too, failed the universe. Thanos told me I should have gone for his head, and he was correct. If I had aimed for his head or his arm, he could not have snapped the fingers of the Infinity Gauntlet and so many people would not have died. You are not the only one whose mistake cost lives. We both attacked him out of anger and hatred. And we have both lost someone dear to us.”

“Your brother,” Peter guessed.

“And, it seems, my soulmate,” Thor said. “Excuse me.”

He turned and walked back through the trees. Peter felt guilt flare up in his chest. He shouldn’t have taken out his insecurities on Thor, when the guy was only trying to be nice. And he was right. Peter wasn’t the only one who put the universe in jeopardy.

He sighed as he splashed his feet in the water. He lay back on the grass and looked up through the canopy of leaves. Thor lost his brother and his soulmate. Peter had only lost Gamora.

He’d cut the guy some slack.

Peter nearly drifted off. A loud bird woke him up with a start. He checked his watch and groaned. Time to head back for lunch.

He was pulling on his socks when he noticed his soulmark again.

Damn it,” he said.

Was he Thor’s soulmate?

By the time Peter reached the palace at a run, he was panting and sweating and had a stitch in his side. He held onto the back of Rocket’s chair while he caught his breath.

“Is it your fault Thor’s gone?” Rocket asked.

“What? He’s gone?”

“He went to look for you before,” Mantis said. “Now he has left.”

“Where? Where did he go?”

“Why do you care?” Rocket grumbled. “You hate him.”

“No, I—”

“His masculinity is so superior yours that your jealousy is obvious,” Drax said.

“Okay, so I was jealous—”

“And you didn’t like Gamora feeling up his muscles,” Rocket said.

They lowered their heads in silence as they remembered their friend.

“I wanna apologise to him,” Peter said softly. “Do you know where he went?”

“Went to see his humie friends,” Rocket replied. “An ex-girlfriend and some others.”

“He needs affection and copulation after the tragedies he has undergone,” Drax said.

Peter grinded his teeth at the idea of his soulmate getting back together with his ex when he should be with Peter instead.

He hadn’t screwed up on a universal scale this time, but it was still a huge mess.

“Anyone got his phone number?” he asked, reaching high levels of desperation.

“Why would we?”

“So… he’ll be back?”

“I do not think so,” Mantis said. “He was hurting a great deal. And he must find his people. They need their king.”

Peter had landed a king as his soulmate and now he’d lost him again. Screw that.

He asked around until he was able to find Princess Shuri’s lab. He hadn’t spoken to her yet, and he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to address her, but this was an emergency. He waited, bouncing on the balls of his feet, until she looked at him.

“Don’t just stand there gathering dust, coloniser,” she said. “What do you want?”

“I need to talk to Thor. I was an asshole to him and I wanna apologise. Do you know how to contact him?”

“He is travelling in one of our jets. It will be easy enough to connect you.” Her eyes narrowed. “He is a nice man who has been through a lot. If I think that you’re about to say something mean to him, I will cut you off. In more than one way, if I must.”

“No need to emasculate me. Just put me through to him. Please, princess?”

She sighed and moved to a screen, then called him over.

“This man wishes to talk to you, King Thor,” Shuri said.

“Very well, Princess Shuri,” Thor said. His expression didn’t change when he saw Peter. “What is it, Star-Lord?”

“Uh, so I was an ass before,” Peter said, twiddling his thumbs nervously. “I wanted to say I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have been… I was upset. And annoyed with myself. I was angry that I’d caused so much trouble and Gamora couldn’t be brought back to life.”

“You must have loved her a great deal.”

“She wasn’t my soulmate, but yeah.”

“Indeed.” Thor didn’t say anything else. He looked regal, the way he held himself, and Peter felt intimidated again.

“Who’s your soulmate?” he blurted out. “The one you… think you’ve lost?”

“I do not understand why you want to know,” Thor said.

Wait… was this another mistake?

“I’m sorry,” Peter said, his heart sinking. He should’ve learnt by now: never give yourself hope. “You said my soul words. I was curious. I’m sorry.”

He signed to Shuri to hang up, and she obliged, watching him.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“I will be. Maybe.”

“You know, Steve, Mantis and Nebula also blame themselves,” she said. “Not just Thor. They all feel responsibility for the deaths. Honestly, out of all of you I don’t know who feels it the most.”

“It shouldn’t be a competition,” Peter said. “Sorry for bothering you. I hope Thor hates me a little less now, but I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Nothing does.”

He turned around and walked up the stairs, heart heavy with disappointment. And guilt. He shouldn’t have been chasing the man he thought was his soulmate when he was still mourning Gamora.

 

Thor sat staring at the blank console. Wild feelings churned in his gut as he turned today over in his mind.

Yesterday, he had lost Loki, Heimdall, half of his people, and possibly half of the remaining Asgardians, albeit temporarily. He hoped it had been temporary.

This morning, he had woken up and taken a shower, only to discover that his soul words had changed. He knew he had heard his original words recently, but his grief had deafened him to everything other than revenge. Now, perhaps he was to have a second chance?

So now you’re a mind-reader? Is there anything you can’t do?

The words could be taken as admiring or hostile. Thor hoped it would be the former, but everyone was angry and sad. Thor, most of all. Loki and Heimdall could not be returned to him, and he was unsure where the escape pods had landed. He hoped that Valkyrie was looking after his people and working out how to send out a signal.

The rabbit and his friends, the Morons, had promised to take him back to ‘space’ and find his people, no matter how long it took. He was eager to accept their assistance, despite Star-Lord’s hostility.

Now that hostility felt like daggers through his heart.

He shed a tear as he looked through the window at the passing clouds. He was unable to work out how to feel about the conversation he had just had with his soulmate. The sting of rejection was keen, and Thor wished his soulmate to feel it as well, but had his dismissal done more harm than good?

He should have been kinder. Perhaps he had irreparably damaged things. Perhaps Star-Lord would now assume that they weren’t soulmates. He would certainly be angry when Thor revealed his soulmark… if he chose to reveal it.

“Do you want us to turn the plane around?” Ayo asked.

“No,” Thor said. He would still visit Jane, Darcy and Selvig, but he needed time to grieve in private. “We will continue to our destination.”

“Very well, your highness.”

Jane and Darcy were happy together, but grieving for Selvig. A driverless school bus had crashed into his car while he was driving along. Selvig had died at the scene. Yet one more friend to mourn.

Thor was becoming tired of this constant sadness.

He had removed the eye Rocket had given him and returned to using an eye-patch. If he was to rule his people, why not show them that he was as broken as they were? An imperfect ruler was more trustworthy than one who seemed to have no flaws. Odin had taught him that.

Tony, Shuri, Rocket, and Scott collaborated, mostly via the internet, until they found a way to track down signals from other parts of the universe. Thor listened to the transmissions they sent until he found the one from New Asgard. They sent a reply so that Valkyrie would know where to send a ship to pick up Thor, and a message to Xandar to pick up the others.

Thor returned to Wakanda, since it was that country’s co-ordinates which had been sent. He sought out his fellow Avengers, but no one else.

He didn’t know what to say.

“I think we’re still getting used to it,” Sam said. “It was a huge shock. Cap keeps calling everyone during the night to make sure we’re alive.”

Steve opened his mouth, hesitated, and then shut it again with a sheepish nod.

“Quill’s not doing well,” Steve said. “He’ll answer the phone when I call, but he won’t let anyone into his room.”

“He’s pining,” Bucky said. “And he probably feels guilty as hell.”

“We all do,” Steve said.

“Perhaps he will talk to me,” Thor said.

“You can try,” Sam said. “His friends are running out of ideas. They keep blasting music through the door, but it doesn’t work.”

Steve led Thor to Peter’s room, asking about Darcy and Jane. Thor answered with only half a mind on the conversation.

Groot was sitting outside the room. He waved, but didn’t look up from his game.

“Good luck,” Steve said, patting Thor’s shoulder.

The door was locked. Groot casually stretched one branch, fiddled with the lock, and there was a click.

“Thank you,” Thor whispered, turning the handle. This time, he was able to enter.

“I said you didn’t need to bother me, Rogers,” Peter said, his face half-buried in a pillow. “The Xandarians here yet?”

“Come with me,” Thor said. Peter froze in place. “New Asgard needs its king, and its king needs his consort. I will not lose my soulmate. I have lost everything and everyone else important to me.”

“Thought I wasn’t your soulmate,” Peter mumbled.

“You have always been my soulmate, Peter Quill. I wish our first meeting had been better. I wish our second one had been better, as well. This is our third meeting. I will not let it end the same way. Come to New Asgard.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You still mourn your lover.”

“I mourn everything that could’ve been,” Peter said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “Including you and me.”

“Do not mourn us.” Thor sat on the end of the bed. “We can overlook our first meeting. You died. Consider it a rebirth.” He blinked quickly. “Do not be the last person to abandon me. Because… you would be. I cannot lose anyone else.”

“Aw, man, don’t say stuff like that.” Peter’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t forgive myself for anything that happened.”

“I can. Do you require anyone else’s forgiveness?”

“My own.”

“Let me help you,” Thor said, grasping his ankle. Peter gasped. “Did I hurt you?”

“N-no. Only that’s where my soulmark is.”

“Really?” Thor unclasped his cape and then removed his shirt. Peter gulped visibly.

“W-what are you… oh.” He knelt up and studied his words on Thor’s shoulder. “My writing. Wow.” He impulsively pressed a kiss to the soulmark. Thor rubbed his head against Peter’s, nuzzling his cheek.

“Come to Asgard and be my consort,” he murmured. “Please.”

“Okay.” Peter nodded, exhaling steadily. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

Everett heaved a sigh of relief as Shuri threw herself into his arms. T’Challa watched them with a smile, and hugged Everett when it was his turn.

“I’m so glad you see you all alive,” Everett said. Okoye reluctantly allowed him to hug her. “Has Nakia reported in?”

“Not yet,” Shuri said, looking troubled. Everett patted her on the shoulder.

“She will,” he said confidently. “Okay, now we’ll pretend I’m blind and deaf so I don’t see any of the people who should definitely be taken into custody… at least for the next few days. The Accords are going to be officially withdrawn. It’s what the public is clamouring for, so the United Nations will have to give in.”

“That is wonderful news,” T’Challa said.

“What happened to you?” Shuri asked, settling herself in the crook of Everett’s arm as they walked through the doors to the palace. There were still tables in the foyer which weren’t usually there, although they were empty now.

“I didn’t die,” Everett said.

“I know that. You wouldn’t stop calling while I was attending the sick.”

“Yeah, and now you know why I was worried.”

“Sorry, Ross.”

“Just don’t do it again. I thought you’d all…” He exhaled shakily. “I’m glad it was reversed. Was it really Fate?”

“We met her!”

“Lucky you.”

“What about your soulmark?” Okoye asked.

“Ah.” Everett cleared his throat. “It disappeared. It’s come back. Different words, same handwriting, from what I can tell. I compared it to the picture on the CIA’s file on me, and there are enough similar characteristics that I’m confident it’s the same.”

“Many are finding that the same thing has happened to them,” T’Challa said.

“I’m sure. Listen, make sure that any fugitives in Wakanda are kept out of sight until the Sokovia Accords are publicly withdrawn, okay? I don’t want to get into trouble. I like my job, believe it or not.”

“Even when you get shot at?” Shuri said.

“I live for the excitement.”

“You would need a very understanding soulmate,” Okoye said. She pursed her lips. No one mentioned W’Kabi in front of her for this reason.

“Well, when I meet them I’ll let you know.”

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed two of the fugitives from the UN. He looked away deliberately, asking whether it was safe for him to visit Shuri’s lab or whether something would blow up. She caught on quickly, telling him that something might blow up, and would he come to her office instead so she could show him the plans for the new school.

Word spread quickly, to his relief. He didn’t even see the Hulk or Thor, who hadn’t been around to sign the Accords. He met a shy scientist named Bruce Banner, and Everett had never officially had anything to do with the super soldier experiments, so he pretended not to recognise the name. He had no official reason to.

He met the Guardians of the Galaxy, who’d come to Earth for a holiday. So they said. One of them was half-human and had family in Missouri. Because they didn’t operate on Earth, and because there was no evidence of any of them fighting in Wakanda against Thanos, they wouldn’t be required to sign the Accords.

Needless to say, he spent the most time with the Wakandans and the Guardians.

He stayed in his room while the dismissal of the Accords happened. Tony Stark lit the match to burn the Accords in a display for the public, Pepper Potts right by his side. Soon to be Pepper Stark, if she didn’t keep her maiden name.

Everett waited until orders were released not to arrest anyone who hadn’t signed the Accords. He forwarded the email to T’Challa, even though it was technically against work policy. But T’Challa was harbouring former fugitives and needed to know.

“I hope this means you will come out of your room and join the celebrations,” Shuri said, bowl of popcorn in her lap as they finished watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“But we haven’t seen the best of the trilogy yet!”

“I prefer Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“Yeah, but Sean Connery…”

“You just like him because he has played a spy like you,” Shuri said, tossing a piece of popcorn at him. Everett expertly caught it in his mouth.

“The greatest spy of all,” he corrected.

“You are not very loyal to fictional American spies.”

“He’s got Q. And female M.”

“Not anymore,” she said. Everett glared at her.

“You said you wouldn’t bring that up again,” he said.

“Denial is not just a river in Egypt, Ross.”

“I prefer ‘coloniser’. At least I don’t sound like a character from F.R.I.E.N.D.S.”

“You are avoiding the question!” she said.

“Which is…?”

“Are you coming to the celebration tonight? The kitchen staff have been working hard all day. The Jabari and border tribe will be here, and the people you no longer have to arrest. Or avoid.”

“Yeah, I guess I should, as some sort of gesture,” Everett said, stretching his legs as the credits ended and the movie menu came up. “So we don’t have time for—”

“No. Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can wait until tomorrow. Get yourself dressed. We are partying in the foyer again, although pre-party drinks are in the throne room.” She slipped off the bed, taking the now-empty bowl with her.

“Bossy.”

“I am a princess.”

“Yeah, yeah. But we’re watching Kingdom of the Crystal Skull over my dead body.”

“Okay, I do not blame you for that, but no more allusions to death.”

Everett winced and nodded. That was fair. Shuri had feared that she would have to be the queen of Wakanda, unable to mourn Ramonda and T’Challa for as long as she needed to heal. Just because the fear had passed didn’t mean it was gone completely.

“Nakia will be there,” Shuri added.

“Great! She’s back?”

“Of course. She cannot attend a party long-distance.”

Everett switched off the TV after Shuri left him and approached the wardrobe. He opened it and began to wonder which outfit he should wear. He really needed some advice on this. Where was Ayo when he needed her? Probably hovering around T’Challa or Ramonda, as the Dora Milaje had been doing since they returned.

He chose a blue and black robe, sent a picture to Shuri for approval, and received a smiling emoji in return.

The loose sleeves slid down to his elbows as he brushed his hair. The back of it wasn’t sitting right after lounging on the bed for hours, watching movies with Shuri and checking the news stream and emails on his phone.

He saw his soulmark on his left arm. His stomach swooped in anticipation. How long until he met the other half of his soul?

M’Baku greeted Everett as soon as he reached the party, immediately undoing the work he’d done by ruffling his hair.

“You look more like a kitten now,” M’Baku said. “Have you met the wolf?”

“Wolf?”

“The White Wolf,” he confirmed. “That sergeant friend of the captain.”

“You mean James Barnes?”

“That’s the man. They call him the White Wolf around here. The children love him. And now you don’t have to avoid anyone in case your bosses tell you to put them in handcuffs. And not in a fun way.”

“Of course you’d find bondage fun,” Everett muttered. M’Baku laughed heartily, slapping him on the back. “I’ll meet everyone in due course.”

“I like that Banner fellow. He’s a vegetarian, like the Jabari. I have invited him to stay with us for a time.”

“That’s nice of you. I think he needs more friends.”

“Now go and mingle,” M’Baku said, waving him off. “If I keep you all to myself Shuri will not be pleased.”

“She scares you more than T’Challa?”

“Their mother does, and Princess Shuri tells her everything.”

“Noted,” Everett said. “Enjoy the party.”

“Oh, I intend to,” M’Baku said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

Everett helped himself to a plate of various Wakandan pastries. He’d built up a real addiction to them the last time he’d been here. If he wasn’t careful, he’d have to work out a lot when he returned to America. For the moment, he was going to indulge. It was a party, right?

“Agent Ross, a pleasure to see you again.”

“Captain Rogers,” Everett said, turning to face Steve Rogers. “How are you doing these days? Nice beard, by the way. I’ve heard there’s a new Facebook page called ‘Steve Rogers Beard Appreciation’.”

A blush crept up the captain’s cheeks. He cleared his throat.

“So you’re really not going to arrest any of us?” he asked.

“Not unless you break any laws without justification, and only in America. If you commit any crimes in Wakanda, it’s under T’Challa’s jurisdiction, not the CIA.”

“Okay. I wanted to make sure. I lost Bucky to the dust, and Sam too, and I can’t let that happen again. I can’t watch them go to jail when I’ve just got them back.”

“Are they your soulmates?” Everett asked politely.

“Not both of them,” Steve said.

“Everything okay?” Sam Wilson asked, standing beside Steve and leaning against his arm. So that’s how it was. Kind of a surprise. Judging by the way Steve looked at Sam, though, it worked.

“It’s all fine,” Everett reassured him.

“Good. I’m pretty sure any of us could kick your ass.”

“You might be surprised.”

“We’re not fighting again,” Steve said firmly. “Not until it’s necessary. We need a break from that. I know I do.” He massaged the bridge of his nose. Sam kissed him on the cheek.

“It’s okay,” he said. “We’ll find a really nice place for a honeymoon once we’re sure Bucky’s in safe hands.”

“He will be if he stays in Wakanda.”

“I have no intention of taking your friend in,” Everett said. “Princess Shuri assured me that he’s now harmless, and I had a great-uncle who was a long-term prisoner-of-war once. I don’t remember much about him. He was a broken man by the time I came along. No therapy. He beat his wife once and she left him. He’d mistaken her for an enemy agent, but she did the sensible thing and ran. He took his own life in the end.” He breathed out slowly. “That was the first dead body I saw in person. So no. I never wanted to arrest Barnes, and I don’t intend to. Ever.”

“That’s good to know,” Sam said, while Steve gave him a sad smile.

“Yeah, I wasn’t looking forward to that.”

Everett whirled around, nearly dropping his plate, and saw the Winter Soldier… the White Wolf right behind him. Bucky tucked some strands of his hair behind his ear and looked at the floor.

“Don’t worry about that,” Everett said. Bucky’s head jerked up and their gazes met. “You’re safe.”

Steve and Sam swore simultaneously. Bucky wrapped his arm around himself in a hug, his eyes flitting back and forth uncertainly.

“So you’re my…”

“It seems so,” Everett said. “We should compare marks. You died with the others?”

“Yeah.”

“That explains why my mark disappeared.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. I’m just happy you’re back. You’ve been through enough. You deserve a happy ending.”

“I’d like a happy beginning,” Bucky said. “And middle. Not just the end.”

“I think I can manage that,” Everett said, setting his plate aside. He held out his hand to Bucky. “Come with me?”

“We’re coming, too,” Steve said.

“Protecting your friend’s virtue? Don’t worry. I wasn’t planning to move that fast.”

“I think they’re worried you’ll hand me over the government,” Bucky said, lacing his fingers with Everett’s.

“My soulmate? Never.”

Bucky blushed. Everett wondered how much of the blush that stubble was hiding.

 

Some days, Bucky still wondered how he’d got here.

He thought it was the end when Thanos was in Wakanda. At least the end for him. He didn’t mind going out with a bang. It’d be a relief.

But he came back to life with no memory of dying. All of them had to be shown pictures and footage of what happened to believe it. He could recall a brief loneliness. Quiet. He’d wanted that.

Now there was nothing he wanted less.

His soulmate was curled up behind him, arm slung over Bucky’s side, soulmark pressing against the one on Bucky’s belly.

Everett didn’t quit, but he retired to a desk job so he could spend more time with Bucky. He used his health insurance to get counselling for the former Winter Soldier, and they made plenty of trips back to the relative peace of Wakanda. They watched movies with Shuri if she was visiting at the same time, or had the occasional movie weekend marathon with her when she was in America.

Now they were talking about getting an assistance dog to keep Bucky company when Everett was at work and no one else could spend time with him. It was so… domestic. Doing the dishes together, folding sheets, blankets and tablecloths together.

It was perfect, and it was all his.

Everett snuffled against his neck and curled closer, his arm brushing against Bucky’s soulmark again and causing their bond to flare lightly.

“Mmm, good morning,” Everett mumbled sleepily.

“Morning.”

“What day is it?”

“Saturday.”

“My favourite day of the week.” Everett gently rolled Bucky onto his back and hovered over him to steal a kiss.

All his.

Chapter Text

House arrest was the most boring thing Scott had ever experienced. At least in jail and on the Raft he’d had terror to keep him on his toes. And people to talk to.

Seeing the two FBI agents keeping guard over him disappear… well, that was the least boring thing so far.

While he was wondering whether Hank had somehow vaporised them to break him out, his phone rang. He picked it up and answered absently.

“Scott, Dad’s gone!”

“Hope?”

“He turned into dust right in front of my eyes!”

“Oh.” He blinked. “The same thing happened to my guards. I thought your father did it, but… apparently not.”

He could almost hear her grind her teeth.

“What’s. Going. On?” she asked.

“I don’t know! Call someone who can actually talk to other people. Call the Bartons. Call Stark Industries. I’m gonna check on Cassie.”

He hung up and dialled Maggie’s number. It rang out. He kept trying, calling Paxton, even calling Paxton’s workplace. The police were too busy taking calls from other panicked people to look up where Paxton was supposed to be.

So Scott called the FBI and told them that his guards had disappeared, and could he please… have an explanation? They said they’d call someone else to baby-sit him and hung up. Scott grumbled as he turned the television on to the news channel.

He called Luis, who was freaking out. He didn’t seem consoled to hear from Scott, and he was too busy stocking up at the supermarket in case of the apocalypse to talk for long. He hung up when someone else tried to steal one of his cases of water.

Scott ended up shorting out his anklet, broke into the FBI’s car, and drove like fury through the suburbs until he reached Maggie and Paxton’s house. When no one answered he kicked the door down and ran inside.

Two larger piles of dust were in different parts of the kitchen.

There was a smaller one in Cassie’s room.

Scott fell back against the wall, covering his mouth as he screamed in anguish. He fell to his knees, sobbing.

Not Cassie!

His beautiful little girl was gone.

 

Hope found him there, sitting in Cassie’s bed and staring at the ashes.

“I’m sorry, Scott,” she said.

“So am I,” he said, eyes unable to focus on anything. His voice was hollow. “For your dad. You know, losing him. After everything else… it’s too much, isn’t it?”

“I’ve got my soulmate. My mark is still there. What about yours?”

“I… I didn’t even think of it.” Scott felt a few more tears slide down his cheeks. “My baby girl is dead. It shouldn’t be her. She’s too young.” He rubbed his eyes. “It should be me. She had so much life ahead of her, and I’m just her d-deadbeat…”

He hung his head and Hope sat on the bed beside him. She rubbed his upper back until he was able to get control of himself.

“I called Stark Industries,” she said. “Tony Stark disappeared this afternoon and no one knows where he is. The last time Pepper Potts saw him was only minutes before an alien craft was seen in New York. He followed it into space. A lot of people are missing. Half the human population has just… disappeared.”

“Into dust.”

“Yes.”

Scott rubbed his hands over his face.

“I’m gonna tidy up, then I’m gonna find out what happened,” he said. “Whoever did this will pay.”

“Don’t go doing anything rash in anger,” Hope warned.

No one messes with my daughter and gets away with it, l-let alone kills…”

He turned away and hurried to the bathroom. Even Cassie’s giant pet ant was missing from the house. Had half the ant population disappeared along with the humans? What was he supposed to do now?

Scott splashed water on his face, accidentally getting some on his shirt. He rubbed it with a towel to dry off the worst, and noticed something. The absence of something.

He yanked off his t-shirt and found that his soulmark was gone.

Sam.

Scott sat on the toilet, feeling dizzy with despair. Not only had his daughter died from a mysterious cause affecting half the world’s population, but Sam was dead as well. When did it happen? How did it happen?

Hope checked on him, arching an eyebrow at his lack of a shirt.

“My soulmate’s dead,” Scott said dully.

“We’ll find out what happened. I promise, Scott. We’ll get them back, if we can.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Was anyone at the Bartons’ picking up the phone?”

“Hawkeye has no idea what’s going on, but the Black Widow contacted him and told him to get to Wakanda so the Avengers could regroup. I’m guessing you’re invited, but he didn’t say.”

“I don’t wanna butt in where I’m not wanted,” Scott said. He slowly pulled his shirt on and covered his mark-less abdomen.

“He said he’d call me back when he knows more.”

“Well, I’m not allowed to leave the country. Not even allowed to leave my house.”

“You broke that rule.”

“I don’t care. Cassie’s dead. Sam’s dead. What’s the point?”

“Sam?” Hope asked.

Scott sighed heavily.

“Sam Wilson is… was my soulmate,” he said. “I don’t know whether he realised, but he obviously hated me, so I didn’t say anything. I tried to reach out to him when I could, but I didn’t have many chances, and he cut off any attempts at conversation while we were in the Raft.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t mean I want him to stay dead. I just care more about Cassie coming back, because she loves me.”

“Of course she did,” Hope said.

Does. The Avengers were fighting this. You said they had to regroup, which means that they know what’s going on. They always save the day. They’ll fix whatever happened and Cassie will be back. Don’t you get it?”

“I don’t want you to get your hopes up, Scott.”

“Aren’t you worried about your dad?”

“Of course I am! We’ve only just started getting along again and now I’ve lost him.”

“But he did stuff with his life,” Scott said. “Cassie never got that chance.”

“Exactly,” Hope said. “I’ve accustomed myself to losing my parents one day. But you shouldn’t be accustomed to losing your daughter. Not permanently.”

“I just want her back,” Scott said, tears spilling over again. “She’s my baby.”

“And the Avengers will get her back for you, whatever it takes.”

“I wish I could help, but Hawkeye can fly. I can’t.”

“I can, but I don’t think my wings will carry us long-distance. Not to Africa.”

“This sucks.”

“I know.”

“I… I want my little girl back, Hope.”

“She’ll be back. I promise.”

No matter how hard Scott tried to believe, watching the news with Hope and waiting for Clint to call back, he continued to worry until there was a swishing sound from the kitchen, followed by a groan and mutters of confusion. Scott poked his head around the door, saw Maggie and Paxton getting to their feet, then bolted up the staircase to Cassie’s room.

“Daddy?”

“Cassie!” He felt to his knees again, this time pulling his daughter close. “Oh, Cassie, baby. You’re back. You’re alive.”

“What happened, Daddy?”

“I’ll tell you later. Just let me look at you…”

 

His soulmark returned along with his daughter. Hope dropped Scott off at home and he called the police to explain everything. The officer he talked to, and the one sent to his house, had both lost loved ones for a few hours, so they sympathised with him and said that they’d make sure it wasn’t reported.

If Clint called back, Scott never knew about it; he was too buzzed about Cassie being alive again to pay attention to anything that Hope said. He didn’t even know that he was booked for a flight to Wakanda until Hope showed up to help him pack.

“But I can’t leave,” he said.

“You need to get your head out of the clouds,” she said. “The Sokovia Accords have been dismissed, thanks to public demand. And Captain America has requested your presence.”

“Me? Why?”

“Don’t worry, I’m going with you,” she said, smirking. “You can’t screw up as much with me there to keep an eye on you.”

“So I’m swapping out one guard for another?”

“Shut up and get your toothbrush.”

“But… Cassie—”

“Will meet us at the airport. She’s coming, too.”

Scott cheered up immediately. He’d wanted to take her on vacation for a long time, but by the time she had her passport he was already deep into his investigation, and then deep in jail.

Awesome,” he said, pumping his fist.

 

Sam watched from the window as Lang and his daughter and girlfriend arrived on the helipad and started looking around.

He rubbed his abdomen without thinking about it. New words. New chance?

Pity he didn’t realise that Scott spoke his words at the time, but Sam was occupied with keeping the intruder from breaking into the Avengers’ digs. Somehow Ant-Man got away. Scott realised later that he’d heard his words.

He had hopes for the next time they met. But according to Clint’s phone call, while he was driving Scott to the Berlin airport, Scott had muttered a few names while he slept. When Clint asked about ‘Hope’, Scott said she was his boss’s daughter, and then hedged when Clint jested about her being his girlfriend.

That was damning, and Sam shut Scott out after that.

‘Hope’ insisted on coming along with Scott and his daughter, like a family holiday. Proof that Scott had no need for him.

Sam slumped against the window, sighing.

“What’s got your panties in a twist?”

“Go away, Barnes.”

“Nah, I’m good here. Steve’s drawing and I’m bored. Entertain me.”

“You’re such a brat,” Sam said.

“You could just tell me what’s up… dog.”

“I regret you ever meeting Peter Parker.”

“Got it from Shuri, actually.”

“Of course.”

Bucky tilted his head.

“Soulmate troubles?” he said.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Just a guess, but a good one.”

“I hate you.”

“And your soulmate? `Cause Lang’s arrived and you haven’t met the other two.”

“Maybe you should be a private eye,” Sam said bitterly.

“Most of us have been reborn. Sam.” He glanced at Bucky. “Take a chance. You’re no good like this. You’re so damn unhappy that Steve’s blaming himself. It’s not even his fault… Is it?”

“No. It’s mine.”

“So fix it. Like Fate fixed us. Do you really think she did that to let you throw away the chance to be with your soulmate?”

Damn, he hated it when the soldier was right.

“Alright, alright, leave me alone. I’ll sort it out. Okay?”

Bucky grinned.

“Don’t screw it up,” he said.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

He ran into Scott downstairs, while the kid was talking Shuri’s ears off with questions about what it was like to be a real life princess. Shuri was saying all the right things, everything that the girl wanted to hear.

“Oh,” Scott said. “Hey. Again.”

“Good to see you, too,” Sam said witheringly. Scott winced.

“You sure?” he asked. “I figured I was the last person you’d wanna see.”

“It’s not like anyone asked me whether I wanted you here. It was Cap.”

“Sorry,” Scott said, and he swallowed visibly. “I won’t bother you again.”

He returned to his daughter. Hope watched them, her arms crossed, and then she looked at Sam with critical eyes. His cheeks heated up and he turned on his heel to return to the suite he was sharing with Steve and Bucky.

As soon as he walked in without Sam, Bucky made clucking noises.

“Asshole,” Sam said.

“I’m telling Steve you said that.”

“I’ve heard worse from him,” Sam said.

“It’s got nothing on what he says in bed.” Bucky smirked again. “Did you screw it up? I told you not to.”

“He rubs me up the wrong way.”

“D’you know how many times I patched up Steve after he’d get beaten up? I never thought less of him. We’re more equally matched now, but you weren’t prepared for Ant-Man. And everyone has off days.”

“What’re you saying?” Sam asked.

“If it’s just pride holding you back, let it go.” He grinned. “Or I’m gonna sing ‘Let It Go’ to you every damn day the rest of our lives. I’ll even convince Shuri to make it your ring-tone.”

“I like Idina Menzel.”

“Oh no. It’s be a ring-tone of me singing.”

Sam huffed and went back downstairs. He’d messed up his second chance. He was now up to his third. He wasn’t gonna rely on getting a fourth.

Scott was being shown around Shuri’s lab. His daughter – and Sam had to learn her name – was holding Shuri’s hand and peppering her with technical questions. Scott was also interrogating her, asking questions which made Shuri smile and answer with enthusiasm. T’Challa was nearby, shaking his head as he talked to Hope. He noticed Sam and smiled.

“I was just saying that she didn’t need any encouragement,” the king said. “She’ll go on an engineering marathon tonight after all of this stimulation.”

“I’m sure he’ll help her out,” Sam said.

“My father and I watched you and Scott fight on Avengers’ property,” Hope said. “I don’t think you realise how much he idolised all of you.”

“Especially Captain America,” Sam muttered.

“He kept gushing about it afterwards. How fun it was to spar with you. He only told me the other day, though. About you two being soulmates.”

“That’s gotta hurt, since you’re dating him.” And he hoped it stung.

She shrugged.

“We kissed a couple of times,” she said. “Adrenalin. But we both have soulmates who are other people. Scott’s not exactly great with any relationship that isn’t with his daughter.”

“And now my sister, it seems,” T’Challa said. He seemed torn between watching the conversation unfold and watching the tour. His lips twitched with a suppressed smile.

“I can’t stop sniping at him,” Sam said, clenching his hands into fists. “Any advice?”

“Apologise, stop being an ass, and maybe you’ll stand a chance,” Hope said. “If he thinks you’re being genuine and he thinks he can trust you, that is. Good luck with that. You’ll need it.”

She turned back to T’Challa, deliberately cutting Sam off from the conversation. The king lost the fight with his smile, obviously enjoying the show.

Sam got his chance when Shuri offered to let Cassie – that was her name – try on her clothes. Scott followed, keeping his gaze away from Sam. So he didn’t see it coming when Sam yanked him into a different hallway with a hand clamped over his mouth. He turned Scott around, pressed him against the wall and kissed him.

Scott didn’t fight back for a few seconds, whimpering softly. Then he shoved Sam back with an angry sound.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“We’re soulmates.”

“So? You’ve made your feelings pretty clear. I can’t be with someone who hates me. I need someone who loves me. If you can’t be that person, then leave me alone.”

“I could be that person,” Sam said.

“Prove it.”

“I just did.”

“That could’ve been any kind of kiss. That could’ve been an angry kiss. You didn’t even ask me first, which is rude. And it’s harassment. You don’t do that. Not to me, not to anyone else.”

“Are you gonna report your own soulmate?” Sam asked, cocking his head.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t. And don’t pull that soulmate bullshit. It doesn’t hold water with me. Not anymore.”

“Please, Scott.” He inhaled slowly. “I’ve been a jerk to you. Worse than that. And I can’t take it back. I can only make up for it. Give me a chance to do that?”

“Why should I?”

“Because Fate says so. That’s what these words mean.” He raised his shirt to show Scott his soulmark. “And Bucky’s threatened to change my ring-tone to Disney. Being sung by him.”

“I’d actually kinda like to see that.”

“Scott?”

Scott sighed, his shoulders bunching up together.

“I guess,” he said. “If you really want me to give you a chance. It’s easier to say yes, right? So yeah. We’ll do a dinner date or something. Not alone. I want Hope there. Or Cassie, or Shuri, or T’Challa. Even Bucky or Cap.”

“Don’t say yes just so I’ll lay off you,” Sam said, frowning.

“I’m saying yes because of Fate. And future battles. We can’t go on with this kind of tension between us.”

His hands were buried in his pockets and he wasn’t looking Sam in the eyes. He’d do anything to make it better. But Scott wasn’t letting him close. Not yet.

“Scott… you won’t regret it. I’ll show you just how much it’ll be worth it.”

“I hope so,” Scott said, turning away. “I’ve gotta find Cassie. See you later.”

He turned the corner and disappeared out of sight.

“I’m gonna be the best damn soulmate the world’s ever seen,” Sam vowed. “You’ll see.”

Chapter Text

They all sat in the foyer of the palace, still coming to terms with what had happened.

They failed. Thanos won. And now their friends were dead.

Steve was completely out of it. He sat by a window and stared out, not really seeing anything, just staring as silent tears crept down his cheeks.

Natasha and Bruce were leaning against each other, propped up back-to-back. Bruce was fiddling with one of the Hulkbuster’s gloves, which looked a bit too much like Thanos’s gauntlet, while Natasha kept checking her phone and cursing.

Okoye was holding Shuri while the princess cried. Okoye was murmuring Wakandan prayers. Both T’Challa and the queen had died, as well as many of the Dora Milaje.

M’Baku was slowly making his way through a bottle of strong alcohol while he stared into space, much like Steve.

Thor was consoling Rocket, who was crying that he didn’t even have one stick left like he had with the last Groot. Now his son was gone, too. Thor kept rubbed his back slowly, reassuring him that at least his other friends would still be alive.

Rhodey felt cold all over. Tony hadn’t made contact, Pepper wasn’t calling, and Happy was too busy being the SI spokesperson to take any calls from him.

Rhodey was an only child and an orphan, so these people – and the other Avengers – had been his family.

His family was broken and half of them were dead or MIA.

In groups of two, they walked off to shower and get into clean clothes. Rhodey went with M’Baku, managing to pry his fingers off the bottle and get him into a standing position. He hauled the Jabari leader off to the showers, helped him strip, and shoved him into the shower stall.

M’Baku let out a muted cry.

“What is it?” Rhodey asked. “Are you injured?”

“My soulmark is gone. The words have been… erased.”

“Damn,” Rhodey sighed, leaning against the wall. “I’m sorry, man.”

“So he is dead, also. I tried to call him before but he did not answer. Now I know why.” He banged his fist against the tiled wall.

Rhodey pretended not to hear M’Baku sob in the shower. The water eventually shut off and the warm air fan kicked in. (Rhodey loved Wakanda’s showers. He’d have to mention them to Tony.)

After a few minutes, M’Baku emerged from the shower. Rhodey had already stripped, so they quickly swapped places.

And Rhodey found his mark gone. He checked from all angles in the mirrored surface of the shower, but nothing. No soul words.

“My soulmate is dead, too,” he said heavily.

“I am sorry,” M’Baku said, his voice still thick with tears.

“So am I.”

 

Maria didn’t remember waking up on the road. She remembered the pain of her ankle being snapped as a car ran over it, and passing out when she tried to stand up.

Fury had the sense to commandeer a car and drive her straight to the hospital, instead of hoping that ambulances would be available to set out while the world was still in a state of emergency.

On the TV in the emergency ward, Happy Hogan was announcing that Pepper Potts had reappeared, and they were now only waiting on Tony Stark to contact them. He was expecting a call any minute now.

T’Challa also appeared on the TV, looking worn but happy. He announced that Wakanda was offering its aid to any countries in need, as their people had all survived – or recovered from – Thanos’s attack. He was aware that other countries had not been as fortunate and wanted to help where he could.

“Good man,” Maria said, stretching her other leg. “When can I get out of here?”

“They’re just getting pain medication for you,” Fury said. “You’re lucky it wasn’t a truck that went over your ankle, or the bones would’ve been shattered. It was a clean break, so it was an easy set.”

“I know that. But I can leave as soon as they bring pain meds, right?”

“That’s what they told me.”

“Good.” She scrunched up the bed-sheets. “I have to get to Stark Industries. They’ll need me. I’m sure there are people you need to check in with.”

“Already did that while they were examining you,” Fury said. Efficient as always.

“And then I’m going to need a long nap,” Maria said. “Good thing Pepper’s got a room for me at the tower.”

“Good thing you’re her bridesmaid.”

“I told her I don’t do dresses unless I’m on an undercover mission. She told me to think of myself as her undercover bodyguard.” She grimaced. “It made me feel like a child, being told to play pretend.”

“I guess you couldn’t be best man. Rhodes will be that.”

“Yeah, Hogan’s too busy organising everything to have time to prepare a best man’s speech. And he’s giving Pepper away, since her Uncle Morgan has a bad hip so he has to be in a wheelchair.”

“Huh. Never thought I’d see the day I’d be sitting with you, talking about weddings.”

“There’s a first time for everything, sir.”

“You’ve met Hogan, haven’t you?”

“I have.”

“And Rhodes?” he said.

“Yeah, I…” She frowned, trailing off. “I’ve been in the same room as him, but I don’t remember actually talking to him.”

“He’s a smart guy. Level-headed. You’d like him.”

“You’d better not be trying to set me up.”

“I’m saying you should probably get to know the best man, since the best man and the maid-of-honour usually dance together.”

“How do you know these things?” Maria asked.

“Common knowledge.”

“I guess I am maid-of-honour, since I’m the only bridesmaid. I’ll see him before the wedding, I’m sure of it.”

“I wouldn’t set you up with anyone who wasn’t your soulmate, Hill.”

“That’s good to know.”

 

Tony came back via sleigh, which was something Rhodey never expected to see in his life. Not unless Tony grew old, swapped out his red-and-gold Iron Man armour for a red-and-white Santa Claus costume every December, and built his own sleigh and mechanical reindeer to fly around and drop presents off at orphanages.

That’d be typical Tony. He’d need Mrs Claus to remind him of the date when it came up, but he’d totally do it. Rhodey would have to suggest it to him.

When Bucky and Sam rocked up, Steve had dragged them both away and none of them showed up again until the next day, bruises on their necks, the worst case of bed hair, and dopey grins.

Wanda and Vision had reunited, although they seemed to have spent most of their time talking. Or they took a lot more time to tidy up before coming to breakfast than the others bothered to do.

M’Baku left as soon as he found that his soulmark had returned, determined to hunt down his soulmate and drag them back to Wakanda forever.

Shuri was so overjoyed by her family returning that she yelled at her brother for nearly making her queen, then spent half the day curled up in his lap and half of it curled up in her mother’s lap, more like a child than a eighteen-year-old.

Rocket and Groot had returned to Titan with Fate to reunite with their team. Thor went with them. He wanted to see whether it was possible to bring his brother back. Even if it wasn’t, he had to find his people and make sure they were alright.

Bruce and Natasha decided to return to New York with Rhodey and Tony, since Tony didn’t want to let Bruce disappear again (and wanted to find out whether the Hulk would ever re-emerge) and Pepper insisted on Natasha coming to the wedding.

“So what’s left to be done?” Rhodey asked.

“Happy’s organised pretty much everything,” Tony said. “Some of the flowers have had to be changed, and the wedding cake had to be redecorated because one of the people working on it left some of their dust on the icing. I didn’t ask questions; I just told them to redo it.”

“No dust got into the cake… right?”

“It was already d… made. I almost said ‘done and dusted’, but it’s too soon for that.”

 

When it turned out it would take too long for Maria’s ankle to heal, she told Pepper to get a different bridesmaid. They could adjust her dress for Natasha, and Maria would wear something which could accommodate her boot. Pepper wasn’t pleased, but they didn’t have any choice. Maria refused to let her put the wedding on hold any longer. They’d already panicked over whether Tony would be free after Thanos; but he was determined to let nothing get in the way of his happy ending anymore. He even planned to retire Iron Man, and only remain as a tech consultant.

He tentatively asked Bucky to come to the wedding with Sam and Steve, but Bucky said that he didn’t want to risk an enemy coming after him and ruining Pepper’s day. That actually began the reconciliation between them.

But plenty of others were at the wedding. New laws had been written, allowing superheroes more freedom to act at a moment’s notice, with the understanding that they learnt how to minimise property damage. Their attempt at undercover work had gone wrong in Lagos; they wouldn’t repeat that.

Especially with Nick Fury as their self-designated handler.

Maria nearly made herself sick laughing when she heard that.

“Happy’s going to be in charge of keeping me out of trouble at the wedding and the reception,” Tony was saying. “But someone needs to keep an eye on Hill, since she can’t run if something bad happens.”

“I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

“You’re just getting that now?”

“Tony…”

“Yeah, okay. But you know Hill, right?”

“Haven’t met her, actually.”

“What?”

“I’m over here, Mr. Stark,” Maria called, waving from the sofa. She looked up from her military magazine to see Tony and Rhodey. “It’s nice to meet you, colonel. I’m surprised it’s taken this long.”

He grinned widely.

“I’m disappointed it’s taken this long,” he said.

Maria blinked.

Damn it. Of course Nick Fury knew his handwriting. He knew the whole damn time. No wonder he kept encouraging Maria to interact with the Avengers and work for SI.

“I won’t be able to dance with you at the wedding,” she said.

“I’ll wait as long as it takes to dance with my soulmate,” Rhodey said.

“Soulmate?” Tony said. “You two are…? Damn it, I owe Natasha a hundred bucks now. How does she know these things?”

He walked off grumbling as he looked for his wallet. Rhodey shook his head, chuckling, as he walked over to join Maria. He knelt beside her.

“No, don’t move your leg. I’m not so old that I can’t get up from down here.”

“I hope you can still get up everywhere,” Maria said, looking at Rhodey from beneath lowered eyelashes. He gulped.

“Your leg,” he said, glancing towards her ankle.

“I can still lie down.”

“We’re going to wait until you’re no longer in pain,” he said firmly. Maria sighed.

“Fine,” she said. “But there are other ways to pass the time.”

“Thinking up pranks to play on Happy so he’ll lighten up?”

“You read my mind.”

Chapter Text

“Why do you stare at me, Banner?” Thor asked. “Are you angry with me?”

“No,” Bruce said.

“You should be. I didn’t kill Thanos when I had the chance. I failed to prevent him from destroying half the universe.”

“I don’t think getting angry is gonna bring out the other guy, so there’s no point. No, I was thinking about… Valkyrie. And the others. The Hulk sort of got to know them, and I got to know Valkyrie on the way to Asgard.”

“Ah, yes. My people.” Thor pushed around the food on his plate. “I hope that Valkyrie got them away safely. She didn’t want to leave the fight, but I needed her to protect the people of Asgard. And then Thanos destroyed the ones who couldn’t escape, and now half the remaining Asgardians will also be dead by Thanos’s hand.”

“There might be hope. Tony will find his way back to us and then we can all start to plan how to fix things. If we could get our hands on the Time Stone and reverse everything, or use the Power Stone to overpower Thanos, or the Soul Stone to kill him, or access the Mind Stone to find a solution…” He’d arranged the mixed vegetables on his plate into separate groups without realising it. They represented the colours of the Infinity Stones he’d just mentioned. He pushed his plate away.

“I wish I had found my soulmate before this,” Thor said, reaching for his goblet of wine. “But then I would have lost them as well.”

“Loki’s dead, isn’t he?”

“He died trying to stop Thanos. He only gave up the Tesseract to save my life. How did you know this?” He sighed. “Have I made it that obvious?”

“I’m surprised the Hulk didn’t get angry enough to make an appearance while Thanos was around, considering that… that my soulmark is gone.” Thor looked up. “I found that it was gone before coming to Wakanda. I’ve known Loki was my soulmate since he spoke to me while he was tied up in that chair. I don’t know why he didn’t say anything. I figured he was scared of the Hulk, and I didn’t want my soulmate to be scared of me. My mom was terrified of my dad. He beat her. I beat… the Hulk beat up Loki. I don’t wanna be like my dad.”

He dropped his cutlery and buried his face in his hands, the memory of his mother’s screams echoing in his mind. He scrunched his fingers in his hair, fighting with his conflicting emotions of anger and sorrow and guilt. They merged to become one big ball of frustration and tears, and he didn’t realise that he was weeping loudly until Thor raised him up and pulled him in for a hug.

“You would have been my brother-in-law had you bonded with Loki,” Thor said. Bruce nodded against his chest. “May I still call you ‘brother’?”

Bruce nodded again, trying to take shallower breaths. Thor lowered him back down to the chair and sat beside him.

“Loki and I waited centuries for our soulmarks to form,” he said. “We managed to find some solace in each other. While I remained optimistic that my soulmark would form one day, risking my life numerous times in youthful arrogance, Loki brooded. When his soulmark appeared, I was jealous that he received his first. I was the older child. I was Father’s favourite. My reaction was not like a king or brother at all. No wonder he resented me. And then to discover that his soulmate was friends with me instead of him…” He shook his head. “I have caused Loki much grief. But he did not want Thanos to win. You helped to prevent that in New York, and you did your best here. When you could not fight as the Hulk, you fought as Bruce Banner in the only way you could.”

“It doesn’t bring Loki back,” Bruce said, wiping away tears. He shed them for both his mother and for his soulmate. “And he wouldn’t forgive me for hurting him. But I hope, for your sake, that maybe… someday…” He sniffed.

“Loki does hold grudges, but he wishes for love and for understanding more than anything else in the world,” Thor said. “I believe that I finally understand him… too late.”

“My soul words were here.” He tapped his chest. “Over my heart. They disappear when the other guy makes an appearance.”

“A very special place for a soulmark.”

“Yeah. I know the mythology. Pity my love couldn’t save him.”

“Not his life, perhaps. But in other ways.”

“You’re starting to sound almost optimistic again, Thor.”

“For you, brother.”

“If… if I could do it all over again—”

“He might still have died and you’d be even more heartbroken,” Thor said.

“I don’t know about that,” Bruce said. “At least I wouldn’t be left wondering ‘what if?’ like this. I would’ve been happy… for a little while.”

 

The dagger dug deeper into his heart when the effects of Thanos’s finger snap began to be reversed the world over. Many were still dead as a result of others dissipating into dust, but most of the world’s population had been restored.

Bruce’s soulmark was still missing. His face said it all, and Thor’s expression turned grim. He nodded.

“I’m sure Valkyrie will be happy to see you,” Thor said. “Stark has told us that your soul creator will take us back to meet up with Rocket’s friends. Come with us. You are my brother, remember? We’ll find a way to bring you back to Earth, but your assistance may be required.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve helped build a village from scratch,” Bruce said. “I guess we should take medical supplies.”

“There may not be enough room. Other planets will be able to sell or lend us the supplies and equipment. Wherever my people have landed may not be a hospitable environment, in which case we may be forced to seek refuge elsewhere.”

“Okay. I don’t feel like staying on Earth while Secretary Ross is still on the warpath. And I miss the others. Even if Loki… isn’t with them.” Thor’s gaze dropped. “Let’s go, big guy.”

“Do you have anything to bring?”

“Nope.”

“Very well. The others are ready. We’ll leave immediately.”

Bruce didn’t get much of a chance to say hi to Tony. He hated having to reject the wedding invitation, and promised that if Pepper had children he’d make sure to be there for the births. But he didn’t feel safe from Thunderbolt Ross unless he was literally off-planet.

“While you’re Captain Kirk-ing around, you’ll miss all the fun stuff here,” Tony grumbled, but he gave Bruce a tight hug anyhow. “Don’t get… lost in space.”

“Ha-ha. Very funny, Tony.”

Fortunately the Guardians of the Galaxy – not the Morons, as Thor called them – had a spacious craft. Bruce let them interrogate him about Sakaar and Earth so they could keep themselves distracted from the loss of their friend. He wasn’t getting his hopes up, no matter what the Grandmaster had said about fixing everything Thanos had broken. There could be a way to bring Gamora back by returning the Soul Stone, but surely it was too late for Loki and the Asgardians. The Xandarians as well. That had to be beyond the power of the Infinity Stones.

Either way, they followed the Grandmaster where he went, chasing his small ship around the galaxy. They restored the three hundreds dwarves and their leader’s ruined hands. They restored the people of Xandar. They retrieved Gamora. They all pretended not to hear Gamora and Peter reuniting in one of the nearby rooms.

“That is the wreckage of our ship up ahead,” Thor said.

“Yeah, these are the co-ordinates where we found you,” Rocket said.

“What is the Grandmaster doing?”

“Stopping us from getting any closer, that’s what he’s doing.”

Bruce had taken to hiding behind Drax or Mantis whenever the Grandmaster was near, on the off-chance that the Sakaarian recognised him as his favourite gladiator. Groot even grew some extra branches to hide him when the Grandmaster got too curious.

“I can’t get my hopes up,” Thor said, squeezing the armrests of his chair behind the pilot seat.

“Look, we need to board that ship so we can find out where the escape pods went,” Rocket said. “Then you’ll find your people.”

“I was wise to trust you, Rabbit.”

“That’s why I’m the captain.”

Bruce sat between Mantis and Drax, trying to keep his breathing steady by listening to the sounds of Groot’s game. Finally Rocket was able to power the ship forward. It lurched, nearly sending them off their seats. There was a definite pair of yelps from the room where Peter and Gamora had disappeared to. They left the room, looking sheepish, just as Rocket finished talking to the Grandmaster.

“Okay, he says he’s finished fixing everything he could,” Rocket said. “We can go in now. Is there a landing bay?”

“Let me steer this time,” Peter said.

“Don’t start that again,” Gamora said. “Remember what happened last time? We crashed because you both tried to control the ship.”

“Yeah, let’s not crash,” Bruce said.

“I can survive any crash,” Drax said, squaring his shoulders.

“Maybe you can, but not all of us.”

“He can’t,” Mantis whispered to Bruce. Drax looked offended.

“I am Groot,” Groot remarked. Drax looked even more offended.

Bruce didn’t have time to ask for a translation, because Rocket had attached the ship to the side of the one they’d used to escape Asgard. Thor was out the door quickly, Bruce close on his heels.

Thor checked each of his people, who were still partially injured but alive. Bruce had to introduce himself to each of them.

“Heimdall! You live!”

“Yes, your highness. But your brother…”

Bruce’s heart leapt to his throat. While the Guardians began to searching for the escape pods’ co-ordinates, Bruce ran to where he could hear Thor and Heimdall talking to each other.

Loki’s body was being cradled by Thor. He looked at Bruce with tears in his eyes.

“He is barely breathing. His neck is no longer broken, but he is not responding.”

“Place him flat on his back,” Bruce said. He checked under his shirt. A mark was over his heart, but it was very faint, too close to fading away altogether. He knelt beside Loki, tore apart the front of his clothes to expose his chest, and found the right place to apply pressure.

He began to compress, breathe into Loki’s mouth, compress again, breathe again, in the version of CPR that he’d learnt a long time ago.

His chest itched, and he ignored the mark growing on Loki’s chest. He stopped compressions when Loki’s heart began to beat more strongly on its own, and focussed on the respiratory part until Loki was breathing independently. Bruce checked his neck for bruising, feeling the windpipe from the outside.

“We’ve got the location of the escape pods!” Gamora called.

“Thank you!” Thor called back. As Loki’s eyes opened, Thor touched Bruce’s shoulder. “And thank you for bringing my brother back to life.”

Bruce blinked back tears as he looked down at Loki’s face. The god of mischief looked back at him, eyes wide. Was he scared? Traumatised?

Bruce stumbled away and continued checking the other Asgardians and Sakaarians who’d been injured. He was able to patch them up with the first aid kit on the ship, good enough for the time being. He thanked Odin that the Grandmaster had the best spaceship bars in the galaxy, because he needed the alcohol to sterilise wounds. Even Heimdall was still bleeding.

The Guardians flew the ship to their new destination. They were nomads anyway, so they didn’t mind the side trip. They arrived after the Grandmaster, who was making the land more liveable using the Infinity Gauntlet.

“I have to return the rest of the stones now,” he said. “You still owe me a champion, thunder lord.”

“I will keep an eye out for one,” Thor said, removing his false eye. Bruce winced every time he did that. Thor cheerily replaced his eye-patch, tossing the eye to Rocket. The Grandmaster grudgingly returned to his ship and set off again.

“Your highness,” Valkyrie said, walking up to them. She grinned at Bruce and then ran to him for a hug. He could feel how strong she was in the grip of her arms, and hoped that his real form didn’t disappoint her. She’d seemed to like him as he was, both versions of him. He hoped Loki would one day, but he wasn’t so sure about that. Bruce barely liked himself.

“It is good to see you all again,” Thor said. “only sorry it took us this long to find you. But we’re together now, and you see that Bruce Banner has joined us.”

“For as long as you need me,” Bruce added. Valkyrie let go of him, but kept one arm slung around his shoulders.

“Let us show you what we have already done here,” she said.

 

It took time, and the Guardians doing supply runs for them, but a decent-sized city was built. Thor proclaimed it to be New Asgard. He couldn’t claim the whole planet as New Asgard until they’d discovered whether anyone else lived on it. It kind of blew Bruce’s mind to think that all planets were like Earth, with many different cultures, belief systems, races, languages and dialects. It was single-minded to think that only humans could be so complex, when he’d met so many aliens. But he watched so much science fiction that it had given him the wrong idea.

Finally the Guardians were able to return to roaming the galaxy, although they put a friend of theirs, Kraglin, in touch with Thor in case the New Asgardians needed help.

As it turned out, anyone who lived in New Asgard was now a New Asgardian, including the Sakaarians and Bruce. It felt strange being accepted as part of a new group. Like the Avengers, but with a lot less arguing. And fewer Tony Stark-induced headaches. Fewer arguments over the TV remote. Fewer flirtatious glances and words from Natasha.

If only Loki would talk to him.

Bruce wasn’t sure what his first words to Loki were supposed to be, because he’d had his hand pressed over the forming soulmark on Loki’s chest as he tried to encourage his heart to pump blood through his veins and restart his nervous system. He knew his own, of course; the small hut he was sharing with Valkyrie had a mirror. He’d spent enough time staring at the mark to have the words memorised.

“When will you talk to him?” Valkyrie asked one morning, performing her stretches at the end of her bed. Since she was in charge of guarding the New Asgardians, Thor had insisted that she have the first proper bed so she was well-rested. Bruce agreed, rejecting her offer to swap in favour of the camp bed he was much more used to.

“To whom?” Bruce asked, twisting himself into a different yoga position.

“Prince Loki.”

“I’m waiting for him to speak first. He outranks me, after all.”

“And perhaps he is waiting for you to make the first move,” she said.

“Come on, Val. Why would he want me? I’m a monster on the inside.”

“He was born a frost giant. His kind… they are the monsters our parents told us about. The Jotunns have been at war with Asgard for a long time. He fears that part of himself as much as you fear the Hulk.”

“Yeah, but the first time I met him it was the other guy, and he beat the shit out of him. Broke the wooden floor with him. Tossed… tossed him around like a rag doll. And he’s a prince. I grew up a pauper, abused by my father, and I ended up a pauper again after the super soldier serum project went wrong. Horribly wrong.”

“You should give him a chance. Yes, I hate him, but he’s your soulmate. I’ve heard you speak his name in your sleep.” Bruce blushed. His dreams were innocent, and much better than the nightmares he had. But his dreams were also out of reach. Gentle, sweet, full of love he’d never get to experience. “And Thor is impatient.”

“Because I haven’t spoken to Loki?”

“Because neither of you have made a move.”

He sighed.

“Okay, Val. I’ll try.”

“There you go.”

 

Loki was pacing beside the river they found the day after their arrival. It was a good supply of fresh water. Whether the Grandmaster had put it there, or whether it had always been part of the landscape, it didn’t matter. The important thing was that the atmosphere was breathable for all of them.

Korg was skipping stones with one of his friends and didn’t notice Loki. That was just as well. He did not wish to be drawn into conversation with a moving rock. He needed to think about his dilemma.

On Thanos’s orders, he attacked Earth several years ago. He had been defeated by the giant green monster. Later, he found out that said giant green monster was usually a mild-mannered human, compounding his humiliation.

Had he not healed so quickly, Loki would have resented the beast much longer.

Seeing Thor being beaten in the same way had made him happy, but he still feared being on the receiving end of the creature’s anger. Only on the journey after Asgard’s destruction did he come to understand that the beast could be gentle. And he certainly had his uses, at least until Thanos defeated him.

But before that, he discovered that the Hulk was Bruce Banner, who seemed just as wary of Loki as Loki was of the monster. And Bruce Banner spoke his soul words, the words he’d waited most of his life to receive.

It was not one of Loki’s better days. He could admit that.

Now he hardly knew how to approach the doctor. The beast refused to emerge, which meant he was less useful as a guard. But as a healer, he was effective. He ensured New Asgard had everything it needed for an efficient hospital. Loki kept himself out of harm’s way so he didn’t need to take advantage of it.

Thor called his actions petty and cowardly. Loki had been accused of worse by his brother before, as he pointed out. Thor fell silent, then explained that he wanted Loki to be happy with his soulmate, as Thor had made the arrival of his soulmark such an unpleasant occasion.

Perhaps their relationship could be repaired after all.

Loki turned to pace back the other way and saw the doctor approaching. He froze in his spot, neither advancing nor retreating. He itched for Captain America’s shield to hide behind. Or Thor. Thor made an effective shield.

“I’m sorry that I’m not good enough, but please give me a chance to be your friend?”

Loki closed his eyes. The words of his soulmark. Further confirmation, if any was ever needed.

“Not at all,” he said. “It is quite the reverse, I assure you.”

“You… don’t want to be my friend?” Bruce asked. He stepped back, his shoulders hunching. He looked at the ground. “Okay. Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry.”

Loki rushed to stop him from leaving.

“I meant… you are good enough,” he said. “Too good. I have made many mistakes and caused so much misery, and you do nothing but heal people and protect them whenever you can.”

“I have to make up for all the damage my other self has caused.”

“You were a doctor first. You healed people before the… monster was in you.”

“I hurt you,” Bruce said, his voice hitching. “I swore I’d never be like my father.”

“My sister told me that I was like Odin. I never wanted to be. I wanted to be like my mother, good and kind. But that’s not in my nature.”

“We should just be ourselves.”

“And what are we?” Loki asked.

Bruce looked over his shoulder at Loki.

“Soulmates,” he said.

“That is all I want. If you think you can ever… love me, that would be beyond my wildest dreams. That’s what Mother told me my soulmate would do. Love me, no matter what.” He wiped away a tear at the memory of Frigga.

“My mother told me the same thing, but I didn’t get the best example at home,” Bruce said. “Your mom sounds nice.”

“She was.”

“I’m an orphan, too. But I’m an only child.”

“Thor calls you brother, you know.”

“Because he said that I would’ve been his brother-in-law.”

“Do you… want to be?”

Loki hated how vulnerable his voice sounded, but he needed to know the truth.

“Not today,” Bruce finally said. “That’s too soon. But… maybe tomorrow?”

Loki exhaled in relief.

“I’ll ask Thor to make the arrangements,” he said. “We will need our own place.”

“Bookshelves. Kraglin’s going to bring whatever books he can find in the English language, and Tony will probably send anything I ask for.”

“Yes, definitely bookshelves. Do you wish to be close to the hospital?”

“I should be, as head healer.”

“And you will need clothes befitting a royal consort,” Loki said.

“No helmets with horns on them.”

“You are a healer, not a fighter. You will not need a helmet.”

“…I kinda want to kiss you right now.”

“Go ahead.”

Chapter Text

May couldn’t tear her eyes away from the television.

After the kids had been driven back to the school, skipping the field trip altogether, she had a call to say that Peter was missing. May asked to talk to Ned.

“Did he have to use his suit?” she asked him.

“…Yeah,” he admitted.

She hung up.

There’d been a few sightings of Spider-Man. The last one was as he went after the spacecraft Tony Stark had been following. If Peter really was stuck out in space somewhere, at least he had his (stupid, corruptive influence) mentor with him. Stark would make sure Peter was protected. He would.

The newsreader suddenly disintegrated. May’s eyes widened. His co-anchor shrieked as he became dust right in front of the camera. Then the other anchor fell to literal pieces, also turning to brown dust.

The studio was in chaos, until the weather woman brought another chair over, looked warily at the mounds of dust on her co-workers’ chairs, and took over reporting. She seemed the calmest around, even though she paused a lot. Other people in the studio were obviously turning to dust, which would be distracting.

May looked at her hands. They were intact.

Her back began to itch.

“No, no, no,” she chanted. She couldn’t disappear. Who’d look after Peter when he got back home?

After a few minutes passed, she remained whole and alive. Reports poured in from all over the world, of other people becoming dust. Drivers, pilots, surgeons arm-deep in people’s bodies, people in swimming pools, parents holding infants…

Her back no longer itched. She scratched absently, until she remembered what was supposed to be there.

She ran straight to her bedroom and checked her soulmark.

Gone.

Tears fell silently as she pulled her shirt back down into place. First losing Ben, and now this. Could it get any worse?

“Peter,” she whispered. She ran back to the lounge and sat in the middle of the couch again. What if… what if he died? What would she do without him?

May lowered her head to pray for the first time in years.

Pepper Potts rang, requesting May to come to Stark Tower and wait with her there so neither of them would be alone. May wrote a note for Peter and stuck it on the fridge, so he’d know where to find her if he came back while she was gone. She grabbed an overnight bag, as Pepper had suggested, focussed on packing it so she wouldn’t descend into hysterics, and hurried downstairs to the car Pepper had sent. She left the TV and lights on; it was one way to deter burglars.

Pepper’s eyes were red-rimmed as she ushered May into the common area. They had their pick of the chairs in front of the widescreen television, which was showing four different news channels. They ended up choosing a two-seat sofa, pressed against each other for solidarity. Pepper handed May a glass of brandy.

“You probably need this,” she said.

“My soulmark has gone. My soulmate’s dead.”

“I thought Ben…?”

“No,” May said. “We were young. We didn’t care. I wanted to have children. Didn’t know we couldn’t.” She smiled sadly. “He didn’t get to see Peter grow up.”

“They’re saying that approximately half of the human population has disappeared,” Pepper said. “Tony’s still alive, but I don’t know where he is.”

“You haven’t heard from him?”

“Not since he called to tell me Peter was with him.”

“That’s why you knew I’d be alone.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, May.”

“Peter got himself into this,” May said. “Stark just encouraged it. It seems grounding my nephew wasn’t enough to keep him safe.”

“Whatever’s responsible for this, the Avengers will take care of it,” Pepper said. “Everything will be back to normal again. You’ll see.”

“Can you promise me that I’ll see Peter again?” May asked.

“…No, I can’t.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“He may end up liking space so much that he’ll stay there.”

May burst out laughing. Her laughter turned to sobs as she leaned against Pepper, terrified that she’d never see her nephew again.

 

“You’re telling me that Fate, as in the person who determines who we’ll end up with, bitch-slapped Thanos and stole his glove,” Nick said.

“Gauntlet,” Romanov said. “Yes, sir.”

“And that an old guy with blue face paint used it to repair everything that Thanos destroyed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I can’t tell the World Security Council any of this.”

“No, sir. T’Challa’s preparing an official statement. I could send you a copy of that, if you want something less far-fetched?”

“Should’ve made Coulson the Avengers’ handler. None of this would’ve happened if he’d been in charge of you.”

Romanov’s voice turned frosty.

“No, sir, it wouldn’t have,” she said.

“Alright. Send me that report.”

“What’s more far-fetched than an alien battle on Earth, sir? I don’t see why the truth has to be censored this time. It’s too late.”

“Leave Fate out of it. You know soulmarks are a contentious issue. We don’t need people challenging the truth. Old men with blue chins are believable. Aliens are now believable. They’re sure as hell less likely to make all the religious and anti-soulmark groups scream. I don’t need that kind of a headache.”

“Even though SHIELD no longer exists?” she asked.

“Exactly. Now excuse me. I have to go make another call.”

“Where’s Hill, sir?”

“Stark Tower. Tell the others… nice work.”

“Even though we didn’t do anything?”

“That’s probably why we won,” Nick said. He hung up. “Amateurs. I’m running after amateurs these days.”

A call tried to come through while he was on the phone to Danvers. When he rang back it turned out to be Hill.

“Stark and Spider-Man just arrived with a wizard,” Hill said.

“Sorcerer!” someone called in the background.

“Fine then. Sorcerer. Most of the Avengers are in Wakanda. Do you need them in America yet? He can pass a message back to them.”

“I know how to use a phone, Hill.”

“No, he’s going to step back through this portal to Wakanda.”

“They’ve got that kind of tech?” he said, almost drooling at the thought.

“It’s magic, sir.”

“Of course it is. Tell `em to stay for a few days and unwind. We have to deal with the press first.”

“And the Sokovia Accords?”

“They can be changed. Though it seems that when the Avengers work undercover because they’re forced to, they can actually accomplish it without property destruction. We should leave the Accords in place so they don’t screw up again.”

“I’ll… get him to tell them to stay where they are. Are you coming to the Tower?”

“Am I invited?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll be right there.”

 

Stark and Pepper were still embracing on the two-seater, while May and Maria – her new best friend – were drinking at the bar. They were going slow; May wasn’t going to set a bad example in front of Peter. But she needed to unwind.

“Do you guys have soda?” Peter asked. Maria shrugged. “Okay. Um, when can we go home? Because this is kind of awkward.”

“Oh no, you’re not getting away that easily,” May said. “You can sit through the awkward and be bored. And thirsty.”

“But I died, Aunt May.”

“I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time,” she said.

“Not even a soda?”

“There’s water on tap,” Maria said. May snickered. Peter went back to watching the news and texting Ned.

The elevator arrived on their floor. The personification of tall, dark and handsome walked out with the fiercest glower May had ever seen. His eyes met hers for a long moment, before sweeping to Maria, who instantly jumped off the stool and turned into a professional.

“Sir,” she said. “Romanov sent a copy of the report to me. Do you need me to start making changes to it?”

“Yes,” he said curtly. He looked at Peter, raising his eyebrows. Peter shrank back in the armchair and gulped. May felt a rush of satisfaction from that. He needed to learn a bit more about fear so he’d stop giving her heart attacks.

Pepper and Stark ignored the man. May didn’t see how they could possibly not notice him. Since Maria had retreated to the table with her glass, May patted the stool next to her in invitation. It wasn’t any fun drinking alone.

“Come keep me company, handsome,” she said, and she leaned over the bar to get a fresh glass. She sat down again and noticed that he’d frozen in place.

“Don’t mind if I do,” he said slowly.

May nearly dropped the tumbler. She set it down carefully and turned to face him properly. She cleared her throat.

“Are you my soulmate?” she asked plainly. Life was short, after all. She wasn’t going to dither about this.

“I think so,” he said, sinking onto the stool beside her.

He failed to pull his leather jacket sleeve up, so May watched in amusement – and admiration – as he stripped off the coat, slung it onto the stool beside him, sat back down and rolled up his cuff. May got slightly distracted by the muscles she could see through the material, and wondered why he hid it all behind leather. Not that leather didn’t have its own appeal.

But she told herself to focus and noticed, with delight and relief, that the writing on his arm was hers.

“Here,” she said, spinning around on the stool. She raised the back of her shirt. He circled the mark with his thumb. May remembered when it formed again, and Pepper had to show her to the nearest bathroom to check in the mirror. She’d been so happy that she cried all over again. At least she was no longer an emotional wreck and physical mess from tears. That wasn’t the first impression she wanted to give.

“You look younger than I thought you’d be,” he said. “I remember my soulmark forming, and you don’t look old enough. But that’s my handwriting alright.”

“And this is mine,” May said, lightly running her fingers over the mark on his arm. He shivered visibly, his eyes darkening. “I should probably tell you that I’m Spider-Man’s aunt. My name is May Parker.”

“I’m Nick Fury,” he said, shaking her hand. “Former Director of SHIELD.”

“I’ve heard of you. From Maria.”

“And I’ve heard a lot about your nephew.”

“You don’t intend to recruit him for anything, do you?” she asked suspiciously.

“SHIELD might’ve recruited him once. I would’ve done. But I think he’s better off sticking to the smaller problems for now. The people need a hero on the streets.”

“I’d prefer him to stay home and do his homework.”

“Oh, trust me, he’ll do what we say,” Nick said. May smirked.

“Good,” she said. “I think he’s even more scared of you than he is of me.”

“If keeping him at home makes you happy, I’ll make sure he stays home,” he said.

“Hey, Peter,” May said, turning her head to look at her nephew. His eyes narrowed when he saw how close Nick was to her.

“Yeah?” he said.

“Found my soulmate.”

Maria spit out her drink. Pepper and Stark turned around, jaws dropping when they saw who was holding May’s hand. Peter’s eyes nearly fell out of his head.

“What?” he squeaked.

“Oh, you are so screwed, kid,” Stark said.

Peter sank down in the armchair with a groan, covering his face.

Nick winked at May.

She was looking forward to this.

Chapter Text

Bucky wasn’t sure what was happening. He woke flat on his face, probably with dirt all over his cheeks. He reached his right hand up and wiped off the mud. He seemed to be making it worse. He sighed, knelt up where he was, and looked around. Bits of grass and twigs were stuck in his left arm, and it squeaked as he moved it. Shuri would have to oil it.

“Rhodey?”

“Sam?” Bucky called. He looked around. The small tree appeared in front of his eyes, leaves growing on his arms and legs. A flower bloomed on his head and he smiled at Bucky. Sam came crashing through the bushes, raising his goggles.

“I thought I heard Rhodey calling for me,” he said. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky said.

They all turned when they heard a wail. Bucky nearly bowled T’Challa over as they all ran towards the sound.

Vision was lying grey on the ground. Wanda was crying over his body, holding him close to her. T’Challa knelt behind her and rested a hand on her upper back.

“I will send someone to take him back to the palace,” he said.

“Steve?” Bucky called, wandering away from the others. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “STEVE!”

There was no answer. He’d just been there, so where was he now?

Bucky rucked up his shirt and twisted his head to see his back. His soulmark was there, in Steve’s handwriting, but the words weren’t the same. What the hell? What had happened to his soulmate?

He checked the soulmark on the front of his body as well. It was less defined, but sharpened as he watched. Also the same handwriting. Also new words.

So what, had both his soulmates died? Or… had Bucky died?

“Anyone remember what happened to us?” he said.

“I’m going to find answers,” T’Challa said. “Okoye was the last person I saw. She will know what happened.”

He twisted one of his beads and Okoye’s face appeared as a holograph. She took one look at T’Challa and let out a startled cry. Bucky had never known her to react like that, and it seemed T’Challa hadn’t either.

“I take it you weren’t expecting to hear from me,” he said dryly.

“Y-your highness? I must tell Queen… Princess Shuri. Where are you?”

“The forest, where I last saw you,” T’Challa said. “Vision’s body must be moved, as soon as possible. And we require answers. Something strange has happened.”

“Sir… you died.”

“Damn it, Steve saw me die again,” Bucky whispered. Sam patted his shoulder.

“He’ll be so happy to see you, you won’t walk straight for a week,” he said.

“This ain’t funny, Sam! You know what this’ll do to him? He’ll never let me outta his sight again!”

“Is that really a problem?”

“It is when you’re tryin’ to buy birthday or Christmas presents.”

“Please, shut up!” Wanda shouted. They all fell silent. “Vision is dead, and I have to live through it. I lost Pietro. I lost m-my parents. And now Vis.” She lowered her head as she clutched his hand. “It is all my fault. I should have destroyed the stone when he first asked me to. I’d still lose him, but…” She sobbed. “Why couldn’t I stay dead? I wouldn’t be alone.”

“Perhaps something can be done to restore him,” T’Challa said.

“Like what?”

“My sister has his design specs. She could replicate the stone. She could replicate all of him. We will need his help to fight Thanos.”

“Is there anything left worth fighting for?” Sam asked, crossing his arms. “Didn’t seem like it the last time I looked.”

“But we are alive again,” T’Challa said. “Do not give up hope.”

Wanda stroked Vision’s face and didn’t respond.

“I’m gonna run ahead and meet Steve,” Bucky said, itching to see his soulmate.

“Sure, you go to your permanent booty-call,” Sam said, smirking.

Bucky flipped him off and sprinted through the jungle.

Steve was already pelting down through the battlefield. They collided in the middle, Bucky jumping into Steve’s arms and wrapping his legs around his soulmate’s waist. They kissed fiercely for several minutes non-stop.

“So afraid without you,” Bucky whispered against Steve’s lips.

“I can’t lose you again, Buck. Not again.”

“You won’t. I promise.”

Steve’s fingers dug into his hair, nearly squeezing Bucky’s scalp as he kept their lips pressed together. Bucky teased his lips open and deepened the kiss. He could do this all day. All his life, maybe.

“Love you, jerk.”

“Love you, too, punk.”

 

Steve ran his fingers lightly over the mark on Bucky’s belly. His muscles contracted at the ticklish touch.

“Where do you think our third is?” Steve asked.

“I don’t know. But I think they were dead. Their mark was coming back when yours was already there. You know, after…”

Steve held him tighter.

“I don’t care what happens to Thanos,” he said. “Just as long as he never comes back here again. I’ll kill the next person who tries to take you away from me.”

The tone of his voice gave Bucky the shivers. The good kind. He leaned back into Steve’s hold, their soulmarks pressed together. Now free to be with each other in every way, nothing could hold them back. All they needed was their third.

“Pretty hard to join us,” he said.

“Huh?”

“Our third,” Bucky said. “We’ve got so much history. How’s anyone s’posed to fit into that? I kinda feel sorry for `em.”

“We need someone who can drag us out of the past,” Steve said. “Whenever we get in too deep.”

“And to keep our dumb asses from getting dragged into other people’s fights.”

“It’s not ‘other people’ when the universe is at stake.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Bucky admitted. “But we shouldn’t be thinking about what we need. We should be thinking about what our soulmate needs.”

“Protection,” Steve said. Bucky craned his head to look back at him. “We’re good at that. We can protect our soulmate. And maybe we’ll find someone who also needs to catch up on modern history. We can all catch up together.”

“They’d have to have been living under a rock for a long time.”

“Or another planet. We know they exist.”

“An alien for a soulmate. That’d be… what do they say nowadays? Cool? I’m pretty sure Shuri calls things ‘awesome’ and ‘cool’.”

“Oh my God, we sound so damn old,” Steve said, chuckling into the back of Bucky’s neck. “A couple of old grumps.”

“Excuse you, I am not a grump. Not yet.”

“That leaves the possibility of you becoming a grump.”

“I will be if we have to keep dropping everything and jumping to the rescue.”

Steve kissed his neck.

“This was the last time,” he murmured. “I promise. We’ll take it easy after this.”

“I know you like excitement—”

“Not when it puts you in danger.”

Bucky smiled, looking across the room at his mechanical arm. He hoped he’d never have to wear it again.

 

Mantis followed the others into the royal palace of Wakanda. Nebula walked by her side, equally wary. Drax had no cares, Peter was excited, and he wouldn’t let go of Gamora’s hand. Rocket and Groot ran up to them for hugs.

Tony Stark and Peter Parker had returned home, but Doctor Strange had stayed in Wakanda to meet them. He took charge of Mantis and Nebula.

“Are you heading back to space right after this?” he asked, leading them away from the group, his cloak fluttering around him.

“We came for Groot and Rocket,” Nebula said. “But Peter wishes to see his home town and show us around. I don’t know what the humans there will think of us.”

“I would like to see where Peter grew up,” Mantis said.

“I’m sure you’ll love it,” he said.

“And his mother’s grave.”

“That… will be less fun. But it’s nice that you’ll be there to support him.”

“I want to try Earth food,” Nebula said. “If my body can process it.”

“Princess Shuri might be able to help you with that,” he said. “I’ll introduce you.”

“I will wait here,” Mantis said, staying close to the window.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

The sorcerer led Nebula to meet other humans. Mantis had felt so many confliction emotions from the others lately that it gave her a headache. She needed something simple and pure. No fear. No guilt. Just happiness.

One couple drew her attention. They were sitting in the middle of a long padded seat, like the window seats on Ego’s planet. What did Peter call them? So-fuss?

They looked happy and in love, much like Peter and Gamora. But they didn’t seem to have the pain that Drax had when he thought of his wife and child. Perhaps she could safely sit by them?

She gave them a small smile and sat on another chair, her hands folded neatly in her lap. She knew it would be rude to stare, so she kept her eyes on the ground, instead focussing on finding simple, happy emotions.

She felt some curiosity and sighed. She waited for confusion and/or disgust, but it did not come. She smiled again, to herself.

There was a small flutter of attraction and she looked to her left, startled.

“You came here with the others?” the darker-haired man asked.

“Yes, I did,” Mantis replied.

“It’s nice to meet you,” the other one said.

“That is very kind of you,” she said, pleased.

The two men looked at each other, their lips parting. Then they look at her again.

“Did you die with the others?” the light-haired man said.

“Yes, but we all came back after Thanos was defeated,” she said.

“Have you… checked your soulmarks? O-or soulmark?”

“Oh.” Mantis’s eyes widened. “You said my… soul words? That is what Peter calls them, I think. He has been teaching me English. How to speak it and write it.”

“You’re very good at it,” the other said. “I’m Bucky.”

“And I’m Steve.”

“I am Mantis.”

“Are you going back to space?” Bucky asked.

“I do not belong on Earth,” Mantis said. “There is no one else like me here. And the Guardians of the Galaxy need me. I am one of them. I cannot leave my family.”

“Even if we became your family?” Steve said. He felt so sad that Mantis wanted to move further away. But she thought that might make him sadder.

“Would I fit in on Earth?” she asked.

“…Probably not. Earth isn’t as accepting as it should be. It’s the twenty-first century, but so many people are still so small-minded.” He sighed. “I wish you could stay.”

“Since we’re soulmates,” Bucky said. “I mean, we’ve gotta check our soulmarks and make sure, but you said our words.”

“And you said mine.”

“Do you… think your friends, your family, would let us come with you?” Steve said.

“Oh my God, yes,” Bucky said. “Outer space. It’s like a dream come true!”

“You nerd.”

“You know you wanna see it, too. If you still wanna fight you can help them, and I can protect anyone who’s left behind. Mantis, do you fight?”

“No,” she said. “I can subdue using my empathy, but I do not fight.”

“So if they need you, I can protect you while you do what you do. Empathy?”

“I can feel other people’s emotions and I can put them to sleep. I put Thanos to sleep, but Peter hit him when he found out that Gamora was dead, and I lost my hold.”

“You nearly saved the universe single-handedly?” Bucky said. “That is awesome.”

“The others were trying to remove the gauntlet at the same time,” she said.

“Yeah, but they couldn’t have done it without you. Damn, I wish you’d been here with us. We definitely would’ve won.”

Mantis blushed. The two men grinned.

“Come on,” Steve said, standing up. “We should check soulmarks. If you want to. I mean, you don’t have to—”

“I would like to.”

“Good.” His cheeks coloured. “T-there’s a bathroom nearby. You should bring a friend with you so no one worries.”

“What would they worry about?” Mantis asked.

“That we might… take advantage of you.”

“Not that we would, but your friends seem overprotective,” Bucky added.

“I will ask Gamora. She does not seem busy.”

Gamora was happy to accompany them. Peter sent suspicious looks towards Bucky and Steve, only relaxing when he heard that they were famous superheroes he had learned about as a child.

Mantis knew that her two soulmates were attractive men. She did not need the others to tell her this. Steve had his soulmark under a glove on his left hand, which would line up with the one on her stomach. Bucky’s soulmark for Mantis was on his front. He would have to be against her bare back for them to bond.

Gamora hid as much of Mantis’s body as she could, holding Mantis’s clothes in place so that only the marks on her front and back were visible. Her skin tingled where her soulmates touched their soulmarks. She beamed happily at Gamora, who smiled in return.

“I guess this is either goodbye or we have two new team-mates,” she said.

“We’re fugitives on Earth, so we can’t give Mantis much of a life here,” Steve said.

“Not the kind we’d want her to have,” Bucky said.

“Is it okay if we come with you?”

“We still have plenty of room on the ship, though it seems like Mantis will need a bigger bed,” Gamora said. Mantis felt her cheeks growing even warmer. “But we can make the adjustments later. Peter feels protective of her. We all do. I’m sure he’ll insist on some kind of bonding ceremony, no matter who you are.”

“We’d better start packing our things,” Bucky said.

“And you’d better make her happy.”

“We will,” Steve said.

“Good. Because I won’t hesitate to kick your asses if you make Mantis unhappy.”

“Gamora,” Mantis scolded.

“You know I’m telling the truth.”

“Please do not hurt or threaten my soulmates.”

“Fine,” Gamora said. “I can’t say the same for the others, but I’m pretty sure if you give Rocket that arm of yours you’ll have a new best friend.”

“I didn’t wanna use it again, anyway,” Bucky said, shrugging. “He’s welcome to it.”

“Can I bring my shield?” Steve asked.

“Shield? Yes, of course.”

“Thank you, Gamora,” Mantis said shyly. “But I would like to be alone with my soulmates for a minute.”

“No funny business,” Gamora said, eyeing the two men. They nodded. She shut the door behind her slowly. Mantis turned to her soulmates.

“Do you want to kiss me?” she asked. “And copulate with me?”

“Uh… can we?” Bucky said. “Not right now! Your friends might kill us. But will we be able to?”

“I am not sure, but do you want to try someday? I know I am not beautiful, and I do not look like a human—”

“You are beautiful,” Steve said. “We thought you were pretty before we even knew you were our soulmate.”

That was true. Mantis could remember sensing their attraction.

“I would not mind if you kissed me now,” she said. “But I am also happy to wait.”

“Hey, I didn’t say anything about waiting for that,” Bucky said.

He bent his head and kissed Mantis on the lips, stroking her cheek. His lips were a little rough but his hand was warm and gentle.

Steve’s kiss was much the same, but he cupped the back of her neck and sucked on her lips, rubbing his nose against her cheek.

Mantis liked both of them very much.

She was looking forward to their future.

Chapter Text

“We’ll fix this,” Jane muttered, bent over her microscope.

“You never explained why you and Thor split up,” Darcy said, flipping through more tweets on her phone. “Dude, this is insane. People are calling it the apocalypse. I didn’t actually think I’d see this day come. Zombies, yeah. People turning into dust? That’s a bit too Buffy-esque for me. The whole stake plus slayer equals… Jane?”

“I’m still not ready to talk about Thor,” she said, clenching her fist around the middle of the microscope. “Can you be quiet so I can study Ian?”

“What’s left of him,” Darcy said. She plugged in her earphones. “Okay then. But I’ll get it out of you one day.”

Jane was silent for ages, while Darcy fretted about her family. She’d been unable to contact them. Culver’s Twitter account had listed professors and students who’d been confirmed dead, including Betty Ross. She was one of Darcy’s lecturers, and she was really nice. Cut up after the whole incident with the Hulk vs the Abomination, which was totally understandable, since the tumour mill said she was dating Bruce Banner. Who, as Darcy had found out while working in Stark’s labs, was a sweet guy.

Darcy hoped he was alive. If he was Professor Ross’s soulmate, though, he probably wouldn’t want to be. Darcy knew that if her soulmark disappeared, like Jane’s, she wouldn’t be cool with it. Not at all.

“Okay, I need to get this information online,” Jane said, dumping the dust back with the rest of Ian’s disintegrated corpse. She hurried to her computer and logged in while Darcy cleaned the microscope and slides properly. She continued to groove half-heartedly to her music, still hopeful that the signal was just crappy at her parents’ place because a technician had dissipated on the job. She wasn’t going to let herself think that her parents might be…

Many countries were arming their nuclear weapons at the moment, all while trying to find someone to shoot. It seemed some stuff had been happening in Scotland, which would be obliterated with a small bomb, never mind a big one. Then there’d been a lot of activity in Wakanda, according to some neighbouring African countries. Since Wakanda also had the world’s biggest (and only) vibranium mine, people were reluctant to bomb it and lose all that precious metal. So they were running around like headless chickens, trying to exert their weapon power and military might, without actually knowing who to blame.

If they exerted their brains and some patience, they’d get answers.

Wakanda’s social media had gone strangely quiet and no contact could be made with them, which was fuelling the rumours. They’d need some serious PR work after this disaster… if they made it out alive. Considering half the world’s population seemed to have died, or at least disappeared, it was possibly that half of Wakanda had gone the same way. For a country previously thought to be a developing nation, and now revealed to be the biggest tech giant in the world, this wasn’t good.

“Jane?” Darcy said.

“I’m not talking to you about Thor.”

“No, it’s not that. Do you really think science can fix this?”

“Science can fix anything.”

“Eventually, yeah, but how long will it take? And are you sure? This might need some kind of godly mojo or magic. Damn, if JK Rowling was telling the truth about the magic world all this time, and we just wrote it off as fiction, and another Dark Lord has risen to take Voldemort’s place—”

“Darcy!”

“Sorry! Babbling helps me cope.”

“Well, it doesn’t help me,” Jane said. “I have to wait for updates. Can you go get coffee or something? Go talk at someone else?”

That stung, but Darcy understood Jane’s anxiety. Her mother had called to say that her father had turned into dust. Ian had disappeared in front of their eyes. Selvig wasn’t answering his phone.

Jane didn’t have good news, but at least she had news. Darcy was still waiting to hear the worst and hoping for the best. That hope dwindled as the minutes passed.

She grabbed her wallet and left. She didn’t understand why Jane wasn’t trying to contact Asgard for help. Thor had to know something about this, right? He said he’d protect Midgard. He wouldn’t break that promise.

The share market was all over the place, but that wasn’t what Darcy was interested in. Tony Stark was gone, and it was causing SI stocks to fluctuate. That was somehow more important to rich people than the fact that a living human being had reportedly taken off for space trying to stop the bad guys, whoever they were. And just before his wedding. If this was a case of cold feet, which Darcy doubted, it was the worst way to get out of walking down the aisle. But like Tony Stark would ever do anything half-assed.

Nah. He was too crazy about Pepper.

Like Thor used to be about Jane, Darcy thought. She sighed. She wouldn’t mind having such a tall, studly guy for a soulmate. Not one she’d seen in love with her best friend, of course, but someone else. Preferably with a dirtier sense of humour. Thor was too damn gentlemanly sometimes.

She was carrying two cups of caffeinated goodness back to the lab, brewed by a spooked-out college kid, when piles of dust started coming back to life. People were literally being pieced together in front of her eyes. She wondered how the kid in the coffee shop was coping.

She wondered how Jane was coping.

Darcy passed the coffees to a couple of strangers who looked in need of a lift and ran the rest of the way back to the building. She scanned herself in with her card and sprinted the lab. Jane was shouting at Ian, her taser aimed at him.

“Stop!” Darcy shouted, dashing into the room. “Jane, people are coming back to life everywhere! It’s Ian, okay?”

Back to life?” Ian said. He looked pale.

Darcy grabbed a chair and shoved him onto it.

“Yeah, the theories suggest that you all died,” she said. “But hey, you’ve only lost a few hours. You should be fine. I mean, if you were born within a few hours of midnight your birthday might’ve changed, but it’s just a day. The point is, you’re back. And Jane, your dad should be back, too.”

“Oh my God, I have to call Mom,” Jane said, grabbing her phone.

Darcy’s folks called, relieved that she was alive. They’d both died. Darcy allowed herself to cry over that. She never wanted to go through this again.

 

“I should find the rest of the Asgardians,” Thor said.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with you wanting to avoid Jane Foster, does it, brother?” Loki asked.

“…Of course not.”

“Because it seems quite childish. You were happy to see me—”

“Of course I was, brother!”

“Surely you wish to tie up whatever loose ends you have with Dr. Foster?”

“Not that desperately,” Thor muttered. “We must find Valkyrie. We cannot leave her in charge of everyone else for so long.”

“Is this the royal ‘we’?”

“No, of course not.”

“How long are we to remain here, Thor?”

“Not long.”

“I have heard that Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis are on their way to visit Wakanda and check on us.”

“…Ah.”

“If you must leave, I am sure we can find some way to entertain the ladies,” M’Baku said, smiling slyly. His grin widened when Thor gave him a sour, one-eyed look.

“How generous of you,” Loki said.

“They will be in excellent hands with us.”

Thor growled. Loki slapped his arm.

“You cannot have it both ways,” he said. “Let us find the other Asgardians. We have the co-ordinates of the escape pods and we sent Heimdall ahead with the rest of them. We must pick up supplies on the way.”

“Do you need some vibranium?” M’Baku asked.

“Do not be so free with Wakanda’s resources, brother!” T’Challa called.

“Damn cat-like hearing,” M’Baku muttered.

“Captain Rogers will be watching you,” Thor said darkly. Loki rolled his eyes.

“I will keep that in mind,” M’Baku said.

Behind his back, his fingers were crossed.

 

Jane ranted about Thor’s cowardice in the twin bedroom she was sharing with Darcy.

“You know, if you need to talk about any reasons,” Darcy began. Jane cut her off with a glare.

“It’s the last thing I need to think about,” she said.

“It’s probably the only thing on your mind right now.”

“Leave it, Darcy.”

Fine,” she said with a sigh. “I’m going exploring.”

“Don’t get lost.”

“Have a little faith in me, Janey.”

Darcy took the map Shuri had given her and wandered the palace. She greeted the heroes she knew, dropped a kiss on Bruce’s cheek (he was her favourite, after Jane and Thor), and helped herself to finger food leftover from last night’s party. She wished she’d been there for it.

“Have you seen the beauties this country has to offer?”

Darcy spun around. Many people’s soulmarks had changed, even when their soulmate hadn’t died, but hers remained the same. She stared up at the man in front of her, his muscled arms bare, and thought to herself, Yummy.

“Are you offering to show me?” she asked.

His face lit up and he looked her over. Darcy cocked her hip confidently, placing the food back on the table. She licked the traces off her fingers deliberately, watching as his pupils dilated at the sight.

“I am M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari,” he said, holding out his hand. Darcy went to shake it, but he lifted it to his mouth for a kiss. She swooned. Just a little.

“Darcy Lewis, intern to Jane Foster, world-renowned scientist,” she said. “And the girl Thor calls his Lightning Sister.”

“The one who struck him down with a taser?” he said, sounding delighted.

“Yep.”

“You already sounded interesting. But to find out that you are my soulmate? You must stay in Wakanda with me. If your friend needs you, she can stay as well. We may not have the same palatial buildings as King T’Challa, or the formal clothes, but our home is still comfortable and equipped with all the modern conveniences.”

“Is this a proposal?” Darcy asked. Because that was quick. They were soulmates, yeah, but he might not like the same music as her, and that would be a deal-breaker.

“It can be whatever you want it to be,” M’Baku said. “But first, I must repeat my earlier question. Have you seen all of the beauties of Wakanda? Although there is one more beauty that Wakanda can now boast.” His eyes twinkled as he stroked the inside of her wrist. Darcy’s breath caught.

“Everything okay here?” Steve asked, studying both of them.

“M’Baku is my soulmate, Cap,” Darcy said.

“Oh. Okay. Uh… be safe. Don’t go breaking her heart, you hear?” he added to M’Baku, who looked comically offended.

“Don’t quote Elton John songs at me unless you’re singing them,” he said. “And don’t sing at me unless your voice is good enough.”

Steve looked so startled that he walked away again, clearly forgetting whatever point he’d been trying to make. Darcy stifled her giggle.

And she’d found a straight Elton John fan. Score.

“Show me around,” she said, holding out her elbow. M’Baku took it and led her out the doors.

“Wait until you see the sunset here,” he whispered, nuzzling her ear. “It is the most glorious in the world.”

“What are the stars like at night?” she asked.

“You have never seen anything like them.”

“Colour me dazzled,” Darcy said.

 

Jane woke to an otherwise empty room the next morning. It looked like Darcy’s bed hadn’t been slept in. Her toothbrush was still packed, so she definitely hadn’t brushed her teeth last night or this morning.

Now she felt bad about being so harsh towards her best friend. What if Darcy had gone home? No, she would’ve taken her things. What if she found another room for the night? Or worse, slept on a sofa so she wouldn’t be in the same room as…?

The door opened and Darcy stumbled in. Her hair had grass and sticks in it and she looked dazed. She limped slightly, but she was grinning as she snagged a towel and set off for the en suite.

“Darcy?” Jane said. “What happened to you?”

“Met my soulmate,” Darcy said. “Saw the sunset. Saw the stars… more than once. Even saw the sunrise with him. Damn, Janey. There’s one word for that guy: woof.”

Chapter Text

Tony had never bitten his nails before. Usually there was too much dirt or oil caught under them, and he hated being sick. He had a regular manicurist for this reason.

But now he was biting his nails, because he was stranded on a desert planet with a stranger who was possibly his soulmate, and maybe the only other living creature in the universe. Tony didn’t know. Had anyone else survived? Did he have to help repopulate the world with a stranger?

What about Pepper?

“It’s Nebula, right?” he said. He looked up from his clasped hands, filthy with Peter’s dust and dirt from the planet.

“Yes,” she said, inclining her head. “And you are Tony Stark.”

“That’s right.” He looked down again. “You, uh, you said my words.”

“I wondered if we were soulmates. There was never a chance to ask. We were too busy trying to defeat Thanos, and now…”

“Now he’s won and we’re all alone.” He sighed. “I’m supposed to be getting married soon, back on Earth.”

“Why?” Nebula asked.

He shrugged.

“Because I fell in love?” he said. “I don’t know anymore. She was one of my best friends, neither of us had met our soulmate – her mark is ridiculously generic, yet no one’s ever said it – and we kind of… fell in love. This late in life I didn’t expect to run into my soulmate, ever. On Earth, we usually meet our soulmate by the time we’re thirty, thirty-five at a stretch, but the average is twenty-nine years and, I think, about seven months? That’s only the people who’ve met their soulmates. It’s a very skewed system, in my opinion.”

He sighed and stretched his muscles. Nebula walked a few feet away and kicked at some space junk.

“We must try to leave Titan and find more people,” she said. “Thanos’s plan has always been to wipe out half of the universe. Half of every species, regardless of race, wealth, gender, age…” She kicked a small rock along the ground. “It seems he’s accomplished that.”

“But there’s only two of us left here,” Tony said.

“Drax, Mantis, and I are from different planets and Quill is only half-human.”

“So the glove doesn’t discriminate. It’s totally random selection.”

“Yes,” Nebula said.

“I hate that. No scientific formula. It’s unpredictable. I can’t work with that. Not unless I’m back on Earth. I hope Bruce is still alive. We think he’s dead, but if he isn’t then he has to come back. And Foster. Jane Foster might be able to help. I need to gather all the best scientists I can get my hands on so we can deal with this.”

“Thanos is unstoppable—”

“I refuse to believe that!”

Nebula lowered her head and turned away again. She began to walk off. Tony felt overwhelmed with guilt again.

“Hang on, hang on. Stay. Stay with me. Come back here. Hey!”

“You don’t need me,” Nebula said. “I’m going to find my own way to defeat Thanos, with or without you. I’ve nearly killed him before. I can do it again, now that I know where I went wrong.”

“And what am I supposed to do?” Tony demanded.

“Find your scientists.”

She stalked off and Tony wondered how she was supposed to be his soulmate.

He was happy with Pepper. He had been ever since he realised his attraction to her when they danced together. Sure, they’d split up for awhile; they’d had their ups and downs; but ultimately they were stronger together

Yeah, it cut him up when she didn’t understand how he felt. Even after the Extremis incident, she’d only had a few nightmares. She chalked it up to seeing a psychiatrist, and yeah, he should probably do the same, but she had so little patience whenever he began to crack.

So it wasn’t a perfect relationship. Was there even such a thing? Of course not.

At least the air was so still that Tony could hear Nebula working away at whatever she was doing. He began to scavenge for anything which looked useful. It wasn’t tech he was familiar with, but he was Anthony Edward Stark. If he couldn’t make it, who could?

He was still assembling a weapon when Nebula walked past with… was that a radar scanner? He stood up to get a better look, trailing behind her.

“I’ve found one functioning spacecraft, a quarter of a click in that direction,” she said, pointing… Tony had no idea which way that was. An Earth compass probably wouldn’t work here.

“How long is a quarter of a click in human measurements?” he asked.

Nebula arched an eyebrow.

“How would I know?” she said. “I’ve never had to use human measurements before.”

“Right.”

“If the woman you are about to marry finds her soulmate and wants to leave you, what will you do then?” Nebula said. So she was still thinking about that.

“We’ll see what happens, I guess,” Tony said. “But I’ve always been pro-free will. Fate probably doesn’t even exist. Just because we don’t know the exact science behind soulmarks doesn’t mean there isn’t a logical explanation. It’s probably body chemistry and birthmarks that we interpret into words in a writing which looks like the handwriting of a compatible match.”

“So you admit that you are not compatible with her.”

“I didn’t say that.” He sighed heavily. “Look, I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We can keep it that way. Trust me, no one can actually handle me except Pepper. That’s my girlfriend… fiancée’s name. We can be friends if we see each other again after this, but otherwise we’re strangers.”

“I’m going to search for this ship,” Nebula said, pointing at the radar. “You can stay here if you want, but I’m leaving. The only Guardians left are the animal and the plant. I must find them.”

“I’ll come along,” Tony said, following her. “We shouldn’t split up.”

“If you insist.”

 

It turned out that a click was a long way, if a quarter-click was anything to go by. Tony tried to keep himself fit, but he had a hell of a stitch in his side by the time they tracked down the abandoned spacecraft.

“Thanos has been using the Space Stone to travel everywhere since he obtained it,” Nebula said. “But this used to be his. We will need to disable anything he can use to find it.”

“Radio, GPS, stuff like that?”

“Don’t disable the radio! And what is GPS?”

“Uh… I might let you do this. You seem to know what to do.”

“Of course I do,” she muttered, beginning to unscrew a panel.

Tony was reluctantly impressed by the spaceship. He put that down to whoever built it, and not Thanos, because like hell was he giving any credit to Thanos for anything positive, especially a sci-fi obsessed mechanic’s wet dream.

“Is this the kind of tech all spacecraft use?” he said.

“Not all,” Nebula replied. “This is an older model, more basic. It’s sturdy, though, and not all modern radars can pick it up. But since I’m using radar from one of the ships of Thanos’s children, it’s tuned to this one. That’s why we must make ourselves untraceable. Only the children of Thanos can find it. And Thanos himself.”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t try to make a surprise visit,” Tony said.

“Damn.” She stood up straight. “There’s nothing to fuel it.”

“Nothing?”

“He must have left it behind when it ran out.” She looked around. “There aren’t any spare supplies. We’ll have to return to the wreckage and see if there’s anything intact there that we can use.”

Tony groaned.

In the end, the ship wasn’t necessary, at least not for them. They returned to the original site to find that the others had reappeared. Strange looked confused, tapping the cloak away from his arms.

“This isn’t how we were supposed to be brought back,” he said.

“Where’ve you been?” Quill asked.

“We found one of Thanos’s old ships, but it needs a fuel source,” Nebula said. “Help me find one so we can get out of here.”

Then a sleigh showed up. With a woman claiming to be Fate, ready to take them back to Earth. The wizard seemed perfectly accepting of this. Magic. Ugh.

Tony glanced at Nebula. She looked back at him with no emotion.

“Goodbye, Tony Stark,” she said.

He nodded, feeling hollow as he climbed into the sleigh beside Peter.

“What was that about?” Peter asked as the sleigh set off.

“She’s my soulmate,” Tony said.

“But… aren’t you marrying Miss Potts?”

“Yes, I am.”

‘Fate’ looked back at him with disapproval. Tony shrank back on the bench, feeling small. Why was everyone pressuring him like this?

“Many people have romantic relationships with someone else while remaining friends with their soulmate,” Strange said.

“Does anyone ask the friend how they feel about it?” ‘Fate’ snapped.

They kept quiet the rest of the journey.

 

Tony was curled up with Pepper on the loveseat in their suite. He didn’t want to go to bed with her. Not right now.

“I’m so relieved that you’re alright,” he said. Pepper rested her head on his shoulder.

“So am I, Tony,” she said. “I was terrified. And then I was nothing for so long, until I came to and found Happy standing there. Crying.”

“I’m making fun of him for that later.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Fine, fine. Uh, I should probably tell you, in the interests of full disclosure, that I met my soulmate while I was in outer space.”

Pepper’s whole body tensed. Tony kissed the top of her head, hoping to get a better reaction out of her. Instead, she pulled away from him and sat up straight. It felt cold without her tucked in his arms.

“What was she like?” Pepper asked.

“It could’ve been a guy—”

What was she like?”

“…Blue. Mostly made out of metal. Definitely an alien. A huge stick up her ass. One of Thanos’s kids. Sad about Gamora being dead, but since Gamora’s probably been rescued by now she should be happy again. Too serious.”

“Made out of metal? Oh, you’d love that. You thought it was fascinating when I was infected by the Extremis. Admit it; you liked a stronger me.”

“What? No! I was terrified for you, even when it seemed stable. We got lucky then. I don’t want to lose us again, Pep. Why are you acting like this? She won’t crash the wedding when she’s travelling around the galaxy!”

“This is why you’ve been acting differently since you got back,” Pepper said. “You met your soulmate and now you don’t know how to feel about it.”

“My feelings for you have not changed. I’m just weirded out about the whole Thanos thing. And you dying. I’m allowed to feel weird about it, okay?”

“Yeah, you can, but I don’t believe you’re ready to give up Iron Man.”

Tony stared at her in shock.

“I promised that I would, and I’m sticking to that promise,” he said. “I’ll still help with weapons for the others, but I’m done being a superhero. I’ve Losing Peter was the last straw, I thought. Then I got back here and found out you’d died as well. I don’t wanna risk that again. I want to spend whatever precious time I have with you.”

“But you’ve met your soulmate,” she said softly. “It’s different. You’re different now, Tony. What if I meet my soulmate one day?”

“That’s what she said.”

“She?”

“Nebula. My soulmate. She asked me what I’d do if you found your soulmate and wanted to leave me.”

“And what did you say to… her?” Pepper asked.

“I told Nebula that we – you and I – would see what happened if that day ever came. Do you plan to leave me for someone else just like that?”

“I’ve always believed in soulmates more than you, Tony. You’ve met Fate. What would she say about this? Us, getting married?”

“I don’t care,” he said, kneeling in front of her. “Pepper, no matter what the words on my skin say, you’re my soulmate. You’re the one I want to be with.”

“Maybe we’re not good for each other,” Pepper said. “Maybe that’s why we’re not soulmated, because we’d just erode. Could be a week, could be a year, could be ten years, but we’d be unhappy. Both wondering ‘what if’ about our soulmates.”

“I wouldn’t—”

“But you might, Tony. And I… I think I would.”

“So, what, you wanna call off the marriage?”

“I don’t think we should’ve gotten engaged in the first place,” she said, wiping away a tear. Why was she crying when she was the one ripping the heart from Tony’s chest? “The break-up should’ve been the end of it.”

“Pep—”

“I’m sorry, Tony.” She removed her engagement ring and placed it on the seat beside her, before standing up and moving around him. She touched his hair. “I really am.”

She left him kneeling in front of the loveseat, regretting the day he’d ever been roped into saving the world by Doctor Strange.

He swept the ring off the loveseat and stalked to his bedroom. He paused halfway there, turned around, and took the second elevator down to his workshop.

“FRIDAY, I don’t wanna be disturbed by anyone,” Tony said, pulling out his phone as he walked into the workshop. He tweeted about the broken engagement, switched off his cell phone, and took a sledgehammer to his favourite pile of scrap metal.

 

One month later

 

Missouri was nothing like Wakanda. It showed the diversity of planet Earth’s climate. Nebula wished she could remember what her own home planet looked like, but she’d been with Thanos for so long that she had lost all memory of her life before him. No happy childhood memories to keep her strong when she was at her weakest.

Peter was showing off his favourite playground to the Guardians. Groot was leaning against the fence, disinterested, while Mantis played on the swings, Drax pushing her gently. Peter and Gamora used the slide while Rocket tried the monkey bars.

Nebula read the newspaper.

She found something which cause her interest. A woman named Pepper had been seen with a man rumoured to be her soulmate. Tony Stark was mentioned as not having commented on it.

This had to be the Pepper who was supposed to marry Nebula’s soulmate. There was no mention of the marriage.

What happened?

“Hey.”

She spun around, her gun already charged and in hand. Tony held up his hands.

“Don’t shoot,” he said. Nebula lowered her arm.

“What’re you doing here?” she asked.

“Someone posted a picture of your group online,” he said. “I tracked it down so I could find you.”

“You are not married,” Nebula said, waving the newspaper.

“We agreed it was better this way,” he said. “She’ll be happier without me.”

“And are you happier without her?”

“I don’t think I’m meant to be alone,” Tony said. “I used to build robots to fill that void. Then Pepper filled it, and the Avengers. Now it’s just me again. I’m not saying I want you to stay with me so I won’t be lonely. That’s selfish. I’m saying I was wrong to get engaged to Pepper because I didn’t want to be alone. I let her go because it was the right thing to do. I could’ve begged her to stay, but I didn’t.”

“I don’t understand what you want,” Nebula said.

“Just a chance. Whatever you’re willing to give me. See if you can stand me long enough for a relationship. Temporary, permanent, whatever you want. I refuse to use my soulmate the way I’d use anyone else. But I also refuse to let you go without trying to find out why Fate wants us together.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in Fate.”

“Bit hard to dismiss someone’s existence when you’ve actually met them.”

Nebula holstered her gun and tossed the newspaper into the nearest bin.

“Alright,” she said. “We’ll try.”

Chapter Text

“I am alright now.”

“I will be the judge of that, brother.”

“Shuri—”

“Sit still or I will handcuff you to the bed, don’t think I will not!”

“Do as she says, T’Challa,” Ramonda said.

The king obediently shut up and stopped squirming. He only ventured to speak again when Shuri seemed less likely to lose her temper.

“My arm was itching earlier,” he said.

“What? Show me!”

He pulled up the sleeve of his suit and blinked in alarm.

“My soulmark has changed,” he said.

“Oh my,” Ramonda said, sitting down.

“It is alright, Mother. It looks like the same handwriting. The words are different, that is all. I am sure it is only because I died.”

“Only?” Shuri said.

“I came back to life!”

“He only died a little; he got better,” Everett said from the screen. They all looked at him. “It’s from Monty Python and the Holy Grail… you know, I’ll just bring the DVD the next time I visit Wakanda.”

“Come soon so we can see for ourselves that you are alright,” Shuri said.

“I will.”

“Your highness,” Okoye said, entering the room. Her eyes looked over his body before she relaxed. She’d been on edge ever since T’Challa returned. He felt terrible about dying in front of her and hoped she would not continue to suffer because of it.

“Yes, Okoye? What is it?”

“An unidentified flying object has been found on the radar, approaching Wakanda.”

Shuri swore, ignoring Ramonda’s admonitions, as she spun around on her stool and accessed the radar. She found the closest camera and zoomed in on the UFO.

“It looks like a sleigh,” she said, sounding puzzled.

“I will see to it,” T’Challa said, going to stand up.

“No!” everyone shouted at him.

He sat down again.

“A woman is driving the sleigh, but I do not see its power source,” Shuri said, going back to the cameras. “There are three people in the back seat. All with dark hair and pale skin.”

“Is it Edward Cullen?” T’Challa asked.

Ramonda smacked the back of his head.

“They are nearly here,” Okoye said. “We will fend them off. Captain Rogers has assembled his people to fight if it proves necessary.”

“Usually I’d call Steve a worrywart, but he’s got reason to be this time,” Bucky said.

“Be quiet, you!” Shuri said. “I’ll get to you soon. No, leave that arm on. I need to obtain results before we stow it away.”

“You got told,” Sam said. Bucky glared at him, unwilling to make a rude gesture or say a bad word in front of Queen Ramonda. The moment she had her back turned he stuck his tongue out at Sam. T’Challa smothered a laugh.

They were finally allowed to leave. Since no one had raised the alarm, and Shuri reported that the visitors were getting along well and the sleigh had disappeared, there was no need to rush.

“They’d better be here with good news,” Sam said as they walked through the halls.

“I do not see how things could have grown worse than they were a few hours ago,” T’Challa said.

“Sam’s always been Mister Optimism,” Bucky snarked. With no queen around to reprimand them, Sam flipped him off. T’Challa cleared his throat pointedly.

“Just be prepared in case our visitors turn hostile,” he said.

When they saw who the visitors were, Bucky immediately turned on his heel and hurried away. Sam frowned, grabbed Steve’s arm, and they went after Bucky. As king, T’Challa had to stay, instead of ensuring that the White Wolf was fine. Shuri would see to it if she could be pulled away from her lab for long enough.

“Nice place you got here,” Tony Stark said, looking around with his hands in his pockets. “Not as tall as my place back in New York, but, you know, you do you.”

“It is not size that matters, Mr. Stark, but what you do with it,” T’Challa said.

“This is… Spider-Man, who you should remember, and Doctor Strange,” Tony said, gesturing to his companions. “They caught the same flight back to Earth as me. By the way, Thanos has been defeated. We won’t have to deal with him again. Someone will bring the Mind Stone back for Vision and the Time Stone back for the wizard guy.” The man with the goatee and red cloak rolled his eyes.

“I need to get back to New York before Aunt May grounds me until I’m fifty,” Spider-Man said. “Uh… not that it’s all that far away. You know, like, twenty years.”

“You sound like my sister,” T’Challa said. “She is a teenager.”

“…Oh.”

“I’ll get Cinderella home, if you give us directions to the airport,” Tony said. “Wait. I didn’t bring my passport. Okay, I’ll get Happy to fly here. Where can he land? Outside? On a roof somewhere?”

“Oh, for God’s sakes, I’ll get you home,” the cloaked man said. T’Challa watched in wonder as he formed an oval of golden sparks with his hands. He noticed the minor tremor in them, and wondered whether that was a side-effect of pure, raw power passing through them. “There you go. Times Square. Can you find your way home from there?”

“I think I can,” Spider-Man said.

“I’ll hail us a cab,” Tony said. “Rhodey, send updates. And don’t forget, you’re expected at the wedding.”

“I won’t forget, Tony.”

“Good; one of us needs to remember.”

He and Spider-Man stepped through the golden oval, and Doctor Strange moved his arms again, closing it. The sound of traffic ceased. A portal. Shuri would love to see one. She had been working on a teleporter for many years. Perhaps this man could give her the key to finishing it?

“Welcome to my country,” T’Challa said, stepping forward for a handshake. The doctor’s eyes narrowed as he took T’Challa’s hand.

“I wouldn’t mind staying awhile, if that’s okay with you,” he said.

T’Challa almost dropped his hand in shock. Instead, he swallowed and pulled himself together. He was a king, the king of Wakanda, and he had to behave like it.

“I am alright with that,” he said. “My sister would love to meet you. Perhaps you could help her with one of her projects? And our medical equipment might be of interest to you. Are you a medical doctor?”

“I was a surgeon,” the doctor said, finally taking his hand back. He held it with his other hand, massaging the outside with his thumb. “But I had a car accident and lost the use of my hands. You can see how much they shake.”

“Ah, I thought perhaps that was power,” T’Challa said.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Well, come with me anyway. To the labs. Perhaps Shuri can help.”

“Shuri?”

“My sister. She is our head scientist.”

As soon as they were out of earshot of the others, and past Bucky, Sam, and Steve’s hiding spot, T’Challa exhaled slowly.

“I discovered that my soulmark has changed,” he said.

“I died.”

“So did I.”

“It’s a good thing I felt mine itching, or I wouldn’t have known.”

“What is your real name?”

“Stephen Strange. Yes, that’s my real surname.”

“I am T’Challa. You do not have to use my title.”

“I should hope not,” Stephen said. “That’d be awkward between soulmates.”

“I will have you know that my parents often used each other’s titles,” T’Challa said.

“Oh really?”

“…When they were arguing. Or at official functions.”

“Not usually when they were in private.”

“N-no,” T’Challa said. His mouth felt dry as he sensed Stephen’s eyes on him.

“I was surprised when Wakanda announced the truth to the world. I thought you’d take longer. It’s just as well you didn’t, as today proves—”

“Wait, how did you know?” T’Challa asked.

“I’m the Sorcerer Supreme,” Stephen said. “While expanding my powers I’ve visited many places in the universe. You can imagine how amazed I was when I first saw what Wakanda really looked like. I’ve seen your sunsets, though I’m sure they’re even more amazing in person, instead of dream-walking or using astral projection.”

“Whose dreams did you walk through?”

“Your father’s, I think. He definitely dreamt of you, your sister, and your mother. I recognise you from the dreams. This was before he…” Stephen paused. “I’m very sorry for your loss, T’Challa. I can’t imagine what it’s been like since then.”

“You know, this makes a lot of sense,” T’Challa said. “If our soulmarks had stayed the same, your words to me would have been ‘Ah, yes, I’ve seen you in my dreams’.”

Stephen blushed.

“I think those would probably be referring to the dreams I started having a few weeks after your father died, when I kept picturing only you,” he said.

“What kind of dreams?” T’Challa asked.

“Uh… the usual kind.”

“But we have never met. Were they prophetic or—”

“They were…!” He lowered his voice, eyes darting back and forth. “Explicit. And I’m not saying any more. Not right now.”

T’Challa’s grin widened. He stepped closer.

“What are you doing, my son?” Ramonda asked. T’Challa stepped back again with a low sight of frustration.

“This is my soulmate, Mother,” he said. “Doctor Stephen Strange. This is my mother, Queen Ramonda.”

“How do you do, your majesty?” Stephen asked, leaning over her hand and kissing the back of it. Ramonda smiled.

“Very well, thank you,” she said. “Are we safe now?”

“Yes, we are, Mother,” T’Challa said.

“Good. No sex before marriage. If I had to wait, so do you.”

Stephen turned bright red and T’Challa was left spluttering as his mother walked through the corridor, followed by Dora Milaje who were trying to keep straight faces.

“I am reluctant to introduce you to my sister now,” T’Challa said. “She will be even worse than my mother.”

“I look forward to it,” Stephen said.

“Meeting my terrible sister?”

Stephen leaned close.

All of it,” he whispered into T’Challa’s ear.

The king shivered.

“I don’t suppose you wish to marry me as soon as possible?” he asked.

“Was your mother serious?”

“I am afraid that she was.”

“Very well. My portals make commuting a breeze. I can live in Wakanda and work overseas without trouble. And you’ll be busy a lot, as the king.”

“You’re agreeing to marry me?” T’Challa said incredulously.

“Why not? We’re soulmates.”

“…I had better introduce you to your future sister-in-law, then.”

 

Shuri teased T’Challa over finally settling down, but she was soon distracted: first, by the Cloak of Levitation and how it worked; second, by the portals Stephen created.

“I must take a video of how you move your hands,” she said. “The power must be in the pattern.”

“I don’t think it can be replicated by a machine, or anyone could use it,” Stephen said. Shuri’s eyes narrowed. “But, uh, you’re welcome to try. Just make sure you don’t abuse the power. And keep insects away from it.”

“Insects?”

“Have you ever seen The Fly? The original or the remake?”

“No.”

“Don’t. Trust me. They’re horrifying.”

“That will make her want to watch the films even more,” T’Challa said as Shuri grinned and set up her camera to record.

“Then she’ll learn from them,” Stephen said.

Clever.”

“Right, magic man, show me how you make a portal again,” Shuri said, aiming the camera at Stephen.

“I have to use this ring,” he began.

“I will scan it later and make a copy.”

“…That could actually be really useful. I’ve lost mine before, so having a spare would be handy.”

“Too much talking, not enough portal-ing.”

Obediently, Stephen formed a portal. Then he closed it off again, showing Shuri how to de-power it. Once she was satisfied, she let them go.

“Send me the plans for the wedding in case you need help!” she called as they climbed the stairs.

Stephen nearly tripped over, but the Cloak kept him upright, even as T’Challa lunged to stop him. The Cloak wrapped around both of them, giving them a moment’s privacy, which they took full advantage of.

“I can hear you two kissing! Get those germs and hormones out of my lab!”

T’Challa grabbed Stephen’s hand and the two ran the rest of the way upstairs.

“I think she approves of you,” he said, pulling Stephen into an alcove. The Cloak shielded them from view again.

“I only need your approval, but I’m glad your family seems to like me,” Stephen said, mouthing kisses along T’Challa’s neck.

“Are you trying to take advantage of me, doctor?”

“Maybe. Do you object?”

“I didn’t tell you to stop.”

Stephen chuckled against his skin as T’Challa purred.

 

The actual panther cub that T’Challa gave Stephen was an interesting present, and it definitely added a certain something when Stephen interviewed people at the Sanctum Sanctorum. The purple and red collar Ramonda arranged for the panther was a nice touch.

But the wrist pulsars that Shuri designed for him, which somehow completely stopped the tremors in his hands, were his favourite wedding present of all.

(Aside from his soulmate.)

Chapter Text

Scott woke up lying beside his couch.

What?

He raised his head and saw the two FBI agents, who’d been looking around his house (again), appear out of particles of .

“What happened?” he asked, sitting up. He groaned as he rotated his neck. “Why am I on the floor? Did one of you taser me? Because I don’t remember doing anything to provoke you. At least nothing out of the ordinary.”

One of them looked at her watch.

“Why is the time on this thing wrong?” she asked, tapping it.

“I don’t think it is,” her partner said as he looked out the window. “It’s getting dark.”

“The news, now.”

Scott knew that tone and jumped from the remote. He switched on his TV and found the twenty-four hour news station.

They’d all lost a few hours… being dead.

“Holy shit,” Scott said.

“We have to get back to work.”

They left without saying goodbye. Scott grabbed his phone and called Maggie’s house. Cassie answered the phone and he nearly burst into tears of relief.

“Daddy, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “Are you?”

“Yeah. I woke up in a funny place. Paxton was crying when he found me.”

“Is he okay? What about your mom?”

“Uh-huh. They won’t tell me what happened.”

“It doesn’t matter. I think it’s okay again. I’m gonna call some people and make sure everything’s gonna stay the way it is, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

Scott was reluctant to hang up, but he had to. He called Clint’s house.

“Hey, can’t talk right now,” Clint said. “Laura disappeared into thin air and dropped Nathan. We’ve gotta get him to the hospital to get checked out. He’s unconscious.”

“What about the rest of the kids?”

“Coming with us. Sorry, Scott. We’ll talk later.”

Hope sounded harried when he rang.

“We’re all good here,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Do you know what happened?”

“Not a clue. I only know what people are saying on the news and online.”

“I don’t have internet access. What’re they saying?”

“Pretty much the same thing. There are pictures and video footage of people dying, and last posts from people who were in crashing airplanes and things like that.”

“Oh my God.”

“I know. It’s chaos. Listen, I can’t talk to Stark Industries. Is there anyone there you can call? Iron Man was last seen blasting into space. He might know something, if he’s back.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

“Thanks, Scott.”

SI was declining to comment on anything and had stopped taking phone calls. Scott couldn’t leave the house. He could only hope something would turn up on the television news. Or the radio. He had a digital radio… which no longer worked since the FBI bugged it. Damn.

Scott decided that he could still feel dirt on himself… or maybe that was from waking up on his ratty carpet. Either way, he decided to shower. He used to get some of his best ideas in the shower. Maybe it could help him gain perspective this time. At the very least, hot water flowing over his muscles would calm him down.

He stepped out of the tiny shower cubicle onto the threadbare bathmat and opened the window to let the steam out. He towelled himself off with the scratchy bath towel, wincing as it raked over his more sensitive skin.

Then he looked in the de-fogged mirror and paused.

His soulmark was shorter than it used to be. Once upon a time, it was long and grand and eloquent. Now it was terse and to-the-point. Abrupt. Someone probably as stressed as Scott was.

He memorised the new words and got dressed in fresh clothes. He’d been wearing the same ones since yesterday, stewing over his latest mess-up. At least whatever had happened this time, it wasn’t his fault. He was pretty sure it wasn’t.

Cassie called back, and Scott spoke to all three of them. He talked to Paxton for the longest, because the guy was strung out from fear and sorrow which had suddenly been reversed. He wasn’t coping. Scott could relate, and let Paxton talk it out and shed some tears. Once he sounded normal again, he handed the phone to Maggie.

“Maybe you could come visit tomorrow?” Scott said. “Sounds like Paxton will be able to get the day off. I know this isn’t the Plaza, but Cassie’s got toys here and I think we all need to make sure that, you know, we’re okay.”

“Will your girlfriend be there?”

“Hope is not my girlfriend. And I don’t know. I was only thinking about you guys.”

“We’ll see what happens tonight. I’m scared that I’ll wake up and find this is a dream. Or a nightmare. What if Cassie is gone again in the morning?”

“You have a baby monitor, right? Use it.”

“Okay… okay. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Say goodnight to Cassie for me.”

“We will. Goodnight, Scott.”

 

It had been a few days. Princess Shuri insisted on going over the whole spacecraft the Guardians had taken to reach Earth. She copied the information she could and intended to replicate it the ship. Since it was custom-built, she could do whatever she liked with the additional features.

“Are you heading back to space with them?” Rhodey asked.

“Yes,” Thor said. “I must. The Grandmaster was able to restore the dead Asgardians and Sakaarians, and they were going to find the escape pods. The Guardians have the co-ordinates of the escape pods and will take me there. Valkyrie will leave a trail if they have been forced to move on.”

“I hope you find them, man.”

“I’d hoped to see more of my friends while I was on Midgard, but it seems I will have to wait until my next visit here. I’m afraid it will be some time, as I must build an entire kingdom from scratch.”

“Just don’t steal land from the natives. I hate it when white people do that.”

“Noted, colonel.”

“Oh, you’re gonna see Clint, by the way,” Rhodey said.

“Hawkeye is coming here?”

“Yeah. He had a freak scare with his baby son, but Laura’s gonna keep an eye on him since Natasha’s being so insistent. He’s been granted parole from house arrest, and he’s bringing Scott. You know, Ant-Man. He’s a former engineer, so he’ll get a kick out of Shuri’s lab. I think he’s bringing his daughter.”

“I look forward to meeting him.”

“He can get kind of annoying with his enthusiasm—”

“Enthusiasm should never be taken for granted, colonel. It’s a sign of life. You and I both know how fleeting that is for our loved ones.”

Rhodey’s face fell and he nodded.

“I’ll never forget that day as long as I live,” he said softly.

“Neither will I.”

 

Thor forgot the conversation, preoccupied with waiting for the Guardians to return from their trip to Missouri. Thor could have gone with them, but he wanted to spend time with his other friends. He had accepted an invitation to Tony’s wedding, so he would go to America then; but once the happy couple departed on their honeymoon he was going to begin searching for his people.

A child ran past him, giggling. Thor smiled. The girl ducked behind him.

“Shh!” she whispered.

“Understood,” he murmured.

A man ran into the corridor, his eyes wild and frantic. He sighted Thor and skidded to a stop on the smooth floor.

“Are you lost?” Thor asked. The man opened and closed his mouth. “Speak up. Are you lost?”

“Not anymore I’m not,” the man said breathlessly. Thor’s heart jumped.

“Oh,” he said.

“Uh, have you seen my daughter, Cassie?” There was a giggle from behind Thor and the man relaxed immediately. “Never mind.”

“Shh!” the girl hissed.

“Right, the nice man has kept you hidden long enough. Come on out, Cassie. You know we’re all… trying to keep together. And not get lost.”

“Daughter,” Thor said.

“From my ex-wife. Yeah. Uh, I hope that’s not a deal-breaker? I mean, maybe I’m being presumptuous. I don’t know. You said my soul words and… wait. I know you. You’re… you’re Thor, aren’t you?”

“You have me at a disadvantage,” Thor said.

“Scott Lang. Uh, Ant-Man. We haven’t met. It’s an honour to meet you.” He held out his hand. Thor shook it, mindful of his own strength.

“Colonel Rhodes told me you were due to arrive with Clint any day now,” Thor said, recalling the conversation. “With your daughter. You are Cassie?”

“Yeah,” the girl said, peeking around Thor. “Is he your soulmate, Daddy?”

“I don’t know yet, Cassie. Where were you running to?”

“It seems like a great place to play hide ‘n’ seek.”

“Okay. But we don’t know it well enough, and if you keep running like that you might knock something over. Remember, this is a palace. Like a fairytale castle. Royalty live here, and royalty have really fancy, expensive things. Things your daddy can’t afford to replace.”

“It doesn’t look like the Disney castle, Daddy.”

“Not all castles look alike, sweetie.”

“Perhaps Princess Shuri can keep Cassie occupied while we talk?” Thor said.

“Uh, yeah, we were actually looking for the lab, before Cassie ran off.”

“You were going in the right direction,” Thor said. “I’ll take you there.”

“Thanks,” Scott said. Thor picked Cassie up without effort, making her squeal with laughter. Scott trotted at his side until Thor slowed his footsteps. He kept glancing down at Scott and smiling.

“How long before you must return to America?” he asked.

“I only have two nights away before the FBI sends someone after me.”

“The FBI?”

“How much have you heard about the Sokovia Accords?”

Thor nodded slowly.

“You did not sign,” he said.

“I’ve been at the ‘mercy’ of the government’s brand of justice before,” Scott said. “I’m not trusting them again. They failed me once by calling me the bad guy for exposing a corrupt company. I was convicted of breaking and entering and the share prices went up. The so-called scales of justice.”

“Were you also in that underwater jail?”

“Yes,” Scott said, glancing at Cassie. She was frowning as she listened, her arms around Thor’s neck. “Don’t worry about it, Cassie. It won’t happen again… as long as I do what the government says.”

“And Clint is going through the same thing,” Thor said.

“Yeah.”

“I wonder if I could make you citizens of Asgard. Not that Asgard exists anymore, but when we have established the new one you will certainly be welcome. Both of you, Princess Cassie.”

“I’m not a princess,” she said.

“If your father and I are truly soulmates, that makes you a princess, as I am the king of Asgard,” Thor said. Cassie’s jaw dropped.

Really?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll be like a Disney princess?”

“Even better.”

“Wow.” She looked at Scott. “Please be his soulmate, Daddy.”

“The sooner we can leave you with someone trustworthy, the sooner we can compare our soulmarks and find out,” Scott said.

“And if we are soulmates and marry before I leave, then you will automatically be granted immunity, according to the agreement I have with Midgard,” Thor said. “You can come with me. Princess Cassie may visit, and I’m sure Princess Shuri can devise a way for you to speak with your daughter every day.”

“We’ll live in a real palace?” Cassie said, bouncing in Thor’s arms.

“All palaces look different, as your father said,” Thor said. “It would not be grand to begin with. But if you have any suggestions about how it should look, or at least how your rooms should look, we’ll take them into consideration.”

Cassie beamed at Scott.

The lab was gleaming silver and industrious. Thor kept Cassie safe in his arms as they descended the stairs. Shuri looked up and squealed.

“She is so adorable!” she declared. “I want ten of them. Hand her over to me, please. I declare this child to be my little sister.”

Cassie happily went to Shuri’s side, telling her that she was now a princess too, since her daddy and Thor were soulmates. Maybe. They had to check, but could Shuri tell her how to be a princess so she wouldn’t screw it up?

Shuri was enchanted and waved Scott and Thor to a private room while she took Cassie aside. Thor tugged Scott into the room and closed the door.

“Cassie died, just like me,” Scott said. “Her mom and step-dad were with her, so she wasn’t alone, but it still… I only heard about it afterwards, but I could feel it almost like it was happening in front of me a-all over again.”

“Yes,” Thor said. “My soulmark disappeared. I was overjoyed when it returned. I’d lost my parents, my brother, my friends, and most of my people. I had nothing left to lose except you, and then Thanos took you away from me. But he was thwarted and now we’re together.”

“If we’re soulmates.”

“I hope we are. I do like the ‘brainy types’, as Darcy calls them.”

“Right.” Scott hesitated and then removed his shirt. He turned to show Thor the mark on his upper back. Thor’s fingers nearly crackled with electricity as he ran them around the soulmark, moving in closer until he touched the letters. Scott shivered as his skin tingled in response. He turned around reluctantly and pulled his shirt on again. “Your turn.”

He kind of loved and regretted his words as soon as Thor removed his cape and then upper body armour. He was wearing only a thin shirt beneath it, which he parted in the middle. Right between his well-defined pecs were the words Scott had spoken, in Scott’s own messy handwriting. He reached out, before remembering how awkward it was when he did the same to Captain America.

But this was his soulmate. It should be okay.

He touched the mark straight away and felt the vibration of Thor’s low growl through his hand. He should have pulled back but moved closer instead, drawn by a nameless feeling which he could only guess was fate.

“Seems Cassie’s a princess after all,” Scott said.

“And you’ll be my consort?”

“Yeah. I’m tired of house arrest. I’m ready for my next big adventure. I think I’ll even give up being Ant-Man, unless you really need me to be that. But I’d like to return to engineering. Helping you built a kingdom from scratch? Sounds like the kind of project I’d like to undertake.”

“Good,” Thor said. “Let’s marry today and obtain immunity for you. We’ll return to America together – I have been invited to Tony Stark’s wedding – and you can pack whatever you need to bring. You won’t mind moving to Asgard?”

“I’ll go anywhere with you.”

Thor’s eyes crinkled in happiness and he pulled Scott to his chest. He bent his head down and kissed him. He felt and tasted like sunshine and ozone after a storm. It was perfect. Scott wound his arms around his soulmate’s shoulders and wondered how he’d got to be his lucky.

“Shuri, Shuri! Daddy’s kissing King Thor!”

Chapter Text

Clint should’ve had two soulmarks. He’d known that for a long time.

Laura had time to say his name before she began to turn to dust. Clint grabbed Nathan from her and stared in shock as she disappeared. Then he put Nathan in his crib, called for the other two kids, and grabbed his phone to call Natasha.

He’d done the right thing. He met Laura while working a case for SHIELD, courted and married her, bought land under one of his aliases. Built a safe house for them and fathered a couple of children. Nathan was a surprise, but a good one.

Clint wanted him to be Natasha’s child. She couldn’t have any and he’d planned to ask Laura if Natasha could adopt Nathan, not just be his aunt/godmother. But Laura was so pleased to have three kids that he couldn’t bring himself to ask. So he stayed silent, watching Natasha’s sad eyes whenever he mentioned Laura’s growing belly and wondering why he couldn’t have had Natasha’s mark as well.

The problem was that Clint had two sides. He had his domestic side, which meshed well with Laura, and his SHIELD spy/superhero side, which matched Natasha in every way. Two amazing women in his life but he was only tied to one of them by Fate, and not the other.

Maybe it was selfish to want more. But his heart couldn’t help it.

Natasha was fine on her own, which was hard to see. And then she chose Bruce for her next target. Was Steve too easy or too much trouble? Tony was too attached to Pepper, which the engagement proved. Thor was… Thor. A great guy but devoted to Jane, last he heard.

Surely Natasha wasn’t that bored? Courting danger was a hobby for her, but never had the risk been so great. Not of her dying, but of splitting up the group.

Well… the Sokovia Accords and Zemo did that just fine in the end.

“It’s okay, Nathan, Mommy will be back soon,” Clint said as his younger son began crying. He hustled the children away from the pile of dust resting where Laura had been standing only seconds ago.

He switched on the TV and kept the remote far away from the kids to make sure the news stayed on. The kids started playing with their Lego, including the piece which had been squashed and hidden away ever since the Avengers visited.

(Clint had his suspicions about who squashed it. It either had to be Cap or Thor, and Cap definitely would’ve apologised and bought all the Lego sets he could carry to make up for it. Thor was more likely to step on it without feeling any pain and then accidentally kick it under the furniture.)

Scott called Clint in a panic, asking if he knew anything about the disappearances.

“I’m under house arrest, too, remember?” Clint said. “I’m stuck at home with the children. Laura’s just… gone.”

“Oh God, I have to check on Cassie. How do I break this anklet thing?”

“You’re the engineer. Figure it out. I’m gonna sit tight and wait for Natasha to show up, if she does.”

He hung up, thinking, If she’s alive. Please, God, let her be alive.

 

He was on the big bed, holding Nathan while the other two slept on either side of him, when he felt an itch where his soulmark used to be. He couldn’t shift Nathan without waking him, so he stayed where he was, trying to avoid thinking about the itch. That just made it worse.

“Nathan!”

Clint sat up straight, disrupting the toddler.

“Laura?” he called

“Clint! Where’s Nathan?”

“Up here with us,” he said, confused. He leaned over Lila and switched on the beside radio. Laura came stumbling into the room while he was adjusting the volume. Clint put Nathan down and hurried to his wife.

“Clint!”

“Are you okay, Laura?”

She began kissing him fervently, wrapping her arms and legs around him. Clint had   to pull back quickly.

“Uh, the kids,” he mumbled, gesturing towards the bed. Laura blushed and slid back down. She scooped the children into her arms and checked them over at the end of the bed, while Clint remained near the pillows and the radio, awaiting updates. He sneaked a look at the mark on his side. It was back. It said ‘Clint! Where’s Nathan?’ A hell of a difference from the first mark. And still Laura’s writing.

He wished there was one for Natasha on his other side. Or anywhere, as long as he had one for her.

He was a terrible husband and soulmate, still caring about his wife but yearning for another woman he’d known and loved even longer.

Before HYDRA, this wasn’t a problem. He had his cut of excitement, his time away from home, but Clint had never been meant for total domesticity. He loved his life on the farm, but it was a haven. Havens aren’t meant to be permanent until you’re dead. He didn’t want to think of this as all his life would ever be now. It wasn’t for him.

“What do you think Daddy’s thinking about, huh?” Laura said to the kids. She smiled across the bed at him. Clint smiled back softly.

“Curious about life,” he said. “You know, how you came back from literal ashes.”

Laura’s smile faltered at his response. She picked up Nathan.

“Better make sure you brush your teeth and get to bed, in your own rooms,” she said. “C’mon, troops. If there’s anything to tell you in the morning, we’ll tell you.”

Clint continued to fiddle with the volume dial, since the radio was digitally tuned and he didn’t have his bow to play with. Not since Laura had hidden it away. It was like she was helping the government keep him under house arrest. He couldn’t even go shoot cans off the fence like he used to. There was a ban on all weapons.

He didn’t point out that kitchen knives and fire pokers and the renovation tools were all effective weapons. He didn’t point out that they had pillows, rope, painkillers, razors, rat poison and so many other things he’d used on SHIELD missions to neutralise people. The house would be empty if Laura and the government knew just how many ways Clint could disable or kill a person with the stuff lying around.

He was curled up on his half of the bed when Laura returned. She sighed as she stretched out under the covers.

“I know you hate being stuck here like this, but it’s for the best,” she said. “It keeps you safe.”

“I’m under house arrest. I can’t leave this house without triggering an alarm. You died, Laura. You could’ve dropped Nathan and I would’ve needed to run him to the hospital because you’re not around. If I tried to drive the car it wouldn’t start because of this damn anklet, and it’s too far for ambulances. We would’ve been in real trouble if you didn’t come back.”

“Then it’s a good thing I did,” Laura said.

“And if I had an ordinary job I could die in a freak workplace accident, or being hit by a bus, without all the protective gear I wore at SHIELD. I liked… I loved my work. It let me feel good about myself. I was being useful.”

“You’re useful here, Clint—”

“But I feel like a caged animal. I used to feel so sorry for the lions and elephants in the cages at the zoo. Never thought I’d become one.”

Laura rolled onto her side, facing away from him.

“Sorry I’m apparently a literal ball-and-chain to you,” she said. “How long is this mid-life crisis gonna last?”

“Laura…”

“No, no, go out and get arrested again, by all means.”

“It’s not a mid-life crisis! This is all because I don’t have any freedom.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“I came back here for you and the children! I could’ve gone on the run and hidden out somewhere, but I was trying to be a good father and husband.”

“And soulmate?” Clint fell silent in shame. “I know you’d rather be with Natasha. Why didn’t you marry her?”

“Because I thought… she wasn’t my soulmate, so I thought that whatever I felt for her would be even stronger for you. I couldn’t pass up finding that.”

“And when you met me?”

“It was amazing, Laura. You were so good for me. You took me out of my work and gave me something to come home to. I thought it’d stay like that.”

“…Maybe we should get couples’ counselling,” Laura said softly. “You’re supposed to work to keep a marriage going.”

“They don’t say that about soulmates’ marriages,” Clint said. “Soulmates stay in love forever. Every day it’s as fresh as the first.”

“It’s supposed to be.”

“…Yeah.”

“You’re supposed to be content with just me, Clint. That’s why we only have each other’s soulmark, no one else’s.”

“Are you happy with me?” he asked, rolling over to stare at the back of her head. “I mean, we’ve just been talking about me, but are you happy? If I’m the one making you unhappy I have to let you go, get put under house arrest somewhere else. You’re my soulmate and I won’t keep hurting you if I can stop it.”

Laura sniffed, her body shuddering in a silent sob. It struck Clint like a knife through the heart.

“Ever think that Fate screwed up phenomenally with us?” she asked.

Clint reached over and rubbed her shoulder gently.

“Not all soulmates have the perfect, happy relationship of fairytales,” he said. “My folks were soulmates. Bruce’s parents were soulmates. Both relationships turned abusive, but look at Bruce. He went on and got all his doctorates—”

“Became the Hulk.”

“But he’s a great guy,” Clint said. “And he didn’t Hulk out while he was here.”

“And he and Natasha were getting awfully close.”

“The point is a lot of bad relationships spring from soulmarks,” Clint said. “But so many bad soulmateships can produce good things. Maybe one of our kids will develop the cure for cancer, or solve world hunger, or write a chart-topping music album. Win an Oscar. Become an Olympian. Just because things haven’t worked out the way we wanted `em to doesn’t mean it wasn’t some… some kind of waste.”

“My worth as a person has to be about more than just my ability to produce children with you,” Laura said.

“Same. But who knows how we’ve made the world a better place by ourselves?”

“Your influence is more obvious than mine.”

“Is it? I’ve screwed up lots of times, at SHIELD, as an Avenger. Then there was the time Loki brainwashed me…” He cleared his throat. “When someone changes the world on a big scale, they do good on the same scale that they do bad. The times you’ve stood up on the bus for someone, or let them go past you on the highway, could’ve made a huge difference. Cheering up someone who was planning to kill themselves, or making sure someone got to say goodbye to their loved one in time. You’ve done more amazing things through a simple act of kindness than you’ll ever know. Those people would thank you if they could.”

Laura eventually shifted over. Tears stained her cheeks.

“D’you think we can start again?” she asked.

“I think I’ve let you down too much. I can stay, if you want, but…”

“But it can’t be the same as it was before.”

They laced their fingers together.

“We could try couples’ therapy,” Clint offered, squeezing her hand. “I’ll have to make sure they don’t work for HYDRA or anyone like that, but I think we need it. We can find some new way to be okay.”

“And if you see Natasha again?” Laura asked carefully.

Clint shrugged.

“She made it clear from the start that we’d never be anything serious,” he said. “Part of the reason I never married her. She would’ve said no.”

“Would she?”

“Yeah. I’m too safe for her. But I don’t think she’s right for Bruce. He needs a more stable person. Someone who accepts all of him for the right reasons.”

Laura seemed to relax. She still rolled back over so she wasn’t looking at Clint, but things felt easier between them now.

Clint didn’t have two soulmarks, but he’d learn to deal with it.

Chapter Text

Valkyrie looked down at her arm as it itched. She pushed her sleeve back and saw her soul mark fading. No, not fading. Becoming fine pinpricks until nothing remained, like ink being drawn back into a pen. It was unnerving.

“Leader Valkyrie,” one of the Asgardians said, approaching her. She looked up in time to see his expression of confusion before he fell to pieces in front of her. More Asgardians, and some of the Sakaarians, burst into particles of dust and fell to the ground in dirty clumps.

Had the same fate befallen her soulmate? She thought she had met everyone on the ship, but perhaps not.

“Back into the escape pods!” she shouted. “Move! It must be something in the air here! Hold your breath until you are safely inside, and do not eat or drink anything from this planet!”

She made sure everyone else boarded the pods and sealed them, and then remained outside, weapons at the ready. If it wasn’t the planet attacking them, it could be one of the inhabitants. And they could damn well face her.

“Are you a coward, that you would attack unarmed refugees?” she demanded. “Come out here and tell me to my face why you are killing us!”

Hours passed. She could wait anyone out. Only the returning itch in her arm tugged at her concentration. With no move from the possible enemy, and no other physical changes, Valkyrie pulled up her sleeve again and saw that she had a new soulmark.

“What on Asgard?” she whispered.

Then the missing Asgardians began to reappear. The escape pods opened and people ran out to reunite with their friends and family. Valkyrie relaxed, slowly unwinding from the scare. She caught their attention.

“Since we now seem to be safe, let us find shelter close by until our king can find us,” she said. “We may not be able to stay, but once the danger has passed King Thor will return and we will find asylum together.”

She couldn’t help smiling as she stroked her soulmark, grateful that her soulmate was alive again. She didn’t know when they would meet, but now they had regained the chance they had lost.

Pulling out her flask, Valkyrie went to take a sip from it, only to find it empty.

With a shrug, she tucked it back into her pocket. Drinking was habitual after this many centuries, but she had to keep a clear head when all of Asgard depended on her.

Thor depended on her, and she would not let him down.

 

Five days passed before the one active escape pod reported that someone was trying to make contact. Valkyrie took charge of the transmission, ready to tear a new one out of whoever was blocking the channel.

“Yes?” she said tersely.

“Valkyrie! We are on our way.”

“Thor?”

He laughed heartily.

“You are not far from the escape pods, I trust?” he said.

“We have made camp very close by, your majesty.”

“The Grandmaster,” he said with much distaste, “restored everyone to life… those who could be restored. Our entire company is saved, including Heimdall and Loki.”

“Oh… good,” Valkyrie said. She still had mixed feelings about Loki.

“I am bringing several of my Midgardian friends to help us establish a colony.”

“Why?”

“Valkyrie, the more hands we have working on this, the faster we shall be able to build. They have brought camping equipment and other supplies to help. Dr. Banner is among them. You remember him?”

“Yes!” Valkyrie brightened as she remembered her shy friend. “I will be happy to see him.”

“Some of my friends can stay longer than others, but they all offered to help when I told them of our dilemma. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“I will ensure that everyone is prepared for your arrival.”

“No need for any ceremony. We just wanted to let you know so you wouldn’t think you were being attacked.”

“We thought we were being attacked on the first day,” Valkyrie said. “Many of our people turned to ashes. But they are all well again.”

“Ah… yes. I’ll tell you what happened after we get there.”

“If it was one of Loki’s jokes—”

“He was dead, Valkyrie. He couldn’t have played any joke.”

“Oh. I am sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he said, sighing. “We’ll see you soon.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

They arrived with little fanfare, but the crowds still cheered for their leader as he walked down the ramp. He waved, clutching a new weapon. He was followed by an assortments of humans.

Valkyrie listened as Thor introduced his friends to all of Asgard. He instructed Bruce to take charge of building and equipping a hospital. Scott, an engineer, was tasked with ensuring that the buildings had solid foundations and suitable structures. Steve, the captain of America, was in charge of construction, and Thor’s other friends were nominated to assist the Asgardians with anything they needed done, whether it was looking after children or cooking or delivering messages.

Thor intended to search nearby for life and ensure that they were not building on land which was considered sacred by the native inhabitants. He and Heimdall set off on their quest, while Loki put himself in charge of checking and ordering supplies.

Valkyrie was chosen as head of security, which meant protecting everyone, from outside influences or from each other. Whatever was necessary. She would have to train some of the other Asgardians to help her once New Asgard was established.

 

“I’ve noticed some people you could train to work under you,” the blonde woman said, approaching Valkyrie one day.

“Do you know much about fighting?” Valkyrie said.

“It’s what I’m trained to do. Not much else.” She shrugged as though she was telling a ‘mere’ truth, when Valkyrie was sure it was quite the opposite. But there was enough honesty there to satisfy her.

“I am willing to listen to suggestions,” she said. Thor wanted her to play nice with his friends. So she would. “Better you than Loki.”

The blonde smiled.

“I’ll drink to that,” she said.

“Oh, I wish,” Valkyrie said, patting her still-empty flask.

“Thor wants everyone to stay sober until the job’s done, or I would’ve brought the best Russian vodka.”

“What is Russian vodka?”

“Russia is a country in… on Midgard, and they invented vodka. It’s a colourless, flavourless alcohol, but it’s strong, and Russian vodka is the best and strongest.”

“It sounds like my kind of drink,” Valkyrie said. “Something you can add to other liquor without affecting the taste.”

“It could kill you if you drink too much of it, too quickly.”

“I’m Asgardian,” Valkyrie said with a smirk. “We don’t die easily.”

The blonde smirked back. It was a smile of agreement and challenge. She wondered if the Midgardian had any idea what she was getting into by challenging Valkyrie to a drinking contest.

 

One man spent the most time with the children and taste-testing food. He taught the children Midgardian games, including one which involved drawing a cross-shaped grid in the dirt and hopping on one leg in each square. He called it Hop Scotch.

How was a drinking game suitable for children?

He had only one arm, so he could not be too dangerous. He smiled when the children were happy, but any time there was a loud noise from the construction site he would put himself between the noise and the children. Valkyrie recognised the response to perceived danger from a former soldier. As he never hurt the children, and instead taught them songs from his home, she did not bother him.

Until the night she saw him sitting outside, staring at the three small moons above and looking sad.

“It sucks leaving my home planet to seek refuge elsewhere,” he said. “N-no offence intended to any of you. I’m just homesick, I guess. And tired of hiding.”

“I have had to do it twice,” Valkyrie said. “I left Asgard when my lover and friends died fighting Thor’s sister, long before he was born.”

“Wow, so you’re older than Thor? You don’t look it.”

“Thank you. I found refuge – of a kind – in Sakaar.”

“You’re the one who kept Banner company.”

“I kept Hulk company. I was the one who delivered him to the Grandmaster, so I owed it to him. He had a nice room but he was lonely, and no one else was brave enough to approach him. So I did. He took a long time to trust me, but once he did we were friends. I miss him sometimes. But I like Bruce as well.”

“I think he’ll probably end up staying here. He seriously needs a holiday.”

“What was your name?”

“Bucky.”

“I am Valkyrie. My name used to be… Brunnhilde. Huh. I had almost forgotten.”

“Bucky’s a nickname. My real name is James. It’s not weird to use a nickname like it’s your real name. Bruce is actually Banner’s middle name, he told me. Steve is short for Steven. Natasha’s real name… I have no idea what it is, actually. But it’s probably Russian.”

“She is the blonde woman with you.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve seen you with the children. You are good with them.”

“I had younger sisters.” Tears glistened on his cheeks. “I missed seeing `em grow up `cause of the war, then HYDRA. There was no point in reconnecting once I got my mind back. Came straight here from Wakanda, so it’s not like I’ve had a chance.”

“I am sorry.”

“Nah, it’s okay,” he said. “You’ve been alive a lot longer, dealing with your pain for so long.”

“I have been dealing with it using alcohol.”

He shrugged, smiling.

“That works, too,” he said.

 

Valkyrie had little to do with Steve, but he thanked her for talking to Bucky. Then he made sure to introduce her to Wanda and Vision, the newly-married couple who had travelled to New Asgard with the others. Vision could fly, so he and the winged man were helping to carry supplies to the top of the taller buildings. Wanda used her powers to lift the heaviest objects. She was haunted by something, and sometimes she stared at Vision for a long time, not moving.

“We’re not soulmarked,” she told Valkyrie. “Vis and I, we’re both unmarked. We chose to be together, despite Fate. It’s not like we’ve got other soulmates in the way.”

“I don’t think I’m meant to be in a romantic relationship with my soulmate,” Valkyrie said. “My heart died with my girlfriend. She was my one and only. But I would like a friend who can understand the pain of losing someone like that, someone who can pry my hands off the bottle when… when it hurts too much.”

Wanda placed her hand on Valkyrie’s forehead and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, they were filled with tears.

“I saw,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“That was better than when Loki ‘saw’,” Valkyrie remarked dryly. “He forced me to relive the whole thing.”

“I lost my brother. He was my twin.” Wanda’s eyes closed again, briefly. “I felt his loss as keenly as you felt the loss of your sister valkyries.”

“You must tell me about him sometime,” Valkyrie said. “Now back to work. I want to see Thor’s face when he realises how far we have come along.”

Wanda nodded and returned to work, a small smile on her face.

 

Valkyrie climbed the side of one of the buildings. Thor told them to leave the modestly-sized royal residence until last, but they had built the floors and the walls nonetheless. Having a much larger building to sleep in was preferable to more nights on the ground.

“I need a pair of wings up here!” she called below. She almost yelped when someone flew up behind her.

“Heard you needed my help,” the winged man said. Valkyrie looked him up and down and then nodded.

“Yes, you will do,” she said.

“What?”

“If you want to make a good impression on your soulmate, do not say ‘What?’ like that. I need a hammer and chisel. This is to be Loki’s room, and I wish to leave a ‘surprise’ for him to find later.”

“It’s not gonna be something he’ll trace back to me, is it?”

“Are you afraid of him?”

“It takes someone like the Hulk or Thanos to beat him up, so yeah, kind of a little nervous here.”

Valkyrie made a dismissive sound.

“Hammer and chisel, and we will compare our soulmarks later,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “You’re Valkyrie, right?”

“Yes.”

“Sam Wilson.” He held out his hand. Valkyrie shook it, grinning when he winced at her strength.

“I am looking for a friend, Sam Wilson,” she said.

“So am I. Steve’s great, but Bucky’s his main man. And I lost someone at war. Riley. I’m… I’m not looking for another relationship.”

“Nor am I, not after my girlfriend,” Valkyrie said. “It seems we are in agreement.”

“I’ll go fetch that hammer and chisel, then.”

“And I’ll protect you from Loki.”

“Good luck with that,” Sam muttered, before diving down.

Valkyrie laughed.

She was going to have fun with her soulmate.

Chapter Text

“Oh, uh, congratulations on the wedding, by the way.”

Time stood still for Pepper. Just for a few seconds, but then she heard Tony saying her name and noticed the man – Stephen Strange? – watching her with concern.

“Why?” she whispered to him. “Why now? Why did those have to be…” She tried to blink back tears and looked at Tony. He seemed to realise the truth at the same time as the doctor.

“Those are your soul words,” Tony said. “I remember now.”

The doctor sighed.

“Listen, this really can’t wait,” he said. “I’m sorry, Miss Potts, but it’s not overselling to say that the fate of the universe is at stake. We need your fiancé.”

“We?” Tony said. “Who’s we?”

Bruce stumbled onto the scene from behind the doctor.

“Hey, Tony,” he said.

Tony glanced at Pepper while Bruce hugged him. She knew the signs. He looked resigned, like he’d been waiting for her to abandon him. He nodded shortly.

“We’ll talk later,” he told her.

Then he led Bruce back through the portal, careful not to brush against the doctor. He cleared his throat.

“These weren’t the best circumstances, were they?” he said.

“I’ve gone to so many damn weddings, dressed nicely and hanging around the groom, just in case my soulmate mistook it for my wedding,” she said. “But there was no sign of you. And… and your mark, a few years ago, it was fading in and out.”

“Yeah. I crashed my car. But it led me to this moment—”

“Which is a really bad moment when you think about it,” Pepper said, hugging herself. She looked past him. “You have work to do. We’ll… we’ll talk about this later. Don’t let Tony get hurt, okay?”

“I promise I won’t let anyone hurt him.”

She breathed out slowly, relaxing.

“Thank you,” she said.

 

Every second he had to spare, Stephen found himself thinking about his soulmate. Pretty, of course. Everyone knew that. He’d seen her across the room at a hospital function before, but she was too busy shepherding Stark for him to catch her in conversation.

They wouldn’t have spoken that night, judging by her words. And what words.

“So, you and Pepper are soulmates,” Stark said while the ship hurtled uncontrollably through space.

“What?” Peter squeaked.

“Not you. Him. The wizard.”

Stephen sighed.

“You’re the one marrying her,” he said. “I wish things had turned out differently, but they didn’t. I didn’t meet her in time. You’re happy together. I won’t get in the way of that. The last thing she said to me was to make sure you didn’t get hurt.”

“How sweet,” Stark said. “Really. Tell me, have you waited for your soulmate?”

“I’ve dated, but I haven’t married anyone. Dating was a warm-up. Most people date nowadays, to get more comfortable with social and romantic interactions. That way they won’t be so overwhelmed when they meet their soulmates. It’s encouraged.”

“And I guess you’d know because you’re a doctor.”

“Yes.”

“Wait, is Strange actually your last name?” Peter said.

“Yes.”

“Oh. Uh, sorry. I mean, t-that I assumed it wasn’t!”

“Adults talking here, kid,” Stark said. “Why don’t you keep an eye out for danger?”

“That’s a lot of responsibility for a teenager,” Stephen remarked.

“Who’s now an honorary Avenger.”

Peter beamed.

 

Tony’s face was screwed up in pain, which Stephen regretted. But he’d seen what happened. He knew how this was going to go.

He’d seen the only way they’d win.

“Wait!” he said. Thanos barely acknowledged him. “Don’t kill him. Here.” He held out the real Time Stone. “Just don’t kill him.”

Thanos dropped Tony and snatched the Time Stone away. He slotted it into place on the Infinity Gauntlet and grinned. Stephen felt a chill run up his spine but there was no other way. This was how it had to be.

Thanos left soon after. Stephen sat down hard, watching as Tony used a laser to fix his stab wound. At least it wasn’t a through-and-through.

The arguments were inevitable. Tony gave him a weird look but started on Quill first, tearing into him for throwing off Mantis’s concentration and making them lose.

“You’d better goddamn hope that the Avengers can stop him, or we’re all dead!” Tony shouted.

Not all, only half, Stephen thought. He couldn’t remember the faces of everyone he’d seen die, but he knew that Tony and Pepper would both survive. Whether they ended up married afterwards, Stephen couldn’t tell. He’d only looked as far as defeating Thanos. Nothing else mattered.

This was his job.

He watched in resignation as the others turned to dust. Gentle Mantis, bewildered Drax, guilty Quill, terrified Peter.

Then it was his turn.

“Why did you do that?” Tony asked, tears in his eyes and dust on his hand as he looked at Stephen. “Was it… is it because of—”

“Tony,” Stephen said weakly, “there was no other way.”

He wished he’d had time to say ‘Look after her’.

But Tony would know.

 

Well… this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Stephen looked down at his hands. They shook like always, but they were definitely there. He was there. The others were all there. Tony and Nebula were carrying some kind of super gun, but they dropped it when the others reappeared.

“What happened?” Stephen asked slowly.

“We could ask you the same thing,” Tony said.

“Will we?” Drax said.

“No, we won’t,” Quill said. “And where’s Gamora?”

“Don’t start that again,” Stephen said.

“Seriously, you died and now you’re back and you’re asking us what happened?” Tony said.

“We were supposed to stay dead longer,” Stephen replied.

“What? You mean all that was meant to happen?”

“I told you; we were in the end game. But someone’s changed the rules. Or just plain cheated. I don’t know. I have to talk to Wong.”

He began to form a portal but he was still in shock and couldn’t concentrate. This was a situation he hadn’t accounted for. Was it another of Thanos’s plans? Had he caught on to what Stephen had done and was… doing something else? No, Stephen had done everything right. Spared Tony, given Thanos the stone, died.

What the hell happened?

Fortunately, Fate stepped in and gave them an answer. Stephen had so many questions for her but he didn’t know where to start. The Sorcerer Supreme inside him wanted to pepper her with questions about soul creation…

Pepper. That was the other thing. He wanted to know why he’d found his soulmate so late and what he was supposed to do now. But it’s not like Fate could sort out every soulmate problem in the world. There were too many humans. Too many souls roaming around, not yet united. And from what he knew of soulmate lore, some took centuries to find each other and bond.

Was that his destiny? To find his soulmate in another life? But what about this one? He wanted to be happy… no, that was selfish. He found happiness in other things. He didn’t need his soulmate for that, and he wasn’t stealing her from a man who needed her even more than… than Stephen did.

“Your minds swirl with questions,” Fate commented as they soared through the air back towards Earth.

“Sorry,” Peter said.

“No, your mind is relatively quiet. Your companions, on the other hand, are thinking about the same thing, and it is quite distracting.”

“Oh yeah! Doctor Strange is actually soulmated to Pepper Potts, but she’s supposed to be marrying Mr. Stark.”

Stephen pinched the bridge of his nose.

“She will be marrying him,” he said. “They’re engaged. I don’t even know her, and they’re happy together. I won’t come between that.”

“You weren’t actually saving me because of Pepper, were you?” Tony said.

“I wouldn’t have spared you and risked the rest of the universe unless it was the only way to win. But since I probably wouldn’t have seen her again, I wouldn’t have had to apologise in person.”

“So you don’t actually care.”

“About you, not particularly. About my soulmate? Yes. But I still don’t know her.”

“You’re soulmated to her.”

“She has a name,” Peter piped up.

“Yes, I’m soulmated to Virginia Potts, but she’s marrying you because she loves and wants you,” Stephen said. His calm tone belied the way his stomach clenched at the thought of not being able to be with his soulmate. Judging by the position of his soulmark, it wasn’t meant to be a platonic soulmateship.

“She could change her mind. We’ve split up before.”

“Is this you having second thoughts?” Stephen asked. “Are you actually looking for a reason not to marry her? Because if so, you should definitely call off the wedding. She deserves better.”

“Oh, I’ve never disputed that Pepper deserves better than me,” Tony said. “But are you worthy of her?”

“I was an arrogant asshole before the accident, and until I discovered the mystical arts I remained an arrogant asshole.”

“Don’t swear in front of the kid!”

“I don’t care,” Peter said. They ignored him.

“Look, I’ve wanted to meet my soulmate my entire life,” Stephen said. “Now I know who it is. But we live different lives. You work together. You spend all your time together. Even if you split up and Pepper and I tried to make a relationship work, you’d still spend more time together than she would with me.”

“Technically I don’t see her that much, since I spend so much time in my workshop and she runs the administrative side of things,” Tony said.

Are you trying to get out of marrying Pepper?”

“No! No,” he repeated more calmly. “But I need to be prepared for the possibility that she’ll want to give you a chance.”

“I would love a chance,” Stephen said. “But I’m prepared for the possibility that it isn’t going to happen. Don’t… don’t raise my hopes like that.”

“Maybe you two should just ask Fate,” Peter said. “I mean, she’s right here. When are you gonna get another opportunity like this?”

“We are nearly at Earth,” Fate said. “The right choice will be made. Do not forget, Tony Stark, that you have yet to meet your soulmate.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

“It could change things.”

“We have to leave it up to Pepper,” Stephen said. “It’s her choice to make.”

“We’ll be grown-ups about this and talk it over together,” Tony said. “She might not want to have the full decision left up to her.”

 

Pepper was lying on her side on the sofa, barely paying attention to the news.

Her soulmark had reappeared and Tony called from Wakanda to say that he’d be home as soon as he could. And that he’d bring Stephen so they could all talk.

Stephen had died. Pepper had felt her soulmark disappear. She’d cried for hours, fearing for him, fearing for Tony, fearing for the whole future. Happy had brought her ice cream, which she’d nearly thrown at him. It was Stark Ravin’ Hazelnuts, which she found a bit chalky (not that she’d ever tell Tony that).

“It’ll be alright, Miss Potts,” he said. “Mr. Stark will be back.”

Now she had to face both men, and she still didn’t know what to do.

Golden sparks appeared in a vertical halo and she sat up on the sofa to face them.

Chapter Text

Too many thoughts swam through Tony’s head. He barely spoke to anyone who wasn’t Peter or Strange – Stephen, he should really call him Stephen – while they were still on Titan. He didn’t say much to Fate on the way to Earth. And as they landed in Wakanda, his mind still reeled with questions.

He became distracted seeing the others again after… it’d been months. A year or two? A long time, anyway. And no, he didn’t feel guilty. Anyone in law enforcement had to be accountable to the government, and super-powered (or super-suited) people should be the same. He’d always feel guilt over Sokovia, over Stane selling his weapons on the sly, over… everything he’d done that resulted in the deaths of innocent people.

The princess of Wakanda insisted on Tony having a medical examination. He wanted to refuse but Stephen and Peter reminded him that Thanos had stabbed him. It didn’t matter that he’d fixed himself; Shuri bullied him into going to medical, and Bruce stuck by his side, nagging along with her. It was just as well. He’d felt an itch there a couple of times, and the last thing he needed was an infection getting to his spine.

He wanted to call Pepper, but what would he say?

“You did not do a bad job, but we would have done better,” Shuri declared. Tony tugged his shirt back down.

“I have to make my own vibranium from scratch,” he said.

“I am impressed.”

“Well, it’s an element, and they can be emulated easily enough.”

“Like the gold we use to make thread here,” Shuri said.

“You make gold?”

“It is a finite resource.”

Tony sighed. If it wasn’t for the fact that Shuri was impressed with his ability to make his own vibranium, he was pretty sure he’d be feeling emasculated right now.

“I noticed the soulmark on your back,” she continued. “Have you checked to see if the words have changed?”

“Changed?” Tony said. “Why would they change?”

“What Thanos did… it has had various effects on people,” she said. “Many whose soulmate or soulmates died and were resurrected have found that the words of their soulmarks have changed, although the handwriting has stayed the same.”

“I wouldn’t notice if my soul words were spoken,” Tony said. “I’m past the average age that people meet their soulmates, so I don’t think about it. I’m happy the way things are. I don’t want them to change.”

“Peter told me what happened,” Shuri said.

“Yeah, I know. Your voices carry.”

“I think it is sad that you have given up on finding your soulmate.”

“You don’t think it’s more romantic that Pepper and I chose each other instead?”

“It is romantic in its way,” Shuri said as he hopped down from the exam table. “But you are not the only two involved here. You each have a soulmate whose feelings must be taken into account.”

“Why?” Tony said. “I believe in free will.”

“So do I,” she said. “But you may find yourselves discontented. If things do not work out, one of you may throw it in the other’s face that it is because you are not soulmates. You may find yourselves drawn to your soulmates no matter how you feel now, and end up cheating. Would a divorce be as messy as breaking up now, or messier?”

“You’re just a kid,” he scoffed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I?” she said sharply. “There are very few people my age that I am allowed to interact with in Wakanda. I have seen and heard of enough relationship breakdowns due to people marrying the wrong person. It is different if they are meant to be friends with their soulmate. But when there is an attraction, it gets ugly. My father told me many stories, and T’Challa saw much sadness when he studied overseas.”

“Listen, stay out of it. It’s got nothing to do with you, princess.”

“Do not say that I did not warn you,” she said, finally leaving him alone.

Tony called Happy to tell him that they were back and alive. At least getting Happy to pass on the good news meant that Tony didn’t have to see whether Pepper was more relieved about him surviving, or about her soulmate surviving.

After he hung up, Tony saw Shuri examining someone else. He crept towards the mirror and checked the mark on his back.

It is so nice to see you again.

Pretty generic, expect that ‘it is’ wasn’t contracted. So English wasn’t her – his? – first language. Or his soulmate spoke in a formal way. Like Thor used to, before he spent too much time watching TV with Darcy Lewis.

Since no one was paying attention to him anymore, Tony walked upstairs. He didn’t even mind that Bruce was too caught up with the tech to notice that Tony was leaving medical. He needed time to think.

He ran into Steve, Sam, and the Winter Soldier outside the lab. The three other men froze, but Tony nodded distractedly and walked past them. He had bigger things on his mind than confronting them.

“Okay, let’s go,” he said to Stephen, interrupting him mid-conversation. “I’m not staying around any longer. I have a fiancée to get home to.”

“Congratulations on the wedding,” T’Challa said.

“Don’t you start,” Tony muttered. T’Challa looked surprised. Stephen sighed.

“Those are the words I said to Pepper Potts,” he said. “Her soul words.”

T’Challa’s eyes widened.

 

“Tony!” Pepper exclaimed, jumping to her feet. She hugged him tightly. She needed to do something, and this would buy her some time. Tony hugged back, relaxing into her arms.

“I was so worried about you,” he mumbled into her hair. “Didn’t know whether you were dead or alive.”

“Were you…?”

“Alive.”

“Thank God.” She wiped her eyes and looked at Stephen. “But you died.”

“I had to. It was the only way to defeat Thanos.”

“So it’s over now?” she asked. “The guy you had to fight?”

“Yeah, he’s been dealt with,” Tony said.

“Good.” She sighed. “Good.”

“So the wedding’s still on?” he asked. Pepper opened and closed her mouth. She wasn’t sure. “Your hesitation isn’t helping, Pep.”

“I don’t know, okay? I want to marry you, Tony. I just… this is really hard. I never used to think my soulmark was referring to my own wedding. Then I fell in love with you and forgot all about it. It didn’t matter anymore.”

“I’d say that’s fairly conclusive,” Stephen said, backing away. “I’d better get back to the Sanctum Sanctorum and check in with Wong—”

“We’re supposed to be having a grown-up conversation,” Tony said.

“And I’m supposed to get Spider-Man home. His aunt said he could stay the night in Wakanda, and T’Challa’s invited me to stay for awhile, but I still have responsibilities to attend to. I’m sure the wedding will be lovely. You’ll excuse me if I don’t come.”

He’d formed a portal behind his back as he talked, and he stepped through it without looking back at them. The portal disappeared and Pepper sank onto the sofa. Tony sat beside her.

“This hasn’t been fun for you, has it?” he asked.

“I feel terrible.”

“It’s not…?”

“No, Tony, it’s not morning sickness. I told you, I’m not pregnant.”

“Okay. It’s probably better if you aren’t, as things stand right now.”

“Do you… want to call off the wedding?”

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “Our history hasn’t been the best. We’ve had our ups and downs, our arguments, falling out over little things—”

“Not little things, Tony—”

“But still insignificant, considering that we do things on a huge scale. Both at Stark Industries and in our personal lives. We decided that it was best when we broke up. Now you think back over… for example, Hollywood relationships. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were married twice. Both times ended in divorce. Marilyn Monroe was married to Joe DiMaggio twice, right? Same thing.”

“Tony—”

“They didn’t marry their soulmates. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who make it work… but if you look at the statistics, they’re against us. And I don’t wanna go into this marriage worrying that one day you’ll wonder what could’ve happened if we went our separate ways and you got together with Doctor Strange, instead of just settling for me.”

“No one could settle for you, Tony,” Pepper said dryly.

“Yeah, I know, I’m too high maintenance.”

“You have FRIDAY and the robots to look after you. But you need emotional support as well—”

“I had a panic attack in bed once and you left. Just left me there. Didn’t call up anyone to help me or calm me down. Didn’t ask what I needed.”

“I… I didn’t know it was a panic attack. I didn’t know what to do.”

“I have PTSD, Pepper. Yeah, lots of people told me to get help after Afghanistan and the Ten Rings, and I should’ve done. It’s not like I can’t afford it.”

“But you have trust issues,” Pepper said.

“Even more reason to see someone. I shouldn’t have put it on Bruce. If I’m going to insist on my employees having optimal mental health, I should set an example. But you still left me in the middle of the night when I needed not to be alone.”

“I’m sorry, Tony.”

“I get it, I do. I don’t talk about things enough. Feelings. But I need help, and you can’t be a crutch for me. For anyone. You’re busy enough and you deserve better. Stephen’s pretty sure that’s not him. He’s thinks he doesn’t deserve you. But he made a tough choice because he knew it was the only way we’d win. He saved my life up there. Saved all our lives, ultimately.”

“Except the people who’ve stayed dead,” she said softly. “I’ve been trying to keep up with the news since Happy told me you’d called, and it’s not pretty.”

“I’ve already gained enough nightmare material to last me a lifetime,” Tony said. “I don’t think I’ll ever sleep soundly again.”

“We could have separate bedrooms?”

“No, Pep. I think… we need to postpone the wedding.”

“Tony—”

“Or call it off altogether. I’m not reliable enough for you and you’re too hard-nosed about responsibility for me. I need someone who can be there to support me when I need it and you need someone who can match their hours to yours. This marriage… it wouldn’t last.”

“You don’t know that,” Pepper said, but something had changed. She knew it. Her last protest was only half-hearted.

“I’ll make the announcement to the press. I hate dealing with them, but maybe this huge victory will help bury it somewhere in the society columns. Better to release this kind of news when an even bigger story is taking place.”

“If you’re sure?”

“I am. You go on home. Take it easy.”

“Tony… I live here.”

“Oh yeah.” He scratched the back of his head. “I’m gonna take a shower, do a video for the press, then go sleep in the workshop. Make sure FRIDAY enacts full privacy protocols so you’re not disturbed during the night with calls from the media.”

Pepper blinked back tears and nodded. She watched Tony walk away with a lighter heart than she’d thought she would have.

 

Stephen was still tired after the fighting, but he got up in time for breakfast. He joined the others at the table and began to help himself to toast, porridge, coffee, and scrambled eggs with pieces of sausage.

“There is a great deal of news today,” T’Challa said from behind his newspaper.

“I’ll bet,” Stephen said, and he shovelled a forkful of eggs into his mouth.

“The death tolls from yesterday’s attack.” Another thing for Stephen to feel guilty about. He’d known people would die due to the randomness of the finger snap, but if he hadn’t done anything the devastation would be worse. “There is a great deal of speculation about Wakanda’s role. We may have to open a Starbucks after all.” Okoye pumped her fist. “To appease the tourists.” Her face fell. “The engagement has also been called off.”

“Whose engagement?” Stephen asked.

“Pepper Potts and Tony Stark.” He choked on his coffee. T’Challa glanced at him over the top of the paper. “Last night Stark filmed a video explaining that, after a long talk, he and Miss Potts decided that their relationship would be unlikely to last.”

“D-did he say why?”

“He was quite vague, but he cited their chequered dating history and break-ups, and the fact that their schedules clashed too much for the relationship to be sustainable.”

“Oh.” Stephen didn’t like the feeling in his stomach. It felt like triumph mixed with guilt. It made him feel queasy. He ate some plain toast, to let his stomach settle.

“That leaves it open for you to make your move,” T’Challa said, setting his paper aside. He sipped his water.

“I can’t do that,” Stephen said. “They’ve just broken up.”

“And you are her soulmate. If you are even part of the catalyst, why wait?”

“Is that what you would do?”

“I’m fortunate enough not to be in that position.”

“Lucky you.”

“So will you go to her?”

Stephen paused to blow on his coffee and stir in a splash of milk.

“It’s too soon,” he said. “If this is partly because of me, I’ll wait for her to make the first move. I’m not going to rush this.”

 

Tony figured he should see the Guardians of the Galaxy while they were in America, since he’d bonded with Nebula for those few hours where they felt like the only two people left in the universe. They’d bickered over weapon construction, but Tony only went to the energy of arguing with people he actually respected, which said a lot about Nebula.

He found them outside an elementary school. Peter was gawking over the changes since the eighties, while a green-skinned woman – Gamora? – held his hand to prevent him from rushing to explore.

“How’s it going?” he asked the woman with antennae. She brightened when she saw him, breaking into a wide smile.

“It is so nice to see you again,” she said, putting a hand on his arm. All at once her smile dropped.

“Yeah, break-ups suck,” Tony said. “She’s getting on well with her soulmate, though, so I’m sure her bridal gown won’t go to waste. It’s only a matter of time.”

“I am so sorry.”

“What was your name again?”

“Mantis,” she said.

“That’s right. Well, it was nice to see you…”

Those words rang in his head. Her words. To him.

“Thank you,” Mantis said, looking as confused as Tony felt. She let go of his arm and the confusion melted away. “You have trouble with sleeping. I could send you to a dreamless sleep if you need it.”

“Yeah, you could do that,” Tony said, feeling a little dizzy. “Say, has your soulmark changed? Do you even have a soulmark?”

“Yes! How did you know? It now says ‘How’s it going?’, according to Gamora. She can read human. Peter was already teaching me, but Gamora helps.”

“Because I said that to you. Your words. And you said mine.”

Mantis’s eyes widened further. Honestly, he didn’t think they could grow any bigger, but apparently they could. She looked so harmless and innocent. He couldn’t taint someone like that with his life.

But hadn’t he already done that with Peter?

“What is going on?” Nebula asked.

“We are soulmates!” Mantis said. See? No one should’ve been that happy about being soulmated to Tony, not after seeing even a tiny bit of his messy mind, unless they were after his money. And Mantis wasn’t the gold-digging type. She was solely concerned with emotions and helping people. Kind of the antithesis of Tony. Well, he wanted to help people, or at least protect them, but he was having trouble with the broken engagement… mostly because people wouldn’t get off his back, always asking him if he was okay, was he talking to someone, was he drinking again…

“You’re not gonna leave us, are you?” the raccoon said.

“I must be with my soulmate,” Mantis said. “I can help him. He is terribly sad. You do not need me. I cannot fight, or fly the Milano.”

“We really do need you,” Peter said. Tony bared his teeth at him.

“More than my soulmate needs me?” Mantis asked.

Peter shut his mouth, hissing when Gamora punched his arm.

“You might hate me,” Tony warned Mantis.

“I will not,” she said.

“I hate myself a lot of the time.”

Tears welled up in her eyes.

“I will not let you feel like that,” she said fiercely.

“Wow. Okay. Uh, wanna get a drink? There’s probably a coffee place around the corner. This is Missouri. There’s gotta be at least one Starbucks.”

Mantis linked her arm around Tony’s, and he felt a wave of contentment wash over the anxiety and surprise and fear he’d been feeling.

He smiled at her.

Chapter Text

Every day since W’Kabi’s betrayal and banishment, Okoye had checked her soulmark in an attempt to remind herself that she would not miss her husband. That she would have a second chance. It was a shock to wake up one day, roll over and discover that the mark on her right breast was no longer there.

For an irrational minute, she checked the rest of her body, searching frantically to see if the mark had moved. But it was no longer there.

She had lost her second chance.

She fought as though she had nothing to lose, and did not mind her injuries. If she died, someone else would take her place. She would not be missed.

But then Okoye witnessed her king’s death in front of her eyes.

As they returned to the palace, carrying only Vision’s body, Okoye noticed Shuri looking for her brother among them.

Okoye knelt before the princess and made the cross of Wakanda across her chest.

“Your majesty,” she said.

The rest of the Dora Milaje caught on and knelt as well. Shuri’s look of dawning horror was terrible to see. Tears built up in her eyes, and she blinked them back instinctively. Her hands trembled as she raised her head.

“My mother is gone as well,” she said softly. “I am now alone.”

“You have us, my queen,” Okoye said. “We pledge our loyalty to you.”

“Please don’t,” Shuri whispered. Her voice shook. “Please.”

“Your people need you to be strong.”

“I c-can’t be.”

“You must.”

Shuri looked away, swallowing. Then she nodded.

“Very well,” she said. “T-take the injured to medical. Anyone who is not wounded must help… in other ways. If you have medical experience, help the injured. If you can prepare food and drink, go to the kitchens and make whatever you can. Everyone else, find tables and chairs and move them to… here. The foyer. It is a large area, and not far from medical. The guest rooms are available to anyone who needs to shower or sleep. That… that will do for now. I will issue more orders a-as needed.”

They all went to follow orders. Shuri insisted on joining the staff in medical, though her shaking hands forced her to delegate and supervise instead of participate.

Okoye was proud of her.

But she was overwhelmed with relief when T’Challa, along with the others, turned up at the palace, exhausted and dirty and famished, but alive.

Shuri, unheeding of her brother’s tiredness, jumped into his arms. Her body shook as she sobbed. Silently, to her credit. T’Challa placed her on her feet, speaking quietly.

Others reunited, spilling happy tears. Soulmates, friends, family.

Okoye stayed with the Scarlet Witch, who wept over her own lost lover.

 

Everyone slept in and feasted on leftovers for a late breakfast. The dress code was so informal that some joined in wearing only their pyjamas. Usually Okoye would hate the lack of formality, but the previous day had been so eventful that no one could object to a relaxed atmosphere while they recovered.

Breakfast was interrupted when the Guardians of the Galaxy landed outside, bringing two of the Infinity Stones.

“That’s mine,” Doctor Strange said, taking the green stone and encasing it securely in his necklace.

“That… that’s the Mind Stone,” Wanda said, staring at the other stone.

“It’s from someone’s head, right?” one of the Guardians asked. Wanda nodded eagerly, scrambling to her feet. “Okay. Show us the way.”

“I am Groot!” the tree said, running up to them. He was followed by the raccoon.

“What took you guys so long?” he said.

“We had to get Gamora back, then raise the Asgardians from the dead—”

“My people are alive again?” Thor asked, standing up and knocking the table.

“Yeah. You’re welcome. Get your things packed, because we’re supposed to take you there as soon as we’re done here. Your people have found a good planet to set up New Asgard or whatever you’re gonna call it, and they’re already getting started. So hurry up.”

“And my brother?” Thor said.

“That Loki dude? Alive.”

“Uh, can I go with you guys?” Bruce said quickly. “Please. I-I’d like to help.”

“Of course,” Thor said. “And you must all visit once we’re ready for guests!”

“Give me the plans for your spaceship and we will,” Shuri said. “We cannot get to another planet without a spaceship of our own.”

“Ours is customised, so good luck replicating it.”

“I love a challenge,” she said, her eyes sparking as she looked at the strangers.

 

Three months later

 

Shuri, of course, did build a spacecraft. It was sleek like the Wakandan jets, and she used traditional designs on the interior and exterior of the craft. She tested it by travelling to other planets such as Mercury and Neptune.

They had finally received word that New Asgard was ready for visitors. T’Challa insisted that Okoye be part of the guard accompanying him to Thor’s new home. She could not deny a certain amount of excitement at setting foot on a new planet.

That was not all she was excited about. At her first monthly medical with Shuri after Thanos’s invasion, she had discovered that her soulmark was back. Different words but the same writing. If only she had noticed when it appeared, but she had been too busy to do anything other than rely on muscle memory for everyday things.

Her second chance had returned.

“Welcome, my friends!” Thor said, walking up to them. Bruce gave them a small wave from where he stood beside a white man with black hair. “Brother, come and greet King T’Challa and his subjects!”

The white man sighed. He hand brushed against Bruce’s as he walked over to them.

“You know that Heimdall makes a better first impression than I do, Thor.”

“Nonsense, Loki. Brother Banner, why don’t you join us?”

“I’m good!” Bruce called back. “Want me to get Heimdall?”

“Yes, thank you!”

It was the most unusual manner of addressing royalty Okoye had ever seen. There seemed to be very little respect shown.

“We’ve known each other for many centuries,” Thor said, studying Okoye’s expression. “Bruce is a friend and now a member of the family, so he is not required to follow royal protocol. We will eventually re-establish formal protocol, but there’s been no time or use for formality while we have been rebuilding our society. Ah, here’s Valkyrie! The Valkyries are the fiercest warriors.”

“Really?” Okoye said.

“They are legendary! Valkyrie is the only one of her kind left, but she will train more women as soon as she can.”

“All-female teams of warriors are fierce indeed,” T’Challa said, glancing at Okoye, who straightened her shoulders proudly.

“And here is Heimdall, my oldest friend,” Thor said, beckoning a tall man, who clutched a staff in his hand. Loki returned to Bruce’s side, entwining their fingers together. “Heimdall, this is King T’Challa and General Okoye, leader of… what is your army called?”

“The Dora Milaje,” T’Challa said.

“It is an honour to meet such a powerful, beautiful woman,” Heimdall said, bending over Okoye’s hand.

“Careful,” T’Challa said. “Your eyes look ready to fall out of your head, Okoye.”

“Thank you for the compliment, sir,” Okoye said to Heimdall.

He immediately straightened up, examining her. He smiled.

“I am fortunate to have you for a soulmate,” he said.

Thor’s jaw dropped. T’Challa’s head whipped from side to side as he alternated between looking at Okoye and Heimdall.

“This was unexpected,” he said.

“I am satisfied with the arrangement,” Heimdall said.

“But I live in Wakanda,” Okoye said. “I cannot live anywhere else.”

“Must you return at once?” Heimdall said. “Perhaps I can convince you to stay here, at least part of the time. And I could return to Midgard with you.”

“Wakanda.”

“Midgard is Earth,” Thor said. Okoye blushed as she nodded.

“My mistake,” she said.

“Shall I give you a tour?” Heimdall asked.

“Go ahead, general,” T’Challa said. “We will be fine without you.”

“Very well, your majesty,” Okoye said, tucking her hand into Heimdall’s elbow.

“I have never seen Midgard,” Heimdall said, leading her along. “Earth, you call it?”

“Yes.”

“I look forward to you showing me your country,” he said.

“You should see the sun setting in Wakanda,” she said. “There is no other sight like it in the world. On Earth, I mean. Are your sunsets nice here?”

“This planet cannot compare to Asgard,” Heimdall said. “We always feel that way about our homes. But I am flexible. If you must be in Wakanda, I will be there, too.”

“I was married once, but it did not end well,” Okoye said.

“Whatever his mistake, I will not make it,” he said. “I swear that to you.”

Her shoulders relaxed in relief.

“Thank you,” she said.

Chapter Text

M’Baku strode back and forth outside the palace.

He’d lost his soulmark. It was gone by the time he was being treated in medical and bandaged like a mummy. He began to scratch at one of the bandages on his back.

“Leave that alone,” Shuri said, smacking his hand away.

“It was just a scratch.”

“A very big scratch!”

“As long as it did not go through my soulmark.”

“…Soulmark?”

“My soulmark is somewhere under this bandage,” M’Baku said.

“I did not see any words there, M’Baku.”

“No. You are wrong. My soul words…”

“They are not there.” She touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry, M’Baku, but I dressed the wound myself and I saw no soulmark.”

“Then he is…”

“I cannot contact Nakia,” Okoye said, approaching them. “She is undercover. Her usual number will not work and she has not checked in. I have also tried Everett Ross, but he is not answering—”

“He is dead,” M’Baku said hollowly.

“How do you know?”

He didn’t answer. He simply crossed his arms across his stomach, touching the bandage winding around his torso. Shuri gasped and covered her mouth.

“He is your soulmate,” she said. Okoye’s lips parted.

“Oh,” she said.

“He was,” M’Baku said.

That was two hours ago. When his back itched and Bruce checked the wound for infection, he found a soulmark and commented on it. M’Baku nearly twisted his neck off trying to see.

There was no doubt that the writing was the same. Everett was still his soulmate. But he would have new first words. Shuri was so happy for him that she cried. Because not only did it mean that Everett was back, but that there was hope for the others.

That hope was justified.

Now Everett was on his way from America. He was borrowing a plane from the CIA and would return Iron Man and Spider-Man to the United States. Doctor Strange had returned to Titan to wait with the Guardians of the Galaxy, taking the tree and small animal with him.

But M’Baku was thinking of only one person right now. He ignored T’Challa and Shuri’s smug looks. He ignored Ramonda’s serene, motherly smile.

“Incoming,” Shuri said.

Two minutes later the plane landed. Everett hopped down from the cockpit. M’Baku was at his side in seconds.

He didn’t hold back. He crushed Everett against his body, plundering his mouth without giving him a chance to think. He cradled his soulmate’s body close, not letting up until he felt Everett’s chest contracting against his, fighting for breath. He pulled back and waited for the American to focus on him.

“You will quit your job and stay here and marry me and I will never let you out of my sight again,” M’Baku said.

He couldn’t tell whether the tears in Everett’s eyes were from lack of breath or from emotion, but he didn’t care. Only the reply mattered.

Everett smiled softly.

“Okay, I will,” he said. “You bossy asshole.”

“You… you will marry me?” M’Baku said. He needed to be sure.

“Yeah. I have your proposal written on my body forever. Good thing I already knew what my answer would be.”

“Much better than our first words.”

“Yeah.” Everett blushed. “So you wanna do this as soon as possible?”

“Yes. I am not letting you go again.”

“I don’t have much. As an agent, I have to pack light, so there’s no point in owning a lot. I spend too much time away from home.”

“We will send for your things—”

“No, I mean, there’s no need. As soon as I came back to life and found my new soul words, I packed everything, handed in my resignation, and borrowed the plane. It has to be back at the CIA in less than twenty-four hours. I believe Mr. Stark can fly. If he can’t, Colonel Rhodes can.”

“You have brought your possessions with you?”

“Like I said,” Everett replied with a shrug, “I don’t have much.”

“If I could keep you in the fewest clothes possible, I would,” M’Baku said. “But it gets very cold in the mountains.”

“I’ll get used to it.”

“Oh, I will keep you warm,” M’Baku said, nuzzling his neck.

“Uh, I should say h-hi to Shuri and everyone else,” Everett said, flustered.

“T’Challa has given me a suite in the palace. The shower is large enough for us to share. I feel very… dirty after all the fighting today.”

“I’ll confess, I was feeling a bit dusty before.”

M’Baku scowled.

“You will never make jokes about dust again,” he growled. Everett’s eyes closed and he groaned as he rubbed his face.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was referring to packing my stuff and stowing it in the plane. It isn’t used much, so it was actually dusty in the back. I didn’t think. I’m so sorry.”

“I was not the only one upset to know that you had died, but it hurt me the most.”

“I’d be offended if I didn’t mean much to my own soulmate,” Everett said.

“Others can attend to your things. Come with me. I must see your soulmark. I did not see the last one, so I insist on seeing my,” his lips twitched, “proposal.”

Shuri dared to peck Everett’s cheek, and Ramonda gave him a hug. But T’Challa, under M’Baku’s challenging glare, kept a respectful distance and restricted himself to shaking Everett’s hand. Okoye grinned, laughing quietly through her nose.

“I am taking my soulmate so he can check that my wounds have healed,” M’Baku said. “And then we well begin preparing for a traditional Wakandan wedding. I do not wish to wait any longer.”

“As the leader of the Jabari, you are permitted to wear some of the royal jewels and you may also have your wedding in the throne room,” T’Challa said.

“We will work out details tomorrow. But tonight—”

“You will be separated,” Ramonda said. M’Baku made a wounded, whining sound. Everett snorted in laughter. “It is traditional, M’Baku. You must not be bonded until after the wedding.”

“Perhaps I do not wish to be that traditional.”

“I think it sounds nice,” Everett said. “My parents waited to bond until after they were married.”

“Whatever you want, dearest,” M’Baku said, kissing his hand.

Everett melted.

But he still went to the guest room farthest away from M’Baku’s; coincidentally, it was next door to Queen Ramonda’s room, and she slept lightly.

M’Baku felt somewhat thwarted, but he knew the reward would be worth it.

 

“Am I seriously being pushed into the bridal role?” Everett asked.

“Please, you may be a CIA agent—”

“Former CIA agent.”

“Do not interrupt me, coloniser.”

“Sorry, princess.”

“That’s better. But when it comes to masculinity, M’Baku is far more…”

“Obvious?”

“Yes. He is taller than you, he is bigger than you in every way, and he is the leader of a Wakandan tribe.”

“I didn’t think Wakanda would acknowledge traditional gender roles,” Everett said.

“There have been very few same-sex marriages in Wakanda,” Shuri said. “And none within the royal circle. We are winging the arrangements here. Now, are you entitled to wear white? Do not be coy; you know what I mean.”

“Well… yeah, but I don’t want M’Baku to know it! Not yet. I’ll tell him later. I don’t need him getting all grin-y and smug in front of everyone else. You know he’d make some kind of inappropriate remark about it.”

“That is true,” Shuri said. “Something white and blue? It will bring out the colour of your eyes and your soulmate will not be able to take his eyes off you.”

“In a good way, I hope.”

“Of course! M’Baku may carry you off if you are not wed soon enough, so the tailors will get this done as soon as possible. Food is being prepared. Are you ready to be a vegetarian for the rest of your life?”

“For my soulmate? Yes.”

“If you are lucky, perhaps M’Baku will end up eating you after all,” Shuri added with a wicked grin. Everett’s jaw dropped.

“If your mother heard you talking like that—”

“You wouldn’t dare tell her.”

“No, I’m not saying that kind of thing to the queen. But damn, Shuri.”

She snickered remorselessly.

The clothes were made at a superhuman speed. (Everett suspected that Shuri had equipped the tailors with high-speed sewing machines.) The palace kitchen staff worked to put together traditional Wakandan and Jabari dishes, mostly vegetarian, and the best Jabari alcohol was brought from the mountains. The throne room was decked out in pennants and ribbons, with chairs only for the elders.

Everett was brought in after M’Baku, through a different door. He blushed as M’Baku took in the white on his robes with ravenous eyes, which turned predatory as he met Everett’s gaze.

Don’t you dare say a word about it, Everett thought fiercely. M’Baku’s smile was mischievous, but he didn’t comment on the clothes or plain golden jewellery, except to murmur that Everett looked delectable.

And… there it was. Not as bad as he hoped, but still a clear reference to their first meeting, and… what Shuri had alluded to.

He’d probably never stop blushing around his soulmate.

Everett repeated the vows – whatever he was vowing – in his best Wakandan. Shuri gave him a thumbs up after he’d finished, so he probably hadn’t messed it up.

He’d have to ask her for a translation later.

As soon as they were told – in English, thank God – that they could kiss to seal the marriage, M’Baku swept Everett into his arms and made it clear how non-platonic their relationship was going to be. He nearly lifted Everett off his feet, devouring his mouth in a way that was almost obscene.

And then he picked Everett up in a bridal lift and carried him through the crowds. He yelped in surprise.

“M’Baku!”

“Yes, beloved?”

The soppy look that accompanied his words silenced Everett, and he buried his face in his husband’s neck.

Chapter Text

When she was a little girl, May used to dream of being just like Cinderella. Growing up in poverty in Queens, it would’ve been a dream come true to be swept up by a real life prince charming.

Boy, did life open her eyes. No soulmark until she was in her teens. She wanted to have children, so she married her childhood sweetheart.

They couldn’t have children. She couldn’t have children. Peter was nearly as good, but he came to them as an orphan. May lost her brother-in-law and his wife, who’d been good friends to her. Having a pseudo-son wasn’t worth the cost.

Then she lost Ben. Work became hard as she fought depression. The cost of living went up dramatically while May’s wages didn’t and Peter kept going through backpacks like they were going out of fashion.

Looking around the apartment, May knew that she got part of the Cinderella story right: she did a hell of a lot of cleaning.

Ned had confirmed that Peter had gone off as Spider-Man, but there’d been no sign of him. And it’d been hours. She considered calling Ned again; but he probably didn’t know any more than she did, and she didn’t want to worry him. Let him think that Peter had arrived home safely and conked out in bed. There was no need for anyone else to worry.

At least cleaning kept her busy. The last time the apartment was this clean was probably before the first people moved in.

She was polishing the coffee table a third time when something on the news caught her eye. She switched off the music and took the TV off mute.

“Millions of people have been reported disappearing and leaving behind a pile of dust, and the numbers keep growing. There’s no order to it. Driverless cars and planes and helicopters have been crashing, killing more people. Governments over the world are declaring a state of emergency…”

May sank onto the sofa.

“Peter,” she whispered.

She ignored any phone number she didn’t recognise, only answering when Ned called asking about whether Peter was back yet, and if he was okay. May had no idea what to tell him, and said that she hadn’t seen him yet, but that there wasn’t a speck of dust in the apartment. He sounded relieved as he thanked her and hung up.

May fixed herself comfort food for dinner and wondered if she could go to the bottle shop around the corner and buy out half the store. No. She had to stay, just in case Peter came back sometime soon.

(Just in case Peter was still alive.)

May had drifted off, exhausted after hours of stress-cleaning, when the news anchors started to cheer, causing her to fall off the sofa. They babbled about how people had started returning inside the studio. Breaking news of more resurrections flooded in. May scrambled for the remote and turned the volume up higher. She grabbed the phone and called Ned.

“It’s all okay!” she said. “People are coming back to life!”

“Is Peter home yet?”

“N-no. I’d better keep the line clear in case he calls. Sorry to wake you, Ned.”

“It’s okay, Mrs. Parker. I can’t sleep anyway.”

“I’ll make sure he lets you know when he gets home.”

“Thanks.”

She couldn’t help tensing up again, hoping everything was okay.

She scratched her side. It finally occurred to her that she was scratching her soulmark, and pulled up her shirt to see better. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she bunched up the clothing in her sweaty armpit.

Her mark had changed?

She pulled her phone close and hopped onto the web browser. She discovered that other people were reporting a change in soulmarks after the strange phenomenon. At least it wasn’t just her. So… her soulmate had died and come back to life? Was that what’d happened? Was her soulmate alright now? Would she meet them this time?

She was washing the dishes when someone cleared their throat behind her. She screamed as she turned and threw the knife she’d been washing. The man ducked out of the way and the knife flew past him and through… a golden circle?

“Who the hell are you?” May demanded.

“Doctor Stephen Strange,” he said, like he expected her to know the answer, or at least not be surprised. “I’m come to take you to Wakanda. I—” The knife flew back through and his cape moved by itself and caught the knife. It handed the knife, handle-first, back to May. She tossed it into the sink. “I believe you have a nephew named Peter Parker?”

“Oh God, please tell me he’s okay.”

“I’m not God; I’m the Sorcerer Supreme. Yes, he’s okay. He’s trying to avoid your wrath, I think. But Tony Stark insisted on letting you know that Peter’s alive. King T’Challa has offered a room for you to stay for the night, or you can just pick up your kid and take him back to New York. I’ll keep the portal open if you decide to return right away.”

“I need to finish the dishes,” May said.

“Okay, you’re in shock and shouldn’t be handling breakable or sharp things. Don’t you have a dishwasher?” She gave him a dirty look. “No dishwasher. Okay. Just… leave things to soak and air-dry, and you can come straight back after you pick up your nephew.”

“You’d better not be lying,” she muttered. “How do we get to… where was it you said? Wakanda? Isn’t that in Africa?”

“Just step through here,” he said, indicating the golden circle.

“…Teleporters don’t exist.”

He sighed and removed his coat. It flew around May, enveloping her, and forced her to step through the golden circle. The man followed her and retrieved his cloak. May looked around.

She wasn’t in her apartment anymore.

“What the fu—”

“Aunt May?”

“Peter?” She whirled around in time to see him ducking behind a chair. “Oh, you are the worst at espionage, I swear. How you even get away with a secret identity God only knows. Get out from behind there.”

He emerged, looking sheepish. She crossed her arms and stared him down.

“Get in the… teleporter, young man,” she said, pointing behind her.

“It’s a portal, actually,” Doctor Strange started to say. He shut up when she glared at him as well.

“You almost hit King T’Challa with that knife,” Stark said. He also received the full force of her glare and swallowed visibly, before stepping behind a tall guy who looked like… okay, that actually was Thor. Maybe. Wasn’t he supposed to have long hair? And a hammer, not an axe?

“We’re going now, Peter,” May said.

“Will you not stay for some food and drink?” a man asked.

“I’ve already eaten, thanks,” she said, grabbing Peter’s arm. She pushed him ahead of her towards the golden circle. Doctor Strange backed away from her quickly.

“Pardon me, Mrs. Parker,” the man said, addressing her again, “but did I happen to say your soul words?”

May froze halfway through the portal. She stepped back out again.

“Call Ned and tell him you’re home now,” she told Peter. He nodded with wide eyes, already scrambling for his phone. Which he’d probably lost. “Use the landline.”

“Did I?” the man pressed.

“Yeah, you did,” she said. “Sorry. I’m a bit frazzled at the moment. And I’m not looking my best. Of all the times to meet my soulmate, it just had to be today.”

“I am sure Tony can give me your phone number if I ask him nicely. Do you give him permission to do that?”

“Sure. I’ve gotta get home now, but I’ll… you call me. Tomorrow. I think we’ll both be sleeping in. School will probably be cancelled. You live in Wakanda?”

“Yes. I live and work here.”

She looked him over. He looked nice and he was behaving in a respectful way. That was a point in his favour. He seemed familiar to her, which was probably the soulmate pull. And the black, skin-tight suit accentuated everything very nicely. Her cheeks turned pink.

“I look forward to hearing from you,” she said. He smiled and her heart fluttered. Who needed a prince charming when their soulmate smiled like that?

She smiled back and gave him a little wave, before stumbling through the portal. She looked back, and the last thing she saw was his face.

Peter was soon off the phone, and he was standing there, ready to face whatever his punishment would be. May wanted to hear the whole story, but he looked like he was about to fall asleep where he was standing, and she felt the same way. Interrogation could wait until morning.

“Who was that guy?” she asked. “The one who said my soul words? I should’ve asked him, but I wasn’t thinking, and now I’ll have to wait for his call tomorrow… but I’m assuming you can at least tell me his name.”

Peter smiled, a bit smugly for the situation.

“Oh, his name’s T’Challa,” he said. “Y’know. The ruler of Wakanda.” He yawned widely while May stood there, jaw on the floor. “Night, Aunt May.”

…Apparently the concept of prince charming had been upgraded to king charming.

May stood there, shocked and amazed, as Peter staggered down the hallway to his bedroom. Eventually, the loud TV penetrated her mind and she switched it off. She had a fast shower, got into her pyjamas, and fell into bed for a well-earned rest.

A king. Holy cow. And she remembered something about him.

Her soulmate was Black Panther.

Chapter Text

Scott had to say no to the Avengers’ reunion in Wakanda. For one thing, he was still under house arrest. For another, Hank probably wouldn’t approve of Scott mingling in the same space as Tony Stark.

And then there was Cassie.

Her sobs had long since subsided into tired, tearful sniffles. He held her close, stroking her hair and wishing things had turned out differently.

“They’re definitely still missing,” he said.

“Yes,” the FBI agent replied. “It’s a good thing Cassie was with friends. If she’d been in the swimming pool with her parents… her mother and step-father, I mean, well, who knows what could’ve happened.”

She’d be gone too, just like them. But leaving it a mystery was the best thing to do, at least in front of Cassie. Scott shut his eyes and cuddled her more tightly.

“What can I do?” he asked. “Will house arrest be lifted, or can I only work from home? If you could find work I can do from here, and get the parents of Cassie’s friends to pick her up and drop her off for things, it could work, but it’s really no life. I never wanted this for my daughter.”

“You should’ve thought of that earlier.”

“What, before I went off to help Captain America save the world from Siberian super soldiers, who could’ve taken whole countries hostage just like that?” He snapped his fingers. Cassie flinched. Okay, bad move. “Sorry, sweetie. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I w-want Mommy.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry.”

“If you were able to find your soulmate,” the agent suggested.

“Soulmates. I’ve got two soulmarks. Neither of them belonged to Maggie. Both disappeared for awhile yesterday. One was gone much longer, but the other person had clearly turned to dust and come back like everyone… almost everyone else.”

“We’ve got our best scientists working on the problem, Mr. Lang. If Cassie’s parents can be found, we’ll find them. They’re not the only people who went missing from a swimming pool. Some people were in the ocean at the time, and most of them haven’t been recovered yet.”

“Well, as long as there’s hope,” Scott said. “I don’t know who my soulmates are. If I did… that would help. But I just don’t know.”

“We’ll keep you informed, Mr. Lang.”

“Thanks.”

 

Later that afternoon, while Cassie was asleep in her room, Scott’s TV-bingeing was interrupted by a phone call.

“Clint? What’s up?”

“You should really come to Wakanda, buddy. We’re having a huge party here. Vis and Wanda are getting married, because why the hell not, you only live once… or twice. And there’s so many people you haven’t met. People from outer space.”

“Clint, I can’t. I told you.”

“But why?”

“Because,” Scott lowered his voice, glancing around in case Cassie popped up out of nowhere, “Maggie and Paxton were swimming when Thanos… you know, snapped his fingers, and they haven’t come back. A lot of people who were swimming at the time haven’t returned. I don’t know whether they’ve drowned, whether their dust was sucked up by the pool’s filter and what that could mean for their bodies…”

“Oh God,” Clint said, sobering quickly. “I had no idea.”

“Cassie’s asleep at the moment. I can’t leave without alerting the authorities, and I’m sure as hell not leaving her on her own. I’m her only family now, unless her mom and step-dad show up again.”

“Well… want me to bring food to you?”

Scott’s stomach rumbled.

“Yeah, that’s be great, actually,” he said. “Something which can be frozen if Cassie doesn’t feel like eating. God, I’m tired. I just wanna sleep, but Cassie needs me, and I can’t concentrate on anything at the moment… sorry, you don’t need to hear all this. Food would be great. I’m just gonna lie down. Bring something whenever you’ve got a minute to spare.”

He hung up, threw the phone aside, and lay on his side on the sofa. He tugged one of the cushions under his head, shuffled into a comfortable position, and fell asleep.

 

The smell of delicious food woke him. Scott sat up and looked around. On the coffee table was a covered dish. He didn’t have anything fancy like that. Where did Clint get it from?

He lifted the lid and inhaled the delicious scent of spices and vegetables and juicy, fall-apart-in-your-mouth meat. He wiped the drool from his face, grabbed the knife and fork beside the plate, and tucked in. He ate quickly, sating his hunger, and leaned back with a groan when he was done.

He heard a giggle from upstairs. A smile tugged at his mouth. At least Cassie was cheering up.

Then he heard voices from her room.

Scott bolted up the stairs, feeling sick. Please let it just be FBI agents…

Clint was there. Scott breathed out a sigh of relief. He was watching from nearby as Cassie chased animals around the room.

“Much as I hate Loki, apparently he adores children, and when he heard what Cassie was going through he insisted on coming along to make her smile. He’s been creating illusions for her. Even some monsters for her to play with. He even animated the doll you gave her for her birthday. Temporarily He hasn’t done anything to hurt her.”

“Oh,” Scott said. “Okay. Uh, thanks for the food. But how did you get here? Wait, what day is it?”

“I was on the phone to you an hour ago.”

“An hour? How the he… heck did you get here that fast?”

“I believe I can answer that.”

Scott jumped and turned around. A tall man in a red cape was there, but it wasn’t Thor. And he made goatees look sexy in a way that Stark could only dream of. He had a little curl of hair in the middle of his forehead. Scott wanted to play with it.

“H-hi,” he said. “Nice to meet you. Who are you?”

The man’s eyebrows rose as Clint snorted.

“Smooth,” the archer remarked.

“Loki,” the man said. “Come over here.” He met Scott’s eyes. “I’m Doctor Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme. Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Lang.”

Wow, his voice. It was so damn smooth and dark, like hot chocolate. Just a little too hot to drink. Unapproachable but tempting. And he probably already had a soulmate, which would just be Scott’s luck.

Wait. Soul words.

“Your daughter is an absolute delight,” another man said, suddenly appearing at Scott’s other side. His longer, dark hair was tucked behind his ears and his green eyes glittered as a smirk played on his lips. Scott was kind of in love with both strangers and really wanted to kiss them.

“I can’t say she takes after me,” he managed to say.

Loki inhaled sharply and looked at Doctor Strange.

“He is our soulmate,” he said.

“Yep.”

“Wait, really?” Scott said. “I… I wasn’t sure. I mean, it’d be a huge coincidence, but I didn’t think… my soulmarks just changed yesterday, and you were both dead, weren’t you? Oh God. You were dead.”

“Daddy, what’s going on?” Cassie said. “You’re distracting Mr. Loki.”

“Wow,” Scott said. “You attacked New York.”

“We’re putting that behind us,” Stephen said. “He was forced to do it.”

“Oh, okay. Nice to meet you, Loki.”

“Lovely to meet you, soulmate.”

Damn, his voice was also nice. Smooth like silk. Not as deep as Stephen’s voice, but just as shiver-inducing. And he liked Cassie. Scott too, judging by the way Loki was devouring him with his eyes.

Clint cleared his throat.

“Cassie, if you feel hungry now I’ll make you a P B and J,” he said. “Your Daddy’s just met his soulmates, and I’m sure they have lots to talk about. C’mon.” He held out his hand. Cassie smiled at Scott as she passed by.

“Good luck, Daddy,” she whispered.

When they were out of earshot, Scott moved back through the door.

“I’m not talking about this in my daughter’s bedroom,” he said. “No way.”

“Of course not,” Loki said, snaking an arm around his waist. Scott’s cheeks heated up.

“We could go anywhere in the world,” Stephen said, running his fingers through Scott’s hair. “We could go back to Wakanda.”

“Or to New Asgard, once it has been established,” Loki said.

“It’s all up to you,” Stephen said.

“Uh, not really,” Scott said. He sat on the edge of his bed and lifted his trouser leg to show off the cuff. “I’m under house arrest because of the Sokovia Accords.”

“They will pay for doing this to my soulmate,” Loki growled, his eyes gleaming dangerously. Stephen touched his shoulder.

“We can deal with that later,” he said. “What do you need from us right now, Scott?”

“I… I don’t know. Cassie still needs to go to school. I can’t get a job to support her at the moment, and until my ex-wife and her husband are officially declared dead she can’t access their money. The FBI agent I spoke to said that things would be easier if I had my soulmates, but I don’t see how when you live… where?”

“New Asgard,” Loki said.

“And I live at the Sanctum Sanctorum,” Stephen said. “I protect the world from outside threats.”

“And I create mischief. I am also Thor’s advisor.”

“I was an engineer once,” Scott said.

“Clint told us about you,” Stephen said. “He kept hoping you’d come to Wakanda.”

“We were all terribly sorry to hear what had happened,” Loki added.

“Thanks,” Scott said. “I’m sorry. I’m not really helping right now, am I?”

“You have a far greater responsibility,” Stephen said. “You have a child to care for.”

“If you lived in Asgard, she could go to school with the other children,” Loki offered.

“Or I could use portals to send her to school and pick her up. It would be even easier if you lived at the Sanctum Sanctorum with me.”

“Then would simply be a matter of working out the weekends,” Loki said.

“And what to do in an emergency, like the one with Thanos.”

“She was safe with school friends then,” Scott said.

“She’d also be safe with any of our friends, on New Asgard or among the sorcerers’ community,” Stephen said. “She could learn magic from me. You don’t have to be a demi-god like Loki to learn the mystical arts.”

“Cassie has to have a say in this,” Scott pointed out. “It’s her future we’re talking about. She needs a formal education, at least until she’s ready to leave school. She wanted to be like me when she grew up, but I’ve told her no. She shouldn’t go through all this.” He gestured to his shackled leg.

“As one of my soulmates, I shall ensure that you are granted immunity from your government,” Loki said, crossing his arms. “You will not suffer from that… device any longer.”

“That’d be great. I was terrified of walking around the garden in case it set something off, like an alarm or alert.”

“How long has it been since you set foot outside of this residence?”

“Uh… a few months, maybe…”

“Loki, go sort this out now,” Stephen said. “Can you take on the FBI?”

“They are no match for me.”

“Just don’t kill anyone or we’ll have to go on the run.” Scott gawked as Stephen opened a portal with his bare hands.

“A kiss or two before I go,” Loki said. He leaned over and kissed Stephen openly, and then bent down to cup Scott’s cheek and kiss him as well. He whined when Loki pulled back and stepped through the portal. Stephen kept it open, following Loki’s movements through the FBI building. It’d become a too-familiar sight after Berlin and the Raft.

“I wonder how long Clint can keep Cassie occupied,” Stephen said, looking Scott over from head to toe. He blushed furiously.

“I’m thinking it wouldn’t be long enough for whatever you’ve got in mind,” he said.

“Pity. But I suspect Loki would curse me in some way if I didn’t wait for him to return before we bond with you.”

“B-bond?” Scott squeaked

“You don’t want to bond with us?”

“Yeah! I mean, you’re both… handsome, and I really wanna kiss both of you, like, all the time. But you don’t think this is rushing it?”

“After we came back to life and got a second chance with each other, and have now found our third… I don’t think waiting is an option. We won’t force you, I promise. But we’ll keep sending you chocolates and flowers and begging and giving Cassie toys until you give in.”

“You make it sound more worthwhile to wait,” Scott teased.

“Oh, trust me, if you think that all sounds good wait until we actually bond, and you’ll end up wondering why we waited so long.”

Scott swallowed and tried not think about the picture his mind was already painting in bright, lurid detail.

Loki eventually returned, dragging an FBI employee. The man trembled as he knelt by Scott’s foot and removed the anklet. He stood up, apologising, and retreated through the portal. Stephen dismissed it, shut the door firmly, and pushed Scott down onto the bed.

“Now I get my kiss,” he said.

Chapter Text

Rocket wouldn’t leave his spot. He remained by Groot’s ashes, tears sliding down his snout and onto the dirt below. Steve walked between the piles of dust which had once been living people, spending a few minutes with each one. He sat cross-legged on the ground beside the raccoon.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” he said.

“He called me Dad. The last thing he said to me.” Rocket wiped his nose with the back of his paw. “I d-didn’t know he thought about me like that. Figured Quill was more like his dad, but I guess we all told him off. And I raised him from a twig. I always made sure he got the best fertiliser.”

“I’m sure you did. His name was Groot, right?”

“That’s what we called him.”

“He told me his name.”

Rocket laughed softly.

“That’s how he sounds,” he said. “The only words he says are ‘I am Groot’. You’ve gotta know Groot language to know what he’s actually saying. He probably wasn’t introducing himself to you at all. Little brat probably said something about your beard. The mouth he’s got on him… had… on him…” He wiped his eyes. Steve held out a tissue. He kept a small packet in one of his pockets, but he’d never needed them for himself before. Today he did.

“Well, now I feel stupid,” Steve said. “I just introduced myself right back.”

“You lost friends today?”

“Yeah. Bucky, the guy with the metal arm—”

“Oh yeah! We shot aliens together. I wanted that arm.”

“And Sam and King T’Challa. Wanda was sort of like a little sister, and Bucky was like a brother to me. Or maybe more. Guess I’ll never know now.”

“Lose your soulmate, too?”

Steve sighed, tears welling up in his eyes again.

“Yeah, my soulmark’s gone,” he said. “I’ll never know who was meant to be my soulmate, either.”

“Sorry,” Rocket said.

“No, it’s no problem. I mean, yeah, it’s a huge problem. And I have no idea how we’re gonna solve it, if we even can. But if there’s a way to bring our friends back, we’ll need your help.”

“Don’t know what I can do.”

“You’re our weapons guy. You must know `em inside out.”

“I’ve made a few guns from scratch in my time,” Rocket said.

“See? We’ll need you.”

Rocket bared his teeth in a smile, but it fell away when he looked at the dust again.

“You really think we can bring `em all back?” he asked.

“We have to try,” Steve said.

“Okay. I’m in. Don’t make me regret it.”

“We don’t have to start just yet. We can sit here for awhile. We can mourn our friends first. I think… I think we need to.”

Rocket nodded. They sat in silence for awhile.

“Didn’t even get your name,” Rocket said.

“Steve Rogers.”

Rocket’s head turned quickly and he eyed Steve up and down.

“I know that name,” he said.

“Have you heard of Captain America?”

“Yeah, Quill’s mentioned the guy before.”

“That’s me. I was frozen in the ocean for nearly seventy years.”

Rocket nodded slowly and fell silent again, staring at Groot’s ashy remains.

 

They were all sitting around, discussing tentative plans about out how to defeat Thanos and bring the others back, when Shuri got a call on her kimoyo beads. She shrieked and ran to the palace doors. The Dora Milaje were hot on their uncrowned queen’s trail, leaving the rest of them to wonder what had caused such a reaction in.

It became obvious when the Dora Milaje and Shuri led their friends up to the palace. T’Challa had an arm around his sister. Rocket burst out the doors and ran to embrace Groot, who half-heartedly attempted to push him away, but accepted his hug without much grumbling. Steve clung to Bucky and Sam in relief, and Natasha pulled Wanda close, murmuring to her.

After Queen Ramonda returned with the guard who’d become dust, she called for a feast for the tired warriors. The Wakandans who’d been sent to safety returned, grateful that they’d been saved and willing to cook up dish after dish for those who’d fought. Furniture was moved to the one large area and the first batch of food was brought to them.

They were halfway through the second course when Tony, Spider-Man, and a sorcerer named Doctor Strange turned up at the palace. They joined the meal, less interested in conversation and more interested in food. The Guardians of the Galaxy were there before dessert, and the Wakandans brought out more food for them. Groot and Rocket moved to sit with them and catch up on everything.

The Guardians were heading back to space as soon as Rocket and Groot were ready to leave, but Peter was excited to meet Captain America. Steve donned the persona, complete with commanding voice and straight posture. Peter smiled like all his Christmases had come at once.

When they were about to leave, Steve bent to meet Groot’s eyes.

“Have a safe trip,” he said.

“I am Groot.”

Steve glanced at Rocket for a translation.

“He said your beard still looks stupid,” Rocket said, looking embarrassed. “Look, he’s too young to grow anything interesting yet. He’s just jealous of you.”

“No need to be jealous,” Steve said, patting Groot’s… shoulder? He hoped it wasn’t inappropriate. The Guardians didn’t tell him off, so he was probably okay. He watched them head off and wondered what it’d be like to roam around space, saving different worlds. Like living in Star Trek. (There was so much argument about which series was the best that he stuck to the movies.)

Stephen Strange was able to take a lot of people straight home. Those on the run were invited to stay until they had to move on, and Bucky was allowed to stay indefinitely.

Steve was grateful for the opportunity to rest. He stripped off his suit and turned on the shower. He finished undressing and stepped into the stall. He hissed as the hot water hit his skin, forcing his muscles to relax.

When he reached for the soap he realised that he’d left his glove on. It was battered and dirty anyhow, so he yanked it off and tossed it over the wall of the shower.

And stared at the different words.

He wouldn’t have noticed any difference at first; his soulmark had only appeared a handful of years ago, and he hadn’t met any kids since he started growing his beard, so he didn’t think about it. But now he took notice.

Your beard still looks stupider than Quill’s.

Was… was that what Groot said to him? Who else would mention Peter Quill unless it was another Guardian?

His old mark had said I hope that beard doesn’t survive the battle, which had made Steve laugh the first time he read it. And not much had made him laugh like that for a long, long time. But he couldn’t laugh right now.

His soulmate was currently hurtling through space away from him.

He went to bed, despair settling over him like a well-worn sweater. Familiar and useless against the cold.

 

Rocket looked up as Groot poked his head around the door.

“What is it?” he asked.

Groot pulled himself up to sit on the bed.

“I am Groot.”

“What does it say now?”

Groot showed Rocket the words carved in neat writing on his arm.

Have a safe trip.

“I am Groot.”

“Ah. Yeah, I remember what your old words said. When he told me his name I figured it out. Do you really wanna go back to Earth and live there?”

Groot shrugged.

“I am Groot.”

“What, so now we’ve gotta turn `round?”

“I am Groot.”

“You’re tellin’ Quill, not me.”

“I am Groot,” he reminded him.

“I was thinking about other things, like you being alive again! I didn’t have time to think about soulmates.”

“I am Groot.”

“Fine. I’ll tell Quill. Only because you’re my…” Son. “Friend.”

 

“What the hell are they doing back here?” Sam said.

Steve looked up from his sketchpad, where he’d been drawing Groot from memory.

“Who?” he asked.

“Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Steve leapt up, startling Bucky, who fell to the floor with an ‘oomph’. Steve stared out the window and slowly began to grin.

“They’re back,” he whispered.

“Yeah. I literally just told you that.”

“You don’t understand. Groot’s my soulmate. I’m pretty sure he is. I just realised it last night.”

“Explains why you’ve been down in the dumps,” Bucky said, sitting back on the sofa like he’d never fallen off.

“Wait, a tree is your soulmate?” Sam said. “Kinky, dude.”

“He’s a young tree,” Steve said, frowning at him. “We’ll just be friends.”

“This mean you’re leavin’ us behind?” Bucky asked, looking up at Steve from behind his curtains of hair. Steve’s chest constricted.

“Maybe I can take you with me,” he said. “You and Rocket seemed to be getting on well.”

“Seems like a chill guy.”

“I can’t leave my vets behind,” Sam said. “Yeah, I know we’ve been on the run, but at least they can call me.”

“Have they?” Bucky asked.

“…No. But someone should stay with Natasha.”

“We’ll miss you, Sam,” Steve said.

“Make sure you visit from time to time, okay?”

“We will.”

Steve didn’t have much to pack. Neither did Bucky. They said goodbye to their friends, goodbye to Wakanda, and walked up the ramp of the Milano to their new life in the stars.

Chapter Text

The first thing Bucky saw was Steve, kneeling in front of him with a tear-stained face and a look of disbelief. He reached out and poked Bucky’s chest.

“You’re… you’re really back,” he whispered.

“When did I ever leave?” Bucky said.

“It’s… it’s been hours, Buck. Don’t you remember turning to dust?”

“I remember a sick sorta feeling. I saw you. Then… I don’t remember after that.”

“Come on. Let’s get back to the palace.”

“I wanna return to my tent,” Bucky said stubbornly.

“And Queen… Princess Shuri will wanna check you over and make sure there aren’t any after-effects.”

“Queen?”

“T’Challa died, too. And Wanda, and Vision, and Sam—”

Sam died?”

“Yeah. Thanos snapped his finger and erased half the universe. That included you. I saw you die… right in front of me. Again.”

That explained why he’d been crying.

“Sorry,” Bucky said.

“It’s alright. You’re back now. And you don’t get to go straight to the tent. You’re going to medical. And you’re not going back to your tent alone.”

“Are the children okay?”

“The children?” Steve said.

“I’ve been playing with the kids around here. Are they okay?”

“T’Challa made sure the civilians were evacuated to safety.”

“Good.”

He let Steve hold him up because that’s what he seemed to need. Bucky didn’t mind giving him some comfort. It’d always been this way between them.

He noticed Rhodey supporting Sam to their right.

“On your left,” Bucky said. Sam glared at him while Steve laughed.

“Yeah, laugh it up, asshole,” Sam said. “Big, dumb blond dragging me into trouble again. I’m gonna retire after this.” He met Bucky’s eyes. “What’re you smiling at?”

“We made it through another battle,” Bucky said, shrugging.

“I guess we did, man.” He held out his fist. Bucky obligingly bopped it with his own.

“Let’s get you both to medical,” Rhodey said. “Good thing T’Challa came back before the rest of you. He sent for help immediately. Need stretchers?”

“Nah,” Bucky said. “Where’s Wanda? Is she okay?”

“Well, Vision’s still… offline, so no, she isn’t.”

“Poor kid,” Sam said. “Were they soulmates?”

“Neither of them were marked,” Steve said. “After her brother… after Pietro was killed in battle, she kept trying to… to…”

“She kept slitting her wrists,” Rhodey said. “Vision was usually the one who found her self-harming, because he had no concept of using the door. He brought her back from the brink over and over again until she stopped cutting, and started eating right.”

“She thought she was meant to die young,” Sam said. “Then she found someone else who didn’t have a soulmark.”

“And now she’s lost him,” Bucky said. “Can… can we bring him back?”

“Shuri has his blueprints,” T’Challa said, joining them with Okoye’s support.

“So she can fix him?”

“She can replicate the parts of him that were broken,” he corrected.

“Including the Mind Stone?” Steve said. “Because that’s pretty damn powerful.”

“We will see,” T’Challa said.

Natasha was leading Wanda ahead of them, pretty much holding her up, and the tree was holding the back of her coat as he followed them. Natasha kept pulling Wanda’s arms down to her sides. Bucky hoped someone would keep an eye on her until they definitely had a way to bring Vision back, or Wanda could destroy herself before anyone could intervene.

“At least she had someone,” he murmured.

“What was that?” Steve said.

“Nothin’.”

“He said ‘at least she had someone’,” Sam said.

“Tattle-tale!” Bucky complained, scowling at Sam from between long strands of hair.

“Oh my God, do you really still call people that?”

“Buck, are you lonely?” Steve said.

“Hey, leave him alone,” Rhodey said sharply. “I haven’t found my soulmate, either. But it doesn’t mean I’m lonely. It means there’s a part of me I still haven’t found, but I’ve got plenty of friends to keep me company, work to keep my mind off it, and when I’m in bed I’m mostly sleeping, so the loneliness doesn’t last long. I even play audio books so I can hear someone talking while I’m going to sleep.”

“Thanks,” Bucky said, smiling at Rhodey. Rhodey smiled back.

Bucky insisted that the rest of them go first, but there were enough people in medical to examine him at the same time as the others. He got Bruce Banner, who he’d never met before, but seemed like a really nice guy. He was gentle and sympathetic, empathising with Bucky’s feelings of being a monster trapped inside a human body.

“Your soulmark is intact,” Bruce said. “But the words have probably changed. You died, after all, and your soulmate might’ve died, too.”

“I wouldn’t even know if I met them,” Bucky said. “As the Winter Soldier. My mind wasn’t exactly my own.”

“I know what that’s like.”

“And do I even wanna find my soulmate? They shouldn’t be pulled into my life. I’m dangerous. I don’t wanna be, but…”

“I know,” Bruce said, handing him a tissue. Bucky hadn’t even realised that he’d started to cry. He mopped up the tears and threw the tissue into a bin.

“What if my soulmate hates me?”

“I can’t answer that. It’s for the two of you to sort out. But… there’s a fine line between love and hate. I’m guessing you’ve heard that one before.”

“Yeah.”

“The real opposite of love is indifference. Strong feelings, they’re all basically the same. That’s what that particular philosophy means.”

“But I don’t want to mistake love and hate. I just want…” He hugged himself, shivering as his arm rubbed against the cold metal of the prosthesis. Bruce helped him remove it and store it in the box Shuri had provided.

“Comfort and understanding,” Bruce said. Bucky tilted his head. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. I mean, more would be nice but I don’t wanna be greedy.”

“I know that feeling, too.”

“…Thanks, doc.”

“You’re welcome, Bucky. You can get dressed now.”

Bruce attached a monitor to Bucky’s wrist. It looked like a wide black rubber band, but since Shuri had made it, it probably had a whole host of hidden treasures.

“During the night everyone’s going to be monitored,” Bruce said. “Not just those who became dust, but everyone who fought. If anything happens to your body, the technicians will know and they can track you down and help you, which is why you should stay in the palace tonight. You’ll be closer to help that.”

“Should have one of these all the time.”

“Trust me, there are times you want to be so untraceable that even Tony Stark can’t find you,” Bruce said wryly.

“Yeah, I’ve been there, too. Steve somehow still found me.”

“So the two of you aren’t soulmates?” Bruce asked, helping Bucky slip on the rest of his Wakandan clothing.

“Never were, though I guess we’re kinda like an old married couple by now.”

“With a lot of unexpected twists and turns along the way.”

Unwanted twists and turns,” Bucky said.

“Hmm. So, has your soulmark changed?”

Bucky pulled back the sleeve of his robe and checked his upper arm.

What’re you smiling at?

“Yeah,” he said. “Can’t remember what it was before. Like I said, my brain was scrambled eggs. At least I know I haven’t killed my soulmate.” He stroked the letters of his soulmark. “This proves they’re still alive… or alive again. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to kill `em before.”

“What… you’ve gotta be kidding me!” Sam exclaimed, his voice echoing through the large room.

“What’s wrong?” Steve asked him. There was silence for a moment. “Oh. Uh, you should probably wait—”

There were quick footsteps. Bucky raised his eyebrows as Sam nearly stormed past and then stopped by his bed.

“What?” he asked warily.

“Since when are we soulmates?” Sam said. He raised the left side of his shirt and twisted to show off the soulmark on his torso.

On your left. In Bucky’s handwriting.

“Uh… HYDRA was controlling me when we met?” he said weakly. “I wouldn’t have noticed my soul words?”

“And I was busy trying not to get killed by you.”

“Hey,” Bruce said, stepping between them, while Bucky’s heart sank to his shoes. He should’ve known this would happen. He couldn’t be happy.

Sam rolled his eyes, pushed past Bruce and hauled Bucky off the bed into a bone-melting kiss. He wrapped his arm around Sam’s shoulders so he wouldn’t sink to the floor into a puddle, whimpering as Sam gently nipped his bottom lip.

“Lucky you’re cute,” Sam said, pinching Bucky’s behind.

Bucky yelped in surprise.

Chapter Text

Natasha hated her soul words.

Hey, sexy lady!

Despite the feminine handwriting, she was sure it would be a man. The kind of major criminal she would seduce, using their soulmarks to gain his complete trust, then take him out along with his entire operation. That’s what she was trained to do. She’d been put on Earth to get rid of people; at first ambiguous or good people, and later ambiguous or bad people.

There was no other reason for her to have a soulmark. Love was for children and soulmateship was a fairytale spun for the romantics. And romantic people were weak.

Sadly, she heard her words all too often, and never from her soulmate. She always made sure to say something unusual in return or advance, which gained her a few odd looks. Except from Clint. As soon as she said something strange to him, before he could even speak, he knew why she did it.

“I have the same problem,” he’d said. “Generic soulmark, right?”

“Not exactly, but you’re close,” she’d replied.

Instant friendship. Much more preferable to a soulmate, who’d inevitably complicate Natasha’s life and compromise her.

The few hours that her soulmark was gone were simultaneously the most relieving and terrifying of her life.

She swore as the itch from earlier resumed. She couldn’t scratch her back subtly, so she returned to medical and asked one of the female technicians to check for a rash or infection.

“Did you have a soulmark here?”

“Yes, but it’s gone. My soulmark was erased along with half the world’s population. How did you know? Is this a side-effect of my soulmate dying?”

“It is apparently a side-effect of your soulmate returning.”

“What?” Natasha jumped down from the examination table. “I need a mirror.” A mirror was promptly produced and she craned her neck to see the reflection properly.

I kinda hoped we’d meet under better circumstances, I gotta say.

That was a definite improvement over the last mark. Perhaps her soulmate had grown up? Perhaps death and resurrection had, or would, matured them?

“But if my soulmate has returned to life after dying with everyone else,” Natasha said, and she trailed off, her eyes widening.

She and the rest of the staff bolted out of medical.

The world was saved.

 

Jane was crouched in a corner of the lab, half under a bench, and she was sobbing loudly. Her knees were tucked up against her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, and she was babbling. Darcy hauled herself up from… the floor? Well, she had a scientist to wrangle, so she couldn’t just lay around all day.

“Janey, what’s wrong?” she asked.

Jane looked up so fast that, if she wasn’t so short, she would’ve hit her head on the underside of the bench. She scrabbled across the floor and launched herself at Darcy.

“You’re back! You’re alive! Everyone was dead and you were dust but now you’re alive again! Oh, Darce, I was so scared! You were dead!” She cried into Darcy’s shoulder. That’d be hard to wash out of her woolly sweater. But Jane was upset and needed to be comforted, and Darcy was her friend.

…Back up. Dead?

“Jane, you have to calm down and explain,” Darcy said. “Don’t make me slap you to snap you out of it.”

Finally she was able to extract the full story, or as much as Jane knew. They surfed the internet together, Jane half-draped over Darcy like she’d disappear if they weren’t touching. Twitter nearly crashed with people pouring in a new wave of tweets under the hash-tag #backfromthedust. There were too many to count. But if the rumours of half the world disappearing were true, and all these people were returning, that was over three billion. And who knew how far the effects reached?

“Okay, so in conclusion I’m back in one piece,” Darcy said. “Good to know. Let’s go get coffee. I need a pick-me-up after this.”

“Darcy, we have to call the Avengers. They’ll know what happened.”

“You call Selvig and make sure he’s okay, and I’ll call Pepper Potts. There’s nothing that woman doesn’t know.”

Calming down, and now with orders to follow, Jane called up everyone on her contact list while Darcy called all the other people she could think of, including Agent Ipod Thief’s old number, Clint’s number, Pepper Potts, Maria Hill, even Wakanda. Pepper didn’t know where Tony was, Maria was with her boss and was planning to contact Clint, Agent Ipod Thief’s number was still disconnected, and Wakanda was too busy to talk due to some mix-up in the royal family.

Jane had more luck. Ian was still missing, but everyone else was accounted for, which was good. Darcy’s parents were alive. Jane’s family was alive. Selvig was alive but now busy looking into what’d happened.

That was Jane’s cue to check on any astronomical activity in the last few hours.

Darcy sneaked out and bought coffee and donuts, returning before Jane noticed she was gone. Now in Science mode, very little of the outside world had any impact, except the nourishment that Darcy forced on her.

“That’ll keep ya going,” she said, patting her scientist on the back.

Then she got back to updating her social media accounts, hoping someone would see her pleas for information.

 

“Lewis is getting impatient,” Tony said, scrolling through Darcy’s Twitter feed. He started following her because it was the best way to get updates on Jane’s work and on anything Thor-related. He kept following her because she was witty and sent him pictures of robot-related memes whenever bad news relating to Stark Industries surfaced in the media.

“What do you mean?” Bruce asked. “Lewis… Darcy Lewis? I liked her. You tried to get her to work for you once, right? Really into music? Adores the Hulk?”

“Hey, she liked you, too. But yeah. She’s in a panic over not knowing what’s going on.” He winced. “She tweeted that she was one of the people who…”

“Who turned into dust?”

“Yeah.”

“We need to get her to Wakanda.”

“You read my mind, big guy. Hey, doc?”

“Please don’t call me that,” Strange said, sighing. “What is it?”

“We need you to pick up a friend of ours. And her friend. They deserve to hear the truth. Plus, her friend is Thor’s girlfriend.”

“Ex-girlfriend,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“Apparently. He and Loki were talking about it while we were on the ship going from Asgard to… well, wherever we were going to seek refuge.”

“Huh. We’re still gonna need Darcy. Hang on, I’ll find a picture of the place. You can grab them from there.”

“I’m not kidnapping anyone,” Strange said, crossing his arms. The neck of his cloak bristled, the corners making threatening motions towards Tony.

Invite her here, then.”

“It’s not my home.”

“You can invite your friends if you feel it will give them some reassurance,” T’Challa said. “We have plenty of food and drink.”

“Thank you, your highness,” Bruce said. His fingers danced nervously along his thigh as Tony showed Strange a picture on his phone. He was able to summon up a portal and disappear through it. The portal disappeared after him.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t get arrested for kind-of breaking into a secure facility,” Tony said, sitting beside Bruce again.

“Tony!”

“What? He can hocus-pocus his way out of trouble.”

Bruce rolled his eyes.

Natasha watched this unfold, content to work her way through the hot soup she’d been given. Vision had been restored soon after everyone returned, though to Wanda it probably felt like days, instead of the half hour it actually was.

Bruce had been skittish and awkward around Natasha. Had he met his soulmate? Or was he retreating into his self-constructed shell after two years as the Hulk? She’d put him there. She’d made him become what he hated and he’d been stuck like that for a long time. He could’ve been stuck like that forever. It would take a long time to win his trust again.

Another portal opened, this time showing a different background scene. They barely caught a glimpse before two women were being ushered through, followed by Strange and the sound of shouting voices. He quickly closed the portal again.

“That was the coolest thing ever,” the first woman said. “Dude, can we try that again sometime? How far can you go? Do you have to know what a place looks like to be able to go there? Do—”

“Are you the scientist?” Natasha asked her.

The woman froze, turned to her, and looked her up and down. Her eyes lit up with recognition while her cheeks turned pink. With embarrassment or pleasure?

“I kinda hoped we’d meet under better circumstances, I gotta say,” she said.

Natasha gripped her soup bowl tightly. She didn’t know what to do.

“I see,” she said.

“We read that some people’s soulmarks had changed, so I checked mine while Jane was busy with Science. Then goatee guy with the awesome cape turned up.”

“It’s the Cloak of Levitation,” Strange said.

“Aw.” Darcy cooed over the cloak, laughing as it shook her hand. “So cute! Like kittens and puppies meeting for the first time cute. Aw, I want one! Hey, Cloak of Levitation, do you have a brother or sister?”

Strange chuckled in amusement.

“So you’re my soulmate,” Natasha said, to clarify. And also regain her soulmate’s attention. No, not that. Just to clarify. She didn’t need attention. She was a spy.

“Looks like!” Darcy said. “Thought you were sexy the first time I saw a picture of you. Wish we could’ve stayed in New York longer, but it was off to Europe for the Nobel Prize. Then Jane and Thor broke up, so no more invitations from Pepper.”

“Or from me,” Tony said.

“You just wanted me to work for you.”

“You know, after all this extraterrestrial activity that’s been going on, there might actually be a place for an astrologer—”

“Astrophysicist,” Jane corrected.

“At Stark Industries. We’ll talk later. I’m sure you and Romanov wanna chat about the soulmate thing.”

“Yes, we should,” Natasha said, rising smoothly. “Let’s go outside. Wakanda’s a beautiful country. You should see some of it while you’re here, not just the inside of the palace.”

“It’s an awesome palace, dude,” Darcy said, flashing T’Challa the thumbs up, both hands. He smiled and bowed his head.

“Thank you, Miss Lewis,” he said.

Natasha led Darcy outside before she could become distracted again, leaving Jane to introduce herself to the people she hadn’t met.

“What did my old soulmark say?” Darcy asked.

“It said ‘Hey, sexy lady’,” Natasha replied. “With an exclamation mark.”

“Oh… bet you heard that a lot.”

“I heard it enough.”

“I’m sorry. I mean, it’s still true. You can rock any hairstyle, though I like the short, wavy look.” She played with a lock of Natasha’s hair and then dropped her hand. “I am so sorry. I’m not much of a boundaries girl with people I like.”

“You don’t even know me yet.”

“But you’re my soulmate,” Darcy said. “Automatic like.”

“That’s trusting of you,” Natasha said.

“Well, what did you think I was gonna be like?”

“You don’t want to know,” she said. “I don’t trust easily.”

“You think I do? I carry a taser with me everywhere, even where it isn’t legal. At least since Jane got her Nobel Prize I’ve been able to use the excuse that I’m her bodyguard. No one’s been stupid enough to argue yet.”

“At least you can take care of yourself,” Natasha said. “Not nearly enough, but it’ll do for now.”

“Good,” Darcy said. “I thought you’d be disappointed in me or something.”

“No. I’m… pleased. With you. More than I thought I would be.”

“Great! Wanna get something to drink and talk about stuff?”

“Yes. Let’s do that.”

It seemed that there was hope for her after all.

Chapter Text

The Hulk was refusing to show his face, to Bruce’s consternation. Even though Thanos had beat them for now, and Bruce was going to be more help than the other guy at the moment, he wanted to make sure that he had backup.

But with the threat of Thanos still in the air, there was nothing doing. Not until Bruce scratched the itch on his upper thigh, then pulled his trousers down to make sure he wasn’t injured or getting a rash…

No soulmark.

“Oh, now you wanna come out,” he growled as the Hulk roared in his head. “Not in here, you don’t.”

He pulled up his pants and ran from the bathroom, running past people and nearly slamming into doors as he raced to get outside.

The beautiful grounds of Wakanda weren’t enough to calm him down. Bruce used the last of his clarity to send the Hulk towards the mountains, where there would (he hoped) be less stuff to break.

Through a haze of green, Bruce watched the Hulk beat at stones, causing a few minor rockslides, and roar angrily at the heavens, pulling up tufts of grass and banging his head against trees with sorrowful howls.

 

“How do we get home?” Peter asked. “Aunt May will kill me when she finds out where I’ve been, but I’d rather die on Earth.”

“No more jokes about death, kid,” Tony said. “Ever. I don’t care if it’s a coping strategy, I don’t wanna hear it. You actually died.”

“Oh God… I hope Aunt May’s okay.”

“I’m sure she’s fine. We’ll find a way back to Earth. Don’t worry about it.”

“You do know that I can—” Strange began. But he was cut off by Peter.

“What’s that?”

There was a sleigh. A goddamn sleigh, right in the sky like Christmas was early. But that sure as hell wasn’t jolly old Saint Nick.

The sleigh landed and the woman controlling it introduced herself as Fate. Right. Of course. Because this kind of thing happened in Tony’s life now. He didn’t believe in Fate any more than he believed that Thor was an actual god (because that would also make Loki a god, and Tony refused to give him that much credit). But a person was here, offering to take them back to Earth, and if it turned out to be a kidnapping attempt then the wizard could summon a portal and get them to safety.

“Sure,” he said, shrugging. “Since you’re offering.”

The woman – who had to be an alien – eyed him shrewdly.

“Very well, Tony Stark,” she said. “There is room for more.”

“We have to find Gamora,” the asshole Peter said.

“Take Mantis with you,” the grey-and-red guy said. “She cannot fight. She will be useless to us.”

“Rude,” Tony said.

“He is right,” the yellow woman said. “May I go to Earth with you? I would like to see it. Peter has told us about Missouri and David Hasselhoff. And I would like to meet Kevin Bacon. Is he an Avenger now? Thor did not know.”

“Uh… he’s a bit old to be an Avenger,” Tony said, wondering what the hell Star-Lord had been telling these aliens.

“Hypocrite,” Strange coughed into his fist. Tony gave him an icy stare, then turned his most charming smile on Mantis.

“Sure,” he said. “Climb aboard.”

He and Peter helped her into the sleigh. There were two benches in the back. Mantis and Strange sat together, since Tony refused to sit with the wizard and he wanted to keep an eye on Peter. Mantis waved at the Guardians as the sleigh took off.

They went to Wakanda, to Mantis’s disappointment. Strange offered to take her to Missouri if the Guardians took too long to get to Earth, but she insisted on waiting for her friends. He sent Peter back to Queens, although Peter looked like he wanted to throw up at the thought of facing his aunt.

“Where’s Bruce?” Tony said, looking at everyone. “Come on, he’s gotta be around somewhere, unless Wong managed to keep him safe.”

“Banner took off a few hours ago,” Steve said. “We’re not sure why, but according to the security footage he was scratching his leg in the bathroom, and he checked the skin. There didn’t seem to be anything there, not even a bruise, so we’re thinking that maybe his soulmark—”

“That’s where it was,” Tony said. “And it’s gone.”

“A bunch of us lost our soulmarks, but they reappeared when the people who became dust returned. Natasha’s tried to bring Bruce back, but it didn’t work.”

“What does all of this mean?” Mantis whispered to Tony.

“Oh yeah, guys, this is Mantis. She’s a Guardian of the Galaxy.”

“How are the rest of the Morons?” Thor asked.

“You are here? Where are Groot and Rocket?”

“Groot turned to dust, but now that he is back Rocket is ensuring his health.”

There was a loud growl from outside. Tony winced.

“Okay, I’ll go handle this,” he said. He began to turn around but then paused, and he studied Mantis. “You subdued Thanos. We nearly had that gauntlet thing off him because of you, until Star-Lord screwed up. Think you can work your magic on the Hulk? He’s basically a giant green rage monster who’s usually a mild-mannered human being.”

“He should be easy,” Mantis said. “Men are much easier to subdue. Women have grown more resistant to attempts to be subdued, but most men are more susceptible to a woman’s touch.”

“Ouch. If that isn’t a stinging indictment of society I don’t know what is. Right. Well, my suit is screwed up, so we’d better get our walking boots on.”

“I do not have walking boots.”

“Uh… anyone got a way for us to get into the mountains quickly?”

T’Challa smiled knowingly.

“Come right this way,” he said. “You can take our mining tunnels.”

“Thanks,” Tony said.

He was drooling over the technology in no time, staring out at mounds of vibranium just waiting to be mined and turned into weapons. Or armour. Or sheets of material for making clothes, according to T’Challa. How come Tony never knew about any of this? He didn’t know whether to applaud Wakanda or seethe with jealousy.

Nah, he couldn’t be mad. They’d used the resources they’d been granted to improve the lives of everyone in their country. That was better than basically every other country in the world. Pity they were only starting to share that information now, including their cure to cancer. It was kind of a dick move, keeping that concealed all this time, especially when they had the means to prevent Westerners from taking control. Even Tony wouldn’t be able to break down their defences.

Another rage-fuelled growl nearly shook the cart. He was relieved to escape the claustrophobic space and follow T’Challa out of the mountain.

The Hulk was closer than expected, and Tony tried to stop Mantis from getting too close. T’Challa was ready to run after her. But she simply walked up to the Hulk, touched his leg, and he rapidly shrank down and crumpled to the ground.

She let go and Bruce groaned as he woke up. Tony ran to him, pulled off his torn, dirty jacket, and draped it around Bruce’s shoulders.

“Here you go,” he said. Bruce pulled his legs up to his chest and stared around in confusion.

“What happened, Tony?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I only just got here. Let’s get you back down the mountain, okay?”

“Mountain?” Bruce looked up and saw T’Challa and Mantis. He blushed, and curled his arms around his legs.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of, Bruce Banner,” Mantis said.

Bruce cast his gaze down, tears springing to his eyes.

“Tony, I-I think I lost my soulmate,” he whispered. “The Hulk didn’t come out until I checked my soulmark. That’s the last thing I remember. I came here so I wouldn’t hurt anybody. I think… I caused rockslides?”

“Only a few small ones,” T’Challa assured him.

“Oh good.” Bruce met Mantis’s eyes. “How did you make me so calm?”

“I am an empath,” she said. “I can feel people’s emotions, but I can also change their emotions and send them to sleep. Or wake them up.”

“I think that’s the quickest I’ve ever become myself again. Except when Thanos beat up the Hulk.” He rubbed his eyes. “Let’s get back to the palace. I’m sorry I caused so much trouble.”

“It’s okay,” Tony said. “And all those people who turned to dust? They’re back. So maybe your soulmate’s alive again.”

Bruce stared at him. Then he knelt up and checked his leg.

His head jerked up and he stared at Mantis. Tony’s eyes widened as he read the mark.

You have nothing to be ashamed of, Bruce Banner.

“Say, Mantis, do you have a soulmate?” he asked casually.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I do not know who it is.”

“Has your soulmark changed? You turned to dust, so maybe it’s different now that you’re back?”

“Oh.” She blushed. “I cannot… not in front of you. It is… in a private place.”

“You said my words,” Bruce said bluntly. “He’s trying to find out whether you’re my soulmate. That’s why he’s asking.”

“You did not say my words,” Mantis said, tilting her head. Then her eyes and antennae brightened. “But they may have changed, as Mr. Stark said! I will check… over here. I may need Gamora or Nebula to read it for me. Peter has been teaching me to speak and write human… I mean, English. But I do not know all the words yet. Please wait here.”

She walked away and hid behind a tree. One with broken branches. Judging by the leaves and twigs and bits of bark around him, Bruce had done a hell of a number on the area.

“Sorry,” Bruce whispered to T’Challa, also noticing the damage.

“We all break things when we are grieving,” the king said. “Please do not worry about it, Dr. Banner. You did your best to minimise the destruction by retreating here. Thank you for not tearing my palace apart. Too many may have been hurt.”

“At least if Mantis is your soulmate, she can calm you down with a touch,” Tony said.

“That’ll be a nice change,” Bruce said.

Mantis returned, beaming.

“They were the words you said to me!” she said. “Most of them. I will ask one of my friends to check when they come to Earth.”

“My sister can read English,” T’Challa said. “If you trust her, she can read the words to you.”

“That would be very kind of her,” Mantis said.

She was gentle and unprovocative. Just what Bruce needed in a soulmate.

 

Princess Shuri was indeed kind. When she heard that Mantis had only been learning English for a short while, to be able to talk to her soulmate one day, she was happy to help. As they thought, the words were the ones spoken by Bruce, who was waiting outside the room for the verdict. Mantis covered her legs before Shuri called out to confirm the soulmark. She also made them each write the words they had spoken, so that they could check their handwriting.

It was a perfect match. Mantis felt a kind of happiness that she had never known and wondered how she had gone through her life without feeling it until now. The sorrow she felt from the others, their pain and anger, was more common than happiness.

She could not imagine living without this feeling now.

“I will stay on Earth, if you wish me to,” she told Bruce through the door.

“Can I come in so we can talk?”

“Oh yes. I am sorry. Come in.”

Shuri winked as she left them alone.

Bruce sat on the stool Shuri had been occupying.

“So where’s your soulmark?” he asked.

“Inside my leg,” Mantis said. Her cheeks felt hot as she looked at her lap.

“Mine is on the outside of my leg. My upper leg, just here.”

Mantis glanced up and felt her cheeks grow hotter. Gamora had told Mantis about the ‘facts of life’, or the ‘birds and bees’ as Peter called them. And she had learnt too much about her friends’ love life from being near them or brushing against them. She was sure that there was much more to learn. Perhaps she should ask her soulmate about it? He was a doctor. Doctors were supposed to know these things.

“Do you like the way I look?” Mantis asked Bruce.

“I’d never seen anyone like you before, so I can’t make a comparison. But… but I think you’re lovely.”

“You do not have to lie.”

“You can tell if I’m lying,” he said, holding out an arm. He was now wearing clothes, but his lower arms were bare. Mantis touched him, marvelling at the thick, dark hairs. She stroked him for a few moments until she felt the familiar sensation of lust.

“Oh,” she said.

“I think you’re really pretty. You don’t have to look human to be attractive to other humans. I’ve heard that there are even people who like the look of the Hulk, which just makes me feel… yeah, I don’t like to think about that.”

“He had a pleasant face, like you,” Mantis said. “If he smiled he would look kind.”

“Well… no one’s told me that before.”

“Do you not like it?”

“I don’t really know how to feel about compliments to the Hulk.”

“I could compliment you,” she said. “I like the way your arm feels. I like that there is more than one colour in your hair. And you have soft eyes. They are very nice.”

His cheeks were turning pink. She felt his embarrassment and pleasure at her words, and also confusion. Why should she not find her soulmate as attractive as he found her? They were destined to be together for the rest of their lives.

“Do you really want to live on Earth?” he asked.

“I will go wherever you go,” she said.

“I don’t know what I want to do. I have friends here. I have friends among the Asgardians who were seeking refuge, so I feel I should go with Thor to make sure they’re okay and that they find a place to start up a colony. I’m tired of fighting. I want to help people again, like I did when I was a doctor. I don’t know much about alien physiology, but I guess I’ll be learning yours.” He gave her a flirtatious smile. At least it looked like the smiles that Peter gave Gamora when he wanted to take her to the bedroom.

“Then I will go with you to help your Asgardian friends,” Mantis said.

“And after that…?”

“We will see.”

He reached up and caught one of her hands. He entwined their fingers together.

“Is this okay?” he asked.

“It is perfect,” she replied.

Chapter Text

Out of curiosity, Tony checked his soulmark. It was intact. His soulmate was alive. That was… good. It didn’t tell him anything about Pepper, but it was something.

He’d been brooding, feeling utterly defeated, ever since Nebula asked what they should do next. She seemed pretty lost as well. Stuck on a planet with a strange human after her pseudo-father went off to destroy the universe – and apparently succeeded, killing her friends – he couldn’t blame her for looking like she wanted to run. He felt exactly the same.

“We should give up,” he said finally. Nebula whirled around to look at him.

“What?” she said.

“I don’t know what to do. When I lost my suit a few years ago, I was still on Earth. I could still do things because I knew the technology and I had people willing to help me. Here, I’ve just got you. I don’t know what you can do and I don’t have any resources I’m familiar with, except what’s left on me. It’s not enough to do anything. I can’t do this. I can’t be a hero this time.”

“Thanos admired you,” she said. “I’m starting to question why.”

“Oh, I’ve been able to improvise in the past,” Tony said. “With Earth stuff. Don’t you get it? Maybe you’ve been to plenty of alien planets, but I haven’t! This is my first trip into outer space… except that time in New York. But that was over with quickly, and I had my suit. This time I don’t have backup. I don’t have Banner to catch me when I fall. I don’t have Cap to… to yell at me for being an idiot, but only after he makes sure I’m okay. I don’t have any of my friends.”

“Some of your friends may still be alive,” Nebula said. “Thanos only intended to erase half of the universe.”

“Oh, only half. That’s only, what, three and a half billion humans?”

She raised her eyebrows.

“Your population control is poor,” she said.

“Blame the church, not me. Actually, blame poor education.”

“I can help,” she said, gesturing around them. “I know most of this equipment. We will scavenge anything useful. I’m an assassin, not an engineer, but I know enough. And if you’re as smart as you think you are, you can figure out everything else.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“You’re welcome.”

He opened his mouth to tell her he was being sarcastic, but there was no point. He couldn’t afford to alienate the one person there. And if she was a trained assassin like Romanov, he didn’t want to piss her off.

“Fine. Let’s get to work.”

 

Thor studied his soulmark. He’d come to learn, thanks to Darcy and Jane, that it was written in English. The All-Speak did not translate to writing, so while he could converse with anyone aloud, he could not read or write to them until he had learnt to read and write in their language.

He could have sworn that the words were familiar, now that he knew what they said, but he could not recall where he had heard them spoken, nor by whom. His recall of conversations in battle was poor; it always had been. Now he regretted that.

It was one thing to recall that a slight had been made while he was wielding Mjolnir and focussing on his power. But he could never remember the precise words. That was Loki’s strength.

Loki…

Tears fell down his cheeks as he stared out the window. Steve joined him.

“I lost Bucky,” he said. “Again.”

“I lost my brother again. For perhaps the last time. He promised that… that the sun would shine on us again. The last thing I told him was that he was a terrible brother.”

“But he loved you in the end,” Steve said. “That meant he forgave you.”

“I’d rather he hated me and was still alive,” Thor said.

“Do you really?”

“You would do anything to have your friend back.”

“Yeah, but he’d wanna stay dead. Be at peace. Be whole again, instead of the broken man that HYDRA reduced him to. He deserves to be free and happy, not caged in a world that hates him for what he was forced to do.”

“Loki h-hates peace and quiet.” Thor wiped away tears. Steve handed him a large tissue. It was thicker than the ones Darcy used while watching movies. “Thanks.”

Steve nodded, and went back to staring out the window.

“The sun will shine again one day,” he said. “But I don’t think we can do anything about it. I think it’s time someone else took the reins and fixed the world. This is beyond anything we can handle.”

“If only I’d gone for his head—”

“Loki would still be gone,” Steve said.

“Yes, but I would have my revenge, and you would not have lost so many of your own people. Thanos killed half of my people already, and perhaps their numbers have been halved again. I will never know, unless I can find them.”

“Shuri said she’d work with Rocket on making a spaceship to take you guys home, after he’s finished grieving and she’s able to settle into her role as queen. I don’t think it’ll be easy for her. Queen Ramonda’s busy taking care of the survivors, and T’Challa… He was a good man. Shuri’s got a tough time ahead of her.”

“Any advice I can give her, as King of Asgard, I will be happy to impart,” Thor said.

“I think she’d appreciate whatever support we can give.”

 

Tony’s soulmark had always been gibberish, but it was his. And now it was changing, just as the others were beginning to return to life. He dropped the piece of metal he’d been holding and it fell on his foot. He swore as he hopped in place, trying to smile at Peter but failing.

“Good to see you back,” he said. He pulled his shirt and jacket on, covering the holes in his singlet, including the one which showed his soulmark changing from whatever the hell alien language it’d been before, to a sentence in English. Did he have a new soulmate? Or was it because Thanos had used the Reality Stone?

“Mr. Stark, are you okay?”

“Just dropped something on my foot. That’s gonna bruise. Unless someone has ice. Do any of you have ice? Anything frozen? Okay, never mind. Let’s just get out of here as soon as we can.”

“I preferred it when you were nearly silent,” Nebula muttered. But she smiled at Tony. They’d developed a sort-of friendship over the last couple of hours. He’d have to invite her to the wedding… if it was still going ahead. Just because the others had somehow returned didn’t mean everyone was okay.

“I’m so sorry I screwed up,” the other Peter said, rubbing his face. “Now we’ll never get Gamora back and it’s all my fault.”

“Half the universe got erased because of you, and you’re worried about one person?” Tony asked incredulously.

“Just because you haven’t lost your soulmate—”

“I don’t know! My soulmark changed, and now it’s in English instead, so I have no idea whether my soulmate survived whatever Thanos did!”

“We’ll find out, Mr. Stark,” Peter said quickly. “I’m sure Miss Potts is okay.”

“Pepper’s not my soulmate. I don’t know who is. I could never read my soulmark before, so I don’t even know if I’ve met my soulmate. Hell, it could’ve been an alien, for all I know. I guess I’ll never find out.”

“Why are you marrying Miss Potts if she’s not your soulmate?”

“Oh, Peter. You’re only fifteen—”

“Nearly sixteen.”

“When you get to my age and you haven’t met your soulmate… just hope that doesn’t happen to you, kid.”

Peter looked dissatisfied with the answer, but he didn’t push it.

They were all scavenging for useful machine parts when a sleigh landed nearby. The wizard hadn’t been helping; he’d been so confused by everyone’s return, since it ‘wasn’t supposed to happen like this’, that he’d been in a trance trying to work it out. Mantis shook him out of it when their unexpected guest arrived and offered to return them to Earth.

“I vote yes,” Tony said. “I want out of here. Coming, Sirius Black?”

“I don’t look like Gary Oldman,” Strange muttered, hopping into the back of the sleigh beside Peter.

“You should be flattered. He’s won an Oscar.”

Strange rolled his eyes.

Tony waved to Nebula as the sleigh took off, and kept his arm around Peter’s shoulders so he wouldn’t disappear again.

 

They were all flagging, barely managing to eat any of the food provided by the staff, when Shuri ran into the room shouting about something captured on the radar. Thor held out his hand for Stormbreaker, feeling reassured as it settled in his grip. Rocket growled for the biggest gun Wakanda had. Steve activated the shields in his gloves.

“That… that’s not the enemy,” Thor said. “It’s Stark! And Strange! And… a child.”

“I think that might be Spider-Man,” Steve said.

Shuri was forced to stay inside while others brought in the humans. The sleigh flew off again, its driver not even sparing them a glance.

Tony looked exhausted in every way. His shoulders were hunched and he no longer had the look of a proud warrior ready for battle. He looked as though he wanted to rest… permanently. Thor had seen that look before, and it never boded well.

He chose to use human language, instead of the All-Speak, to greet his friends. They would notice no difference, but it would mean something to Thor.

“It does my heart good to see you alive, Tony,” Thor said, placing his hands on his friend’s shoulders. He was careful to squeeze gently. Tony raised tired eyes to his.

“We have to update your language, Thor,” he said. “Is that a new hammer?”

Thor’s mind spun. He had checked his soulmark after it began to itch.

Those were his new words.

“I suppose your soulmark was not written in English before, was it?” he asked.

Tony’s eyes widened and he touched the skin beneath the glowing disc on his chest.

“It’s you,” he said. “But… you were speaking English when we met.”

“I was using the All-Speak, as I did not know your language then. But I strove to learn for my soulmate, and it worked. I’ve found you!”

“Oh.” Tony blinked as Thor pulled him closer. He closed his eyes and rested his head against Thor’s chest. “You see, I’m supposed to be marrying Pepper. But I… I just… I’m so tired. I don’t want to deal with Stark Industries anymore. I don’t want to deal with major problems anymore. I… I want to retire. But I don’t know how. And I don’t know how to tell Pepper.”

Thor tilted his head and noticed the tears shining on Tony’s cheeks. His heart broke for his soulmate and he held him close.

“I will take care of you,” he vowed. “I must find the remaining Asgardians and start a new colony, as our planet was destroyed. Will you come and rule by my side?”

“Fake your death,” Natasha suggested. They both looked at her. “No one outside of Wakanda knows you’re back yet. Give some of your things to these guys and they can report that you died in outer space, fighting Thanos. You’ll be remembered as the hero you always wanted to be, Pepper can grieve your loss without her feelings being hurt, and… we’ll work out what to do with Stark Industries.”

“Just like that?” Tony said. “I can’t do that to Pepper. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“And breaking her heart by saying you don’t want to marry her because you’d prefer to run off to another planet with your soulmate is somehow fairer?”

“…You may have a point. But I still don’t see how we can do this and keep it quiet forever. They’ll want my body.”

“That will not be a problem,” Shuri said. “I can make something. I just need some of your DNA. I have been collaborating with a woman named Dr. Cho since Wakanda opened up to the world. I have something I was planning to use on Bucky, although it was meant to be a surprise for his birthday.”

“Okay,” Tony said, surprising himself. “I’ll do it.”

 

Tony wasn’t as happy about Loki being brought back to life as Thor was, but since Loki welcomed him to the family without a hint of sarcasm, Tony decided that he didn’t need to create a spy bot to keep an eye on Thor’s brother. Besides, his return made Thor happy, and that made Tony happy.

At first he didn’t think he’d have anything in common with Thor, aside from the narcissism and arrogance inherent in those who’d had a privileged upbringing. And Thor was more into fighting than building. But he was eager to teach Tony about Asgard’s technology and watch what Tony built with it. He complimented Tony’s arm until Tony blushed like never before, and enjoyed running bearded kisses up and down his biceps.

And whenever Tony stared out at the sky, wondering how Earth was doing and what his friends were up to, Thor would hold him from behind and promise to return with him one day for a visit.

“But first,” he murmured to Tony, “I shall obtain a golden apple so that you may live as long as I do.”

Tony nodded, leaning up into a kiss, while the laughter of Asgardian children floated up to the balcony from the streets below.

Chapter Text

“Where did you get to during the field trip?” MJ asked.

Peter gaped at her for a minute. Ned jumped in.

“Peter was worried about his aunt and went home to check on her,” he said. It was a pretty good lie. “He… got lost on the way there, so that’s why she didn’t know where he was when the school called her.”

“Right,” MJ said, her eyes narrowed.

“Thanks,” Peter whispered as he and Ned retreated to one side of the library to work on their physics assignment. “I figured no one would’ve noticed I was missing except you, and you knew where I was going.”

“I had no idea you’d end up in outer space.”

“And Wakanda. Fate brought us back there. I wish you could see it, Ned. It’s all kinds of awesome. The tech alone makes Stark Industries… uh, I mean, Mr. Stark’s stuff is pretty cool.” He was never sure who could be listening.

Ned looked around suspiciously, also aware that there could be SI bugs in anything around Peter. Especially since Mr. Stark had become super-overprotective after Peter died on Titan. He was fine after he came back to life, but he had the growing feeling that he’d gained a super nanny, despite being made an Avenger.

“Some people have been saying that their soulmarks changed,” Ned told Peter.

“Yeah, it was on the internet.”

“So… did yours?” Peter nodded. “Mine didn’t.”

“But it’s still there, right?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Good. I’m pretty sure Aunt May isn’t gonna let me go on the next field trip, though. It’s crazy that we’re having another one so soon after what happened the other day. I’m surprised no one’s objected.”

“Oh man, you didn’t hear?” Ned asked.

“Hear what?”

“It’s cancelled. We were s’posed to be going to see this new tech school that’s been set up by King, uh… the Wakanda guy.”

“King T’Challa?”

“Yeah. But a whole bunch of parents called in and said no.”

“Damn. Uh, I mean, darn.”

“Dude, you think Mr. Stark’s gonna stop you from saying ‘damn’?”

“I have no idea and I’m not gonna test it,” Peter said.

“Okay. Maybe we’ll get a presentation on the school or something?”

“I doubt it. Things were pretty messy when I was there. The king was dead, then he was back, a bunch of other people died but came back, there was all this damage done to the grounds and inside the palace. I didn’t even get to meet Princess Shuri or any of the people who work for her because there just wasn’t time. And I had to get home to Aunt May. I wasn’t sure she was even gonna let me come back to school.”

“Ugh, tell me about it,” Ned said. “My parents have been so clingy I’m surprised they let me get on the school bus.”

“It wasn’t the driver’s fault a bunch of them disappeared.”

“Yeah, but that guy lost his job at a museum because someone stole something from the Captain America exhibit while he was on guard.”

Peter knew what’d happened, from what Mr. Stark said, but he couldn’t say anything about it. He didn’t wanna say anything bad about Captain America.

At the end of the school day, the PA system came on and Principal Morita announced that a representative of the tech school would be coming to speak to them in a couple of weeks. They’d get an hour lecture, then they’d have a special lunch in the assembly hall so they could talk to other people from the school.

“Yes!” Ned exclaimed. “Decent food!”

Peter laughed as their teacher chastised him.

 

Two weeks later

 

Princess Shuri. She was there. She was the one giving them the lecture about the school her brother had founded as a project. Just for her. Damn, Peter wished he had a cool older brother like that.

The princess was witty and kept quoting popular memes, which half of the students and none of the staff understood. She showed them pictures of the school, which was nearly completed, and explained about the severe lack of education in underprivileged communities, something Wakanda intended to fix.

“We don’t want to train children to become underpaid hospitality workers,” Shuri said, thumping her fist on the lecture stand. “Not if they have the potential to become nuclear physicists and civil engineers and… and cure the common cold! There is so much wasted potential out there. Conservative governments blame abortion and homosexuality for problems in society, when it is the lack of decent education and good opportunities for people in minorities that is holding your country back from truly becoming great. From fulfilling its potential. These are your people, and you must support them in your schools and neighbourhoods and the workplace.”

Her speech didn’t seem to take long at all, but by the time she wound down it’d been an hour. All the students stood and applauded, and Shuri bowed.

“She’s only a year older than us,” Ned said. “Isn’t that awesome?”

“I wanna be just like her,” Peter said.

“Like you could ever be that awesome,” Flash scoffed from the row behind. “Or that hot. She’s my age, you know. I wonder if she’s got a boyfriend? I’m just the kind of guy who’d be able to date a princess. High society isn’t new to me.”

Peter and Ned rolled their eyes.

During the lunch after the lecture, Flash made a beeline for Shuri. He was kept back by one of the Dora Milaje, and Peter wondered whether he’d actually wet his pants with fear. But Flash was talking to Shuri, which is more than Peter had managed. Now he was regretting not taking a second to say hi to her when he was in Wakanda.

“You can introduce me to her, right?” Ned whispered to him.

“I didn’t actually get to talk to her. I told you that.”

“Yeah, but she’d recognise you, right?”

Oh God. What if she did recognise him and revealed that he was Spider-Man in front of everyone at school? If his classmates and teachers found out, and realised he’s been making his liquid webbing during class time, and using school resources…

Probably the least of his worries, to be honest.

“Oh my God, she’s coming this way!” Ned squeaked.

Just play it cool, Parker, Peter told himself, resisting the urge to hide behind Ned.

“That was a pretty cool lecture,” MJ said. “How do we address you?”

“You can address me however you like,” Shuri said. “Unless it’s something like ‘hot stuff’.” She glared at Flash. “There is a boy who does not understand the word ‘no’.”

“He has no class. Just money.”

“And his real name is Eugene,” Ned added. Shuri giggled. “Wow, I made a princess laugh. Hi. I’m Ned. This is MJ. And you already know Peter, of course.”

“Oh wow,” Flash said. How did he keep overhearing them? “This is gonna be like the time Penis Parker claimed he knew Spider-Man, isn’t it?”

“Ned claimed that, not me,” Peter said testily, red to the roots of his hair.

“Of course I remember you, Peter,” Shuri said, smiling at him.

He took a second to smile back.

“I didn’t think you’d recognise me,” he admitted.

Her eyes widened only a little bit, but then she grinned.

“You tease,” she said. “I wouldn’t forget my soulmate.”

“Soulmate?” Ned blurted out. Everyone fell silent and turned to look at them. MJ glanced between Peter and Shuri, her face falling, and Flash looked like he’d been hit by a train. A reality train.

“It’s supposed to be a secret,” he said, hoping Shuri would realise that he meant his identity as Spider-Man was the secret. “You know, with Shuri being a princess.”

“I’m sorry,” Shuri said. “I should have told you I was coming, but I thought it would be a nice surprise.”

“Oh, it was! It really was.” This whole thing was. “Sorry I didn’t tell you about this, Ned. You know everything else about me. But it’s for everyone’s protection.”

“I will speak to my brother about increasing the security at your home,” Shuri said. “I will call him now, in fact. Come with me. I’m sure he would like to say hello to you again.” She said something to the Dora Milaje in Wakandan. Peter knew they all spoke English, so it was something that Shuri didn’t want anyone else to hear. No one stopped them as they left the hall and found the nearest empty classroom.

“I wish this’d happened in Wakanda,” Peter said. “I hope Flash becomes a villain someday so I can take him down, because this is just—”

“It’s bullying, and I will not stand for my soulmate being bullied,” Shuri said darkly, crossing her arms. “Show me your soulmark.”

Peter pulled up his left sleeve and showed Shuri the crook of his elbow, where Of course I remember you, Peter was written. The words had confused him until now.

Shuri pulled up the side of her shirt and showed Peter his own handwriting just below her right armpit. It stood out brightly. I didn’t think you’d recognise me.

“My soulmark finally make sense,” she said cheerfully. “Well, I suppose we really should see about making you and your aunt more secure. I’m sure Mr. Stark has done his best, but we can do better. And my brother will ensure that you are no longer bullied, even if you must come to Wakanda to finish your education.”

“I can’t leave Ned behind. He’s my best friend. He’s one of the only people who knows that I’m… you know… the web-slinging guy.”

“Spider-Man.”

“Shh!” He looked around wildly. “You never know who could be listening.”

“Not with the scrambler I take with me everywhere,” Shuri said.

“Where is it?”

“That would be telling,” she said.

“And you called me a tease.”

“Well, we are supposed to be a secret.”

“I was trying to tell you that—”

“Your identity as Spider-Man is a secret. I am aware of that. But we could hardly say that we had only just found out that we’re soulmates when everyone believes that we have met before.”

“Ugh, I wish this stuff didn’t matter,” Peter said, leaning back against a desk and burying his face in his hands.

“I have seen enough American movies to know what the popularity system is like,” she said. “But it won’t be like that at my school. I will be in America more, you know. You don’t have to fly all the way to Wakanda to see me.”

“I can’t exactly afford to fly to Wakanda.”

“I’ll find you, Peter,” Shuri said. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “I must go back and mingle now.”

“What about your brother? Aren’t you going to call him?”

“I will send him a message through the kimoyo beads, though it may be all over the internet by now. He will pretend as though he knew about it all along, if he has to.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be.” She shrugged with another smile. “I’m not.”

“I thought you’d be disappointed or something.”

“To be soulmated to you and not a boy like… Eugene? I am happier with you, Peter Parker. I cannot wait until we are both old enough to bond. I think it will be a partnership like no other.”

Peter was looking forward to that.

Chapter Text

Peter’s mother always told him that when he grew up, he’d meet his soulmate and it would be someone extraordinary and perfect and everything he’d ever dreamed of. It didn’t matter that Peter dreamed an awful lot; his mother said his soulmate would be all of that and more.

Didn’t seem like it was gonna come true when he was kidnapped by the Ravagers the same day that he lost his single most important person in the world.

Now he’d lost Gamora and they’d lost the fight. It didn’t matter that he’d come back from the void. The others were still angry. Even Mantis was giving her fiercest face, which was kind of like an annoyed kitten. But kittens had claws and teeth and they weren’t afraid to use them.

He apologised, even though the magnitude at which he’d screwed up couldn’t be covered with a single apology. They were just words. They didn’t heal the world.

He sat by himself while the others tried to figure out a plan and speculate about what had happened. He felt an itch on his back and twisted `round, pulling up his shirt to see what was going on.

His soulmark looked different. Those were different words.

Great. He needed a mirror and there probably wasn’t a single one on Titan.

He couldn’t believe it when Fate showed up. He had so many questions, about his mother, about whether his soulmate really would be as nice as he hoped, whether his soulmate was even human. Sure, the soulmark was in English, but that could be a translator making it sound English. He didn’t know how these things worked. But Fate sure would.

Still. He was part of the group. He had to help them find Gamora. His soulmate didn’t matter; she did. He loved Gamora, and he always would. If there was a way to bring her back to life, he had to find out. Nothing else could wait.

 

Although there was still some tension between T’Challa and the Border Tribe, Okoye took Steve to see the rhinos. Ever since he’d heard about them he’d wanted to see them. He wouldn’t be allowed to pet one, but that didn’t matter. He wanted to see over-sized rhinoceroses, damn it.

“You are in luck,” Okoye said. “A new one was born on the day of victory. He is only a few days old, but we cannot see him up close.”

“That’s why you told me to bring binoculars?”

“Yes.”

Steve bounced on his feet while they waited for a glimpse. The baby rhino, when it finally peeked out from behind its mother’s legs, snorted and stumbled. Steve fell in love with the clumsy baby and wished desperately that he could run over and scoop it into his arms. Damn, he shouldn’t have let Sam talk him into watching live streams of zoo animals. It’d turned him into a sap.

“They would be unsettled around a white man,” Okoye said. “Otherwise I am sure you would enjoy training them.”

“Honestly, the big ones scare me, but the little one…”

“They are always cutest when they are small and vulnerable.”

“Aw, look, he sneezed!”

Okoye rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.

“There is something peaceful about them,” she said. “They look just as vicious as they are. There are no pretences. The baby will not hurt you now, but once he is as large as his brethren he will look like a threat and he will be a threat.”

“I prefer honest appearances,” Steve agreed. “You can never tell what lies lurking.”

“No,” Okoye said softly.

“I heard about your husband being banished.”

“Do not feel sorry for me.”

“Was he your soulmate?”

“No, and I thank Bast every day that I am not soulmated to a traitor.”

“I didn’t have a soulmark for a long time,” Steve said. “Not until I came out of the ice. I have no idea when my soulmate was born. I’ve had flirtations before, both before my soulmark appeared and after. Knowing now that I have a soulmate, and that whoever it was died for a few hours, it makes me wish I hadn’t wasted my time with anyone else when I could’ve been searching for them.”

“I do not consider my time with W’Kabi a waste,” Okoye said. “He did not want children any more than I did. And being known to the rhinoceroses ensured my safety when we fought Killmonger.”

“Does it sting?”

“His betrayal? Every day.”

“I hope you get the best soulmate in the world, General Okoye.”

“I hope the same for you, Captain Rogers.”

Steve returned to watching the baby rhino, feeling his spirits lift as it loped around in circles.

 

Gamora still wasn’t speaking to Peter.

Actually, she wasn’t speaking to anyone. Sometimes Peter would catch her playing simple, silent games with Groot, or watching Rocket tinkering with weapons. But she was full of hatred, according to Mantis, who refused to go near her because of the overwhelming emotions. She hated Thanos for what he did. She hated Peter for ruining their chances of winning. She hated Nebula for being caught. And she hated herself for leading Thanos straight to the Soul Stone.

“What do we do?”

“Allow Gamora to work her way through it.”

“For how long?”

“As long as it takes.”

Peter sighed.

“Maybe we could go to Earth,” he said. “I wanna see my mother’s grave and show you guys Missouri. We totally deserve a break. What do you say, Mantis?”

“I would like to see Earth!”

“Let’s tell Rocket our next destination.”

Gamora didn’t speak to protest going to Earth, even though they all knew that humans weren’t used to aliens. Only Peter was, and even he’d freaked out when he met the Ravagers. He used the abduction as his sole excuse for the freak-out.

“Humans will be intimidated by me,” Drax declared as they set down in a paddock. It looked empty, so Peter hoped they wouldn’t get a parking ticket.

“Yep, they definitely will,” he said.

Nebula became depressed after Gamora stopped talking, so she’d transferred her attention to Mantis. Rocket liked Mantis and curled around her shoulders, while Groot walked along, with Nebula holding his hand so he wouldn’t run off. It kinda looked like a family.

Peter wanted that. Not necessarily kids. But he wanted someone to be close to him again. Gamora had drawn back, which was totally her decision, but… but they’d said that they loved each other.

Then Thanos tore them apart. Worst in-law ever.

Striving to be cheerful for his team-mates’ sakes, Peter located his old elementary school and showed them around. It was either a holiday or the weekend, because there were no kids at school. He showed them his favourite playground equipment, the slide and the climbing bars. He pointed out his classrooms. He walked them back to where he and his mother used to live.

They’d lived near a graveyard because it was cheap. That’s probably where she was buried. His mother.

Drax found the grave first. He wasn’t interested in learning English, but he knew how Peter wrote his name, and recognised ‘QUILL’. Peter ran to his side and knelt in front of the grave, tracing his mother’s name.

“Hi, Mama,” he said. Tears sprang from his closed eyes. “I’m so sorry. I did the best I could, but I… I…” Drax clasped Peter’s shoulder and Rocket stood beside him, furry tail brushing his arm. “This is my family. My friends. This is Drax, and Rocket, and over there we’ve got Nebula and Groot, and here’s Mantis. And… oh, there’s Gamora. Kraglin was too busy to come with us, but if we ever get back here with him, I’ll introduce you. Uh, if Yondu is with you, wherever you are, say hi to him for me, would you? Thanks. And… I’m sorry I didn’t hold your hand. At the end. I didn’t wanna admit you were dying. If I could go back in time I’d tell you I loved you, and that it was okay for you to go, and I’d hold your hand so tight you’d feel it forever.”

Eventually they left the cemetery, Mantis walking hand-in-hand with Peter to share his sorrow and give him comfort. They went to a fast-food restaurant, and the girl at the counter nervously turned them away when she found out that they had no money.

“What, credits ain’t good enough here?” Rocket snarled.

“Leave it,” Peter said. “We’ll eat on the ship. Sorry to bother you, miss.”

“N-not a problem, s-sir.”

They returned to the ship to find people in black surrounding it.

“If that’s yours, you might want to wait.”

They all turned around to see a figure hiding in the shade of a tree.

“What’re we waiting for?” Peter asked cautiously.

There was a sharp intake of breath. Then a bearded man stepped into the light. His eyes pierced Peter’s as he looked at him like there was no one else around. Peter’s knees shook, but he held his ground. Drax could easily take this guy. So could Nebula, or Gamora if she snapped out of her depression for a second.

“I’m kinda hoping you were waiting for me,” the man told Peter. Then he grimaced. “I’m sorry, that was cheesy.”

Peter’s heart began to thump erratically.

“You’re my soulmate?” he asked.

“It seems so. Is that your spaceship?”

“It’s ours, yeah.”

“It was reported to the government. Do you have a way to get aboard without being seen? N-not that I want you to go! But I don’t want the government to hurt you.”

“You sound as though you know what that’s like from personal experience,” Nebula said, eyeing him.

“Too damn often,” the man replied. He noticed Rocket and Groot. “Hey, you’re the guys from Wakanda!”

“Oh yeah, you’re the one with the shields,” Rocket said.

“I am Groot,” Groot said.

“He’s not a fan of your beard. Sorry.”

“No, it’s kind of a cover,” the man said. “You’re the Guardians of the Galaxy. So you’re Drax, you’re Nebula, you’re Mantis, I’m guessing that you’re Gamora… so you must be Peter Quill. My soulmate.”

“That’s right. People also call me Star-Lord.”

“No one calls you that,” Drax said.

“You do, sometimes!”

“Only when I am being sarcastic.”

“Yeah, like you’ve learned how to do sarcasm. You can’t even do the voice.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Nebula said. “Ask his name, Peter.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry. What’s your name, dude?”

“This man, like Thor, is not a ‘dude’,” Drax began.

“Okay, not fawning over my soulmate!”

“I’m Steve,” the man said quickly. “Steve Rogers.”

Peter’s mind shut down for a moment.

“You were named after Captain America?” he said.

“Not named after him.”

“…My soulmate is Captain America?”

Steve sighed.

“I’m a person too, you know,” he said gruffly.

“Oh yeah, I know. Sorry, man. I’m just excited! What’re you doing in Missouri?”

“Doctor Strange sent me here after hearing about a UFO landing in a random field.”

“Oh, goatee and sentient cape guy. We met him.”

“Let me buy you folks lunch,” Steve said. “You must be hungry.”

They returned to the fast-food restaurant. Gamora was finally alert. Her hands were clenched around her drink. They’d pulled some tables and chairs together, since no one was around. Which was probably their fault, but whatever. They were hungry.

“Oh God, I missed this food,” Peter said, and he shoved a handful of fries into his mouth. “I guess we should learn more about each other. I only know about Captain America, not Steve Rogers. And you don’t know anything about me.”

“I know you’re my soulmate,” Steve said, looking across the table at him. “That’s enough for starters. Also, I should probably get off-planet for awhile because I’m wanted by the US government. My best friend lives in Wakanda now, and my other friends are scattered. We’re all trying to cope with what Thanos did. I need to see new things, meet new people. Get to know my soulmate. Bond, if you want to.”

Peter nearly choked on his drink.

“We haven’t even compared writing yet,” he said.

“Hang on. I always keep a pencil on me.” Steve scribbled some words on a napkin and showed it to Peter. It looked like the writing on his skin. He returned the favour, and Steve smiled, tracing the letters with his thumb.

“My mama always said I’d get the best soulmate in the world,” Peter said. “The one with the best heart, the nicest manners, all that. She knew I had a soft heart, or at least I used to. Life kinda beat the innocence out of me pretty early on. That was after she died of cancer.”

“My mom died when I was young, too. I always hoped she’d be proud of me.”

“Mine wouldn’t be proud of me,” Peter said. “If you’ve heard of me, you’ve probably heard all about how I screwed up our chances at taking the gauntlet from Thanos.”

“No,” Steve said, shaking his head. “I’ve heard that you were grief-stricken, and that you punched Thanos. Reminded me of when I’d go after guys three times my size. This was before the super soldier serum. But Strange told us he could’ve stopped you. Could’ve summoned a portal beneath your feet and sent you somewhere else. But Thanos had to complete the gauntlet. It was the only way he’d lose. Strange didn’t see Fate intervening, but you weren’t to blame. You all acted as Strange saw that you would, and we acted the way he saw that we would. Thor blamed himself for hours until Strange came back to Earth and told us everything. I blamed myself as well. I tried so damn hard to pull that gauntlet off, or at least stop Thanos from snapping his fingers, and I felt guilty `cause I failed. But we played the parts we were meant to. Strange had the power to stop you, but he let it play out because it would, ultimately, save the universe.”

Peter swallowed back his tears. Mantis and Nebula had both told him that they shouldn’t have worked out what was wrong with Thanos and realised that Gamora was dead, knowing how it would affect Peter. He’d refused to let them take responsibility for his actions.

Now, there was no blame.

“I needed to hear that,” he said, picking up his burger again.

“I thought you might. I hoped I’d find you all here when Strange sent me. I’m even gladder that I came now.” He touched Peter’s hand, meeting his eyes. “Is it alright if I tag along? I won’t be any trouble. Bucky would tell you otherwise, but don’t listen to him. I know how to keep out of trouble.”

“He’s great in a fight,” Rocket piped up.

“Dude, of course he is,” Peter said. He turned his hand over so it was palm-to-palm with Steve’s. “Yeah. I mean, Rocket now thinks he’s the captain, but I think we’d all be okay with it. Right?”

They agreed. Gamora remained silent.

“Thanks,” Steve said.

“And for the record, I like your beard.”

Chapter Text

Okoye watched Shuri reunite with her brother and blinked back the tears of joy and relief which threatened to fall. Her king was alive. Shuri would not be forced to ascend the throne. Wakanda and the world would still grieve for the dead, but the losses were not as heavy as they were three and a half hours ago.

Captain Rogers looked relieved as well. He embraced his friends tightly and scolded them for dying and making him worry. Eventually he let them go so they could eat their fill of the feast and regain their strength.

When she was growing up, Okoye’s father told her she must marry a Wakandan. He believed that the genetic structure of Wakanda should not be diluted with the spawn of foreigners. ‘Spawn’ was Okoye’s word, not his. She had no wish to be a mother, and went against her father’s wishes by training for the Dora Milaje. When she was old enough, she dutifully married a man from the Border Tribe.

If her father thought she would give up the Dora and become a mother, he was sorely mistaken. He never forgave her. He would not see her on his deathbed, despite T’Chaka asking him to forgive Okoye. Not even a request from the king swayed him.

Okoye’s mother had left the Dora Milaje to have children. It was not considered a weakness to do so. But it seemed a waste when she found out that she could not have any more children after Okoye and yet did not return to her duty.

Now W’Kabi was banished, Okoye was still in the Dora, and she still did not want children. But she wished to know her soulmate. Perhaps she would feel less lonely if she had someone. A lover, a friend; she did not care.

The celebrations lasted all night. They would begin mourning tomorrow, but for now everyone needed a chance to let go and relax. Okoye maintained a clear head, and only ate food which would help her sleep soundly and wake refreshed the next day.

Steve Rogers was in desperate need of distraction. He was restless and curious, and his two best friends were busily renewing their soulbond. Okoye took pity on the captain and showed him the rhinoceroses, including the newest addition. He told her that he had never seen a rhino in real life. The one time he went to a zoo, the rhinoceros enclosure was closed for repairs after a bad storm.

He was so enraptured by the Wakandan rhinos that Okoye was proud that theirs were the first he would ever see.

People began to leave Wakanda after a few days, needing to return to their everyday lives and help where they could. The last that she heard about Steve was that he had found his soulmate when a UFO landed in Missouri, and that he planned to travel the universe with his soulmate.

Okoye would miss his company. He had a strategic mind that she admired, and he knew how to use everything to his advantage in a fight. He did not pity her for W’Kabi’s betrayal and he clearly held a great deal of respect for Wakanda.

 

A month passed. Shuri went to America to oversee her new school. T’Challa found out that Nakia was still alive and undercover. The White Wolf and his soulmate were now settled in a small cabin, and frequently told stories to the children of the many places they had been. They read American books like Little Women to the older children and taught them games such as I Spy and Hopscotch. They both began to lose their haunted looks.

Steve returned unexpectedly with his soulmate. One of Shuri’s technicians allowed them to land upon recognising the captain’s voice. Okoye was at T’Challa’s side as they went to greet the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Rocket ran straight up to the White Wolf, pestering him about his arm. Bucky and Sam were more interested in seeing Steve, who sauntered down the ramp of the spaceship with his arm around his soulmate’s lower back. They were both smiling sunnily, grinning whenever they looked at each other. Okoye remembered when she and W’Kabi used to be like that, but it was more friendship than love.

“T’Challa, Okoye, this is my soulmate, Peter,” Steve said. “Peter, this is his royal highness King T’Challa and General Okoye.”

Peter shook their hands and they greeted each other.

“Look, I can introduce the others while you say hi to Bucky and Sam,” Peter said.

“Thanks, sweetheart.” Steve kissed him on the cheek and left him with Okoye and T’Challa. Okoye finally saw what cartoons meant when characters were drawn with heart-shaped pupils, seeing the way that Peter looked at his soulmate.

“Uh, yeah,” he said, finally snapping out of it and blushing as he looked at T’Challa and Okoye. “Right. The team. You’ve met Rocket and Groot. And Steve and me, of course. This is Drax. He’s been with the Guardians since the start. He’s a warrior. Please don’t challenge him to a fight while we’re here.”

“I would crush anyone who challenged me,” Drax said. He had the muscle, but Okoye thought that he would lack the speed and dexterity. She would play nice with Steve’s friends, though.

“We are too busy to waste our time in fighting for pleasure,” she said. “None of the Dora Milaje will challenge you, Drax.”

“Will anyone else?”

“No!” Peter said quickly. “No challenging, Drax. We talked about this.”

Drax sighed.

“This is Mantis,” Peter continued. “She’s an empath. Go easy on her; she’s not into fighting like the rest of us. But she can send anyone to sleep with a touch.”

“How do you do?” T’Challa said.

“I am well, thank you,” Mantis said softly.

“Nebula’s here. She was stuck on Titan with Tony Stark for three hours and still likes him,” Peter said.

“I heard that you gained his respect,” T’Challa said.

“The circumstances meant that we had to get along,” Nebula said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, your highness. Steve has told us a lot about Wakanda.”

“We are happy to have you here.”

“And this is Gamora. She, uh, she died for awhile. Longer than any of us. So she doesn’t talk much these days. But maybe she’d like to see some of Wakanda? I hear you have amazing sunsets.”

“I will be happy to show you around,” Okoye said to Gamora. The alien met her eyes with a sharp look. She did not respond for several seconds, but then she nodded and looked at the ground.

“Okay, that’s the gang,” Peter said. “Um… we can stay on the ship. We don’t wanna impose. But I promised Steve we could visit Earth any time he missed his friends. He probably misses them a lot more than he lets on.”

“We are all eager to hear stories of your life travelling the galaxy,” T’Challa said. “My sister is due to arrive tomorrow. Would it be alright for her to examine your spacecraft? She would love to learn everything that she can from it, and she could take that knowledge back to the school she runs.”

“Oh, hey, happy to help with education. Better than those videos Steve told me he had to do. You wouldn’t happen to have a way for me to see them—”

“No!” Steve called. “You’re not watching those!”

“Aw, not even the one you did on the birds and bees?”

“If I’m such a symbol of virtue, I don’t know what they thought they’d gain from me doing a sex ed video,” Steve said.

Peter smiled smugly.

“I’m so gonna watch those videos one day,” he said. “We only got a guy in a costume when I was at school.”

Steve grumbled something under his breath. T’Challa must have heard whatever he said, because he coughed into his fist to cover a laugh.

 

Drax enjoyed watching the Dora Milaje train. Nebula joined their training, as she wanted to stay in shape during their visit. Rocket and Groot spent most of their time in the workshop. After Shuri arrived, she upgraded the cybernetics on Rocket’s back and then scanned their entire spaceship while he explained how everything worked, Groot trailing behind them with his newest gaming device.

Steve spent a lot of his time with his Earth friends, and Peter usually sat with him. Mantis joined them, mostly because she seemed shy of anyone else. She liked wandering through the Wakandan marketplace, though, as long as she had someone with her. And she tried all of their food. She requested cooking lessons from the palace’s kitchen staff, who were happy to teach her what she could make on the spaceship, with its limited space and resources.

But Gamora was of the most concern to Okoye. Steve awkwardly explained that Gamora and Peter had been almost-dating before Thanos, who raised Gamora since she was a child, and that everything which happened had parted them. And then Steve came along and bonded with Peter, and that was it. He clearly felt guilty about it. Okoye had to show him the rhinos until he felt better.

“Gamora has not yet seen our forests and waterfalls and mountains, has she?” Okoye asked him one day.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“We will organise a tour. I will walk beside her to keep her company.”

“Thank you, General.”

The walk they talk through Wakanda’s natural beauties was gentle but extensive, and they took a picnic lunch. T’Challa and Shuri were too busy to lead the expedition, but Queen Ramonda was happy to act as guide and historian. She held one of Groot’s branches as they walked, ensuring his attention.

Okoye kept silent, but stayed at Gamora’s side.

“I’m not a threat,” Gamora finally hissed.

“We never thought you were,” Okoye said. As she thought about Gamora’s words, her soulmark tingled. “I am making sure that you do not wander off and get lost.”

“I was one of Thanos’s assassins.”

“A role you were groomed for.”

Peter and Nebula looked back in surprise as they heard Okoye and Gamora’s quiet conversation.

“You said my soul words,” Okoye said.

“You said mine our first day here. I… have had a lot to come to terms with. My father… Thanos, that is. He told me soulmates were a weakness. To him, everything but power was a weakness. I saw that his love for me was a weakness, but he didn’t allow it to prevent him from reaching his goal. Now I find it hard to trust in love at all. But then I see how happy it makes Peter and Steve, and I resent losing it. Then I hate that I fell in love at all, with someone I wasn’t soulmated to. And I hate Thanos all over again. Not for killing me, but for raising me so that I’m so damaged that I can’t… trust…” Tears tracked down her cheeks. She stopped walking, and Okoye halted beside her. They were at the back of the group, so the others headed on without them.

“I was forced to marry a man who betrayed me by betraying T’Challa. He was then banished. I can still trust, although I am more cautious than before. My loyalty to the throne of Wakanda, and whoever sits on it, will always come first, even before my soulmate. Can you accept that?”

“I… I think so.”

“You are a warrior like Nebula and Drax. You are not Wakandan but you are my soulmate. Would you train with the Dora Milaje or prefer another role here?”

“…Are you asking me to stay?”

“Unless you would prefer to continue travelling through space, with all of its bad memories,” Okoye said, arching an eyebrow.

Gamora looked around the rainforest.

“It’s a beautiful country, but I’m not human. Would your people accept me?”

“They accepted Everett Ross and the White Wolf and his soulmate, even though they are not from Wakanda. But they are becoming Wakandan in spirit, if not in blood. And a royal Wakandan almost destroyed our country last time. We would rather trust those whose actions prove their loyalty to our country and its people.”

“I could be loyal to you,” Gamora said, meeting Okoye’s eyes. “I’m not sure how much I trust myself after everything Thanos did to me, but if you’re willing to let me stay here, I could try. I will try.”

“Thank you,” Okoye said. “I will speak to T’Challa when we return to the palace.”

They resumed the hike. Gamora walked much closer to Okoye, their arms brushing against each other.

Chapter Text

Christine was relaxing in the staffroom, having a coffee after a long day. She needed the caffeine to brave tackling the public transport system. Her car was in for repairs after a driverless car crashed into it. Her day was made worse when she found that her soulmarks had both disappeared, meaning that Stephen was dead as well as their unknown third. And then she got to work.

Some surgeons had turned to dust midway through surgeries. The lucky ones had only had their patients turn to dust on the table, or during an examination. Nurses had disappeared while looking after children or the elderly or helping stroke survivors walk along the corridors. People had left physically disabled patients stranded in the shower or on the toilet. For the first two hours Christine and the other staff had spent more time doing headcounts and fixing the problems than actual medical work.

Interns had to flush their colleagues’ dust out of patients’ wounds. Therapists from outside of the hospital had to be called in to deal with panicked patients and families and staff. Cleaners were carefully grouping piles of ashes together, since no one knew what to do with the dust. Administrators were tackling phone calls from terrified people, loved ones needing reassurance, ambulances which were picking up new patients, and generally trying to hold everyone together. Christine vowed never to complain to them about paperwork again.

Everything had finally settled down when all of a sudden missing people showed up again. Everyone was shoved back into bed, or whatever camp beds they could rustle up. More calls flooded in. Television reporters were trying to get a statement from the head of the hospital, who was recovering from having disappeared mid-surgery.

The worst was the maternity ward. Some of the babies in the nursery had turned to dust. It was okay when they came back to life, although some mothers had to be sedated until then, and one even attempted suicide. And then there were the women in labour who suddenly weren’t there, or who gave birth to a pile of dust. The nurses would all have to be given the next day off and attend counselling, because when the mothers and foetuses did return… it wasn’t pretty.

By the end of the day, Christine felt more dead on her feet than she ever had, and she checked her soulmarks while she waited for the water to boil.

They were both back, but with different words. That was weird. She’d already met Stephen, so why were there different words for him? Was this a new start?

She stroked the letters of both marks, wondering what their third was like. It wasn’t a new thought; Christine constantly wondered about her other soulmate. Dating Stephen had been one of the worst ideas she’d had; triads were difficult to balance unless they were complete.

Whoever their third was had to balance them. Triads were considered a blessing and a curse; when complete, they had the most powerful bond. When incomplete, they could turn self-destructive in the worst way.

Christine wondered whether their soulmate would be more like Stephen or her. Male or female? She was bi-curious, but mostly demi-sexual, so it didn’t matter to her what gender their soulmate was. As long as they could mediate arguments between Stephen and Christine, it didn’t matter.

No, it wasn’t fair to want someone who could just mediate. Both Christine and Stephen were protective, so would their soulmate be protective as well, or bring out those instincts in them? Would they have a willpower to be reckoned with, or give way without fuss? Would they be interested in medicine or an entirely different field of work?

Christine was nearly nodding off to sleep as she stirred sugar into her coffee, when one of Stephen’s golden portals sprang to life in the middle of the room. He poked his head through, smiled when he saw Christine, and then backed off. He nudged someone else into the room, and Christine dropped her spoon.

An alien. A woman (?) with yellowish skin, huge black eyes, and glowing antennae on her head. Did she share any of her DNA with insects?

“Look who I found,” Stephen said.

“Who’s this?” Christine asked.

“Our third.”

This was unexpected.

“It is nice to meet you,” the alien said.

“What’s your name?” Christine said. She was too tired to be polite at the moment, even to her other soulmate.

“I am Mantis. I met Stephen on Titan when we were there to fight Thanos. He had the Infinity Gauntlet—”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’m guessing it’s something to do with people turning to dust and then coming back,” she said.

“You look exhausted,” Stephen said. “Do you live in the same apartment?”

“Yes.”

“Is your car here?”

“No. I got into an accident earlier when a car hit me. There was no driver.”

“Are you alright?” he asked, wide-eyed. “Did they check you out when you arrived?”

“Yes and no, in that order. I’m fine. I’d know if I was hurt. And it’s been too busy for me to sit down with anyone for a check-up.”

“Well, I’m taking both of you back to your place and I’ll check you over there. Then we’ll monitor you while you get some sleep.”

Christine yawned. Stephen tossed out her coffee, muttering about the quality being as bad as ever, and then he and Mantis helped her stand up. He created a different portal, one straight to Christine’s apartment, and they walked through. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to that.

“Mantis will get you out of your clothes and into pyjamas while I check to make sure you’re not injured, okay?” Stephen said, sitting her on the edge of her bed.

“Whatever. I’m tired. If I fall asleep on you—”

“We’ll let you sleep. You need it.”

“Okay.”

 

She must have fallen asleep, because the sky was dark when she woke up. She checked her alarm clock and was horrified to discover that she’d slept for over sixteen hours straight. She sat up and tried to remember what’d happened.

Right. Soulmates. An alien. And a lot of dust.

“Stephen?” she called.

Mantis poked her head around the doorway.

“He is at the Sanctum Sanctorum,” she said. “He will return soon. We were not sure when you would wake up, and he had work to do. Would you like something to eat? I do not know how to prepare Earth food, but if you tell me what to do…?”

“It’s fine,” Christine said. Her stomach grumbled tellingly. “I can make something myself. I just need to get up first.”

“Do you need help?”

“No. I’m good. You go back to whatever you were doing.”

“I was just waiting outside your room until you were awake,” Mantis said. “We did not get a chance to talk. After a long conversation with my friends, and with Stephen, I have decided to stay on Earth. Stephen said that my powers would make me a very good nurse or therapist. What is a therapist?”

“It’s a person who talks with people about their feelings,” Christine said, wondering how a woman without an Earth education could get into a medical profession. What was Stephen thinking even suggesting these things?

“Oh, I see! I am an empath. I can feel other people’s emotions and I can influence their emotions as well. I have put some very powerful beings to sleep, or into a trance. Stephen said that there should be more people like me.”

Mantis was starting to bring out Christine’s protective instincts. She’d clearly already swayed Stephen that way, if he was trying to make her feel as though she actually had a chance to be accepted on Earth. It looked like Christine was going to have to be the down-to-earth one. Again.

“Alright, we’ll talk about that later,” she said. “Right now I need to get up and get dressed. Why don’t you wait in the living room for me? I’ll join you there after I’ve had some food. Did Stephen show you how to work the TV remote?”

“Yes.”

“Watch some TV if you want to.”

Mantis took her cue to leave, and Christine shoved her feet into slippers. She wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t a joke or dream. Or a nightmare. Had she seen a picture of an alien in the children’s ward and conjured up someone who looked like that in her subconscious mind? Because she wasn’t creative enough to come up with someone –something – like that on her own.

This was like the first time Stephen had used astral projection on her. She couldn’t cope with this. It was too weird, too far-removed from reality. They were better off without her.

Except that it was a triad.

Christine sighed. If this was real, she had to try it. Just as she didn’t fit into this, because everything weird phased her, Mantis didn’t fit in, either. She was a literal alien who knew nothing about the world. And Stephen didn’t fit in, with his typical surgeon’s lack of bedside manner, compared to Christine being the perfect nurse and Mantis being an empath. They were all misfits in this triad. So… was that the balance everyone talked about?

 

Mantis knew that Christine was wary of her. Stephen had warned her in advance that Christine was unused to new things, and that the story about Thanos would unnerve her. He also said that humans were not used to seeing people from other parts of the galaxy, so she would receive some odd looks, and meet people who would not like her because of the way she looked.

Drax did not like the way she looked, but they were friends. There was no difference, in Mantis’s mind. She would be patient. The humans would catch up eventually, and Christine would come to like her if Mantis spent enough time around her.

Since Stephen was busy during the day, and it was not time for a new college term to begin, Mantis wandered around the hospital. At first she had many requests for her blood, which Stephen had warned her against.

As she passed the nursery, she stopped and stared at the tiny, baby humans. Some of them were fussing in their beds. A nurse was busy with one of the crying babies, so Mantis let herself into the room using a card that Stephen had given her, and went to one of the other crying babies. She stroked his head.

“This one is hungry,” she said, startling the other nurse. “He must be fed. What do you feed human babies?”

After the confusion was over, and security were sent away, Mantis helped the nurses figure out what was causing each of the babies to fuss and cry. They thanked her for the help, as they were understaffed at the moment. Mantis accepted their thanks and then moved on. She followed brightly-coloured pictures on the wall until she reached the children’s wing of the hospital.

One child was refusing to speak, pushing people away and screaming. Mantis moved past the other people, touched his neck, and he quieted down immediately.

“None of you have been listening to him,” she said. “He is in pain. His back hurts, but you keep… you keep checking his chest. That is not where it hurts anymore.”

“Who are you? Is this some sort of costume?”

“Please check this boy’s back and stop treating him as though he doesn’t know anything. Also, he wants a book to read, but his vision is blurry. You need someone to read to him, or a book with larger print. If you wish to know anything about me, ask Christine Palmer. I am one of her soulmates.”

Mantis spent over an hour reading stories to the children who were allowed out of bed, and she told them many tales of her own adventures in ‘outer space’, as they called it. They were delighted to find that her antennae were real. She made sure that they ate when they were hungry. Even the children who had to eat and had room for it, but didn’t feel hungry, she was able to trick into eating. She cheered the children who were sad because no one had visited them, and promised to come back and see them if she was allowed to. And when one child grew too hysterical for surgery, Mantis calmed her down so that she could be anaesthetised.

The nurses and doctors in the children’s wards wanted her to stay for longer, but she had promised to have dinner with Stephen and Christine at the Sanctum. She said that if the hospital allowed her to come back, she would. She told them that she wanted to become a nurse or a therapist, like Stephen had suggested, because she did not want to be dependent on her soulmates. The staff said they would do whatever they could to get her back.

“I’ve had a few calls about you today,” Christine said during dinner.

“What did I do this time?” Stephen said.

“Not you. Mantis.”

“What did I do wrong?” Mantis asked.

“Oh, sweetheart, don’t,” Stephen said. “I can feel your anxiety. Please calm down. Whatever it is, it’ll be nothing. Okay?”

“She’s enchanted all the maternity and paediatric staff because she can tell what’s wrong with the patients and calms them down. Now the rest of the hospital want to poach her for their difficult patients. And they’re offering to sponsor her to go through college to get whatever kind of degree means she can stay at the hospital and work there every day.”

“That’s great! I told you it’d be nothing to worry about, Mantis.” He stroked the back of her hand, smiling. “There. You’re feeling better already.”

“But what about the lectures?” Christine asked. “And the other students?”

“She can do an online course, if she wants to.”

“I would like to stay at the hospital and help,” Mantis said.

“You see? Mantis can study from the hospital and get practical, on-the-job training. It’s win-win.”

“Some of the parents complained,” Christine added.

“There’ll always be assholes like that. Oh. Sorry, Mantis.”

“I have heard Peter Quill use that word many times.”

“Okay. The point is, people always want to find something to complain about. If Mantis is effective at helping people, especially children and babies, that’s all that should matter.”

“It seems too soon after aliens attacked the world.”

“Please. Ever since that battle in New York City there have been aliens attacking the world. At least Mantis is good, not bad, and she’s not attacking anyone.”

“Perhaps I should go,” Mantis said softly. Her antennae drooped. “I am upsetting too many people.”

“No,” he said firmly. “You’re only upsetting a few people, and they’re really just upsetting themselves. More people want you to stay. I want you to stay.”

“Do you want me to stay, Christine?” Mantis asked, turning large eyes on her.

Her protective instincts kicked in again.

“Yes, I want you to stay,” she said. “But I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I want to help the babies and children. After everything that Peter’s father did to his own children… I must atone for helping him. I should have stood against him sooner. Too many died. But now I have a chance to make up for that. Will you let me?”

“Oh, honey, of course,” Christine said. “But you have to promise to tell us if anyone hurts you.”

“Once they see what I can do, they will not dare. All I have to do is touch them and they can feel anything I want them to.”

“I’m glad you’re on our side.”

“So am I,” Stephen said, picking up Mantis’s hand and kissing the back of it.

Chapter Text

Neither Paxton nor Maggie had called in, so Scott and Cassie were lying on the couch, watching the television and waiting.

Maggie and Paxton were supposed to be on a date for their anniversary, and since the FBI were always watching Scott he couldn’t get into any trouble, making him a better babysitting option than he used to be. But they’d texted him every half hour to check that everything was going okay.

It’d been eighty-nine minutes since their last message. Since then, there’d been reports all over the internet and the news that people were disappearing into thin air, leaving behind piles of dust. Scott was wondering whether they’d gone to an alternate dimension, maybe a dusty one. He hoped it was nothing more sinister than that. The Avengers could totally fix this one. It’s not like he was allowed to.

He didn’t tell Cassie his worries. He just put on another Disney movie, any DVD, so they wouldn’t be interrupted by breaking news about the possible apocalypse. She didn’t need that worry.

The evening didn’t exactly start off well. Not for Scott. He’d discovered, late in the afternoon, that his soulmark had disappeared. He didn’t tell Maggie or Paxton; he didn’t want them to worry about him, or about his ability to look after Cassie while he grieved over someone he never even knew. He could handle this.

But if it turned out that Paxton and Maggie had literally disappeared into thin air and never came back, Cassie would have to go to another family, and Scott may lose all visitation rights. He couldn’t let that happen.

Cassie was happy to sing along to the live action Beauty and the Beast. While Scott mentally fixed everything wrong with Belle running off to save her father alone, instead of using the teleporting book or getting the Beast to go with her, Cassie quietened down. They both knew how the story went, but there were no more songs until the end, and it was always scary and sad.

As the servants began to become totally inanimate, essentially ‘dying’, Cassie turned into Scott’s chest to hide her tears. He cried openly, mourning the fact that he’d never meet his soulmate and that he might lose his daughter as well. Damn it, why wouldn’t Maggie call? Even if her cell phone battery died, she could ring from the restaurant, or Paxton’s phone, or even a payphone!

“Daddy, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he lied, wiping his face. Cassie kissed his chin.

“They’ll all come back to life, Daddy,” she said. “They won’t stay dead forever.”

“Yeah,” he said, and he sniffled. “I know.”

Then Belle told the Beast that she loved him, leaned over and kissed him – Cassie ducked Scott’s hand from covering her eyes for that part – and then the sorceress lifted the curse and they were all happy and alive again.

What the world needed right now was a magical lady to come along and bring people back from the dust. But that wasn’t gonna happen.

“I’m glad you’re a hero like Belle, Daddy,” Cassie said sleepily.

“You’ll be a hero one day, too. Just like the other Disney princesses.”

“I…” She yawned. “Hope so.”

“Go to sleep, Cassie. I’ll be right here.”

 

Loki dreaded what was about to happen.

“Now we can go back to Sakaar and everything will be just like it was! We only have to find my champion and my scrapper.”

Give me death-by-Thanos any day, Loki thought.

“I am sorry, Grandmaster, but I am needed elsewhere,” he said smoothly. “Surely you have something better to do right now? Such as getting rid of that gauntlet?”

“I guess you’re right,” the Grandmaster said, sighing. “You’ll visit me, won’t you?”

“With the way time works on Sakaar, you won’t even notice I’m not there.”

He somehow coaxed the Grandmaster into leaving the ship, then finished the repairs. He sent a message to the escape pods, telling them that he was going to find Thor and the Hulk. Heimdall had sent the Hulk to Midgard, so they would start there and hope that Thor had somehow ended up in the same place. He had neither the time, nor the inclination, to search the entire galaxy for his brother.

Someone else reached out for the ship’s signal as they neared Midgard. Heimdall answered the call.

“Your majesty? Where are you?” he asked.

“Is that Thor?” Loki said, running over to join him. “Brother?”

“Loki! You’re alive!”

“Just about,” he replied, rubbing his throat. It still ached. “Give us your co-ordinates. We are nearing Midgard’s atmosphere now.”

He managed to keep Thor on-topic long enough to know where he was, and the pilot set a course for Africa. Thor promised to allow them access, although Loki sincerely doubted that anyone’s technology could outstrip…

Ah. Yes. There was a dome which was preventing them from flying in. Fortunately the top of it disappeared, and they were able to land their ship on the grass. Loki heaved a sigh of relief and followed Heimdall down the ramp.

Thor ran down the lawn towards them and scooped them both into a hug.

“I see… Thanos did not… diminish your strength,” Loki said, trying to breathe. He pinched Thor hard until he was dropped to the ground. “Thank you.”

“You have a new weapon, I see,” Heimdall said.

“Yes,” Thor said, holding up his hammer-axe. “This is Stormbreaker. Eitri the Dwarf crafted it for me. With some help.”

“How unlike you to give someone else credit,” Loki grumbled, standing up again.

“I truly thought you had died this time, Loki,” Thor said, giving him a stern look.

“I did. The Grandmaster brought us back using the Infinity Stones. We still had to do some repairs to the ship. But we are here now, and we know where the rest of the Asgardians are. Let us leave before anyone tries to drop me down another hole.”

“Come and say hello to my friends first,” Thor said. “Heimdall, you have not met any of them.”

“I’ve encountered them before,” Loki said. “I will wait here.”

“There are many you have not met. Come along, Loki.”

“Thor—” Ooh, how he hated those sad eyes. “Fine. But if any of them attack me, I am leaving, and you can find your own way to New Asgard.”

 

Maggie and Paxton were in hospital, and Scott kind of wanted to laugh. At himself, not them. They were sick enough.

They hadn’t called because the hospital wouldn’t let them use their phones, and they were both throwing up too much to text or call. They, along with all the other people who ordered the seafood basket at the restaurant, ended up in the hospital with severe food poisoning. They both needed to stay in for observation, hydration and nutrients.

So Scott was still babysitting his daughter. Technically. And since a guy named Doctor Strange opened some kind of portal in his living room and invited them to Wakanda… well, technically he wasn’t stepping outside of his house?

So he and Cassie got to visit Africa. Without passports, airplane food, or any of the other stuff ordinary people had to think about. Nope.

Cassie was immediately taken with Princess Shuri and followed her around for an hour, until Scott coaxed her away with a bowl of fruit sorbet. Maggie couldn’t object to that, right? It was healthy. And it wasn’t seafood.

He only had to look away one second for Cassie to abandon her bowl and run off.

“Cassie?” he hissed. He didn’t need anyone here to know how bad he was at being a father. They probably knew enough without adding this to his list of offences.

“Your daughter went that way,” M’Baku said, coming to Scott’s rescue.

“Oh, thank God. Thank you, M’Baku.”

“You are welcome. She is keeping Prince Loki company, it looks like.”

Scott followed where M’Baku had pointed and found Cassie in a corner with the psycho who’d tried to take over New York City. Cassie would’ve been too young to remember him, and he’d had shorter hair and a ridiculous helmet. He may’ve been Thor’s brother, but there was no reason to trust him with a child…

Oh. He was spinning his hands and making animals and people appear, dancing in circles like ballerinas. Scott crept closer, not wanting to disturb the scene.

He should’ve known this would happen. He wanted his daughter to be brave and good, so he’d told her about how he’d met Maggie when he saw her standing alone at a party and kept her company. The party had been at a bar and included alcohol, but still. Cassie had obviously decided that she needed to keep strangers company. He’d have to talk to Paxton about that.

“…and that was how Asgard came to be,” Loki said.

“That horse has eight legs!”

“That was my father’s horse. I found him when he was a foal, with no parents, so I brought him to the palace. It was my father’s birthday the next day, and he was very happy with my present for him. Thor threw a bit of a tantrum that Sleipnir was Father’s favourite gift that year.”

That was different from the story Scott had read about the creation of Sleipnir, but no doubt these tales were changed and embellished over centuries of translation and retelling. As long as Cassie was only hearing the clean versions, that was okay.

“Would you like to hear about the tree of golden apples next?”

“Yeah! Oh, hey, Daddy!”

“Hi, Cassie,” Scott said, nearly beside her. “What’re you doing?”

“Prince Loki was looking lonely, all by himself. He tried to make me go back to everyone—”

“I really did,” Loki added, speaking to Scott.

“But I didn’t want him to look sad, so I made him tell me a story.”

“You are certainly very good at talking people around, Cassie,” Loki said.

Scott’s mind was stuck on a couple of things, but one in particular.

“You seem good with children,” he said.

“I am the trickster god. Children love tricks.”

“Oh.”

“What is it?”

“Uh… nothing.”

Loki’s brow furrowed.

“Have I offended you?” he asked.

“No! No, I just, uh… you said my soul words. I think you did. I mean, you were both talking to me at the same time, so maybe I misheard.”

“Oh.” His eyes widened. “I said…”

“Like I said, I probably just misheard,” Scott said, shrugging. Not that he necessarily wanted to be soulmated to someone who’d attempted to subjugate the world, but he’d almost found his soulmate, and… it was a let-down.

“Those are not the words which were on my body,” Loki said. “But I’ve heard that many soulmarks changed because of Thanos. I have not checked yet. If you excuse me for a minute, I will find somewhere to check in private. Please wait here.”

He stood up with a grace that Scott envied, and walked around them. He resisted the temptation to look over his shoulder at Loki.

“Daddy, he’s a prince,” Cassie whispered.

“Yeah, I know.”

“If he’s your soulmate and you marry him, does that make you a princess?”

“What? No! It’d make me… a consort, I guess. Or a prince. I don’t know. But I mean, I’d have to live wherever he’ll live, which is very far away from here.”

“I don’t see you much anyway, Daddy, and I want you to be happy.”

“You shouldn’t have run off like that and started talking to a stranger.”

“The Dora Milaje are all around,” Cassie said. Which was true. “They wouldn’t let anything happen to me. I’m a kid.”

“It’s my duty to worry about you,” Scott said. “I’m your dad.”

“And Paxton’s my step-dad,” Cassie said. “So I’ll have a dad, a mom, and two step-dads. That’s so cool!”

“Don’t jump to conclusions. I mean, I didn’t even say his w—”

“You did.”

Scott nearly jumped. Cassie clapped her hands in delight.

“I did?” he asked Loki.

“Yes. I would show you, but not in a public setting.” He held out a long-fingered hand to help Scott stand up. “Come. I must introduce Thor to his future brother-in-law. And his future niece.” Once Scott was standing Loki held out his arms, and Cassie jumped into them. He kept her steady with one arm under her legs, and placed his other hand on Scott’s lower back.

“I knew he’d wanna marry you, Daddy,” Cassie said.

“You’ll come to New Asgard with us, won’t you?” Loki murmured.

“Yeah. I mean, if the American government will let me go.”

“They will have no choice in the matter.”

“Cassie still has to live with her mom and step-dad—”

“She can come to us for holidays, and whatever other days she can manage. We will work it out. I promise.”

He smiled. Scott melted on the spot.

Chapter Text

M’Baku sat closest to Princess Shuri. She needed his support, not useless advice from the elders of the other tribes. M’Baku was a leader, but he was young, and he would help T’Challa’s little sister just as he would have helped T’Challa. Had been helping him until… now.

He had come to respect T’Challa. Enough to consider him not only a friend, but also family. Not in quite the same way as T’Challa, though.

Brother.

That was how T’Challa thought of him. Not that it mattered now. He scratched his shoulder through the fur hiding his soulmark. He had lost T’Challa, his king, friend, and… nothing more. Not his soulmate. Not his lover or consort. Not any of the things M’Baku had wished for.

He wished he had died in the field as well.

As Shuri struggled to maintain her composure on the throne, M’Baku amended that thought. He wished that T’Challa had lived. If M’Baku could exchange his life for the king, he would do it as readily as any of the Dora Milaje.

“When will you hold the coronation, my queen?”

Shuri cleared her throat.

“Killmonger destroyed all but one of the flowers which give the Black Panther his or her power,” she said. “The last one was used to bring my brother back from the brink of death. M’Baku can confirm this.”

“It is true,” M’Baku said.

“As for a coronation, it is out of the question for now. I cannot take on the role of the Black Panther; I am not as trained for combat as my brother was, so I cannot take on challengers to the throne.” She glanced at M’Baku. He raised his hands in surrender. She half-smiled. It was the most he had seen from her in hours. “And we must enter a period of mourning for our fallen brethren. We do not know what the future holds, what further threats we may face from Thanos. Once things are settled, we will look t-towards a coronation.” She clutched the arms of the throne until her knuckles turned pale. “That is all for now. I cannot neglect my work any longer. And… I believe there is a way to fix things. As long as there may be a way, I refuse to believe that my brother will not once again sit upon this throne. You are all dismissed.”

While the others left the room, M’Baku stayed close to Shuri.

“The flowers are a poor excuse when I know you are trying to recreate them,” he said.

“I do not wish to raise false hopes,” she said.

“And yet you mentioned that you believe your brother will return.”

“You want it to be true as much as I do,” Shuri said.

M’Baku blinked rapidly, trying to keep tears at bay.

“Yes,” he said, his voice growing hoarse. “But I am not as optimistic as you are.”

“You are scratching your shoulder. Go to medical and get someone to examine it. Or better yet, let me check it while you are here.”

“I am sure it is nothing,” he said. “I cannot show it to anyone.”

“Oh. Your soulmark.”

“We have always been protective of our marks.”

“Yes. I am sorry, M’Baku. I will look away. But please tell me if you see anything abnormal, and I will tell you what it could be. I have a computer which can examine you, if you would prefer that. It will not be able to record your soulmark, because it only scans for fungal diseases, rashes, open wounds—”

“It’s gone.”

“What? Your shoulder is gone?”

“My soulmark.”

He shifted the fur back into place, his heart sinking.

“Oh, M’Baku, I am so sorry.”

“I never met my soulmate.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Some people meet their soulmates very young, and do not remember—”

“I have lost my chance either way, princess… Queen Shuri. It does not matter who my soulmate was, because they are dead.”

“Maybe… if they died as T’Challa did, they can also be brought back?”

“Keep your optimism, my queen,” he spat. “I have none left.”

 

“T’Challa? Buddy, we’ve gotta go.”

“Sam?” T’Challa asked, looking around. He was surrounded by shrubbery in one of Wakanda’s rainforests.

“Yeah, man. We’ve gotta find out what happened, because I don’t remember much. I heard Rhodey calling my name. I knew I felt sick. Then I woke up and everyone’s gone. They didn’t take us with them. What if we’re the only ones left alive?”

“Sam?” Bucky crashed through the bushes to reach them. “What’s goin’ on?”

“Vis? Vis?”

“Oh shit, that’s Wanda,” Sam said. He hurried towards her voice. T’Challa stood up and could heard a small ‘I am Groot?’ not far away. He and Sam followed it until they found the small tree looking around, repeating the same words.

“Come along, Groot,” T’Challa said, holding out his hand. “We will go to the palace and see what we can find out.”

“Vision’s gone,” Wanda said. She was close to hyperventilating, and Sam had to hold her up. “I can’t find him anywhere.”

“Why would they leave us behind but take him?” Bucky asked. “Steve would never leave me behind. Not again.”

“And Okoye would not leave me,” T’Challa said, frowning.

“Do you think we’ve entered a… a parallel universe or somethin’?”

“Life is not always like a science fiction novel, Sergeant Barnes. Come. We must hurry. Something is very wrong here.”

They went as fast as they could, but they all felt that weakness which comes when you have just woken from a deep sleep. And Wanda was crying so hard that Bucky had to help her walk. Groot wasn’t holding T’Challa’s hand, but he was close to his side, branches folding over each other again and again. It was like he was wringing his hands. Under other circumstances, T’Challa would have found it endearing. But right now, they had no idea what was going on. Had Thanos won? Had he wiped out their friends and left them behind?

They arrived to a busy scene. Delicious food and drink on tables, chairs filling the foyer, and a babble of tired voices. All talk halted as everyone noticed their entrance.

“Oh, thank Bast I don’t have to be queen!”

Shuri threw herself at T’Challa. Everyone took that as their cue to start speaking.

Eventually the story was revealed in its entirety. Thanos had snapped his fingers and erased half of the universe. Those who were erased left piles of dust, which had been left undisturbed out of respect. Vision’s body had been brought back to the palace once it was found, and Shuri hoped to restore him, which gave Wanda some much-needed comfort.

Somehow, Thanos’s actions had been reversed. None of them knew how. Yet. But they would find out.

After a substantial meal to regain their strength, followed by cold dessert and drinks, everyone drifted away from the tables and chairs to join different conversation groups.

Instead of joining the others, T’Challa found himself being dragged into a hallway by M’Baku, who’d been eyeing him since he returned.

M’Baku pressed him against a wall and kissed the daylights out of him. T’Challa wasn’t sure how to react. He rested his hands on M’Baku’s shoulders, wondering whether he wanted to push the man away or pull him closer. Not that he could get much closer; he was already pressed bodily against T’Challa, keeping him crowded against the wall. He only relented when they both needed to breathe.

“Had to wait for the taste of meat to be replaced,” M’Baku said, panting slightly.

“What was that about, M’Baku?”

“I have been wanting to do that since you accepted me into your council. Ah, the things I wanted to do to you on that throne.”

“M’Baku!”

“Do you only see me as a brother, T’Challa?”

“…After that, I do not think I can.”

M’Baku backed up a step, but T’Challa didn’t let go of his shoulders. He couldn’t.

“You flirt with everyone,” he said.

“Only in front of you. I was hoping it would make you jealous.”

“We are not soulmates.”

“Do you think I care about this?” M’Baku asked, flipping the fur off his shoulder and baring his soulmark. “They are just words. They mean nothing. I do not care that—”

“That is my writing,” T’Challa said, staring at the words.

“…What?”

“That is my handwriting, M’Baku. These are the words I just said to you.”

“Im… impossible. It was gone. My soulmate died. You…” He stared at the new mark on his skin. “You died. And came back. But you did not say my words!”

“I went exploring once, when I was very young,” T’Challa said. “I met a boy near the mountains who said my soul words. I did not realise it at the time. I was so excited about having escaped the Dora Milaje. And when I returned to the palace I received the scolding of my life. But later I realised that I had met my soulmate, when I saw the words on my arm.”

“I… I remember that,” M’Baku said. “I did not have guards, and I often met children when I wandered off. No one had told me what the words on my skin meant, and I did not connect them with meeting any child. It is so unusual.” He laughed. “Shuri told me that I might have met my soulmate when I was young, but I did not believe her. Nor did I believe that you would return. Any of you.”

“We are back now,” T’Challa said, gently cupping M’Baku’s face. “And we should not waste this precious second chance.”

Of course it was Shuri who caught them kissing, T’Challa with his arms wrapped around M’Baku’s shoulders. She took a picture.

“Go away, Shuri,” T’Challa said.

“Do you want me to delete the photograph too, bossy?”

“No. You can send that to my phone.”

“And mine,” M’Baku added.

“So you are soulmates?” she asked.

“I don’t know how you knew, but yes, we are,” T’Challa said. “Now would you mind leaving us alone?”

“Yes, I would mind. This corridor goes to the nearest bathroom. If you want privacy, go to your suite. This is a public thoroughfare.”

“Will you make our excuses?” T’Challa asked. “Consider it your final act as Queen of Wakanda.”

“I was queen for only a few hours,” she muttered, turning away. “Just a few hours, and they never let you live it down.”

“Now,” M’Baku said. “Show me to our suite, your royal highness.”

T’Challa blushed.

 

Queen Ramonda strode into the bedroom the next morning, ordering the curtains to be opened. She threw the two closest robes onto the bed covers, while T’Challa sat up, groaning. M’Baku pretended to snore, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. Not with that self-satisfied smile on his face.

“Well, now you will have to get married,” Ramonda said.

“Mother!”

“You are lucky you are soulmates. Shuri will hate you once she realises that she is now next in line to the throne, unless you are able to arrange a surrogate mother for your children. It has been known to happen in cases of queens who cannot bear children. That is how your father was conceived.”

“Mother, we need to get dressed,” T’Challa said, pulling the sheets up around his chest. Ramonda rolled her eyes.

“The least you could do is pretend that you have some class, and did not fall asleep naked,” she said. “I am surprised at you, M’Baku. You come from the mountains. You know that you must wear pyjamas.”

“I did not bring any with me, your highness,” he said. “I am happy to get dressed right now, if you wish it.”

T’Challa growled.

“That is nothing I wish to see,” she said. “We will wait for you outside. Then we must begin to organise the wedding. I believe that Wakanda could do with something to look forward to.”

She left the room, followed by her guards. T’Challa flopped back on the bed, his cheeks blazing.

“I cannot believe that just happened,” he said.

“If your mother elicits more moans from you than I managed last night, clearly I was not doing something right,” M’Baku remarked.

Chapter Text

“Do you think we’re the only two left in the universe?”

“I don’t think so. Thanos’s plan was to erase only half of the universe.”

“Oh, only half. That’s just dandy, then.”

“What does ‘dandy’ mean?”

“Uh… nothing. Forget it. I was being sarcastic.”

Nebula eyed Tony Stark warily and inched away from him.

“What do we do now?” she asked. “I managed to escape here myself, but there won’t be enough room for both of us in the Necrocraft that I used.”

“I’ve gotta ask, what species are you?” he said. “You’re not human. You’re blue. Unless it’s the metal. Is it copper poisoning? That can’t be good for a flesh being.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re not from Earth originally, are you?”

“No.”

“So you’re not human.”

“No. I am a Luphomoid.”

“And… where do Luphomoids come from?” he said.

“The planet Luphom. But much of my body was replaced by Thanos. Every time I lost a fight to Gamora he would ‘enhance’ me so that I could become her equal. Now there’s little of my original body left and I am in constant pain.”

“Damn,” he said, wincing. “On Earth we would’ve just given you a prosthesis, and it’s definitely not supposed to be hurt.” He studied her. “If I get you to Dr. Helen Cho she can regrow parts of your body so you no longer need the, uh, ‘enhancements’. But we have to get back there first. And work out how to defeat Thanos. Any ideas?”

“We couldn’t defeat him with the others helping us. What chance do we have now?”

“A little optimism wouldn’t go astray, Nebula.”

“I have never known optimism since Thanos slaughtered my parents and raised me to serve him faithfully,” she said.

“…No one’s ever awarding him Father of the Year. And I thought my dad was an asshole.” Nebula shrugged. “Right. Show me this dead ship. What’d you call it?”

“Necrocraft.”

“So I was right about the name. Come on. Maybe we can jettison some unimportant stuff from it to make room for both of us.”

Nebula looked unsure but showed him the way.

They were still arguing over what could be considered essential in a spacecraft – despite Tony’s lack of knowledge in that area – when something shifted in the atmosphere. Last time it happened their friends disappeared. Now they clung to each other, terrified of being alone.

“Maybe Thanos has returned,” Tony whispered. “It was the Infinity Stones that caused a change last time.”

“We should investigate,” Nebula said.

Neither moved for a moment. Then, as one, they left the Necrocraft and went back to the site where they’d almost defeated Thanos.

Peter was sprawled on the ground, looking around in a daze. Tony left Nebula’s side and ran to the boy. He dropped the ground beside him and yanked him into his arms.

“You’re alive,” he said.

“Uh, Mr. Stark, are you okay?”

“You’re alive.”

“Yeah, I am.”

“Okay… okay. This is weird, but good.”

“Mantis!” Nebula exclaimed. She ran over to help Mantis stand up. Then Drax and Star-Lord appeared. Finally, Doctor Strange returned as well. He looked more confused than anyone.

“What happened?” he asked slowly.

“You tell us,” Tony said. “You’re the wizard.”

“Sorcerer Supreme, and I don’t know. I knew the only way to defeat Thanos was to let him complete the gauntlet and use it. That was the only time I saw victory. But not like this. You and Nebula aren’t supposed to be here. You’re supposed to team up with… well, it doesn’t matter now. Somehow we’re back.”

“Wait, you let us lose?” Star-Lord asked. Doctor Strange gave him a withering look.

“I could’ve told Mantis to subdue you,” he said. “I could’ve used a portal to drop you away from the scene before you could throw off her concentration. But I saw the way things had to go and let them happen. I gave Thanos the Time Stone because I had to. Now it seems… I don’t know whether it was necessary, but we’re alive. So whatever happened, it was something I couldn’t have foreseen, which means that whoever is responsible for our resurrection is someone with powers beyond even my ken.”

“Oh my God, he actually said ‘ken’,” Tony muttered.

“You definitely all won’t fit in the Necrocraft with me,” Nebula said. “Maybe the boy or Mantis, if they squeeze themselves into a corner.”

“I’m good, thanks,” Peter said, staying close to Tony’s side.

A few of them began to scratch and checked their skin. Tony was fine but Nebula wasn’t, so it clearly couldn’t be a side-effect of turning to dust or not turning to dust.

“My soulmark,” Nebula said, stunned. “I have not seen it for years. It was one of the first parts of my body that Thanos replaced. It’s come back! But… they were different words before.” She frowned.

“The same here,” Strange said. “I had different words, but it’s the same writing.”

“Me too!” Peter said. “Is it just because I died, or because my soulmate died, too?”

“I don’t know, kid,” Tony said. “I guess we’ll find out when we get home. If we ever get home.”

“Maybe she has the answers,” Strange said, gesturing to something flying through the sky towards them.

“She?” Drax said. “How can you tell that it is a woman from here?”

“Because I think I know who it is, and most people use female pronouns for her.”

“Her who?” Peter asked ungrammatically.

“Fate,” Strange replied.

“I don’t understand this word,” Nebula said, still staring at her soulmark. “Tony, do you know it?”

He sauntered over, while keeping an eye on the UFO. As soon as he saw her mark, his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“I wouldn’t know the handwriting, but if your soulmate is who I think it is… this will be gold. And you’ll both be invited to my wedding.”

 

“I’ve had it up to here with these motherfucking aliens on my motherfucking world!”

“It isn’t just your world, sir,” Maria said, an ice pack still on her head. She’d woken up on the road underneath an ambulance and hit her head on the underside when she jerked awake. Fortunately, everyone heard her cursing and dragged her out from beneath the vehicle. But she still had a throbbing headache.

“I don’t care. I used to be responsible for making sure it stayed safe. Now it’s like anyone thinks they can waltz right in and threaten humanity. On my watch. I swear to God, if no one else razes HYDRA to the ground I will. This never would’ve happened if—”

“I know. Just… please lower your voice? This is almost as bad as period cramps, and you’re not helping.”

He sighed heavily.

“At least we’re alive again,” Fury said. “And I called off Danvers and Clint. But I wanna know what the fuck has been going on.”

“I’ll call Pepper Potts as soon as I can,” Maria said.

“Just give me her number and I’ll call her myself.”

“Not with that mouth on you, you won’t,” she said.

“Give me the phone,” May Parker said, holding out her hand. “I’ll call her. Peter’s met Happy Hogan, so that’ll give me an in with her.”

“Just mention that you’re looking after the former director and former deputy director of SHIELD, and she’ll… probably not want to talk to us, actually.”

“She’ll take pity on you. Don’t you work for her? Hey, you, I told you I don’t have any alcohol,” May said suddenly, pulling Fury away from her kitchen cabinets. “Not with a fifteen-year-old in the house.”

“With his metabolism he probably can’t get drunk all that easily,” he said.

“Unless he has Asgardian mead or something,” Maria added.

“Anyway, I was gonna offer Hill chocolate if you had any.”

“It’s not actually period cramps, sir. I don’t think dairy products will help.”

“I’ll get her some more water,” May said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t either of you have soulmates you need to contact?”

“My soulmark’s changed,” Fury said. “I checked it at the hospital.”

“Neither of us have met our soulmates,” Maria said.

“…Oh. I’m sorry.”

“We’re both workaholics anyway,” Fury said.

“Speak for yourself, sir. At least I know how to unwind.”

“Yeah, for missions.”

She glared at him half-heartedly and then rested her head back against the arm of the sofa. May adjusted the cushion beneath her head when she returned with water. Fury sank into a chair. He jumped as soon as Maria’s phone rang and snatched it up.

“This is Hill’s phone. Ms. Potts? No, no one’s called us yet. With May Parker. She was close by. He’s where? How the hell do we get to Wakanda? Of course I’m going, I need to— motherfucker!”

A sparkling golden circle had appeared in the room. Peter stumbled out and May ran straight over to hug him. She cried into his hair, while he looked at Fury and Maria with wide eyes.

“Do you need to go to Wakanda?” a man asked, peering at them through the circle.

“Doctor Strange can take you anywhere you need to go,” Peter said. “He’s about to take Mr. Stark to Stark Tower.”

“Uh, sorry, Ms. Potts, Spider-Man just returned,” Fury said, remembering the phone call at last.

“I-I’m not Spider-Man. Who’s Spider-Man? Not me. I’m just a kid.”

“No one’s buying that,” Maria mumbled.

“Stark’s gonna be on his way to you soon. I’m about to leave for Wakanda. Debrief. I know SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore, but I’m still the boss. Of everyone. Here’s Hill.” He held out the phone. Maria glared at it but took it from him. He nodded to the apartment’s other occupants and then stepped through the circle like he did it all the damn time.

“You must be Director Fury.”

“And you must be Doctor Strange. We had you on our list of people to watch.”

“I’m flattered.” The doctor closed the portal, since that’s what it seemed to be, and Fury looked around the large room as he conjured another one. Stark was nearby, and it sounded like he was on the phone to Happy.

“No plane, I told you. I’ll be there in literal seconds. Keep an eye on Pepper for me. No, after I’m back we’re going to the bedroom, so you won’t have to watch her then. Either of us. Unless you’re into voyeurism— hey, hey, it was just a joke. Okay, bye. My lift is here.” He hung up and arched his brows as he looked Fury over. “Ciao. Let me know if I need to send an invite.”

He walked past and stepped through the portal. Strange rolled his eyes at the lack of thanks and waved his hands to dismiss the golden circle again.

Fury noticed King T’Challa talking to some people, Captain America sporting a beard, Thor sporting a new hairstyle, Romanov sporting a new hair colour, and an insect-human hybrid. Not another alien, damn it! He noticed another person out of the corner of his eye, a blue, purple, and gold being with a lot of metal parts. She stared back at him, her arms crossed and her chin tilted up in challenge.

“Are you another of Stark’s motherfucking creations?” he asked.

Her eyes widened. Strange’s cloak hit the back of Fury’s head like his mother used to smack him when he swore.

“That isn’t my function, no,” the woman replied dryly.

Oh shit. He’d just insulted his soulmate, and she didn’t look happy about it.

“I’m Nick Fury,” he said, feeling ashamed. Not that he’d let anyone know. Well, Romanov was giving him a knowing look, but she did that to everyone.

“I am Nebula. I am not a ‘creation’, let alone one of Tony Stark’s. I’m from Luphom, and I am an assassin raised and trained by Thanos. I am no longer loyal to him. I am loyal to the Guardians of the Galaxy, and to them only.”

“You’re not gonna try to destroy Earth, are you?” he asked.

“I was not planning to. Yet.”

“Then I think we’ll get along fine.”

“Since it seems we are soulmates, Tony will be inviting us to his wedding after all.”

“Motherfucker.”

Chapter Text

“Tony!”

Bruce stumbled into his arms. For a brief moment, Tony was reminded of the ending of West Side Story, and wondered wildly if he was about to be shot.

But no. He hastily said goodbye to Pepper and followed the cloaked man back to… whatever this place was supposed to be. Bruce babbled explanations at him, but Tony couldn’t really focus on even half the words.

Bruce was back. He was alive.

Of course he was alive. Tony had known that for awhile. His soulmark had returned for a few hours. Then it disappeared again. Only a few minutes ago he’d felt an itch, signalling its potential return.

“Tell me his name again,” Tony said, once Bruce’s chatter died down.

“Thanos,” Bruce said. He was trying to catch Tony’s eye, but no way was he getting off that easy. Not after two years of Tony thinking he was dead, only to give him a short burst of hope, then dashing it again. “He’s a plague, Tony. He invades planets. He takes what he wants. He wipes out half the population. He sent Loki. The attack on New York… that’s him.”

The threat to New York had brought them together. Tony remembered every second he’d spent with Bruce vividly. He remembered the Hulk rescuing him.

“Where were you for two years?” he whispered, finally meeting Bruce’s eyes.

Bruce swallowed visibly, his eyes growing dim.

“I was on a planet called Sakaar,” he said. “I was the Hulk. I didn’t snap out of being the Hulk after Ultron. Not until Thor led me to the Quinjet I’d been on when I…”

“Ran away.”

“Tried to keep you safe.”

“Your soulmark disappeared.”

“Oh. Oh God. That’s why Thor thought… he said you all thought I was dead. That didn’t make sense, but you don’t have the soulmark when I’m the Hulk because… he hasn’t got a soulmate. And it’s like I’m dead. I’m so sorry, Tony.” He blinked back tears, hugging himself. A few tears fell nevertheless and he bowed his head.

Tony sighed, then noticed that Wong and Strange were paying too much attention to them. Back to business.

“What’s our timeline?” he asked.

“No telling,” Bruce said. “He has the Power and Space Stones. That already makes him the strongest creature in the whole universe. If he gets his hands on all six stones… Tony…” He wavered towards Tony.

“He can destroy life on a scale hitherto undreamt of,” Strange said, breaking the tension to Tony’s relief.

“Did you seriously just say ‘hitherto undreamt of’?” he asked, backing away from Bruce and leaning on the nearest object. He didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed by the doctor. Either doctor.

“Are you seriously leaning on the Cauldron of the Cosmos?” Strange said.

His cloak swiftly smacked Tony’s arm.

They quibbled about ice cream for too long, in Tony’s opinion, and he definitely didn’t agree with their assessment that A Hunka-Hulka Burning Fudge was the best.

Tony pulled out his Steve Cell, as he mentally called it, reluctant to make this call even though it was the only possible way to secure Vision. But he noticed noises outside and weird vibrations in the air.

“Say, doc, you wouldn’t happen to be moving your hair, would you?”

 

Bruce was almost glad he couldn’t turn into the Hulk right now. Since finding out that Tony’s soulmark disappeared during every transformation, he didn’t want to become the Hulk. But usually he had no choice. This time, the Hulk refused to come out and fight. And for all he knew, it cost them victory. If Thor could’ve defeated Thanos, and the Hulk had beat Thor on at least one occasion (Bruce was sceptical about their fight on Sakaar), surely the Hulk could’ve helped this time?

But no. He was being chicken, just like… just like Bruce.

“I hope Tony makes it back in time for the wedding,” Natasha said as they sprawled around after the fight, unable to believe that they’d lost, and that it cost the world so dearly. “I hope Pepper’s still alive.”

“I thought… I thought Strange was joking about that,” Bruce said.

“They got back together awhile ago,” she said. “Their engagement was all over the newspapers… oh, but that’s right. You weren’t here.”

“He was fighting bravely with me on Sakaar and Asgard,” Thor said, coming to the rescue. “I had no idea Tony was engaged. I must offer my congratulations to him.”

“If we see him again,” Steve said hollowly, still curled up on the floor and staring out the window. Bruce was worried about him. Steve was rejecting food, which wasn’t good. His sky-high metabolism meant he needed plenty of nutrients. Rejecting food, after living through the Great Depression and having the super soldier serum? Bruce was right to be worried, and wondered whether he could convince Shuri to make a dart with enough drugs to sedate Steve, so they could get him onto some drips.

“He’s alive,” Bruce said absently.

“Who is?” Okoye asked.

“Tony.”

“How do you know?” Natasha said.

“Because he’s not marrying his soulmate.”

Thor caught on first. He certainly broke the silence.

“Tony is your soulmate,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“What… why didn’t you tell us?” Natasha asked.

“Because he thought it was meant to be the greatest friendship in the world, and… and I didn’t only want friendship,” Bruce said. “I wanted… everything with him, and I couldn’t tell him. He was dating Pepper, and now they’re engaged.”

“They broke up for awhile,” Steve said, turning his head to glance at Bruce out of the corner of his eye. “I thought Tony was on edge because Pepper was pregnant, but she wasn’t. It was the break-up. Then our entire team split… and now there’s no point. Bucky’s gone. He was the catalyst and now he’s dead. For good this time.” He brushed away tears. “You’re not the only one who wanted more from your soulmate than they were prepared to give.”

“You and Bucky—”

“Yeah. Doesn’t matter now, like I said. But you. You’ve got Tony. He’s alive, so you can be happy about that. And neither of you will live forever without the other.”

“Kind of morbid, but I get your point,” Bruce said.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha said.

“For what?”

“For trying for something with you. When you wanted Tony all along.”

“I gave up on what I wanted because I knew I’d never get it.”

“Maybe you should’ve fought for him. I think he broke up with Pepper not long after Sokovia. I thought it was stress or fear at the time, but maybe it’s because he thought you were dead and realised what he’d lost. Then he got engaged to Pepper because he was lonely and thought you’d want him to be happy, and now you’re back…”

“And I’ve made everything confusing,” Bruce said.

“They’ll understand,” Thor said, squeezing his shoulder gently. “You must fight. Not as the Hulk, but as you. Fight for your soulmate when he returns. He will return. I have to believe that we will all fight side-by-side again to defeat Thanos. Even if we cannot bring back our friends and family, we can avenge them. Do not walk away from what makes you happy or you will end up with nothing and no one, and your life will only be full of sorrow. Like mine.”

Tears spilled down Bruce’s cheeks and he leaned his head against Thor’s knee.

 

Tony wondered if the pain he was feeling was the loss of Peter, the uncertainty of the future, Thanos’s victory, or something he could feel from Bruce.

He thought he’d been dead. No more soulmark. When he found the patch of skin bare after Sokovia, he broke down. He’d lost his best friend, the person who meant the most to him, who’d always be there, who lit up Tony’s entire life in a way no one else ever had…

The person he loved the most in the world.

And there it was.

He loved Bruce, and now Bruce was gone. What was the point in going on?

He broke up with Pepper because he couldn’t be with someone when he’d realised, too late, that he’d been in love with his soulmate for… what, a couple of years? Since the day they met? Since they second they met? He created the memory-adjusting machine to give himself a different ending with Bruce. A happy one.

Then his soulmark returned and confusion set in. No one could be dead that long and then come back to life. Reincarnation didn’t mean that a soulmate would have the exact same writing, because handwriting styles differed generation to generation. So what happened? And why did his soulmark disappear again only hours later?

Now it was back. Bruce was back. And Tony was about to marry Pepper.

What was he supposed to do?

“If you had a soulmate—”

“I do.”

“What?”

“I have a soulmate. Do you think humans are the only beings with souls?”

“Uh, right. No, I… I didn’t know. I wasn’t even sure aliens existed.”

“I do have a soulmate,” Nebula said.

“Okay. So I’m engaged to someone who isn’t my soulmate because I thought my soulmate was dead. Now it turns out that he’s not; he’s been living as a sort of alter ego which meant that my soulmark wasn’t there. Now he’s back. What do I do about the woman I’m supposed to be marrying?”

“I would let them fight to the death and marry the winner.”

“…Uh, that may be okay where you come from, but not on Earth. We don’t do that sort of thing anymore. At least, not in America. Well…” He tilted his head. “Not in New York City, or any of the other civilised places.”

“I don’t think my soulmate will want me,” she said. A bit too honestly. Ouch.

“I love them both, but in different ways. I want to… I want to marry my soulmate, but breaking my fiancée’s heart is not what I want to do. If I survive whatever we do to get revenge on Thanos, and my fiancée and soulmate survive it, too, I don’t know how to tackle the problem. It’s not something I’m trained or qualified to do.”

“There are three of you involved in this, yes?”

“Yeah.”

“And your fiancée has a soulmate as well?”

“She does.”

“Why are you trying to make the whole decision when you are only twenty-five percent of the equation?” she asked.

Tony stared at her.

“That makes a lot of sense,” he said. “I don’t know if it helps in the long run, but… thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now let’s get to work. Do you have any tools on you?”

“For once, no.”

“Never mind. I have something in the Necrocraft. I’ll be back soon.”

 

There was still a lot of confusion. Bruce kept out of the way, the Hulk still refusing to make a peep. But better safe than sorry. He didn’t think the other Wakandans would be as unbreakable as the Black Panther… had been. Was again, since he, and the rest of the dead people, had been resurrected.

Steve and Bucky disappeared pretty soon after. Not in the dust kind of way; in the we-have-to-renew-our-bond-in-private-right-now kind of way. It was sweet, but the kiss they had in front of everyone told Bruce more about their future relationship than he needed to know.

Apparently their feelings about wanting more were requited.

“Bring him back soon so we can monitor him!” Shuri hollered down the corridor as they hurried away, hand-in-hand.

“Good luck with that, sister,” T’Challa said. She smacked his arm.

“Don’t you start,” she said. “I’m still angry with you.”

“It was not my fault that I died!”

“It is your fault that you are not yet married with children who can take on the throne and leave me in an advisory capacity!”

Just because people had been returned didn’t mean Tony would be back soon, not if he was stuck in space. He was alive but not close by, which left Bruce on edge. He paced until he was tired, and Ramonda threatened to have a guard sit on him to keep him in one place. He meekly sat in a corner. There was no way he was disobeying the queen. She terrified the Hulk almost as much as Thanos.

He was nearly asleep when there was a commotion at the front doors. Without the Hulk’s co-operation, there was no way he could be helpful; so he stayed put, stubbornly keeping his eyes closed.

They sprang open when he heard Tony’s voice. Their eyes met across the room and Bruce’s breath caught hard in his throat. Tony took an aborted step towards him but then pulled himself back, asking about Steve.

With a heavy heart, Bruce got to his feet as someone passed by, providing a neat cover. He inched towards the nearest door, only moving faster when someone hid Tony from his view.

He may as well help in medical again. They’d probably be snowed under by all the people who needed monitoring. Shuri wouldn’t mind him being there.

He was minding his own business, watching two of the medical staff arguing over which vital signs most needed to be monitored in the patients, when he felt the floor give from under his feet. He fell through one of Strange’s portals with a surprised squawk and landed on a carpeted floor. He looked up from his crouched position to see a pair of business-like heels, legs, a torso… Pepper Potts.

“Uh… hey. Again,” he said, scrambling to stand up. “What am I doing here?”

He looked around and saw Tony, Happy and Strange. He gulped and shrank back, hoping for the first time that the Hulk would emerge in a skyscraper. He could really use the excuse to bail right now.

“The three of you need to talk,” Strange said. “Mr. Hogan will mediate.”

He waved and stepped backwards through another portal. There was a man who knew his entrances and exits.

Okay, that sounded dirtier than it was meant to.

“Say hi to Wong for me!” Bruce called. A hand waved through the circle, and then both hand and portal were gone. He tensed again, retreating a couple of steps.

“Long story short,” Tony said. “Bruce is my soulmate. I’ve known all along. We both have. We agreed on friendship and—”

You wanted friendship,” Bruce corrected. “I wanted more.”

“You… you didn’t say.”

“You weren’t available. You still aren’t. It seems the only time you haven’t been dating Pepper since we met is when you thought I was dead.”

Tony flinched. Pepper looked from one of them to the other with a furrowed brow.

“So… what’s the ‘long story short’ I was going to get?” she asked warily.

“When I thought Bruce was dead I realised that I was in love with him,” Tony said, “and that’s why I broke up with you. It would’ve been dishonest to both of us and I couldn’t do that. Not while I remembered Bruce. Even though I thought he’d only wanted friendship. Turns out I’m not such a genius after all.”

“Not a social one, no,” Pepper agreed. “Are you breaking off the engagement?”

“Of course he isn’t,” Bruce said quickly. “He wouldn’t.”

“Don’t speak for me,” Tony said, scowling at him. “Pepper, you’re a great friend, but I think I’m engaged to the wrong person. And so are you. We can still be friends, but you haven’t met your soulmate, and I don’t want you to find that you’re more in love with them than you are with me, and… and end up staying with me instead of risking my fragile heart by breaking up with me. I can’t do that to you. I won’t make you miserable… and I won’t make myself miserable. I’ve been selfish during my life, and I’ve tried to be the opposite of that since becoming Iron Man. But I can’t keep making myself unhappy as penance. I want Bruce, and if he still wants me… that’s great. Even if he doesn’t want me, I still can’t marry you.”

“I understand,” Pepper said quietly. “I thought we could make it work this time, but I guess I was kidding myself. I was so happy because I do love you, but maybe… we both thought we loved each other in a different way. Maybe we were both confused.”

“I think so.”

“I think this is the most mature conversation I’ve ever seen you two have,” Happy said. “Not that I like it. I was rooting for you. But I want to see you both happy as well, and… well, that’s the most important thing to me.”

“Thank you, Happy,” Pepper said, patting her eyes. Tears. But she smiled anyway and kissed Tony on the cheek. She removed her engagement ring and placed it in his hand. “I’ll call a press conference.”

“It’ll hardly make a dent in the news, not after all this,” Tony said, gesturing out the window.

“I know.”

“Just release a statement. It’s our private business. We don’t need a contingent of reporters throwing personal questions at us. Announce that the engagement’s off. That’s all they need to know.”

“I agree.” She exhaled steadily. “Come on, Happy. I don’t think we’re needed here right now.”

They left Bruce and Tony alone together.

“It’s a bit too soon to have this resized, and I don’t think these rings really say us, you know?” Tony said, playing with Pepper’s ring. “Better return them after the press release. But, uh, you’ll stay now, right? You won’t go running off? No midnight curfew or you’ll become a pumpkin?”

“It was the carriage that became a pumpkin.”

“Fairytale nerd.”

“D-did you really mean it?” Bruce was dying to know, and he’d held the question in long enough. “When you said you were in love with me. Was that real?”

“It was and it still is,” Tony said. “Always.”

For the first time in his life, Bruce shed happy tears as he ran into his soulmate’s arms.

Chapter Text

Happy held Pepper close as she broke down. FRIDAY halted the elevator for them to give Pepper time to get it out of her system.

“It’ll be okay, Miss Potts,” Happy said, stroking her hair awkwardly. Comforting his crying boss wasn’t in his job description. Protecting her from bullets, yes. This? Not so much. But he’d known her for a long time and had to do something.

“I just… I thought this time…”

“Yeah. We both did.”

“I’m s-sorry. We kind of ruined your dreams for us, didn’t we?”

“Never a big believer in soulmates myself,” Happy said, shrugging. “My parents were happy without `em. They never even met their soulmates, as far as I knew.”

“You don’t wanna meet y-your own soulmate?”

“It’s not important to me. And my soulmark’s pretty generic, so maybe I’ve met them and didn’t realise. Or I met `em when I was a kid and didn’t know about soulmates. But this… this isn’t about me. Are you gonna be okay? Should I call someone for you? Do you know who your soulmate could be?”

“I’ve got two soulmarks,” Pepper said, pulling away. She wiped her tears from his jacket and pulled tissues out of her handbag. She sniffled, dabbing delicately at her cheeks. “It’s unusual, I know. But I figured… like Tony and Bruce, I figured it was meant to be friendship. I’ve always got along with Rhodey, and he was Tony’s friend first. I didn’t want to get involved with Tony’s best friend when I became his personal assistant… and then Natasha… well, you remember all that. Tony’s new assistant, obviously sent to flirt with him by a spy agency. Neither made sense, being paired with me. Okay, Rhodey made some sense. We always got along together, mainly through a shared sense of… exasperation with Tony. It was harder to get along with Natasha, knowing she’d been spying on us.”

“They’re your soulmates? The Black Widow and War Machine?”

“Yeah.” She blew her nose. The elevator began to move down to her floor. “Crazy, huh? And I was supposed to be marrying another superhero, who’s instead getting together with his superhero soulmate. Ugh, I can’t escape them.”

“Take a holiday. Mr. Stark’s jet can take you anywhere. Announce the engagement’s off, then we’ll go away. Wherever you want to go. I’ll be there to watch your back, like always. Spend up big in some place hit badly by what happened. It’ll help restore their economy.”

“That’s true. Okay. Call my secretary and say that I’m taking a two-week vacation. I don’t care how SI copes while I’m away. Maybe Tony will step up and take charge. Take responsibility for his company. If I haven’t created a strong enough team who can take over when things go wrong, or when I need to take time off, then… well, I don’t know how they would’ve coped while we were on honeymoon. I’m going to pack my bags. I’ll organise the jet. Make sure you pack for warm weather.”

“Yes, Miss Potts.”

 

“What’re you gonna do now?” Rhodey asked, leaning against T’Challa’s personal bar beside Natasha. “Go back to working with Cap and Sam?”

“I don’t think Steve can leave Bucky behind ever again,” she said. “So I have no idea what their plans are. And I think Sam would be happy to retire his wings for a while. What’ll you do? You’ve been given a court martial.”

“If Tony can’t clear it up after he untangles himself from Bruce, I guess I’ll have to go with you. Become a Secret Avenger.”

“You could be considered a deserter.”

“It’s a grey area when your only active service is as War Machine.”

“Or Iron Patriot,” she said, smirking as she went to take a sip of her cocktail.

“Yeah, yeah. The paint job was not my idea, remember?”

Sure it wasn’t.”

“Whatever you say, Natalie.”

Natasha flinched almost imperceptibly. But Rhodey noticed it.

“What?” he asked.

“Just… remembering. When I met Pepper. And Tony, but Pepper…”

“Was more important,” Rhodey said softly.

Is more important.”

“Do you think it was the same?”

“What do you mean?”

He turned around, resting his back against the bar and crossing his arms.

“Same as Stucky and Brony,” he said. Natasha arched an eyebrow. “That’s what the fans call them.”

“I don’t spend time on social media.”

“Steve and Bucky are Stucky and Bruce and Tony are Brony. I think that one was mostly going around SHIELD, though. And SI.”

“Damn. Did Pepper know?”

“I don’t think so. It was mostly referring to their friendship, anyhow. No one knew they were soulmates. I sure as hell didn’t know, and I was Tony’s best friend.”

“You still are,” Natasha said. “He helped you through physical therapy. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for that, but I was on the run. Was Pepper there?”

“They were still broken up, so I didn’t see much of her.”

“Oh.” She sipped her drink again. “What did you mean before, about being the same as them?”

“Oh yeah. Both sets of soulmates thought the other just wanted friendship, but I’m betting Tony wanted more, and Bucky clearly wanted more. D’you think Pepper ever wanted more with us?”

“She would’ve stopped dating Tony if she did,” Natasha said.

“Not if we didn’t give her a sign.”

“Did you want more with her?”

“Of course,” Rhodey said. “But I wasn’t gonna hit on Tony’s personal assistant. It was the first time in a long time that he’d found someone who could put up with him and fend off his flirting. I wasn’t risking that, even for my soulmate. And I didn’t want any rumours spreading about how she only got the job through me. It wouldn’t be fair to her, not when she’d worked hard to get where she was.”

“But she was settled by the time I came along,” Natasha said. “Safe in her job, safe from rumours, and dating him. If she’d been dating you, I… would still have had my job to do, unfortunately. But after it I would’ve asked you guys out. If we stayed friends I would’ve been fine with it. Now… I’m not so sure.”

“Whether you’d want to be with us?”

“I think I definitely would. I don’t think I could’ve given that up.” She stirred her drink with a toothpick. “I’m not used to these kind of feelings. I know how to seduce someone I don’t care about, but when you bring emotions into it…”

“And Bruce?”

“You mean… flirting with him?”

“You seemed to really like him,” Rhodey said, with a little jealousy.

“My reasons don’t even make sense anymore,” she said. “And it’s now a dead end.”

“Pretty good assessment of the situation.”

She half-smiled. Rhodey wondered how the hell her makeup remained perfect, even after a fight. Barely a hair out of place. A few cuts or bruises, but always impeccable. Was it a Black Widow thing? Maybe it was Maybelline. He chuckled to himself.

“We should find out what happened with Tony,” he said. “Got a phone? Mine got broken in the armour. I’m pretty sure it was Thanos’s fault.”

“Let’s blame everything on him,” she said. “He’s not here to defend himself.”

“Preach,” Rhodey said. He looked away as Natasha unlocked her phone. Instead of handing it over – “It’s keyed to my hand; it’ll electrocute anyone else who tries to use it” – she scrolled through the news herself. Her brow furrowed after she found Pepper’s name as a trending hash-tag. “What is it, Natasha?”

“I don’t know yet,” she said, following a link to an article. It was a press release from Stark Industries. She scanned the first paragraph swiftly and nearly dropped her cell phone. “Oh.”

“What?”

“They’ve split up.”

“Who? Pepper and Tony?”

“Yeah. The wedding’s off. They’ve released a statement saying… they’ve come to the conclusion that since they’re not soulmates, they won’t risk their future on an uncertainty… some other filler… Pepper’s going on holiday.”

“Holiday?”

“She won’t be contactable for the next two weeks, so she must be taking time off.”

“So it’s hit her hard,” Rhodey said.

“I don’t know. But I know that Happy won’t let her go alone. Do you have his phone number?” He nodded. “Call him.”

 

Pepper was never sure why she didn’t tell Tony that she knew her soulmates.

It’s not like her soulmarks were generic, and she’d seen their handwriting since. But Rhodey was Tony’s friend first, and she didn’t want to disrupt the only healthy relationship Tony had by making him question whether Rhodey’s loyalty would always be with him.

The debacle with Justin Hammer and the suits proved that Pepper had been right to be concerned, but not that Rhodey’s loyalty would shift to her.

Then Natalie Rushman came along. Another of Tony’s personal assistances being soulmated to his best friend? He didn’t need that. He didn’t need to be questioning whether any of the people in his life could be relied upon. He could always count on Happy, at least, but he deserved someone who didn’t treat him like his superior all the time. He needed someone who treated him as their equal.

Whether Bruce did that or not, Pepper couldn’t say. But now she felt guilty about having lied all these years.

Before the plane took off, she sent a text to Tony reminding him to do something about Rhodey’s court martial. Just because he was going to be occupied with his soulmate didn’t mean he had to neglect his other friends. She and Rhodey had taken a backseat to Bruce and the other Avengers when they came along. Or maybe it was just Bruce, and the rest of the Avengers were an excuse for him to ignore his other duties and spend all his time in the lab with… with his soulmate.

God, she’d been blind.

With a sad, self-deriding chuckle, she rested her head back.

The trip to Greece was pretty short, thanks to Tony tinkering with the plane whenever he felt like upgrading its tech. It was a smooth ride and there was no other air traffic. She and Happy caught a car from the airport in Athens, then a boat to Corfu. She’d wanted to visit ever since she started watching The Durrells. It was Happy’s favourite British show at the moment, so she knew he was excited to be visiting as well. If they were lucky, maybe the next season was being filmed and they could be extras? That’d be cool.

Happy offered to check Pepper’s suite first, so she let him get it out of the way. He left the room, nodded at her, and went next door to his own room, pulling his wheeled luggage after him.

Pepper was not expecting company when she walked into her bedroom.

“Hey,” Natasha said.

“We figured you shouldn’t be alone,” Rhodey added. “If you want or need us to leave, we’ve got another room booked.”

“In case the press comes here, we’ve scoped out the best hiding places here,” Natasha said. “So you don’t have to worry if we have to be your dirty little secret.”

“You… you both want me?” Pepper asked, stunned. “I’m sorry, this is a… lot to take in. I’m guessing you organised it with Happy, since he checked in here already and he would not have missed the two of you lying naked in my bed.”

“Just your bed, or our bed too?” Rhodey said.

“And we’re in underwear,” Natasha said.

Pepper’s mind shut down for a moment as she pictured that. She swallowed.

“Uh, yeah, I’m gonna unpack and then we’re gonna talk,” she said.

“We can leave—”

“No! No, uh, stay. I don’t want to be alone at the moment. You’re right. I’m not ready to jump straight into something just yet. I’m not sure of my feelings.”

“We can wait,” Natasha said.

“Forever, if we have to,” Rhodey said. Pepper rolled her eyes.

“Not forever,” she said. “Just… give me a little time.”

“All the time you need.”

Chapter Text

Steve was missing. No one knew where he’d last been seen.

“He won’t know that we’re back,” Bucky said. He only had one arm to hug himself now, having given the other one back to Shuri straight away.

“Not unless he could see or hear you coming from wherever he is,” she replied.

Bucky had checked his soulmark. Steve was still alive. But he’d technically been alive all that time in the Atlantic Ocean too. Anything could happen to him… or he could do anything to himself…

He wiped away a stray tear. He wasn’t sad. He was terrified.

“We’ve gotta find `im,” he said. “This ain’t the first time he’s seen me die. I dunno what it could do to him, but I know what it’d do to me, and I can’t… I can’t let him do that. Shuri, please, there’s nothing on the CCTV?”

“We do not have cameras monitoring every inch of Wakanda outside of the palace,” she reminded him. “Where have you checked?”

“Nowhere yet! I didn’t think he’d leave everyone behind. He’s a fighter. He’d wanna find some way to defeat Thanos. He wouldn’t just leave a battle half—”

“Thanos won,” she said softly. “Colonel Rhodes told me that Steve said ‘Oh God’ and didn’t say anything since.”

“The last thing I said was Steve’s name.” Bucky tucked his hand into his pocket. “I think I should look for him. Call his name. He’s gotta be able to hear me.”

“And if he thinks that he is imagining your voice?”

“…I don’t know.”

“Men,” Shuri sighed. “You go out into the grounds and start looking for him. I will make an announcement about the return on the speakers outside of the palace. He must hear them.”

“You think he’d notice the soulmark,” Bucky muttered.

“Perhaps he has cried himself to sleep over losing his soulmate?”

“The punk had better just be asleep.”

Bucky stalked out of the lab. He was out the front doors when Shuri announced that there would be a celebration at the palace for the return of King T’Challa and the other fallen warriors. She listed all of their names, both the Wakandans and the visitors. Bucky wasn’t sure where he fell on the spectrum. He was named the White Wolf by the local children, but he wasn’t a real Wakandan.

He tried to put himself in Steve’s headspace, but it was impossible. They’d woken up calling for their friends, so he would’ve heard them if he’d been nearby. That left a lot of country to explore and Bucky was tired and hungry. Steve would be tired and hungry, too, the idiot.

“You’d better get your ass over here, Rogers!” he hollered. He looked around, his eyes narrowed. If only his senses were as keen as Steve’s, he could’ve scented him on the breeze or the grass. He’d have to do this the old-fashioned way.

He started at a pretty good perimeter from the palace and worked his way around in a spiral, calling as loudly as he could. He tucked his hand up beneath his shirt and found his new soulmark, in Steve’s same old scrappy handwriting. It was the writing he used when he was in a hurry, which was most of the time. Not the neat script he used for official documents.

He circled the mark, winding his way in closer, and eventually pressed the palm of his hand flat over the mark. He tried to convey all his feelings into it. He had no idea whether Steve could feel it echoing through his own mark, but Bucky had to hope that something good could finally happen to them. For them.

Shuri called to say that she had scanned Wakanda using the dome and found a few isolated places where body-heat in a human shape was located. She had deployed drones to track them down. After a few seconds, she found Steve, curled by a noisy stream and moving one finger through the water. She showed him the image in his kimoyo beads.

He knew exactly where that was. It was one of his favourite spots in Wakanda.

Steve didn’t stir as Bucky crashed through the undergrowth and nearly sprawled onto the grass beside him. He managed to gain his footing and then sit awkwardly behind his soulmate. Still nothing was said.

“You giving me the silent treatment, punk?”

“Bucky…” Steve’s body heaved with a sob. “I miss you.”

“I’m right here. Didn’t you hear Shuri’s announcement? We’re back. Me, Sam, Wanda, T’Challa, Groot. Shuri’s gonna try to fix Vision if she can. All the other Wakandans who died in the fight, they’re back, too. We don’t know what happened, but whatever Thanos did has been reversed. And here you are, sulking, instead of celebrating with everyone else. I’m hungry, okay? Let’s go eat.”

“I’d rather stay here.”

“Stubborn as always. Fine. Good thing I know what fruits and berries we can eat.” He lay down awkwardly, and looked up at the bits of blue sky peeking through the branches and leaves. “We’ll have our own celebration.”

“Please… please, stop.”

“Stop what? Talking? `Cause silence is boring. I’m gonna keep goin’ until…”

“Yes, stop talking!” Steve said, suddenly sitting up and turning around. He glared down at Bucky. “Stop being here! I can’t stand it.”

Bucky’s stomach turned over and tears prickled at the corners of his eyes again.

“You don’t want me,” he said. “I always knew that. And I guess… your life’s easier if I’m not around. Sam’s better for you. He’s smart. He’s sane. He wasn’t turned into a mindless assassin by HYDRA. I’m just a burden.”

“Don’t say things like that,” Steve said. Tears were shining in his eyes. “You were never a burden. I want you to be around, Buck.”

“Then why are you tellin’ me to go away?”

“Because it’s not you!”

“What’s not me?” Bucky asked, sitting up. He was almost nose-to-nose with Steve now. “I know who I am! I finally got those words out of my head. I’m the closest I’ll ever be to the Bucky Barnes you knew. I’m sorry if that ain’t good enough, but it’s the best I can do!”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I’ll never be the same again, but damn it, I’ve tried.” Bucky ignored the tears racing down his cheeks now. He didn’t care how Steve saw him anymore. “An’ if you can’t accept me at my worst, you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

He struggled to his feet, pushing away Steve’s attempt to help him get. He vaguely noticed Steve staring at Bucky’s hand. It just made him angrier. He began to stomp off, away from the forest and his soulmate and… and everything.

“Bucky?”

“You’ve said your piece. Now just leave me alone. You never have to see me again.”

“Bucky?” Steve ran after him and grabbed his left shoulder. They both gasped, and Bucky turned his head away. “You’re… you’re real.”

“Yeah, I’m a human bein’, just like everyone else. Big surprise, huh?”

“No, you… you’re alive? B-but you were dead! I saw you die. You said my name and then you were… you were gone.”

Bucky slowly turned and saw just how pale Steve’s face he gone. It was too similar to the pre-serum days, when the slightest hint of Steve being unwell sent Bucky into a panic. He didn’t think he had to worry about that anymore.

“I’m here,” he said softly. “I told you. We’re back. Almost every single one of us is back, `cept for Vision. And Shuri might be able to fix him. I don’t know.”

“Y-you were dead.”

“Didn’t you feel your soulmark tingle or, or itch?”

Steve shrugged a little.

“Thought it was taunting me. `Cause I was thinkin’ about you.”

“Check it, you big dummy.”

Steve yanked up his shirt, one hand still clenching Bucky’s shoulder, like he’d float away if he let go. He finally tore his gaze away from Bucky’s face and looked down at his stomach.

“Oh God, you’re back,” he whispered. “You’re back.”

“Yeah, I told y—”

Steve yanked him close and crushed their mouths together. Bucky tasted their tears, mingling together on their lips. He held Steve around the shoulders, felt the rasp of their beards rubbing against each other. His eyelashes were clumped with tears, but he peeked at Steve, eyes widening when they met blue staring straight back.

Even super soldiers need to breathe; they were forced to separate when their noses became too blocked up and their lungs seized with effort. But they didn’t let go, soulmarks separated only by Bucky’s t-shirt.

“I t-thought I’d have to live w-without you again,” Steve said, burying his face in Bucky’s shoulder, clutching his hair in his fist. “I barley managed b-before, and only the f-faint trace of your soulmark kept me going. `Cause I had some hope. But then it was really gone this time. You were really d-dead and I couldn’t… I couldn’t…”

“Thank God I found you in time,” Bucky said.

“Shoulda known I couldn’t get rid of you that easily,” Steve said, huffing a laugh against Bucky’s neck. “Like a bad penny, always turnin’ up again.”

“Hey…”

“You know I’m kidding,” he said, and he touched his nose to Bucky’s. Their wet eyes met, brimming with tears and adoration. “Jerk. I’ll love ya `til the end of the line.”

Chapter Text

“Darcy! Oh my God, you’re okay. Oh, thank God. I’m gonna start going to church now. I don’t care which one. Okay, it’d be awkward to worship at a Norse temple, but… you’re Jewish, right? Should I convert to… Jewish-ism?”

“Judaism,” Darcy said, trying to sit up. Jane pushed her back down.

“Stay there! I’m still trying to find out how to treat you after this.”

“W-what happened, Jane? Boss?”

“You were, uh…”

Jane?” she said slowly, threateningly. Jane was tiny but had a lot of fight. Darcy, on the other hand, had a taser which could bring down a Norse god.

“You sort of… turned into dust. For nearly four hours. I’ve been freaking out. It happened all around the world, Darce. Half the world’s population just… died! Or maybe you were in an alternate dimension, I don’t know.”

“I’m pretty sure I’d remember being in an alternate dimension. Jane, I’m kinda hungry. I was gonna go out and get lunch. Or did I already do that?”

“No,” Jane said. “You dropped your wallet and said my name, and then you were dissipating right in front of my eyes. You didn’t even ask what I wanted for lunch.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault!”

“Usually I’d ask your order before grabbing my wallet. Maybe I was feeling off and that’s why I did things out of order.”

“Okay, but stay where you are. I’ll get lunch. Uh… where do you buy lunch?”

Darcy rolled her eyes.

 

Sam tucked into something which looked like curry, tasted sort of like a curry, but had some Wakandan name with a bunch of apostrophes that he wasn’t gonna try to pronounce. He’d probably get it wrong and accidentally proposition someone. And he was way too exhausted – not to mention starving – to get into that kind of trouble right now. Although if it put smiles on a few faces…

Wanda was snuggled up to Vision, who’d chosen to use his human appearance. Shuri was obviously itching to examine him further, but Wanda bared her teeth whenever the princess got too close. Then Shuri would return to her brother’s side, glaring at him and hugging him whenever she got the chance.

Steve had eventually passed out, with Bucky curled up beside him. That seemed to be the only way he didn’t suffer from nightmares; he stopped twitching in his sleep as soon as Bucky whispered to him. Tony glanced at Bucky a couple of times, but after seeing him act as Steve’s rock and anchor, the tension and fight left the billionaire. He didn’t smile, but he no longer seemed actively hostile.

The rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy had turned up an hour after Tony, Strange, and Spider-Man showed up on Fate’s sleigh. And who knew she had a sleigh? Sam took pictures, though they seemed kind of blurry.

Thor had arranged for his friends to join them in Wakanda, accepting Tony’s generous offer of using a Starkjet. Pepper was on her way, along with Spider-Man’s aunt and best friend. Clint and Ant-Man opted to stay in America with their families.

Well, they were missing one heck of a quiet party. No explosions or hammer-lifting contests. It was a definite step-down from a usual Avengers party.

The jet arrived in the middle of the night, but everyone had napped long enough by then and were somewhat refreshed. Sam didn’t have the energy for actual enthusiasm, but he managed a few fatigued smiles.

“Jeepers creepers, you look like you just crawled out of Dracula’s coffin in the middle of the day, my dude. Go back to sleep.”

Sam knew his new soulmark. He didn’t have it memorised yet, for obvious reasons; it was too damn long. But it was in no way generic, no one else had seen it yet, and he definitely remembered enough of the words to suspect that the perky brunette in front of him was his soulmate.

“Either you live on caffeine or you don’t know the meaning of jetlag,” he said. It wasn’t as long as his mark, but it was fair retaliation if she was his soulmate, and easily explained away if she wasn’t.

Her jaw dropped. So he probably didn’t have to explain himself. He yawned widely, displaying his tiredness.

“Holy cow, you have… did I refer to Dracula?”

“Yeah.”

“And I said ‘Jeepers creepers’? Seriously?”

“You did.”

“Oh shit.”

“I’m definitely gonna go back to sleep now, but we’ll talk tomorrow,” he said. “I’m Sam Wilson, by the way. They sometimes call me the Falcon.”

“I’m Darcy Lewis. Unpaid intern to Jane Foster. Poli-sci major.”

“Great. Goodnight. Sleep well. The… the curry-thing is to die for. If you haven’t eaten. They’ve probably still got some in the kitchens.”

“Aw.” Her eyes softened. Or sleep was taking over. Sam couldn’t tell. “You’re trying to take care of me already, even though you’re almost dead on your feet.”

“Undead, you mean. Night, Darcy Lewis.”

“Goodnight, Sam Wilson. Don’t fall asleep standing up.”

 

Darcy slept after the greatest cup of cocoa she’d had since childhood. She and Jane were sharing a bed in one of the guest rooms. The space peeps were sleeping in their ship, and since Peter Parker had school the next day Doctor Strange had sent him, his friend and his aunt home after a few hours. But they were welcome anytime, according to T’Challa.

So, while there wasn’t exactly a shortage of guest rooms, they were still trying to conserve space where they could.

She wouldn’t mind ‘conserving space’ with her soulmate, but he was way too tired last night for anything. She’d have to tackle him now that they both had more energy. And she was going to make her first move during breakfast.

“What’s cookin’, good-lookin’?” she quipped when he sat opposite her with a groan, sinking his head into his hands. He peeked at her between his fingers. “What d’you want for breakfast? They have some kind of porridge which is kinda like the curry you told me about. I tried to pronounce it, but my tongue got all twisted up and apparently I said ‘Let me feel your socks’ in Wakandan. At least it got a laugh.”

“I wanna go back to America,” Sam said. He rested his head on the table. “Damn, that feels nice and cool.”

“Are you running a temperature?”

“Just a headache.”

“Want a head massage? I promise not to break you.”

“Thanks. I’ll take a raincheck. I think I should’ve slept in.”

Darcy pouted.

“How are we gonna get to know each other if you spend all your time sleeping?” she said. Sam gave her a withering look. She sipped her juice with an innocent look.

“I fought in battle yesterday,” he said. “Cut me some slack.”

“I turned to dust.”

“So did I.”

“Dude! We’ve already got something in common.” She held out her fist. After a pause, he raised a fist and bumped it against hers.

“You’re weird,” he said.

“I prefer the word ‘quirky’.”

“Whatever.”

“Not a morning person, are you?” she asked, pouring him a glass of water. It tasted like angels and rainbows, but so did the juice. Everything did. Or maybe she just had a new-found appreciation for food and drink after coming back to life.

“Nope,” he said, and he began to drink.

“Are you a boob person?”

He spat out his sip of water. Darcy handed him a napkin.

“Was that necessary?” he asked hoarsely.

“I figured my soulmate would be a boob person, because hello? Look at these girls.”

“Yeah, I noticed them.”

“So are you?”

He mopped up the table, took a drink while keeping an eye on Darcy, and then placed his cup down again.

“I can be persuaded of their merits,” he said archly.

“Cool. I can be persuasive. My major is political science. I told you that last night, but you were probably too sleepy to take any notice. You were like a kitten that’s only a few days old and can’t really open its eyes yet, and its ears aren’t pointy or sticking out yet, and it can barely even squeak out a meow, but you just wanna cuddle it close and keep it protected from everyone forever.”

“With that admiration for cats, you will fit right in around here,” Queen Ramonda said, reading the news on a tablet at the end of the table. She and Darcy had been having a hell of a discussion before Sam stumbled into the room.

“Oh, hey, your highness,” Sam said, before slumping on the table again. “I’m just gonna sleep for a bit longer. If Rogers comes in here, throw something at him. Don’t let him drag me into more trouble right now.”

“Your word is our command,” Darcy said, winking at Ramonda.

The queen smiled behind her mug of tea.

Steve didn’t appear, but Vision and Wanda did, all bed-hair and love bites. They greeted the queen while Sam continued to snooze. Darcy and Ramonda continued talking over the news, what course various countries would probably take, what the UN might do regarding the Sokovia Accords, and so on. Wanda stayed silent, but Vision contributed his opinions.

Finally, when more dishes with fresh, hot food were brought in to replace the older dishes, Sam woke up. He looked confused by his surroundings for a minute, confirming Darcy’s declaration that he was a sleepy little kitten.

“Look who turned up only a few hours ago,” M’Baku said, dragging a blond into the room. “Your highness.” They both bowed respectfully to Ramonda.

“Everett Ross, I am so glad to see you,” the queen said, standing up. They all leapt up, led by Darcy and Vision. She waved them back down.

“I was so worried about all of you,” Everett said. M’Baku cuddled him from behind, nipping the back of his neck. Wanda stared between them with wide eyes. He noticed her. “Good morning, Miss Maximoff. Don’t worry, I’m not here to get you into trouble or anything. Just here to check up on my friends.”

Ramonda kissed him on both cheeks, forcing M’Baku to back off for a couple of seconds. But then he sat beside Ramonda after she took her seat again, and hauled Everett into his lap.

“Coloniser!” Shuri shrieked, running into the room and launching herself at him. Sam nearly fell off his chair in surprise, saved only by M’Baku reaching out to catch his chair in time.

“How are you not used to the crazy yet?” Darcy asked her soulmate.

“Like you guessed, I’m not a morning person,” he said, rubbing his temples. “I am definitely going back to bed. Food can wait.”

“No it can’t,” Darcy said, standing up with a plate of fresh food. “We’ll go to your room. You’re going to eat and then I’m going to give you a head massage until you fall asleep. Understood?”

He smiled.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Chapter Text

Loki’s throat contracted. He could hear Thor shouting his name. Clearly.

He opened his eyes and was surprised not only to see no Thanos, but to find that he was on his back with Thor at his side, shaking him.

“Brother?” he croaked.

“Loki! You are alive. The Grandmaster said that you would be, but I couldn’t let myself believe it. Not until now.” Thor leaned over and kissed his forehead. Loki’s brow wrinkled in disbelief and mild dislike. He was unused to affection, especially physical affection, and most especially from Thor. Judging by his brother’s look, he would not be able to escape further similar attentions for awhile.

“Thanos?” he asked.

“Dealt with,” Thor said.

“Dead?”

“No, but he will not bother anyone again. We have been assured of that.”

Loki tried to sit up. Thor had to help him get to his feet and held him steady.

“So we won,” he confirmed.

“Yes, brother. I’m not allowed to tell you where the Infinity Stones are hidden—”

“Very wise.”

“But we’re following the escape pods to where we shall settle New Asgard. That is something to celebrate, Loki!”

“Alright,” he said, rubbing his temples. “Please keep your voice down. I believe that I died and it has given me a headache. And I require a hot drink to soothe my throat.”

“Right away,” Thor whispered.

His whispers were still loud, but it was an effort that Loki appreciated.

 

Starting a colony from scratch was difficult, even with magic. Fortunately, the planet they had found was not overly-inhabited, and in fact had remained untouched by Thanos, no doubt due to their low population.

The piece of land where the escape pods had landed was not vacant, but it was not far to a larger tract of land where they could build New Asgard. There were plenty of resources; though Thanos’s lesson had struck home, and they were sparing where they could be, sending for supplies from other planets as necessary.

The Guardians of the Galaxy frequently brought cargo, as they had all taken a shine to Thor (except for Star-Lord, who remained hostile and mocking, which led to Loki striking up a friendship with him). Loki interacted with the others very little, as he found Drax irritating beyond measure and the others never approached him. No doubt they had heard a great deal about him from the Midgardians they met in Wakanda; no matter what Thor said about him, it could not be enough to change their minds.

On the other hand, he was nearly always busy assisting construction and defensive wards. And he missed several drop-offs as he established diplomatic relations with the other countries on the planet and learned as much about their new home as he could. If he was to be Thor’s advisor, he would do the job properly this time.

During lonely nights away from home, he would try to think of golden days in Asgard, days by his mother’s feet, learning magic to impress his father. Trying to sneak orphaned and abandoned animals into the castle where he could care for them. The memories were soured whenever he remembered his mother’s death, conflicting feelings about Odin and his death, seeing Asgard explode in a blaze of glory…

When melancholy took over, he would turn to the comfort of his soulmark. It had changed after his return to life. A second mark. A second chance. Not only a chance to redeem himself, but to find the other half of his soul, the one person who would accept him, flaws and all, without question.

The one comfort he took was knowing that none of his enemies were his soulmate. It had to be someone he had never met. He knew a spell to detect whether a person had encountered their soulmate, whether they knew it or not, and sometimes he amused himself by using it on unsuspecting people without their consent. They would never know unless he chose to tell them.

If only there was a spell to lead someone to their soulmate. He would have used it many times over by now, every time he wished to run away from home.

“Please let them be kind,” he whispered to the ceiling. “I need someone who will not allow me to… to betray Thor again. Or anyone else I love. Please.”

He would then roll over and fall asleep. If there were still tears on his pillow come morning, he would ignore them. No use dwelling on his problems. He had far too much else to do. Thor needed his brains, not his aching heart.

As always.

 

“Why are we not allowed to meet Prince Loki?” Mantis asked Gamora.

“Thor is being protective of him,” she replied. “Like he’s a fragile flower.” She hefted a large box into her arms while Mantis picked up a lighter crate and followed her down the ramp.

“But Peter has met the prince,” she said.

“You know Peter likes to break the rules. Besides, I’ve heard they spend all their time complaining about Thor. You don’t want to do that, do you?”

“No, of course not. The king is very nice.”

“And his brother apparently tried to take over Earth.”

“At least Prince Loki was not as bad as Thanos,” Mantis said.

“He worked for him.”

“So did you and Nebula.” Gamora frowned. Mantis could feel a wisp of hurt coming from her. “I worked for Peter’s father, and he tried to destroy the universe as well. We have come from the same place, as Peter would say. I think that is what he says?”

“Yeah. I never thought about that. We were raised to be assassins; you just put Ego to sleep when he needed it.”

“But I helped him.”

“Okay. I get it. No self-blaming.”

“We must set an example for Peter and King Thor,” Mantis said.

“They’re still both reeking of guilt?”

“Yes.”

“Well… look, why do you want to meet Loki so much?”

“We have met almost everyone else here, as well as King Thor’s human friends. It is strange that we have not met his brother.”

“He’s away most of the time,” Nebula said. She was returning to the ship for more supplies. “Why are you taking so long?”

“See, Mantis?” Gamora said. “Don’t let it worry you. Loki’s too busy to meet us.”

“Why would you want to meet him?” Nebula asked.

“It feels wrong,” Mantis said. “I… I have to meet him.”

“We’ll talk to Thor later.”

“Thank you, Gamora.”

 

Thor was there to meet Loki when he returned, which was unusual.

“What has happened?” he asked, tensing immediately.

“Nothing has happened, Loki.”

“You would not be here unless something had gone wrong.”

“The rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy wish to meet you.”

Loki rolled his eyes. Was that all?

“Must I meet them?” he said. “They are your friends, not mine.”

“They can be your friends, too, Loki.”

“I’ve met Gamora and Nebula, after I fell into Thanos’s hands,” Loki said. “They are not memories I wish to revisit.”

“But you haven’t met Mantis, yet.”

“I’m sure she has better things to do with her time.” He tried to step around Thor, but his brother blocked the way with an arm and a stern gaze.

“She requested to meet you,” he said. “She feels that it’s wrong that you haven’t met, when she’s met nearly every other New Asgardian. Please, Loki. She genuinely wants to make your acquaintance. You can excuse yourself after you say hello.”

Loki sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “I will say a few words.”

“Be polite. And gracious.”

“I am always polite and gracious, Thor.”

He received a one-eyed look of suspicion which was entirely justified. But Loki had to make trouble when he could. It was his duty as the God of Mischief. If he stopped, the universe could fall into disarray. Look what happened when he died for half a day. No one had any fun then.

Thor led him to a room in their house, a large residence that was originally built as shelter for everyone until more buildings could be constructed. Now only Thor, Loki and Heimdall rattled around in it, as well as a few guards. Someone had clearly prepared a meal, either for the Guardians or for Loki’s return. The crew of the Milano were certainly helping themselves to the food and drink quite freely.

As soon as they walked in the room, the woman with antennae leapt up. With a huge, beaming smile she hurried over to them. Thor gave her a brief hug, the way he greeted most of the Guardians. It left a strange feeling of jealousy coiling in his gut.

“This is Mantis,” Thor said. “And this is my brother, Prince Loki of New Asgard.”

“I have looked forward to meeting you very much,” Mantis said, holding out her hand to Loki. He froze as he reached for it, his mind reeling. Then he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it.

“The honour is all mine, my lady,” he murmured.

Some of the Guardians spit out their food or drink. Mantis’s eyes grew larger. Her smile widened and her antennae lit up.

“Oh,” she said softly. “This is why I had to meet you. I told my friends that it did not feel right, not meeting you, and now I know why. You are my soulmate.”

“Brother, is this true?” Thor said.

“Yes, Thor.”

“My congratulations to you both!” he said, and he pulled them into a hug. Loki did not accept it for long, and withdrew as soon as he could, leading Mantis a few steps away. Thor’s eye twinkled as though he knew exactly what Loki was doing. He probably did. His brother was not the fool many took him for.

“Are we meant to copulate now?” Mantis asked.

“W-what?”

“That is what soulmates do when they meet, is it not?”

“Who told you that?” Loki asked, cheeks turning red as he noticed Thor trying to smother a smile.

“Peter and Drax. Oh, and Rocket told me as well.”

“So the male members of your crew.”

“Yes.”

“I have more class than that, and I am a prince. I will not be taking you to bed until we are married. But you… you should get to know me first. You may not like me.”

“But I already like you,” Mantis said, tilting her head. “Do you not like me?”

“Yes. I don’t know you, but you… yes, I do like you. But we should still at least talk for awhile. Find out our likes and dislikes. Uh…” He glanced at Thor, words failing him. “What else?”

“I haven’t met my soulmate, brother. I know as much as you do.”

“We really should have asked our parents more questions about this.”

“No doubt we expected them to be around when we found our soulmates.”

“Oh.” Mantis’s eyes filled with tears. “I can feel your sorrow over your mother’s death. I am so sorry.”

“You can feel it?”

“She is an empath,” Thor explained.

“I’ve never met an empath,” Loki said, suddenly intrigued. It lessened his sadness, which was reflected in Mantis’s smile. “Come. We’ll get to know one another now. And if you decide that you like me enough to stay, we can marry while your friends are still here.”

“I would like that,” she said brightly.

Chapter Text

Bruce was in New York and he really didn’t want to be.

It was Tony’s fault. Tony was marrying Pepper, and ever since finding out that Bruce was alive and on Earth, he’d been determined to drag Bruce to the wedding. Whether he wanted to be there or not. Nothing anyone said could dissuade him. Okay, no one was bothering to protest except Bruce, but that should’ve been enough.

“Rhodey’s been court-martialled and he’s gonna be there,” Tony said. “I’m not letting anyone arrest my friends.”

“Okay, but you’re the groom. You’ll be occupied with other things the whole day.”

“It’s not gonna take all that long.”

“And you’ve been married how many times?”

“I’ve been to weddings before!” Bruce arched an eyebrow. “Okay, I haven’t. What’s your point?”

“They go for a really long time. The ceremony, the speeches, the socialising…”

“Don’t worry.” Tony patted him on the shoulder. “It’ll be fine, big guy.”

Some of the Avengers were conspicuously absent. Rhodey was Tony’s best man, so he was too busy to hang out with Bruce. Vision was texting someone – probably Wanda – a lot. Peter… Bruce didn’t know well, and his aunt was busy fussing over him. He was in a well-fitting, new suit. Bruce suspected Tony’s interference. He’d been subjected to the same treatment more than once.

Wong and Strange were there, at least, so Bruce talked with them for a bit. Strange hadn’t actually been invited; he was there as Wong’s plus one. Natasha told Bruce there before she hurried off to continue helping Pepper, who’d insisted on Natasha and Hill being her bridesmaids. Bruce didn’t mind Natasha being distracted; he still felt awkward around her. More so since they were thrown together so much for the few hours that half the human population had been missing.

He’d been so tense he was surprised the other guy didn’t show up. It would’ve made things less awkward, for once.

The ceremony, not being a church affair, was shorter than Bruce expected. No sermon, no prayers, no hymns. There were vows, a bit of music (tasteful, thanks to Pepper), then they left the flight pad of Stark Tower for the common area.

It reminded Bruce of what could’ve been. The Avengers spending time together, helping Steve and Thor get used to modern Earth, training in the gym, Bruce and Tony working in the labs, Bruce patching up Natasha and Clint after their work for SHIELD… It would’ve been nice. They could’ve found Bucky and integrated him. Become his friends. No Ultron, no Sokovia, no Sakaar, no gladiatorial combat… And no Thanos.

Well, that was life. Full of twists and turns a missed opportunities.

There was finger food, and Tony gave a short but sincere speech about the fleetness of life and spending your time with loved ones. He didn’t mention forgiveness or lessons learned, but they didn’t need more reminders of the past.

After the speech, people either picked at the food, accessed Tony’s open bar, or drifted to the dance floor while Tony and Pepper swayed to some vaguely romantic tune. FRIDAY was probably the DJ, with an approved list of musical selections.

An hour passed before the atmosphere and noise became too much. Bruce left quietly; if he was missed, anyone could ask FRIDAY and she’d tell them that he’d gone.

He needed to get out of there.

His soulmark had disappeared. Only for a few hours, when half the universe had been reduced to dust. But his soulmark had returned with different words. What had Thanos done which changed things so drastically that soul words had changed?

He stood outside the tower, resting his head back against the wall. The sun had warmed the metal, making it hot to the touch. His thick curls protected him from being scorched.

A little girl ran up to him. Their eyes met. Bruce wasn’t sure what to say. He’d been wary of unaccompanied children ever since one of them led him to the Black Widow.

“Are you really the Hulk?” she asked bluntly.

“Uh…”

“Cassie, oh my God, you can’t run off like that!” A man ran up to them, panting slightly, and grabbed the girl’s shoulder.

“You were the one watching them, Daddy.”

The man blushed to the roots of his hair. Bruce stared at him.

“There’s a really good reason, I swear,” the man mumbled.

“If you’re really the Hulk, you’re my favourite Avenger,” Cassie told Bruce. “I think Daddy’s favourite is still Captain America. He’s an engineer, so he probably would’ve liked Iron Man, but not anymore. But you’re really cool! If Daddy was an Avenger, I think you’d still be my favourite. Sorry, Daddy.”

“It’s okay, Cassie. He’s definitely cooler than me.”

“Don’t say that,” Bruce blurted out. “I’m not that cool.”

The man’s eyes widened and he glanced down at Cassie, who smiled smugly at both of them and crossed her arms.

“Ha,” she said. “Checkmate.”

“Cassie!”

“What, Daddy?”

“Did you… did you just…”

“Set that up?” Bruce said.

“Yeah, did you do that?”

“It wouldn’t have worked if you weren’t soulmates,” Cassie said.

“Oh my God.”

“Um… you should probably tell me your name and why you’re here,” Bruce said.

“This is Cassie. I’m her dad, Scott Lang. Ant-Man?”

“Oh, Ant-Man! I heard about you.”

“Really?” Scott looked at him shyly. “You know about me?”

“I only heard about you when I got to Wakanda. I’d been off-planet for a couple of years, after the Sokovia thing.”

“I really wish we could’ve come to Wakanda to join the party, but with Stark there it would’ve been awkward,” Scott said. “And since I sort of turned to dust, the FBI lost sight of me and there was a lot of trouble until they checked their cameras in my house and found that, yeah, I did actually, uh…”

“Die,” Cassie said. Definitely a blunt child. Better than ambiguous, cryptic words.

“Yeah,” he said, scuffing one of his shoes on the ground. “Since I was already in the country, Steve asked me to keep an eye out in case someone tried to crash the party.”

“Daddy called the cops on some bad guys!”

“I wasn’t gonna start a fight,” Scott said. “I don’t wanna be under house arrest. Again.”

“I don’t blame you,” Bruce said. “I’m tired of being on the run from Secretary Ross. I’ll have to rely on Tony’s charity to find somewhere to hide out.”

“My friends can help! And Steve can, if you need him to.”

Cassie grabbed Scott and Bruce by the wrist and forced them to hold hands.

“That’s better,” she said with a decisive nod.

“Cass,” Scott said, rubbing his face with his other hand. “Don’t embarrass me like this.”

“Don’t be embarrassed about your soulmate, Daddy!”

“I’m not embarrassed,” Bruce offered. “Just worried about the future.”

“And, uh…” Scott glanced at the ground and squeezed Bruce’s hand. “Would you prefer a platonic relationship or…”

“I don’t know yet,” Bruce said. “But I want to find out. Let’s go have a coffee.”

“You only get a milkshake, Cassie.”

“Aw, Daddy…”

“And we can talk,” Bruce continued. “See whether platonic will work, or whether… ‘or’ is something we want to explore one day. Maybe. Unless you’re married? No, they said you were divorced.”

“I am.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No. I mean, nothing serious. I don’t think it’s supposed to be serious. When I tell her about you, she’ll understand. Uh, you? I heard rumours about the Black Widow…”

“There’s nothing going on,” Bruce said. “Nothing serious ever happened.”

“Daddy, are we going for coffees and a milkshake already?”

“Come on,” Bruce said, squeezing Scott’s hand in return. “My treat.”

“I can’t say no to that. You don’t wanna stay for the rest of the party?”

“I’d rather be with you.”

Scott’s small, bashful grin was adorable.

Chapter Text

M’Baku tried to ignore the bare skin of his chest where his soulmark used to be. But when Shuri asked if he needed to contact his soulmate, he shook his head.

“I can’t,” he said. “I… I never met them.”

“But you will,” she said. He lowered his eyes to meet hers.

“Not anymore,” he said.

“…Oh. I am sorry, M’Baku.”

“You have lost your brother and mother. I have lost my soulmate. We’ve lost many of our own people and outsider friends. Words aren’t adequate to describe the sense of loss we will always feel.”

A couple of tears trickled down Shuri’s cheeks. She wiped them away quickly.

“Yes,” she said. “We must hold a memorial.”

“And your coronation?”

She huffed a hollow laugh.

“There can never be another Black Panther,” she said. “And I am not sufficiently trained in combat.”

“No one will challenge you for the throne.”

“You would have, once.”

He nodded in acknowledgement.

“But not now,” he said. “Do you still have your soulmark, Queen Shuri?”

“I have not checked. As long as I do not look, I can pretend everything is alright. That I have not lost one more important person in my life.”

“You never met your soulmate?”

“No. I have not reached the average age that people meet their soulmates, so I am… I was not worried.”

It went unsaid that she was now.

“Will you acknowledge everyone who fell here in the memorial?” M’Baku, trying to turn her mind from her soulmate.

“What do you mean?”

“Not just the Wakandans, but other people?”

“Oh. Uh, yes. Especially Bucky Barnes. People were starting to see him as one of us. The children will want to say goodbye to him. He was so good with them. I think he felt that they were less intimidating. He was never controlled by children. They weren’t a threat to him the way adults were.”

“No wonder he didn’t see you as a threat,” M’Baku said, smirking. Shuri smacked his arm with a small smile.

“He was only ever controlled by white people, mostly white men, so he felt comfortable in Wakanda. But children and babies are innocent. I think he missed that. He liked to be helpful, and entertaining the children was something he could do. There was no fighting. I hated making that arm for him, knowing he would only use it in combat.”

“I wish I had met him.”

Her eyes widened.

“You never met the White Wolf?” she exclaimed.

“No.”

“Why not? How did you never meet him?”

“He wasn’t exactly sociable,” he pointed out.

“I suppose.” She swallowed. “At least he is resting now.”

“You think that he should have had a chance at a good life?”

“Yes. He should have known that he could be happy while he was alive. Being in Wakanda was the closest he ever knew to happiness in decades, I think. I could tell how relaxed he was. Most former soldiers would become restless with so much peace, like Steve Rogers. But this one needed rest. Why… why could he only get that in death?”

M’Baku let Shuri sob into his shoulder. Tears trickled from his eyes while he thought of T’Challa finding peace too soon. The young witch who lost her robotic boyfriend and then died after him, never having a chance at a happy life. He had to believe that they would find each other in death. And that, one day, he would meet them, too.

 

M’Baku considered returning to the mountains, but he could not leave the ashes of his people behind. How could he take them back so they could be buried? Would Shuri have some boxes or bags that he could use?

His muscles were tense and sore, but he insisted on the remaining Jabari showering before him. When he finally climbed in, he groaned at the stiffness in his limbs. The hot water was a blessing as it soaked into his skin and muscles, and he massaged what he could until he felt relaxed.

And then the itching began. He scratched his belly idly, while washing the sweat from his hair with his other hand. But scratching did no good. Was this a side effect of his soul words disappearing? He would have to ask Shuri whether anyone else was suffering the same itchiness.

Dragging a towel over his skin in a tired effort to dry off, he put one foot on the edge of the bath to dry his leg. He nearly slipped into the tub when he saw new writing in a stark white on his skin. As bright as the moon in the night sky. He ran to the mirror, skidding on the bathmat, and read the words in the reflection.

We haven’t met. Who are you? I mean, what’s your name? Sorry. That sounded aggressive. I’m no good at this.

It was endearing, in its way. Was the nervousness because M’Baku spoke first, or was he really that intimidating to his soulmate?

“I think he felt that they were less intimidating.”

Well, M’Baku’s soulmate was unlikely to be the White Wolf, no matter how appropriate his ‘moon in the night sky’ analogy would be. But the words were in English…

And he was forgetting what this meant.

His soulmate was alive.

M’Baku had never dried himself off so quickly in his life. Even when his father caught him with a man in his bed for the first time, M’Baku had never dressed so swiftly or frantically. He stuffed his feet into sandals, swung the fur over his body so that it crossed over his soulmark, and then ran out of the bathroom. Someone could pick up the towel later. He had more pressing business.

He ran into Okoye outside. Her eyes were gleaming.

“Are they alive again?” he demanded.

“Movement has been detected where they died,” she said. “We are going to investigate it. Are you coming with us?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Arm yourself, just in case.”

M’Baku knew that it would not be necessary, but he obliged her by grabbing his usual staff with the pointed end. It was an effective tool and weapon in many ways. Most of all, it made him look impressive. Even if his soulmate was not in Wakanda, and he was not going to meet them today, he still needed to inspire confidence in his people.

Many soldiers were rising on the grounds. M’Baku warned them to avoid other piles of dust, since they weren’t all appearing at once. He directed them to wait outside the palace for him. He would send most of them back to prepare for the others’ return. But first, he wanted to make sure the king was alive.

T’Challa was alive, and on his beads to Shuri. She was shouting at him, tears obviously clogging her throat and making it hoarse. T’Challa looked fairly guilty. He could only wave at the others, clearly unwilling to interrupt his sister’s rant.

Captain Rogers had come down with them, and he was embracing his two friends, the Falcon and… the White Wolf? He had a mechanical arm, so he must have been the man Shuri had been talking about.

After the princess finished shouting at her brother and demanded that he return to the palace immediately, Okoye turned disapproving eyes on the king. He cleared his throat awkwardly and rubbed the back of his neck.

“…Sorry for dying?” he said.

Okoye rolled her eyes. M’Baku nearly did the same.

“Let us return to the palace, brother,” he said. T’Challa lost the tension in his shoulders immediately and nodded. He allowed Okoye to support him, although she was no doubt causing him more pain with the grip on his arm. M’Baku relieved the captain of one of his burdens, linking an arm with the White Wolf. The captain thanked him, and insisted on walking behind. M’Baku hoped it was only because he wanted to keep an eye on his friend, and not that he suspected ill intentions.

“We haven’t met,” the wolf said, eyeing M’Baku. “Who are you?” M’Baku nearly stopped in his tracks and looked at the man, startled. He received a wide-eyed look in return. “I mean, what’s your name? Sorry. That sounded aggressive. I’m no good at this.” He looked at the ground, his cheeks turning red.

So M’Baku’s first suspicion was not wrong.

“I wondered if it would be you,” he said.

“What about me?”

“You are the White Wolf, Bucky Barnes. Am I right?”

“Yeah. I guess the arm’s a bit of a dead giveaway.”

“Please don’t mention death,” the captain said.

“Sorry, Steve.”

“But I didn’t mean that,” M’Baku said. “Yes, I thought you were the White Wolf. But I thought you might be my soulmate as well.”

“What?”

“You might have a new soulmark. I certainly do.”

Bucky stopped in his tracks. He removed his arm from M’Baku’s elbow and hauled up the back of his shirt.

“Steve?” he said, his voice wavering.

The captain checked and his jaw dropped.

“That’s… that’s what he said to you, Buck,” he said. “Your soul words are ‘I wondered if it would be you’.”

“You’ve been in Wakanda how long, and you two have never met?” the Falcon said.

Bucky scowled at him as he pulled his shirt down.

“Laugh it up, bird brain,” he muttered.

“You can go ahead, captain,” M’Baku said. “I will not let anything bad happen to my soulmate while there is breath in my body. I promise you.”

“Go on, give us some privacy, punk,” Bucky said.

When they were alone, their eyes met.

“You will never have to fight again,” M’Baku said. “You may visit your friends down here any time you want. Will you mind living in the mountains?”

“I’m used to the cold.”

“I will keep you warm.”

“With furs and stuff?”

M’Baku smiled wickedly.

“Oh, all kinds of stuff,” he said, running fingers through his soulmate’s hair. Bucky’s eyes darkened and he leaned into the touch.

“I have so much to make up for,” he said sadly.

“You are right,” M’Baku said. Bucky’s face fell. “We both have too much lost time to make up for. I think we should return to the mountains today. I want to claim you in our home, not T’Challa’s.”

“C-claim me?”

“Bond with you.”

“Oh.” Bucky gave him a small smile. “You want that?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Yeah, I’ll go with you. I’ve got a heap of nervous energy to work off now that I’m alive again. A walk into the mountains will help with that.”

“And I’ll deal with the rest of your nervous energy once I get you in bed,” M’Baku said.

Bucky’s cheeks flushed even redder.

Chapter Text

Many students started scratching at around the same time. It wasn’t only the students who’d survived the field trip, either. And it was just seconds after half the staff and students turned to dust in front of everyone else’s eyes.

Principal Morita was still okay, so he gathered everyone together in the gym. By then, the students – a smart crowd – had started to work out what it is.

“It’s where our soulmarks are,” MJ said. “Our soulmarks have disappeared, sir. That’s the only place the itchiness comes from. And… look. My soul words have gone now, and the itch is fading.” A couple of tears ran down her cheeks. Ned stopped scratching his stomach as his soulmark. He clenched his fists. He’d never found whoever had the childish writing, and now he never would.

Just as long as Peter was okay. Ned had to call Mrs. Parker as soon as possible. She had to know where Peter was.

“Okay, those of you who can’t get in touch with your parents, or they can’t pick you up because they’re stuck in traffic or they work in the emergency services, you’re welcome to stay here,” Principal Morita said. “I’ll call for a nurse to come check you over. But if your parents can pick you up, and maybe your friends as well, you should all be with your loved ones until someone works out what’s happened. And whatever happens, we won’t have classes tomorrow. But if you don’t have anywhere else to stay tonight, the auditorium is big enough. If you don’t have a sleeping bag or a camp bed, see if you can borrow one.”

“What about food?” someone called.

“I’ll call for takeout.”

Usually, they’d cheer. No one was in a cheering mood.

Ned’s mother wasn’t answering her cell phone, and his father was busy at work, but Ned knew that if Mrs. Parker was free she’d help him out. He’d known Peter since they were only a few years old. She’d seen Ned grow up. Even though he knew about Spider-Man before she did, she didn’t hold a grudge. Once she understood it was for Peter’s safety, she even thanked him.

“Peter?”

“No, it’s Ned.”

“Oh. Peter’s not picking up his phone.”

“He must’ve dropped his bag when he went to…” Ned trailed off, glancing around. MJ was way too close; even though she was texting someone, she might overhear something.

“When he went to what, Ned?”

“Uh, hang on.” He scooted away from the rest of the students and teachers. “When he went to… do his thing. He followed Mr. Stark to that… that alien spacecraft. I think.”

What?”

“Maybe he just has bad reception wherever he is?”

“Oh my God.”

“Uh… can I come around to your place?”

“What?” She sighed. “Yeah. You can’t get hold of your parents?”

“No. Principal Morita said we should be with our families if we can be, or our friends. And since Peter’s missing…”

“Have you reported his disappearance?”

“Yeah. The school tried to call you, but you weren’t answering. Oh.” His eyes grew wide. “What if you’d turned to dust, too? But… that was before everyone started becoming…” He waved his hand vaguely, even though she couldn’t see it.

“Piles of dust. I saw it on the news. You don’t think Peter’s…”

“I don’t know.” There was a definite lump in his throat, but he wasn’t gonna start crying at school. “I was hoping you’d know.”

“I’m not his soulmate, Ned.”

“My soulmark’s gone.”

“I’m so sorry. It’s a horrible feeling.”

“It felt like an ordinary itch. But then we realised what was causing it.”

“Ned, Peter will come back,” she said. “Don’t worry about him. He’s tough.”

“Yeah. Tougher than me.”

“Tougher than any of us.”

“Except Captain America.”

She sighed again.

“Okay, I’ll swing by the school to pick you up,” she said. “Is there anyone else you’re bringing back to my place?”

“Uh…” He looked around. MJ still bugged him for reasons he couldn’t explain, but it probably had something to do with her obsession with Peter. If they weren’t careful, she’d figure out that he was Spider-Man. “No. Does Peter have a sleeping bag?”

“No?”

“Okay. Never mind. I think everyone will be able to go home.”

“Well, I sure don’t have enough space to have all of your friends over. I’ll be there soon, Ned. Send messages to both your parents, just so they’ll know where to find you when the panic is over. Okay?”

“Yeah, Mrs. Parker.”

“Call me Aunt May.”

 

It wasn’t weird, being at Peter’s place without Peter. Ned was always welcome there. He’d wait in Peter’s room, out of Mrs. Parker’s way, and then they’d play games or talk about school or do homework together. Sometimes they’d watch movies, squashed side-by-side on the couch or on Peter’s bed. Like brothers. Kind of.

Best friends, Ned reminded himself. He wasn’t in Peter’s bedroom this time. He was sitting opposite Mrs. Parker – Aunt May, he had to call her that now – and they were drinking hot chocolate. Aunt May had put something else in her drink, because it didn’t smell the same as Ned’s. Maybe it was alcohol? He wouldn’t ask for some, though, or she’d tell on him to his parents and then he’d never hear the end of it.

“So when did you last see Peter?” she asked. He’d been waiting for this.

“We were on the bus, crossing a bridge,” he said. “Peter tapped me on the shoulder, sort of hit me on the face, and told me to distract everyone. I looked out the window on our side of the bed – the right – and saw the spaceship. It was like a huge donut on its side, and it was sparkling like a… like one of those sparkler things.”

“Sounds like a Catherine Wheel,” Aunt May said. “It’s a type of firework.”

“Yeah, well it was really glowing. And I… I shouted that we were all gonna die.” He brushed away a tear fiercely. He didn’t mind crying in front of Peter’s aunt, but it was still embarrassing. “Everyone looked out the window. When the bus driver finally got us to sit down, Peter was gone. So I guess… goal achieved. I distracted everyone, just like he wanted. And now he’s out there somewhere, stuck in space.” He looked out the window. “What’re we gonna do?”

“Wait until he gets back,” she said. “There’s nothing else we can do, unless you have some way of getting to outer space and a way of finding Peter once we get there.”

Ned sighed heavily.

“Even the Death Star would be better than nothing,” he said. She flinched. “Oh. Sorry. But I’d brought a Lego one to your place, and when Peter got back I saw him in the Spider-Man costume, and that’s when I knew…”

“It was that long ago?”

“Not all that long before you found out,” he said.

“But still. Ugh, I could kill him… I mean, I’m just… I’m really angry. Not at you, Ned. You’ve done your best. But Peter’s been so irresponsible. He needs to leave the fighting to the adults.”

“But adults don’t always fight our enemies. It’s sad that Peter has to do this, but no one else seems interested in protecting our neighbourhood. The police aren’t enough, the Avengers only fight the high-profile battles. Mrs. Parker… Aunt May, if I could suit up and help Peter fight crime on the streets, and keep him a little bit safer, I would. I don’t like him being out there. I don’t like wondering whether I’ll see him at school tomorrow or whether he’s injured, o-or captured, or what.”

“Neither do I,” she said. She stood up, walked round the table, and pulled Ned into a hug.

 

“Aunt May’s gonna kill me,” Peter said, staring at the portal. “Can’t I stay in Wakanda for a bit longer? Let it all blow over?”

“You’ve got school tomorrow, kid,” Tony said. “Go on. Doctor Strange has opened up a portal to Queens just for you.”

“I’ve only passed it before, so this is the closest I can get,” the doctor said. “Come on. I have to send Mr. Stark back to his fiancée as soon as possible. Just walk through.”

“School probably won’t be on tomorrow,” Peter argued.

“That’s no excuse. I don’t want your aunt to track me down, castrate me, and fry up my balls for dessert. I’m fond of them, and so is Pepper when we’re—”

“Okay, I’m going!” Peter said. Gross. He walked through, waved goodbye to everyone, and then backed off before he could lose a hand as Doctor Strange closed the portal.

He made sure his mask was in place and then swung through Queens. Tony had put a tracker in his backpack, so as soon as Peter’s Iron Spider suit sent an alert, someone from Stark Industries would locate the backpack and deliver it to Peter’s home. It was better than replacing his stuff all the time.

He didn’t have his keys, of course, so he had to knock on the door. He heard his aunt’s steps approaching. There was a gasp as she checked through the peephole in the door, and then she wrenched it open, staring at Peter.

“You… but how… aren’t you…”

“Are you alright, Aunt May?”

“Uh, y-yeah, I’m fine,” she said.

“You look really pale.”

“We thought you were dead.”

“Who’s we?” Peter asked, stepping into the apartment. He relaxed when he saw Ned, who was also staring at Peter like he’d seen a ghost.

“You’re here,” Ned said.

“Where else would I be? This is home.”

“N-no, you don’t understand. You were dead, Peter.”

“Yeah, I know, and now I’m not. Fate defeated Thanos and used the Infinity Gauntlet to reverse everyone’s deaths, so we’re back now.”

“Fate?” Aunt May said.

“Yeah.”

“Who or what is Thanos, and what’s an Infinity Gauntlet?”

“Uh… it’s kind of a long story. But how did you know I was dead?”

He noticed something out of the corner of his eye. His childhood scrapbook, which his parents had been making from when he was born. It had his early attempts at writing, pictures he drew, photos of him, his handprints at different ages. Why was it out?

“We, uh, were passing the time,” she said. “Looking through the scrapbook your parents made. And Ned recognised your writing. You met when you were kids. No one saw you, and your memory was only just forming. No one realised you were soulmates because it’s so rare for soulmates to meet at that age, and… it’s been the two of you all this time.”

“My soulmark changed after people starting coming back to life,” Ned told him. “You should check yours. The new soulmark is in the handwriting you use now, at school. But you should make sure. Just… just in case it’s one-sided.”

Peter didn’t say anything. He ran to the bathroom, pulled up his shirt, and found his new soul words. He’d felt the itch, of course, but didn’t have time to check before Mr. Stark and Doctor Strange were sending him home. Now he saw Ned’s familiar handwriting, and those words he’d spoken, and… and finally he knew who his soulmate was. And he didn’t even have to get to know them, because it was his best friend in the whole world.

He emerged from the bathroom, still holding his shirt up, grinning. Aunt May burst into tears while Ned returned Peter’s wide grin. His gaze lingered on Peter’s mark as he looked a second time, and then looked away again with a blush. It was a weird reaction.

“Oh God, I’ve been waiting for this day,” Aunt May said, wiping away her tears. “I’m sorry. I’m just… so happy. It’s not a stranger. It’s not someone constantly putting you in danger. It’s Ned.” In a moment, she changed. Her face turned hard and her back straightened. “No more hanging out in Peter’s room alone, unsupervised. You’re not bonding until you’re both of age. I don’t care if it’s just a platonic soulmateship, you’re following these rules. And really, how many platonic soulmateships have marks which involve pressing your bare bellies together?”

“Aunt May!” Peter hissed, mortified. Now he understood Ned’s blush. Or he thought he did. Maybe he’d ask Karen for advice.

“I’d better check on my mom, in case she was dust and… oh, that’ll be her now.” Ned answered his phone and hurried to a corner. Peter heard him whisper their names. He turned to his aunt.

“Thanos erased half the universe with a snap of his fingers,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Fate… I don’t know how it could’ve been reversed.”

“She’s smiling on you today, kiddo,” Aunt May said, stroking his hair. “Now go wash up and get changed. We’ll go out for pizza with Ned’s parents tonight. There are a lot more boundaries to establish. You’re both still kids, and you have to find your paths in life. Most people meet their soulmates when they already have jobs and have been in relationships.”

“I know, Aunt May.”

“We’re trying to protect you.”

“I know, but I don’t need—”

“In this, you really do need guidance,” she said. “Trust us. Okay?”

He nodded, and then leaned against her side.

“I was so scared when I was dying,” he whispered. “I didn’t even have time to think about whether I’d see you or Ned again. All I could do was wonder what was happening. Even when I realised… I still didn’t understand.”

“When we realised you were gone, maybe for good, we were such a mess,” she said. “I hope you don’t hurt Ned. He’s a sweet kid. He’ll be good for you.”

“He always has been.”

“So be safe. For him.”

“I’ll try.”

Chapter Text

“What do we tell Tony?”

“I don’t know, Miss Potts. It’s up to you.”

“Please don’t call me that.” She buried her face in her hands.

“I’m sorry, Miss Potts… I mean, uh. What do I call you now?”

“I don’t know, Happy.”

She’d been lost when Happy turned to dust in front of her very eyes. She asked FRIDAY to confirm what had happened. Not only did FRIDAY confirm it, but the AI also brought up similar situations happening around the world. Soon the phenomenon was trending and reports were flooding news stations, hospitals, police stations, intelligence agencies, even Stark Industries. In the millions. And those numbers rose to the billions.

Half the world reduced to dust, and more dying as a result of driverless cars, planes, helicopters and trucks crashing. Lifeguards and fire-fighters turning to ashes mid-rescue and leaving their victims to die. People dropping infants and children. Soldiers and scientists working with explosives, destroying whole battalions and buildings before the explosives could be disarmed or contained.

For a few hours, Pepper was calling everyone she knew, employees and board members, and wondering whether Tony was dust as well, or whether he’d survived and would get home. Whether they’d be married.

Her soulmark was gone. She’d discovered it when she began to scratch her arm and removed the band, only to see bare skin. Her soulmate was dead.

She was staring out the window at a chaotic, burning city. FRIDAY had tried to take over whatever vehicles she could, but not all of them could be controlled through their electronics remotely. But the AI had done her best and she had saved lives. She was also using the large arc reactor to boost signals around the globe, making sure that people could track down their loved ones and reassure them. Or mourn with them.

Or mourn them.

But then people started to reappear. FRIDAY notified Pepper seconds before Happy burst into the room, panting and looking frantic. He relaxed when he saw Pepper.

“Your job is secure, Happy,” she quipped. He frowned.

“Not what I was worried about, Pepper,” he said.

“Pepper?”

“I’m sorry. Miss Potts.”

“No, it’s alright. I guess it shows how much you care about me.”

“Of course I care about you,” he said, looking wounded. Pepper felt the pinch of guilt.

“Of course you do,” she said quickly. “Let’s see what we can do to help. There has to be something. We’ll… we’ll check in on SI employees. Oh, you should call your family first. They’ll be worried about you.”

“I don’t have any family,” Happy said.

Pepper blinked. She should’ve known this.

“You have us,” she said, punctuating it with a decisive nod. Happy puffed up in pride and happiness. She smiled.

When Pepper checked her soulmark again, to see whether the itchiness meant that her soulmate had returned to life, her heart missed a beat.

Not what I was worried about, Pepper.

Her old soulmark had been ‘Please come in, Miss Potts’, something she heard at every job interview and medical appointment. She relied on seeing people’s handwriting afterwards, or saying unique words to them later. When she went for the job at Stark Industries, it had been with Obadiah Stane, and Happy had invited her in. She thanked him absently as she squared her shoulders, ready to meet yet another old white man who could decide her future.

She never had any reason to see Happy’s handwriting. Nearly everything was done electronically at Stark Industries, and she never saw anything that he signed. She never imagined that she’d rise to her position as CEO, and now most things went through other people first. In fact, she barely noticed Happy when they first met as he showed her into the interview. Tony had been there, talking to Stane, and he took Pepper’s attention immediately. Typical Tony. He even overshadowed her soulmate.

As the truth dawned on her, Pepper turned to Happy with wide, wet eyes, and held out her arm to him.

“Is… is this your writing?” she asked hoarsely. He studied the mark and his eyes grew as wide as hers.

“Yeah,” he said. “I… my old words were ‘Thank you’. Pretty generic.”

“So were mine.”

“Oh my God.”

So now here they were, side-by-side on the couch (but at opposite ends), and wondering how they were supposed to break the news to Tony.

“He never has to know,” Pepper said. “It doesn’t make any difference, right? We’re still friends, you and me.”

“Were we friends before?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“We were on the same level when you were Mr. Stark’s PA, but I still called you ‘Miss Potts’. Now you’re my boss. Things are different.”

“But I’m still in love with Tony, and you’re still loyal to both of us,” she said.

“That’ll never change.”

“No, of course it won’t.”

“But…” He sighed. “The thing is… my grandmother told me all about soulmates before my parents and siblings could.”

“You have siblings?”

Had.”

“…Oh.”

“And Nanna Hogan said that soulmateship was the most important relationship of all,” he continued, ignoring Pepper’s stunned response. “It’s stronger than any other kind of love, whether it’s romantic or not. It’s stronger than the bond between a mother and her child, between lovers, between best friends. I’ve always felt loyal to you, even when I wasn’t sure whether you could be trusted.” Pepper’s eyebrows drew together. “It’s nothing personal. I’m always cautious about new people in Mr. Stark’s life. But you have to see why I’m worried.”

“You think it could affect my relationship with Tony.”

Both of our relationships. He’ll have to see you with your band off sometime. He knows that you’re not soulmates. He still doesn’t know who his soulmate is. What if something changed in the future?”

“You mean what if we got sick of each other?” Pepper said, balking at the thought.

“You’ve broken up before, more than once,” he pointed out. “He’s never been in a long-term relationship before, not until you.”

“I’ve been in relationships before, Happy, and I know this is the real deal.”

“I… I know you can’t give me a chance,” he said.

“Wait, you’d want me to?”

“Who wouldn’t?” he asked, smiling sadly as he shrugged. “You’re an attractive woman. Whenever it seemed like Mr. Stark was taking advantage of you, I was angry, but I stayed by his side because Colonel Rhodes couldn’t always be there.”

“I’m… I’m sorry, but my worldview has been tilted. A lot. Just let me get my head around this.” She scrunched her fingers in her hair. Happy remained silent. “So… you want to date me? But you’ve been carrying an engagement ring for ten years! For Tony and me… wasn’t it?”

“Well.” He shrugged again. It was getting annoying. “If you two ever got together. But if you split up, it was something I’d bought myself… so I could’ve given it to my soulmate. Of course I wanted you and Mr. Stark to be together. I care about both of you, and you make each other happy. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of him.”

“Oh, Happy…”

“It’s okay. And you’re getting married soon. I just wish I’d realised that it was you before you and Mr. Stark started to fall for each other. If we’d known from the start… nah, you’ll always be out of my league. You’re out of everyone’s league, except Mr. Stark. That’s what makes you perfect for each other.” A tear dropped from Pepper’s chin to her hands. “But at least we wouldn’t have to brainstorm ways to tell him that we’re soulmates. This is something he should know, but is it in his best interests?”

“Maybe you should let me decide?”

They turned around. A golden, sparkling oval showed the man from the park, but in front of him stood Tony, arms crossed and expression neutral as he looked from one of them to the other.

“We can’t exactly knock on these things,” Doctor Strange said, indicating the portal.

“Who are you?” Happy asked, jumping to his feet and reaching for his gun. The doctor and the portal disappeared immediately.

“It’s okay, he’s a… a friend,” Tony said. “So. It sounds like you two have a story to tell me. So start talking.” He walked around and sat in the armchair opposite them. He gestured for Happy to sit down again. Happy did so, reluctantly. “Go ahead.”

“Our soul words were generic and we never saw each other’s handwriting,” Pepper began. “My soulmark disappeared because Happy… Happy died, like half the people on the planet, and when it reappeared… by then, we’d talked to each other, and I recognised the words as the ones he’d spoken. He checked my soulmark and confirmed the handwriting is his.”

“Your soulmark is on your arm, right?”

“Yes.”

“And where’s your soulmark, Happy?”

He fidgeted in his seat, not meeting their eyes.

“Happy, where is it?” Pepper asked softly. He sighed.

“My back,” he said.

“Pepper’s arm against your bare back. That’s definitely not platonic.”

“Don’t you know the concept of free will, Tony?” Pepper asked. “I chose you. I care about Happy, because he’s an employee and… and friend, but you’re the man I’m in love with. You’re the man I agreed to marry without knowing who my soulmate was.”

“How do you feel about this, Happy?” Tony said. “You sounded pretty uncertain, from what I overheard.”

“H-how much did you hear, boss?”

“Rhodey, the ring, leagues, splitting up. That kind of thing.”

“Oh God.”

“Don’t worry about it. I can totally understand why anyone would fall for Pepper.”

For once, Pepper didn’t feel inclined to mention that she was right there. She was too afraid of Tony’s calmness, so unlike his usual self. What was going on with him?

“Look, we should give this a break,” Tony said. “For now.”

“Are you real?” Pepper asked. He glanced at her. “You’re not usually like this. What happened out there? Are you even Tony Stark?”

“Yeah, I’m still me,” he said. “But Peter died.” They gasped. “He became dust. He’s back now, but it was a huge shock for me. The whole ‘life is short’ concept really hit home like it never had before. When I was dying from the original arc reactor, I accepted it. I’m always ready to accept it. As long as my loved ones are happy,” his lips quirked as he glanced at his former bodyguard, “I don’t care what happens to me.”

“Tony, you have to get over that mindset,” Pepper said.

“See, that’s the thing. ‘Just get over it’. I hear that so often. Yes, I know, I have to go see a therapist or something, but they’ll tell you what I’m about to tell you: there is no ‘just getting over it’. You have to work through these things. I thought talking them out with Bruce would help, and it did at first, but a professional would help even more. And maybe they could prescribe some kind of anxiety medication. I can’t cope with the panic attacks. I have to hide them from you because I know you hate them. It was easier when we weren’t together. But now that I keep having nightmares about the Winter Soldier killing my parents, and now that I’ll have even more nightmares about Thanos, I don’t know whether I can hide my PTSD any longer. I can’t hide that part of myself forever just to make you feel more comfortable.”

“I had no idea, Tony. I’m so sorry.”

“I tried to let you go so you could find someone normal. A good guy. Happy’s a good guy. Maybe you just need to spend time with him on a casual basis. I’m thinking about giving up the suit. Forever, this time. There are more people who can deal with crises. I can operate the suit remotely, or FRIDAY can. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I got stabbed with part of my own armour today—”

“What?” they shouted.

“It’s okay, I fixed it up. Partially. Then Princess Shuri finished the job for me when we were debriefing in Wakanda. Still, it hit me that I can’t do this forever. Sure, I’m ready to settle down, but maybe marriage isn’t the way to do it. Not until I’m sure that you’re really going to be happy with me. And whether I can be happy with you.”

“Tony, I love you,” Pepper said. She brushed away her tears, streaking her so-called waterproof makeup. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

“And if I’m giving up Iron Man, I’ll need my bodyguard back,” he said.

“Tony!”

“Then, since he’ll no longer be directly under your employ, there won’t be as much of a conflict of interest. Please try it. For me. I need to know for sure that… that…”

“Mr. Stark, she loves you,” Happy said softly. “Not me.”

“I need you to get to know each other and see whether you’d prefer to be together. I don’t want to get married and then have to divorce later when you find out…” He waved his hand. “You know. Besides, my soulmark isn’t exactly in a platonic position. I don’t want to cheat on you, Pepper. And I don’t want to go through a divorce because I’ve found my soulmate and want to be with them instead. Just… let’s postpone the wedding for now. Say it’s out of respect for all the people who’ve died. We don’t want any big celebrations while so many are in mourning. Then we can quietly break off the engagement if you two decide that you want to be together. Or if, by some miracle, I find my soulmate and decide that I want to be with them. If they want me back.”

“And that would really make you happy?” Pepper asked. “I don’t get any say in this?”

“Pepper, please,” he said. “If I can find someone who’ll accept me and help me, I can’t miss the chance of being with them. And I can’t put you through a life of ‘what if’s. And if Happy likes you, he deserves a chance to see if you can like him back in the same way. Don’t you think so?”

She was backed into a corner and she hated it.

“Okay,” she said. “We’ll try it your way. But I still think it’s unfair.”

“That’s life, Pepper. And death. It’s unfair, all of it. But we’ll cope. It could be worse. I could’ve faked my death and avoided this conversation, but look! We’re being grown-ups. Go team.”

Pepper lowered her head. Happy looked out the window, his hands clenched together so tightly that his knuckles were white.

Tony stood with a stretch, announced that he was going to take a shower, and left.

Chapter Text

Tony decided it was too awkward to stay in New York. So he tracked down Wong, reluctantly explained that there wasn’t going to be a wedding, at least not yet, and could he send Tony somewhere? Anywhere? As long as it was far away.

“Would you like to spend more time in Wakanda?” Wong asked with a knowing look.

“Drooling over all that vibranium? Whatever gave you that idea?”

“It must have been something that I picked up while learning the mystic arts.”

“Sarcasm. Nice. And you’re less pretentious than your friend. By all means, send me back to Wakanda. I’ll send you a postcard from there.”

“That is not necessary,” Wong said.

“Here. Have some money for sandwiches or something.”

Wong’s eyes lit up at the mention of sandwiches, and he accepted the cash. He opened a portal and Tony stepped through. He nodded at Wong and pushed his sunglasses up his nose, since the portal had opened outside the palace doors and the sun streamed down, bouncing off the windows in vicious streaks of light. Wong winced against the rays as he swiftly closed the portal. Tony didn’t blame him. He was used to the haze of big cities making the sunshine less fierce. Clearly that was one problem Wakanda didn’t have.

“Tony?” Steve said. Tony turned to see his former friend jogging up to him. “You’re back! What’re you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the wedding? I hope you send us pictures. I mean, there’ll be stuff online, but it’d be… nice.”

“There isn’t a wedding,” Tony said. “Not now, I mean. At least I don’t think so. Pepper and Happy discovered that they’re soulmates. I’ve told them to postpone everything while they get to know each other. Give them a chance.”

“Oh, Tony,” Steve said, his brow furrowing as he looked at Tony sympathetically.

“Is this you cooling down after battle?”

“Yeah. I used to jog around New York or Washington to cool down, but the grass of Wakanda is easier on the knees. Bucky keeps making jokes about me being old. Maybe the serum’s wearing off. I don’t know. I hope not. I’m no use without it.”

Tony flinched, remembering their first meeting, their angry exchange about neither of them being special. But Tony had proven that he could do a lot without the suit – he’d been special before it – whereas Steve hadn’t been special before the super soldier serum. Except whatever quality it was that made Erskine choose him. Tony had heard stories from his dad when he was a kid, but they grew so repetitive that he started to tune out. Sometimes he wondered whether that was a mistake. But hero worship would’ve made things worse for both of them. Aloofness was the only way they could get along.

“I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” he said. “Do you know where the kitchen is?”

Steve brightened.

“There’s gonna be a feast to celebrate Thanos being defeated,” he said. “Why don’t you track down Shuri in the meantime? She’s finished fixing everyone up, so she’ll probably welcome a distraction. And I know she won’t mind showing off her lab.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “See you around, Rogers.”

Steve’s smile fell a little, but he nodded respectfully and jogged past Tony. The windows were obviously sound-proofed, because the wall of noise from inside was shut off as the doors closed again.

Tony took a few deep breaths of the fresh air before he entered the palace.

There were a lot of people milling around, mostly Wakandans. Tony had barely said hi to anyone before Strange whisked Peter back to Queens and Tony back to his tower, since they both wanted to see their loved ones. At least Peter only had to face being grounded by his aunt. He didn’t have his whole world thrown into painful disarray by the reality of his fiancée finding her soulmate.

Tony wanted them to be happy together. He knew a lot of people were disappointed when Pepper was ‘taken off the market’, so to speak, but he’d never imagined that Happy would be one of them. Not until he saw Happy watching Pepper with a devastated expression on his face as Pepper denounced the possibility of a relationship with him. It wasn’t something Tony was used to feeling himself, but it had to be a million times worse coming from your soulmate. And he and Pepper had proven to be toxic before, after the battle against Loki. They’d broken up and gotten back together and broken up again. It was a yoyo that Tony didn’t want to deal with anymore unless he was sure that Pepper was It for him.

No one questioned his presence, though he got a few confused looks, suggesting that Strange hadn’t told anyone the truth about Tony and Pepper’s reunion. It was nice to know that the guy knew how to keep a secret. Steve probably would’ve blabbed to one person, wanting to make sure they’d support Tony, but someone would inevitably overhear it – because Rogers had no indoor voice – and then everyone would know.

It was better this way. He didn’t want sympathy right now. He wanted food.

 

Sleep came surprisingly easy. Rhodey offered to share a bed with Tony. Fortunately for both of them, T’Challa didn’t seem aware of beds any size smaller than queen, so there was room for Rhodey and Tony to sleep side-by-side without touching. If Tony ended up rolling over during the night and clutching his best friend, shaking with tears, Rhodey said nothing about it. He just stroked Tony’s back until he fell asleep again.

Thor had disappeared the previous day, met at the border by the Guardians of the Galaxy. They were going to find their dead friend and Thor’s people, hoping to bring them back to life with the Infinity Gauntlet. At least an older man was wielding it. He was supposed to be a couple of million years old, so he probably knew what he was doing. (After all that time, he’d better know what he was doing.)

Thor returned in the afternoon of the day after battle with his new friends, along with Loki and some chick named Valkyrie. Weren’t the Valkyries from German mythology? Or was Tony getting confused with Wagner’s opera? Much as he couldn’t stand opera, he still went to the Met Gala sometimes. Wagner sent him to sleep, but The Ride of the Valkyries was on Tony’s ‘Doomsday Classics’ playlist.

He wasn’t interested in meeting the Guardians of the Galaxy again (though he’d given some serious thought to getting Rocket Raccoon to steal Barnes’s arm). But he figured he should get a look at the woman they’d lost a battle over. Also, someone needed to keep an eye on Loki. And Nebula was with them. She was hovering protectively around Mantis, which Tony could understand.

“Hey, Smurfette,” Tony said. “How’s it going?”

“What do you mean by ‘Smurfette’?” Nebula asked.

“She’s the only female Smurf. The Smurfs are all blue. Geez, Quill told you about Kevin Bacon but he didn’t tell you about Smurfs?” She shook her head. “Okay, after you watch Footloose we’ll watch the Smurfs movie. I’m pretty sure one was made. Did Katy Perry do one of the voices?”

“Yes,” Steve said. The others looked at him. He blushed. “What, I’m not allowed to catch up on pop culture now? That’s all everyone’s been trying to get me to do.”

“Which version of Footloose do you want to see first?” Tony asked.

“Wait, there’s more than one?” Quill said, suddenly staring at him. “Why the hell did it need a remake? The first one was perfect just the way it was!”

“They said that about Fame, and yet…”

“Aw, man, they did a remake of Fame as well? Next you’ll be telling me that they did a remake of… I don’t know. Dirty Dancing?”

“No one tell him,” T’Challa murmured.

Quill looked horrified.

“Are you the one they were all making a huge fuss about?” Tony asked the woman with red-tipped hair. Her eyes widened as she met his gaze.

“Oh no,” she said. “This can’t be happening.”

“Wow,” Tony said, stung. Doubly stung. “I was hoping for a better reaction than that.”

“What’s the matter, Gamora?” Quill asked. He was too close to her. Tony’s hackles rose. He had no right to feel this way so soon, but he didn’t like another guy touching his soulmate. He was pretty sure she was his soulmate. Would it be awkward to ask?

“So are you my soulmate?” he said.

Everyone else stopped talking and gaped at them. Drax gasped dramatically.

“You must feel so awkward and terrible right now,” he said. “Do they, Mantis?”

Mantis reached over, touched his arm, and he fell to the ground in a deep sleep.

“Thank you,” Gamora muttered. “You said my words, but that doesn’t mean we’re soulmates. And even if we are, does it matter?”

“Well, I’ve postponed my wedding because my fiancée found her soulmate, and I want to give them a chance to see how they’re meant to be together,” he said. “But if you’re not interested… that’d hurt, and it’d suck, but I’ll probably get over it. I want to get to know you, though. Our souls were made for each other.”

“Nebula’s told me a lot about you, how you passed the time on Titan,” she said. “Trying to build weapons to defeat Thanos. Mourning… mourning me. And your friends.”

“There were a lot of people to mourn.”

She nodded.

“The thing is, I’m with Peter,” she said.

“We could be friends,” he said, though he knew the position of his soulmark indicated a non-platonic relationship. Gamora’s blush suggested she was aware of this, too.

“Gamora, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Peter said softly.

“I know. But I should still get to know my soulmate. There has to be a reason. If our handwriting shows that we’re soulmates,” she added. “We could be wrong.”

“Let’s check,” Tony said. “But… not here.”

Peter looked pained. He’d obviously reached the conclusion that their soul words were in a private place. Everyone else looked increasingly awkward as they realised the same thing. T’Challa silently led Tony and the Guardians to a small room, looking concerned, while Thor trailed after them, carrying Drax.

“You know, we could write each other’s words down, check that way,” Tony said, trying to relieve the tension.

“Let’s get this over with,” Gamora said, unbuckling her belt.

“Whoa!” Peter said.

“What? It’s on my leg.”

“Yeah, I know, but do the others have to be here?”

“I’m here to make sure you don’t kill Tony for wanting to get close to his soulmate,” Nebula said.

“And I am here because Nebula promised to protect me from strangers,” Mantis said.

“I am Groot,” Groot added.

“Don’t tell him things like that, you sapling,” Rocket said.

Tony pulled down his jeans. His soulmark was on his left thigh. Gamora looked at it while she dealt with the zipper on her leather pants. She swallowed and peeled the leather down out of the way. On the inside of her right thigh was Tony’s handwriting.

“So we are soulmates,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Right.” He cleared his throat and looked away as he pulled up his jeans. “I’m planning to hang out in Wakanda for awhile, if T’Challa’s okay with it. Are you gonna stay?”

“We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy, not the Guardians of Earth,” Peter said.

“I wasn’t asking you.”

“Keep it civilised,” Gamora said. “We weren’t going to stay long. Peter wants to show us around Missouri, where he grew up.”

“Then I’ll come with you.”

“That’s not necessary,” Peter said quickly.

“It’s not up to you.”

“Yeah,” Rocket piped up. “I’m the captain. I say he can come with us. Didn’t you hear that he’s loaded? He can pay for our food! Earth doesn’t take credits, so we need someone to bankroll us.”

“Peter, I have to get to know him,” Gamora said. “We have our words on each other.”

“you know what leg soulmarks mean,” he argued.

“It’s not up to you! He’s my soulmate. I want to know why. You’re overreacting.”

“Oh, I’m overreacting.”

“Well, it’s a bad habit of yours,” Tony said.

It was a low blow, and the way the other Guardians glared at him, even Gamora, told him as much. But he stood by his statement and crossed his arms. They gradually looked away from him, returning their attention to Gamora and Peter.

“Fine,” Peter huffed. “I don’t get any say in this. But I don’t have to see it. Stay here while we go to Missouri. If you choose me, I’ll show you around another time. If you choose him… I guess you’ll be staying on Earth, so you can see Missouri anytime. You won’t need me.”

“Peter,” Gamora said. He shook his head and stalked past her. Thor looked torn between following him and staying with the others.

“He still does not like you,” Mantis said. “You should stay here. I will go to Peter.”

Thor nodded, relieved, while she left the room calling Peter’s name.

“I’m sorry this has screwed everything up,” Tony said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“It’s not your fault,” Gamora said.

“Fate – all the soul creators, apparently – brought back everyone who died, including you; so really, we can’t complain. But I know how it messes things up when your significant other finds their soulmate. And finding your soulmate while you’re in a relationship with someone else. Maybe. So I can empathise with both of you. But I hope you stay here so we can hang out together and talk.”

“I will,” she said. “I can’t guarantee anything – I love Peter – but I’ll spend time with you. I can’t throw away my second chance at life by not getting to know my soulmate. We’re supposed to be in some kind of relationship. I just hope… I have a lot of issues. I lost my parents when I was young. I’ve done a lot of bad things because of Thanos and I’m trying to redeem myself, but it’s hard. And sometimes the feelings get overwhelming…” She hugged herself, looking uncomfortable. “If you can’t cope with that, without ignoring the issue and putting on music and starting to dance, I can’t see this going anywhere.”

Tony smiled. He was starting to see why they were soulmates.

“It’ll be fine,” he said.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t hard to find Peter. Mantis only had to follow the trail of hurt. It broke her heart and she couldn’t bear his suffering. He was usually such a happy person. She had felt his despair before, but it was rare. And this, this was almost as bad as the heartbreak he felt when he discovered Gamora’s death. But at least she was not dead this time.

“Peter,” she said, finding him sitting on the grass outside. His shoulders were shaking as he sobbed silently. She sat on the grass beside him. “Why are you crying?”

“You know what’s gonna happen,” he said brokenly. “She’ll end up with him.”

“You do not know that,” Mantis said.

“Don’t you know anything about bonding? The way people bond is by pressing their soulmarks together. Some people, who are meant to be friends, have their marks on their arms or something, and they only have to press their arms together to bond. But when people have marks on the skin which… which suggest a more, uh, intimate position, it means their relationship won’t be platonic. And in their case, with l-legs entangled, it’ll be sexual as well as romantic. That’s what Fate’s decreed. That’s what’ll happen, and I’ll be left alone again.”

“You will never be alone, Peter. You have us.”

“But I love Gamora! I’m in love with her. It’s different.”

Mantis leaned her head against Peter’s shoulder. She felt his hurt deeply, and knew that she could not simply force him to feel happy. He could not ignore his pain forever. He had to accept it.

“Do not predict the future,” she said. “I am sure Gamora will choose you.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“There will always be the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even if she is not with us, or if Tony Stark comes with us,” Peter scoffed, “we will still be a family.”

“It’ll never be the same again, Mantis.”

“Of course it will not,” she said. “Most of us died and had to be brought back to life. Thanos changed everything. He even changed soulmarks.”

“I don’t have one.”

“What?”

“A soulmark. I’ve never had a soulmark. Gamora said I still had a soul, and that she didn’t care about finding her soulmate. Maybe… maybe it was self-punishment.”

“She always feels like that.”

“Damn.” He wiped his face. “I wish I’d asked Fate why I don’t have a soulmate. Why didn’t I die young if I had no soulmate? I know Mom hoped my soulmate would be younger than me, but it’s too late for that now.”

“I think we should go to Missouri before Drax decides to fight one of those large, grey beasts down there.” She pointed towards a fenced enclosure down the hill. Peter’s eyes grew wide when he saw them.

“Those are some big-ass rhinos,” he said.

“What is a big-ass rhino?”

“I mean… they’re bigger than an ordinary rhino,” Peter said. “Rhinoceros. I’ve seen `em in zoos before, but never that big. Is this a Wakanda thing? Are they crossbred with vibranium? I would not want to go into battle against those things. They’d bulldoze right over anyone in their path, and those horns look sharp.”

“Oh, I see. I would like to see more Earth animals.”

“Oh man, I’ve gotta take you to a zoo. Maybe the Central Park Zoo, since we’re already going to America.”

“I thought we were going to visit Missouri?”

“Yeah. Missouri is in America.”

Mantis raised her head and smiled at Peter.

“I would like to go to a zoo,” she said.

“Then we’ll go. You’ll love it. We’ll just have to make sure Drax doesn’t try to fight the gorillas or elephants or hippos.”

“Or big-ass rhinos.”

“Especially big-ass rhinos.”

 

They ended up spending more than a few days in America. There were so many places that Peter wanted to see, like the Grand Canyon and the Empire State Building and Disneyland, that they ended up flying from one place to another in their ship. Since the world was still rebuilding after the mess that Thanos created, they helped out where they could in exchange for meals and the freedom to roam. Drax’s incredible strength helped in construction, and Mantis’s empathy powers soothed frantic people. Peter carried supplies using his rocket boots to fly up scaffolding. Nebula scanned plans and projected holographs of them. Groot kept children occupied playing video games with them, while Rocket helped engineering crews.

But they all took time off to sightsee. They took the elevator to the top of Empire State Building one day, and went to the Central Park Zoo the next. They visited Disneyland and learned about the Harry Potter series. Nebula insisted on getting all of the books. A second-hand bookshop gave them the complete set as thanks for repairing the storefront.

And of course they visited the grave of Peter’s mother. He didn’t bother his family. He didn’t want to see them. They’d never approved of his existence and he only had bad memories of them. His mother shouting over the phone. Christmases where the snow outside was warmer than the atmosphere around the dinner table.

He cried at his mother’s graveside. Mantis held him tightly. Drax stayed silent (Peter found out later that it was because Nebula was holding his dick at knifepoint), Groot kicked at the dead leaves, and Rocket picked some wildflowers for the grave. He waved off Peter’s choked, tearful thanks with an embarrassed grumble.

They returned to Wakanda. Whether they’d be picking up Gamora… they didn’t know.

But maybe they’d been away too long. Maybe Peter had been delaying the inevitable, or maybe he’d given them too much of a chance to get close. Fall in love. Because when he tracked them down their kiss looked too natural, like they’d done it a hundred times.

Gamora blushed and stammered.

“Peter…”

“I figured this’d happen,” he said. “Are you staying on Earth?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“We’ll miss you.”

“Drax won’t.”

“But Nebula will.”

Gamora’s face fell further, if that was even possible.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated.

“Stop saying that!”

“It’s a common coping mechanism for people with anxiety or depression, or both,” Tony said. “After all she’s been through, Gamora needs help. You probably all do.”

“At least you’ve got Mantis,” Gamora said. “And with Nebula there you don’t need me.”

“Yeah, we really do,” Peter said, but he was tired. Too tired to argue. “Did it take long? You know, for you two to get together?”

“This is only the second time we’ve kissed,” Tony said.

“That makes me feel so much better.”

“Peter, don’t be like that,” Gamora said. “It’s been weeks. We’ve had to find out what you were all up to through sightings on the internet because you didn’t call.”

“We’ve been busy helping humans.”

“Which is great, but I missed you all. At first. Then I realised I could…”

“Live without us?”

“Be happy with Tony, without having to be a Guardian of the Galaxy as well,” she said. “We need each other. You need someone who isn’t me. Someone less like me. You know we clash too much. I really do love you, Peter, but…”

“But you can’t really love someone who doesn’t have a soul.”

“You do have a soul,” she said firmly. “Just no soulmark.”

“It could be hidden?” Tony suggested.

“No. I’m just… okay, I’m gonna say goodbye now. It’ll be easier. Goodbye, Gamora. You’ll understand why I can’t… hug you, or anything.”

A few tears slipped down Gamora’s cheeks. She never showed this kind of weakness to anyone she didn’t know well. That she was crying in front of a man she’d only known a few weeks was telling.

Peter nodded at Tony and ignored Gamora whispering his name. He told the others to go say their goodbyes. Drax solemnly patted Peter on the shoulder. Mantis squeezed his arm as she passed, giving him a burst of relief.

Was it his relief or hers?

 

“Look what Princess Shuri gave me before we left!” Mantis said, sitting across from Peter on the ship. They were outside of Earth’s atmosphere, leaving behind New Asgard, fully stocked and peopled.

“What is it?”

“It is a device which will teach me how to write.”

“Huh. I didn’t realise you couldn’t write.”

“Or read. Gamora always had to read things aloud for me. That is why I enjoy listening to your music. I can understand the words because they are being sung aloud.”

“Oh. Geez, we should’ve taught you long before this.”

“It does not matter,” Mantis said. “I asked Princess Shuri what I should do, and she already had some of these for the children of Wakanda. She has made English the main language on here, although there are other human languages I can learn if I want to. I can learn not only how to read and write human, but how to speak it as well. What if my translator broke? Now I do not have to worry.”

“Great!” Peter said, giving her a thumbs up. He still felt sorry for himself, even though it’d been a month since they left Gamora on Earth. But Mantis cheered him up.

“She even gave me paper notebooks and pencils so that I can practise writing.”

“Good.”

“After I have learned enough English, will you let me borrow one of your books so that I may practise reading?”

“Aw, of course, Mantis. Anything you want.”

“Thank you!”

She worked diligently. Whenever Peter saw her, she was either listening to her lessons on the device, earphones cutting her off from the rest of the world, or she would be speaking aloud in English. Or if she was near a flat surface, she would have a notebook and pencil out, copying down things from the learning device.

She was so proud the day she showed Peter that she knew how to spell all of their names, in neat-as-a-pin handwriting.

Peter was happy ignoring his own health, including the persistent itch that was bothering him. It was somewhere on his back, and trying to see it in the cramped bathroom on the ship was no picnic. He’d wait until they pulled into port and see a doctor about it.

He noticed that Mantis was beginning to scratch as well, and wondered whether Rocket had picked up fleas on Earth. He didn’t mention it – he didn’t want his balls to be blown off by whatever gun Rocket was cleaning – but he did casually ask the raccoon if he’d been itchy lately.

“Nah,” Rocket said. “If you’re scratching, you should see a doctor.”

“Yeah. I think Mantis has caught it, whatever it is. Must be an allergic reaction to something. Drax could be itching as well, but he’d never tell us. Nebula doesn’t have enough skin to be affected. We’d better set a course for… Xandar, I guess. I wanna make sure Rhomann Dey and Nova Prime are okay after the whole Thanos thing.”

“I’ll go program in the co-ordinates right now.”

“Thanks, Rocket.”

“Just call me ‘Captain’.”

“Yeah, that’s not happening.”

 

The physicians at Xandar were confused by Peter’s changed biology.

“My father was a celestial,” he said. “We had to kill him to save the universe. He said his death would mean I wasn’t half-celestial anymore. Does that answer your question?”

But the reason for his itch was soon clear.

“You have a soulmark where you didn’t have one before,” he was told.

Peter stared at the picture of his back that they showed him. An actual soulmark. His very own soul words. Finally.

It took him awhile to place the handwriting, mostly because he never saw handwriting. Not in space. They did everything digitally. But then it hit him, and he recalled where he’d heard the words as well.

Mantis joined him in the waiting area after her appointment. Peter wrote down the names of all the crew and showed them to her.

“I had to wait for you to have handwriting,” he said. “That’s why I never had a soulmark until now.”

“I am sorry, Peter. I know you would want it to be Gamora.”

“I’ve gotten used to her not being around. I was forced to, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be. Not that I’ve forgotten her; it’s just that some days I don’t remember to think about her, wonder what she’s doing. I’m glad it’s you.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because you’re sweet and pretty. You stop arguments between us and you know when we need a break. You look after us and you like to dance. I’m not in love with you yet, but I can see how anyone could fall for you, including me.”

Mantis blushed.

“I would be happy to bond with you, Peter,” she said.

“Good. But we can take it slowly. My mark is on my back.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “But I don’t see how our soulmarks could line up. Mine is on the back of my leg, just here.” She indicated a place on her lower left leg.

“Yeah.” Peter’s cheeks darkened as well. “We should date for awhile before we get there, or Drax might actually kill me.”

“It is a sex thing?”

“Y-yeah.”

“Okay. Let’s go home.”

“Home?”

“The ship. We can drink something there. That is what humans do on a date.”

Peter stood up and took Mantis’s hand.

“Let’s go home,” he agreed.

Chapter Text

Loki’s stomach churned as he trailed behind Thor. It was not the thought of meeting royalty that had him a bundle of nerves; he was a prince of Asgard and the rightful king of Jotunn (if Jotunn still existed). And it was not the new soul words which had formed on his skin after he was returned to life by the Grandmaster.

It was the smell of food. He had eaten very little Midgardian food on his previous visits, but he had heard enough about humans’ obsession with meat. Much like Asgardians.

And totally unlike Jotunns.

Yet he had also learnt a few things on his previous visits to Midgard. When checking Odin into the retirement home, he was asked about his dietary requirements. Loki hated to ask for clarification, but he did nonetheless. That was when he learnt the word ‘vegetarian’. He assured them that Odin would eat anything (and relished the gleeful thought of human food disagreeing with his ‘father’).

And then he looked up vegetarianism. About lacto-ovo vegetarians. About vegetarians who only avoided red meat. About vegetarians who had no choice about eating meat. About vegans. Loki did not eat meat, but he drank milk, so he did not consider himself a vegan. And he wore fur and leather. It was just the meat that disagreed with him, and it always had.

(Honestly, all that nonsense about Jotunns eating other species was rubbish.)

He was seen as weak in Asgard because he could not stomach meat. It didn’t matter how much he trained, how well he fought, how powerful his magic was. If Odin had only explained why Loki had an aversion to meat, why it made him sick when he tasted it, then… well, Loki would have been hated and feared and shunned for another reason. But at least it would be Odin’s fault.

“I hope they have a good feast waiting for us,” Thor said, beaming over his shoulder at Loki. Then his smile fell. “Oh. I forgot.”

“You always do,” Loki said. “I am aware that some humans do not eat meat.”

“What… willingly?”

“Yes, Thor.”

“Then you will fit in well here!”

“I doubt it,” Loki muttered as he followed his brother inside.

His nostrils picked up the bitter, charred smell of cooked meat. The sickening sweet smell of cold meat. He saw tables groaning under the weight of platters of food, another table with drinks on it, and one against a wall with plates, bowls, cutlery and glasses. He looked around the room with eagle eyes, looking away whenever he saw someone that he recognised. He was surprised by the little wave that Bruce Banner gave him, and the half-smile. He supposed that fighting Hela together was a uniting factor. Loki wandered over to the doctor.

“I don’t suppose you know which food does not have meat in it?” he asked.

“You’re… you’re a vegetarian?”

“I am a Frost Giant. They do not eat meat. Their… our digestive systems cannot handle it. Whenever I was forced to eat any meat on Asgard, I would be sick soon after.” Bruce scowled, which made him nervous. “They saw it as a weakness.”

“Were you getting enough protein and iron and B12 from other foods?” he demanded.

“I do not know.”

“Because if you didn’t have enough substitutes for meat, like mushrooms and nuts and spinach, it would make you weak,” Bruce said. “You didn’t have supplements?”

“Supplements?”

“Tablets or something, to replace the vitamins you weren’t getting from meat.”

“No. But I was not weak.”

“Maybe you just don’t know how weak you were, compared to Thor.”

Loki clenched his teeth.

“I am tired of being compared to Thor,” he said. Bruce immediately looked contrite.

“No, I just… I’m sorry. I’m only saying that if you’d had a balanced diet, you could’ve been stronger. Did you ever feel overly tired? Did your blood clot properly?”

“Perhaps you could advise me about my diet, doctor,” Loki said, somewhat ashamedly.

“No problem. We’ll need some samples of your blood to check your iron and protein levels. Make sure that you’re not in danger of anaemia or bronze diabetes, or the alien equivalent. You’ve probably survived all this time because you’re…”

“A demi-god.”

“If you like. You know, vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters.”

“I take every opportunity to remind T’Challa of that,” a man said, passing them with a plate of food. It smelt delicious and Loki’s mouth watered.

“Who was that?” Loki asked after the man left them alone with a smirk.

“M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari,” Bruce said. “The Jabari are vegetarians. I don’t think it’s because they’re allergic to meat; I think it’s because they worship gorillas, which are herbivores.”

“So the food he was carrying—”

“I’ll show you the meat-free table.”

“Thank you.”

“I should give you some of the recipes I picked up while I was working in Asia. India and Thailand have a lot of vegetarian dishes. I could come to New Asgard with you and work out how to use the resources there to make meatless food.”

“Thank you,” Loki said again, touched. “That’s kind of you.”

“You helped us out, and… no one should be bullied because of a food allergy. Or because they choose to go meat-free. I wish I could go back in time and shake your parents for not looking after you properly. You don’t even have therapists! How Asgard managed to flourish, I have no idea. It’s disgraceful. Come on. I’ll make sure you eat.”

Loki stuck to Bruce’s side after that, discussing the foods with him. Neither of them were particularly interested in talking with strangers, and Bruce wanted to know how everyone was doing. Whether the people in the escape pods had all made it to safety, and whether everyone who’d been killed on the ship had been brought back to life. He was clearly relieved to hear that Valkyrie was looking after them. Loki formally invited him to live in New Asgard. Their population had been decimated by Hela.

“I can’t have children,” Bruce said quickly.

“But those who can will require medical support.”

“Oh. Yeah. I’m happy to help.”

“Now, Dr. Banner, stop keeping the most handsome guest all to yourself.” M’Baku was back. “Or is he your soulmate?”

Bruce had just shovelled a mouthful of stew into his mouth. He could only shake his head while he chewed the vegetables.

“Lucky me,” M’Baku purred, looking over Loki. Unexpected bashful, Loki looked down at his plate and pushed his roasted vegetables around. And then something registered in his mind.

“Could you repeat that?” he asked.

“I said that I was lucky,” M’Baku said, leaning closer to Loki. “While you and the doctor look very comfortable together, I would like a chance myself.”

“You said ‘Lucky me’.”

“Yes.”

“And I said ‘Could you repeat that?’”

M’Baku’s jaw dropped.

“Oh,” he said. “Forgive me. Queen Ramonda was right. She said I would flirt so hard one day that I wouldn’t realise I was flirting with my soulmate.”

Bruce awkwardly shuffled off, leaving them alone. He whispered good luck to Loki on the way past.

“You are my soulmate,” Loki said.

“So it seems,” M’Baku said sheepishly. “I’d grown used to waiting for my old words. It is harder to remember the new ones.”

“You will not need to anymore.”

“No, I certainly won’t.” M’Baku stepped closer, nearly pressing against Loki. “Would you like to go somewhere private with me, where we can see each other’s soulmarks and… make sure?”

“We do not have to… oh.” M’Baku was stroking up and down his arms, his plate long abandoned. Loki set his own aside, with little reluctance. He was hungry, but his hunger could wait. This was far more important. “Yes. Where can we go?”

“I have a room here. We can stay tonight and go to the mountains tomorrow.” His eyebrows furrowed. “But you are King Thor’s brother, aren’t you? You will be going with him. And I cannot leave my people, or Wakanda.”

“Thor can do without me now,” he said. “It does not matter that I was raised to advise him. I am my own person, and I deserve… I want a life with my soulmate.”

“You do?”

“I am Prince Loki, although I was the king of Asgard for a few years. And I am the rightful heir to the throne of Jotunheim. I have no interest in running the Frost Giants, however. And no doubt a new leader has been appointed since the death of the former ruler. I do what I want, and that includes staying by my soulmate’s side… if you’ll have me, that is.”

“You have been a king twice?” M’Baku said, a twinkle in his eye.

“I am also the god of mischief,” he added proudly. “But don’t believe a thing you read about in those books on Norse mythology that Midgardians have. Especially about the horse. What utter rubbish.”

“Oh, wait until the next council meeting. I am taking you along with me, dearest. If the meeting gets too boring, or begins to run overtime, you can create some of your mischief then.”

“Do you think your king would approve?” Loki asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I only care if my king approves,” M’Baku said, tugging Loki closer by the lapels of his coat. “Now let’s get out of here before we scandalise the whole court and your brother.”

“I do not mind creating a bit of scandal,” Loki replied.

They exchanged cunning grins.

Chapter Text

“I swear, it’s worse than it was before,” Bucky grumbled, scowling at the soulmark on his lower back.

“What is, Buck?” Steve called from the next room.

“My soul words. The writing’s worse than it used to be.”

“Maybe your soulmate was injured because of Thanos?” Sam said, poking his head into the bathroom. “You nearly done in here?”

“Yeah, I’m done,” Bucky said, tying the towel around his waist. “Pervert.”

“My soulmate is more than enough for me to perv on. I’m not gonna stare at your skinny white body.”

“Steve’s white, and he was skinny before!”

“Sam, stop teasing Bucky,” Steve said sternly, looking around the door into the bathroom as well. “What does your new mark say?”

“I can’t read it!”

“Oh. Let’s take a picture, and we’ll try to work it out later.”

Bucky grumbled again, but he let Steve take a picture of the mark. Then he left the bathroom so the other two could shower together. He hoped they’d keep it down until he was out of earshot.

He’d kept out of Stark’s way as much as possible, eventually retreating to his tent. The only damage was from Wakandan villagers running through the area, squashing some of the flowers he’d watched grow from seedlings. The refugees had returned with Queen Ramonda after the all-clear yesterday evening, and they were settling down again. Out of all the countries in the world, Wakanda’s death toll was the lowest percentage. Some had died in battle, and no one had been able to save them in time. But because no one in Wakanda had been driving or flying, there were no accidents.

Bucky had been dragged back to the palace eventually, by a few stern words from Shuri over the kimoyo beads. He’d stayed behind others most of the night. M’Baku, Thor and Steve were tall enough to hide him. M’Baku was the best, though, because he and Tony had a spat about Wakanda’s technology as soon as they met and spent the rest of the night avoiding each other, making him the perfect shield.

Out of pure exhaustion, and Shuri’s desire for the dust-affected people to stay close by, he’d spent the night in the palace. But he was looking forward to drying off, getting back into yesterday’s clothes, and returning to his tent. Tents were the last accommodation he had before he’d been captured and became the Winter Soldier. They didn’t hold the best memories, but he never had a tent when he was HYDRA’s puppet. Tents were safe.

He whistled loudly and pointedly as soon as he heard the shower start up, and dried as quickly as he could without chafing anything sensitive. He paused to check his new soulmark in the mirror over the dresser and wonder what kind of soulmate Fate had in store for him.

He pulled on his clothes, called out goodbye to Steve and Sam, and left the suite. His wet hair was cold against his scalp and neck, and soaked the collar of his shirt. But he didn’t care. A few minutes in the Wakandan sunlight, maybe lying in the grass outside his tent, and his hair would be dry. It’d dry quicker if it was shorter, and… maybe he’d do that someday. Cut away a reminder of the past. Maybe cut it shorter than he’d ever had before, shorter than the Bucky Barnes of the forties.

He changed into new clothes and set aside his dirty ones to wash later. He pulled on his most comfortable shoes, squeezed more of the water out of his hair with a towel, and then wandered out into the sunlight.

It was warm, and the air smelled of fruits and berries and flowers. A light breeze sifted through his hair while he stood there, inhaling and relaxing.

He knew Steve wanted him by his side again, but the guy had Sam. He had Natasha and Wanda. He didn’t need Bucky; he just wanted to cling to any remainder of the past that he could get his hands on. Did he kiss Sharon Carter to remember her aunt? Did he want to be friends with Tony because of Howard?

If the answer was yes, he could only feel sorry for Sharon and Tony. They didn’t deserve to be like… like Harry Potter to Sirius Black. (He blamed Shuri for introducing him to that series. Both the books and the movies. They’d ruined him for a whole month. Shuri warned him to stay away from the Harry Potter fandom on something called tumbler. He still didn’t know what drink glasses had to do with it.)

The point was, Bucky didn’t want to be a relic. He wanted to be his own person again, and he wanted…

He wrapped his arm tightly around himself.

Peace. Love. His soulmate. No fighting. Security.

He’d settle for one of those, but he’d probably never get any of them. Except maybe his soulmate. He had a mark for a reason.

“Come in, White Wolf,” Shuri said. Bucky turned his communication bead and the princess’s head appeared. “Good morning, sunshine.”

“I hope it will be,” he said. “How did you sleep, princess?”

“Well, thank you. We have more visitors coming today.”

Bucky sighed.

“Thanks for warning me,” he said.

“You are expected for brunch. Most people are sleeping in or renewing their bonds, so we are skipping breakfast.”

“Do I have to? Can’t I stay down here?”

“We could bring the party down to your tent,” she said dryly.

“…What time do I have t’ be there?”

“Any time after eleven,” she said cheerfully. “Oh, and that’s eleven ante meridian. And don’t show up at midnight and say that it is after eleven. Arrive between eleven and, say, twelve-thirty. Stark left early this morning to return to New York. But you did not socialise yesterday and you must be hungry.”

Bucky checked the time. It was nearly half-past ten.

“Half an hour,” he said. “Got it. How long do I have to stay?”

“Hmm.” She looked thoughtful. “Have at least one large plate of food, a glass of water, and talk to three strangers without starting World War Three, and then you may leave. You must say more than just ‘hello’, or it does not count as conversation.”

“Can’t it just be two people?”

“It is the rule of three, Bucky. I do not make the rules.”

“Fine,” he muttered. “Bossy boots.”

“Do I need to send my mother to bring you here?”

“N-no! I’ll be there. I promise.”

“Good. I will not hesitate to send the Dora Milaje, either.”

Bucky didn’t know which prospect terrified him more, and he was grateful when Shuri deemed the conversation over and hung up.

He kept running his fingers through his hair, walking closer to the river where the breeze was stronger. His hair was still kinda damp after twenty minutes, but it’d do. He wasn’t planning to impress anyone. No one would be in a condition to impress or be impressed today. As long as he was clean and in washed clothes, he didn’t care, and the royal family probably wouldn’t, either.

It was nearly five past eleven by the time he entered the large dining room. The chairs had been moved away from the table so people could sit or stand where they wanted, and only approach the table for food and drink.

Since Shuri was already there, Bucky grabbed a glass first and filled it with water. He drank half of it in one go, then set it down to pick up a plate. One of the servants helped him heap food onto his plate, and waited while he finished drinking the water. Then they made sure he was seated close to a small table, where he could rest his plate when he wasn’t eating.

Glass of water: done. Plate of food organised: done. All he had to do was eat and talk. It couldn’t be all that hard to talk to strangers, right? He used to do it all the time.

He finished his food fairly quickly. He tried to take it slowly; he liked Wakandan food, and he knew the dangers of eating fast on an empty stomach. But at least twenty more people had entered the room while he was chowing down on his meal. So he was doing okay.

He drank some juice afterwards, to wash everything down, then sought out Okoye. He hadn’t talked to her much, although she wasn’t a stranger. But he needed to ease into conversation and find out who people were, and who was trustworthy.

The rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy had shown up not long after Stark left for America. At least the aliens looked as awkward as he felt, so he could talk to them. If he talked to three at once, would that count as three strangers?

Doctor Strange, the wizard guy who’d showed up with Spider-Man and Stark in Fate’s sleigh, was back. He’d been busy flitting around the world, so Bucky hadn’t talked to him last night. Another stranger.

Spider-Man and his aunt and best friend were supposed to be coming soon. Bucky had met Spider-Man in Berlin, but he hadn’t met the others.

“Do you need to know about anyone else?” Okoye asked.

“No thanks, General. Shuri… uh, Princess Shuri wants me to talk to strangers.”

“Some of Thor’s people are arriving this afternoon, but I am not sure what time. They were supposed to arrive with the Guardians, but they have been delayed several hours.”

“That’s okay. I won’t be around to see `em. I wanna get back to my tent as soon as possible. I feel like I need a long nap.” He shrugged sheepishly. “Another one.”

“I am sure that yesterday took an emotional toll on you which will take awhile to work its way out of your system,” she said. “That will make you feel tired.”

“Or maybe it’s because I had to share a bed with Sam and Steve last night. Do you know how awkward it is to share a bed with two people who are soulmates and are used to each other’s movements? I’m sure my legs are bruised all over.”

Okoye smiled, patted his arm, and left him in search of food. Bucky looked around, lost.

“Hello, I am Mantis,” one of the aliens said, making him jump. “I am sorry. I did not mean to startle you.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m usually better at being able to tell when someone’s behind me. Uh, I’m Bucky. Hi. You’re one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, right? That must be fun, travelling around space.”

“It is,” she said earnestly. “We listen to Peter’s music and we fight bad guys. The others are stronger than me, but I am an empath.”

“Whoa, you can feel people’s emotions?”

“Yes.”

“That must be hell. Like being able to hear people’s thoughts. Can you at least block them out when they get too much?”

“No,” she said. “But if someone is sad, then I know that I must cheer them up. It makes me useful.”

“I wouldn’t mind being able to do that,” he said. “Cheer people up, I mean. Better than what I actually do.”

“What do you do?”

“Kill people. I used to. I had to, yesterday, and I didn’t want to. But I used to be a weapon for the bad guys. It’s… it’s hard to shake.”

“I can tell,” she said. “You are like Nebula and Gamora. You should talk to them while we are here. Do you want me to cheer up you?”

“Nah. I only have to talk to a couple of people and then I can return to my tent.”

“I have never had brunch before,” she said. “Is it very different to other human meals?”

“Uh, it’s like an early lunch,” he said. “It can have breakfast food, but mostly it’s just sort of an in-between meal that you have when you wake up too late for breakfast and too early for lunch.”

“But I have never eaten human food.”

“Oh! Go ahead. I’m sure you’re hungry. I hope you like it.”

“Thank you, Bucky.”

Drink: done. Food: done. One conversation down; two to go.

He still felt overwhelmed, so he hung around near Steve and Sam until he felt like taking the plunge again. The room was about half full of people now, and feeling crowded. He was careful not to bump any plates or glasses as he moved, searching for a stranger.

“You must be the one with the metal arm,” a woman said.

“Uh… not at the moment?”

“No, but usually,” she said. “Peter told me everything when I found out he was Spider-Man, and he told me that he’d fought a guy with a metal arm.”

“That was at the airport,” he said. “You’re his… aunt?”

“Yes, May Parker.” They shook hands. “You’re Bucky Barnes, right? From Brooklyn?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been there since… I don’t know, actually. But it’s been a long time.”

“I remember reading about you in school. I was more a Morita fan, which is awkward since his grandson is Peter’s school principal, but plenty of my friends liked you best of all. You were such a heartthrob. If I could tell them I’d met you, they’d be so jealous.”

Bucky didn’t know what to say at first. But then they got onto the topic of how accurate history had been about their group. As soon as he found out what a load of crap they’d been taught, he began to regale her with real stories of the Howling Commandoes, especially the ones about Morita and Steve.

He drew a bit of a crowd, and wound down the stories as soon as he could. But May was still laughing, and suggested that he write a true account of the Howling Commandoes to set the record straight. Something school kids could read. Bucky said he’d consider it, but writing was never his strong point. He’d only got Bs in English at school. Steve managed As, but then he’d been stuck in bed so much that he had more time to study, whereas Bucky had to work around his younger sisters.

Two conversations with strangers down: one to go.

He inched towards the door, hoping to find someone there he could talk to briefly and then escape without anyone (i.e. Steve or Shuri) noticing. He found a man in a long, red cloak, and recognised him as the wizard.

“Hi,” Bucky said, figuring he should start one of the conversations. “You’re the magic guy, right? I like your cloak.”

He immediately wanted to punch himself in the face. ‘I like your cloak’? Really?

The man’s aloof expression morphed to a smile.

“At least you didn’t call it a cape,” he said, holding out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“You don’t even know who I am,” Bucky said.

“But…” The man frowned. “We aren’t…?”

“What?”

“No, I’m sorry. It must be my mistake. Unless…” He hesitated. “Have you checked to see whether your soulmark changed?”

“Yeah, but I can’t read it. Steve took a picture, so we were gonna look at it later and see if we could work out what it says. It was bad before, but now it seems worse.”

“Probably because of the accident,” he said.

“What Thanos did was no accident.”

“No, I mean the car crash. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Doctor Stephen Strange and I think we’re soulmates.”

“Oh,” Bucky said softly. “Okay. Yeah… Wait, you’re a doctor? That explains the bad writing. Oh God, I’m sorry, I just meant—”

“Surgeons have notoriously bad handwriting,” Stephen said, smiling. “I used to date a nurse and she constantly told me to make my notes more legible. But a few years ago I was in a car crash, and it ruined my hands.” He held them up and Bucky noticed the tremor in them. “So I can’t write like I used to.”

“Good thing I didn’t lose my dominant hand, or your mark would be unintelligible, too.”

“We should make sure that we are soulmates, of course.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Do you have somewhere private?”

“I’ve got a tent away from the palace.”

“That’ll do. Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

Scott had been babysitting Cassie when they both turned to dust. Cassie returned to life before he did, leading her to call her mother in a panic. Maggie and Paxton arrived while Scott was ‘reassembling’. (It was a nicer word to use in front of Cassie.) They freaked out and whisked Cassie back to their place. Like it was Scott’s fault that half the world disintegrated.

So now he was alone and staring at the number of messages left on his landline. The FBI wouldn’t allow him to have a cell phone, in case he hacked a satellite. Scott tried to explain that he didn’t have those kind of skills, but no one listened. To ordinary folk, anyone with the slightest technical skill was a master hacker.

Hawkeye and Maggie left the most messages, asking him to call back if he was alive, but there were others, including Hope, who called fruitlessly while Scott and Cassie were piles of dust. When Paxton warned that he and Maggie were about to come over, as soon as they got out of the traffic jam, it was the second-last message. The last was someone saying ‘Scott, please don’t be—’ before it cut off, answering machine full. Scott thought it sounded like Captain America, but that couldn’t be right.

He wondered who he should call back first. He started with Hope, then Clint, assuring both of them that he was alive again and finding out what’d happened to them and their families. They were all alive.

He was debating over who to call next when another call came through.

“Are you okay? Please say you’re alive. Don’t be dead.”

“I’m alive,” Scott said slowly. “Who is this?”

There was a pause, and he started to wonder whether the person had the wrong number and he’d disappointed someone who was frantic to find their loved one.

“This is Steve.”

“Steve?”

“Steve Rogers?”

“Ste… oh! Captain Rogers. Hi. Uh, I’m sorry I didn’t recognise your voice. You sound different over the phone. I mean, of course, everyone sounds different over the phone, but it’s amazing to hear… uh, anyway. Hi. You’re okay? I mean, everyone else is alive… wherever you are?”

“Yeah,” he said. His voice still sounded weird. “Um… we’re in Wakanda. Do you, uh, wanna come join us?”

“Oh.” Scott’s heart sank. “I can’t. I’m still under house arrest. I mean, if I’d been able to fix whatever happened, maybe they’d give me parole. I dunno. But I was turned to dust, so I couldn’t have helped. Great job, by the way. You guys fixed this, right?”

“No, actually. Someone else did. But I figured you’d died.”

“Yeah, sorry I couldn’t answer the phone. And so many other people called that there wasn’t enough room for your message. I only heard a few words. Uh, that was you who called, right? I mean, maybe it wasn’t, it sounded a little like you, but—”

“N-no, I called, and the message cut out before I could say anything important.”

“It’s the thought that counts, dude,” Scott said. Then he scolded himself for calling Captain America ‘dude’. He didn’t have the right. Even though the captain had said Scott’s words, he’d given no indication that Scott had said his, so no. He didn’t have the right to speak with him so casually. They were barely even team-mates.

“Well…” he continued. “Good to know everything’s okay. Sorry again that I couldn’t help. Uh, maybe I’ll see you again? Next time the world needs saving?” He tried not to cross his fingers. He failed.

“Yeah, sure,” the captain mumbled, and he hung up the phone.

Scott sighed. He’d screwed it up again.

 

Steve was brooding.

His head was so damn full of Bucky when they got to Berlin that he barely noticed when Scott Lang said his soul words. He was bemused by the scruffy guy Clint helped out of the van, who said that he thought Wanda was ‘great, too’. He was surprised (and put off) by a complete stranger feeling his muscles. He allowed it during the war, when it sold bonds. But the admiring glances… well, he was tired of them now. He only wanted his soulmate to look at him like that.

Too late, after the dust had settled and they broke the others out of the Raft and he saw his soulmate’s handwriting on Scott’s paperwork, did he realise the truth. He offered to let Scott join the Secret Avengers, but Scott’s refusal made things clear.

“What’s wrong?” Bucky asked, sitting beside him at the edge of the river. Nearby, Sam was fishing, can of worms downwind so the smell wouldn’t disturb Steve’s sensitive nostrils. “You look miserable.”

“Ant-Man’s my soulmate, but nothing’s gonna happen between us.”

“Just Ant-Man?” Sam called. “Or Scott Lang?”

“He called me Captain America when we first met,” Steve said, scowling slightly.

“Well, he seemed star-struck to me,” he said, shrugging. “Maybe he figured he couldn’t call you ‘Steve’ right off the bat?”

“I can’t believe I missed my soulmate saying my words.” Steve buried his face in his hands. Bucky patted him on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “Feels like it was my fault.”

“It… it wasn’t. I got caught up in everything, like I always do.”

“Yeah, but—”

“It wasn’t your fault, Buck. I’d given up on meeting my soulmate, and the mark annoyed me from the start. But I should’ve done things differently. He was a fellow superhero and I didn’t treat him like it.”

“Maybe it’s `cause I complained about him for hours,” Sam joked. Steve didn’t smile.

“I called `im, but he didn’t say anything about… about us,” he said.

“You called him right after he’d come back to life,” Bucky said.

“Yeah.”

“Before he could’ve had a chance to see his new mark?”

“What does it matter?” Steve said, standing abruptly. Or as abruptly as he could when he’d been sitting cross-legged on the grass. “I messed up our first meeting and now he’s under house arrest so he can’t leave home. And I can’t return to America without risking arrest. Unless the USA leaves the UN, or the Sokovia Accords… maybe I should sign `em.” His shoulders drooped in defeat. “We all should.”

“Hell no!” Sam said. “Don’t get all defeatist on us. We’ll figure something out.”

“He won’t wanna be with me. I failed to protect the world when it needed me the most.”

“Hey, you think any of the previous times you’ve saved the world meant less than this time?” Bucky said. “Steve, every time you’ve fought to save humankind has had the same end goal: save humankind. This time was no different. The outcome wasn’t great, but it never is. At least most of the people killed were brought back to life, including Sam an’ me. And Scott. You have a second chance. Take it.”

“I blew my second chance.”

“The Steve Rogers I knew wasn’t a quitter.”

“I’m not the same anymore!” Steve shouted, turning to glare at Bucky.

“Neither am I.”

There was silence between them for a few seconds, broken when Sam caught a fish and reeled it out of the water. He set it on ice while the two men slowly softened, expressions turning heartbroken.

“I’m so sorry, Buck,” Steve whispered. “I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. I didn’t want you to die. You’re all I have left.”

“But I’ve got a soulmate… well, I’ve got a soulmark,” Bucky said. “So do you. So go get `im. Get Strange to make a portal for you. Go around in disguise with your stupid glasses and hat and beard. Find your soulmate and… and be happy, okay?”

“You deserve to be happy, too.”

Bucky shrugged, smiling sadly.

“Maybe it’ll happen one day,” he said. “But you’ve got a chance. So take it. We’re all fine here. Take off that damn uniform and go get your man.”

“Who is your soulmate?” Steve asked.

Bucky hesitated, and then he tugged up the side of his shirt. As he got closer, Steve saw tears in his eyes. When he recognised the scrappy mess of writing he understood why.

“Tony,” he whispered.

“S-so go,” Bucky said. “Please. For me. One of us has to… to…”

Steve hugged him tightly, letting Bucky’s tears soak the collar of his shirt.

 

Scott was minding his own business, feeling sorry for himself as he channel-hopped, when a sparkling circle appeared in the living room. He squawked and fell off the sofa.

“How would you like to come to Wakanda?”

He looked up and saw a man in a goatee with a red cape thing – had the guy not seen The Incredibles? – in the middle of the circle. He looked him up and down, confused.

“…Hey?” he said.

“You’re Scott Lang, right? Or have I got the wrong house? Clint Barton sent a picture of this room so I could find it.”

“Y-yeah, I’m Scott. Ant-Man. Who are you?”

“Doctor Stephen Strange. Like I said, do you want to visit Wakanda?”

“I… can’t? `Cause I’m under house arrest?”

“You sound unsure.”

“Oh, no, I’m sure. It’s just, uh… I’m not used to seeing people appear right in front of me unless they were tiny and suddenly, you know, got bigger.”

“From what I’ve heard about you, that should be relatively frequent,” he said. “Are you coming or not?”

“I’ve got this thing on my leg,” Scott said, gesturing to the anklet the FBI had been all too happy to clip back onto him after he returned to life. It was the one thing which didn’t turn to dust with him.

“So remove it.”

“I can’t. It’ll send an alarm to them.”

“What about your Ant-Man suit?”

“Nuh-uh. It was confiscated.”

Doctor Strange rolled his eyes.

“Is your daughter with you?”

“No. Why—”

He suddenly fell through the air, like the floor had disappeared from under him. His arms flailed and he landed on smooth floor. His knees buckled and he fell to the ground.

“Ow,” he moaned.

“Scott?”

He looked up to see Steve Rogers staring at him from a sofa. Then he threw his pencil and sketchpad aside and ran over.

“Hi,” Scott said, wincing as he stood up. He waved away the captain’s attempt to help him stand. “Who the hell is the portal guy? I think he did something.”

“Doctor Strange? Did he send you here?”

“I told him – and you – that I’m under house arrest! The FBI will track me down and arrest me. And they’ll arrest you if they find you here. I have to go home!”

“Y-you don’t want to stay?” Steve said.

“I didn’t want to come in the first place! I’ll never feel safe again, not now. If someone can kidnap me from my own home just like that…” He shivered.

“Strange is on our side.”

“He’s not on my side,” he muttered, dusting off his jeans. The anklet buzzed.

“Scott…”

“What?” he snapped, squatting down to fiddle with the anklet. He never asked for any of this. He wanted a quiet home life and a busy work life. No crime, no superhero-ing. He wouldn’t give up Cassie for the world; he’d always wanted to be a father. But he didn’t want his soulmate to see him as a screw-up who had to be babysat by the FBI because he refused to be under the government’s thumb. And because he helped his childhood hero and soulmate escape the law to save the world.

No, he didn’t want this, and he fought back tears as he gave up stopping the anklet from broadcasting his location. He sighed and stood up.

“I need to go home or I’ll go to jail, and this time no one will break me out,” he said dully.

“I’m… I’m sorry, Scott. I had no idea anyone would do this.”

“Do what?”

“Send you to me.”

“You have my phone number. If you needed a favour you could’ve called.”

“No, I mean… they know you’re my soulmate. They’re just trying to help out.”

“Soulmate?” Scott said. How did Steve know about the one-sided soulmateship? It had to be one-sided. The captain never said anything.

“I didn’t realise you’d said my words, at the airport,” he mumbled. “Then you didn’t wanna come on the run with us.”

“I had a daughter to think about. Responsibilities.” He huffed. “I have to leave. If I go to jail I’ll never see my daughter again. The FBI told me if I broke house arrest I’d lose any chance of custody. I… I can’t…” Tears fell this time, and he turned away. “Where do I find Doctor Strange?”

“I’ll take you to him.”

They walked in silence. The rest of the Avengers were in a group. Scott scowled when he spotted Doctor Strange.

“Get me back home, now,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Do it,” Steve said. He sounded tired, but Scott couldn’t look at him. He was too damn embarrassed by the whole thing. “Or he’ll be arrested and lose custody of his daughter.”

Scott stepped through a portal just as FBI agents swarmed into his house.

 

A month later, Scott had sunk as far as he could go. It didn’t matter what Luis and the other guys tried; he lost the job the FBI had gotten him, he’d spent most of his money on drink, and most nights he spent wandering the streets. Hank had taken back the Ant-Man suit, threatening to make it permanent unless Scott pulled himself together.

The FBI had ignored his pleas and explanations. Even when Strange confirmed Scott’s version of events, they did their worst.

He wasn’t allowed to see Cassie anymore.

Maggie and Paxton fought for him to have visitation, but Cassie still cried her heart out when the judge ruled against Scott.

So he broke off his anklet, grabbed anything he could carry and took off. He spent most of his time away from Luis’s place in case the government looked for him there. He grew a beard, cut his hair nearly down to his scalp, and bummed around on the streets.

The one time Hope tracked him down he told her in no uncertain terms to leave him alone. She and her father had screwed up his life; the best thing they could do was leave him alone. He rejected her job offer, rejected her friendship.

He gave up paying attention to the news. The death tolls after Thanos’s finger snap still depressed him. He didn’t wanna hear about superheroes or supervillains. He just wanted to drink himself to an early death. He left a list of his favourite places on Luis’s fridge, in case he needed ideas about where to scatter Scott’s ashes.

A firm hand removed the bottle from his clasp and a pair of strong arms lifted him from the ground. Was he finally dying? Was he being carried by an angel?

“He’s drunk, and I don’t like the colour of his face.” Scott’s eyes were pried open. “And his irises aren’t good.”

“Yours are,” Scott slurred. “Nice and… and brown. Like dirt. Not the sky. His… they were too much. Disa… disap-p-pointed. In me. Like always.” He closed his eyes again and his head lolled back. He groaned. “Am I dead now?”

“Scott, I’m Bruce Banner. We’re going to get you somewhere safe. If we have to take you to a hospital to have your stomach pumped, we will.”

“N-no! Can’t afford it.”

“I know.” A hand squeezed his. “We’re going back to Wakanda.”

“Wakanda,” he repeated disgustedly. “Lost my daughter `cause of… Wakanda.”

“I’m sorry, Scott. We’ll do whatever we can to fix things. I’m pissed off with the others, so much, you wouldn’t believe. Thor’s already entered negotiations…”

Scott nodded off to sleep.

 

“Daddy!” Cassie exclaimed.

“Oh, thank God,” Steve whispered. He carried Cassie to the bed and sat with her in his lap, where Scott would be able to see them both once his eyes focussed.

“C-Cassie?”

“Hi, Daddy,” she said. She clambered off Steve’s lap, feet narrowly missing his groin, and curled up beside Scott. “Do you feel better now? Is the poison all gone?”

“Poison?”

“Yeah. Daddy, I’ve missed you.” She flung an arm over his chest, cuddling closer. “I get to see you again! King Thor made the people change their minds.”

“That’s great.” He wrapped a weak arm around her. “Where am I?”

“Wakanda! We’re in Africa, Daddy!”

“Why are we here?”

“Good to see you awake,” Bruce said, entering the room. “Do you remember me?”

“N-no?”

“I’m Bruce Banner. Sometimes I’m the Hulk.”

“He’s really nice, Daddy,” Cassie whispered loudly.

“How are you feeling, Scott?”

“Confused. Tired. My stomach hurts. So does my throat.”

“You had to be intubated and your stomach had to be pumped. The pain and confusion will be because you’re slowly coming off the drugs. We hoped you’d wake up today.”

“I’m…” Steve paused. “I’m gonna wait outside. You don’t need me any—”

“No,” Bruce said firmly, a growl of the Hulk in his voice. “You’ve been miserable since Scott went off the radar. You’re both adults. Set a good example for Cassie and sort out this whole mess. We’re not gonna risk either of you falling into depression again.”

“I’ll make sure they talk, Uncle Bruce,” Cassie said.

“Thank you, Nurse Cassie.”

He left them alone. Cassie glared at both men.

“So start talking,” she said sternly.

Scott and Steve met each other’s eyes.

And they talked.

Chapter Text

M’Baku was curled up on a bed in medical. He’d been injured, but that was the least of his concerns.

His soulmarks were gone. Both of them.

It was one thing to hear from Okoye that T’Challa was dead. But seeing the evidence on his bare skin brought tears to his eyes.

He didn’t even consider checking his other mark until Shuri tearfully said that Everett Ross wasn’t answering his phone, and Nakia was still out of contact. Queen Ramonda’s beads were also offline, which meant that they had lost contact with the evacuees. Shuri sent two of the uninjured Dora Milaje to track them down and ensure their safety.

M’Baku took the opportunity to check his other soulmark and found it missing.

“Everett Ross is dead,” he said dully, showing the bare skin to Shuri. She bowed her head and wiped away her tears.

“I am sorry, M’Baku,” she said. “I did not know that he was your soulmate.”

“And you did not know that your brother was my other soulmate, did you?”

“Oh Bast,” she hissed, studying him with sympathetic eyes. “You…”

“Are all alone now,” he said.

“No. You have us.”

“But my soulmates…” He sighed. He could feel his heart cracking in his chest.

“Why were you not bonded with them?” Shuri asked, sitting on the bed beside him. He curled up, managing to miss kicking her. She was now the queen of Wakanda, and he had to remember that. But it was hard to look at a teenager and see a monarch.

“Your brother is with Nakia,” he said. “And Everett works… worked overseas. There was no future with either of them.” And now there never would be, he thought.

“But as friends…”

He eyed her, a little annoyed.

“Do you think I only wanted friendship with either of them?” he asked grumpily.

Shuri winced.

“Then we must work hard to fix this mess,” she said, giving a determined nod. “So that you have a second chance.”

“A second chance would change nothing.”

“A near-death experience may change their minds,” she pointed out.

Near-death?”

“Fine. Actual death. But I cannot accept that it will be permanent. So rest up, and when we all have more energy we will tackle this problem. Thanos has only won for now. We will deal with this.”

 

In the end, Fate fixed things. M’Baku took it as a sign that he had to work harder. Even if he could only have one of his soulmates, he would not let them get away.

For now, Everett Ross would be the easiest to tackle. T’Challa was there, but he was busy organising a celebration. Shuri had already sent a jet to pick up Everett, so M’Baku took care of the Jabari soldiers who had returned to life to pass the time. He sent recipes to the kitchen staff so that they would make fish and meatless dishes. He cheekily sent a recipe for his favourite banana split. If he couldn’t seduce Everett with a phallic dessert and cream, then he had clearly lost his touch.

Shuri got to Everett first, and was still clinging to one of his arms when they walked in the doors. M’Baku ran to their side and swept Everett into a hug which lifted him off the floor. Everett laughed.

“Did you miss me, M’Baku?” he asked. His new soul words.

“That was a stupid question and you know it,” he said sternly.

“Okay, my bad.”

“Are you returning to America?”

“I only just got here. Are you sick of me already?”

“I will never be sick of my soulmate,” M’Baku said. Everett’s cheeks flared pink.

“Then why do you ask?”

“If you are returning to America, I am coming with you. Somebody else can lead the Jabari. I am not letting you go again.”

“Oh.” Everett rubbed the back of his neck and laughed. “Uh, what about T’Challa? I thought you two would…”

“He is dating Nakia, when she is here,” M’Baku said. “You also know that.”

“I just figured you might, you know…”

“Never. Not without you. So you must decide. You stay in Wakanda or I go back to America with you.”

“No choice?”

M’Baku felt his heart cracking again.

“Of course you have a choice,” he said stiffly.

“No, I mean, we’re not discussing this with T’Challa?”

“You can if you like. I will understand if you prefer him—”

Everett tugged him down by the shoulders and kissed him fully, nibbling his lower lip.

“No preference,” he murmured.

“G-good,” M’Baku squeaked.

“But we can’t bond properly without T’Challa, and you know it. And I’m going to bond with you. But if I’m staying in Wakanda, you’d better come up with some kind of job for me, or I’ll go crazy from the boredom.”

“I will talk to T’Challa,” he said, willing his erection down. Everett’s smirk was doing things to him.

“Good. I’m starving. I’m gonna get a bite to eat.” He looked up at M’Baku with lowered eyelids. “You wanna come with me?”

It seems that banana dessert wouldn’t be needed after all.

 

“You will not hurt Everett?”

M’Baku looked up from where he was reading the news in bed. T’Challa was at the door.

“Why would I hurt my soulmate?” M’Baku said. T’Challa’s gaze fell. “Either of you?”

“Will he be staying in Wakanda?”

“What does it matter to you? I will elect a new leader for the Jabari if I move overseas; you won’t have to worry about that.”

“But I don’t want you to go,” T’Challa said.

“And Everett?”

“I didn’t want him to go, either, but he loves his job.”

“Nakia loves her job as well,” M’Baku said.

“But she is not my soulmate.”

“No, she is not.”

“I like my soulmates, M’Baku. But I have a duty to continue the line of royal succession. I do not want Shuri to have to continue the legacy if she doesn’t want to.”

“So use a surrogate,” M’Baku said, shrugging. “I want to bond with Everett and he wants to bond with me. We both want to bond with you, if you’ll have us. His decision on whether to return to America partly rests on you.”

“He’ll leave if I refuse to be with the two of you?” T’Challa said, wide-eyed.

“Can you blame him? I do not want to see you and Nakia married and starry-eyed over each other, knowing that we belong together, and neither does Everett.”

T’Challa sighed softly, his shoulders sinking.

“Things with Nakia… they were left in the air,” he said. “No commitments on either side. I wish one of you had said something, but… perhaps I should have made the first move. I’m the king of Wakanda, and I did not wish to pressure either of you. That seems to have been a mistake.”

“Do you really we could be pressured?” M’Baku asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Uh… in hindsight, no. So will you give me a chance?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Everett said, shuffling out of the bathroom in pyjamas. He flopped onto the bed beside M’Baku. “I don’t want a long-distance relationship, but I don’t see how staying in Wakanda will help. You don’t live together. M’Baku has to stay with the Jabari and you have to stay at the palace. So we wouldn’t be together enough. If that’s the case, I may as well go back to America.”

“You could go between the palace and the mountains,” M’Baku said, rolling onto his side to look at Everett. “Sort of… swap between us. And then when we are all free to spend time together, we can make up for lost time.”

“I guess it’s one way around the problem,” Everett said, frowning slightly. “If you’d both be okay with it.”

“Of course,” T’Challa said. “Sharing is caring, after all.”

Everett huffed a laugh and the king climbed into bed with them.

Chapter Text

Bucky curled up in a corner of his tent. It was too quiet. T’Challa had ensured the evacuation of Wakanda before Thanos’s forces arrived, but the results of the finger snap meant that everyone was delayed in returning. This far from the palace and the wreckage of the battlefield, it was just Bucky and his thoughts. Even the birds had flown and the frogs had disappeared at the first sign of trouble.

It was like he was the only person in the world.

He sighed. He’d checked on his soulmark as soon as he came back, and he knew that handwriting. It was the same writing as before.

“Why didn’t you change it?” he whispered. Now he wished he hadn’t been stuck in the hospital wing when Fate arrived, or he could’ve asked her.

Death had been the perfect opportunit