Day one, Thanos snaps his fingers and trillions die.
It's an unbiased, brutal culling. The innocent and the sinful turn to dust in equal measure, the young and the old, the mortal and the immortal. They think it's just sentient beings at first, but over the months, those who are left do ecological surveys, flyovers, censuses, and they figure out it was animals, too. Plants, though - plants are spared. Tony wonders if things would've been different if Peter had been bit by a radioactive venus fly trap, instead.
Day two, it turns out the universe has its own ideas about balance.
Stranded on Titan, Tony watches stars wink out in the night sky. He keeps waiting for the one he's orbiting to go out, plunge him into the frozen vacuum, but it never does. Abandoned by that half-robot bitch Nebula, Tony honestly couldn't tell you if he's glad to be alive or not.
Day three, every being left alive is woken by an electric, burning pain on their skin. Tony shocks into awareness on the slab of metal he's turned into a cot, rolls off the edge, and hits the dirt. He thinks it's his stab wound for a second, finally infected and coming back with a venegeance to kill him, but while he's tearing at his hoodie he realizes it's too low, where his thigh meets his hip. He tugs off his pants, twisting in the light of the orange moon to see...
A burn, seared black. That color, it should be fourth degree or worse, but it's shallow and it's already cooling. An intricate whorl, like a thumbprint, thousands of thin lines weaving and twisting in and around each other. The mark is as big as Tony's hand, fingers spread out.
Alone, on an uninhabited scrap heap of a planet however many billions of miles from home, Tony has no idea what he's supposed to do with that. So he pulls himself off the ground, up onto the slab, and tries to go back to sleep.
Fresh on his skin, the soulmark throbs.
The reaction on Earth is a little different.
Even though the world's still in a state of shock, people figure out pretty quickly that they're not the only ones who have the marks. Every living thing has one - except plants, of course, because plants always get off easy.
The "event marks" are a welcome distraction. The media fixates on them, the mystery of them, because it's a lot less daunting to think about big thumbprints on your back or your side or your thigh than to think about how the planet's population has just dropped to 3.5 billion overnight, or how the constellations in the night sky have all been rearranging themselves.
People post pictures of them on social media, send artsy side shots to their friends. A billion phones vibrate abandoned in the streets, clinging to the last dregs of life before they lose their charge and die like their owners.
Scientists leap on the mystery as well. The marks are like nothing they've ever seen before, but objectively the issue seems a lot easier to solve than the disappearance of half the universe. They have an online catalog up and running within a week, saving and collating all those pictures people are posting and sending, mapping the marks the same way forensic programs map fingerprints. They've got no shortage of willing volunteers for research, so they set to work taking skin samples and drawing blood from around the marks, looking for a why.
And then the oddest thing happens. They find their first match.
The catalog algorithm notices something no human eyes could. Two marks - one on a woman in Nigeria, and one on a man in Hong Kong - are the same.
The scientists try to keep the whole thing quiet, fly the matched pair to their Event Mark Research Facility in Bern. But the media get wind of it, and they're camped outside the facility when the matched pair get out of their cars. The cameras are rolling as the man catches sight of the woman, and stops dead in his tracks. They're rolling as she closes her car door, turns, sees him, and after a moment...beams.
They're rolling as they run towards each other, as they embrace, like the world's ending. The scientists try to herd them inside, and they go, but they won't untangle from each other, they refuse.
The media takes to calling them "Adam and Eve."
They've never met. They don't even speak the same language. But in the close interviews the scientists conduct, they both insist that something just felt right when they saw each other. The woman describes it as finding the other half of her soul, her soulmate, and when the tape of that interview gets out on the internet, the term sticks.
Tony's too busy trying to piece together spacefaring armor from scraps to worry about the mark.
If he were willing to think about it, he'd realize it's a good thing that he's got a task to focus on. While his brain's working its way through the intricacies of circuitry and vacuum-resistant plating, it doesn't have time to stray to darker areas, like whether Pepper's alive, or Rhodey, or Happy. Or Steve. Or how Peter's fingers dug into his arms, how his eyes locked on Tony's face and Tony couldn't think of one goddamn thing to say to make it better.
But he's not willing to think about it. So he doesn't. Instead he focuses on the task at hand, which is the whole point, after all. Tony doesn't grieve - he builds. He doesn't worry - he plans. Grief and worry and fear aren't worth anything unless you can turn them into action.
It's cold at night and it's windy during the day, and Tony's pretty sure he's bleeding internally. He's got nothing but his own two hands, but he's built more with less. At least he has a superbattery in his chest. At least he's got Friday. At least there's no one here yelling at him.
He's got a working prototype in a week. He does a low-atmo test on day eight, a high-atmo test on day nine. On day ten, he double-checks and triple-checks his O2 calculations until his eyes start seeing squiggly lines instead of numbers. On day eleven, he leaves.
Four days later, a very familiar blue and green planet appears in his view screen. And Friday says, "Boss, we're home."
Tony smiles, just a little bit. "You in range of our satellites?"
"Coma protocol, Fry."
There's a moment of silence while Friday scans every network available to her, sorts through the data for relevant tidbits, condenses headlines into soundbytes, and checks all of Tony's inboxes, which are numerous.
Then she says, "The Earth's population is now 3.5 billion, but secondary casualties from the attack have yet to be calculated. They're calling Thanos' attack 'The Event.' There are a few world leaders missing, but continuity of government is in place. No wars have stopped. Looks like everyone has one of those marks on their skin. They're calling them 'soulmarks.'"
Tony rockets past the moon. He swallows a thick lump of fear in his throat, and orders, "Roll call."
The Avengers leave Wakanda a week after the Event.
Shuri invites them to stay, but she has enough on her hands without worrying about sheltering them from the world. Wakanda is defenseless, shield down, army more than halved. The Black Panther is gone, and without the heart-shaped herb, there's no way to replace him. Steve makes sure she knows how to reach them if she needs them - she smiles and calls him an old man more than once when he hands her the burner - and they go.
The question of where to go is a tricky one. The world's looking for someone to blame for all this, and the burden of guilt for alien attacks tends to fall to them. Technically, they're still traitors, wanted by the United States and a few other international bodies besides. The Compound in Virginia will be closely monitored, as will the Tower. Natasha suggests Tony's Malibu house, but Steve can't bring himself to go anywhere near there when Tony's...Tony's...
Missing. Tony's missing.
They can't go to Clint's farm. They're the subjects of a worldwide manhunt, so it's out of the question. In the end Thor calls his ex, Dr. Jane Foster. By some stroke of luck, she's still solid, not turned to dust, and she tells them they can come hide out in her house. A house which is, as it turns out, large enough to sleep twenty people, and located in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, forty minutes from the nearest town.
She's not alone. There's some "sorcerer" called Mordo with her, but he mostly just walks around the desert muttering about balance. Steve doesn't like the guy, but Jane explains that he saved her from a plane crash during the Event, and now they're working together to understand the soulmarks.
What matters to Steve is his team has a safe place to rest their heads.
The rest, they'll figure out later.
Earth drifts closer and closer, big and bright and blurry in Tony's narrow view screen. "Roll call," he orders.
Friday is apparently firmly in the school of ripping off the band-aid, because she opens with, "Miss Potts is missing. Mr. Hogan is also missing." Luckily, it gets better from there. "Colonel Rhodes is at the residence of Dr. Jane Foster in New Mexico, along with Mr. Odinson, Dr. Banner, Miss Romanoff, and Captain Rogers. They're joined by a talking raccoon."
"By a what?"
"A talking raccoon. Also, a Master of the Mystic Arts."
Tony feels a twinge at that, but asks, "Wong?"
"No, a man named Mordo." Friday pauses, but keeps going without prompting from Tony, like a good AI. "Miss Maximoff is missing. Sergeant Barnes is missing. Mr. Wilson is missing. King T'Challa is missing. Mr. Barton is on his farm. Mr. Lang is at his home. Mr. Fury is missing. Miss Hill is missing. Mr. Coulson is in New York, in the company of Air Force Captain Carol Danvers. Vision is deceased. And you know about...you know the rest."
"I know the rest," Tony agrees softly. All those people...it's a lot to process, and his heart already feels numb, chugging along despondently in his chest. Steve's alive, but Pepper...god, Pepper. Tony knows she dumped him, but he still loved her. Always, he loved her. And Happy, and Vision, and...but at least Rhodey's alive. And Steve. Steve. "Additions to roll call, Fry."
"May Parker. Dr. Stephen Strange. Peter Quill. Drax. Mantis."
"Got it, boss. I'm guessing I don't need to go over those last ones, but Miss Parker is also missing." Tony feels a little guilty at the wave of relief that hits him, but at least he doesn't have to explain to her how he got her nephew... how he lost her nephew. "Anyone else?"
"No, Fry. Steer me to New Mexico."
Jane explains her theory of the marks to them over dinner, under the wide open, rearranged night sky.
It's all about balance, she says. Sure, okay, when Thanos got rid of half the universe, the population cut evenly in half. But he didn't factor in the tethers that everyone left alive had to those that died. They couldn't all just let go like he did, so the universe reassigned them to new loved ones. It gave everyone a built-in support system, someone guaranteed to love them no matter what.
She's flushed from one beer, talking with her hands, too fascinated with the science to understand the effect what she's saying will have. The universe is trying to rebuild itself, and the basic unit of construction that it's chosen is the soulmate pair.
Steve looks around the picnic table at his teammates. Most of their eyes are downturned, or hooded in shadow. Natasha's gone completely expressionless, which she never does around them anymore. Rocket's busy building a slingshot for spitballs out of a torn up red solo cup, but Steve figures the raccoon's always an outlier. Yet, even with the slingshot, he knows they're all thinking about their friends who turned to dust, their loved ones.
Jane, still excited, shows them the algorithm she has on her phone, plugged into the worldwide soulmark catalog. She offers to enter them all in it, find their "new match," but they all refuse - politely, of course. She's unperturbed, tells them to come to her if they change their minds, but Steve's pretty sure none of them will. Thor, maybe, if only to make her happy. The rest of them aren't really in the headspace for love. Steve's not, not with Tony...
Missing. Not with Tony missing.
Mordo and Jane lapse into murmured conversation. Steve gets up and drifts away from the table, out into the desert. There are a few adirondak chairs around a fire pit, on the edge of a mesa. He sits down in one and looks out at the desert vista, mind empty.
Or, well, not empty, but full of useless things. Things like Bucky's smile, Bucky's voice, the surety of his oldest friend at his back. The rare sound of Wanda's laugh. The way Sam clapped him on the shoulder. Vision's calm steadiness, the so very human tone of his voice when he said we don't trade lives, Captain.
A million scrapbook images. Sights, sounds, feelings. Tony grinning, the fake smile and the real one. Tony peeling off the suit, Tony bloodspattered after a battle, breathing heavy and alive. Tony in sweatpants, in a three-piece suit that cost more than Steve's mom's house, at his best in the workshop and at his worst, watching CNN in the middle of the night while they called the Avengers a public menace.
Tony's hand on his arm. Tony saying so was I. Tony yelling at him, Tony's fist on his face, Tony underneath him, cracked open, more betrayed than hurt. A small lifetime of moments, all of them moments when Steve could've - when he should've drawn Tony in and forgotten about everything else.
Steve registers Natasha joining him, even though she doesn't say anything. Then Bruce. Then Thor, with the raccoon on his shoulder. And Rhodes. They stare out at the desert together.
"I think we should call Barton," Natasha says. "It's time. We're going to need him, whatever happens. Coulson, too."
Steve nods. "Good idea." He's a big believer in strength in numbers, and theirs just got cut in half. "Call Lang, while you're at it." He's glad they're not looking for any more guidance than that right now - he's not sure what he'd say. He's got no plan, no clue what to do next, and no wind left in his sails to spare for any motivational speeches. Hell of a leader he is. All he can do is sit here in solidarity with the rest of them. In silence.
"Yeezus," Rocket says. "Are you guys always this fucking depressing?"
Thor chuckles. And then Natasha laughs, and Steve looks at her in surprise, and then she meets his eyes and he's laughing, too.
Tony kept that fucking burner phone on him for years.
He's more than a little ashamed of it, all right. Usually he wouldn't even deign to be in the same room as tech that ancient. But he had it in his pocket the whole time, pressing against his thigh, because...why? He doesn't even know, most of the time.
Because he was waiting for Steve to call? No. He never really expected Steve to be the one to reach out. Because he was just waiting for the right moment? Nah. Tony learned a while ago that the perfect moment never comes. If you want something you have to go after it, no matter if the timing's right, if you're in public, in the middle of a battle, whatever.
It was a lifeline. It was...He always trusted Steve to save the day, if the day needed saving, even after Siberia.
It was never about the Accords. Tony understands that, now. The Accords, they could have worked out. It was about Bucky. And neither of them were thinking clearly. Steve was blinded by love for his best friend, Tony was blinded by rage for the man who murdered his parents. Neither of them slowed down enough to consider the other one's point of view. He knew, after Siberia, that Steve would come if Tony ever really needed him.
He just...he couldn't work up the nerve to call. Not without a massive disaster on the planetary existential scale.
Turns out he got a massive disaster on the universal existential scale, but that just makes this all the more true: he should have called. He should have called. He should have told Steve...everything. Come home. Just come home. I feel like I'm walking around without half my body. You're - you're the other half. Just. Come home. Oh, well. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.
Siberia seems so fucking insignificant now.
Thor puts his mark in the database and gets a match immediately.
It's Jane. Steve's in the kitchen with them when they upload the photo, when the results come back. He watches the way their eyes meet slowly, the way Thor's face breaks out in a tender smile. He hears Thor's quiet murmur, "I knew all along." Jane's playful shut up. Thor's, "From the moment I saw you, I knew. The universe need not confirm what I already hold true."
Steve ducks out when the kissing starts, but he's around when Jane sits on Thor's lap at dinner. It's not her fault - Thor doesn't seem to want to stop touching her for even a second, folding her small body into his arms whenever he can. And Steve doesn't blame him for it. Not one bit.
Thor's lost...everything. Not that they haven't all lost everything - everything except each other - but Thor's lost his planet, his entire people. Steve's not going to begrudge him what little bits of happiness he can find, even if they do come attached with some pretty uncomfortable PDA.
Steve thinks of his soulmate. Whoever they are - for a minute he wishes they were here with him. But he knows that's not fair, not to anyone, to put them in danger, to want their comfort when he'd only be comparing them to Tony the whole time, anyway.
Pretty quickly, Thor convinces Rhodes to put his soulmark in. Rhodes gets a match from someone named Carol Danvers, which for some reason makes him laugh, swear, throw his hands up, and walk out into the desert.
Rocket's trying to get Bruce to Hulk out, so Steve retreats back to the adirondak chairs. Mordo's there this time, but Steve decides to sit with him anyway. Why the hell not, right?
"Did you put your mark in, Captain?" Mordo asks.
Steve startles a little. Mordo hasn't said more than two words to anyone but Jane since they all got here, a week ago. "I, uh - no."
Mordo nods sagely. "For the best, I think," he says. "This - these marks. They are not balance. The universe feels...unsettled to me. It is trying to right itself, but it cannot. I think that it needs to be restored."
Steve chuckles. "No shit, Sherlock. Any ideas?"
Mordo gives him an unamused look. But before the sorcerer can offer him an answer, there's a great crack in the sky, and a shooting star falls to Earth.
They pile into the cars and head into the desert.
Thor won't let Jane drive, for some reason. No one's willing to be left behind, so no one's allowed to fly, but Steve makes the Toyota sedan he's driving go as fast as it can, engine rattling worryingly. Natasha's steely-eyed in the seat next to him - it's the first time they've had an objective, something to focus their energy on, in weeks, aside from sparring and re-painting the outside of the house and cooking dinner.
Steve reaches the edge of the crater first. He throws the car in park and climbs out as Jane's van and Rhodey's SUV roll up on either side of him. Natasha draws her gun, but Steve didn't think to bring his shield. All he's got to protect him from whatever's in that crater is his jeans and the baggy XXL t-shirt Rhodes brought him back from town.
There's a blue glow shining through the dust. Steve motions for Natasha to hang back and cover him, then slides over the edge, down the slope.
The air's too thick with dust for him to see anything. He advances slowly to the bottom of the crater, sneakers crunching on dirt. This stuff is going to take ages to get out of his beard. Maybe he'll finally just shave it off, like Rocket's been nagging him to.
Something moves in the dust cloud. "Steve," Natasha cautions.
There's a mechanical whirring, like gears, and then coughing. The blue glow's sharper now, as the dust starts to settle. It moves, and someone says, "Ow. Fucking - what the hell was that landing, Fry? What happened to thrusters? I said steer me to New Mexico, not crash me in New Mexico."
Steve would know that voice anywhere. His gut lurches, and his heart follows it. "Tony?" he asks, tentative.
There's a long beat, and then, "Steve?"
Steve stops thinking. He rushes forward, slipping down the slope to the very bottom of the crater, and he nearly crashes into Tony. Tony's on the ground in the ugliest patchwork Iron Man suit Steve's ever seen, faceplate in his hand, propped up on one arm. Steve drops down on his knees next to him, half on top of him. "Hey," Tony says, "hey, fancy seeing you here - "
"You're alive," Steve says. "Jesus, Tony, you're - we thought - "
Tony's still gazing at him in wonder. "I'm alive," he says. "Steve. I'm here."
Steve tries to hug him, but the suit's too big. He gives up and holds Tony's head in his hands instead, even though that's nowhere near enough. "I thought you were gone," he says. He might be crying a little bit. He doesn't really care, even though he's an ugly crier. "God, Tony, I - "
"Me too," Tony says. "Whatever you're saying, I - same."
Steve kisses him.
Tony tries to grab onto him, but his arms aren't very maneuverable, and he ends up sort of hitting Steve in the ribs. It doesn't matter. Steve couldn't care less, because he can feel the warmth of Tony's skin under his hands, he can taste the way Tony opens his mouth for a breath, he can feel the gentle exhalation of air that would be a relieved laugh if Tony had the space to laugh, without Steve pressing in.
"Air, Cap," Tony says, pulling away. Steve gives him space to breathe, only to rest their foreheads together. They're close, so close, but Steve keeps his eyes open. He's never looking away again.
"Tony?" comes Rhodes' voice. "Tones?"
Rhodes emerges from the dust, and Tony greets him delightedly, and then they're all there, Natasha with her hand in Tony's hair and Thor sitting cross-legged on the ground next to him and Bruce hovering around the suit, and Tony demands to see proof of the talking raccoon, and...
Steve feels whole again. Even if he knows it won't last, sitting there on the bottom of the crater with Tony, he feels whole.
Come morning, they're yelling at each other.
Tony's got a plan for how they can still defeat Thanos. It's not the worst plan Steve's ever heard, especially considering what they've got to work with - stage a frontal assault with everything they've got, while Mordo opens a portal for Scott Lang, who'll shrink down the gauntlet so that it will only fit on his hand, and then re-set everything.
Sure, there are some snags, and Steve doesn't like that the whole thing hinges on what sounds too much like Cinderella to him, but it's a basically solid plan, and he thinks they can smooth it out. Him and Tony together, they can figure out anything, they can beat anything, even Thanos.
It's just - Tony's got a fucking stab wound.
Bruce gave him a quick once-over after they got him out of the suit last night, but for the millionth time, Bruce is not that kind of doctor. Neither is Jane, for that matter. All Steve wants is for Tony to wait until his mortal wound closes up before they go running around in space.
"People are missing, Steve!" Tony yells, for what has to be the tenth time since breakfast got ugly. "We can't just leave them wherever the hell they are because I've got a fucking papercut!"
"It's not a papercut - "
"I walk around every day with a gaping hole in my chest, you think I can't handle this - "
"You need rest, Tony! We all do - "
"They don't get to rest. They're fucking dead - "
Steve fumes. "If you run off at anything less than a hundred percent you're only going to get more people killed, Tony!"
Tony flinches, like Steve hit him. Steve doesn't know what he said, but all the wind just went out of Tony's sails. He nods once, opens his mouth like he's going to say something, then closes it again.
"It's always me, isn't it," he says, almost to himself. He looks up and meets Steve's eyes, and he looks tired. So, so tired. "It's always on me. That's...
Thanks for the timely reminder, Cap - because that's why I need to fix this."
Steve wants to say that's not what he meant at all. He wants to pull Tony in and hold on until he relaxes and tell him that it's not on him. Nothing's on him, and they're going to fix all of this together, like they should've been doing all along. No matter what it takes, Steve's going to be by Tony's side through the whole thing.
But Clint Barton's pickup truck rumbles up the drive at that moment. Clint climbs out, slams the door, and hesitates, smile frozen.
"Hey, a-holes. What'd I miss?"
The media christens Carol Danvers Captain Marvel.
The team gives Steve some shit - there's a new captain in town, and all that. But watching that news coverage, Steve meets Tony's eyes across the living room, and he knows they're both thinking the same thing.
This girl packs a serious punch. She's stronger than Steve, more resilient. She can fly, she can go supersonic. From the file Coulson sends them ahead of their arrival, they get the general picture: she's some sort of alien hybrid, she can shoot energy blasts, et cetera, et cetera. But watching her on TV, single-handedly obliterating an army of robots in Philadelphia, Steve really gets a sense of what she can do.
And he thinks, for the first time since Tony pitched his hairbrained plan, they might actually have a chance of winning this thing.
Coulson and Carol arrive the next day in a beige 1990 Impala. Rhodes paces out to meet them, while the rest of the team waits on the porch.
Carol climbs out of the passenger seat. She's in tattered jeans and a Guns N Roses t-shirt, sporting a really mean shiner on her right eye. She waltzes right up to Rhodes, punches him on the arm, and says, "So, Jimmy, I hear we're supposed to start banging. Where's the bed?"
Rhodes looks pained, and she bursts into bubbly laughter.
They're old army buddies, Rhodes told Steve. He never really thought of her like that. But while Coulson debriefs the rest of them in Jane's kitchen, Carol and Rhodes slip upstairs, about as steathily as a pair of Hulks.
Tony watches them go, smiling faintly. Steve watches Tony.
Tony doesn't forget about his soulmark. It's not the most important thing on his mind, but he doesn't forget about it.
The way he figures, it's not going to matter. He's probably going to be dead soon anyway, and even if he's not, it's not like he can drag some poor civilian into all this. There's the whole universe existentiality stuff, but there's also whatever bullshit's happening with him and Steve, and well - he'd just compare the poor guy or girl to Steve the whole time, anyway.
Still, he knows he can't brush it off. They're out there, whoever they are, and Tony knows that bad guys are wont to target people who are important to him. So it's safer for him to find them first, and set them up with a remote suit, a security system, the whole nine yards.
He has Friday upload his soul mark anonymously to the database. Steve wanders into the kitchen while he's waiting for the results, and when Tony explains his reasoning, Steve gets that martyr look on his face, and asks Tony to do his, too.
Steve's soulmark is on his back, over his left shoulder. Tony can feel the heat of him, just standing so close to bare skin, even if he doesn't touch him. He wants to, to reach out and run his fingers over Steve's spine, sink his hands in Steve's overlong hair. But they haven't talked about that at all since the night Tony crashed, and Tony figures that whole kissing thing was probably just a side effect of the adrenaline. The I thought you were dead.
Steve's his friend. Steve's his partner. So Tony takes the picture and uploads it. And god, he's surprised - the air rushes out of his lungs, when they get an immediate match. At the sound of the ping, Steve turns to him, XXL shirt in his hands, eyes wide. "Who...?"
Tony laughs. "Me," he says. "It's me."
The desert wind whispers through the open window, and they make love.
Before, down in the kitchen, Tony tried to say, "This doesn't mean we have to - I mean, these marks just showed up a month ago, they don't have to mean anything if you don't - "
"Do you want?" Steve interrupted him.
Tony swallowed. "Yeah. I - yeah, Steve. I want."
Steve set his shirt down on the counter. He had more important things to do with his hands. They stumbled up the stairs at the back of the great house, into Steve's room, and tumbled into the same bed where they fell asleep together the night Tony crashed. Steve layed out over him, held Tony's face in his hands, kissed his forehead, his eyes, his mouth. Tony loved that feeling - Steve's weight over him, big and safe.
But he has a habit of ruining things, so he said, "God you're heavy, Cap. What did they feed you in 1940?"
Steve rolled them, so he was underneath, one leg bent up between Tony's. He kept kissing Tony for a long moment, deep and thorough. Then he drew away, and said, "Guess I'll be on the bottom, then."
And now, this is - god, it's so much better than Tony ever could have imagined, during those cold lonely nights on Titan.
Steve's heels digging into his ass, Steve's chest flushed bright red, Steve's head thrown back into the pillows, every tiny rasp of the bedsheets around them magnified tenfold by the stillness of the night. The clench of Steve around him, the boiling heat of him, that infinitely good drag-gasp-release with every thrust.
The rasp of Steve's beard over Tony's neck, his face, his chest, his lips. Tony winds his fingers in Steve's hair and presses an open-mouthed kiss to his lips, knees sliding for purchase, just to just sink that extra inch, get that extra heartbeat closer.
It's slow. It's - Tony's never been one to savor sex, but he gets the feeling he's not going to have a lot of time with Steve, and he wants - he wants it to last. He wants to make it last as long as possible. It's ages before they come unraveled, wrapped up in each other, Steve's arms wound as far around Tony as they'll go, Tony's hips moving in shallow, staccato thrusts.
Afterwards, they lay side by side, faces turned together, breathing the same air. They're unclothed, sweat cooling on their bodies, the blue glow of the arc reactor casting a glistening sheen over their skin.
But Tony's always been very comfortable in the nude. He wants...he wants to be naked with Steve, even just this once. He sits up. Steve follows.
"There's a kid named Peter Parker," Tony says. "He's - well, you fought him, in Germany. He's Spider-Man, but he's only sixteen."
Tony's eyes feel hot. He rubs them, frustrated that he can't talk about this. He's not even the one who's dead, he doesn't have any fucking right to - to - Steve's hand is on the back of his neck, not squeezing, just there. Here.
Tony takes a deep, shaky breath. "He died in my arms. I...I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even say the right thing, to make it - make him - I couldn't do anything."
"I get it," Steve says. Tony meets his eyes, and he knows Steve gets it. He understands, now, why Steve beat him half to death in Siberia. He'd do the same if Steve ever went after Peter, no mater what Peter did, no matter what Steve means to him. Bucky is Steve's Peter, and Bucky died in Steve's arms - or, halfway there - again.
"Tony," Steve turns Tony's face to him. "Listen."
"What does it look like I'm doing, Cap?"
Steve smiles softly. "I mean it, Shellhead. Listen to me." His expression goes serious, and he draws Tony in for a kiss, long and deep. It almost stirs something in Tony again, and that's really saying something - Tony's not a young man, anymore.
Their lips part. "I'm listening," Tony murmurs, smiling.
"Good," says Steve. "I'm not leaving again, Tony. Not ever."
Coulson "acquires" an old ship from a SHIELD storage facility called Area 51.
Tony and Rocket tear into the thing's guts with glee. They both agree it needs a major overhaul. Most of Rocket's proposals involve nuclear weapons - small nuclear weapons, he corrects Steve at dinner - but still, Tony listens with too much interest for Steve's liking. That leads to another yelling match in the driveway, which ends with both of them agreeing that they won't nuke anything without the other's permission.
When Steve walks away from that one, Coulson's waiting on the porch with a faintly amused expression. "All handled, Captain?"
Steve nods. "I just - he really pushes my buttons, you know?"
"I doubt there's a soul alive whose buttons Tony Stark doesn't push," Coulson says mildly. "Your issue is you push his right back."
Steve chuckles. "You're probably right." He leans against the railing next to Coulson. He's still sweaty and probably rank from a morning sparring session with Clint, but Coulson doesn't say anything. "You're headed out to get Lang today, aren't you?"
Coulson nods. "Should be five days, tops. Then you can start running drills on the whole plan. I know you've been dying to."
Steve hmms in agreement. There's no point in arguing with Coulson's psycho-analyses. They're always spot-on, no matter who he's talking to. He can even get inside Rocket's head, and he's his own species. But Coulson himself is a nearly impossible read. "You're not planning on coming with us, are you?" Steve asks him.
Coulson laughs once and shakes his head. It's maybe the most reaction Steve has ever seen out of the guy. "No. I'm under no delusions about my own abilities, Captain. I'd die, and I wouldn't make a difference."
Steve straightens up and looks him in the eye. "Well, I want you to know that you made a difference here. We may be superheroes, but we're all pretty much useless without a good handler."
Coulson holds his gaze for a long moment, then looks away and puts on his sunglasses. "I know that's not true, Captain," he says. "But it means a lot that you said it."
Steve watches him get in his beige Impala and drive off.
Scott Lang brings a friend. Hope Van Dyne.
Steve figures two shrinking people are better than one. Always good to have a backup plan, anyways. Plus, Hope seems like she knows what she's doing a little more than her soulmate. She's frighteningly competent.
Needless to say, Hope and Natasha kick it off almost immediately. Clint and Scott comiserate endlessly on that one, and Steve has to stop their whining by running them through drills. They're pointless drills, because they really have no idea what they're walking into, but he has Mordo open and close portals and chuck targets around for Clint to shoot at.
It's better than nothing.
Three days before they're set to do this thing, Thor jumps off into the Bifrost and comes back with an "old friend," a woman called Valkyrie who can drink Tony under the table and finally gets the Hulk out. Valkyrie and Jane do not get along, but Valkyrie and Carol really do. They head out to toss each other around in the desert for hours every morning, and come back bloody and smiling, trading battle stories.
When Jane's issue with Thor's warrior friend comes to a head, the whole thing somehow ends with Valkyrie's soulmark in the algorithm - Steve's not sure of the specifics - and then everything turns up Bruce.
That makes the Hulk think make a lot more sense, Steve thinks. Valkyrie insists she likes the Hulk better than Bruce, but that just makes Bruce laugh. They don't talk much, but they understand each other. As far as Steve can tell, they never go to bed, but that's not really any of his business.
These are their last days. Steve might be in charge during the day, but at night, his team makes their own choices.
The night before they go to war is peaceful.
The ship's been tested a few times, made a few interplanetary jumps, and it's ready. Tony slipped in a few weapons Steve doesn't know about, just in case. Only he and Rocket know the activation codes, because they're more of the planet-breaking variety, and he figures Steve won't use them, anyway. The ship's a real mess, but a beauty. Thor's christened her Revenger.
Jane's taking the whole soulmate going off to fight thing pretty much in stride, but she's had practice. The only snag is when she finds out Thor's never had a s'more, and marches them all out to the fire pit after dinner.
They realize once they're out there that they don't have any marshmallows. Carol and Rhodey both volunteer to run into town for them - I can fly is the argument on both sides - and in the end they settle on a race.
There aren't enough adirondak chairs for all fifteen of them. Tony ends up sharing with Steve, and usually he'd make a whole scene and end up laying on the ground, but right now he doesn't care. Steve's arms are strong around him, he can feel every rise and fall of Steve's breath at his back, white smoke curls into the crisp night air, and his team is here. The Avengers, plus a few. Tony trusts them. He trusts that they can fix this, together.
When the s'mores are done, Thor carries Jane back inside, melted chocolate in his beard. Bruce leans his head on Valkyrie's shoulder, and she doesn't even make fun of him for it. Clint, Coulson, and Natasha walk up to the house together, the oldest friends out of all of them.
Steve and Tony drift up together. It's always the two of them, first at the beginning of the Avengers, and here - at the end. They ease into bed and make love slowly, gently, like they have all the time in the world.
The morning is less peaceful.
Tony asks Steve to look after Peter and his aunt, if he doesn't make it. Steve says he's not coming back without Tony - it's out of the question. Everything spirals way out of proportion from there, like it always does. Tony says, "Why? Why, Cap, because the chances of me making it back from this plan are zero, and you gotta tell me if you're suicidal - "
"Because you're my soulmate," Steve says.
Tony's heart goes cold. Suddenly every moment over the past weeks - every moment when he thought he and Steve made perfect sense - they all make him feel like a fool. "Of course," he says. "You're buying into all this universe balance crap, of course you are. We're marked for each other. That's the only reason you give a shit - "
"No, God, Tony - I wish we didn't even have these goddamn marks - "
Steve cuts himself off, there. Tony's just nodding, because he knew this was coming all along. Or he should've. Then maybe he would've left things as they were last night, not made the reach. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. "Right," he snaps. "Sorry you got saddled with me."
"Don't be an idiot, Tony," Steve says. He sounds like he's been awake every one of his hundred years, in that moment. "That's not what I mean."
"Then what the fuck do you - "
"I love you," Steve interrupts forcefully. "I wish I could've told you that without these goddamn marks mucking everything up. And I refuse to come back without you, Tony, because you're the love of my life, and I won't live without you. I won't. I said I'm not leaving again, and I meant it."
Tony's heart is in his throat. "I - me too," he says. "Steve - "
Steve kisses him. Tony's hands go to his face, shaky until he slide them around the back of Steve's neck. Steve kisses like it's the most important thing he's ever done, and Tony tries to do the same, tries to put everything he's ever felt into this bare, useless press of mouths.
It's not enough. He pulls back. "I love you," he says, "just in case you didn't get that out of the whole, you know, yelling - "
"Shut up," Steve says. “Ask Coulson to watch after Peter."
Then he draws Tony back in. And Tony gives as good as he gets one more time, for all the times he never picked up the phone, all the times he never kissed the love of his life, all the opportunities they missed before.
Day one, Scott Lang - fucking Scott Lang - snaps his fingers, and trillions live.
Of course, at this point, Tony and Steve are already dead. Steve died first, with a sword through the gut, jumping in front of Tony. Tony saw the light go out of his eyes, felt the electric searing tug of his soulmark as Steve went limp and dropped to the lush, verdant grass. He barely had time to open his mouth to yell before Thanos punched through him, shattering the armor and Tony's bones all in one punishing blow.
But that didn't matter. Because on Earth, on Titan, all over the galaxy, trillions of beings wink back into existence, drawing breath like they never left, re-made exactly as they were. T'Challa and Wanda and Bucky and Sam wake up on the forest floor in Wakanda, Peter Parker and Peter Quill and Drax and Mantis and Dr. Strange blink up at the orange sky of Titan, Pepper gives half the board heart attacks in the middle of a meeting.
Day one, Scott Lang snaps his fingers and Thanos dies.
Day one, Scott Lang snaps his fingers and his house arrest anklet disappears, but no one's really faulting him for that one.
Day two, the universe starts to adjust. Stars wink back into existence, some in the wrong spot, but mostly correct. Astronomers exclaim half in fury and half in joy and throw out the fresh new starmaps they've spent the last eight weeks charting. Animal populations show up on the wrong continents, along with a few species that weren't there before, and all over the world, scientists launch a massive international relocation project.
Day three. Some marks disappear, some marks stay the same. Some people stay together, some don't. Some of the recently returned are greeted by a hot searing on their skin. Some aren't. The whole system's gone haywire, but the news doesn't bother reporting on it. There are more interesting things, like the resurgence of Earth's population to a healthy 7 billion.
Soulmarks seem pretty insignificant, when you're fresh back from the dead.
Day four, Valkyrie drops Steve on his head and says, "Fuck, you're heavy."
Steve lands hard on the ground, but seeing as he's surprised to be landing on anything at all, he recovers pretty quick. He's woozy as he sits up, but given that the last thing he remembers is being stabbed through the spine, he thinks "woozy" is pretty good. He looks around - he's in a field, under a sunny sky, and Valkyrie is sitting on a rock, sharpening her sword.
"Uh, hi," Steve says. "Where the hell - "
Someone groans from the meadow grass beside him. Steve startles and looks over just as Tony manages to make it into a sitting position. Suddenly, every though of Valkyrie and this weird place disappears, and his hands are on Tony. Tony. "Tony," he says. "Hey, Shellhead. I'm here."
"Steve?" Tony blinks at him, eyelashes long and sun-kissed. He's solid under Steve's hands, and real, as real as the first night they made love. He looks - God, he looks ten years younger. How is that even? How...
"Where are we?" Tony asks. "Because I'm pretty sure we - "
"Died?" Valkyrie interrupts. "Yep. You did."
Steve and Tony both look to her expectantly. She sighs and hauls herself off the rock like she's very annoyed that the haven't figured this out for themselves. "Welcome to Valhalla," she says, with a lackluster little spin. "Last resting place of Asgard's greatest warriors, yadda yadda yadda. Here's the deal: you hang out here in perfect comfort until Thor needs you to fight, and then you fight. Got it? Good."
Tony and Steve just stare at her. She sighs again, gives them a thumbs up, and leaps up into a sudden beam of Bifrost.
For a long moment, all there is is the whispering of wind through the grass. Steve can hear voices, very far off, probably coming towards them, but his brain is still broken from - dying, apparently.
Steve stares at him. Tony laughs some more. "Warrior heaven," he tells Steve, like that explains it all. "We spend our whole fucking lives fighting, and now we're - we're - waiting around to fight some more."
It's not funny. God, it's not funny at all. But Tony laughs, and laughs, and laughs, and Steve can't help it. He smiles. Tony's here, and the sun's out, and they beat Thanos. So he laughs, too.