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Break It To Me Gently

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Natasha knew someone was coming tonight. She had a dream for the first time since she’s been here, in this place she now calls her own. Something came to her and entered through the black door in the front of her house—a bright light that cut through the opening unlike anything she’s ever seen before. She woke up before she could see what it was.

Anyway, she’s going to dress up for the occasion. She’s been alone for too long, in this big and quiet mansion, which provides everything she could ever imagine: endless amounts of food, closets that never empty, any type of music she can think of, a huge dance studio where she’s been practicing (it’s been a while, so she needs the practice) and a balcony where she can see the purple and orange skies above every night.

She sits with a glass of red wine in her hand, listening to Tchaikovsky on the record player in her golden throne next to the fireplace. She wears a long, black lace dress that stretches down to the floor and makes her feel like the mother of death.

It’s all a bit much, really, but who’s going to judge her for it? She sacrificed herself for execution and now she’s serving her time, wherever she is.

When the time comes, and the door opens, she can hardly believe who walks through.

“Miss me, Agent Romanoff?”

She sees an all-too familiar smirk on the face of Tony Stark, who looks much more tired than he’s ever looked, but who also wears a veil of relief over his face, like he’s glad to have found a place to rest in, at last.

He saunters over and lies down on the embroidered blue sofa in front of her, decorated with gold embellishing on a sturdy, beautifully carved wooden frame. He closes his eyes, and Natasha notices the lines on his face where the strings of his sanity have been frayed thin, nearly breaking. He wears a black suit, but keeps holding on to his right arm like it’s too heavy, like it’s weighing him down.

“Would you like a drink?” Natasha politely offers. 

“Hmm? Oh, no. That’s—that’s over now. I don’t need any of that anymore.”

“Where’d you come from?” Natasha asks, leaning forward curiously, looking over Tony’s head from over the sofa.

“Oh, you know. Big battle—it was a lot. I snapped…” he trails off, trying to mimic a snapping motion with his right hand, but winces at the pain and lays his arm back down.

“What happened to your arm?”

“I had the Infinity Stones, Nat. I held them all in a gauntlet to finally wipe away that smug son of a bitch off the face of the universe.” 

“Thanos,” she says, as if remembering a name she hasn’t heard in a lifetime.

She feels a churning in her stomach as she feels the memories coming back. She suddenly remembers Thanos, Earth, the snap, the time-travel and the horrors of Vormir. She drops her glass of wine and hears the sound of it smashing into the floor. Bent over, she drops her head in her hands and starts struggling to breathe.

How could she feel like she can’t breathe? She’s dead, she doesn’t need air—the thought keeps coming back and repeating itself: she’s dead, she’s actually dead, but why is she here and why has Tony walked in, where is everyone else? Why are they the only ones in the afterlife?

He feels Tony’s presence leaning into her, his gentle hands stroking the curves of her shaking shoulders.

“Hey, hey—it’s okay, oh god. Nat, you’re fine. You’re gonna be fine, okay? Nothing can hurt us here, not anymore.”

“What happened to you Tony? When did you—?” 

“Right after the snap, after I did it. It was, like the energy of the universe was coursing through me. Took me right out. It was actually a lot more peaceful than it sounded. Peter—” now he takes a breath, glazed eyes shifting away from hers, “Peter was there, and Pepper.”

He drops his head down and lowers his voice. “I knew, the moment I did it, that everyone was going to be okay. And I was happy with that.”

Natasha sits and watches the emotions ebbing and flowing through his face, tries to imagine the pain of it all. In Vormir, everything seemed to happen so quickly for her. She knew what she had to do the moment the ghost had told them how to get the Soul Stone. It felt like fate fulfilled in that moment, when she was falling. She closed her eyes, ready to meet the ground—

It was the softest impact of her life, as she woke up in a gigantic bed in a room fit for a queen.

“What are you doing here?” she finally asks Tony.

He fiddles with his hands, folding them back in to clasp in front of his chest. “I don’t know. I was on the ground, total blackness. Next thing I knew I was back on my feet walking down a glowing road that led to this door. Really dragged my ass to get here, you know, I really needed a lie-down.”

Natasha smiles. “There’s a guest room upstairs, right across mine.”

“Is there a kitchen?” 

She nods.

“Does this place stock up on cheeseburgers?”

 

-

 

Ever since Tony arrived, the front door actually opens. They’re in a mountainous region somewhere, with long stretches of wild forest and a river running through. When Natasha and Tony first step outside, they start running as far as they can go. They find that the rivers are the borders of this land. They can’t push themselves out of the water once they’ve reached the other side. 

Tony builds a boat to try to get through, but it always collapses before they get to the end. Natasha tries to jump from boat-to-boat to the very end, but gravity always seems to pull her down, no matter how precise her movements are or how strong she manages to jump.

In the end, they realize that this is a place of rest. They can never get to the other side, but they can spend long stretches of time swimming languidly in the cool waters, with the warm sun warming their necks. They lie in the fields together, backs facing the sky as they soak up every drop of fake-vitamins in the air.

“So this is what retirement feels like,” Natasha says, eyes closed as she has her head rested on her arms in front of her.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?”

“It does.” 

“You had the right idea, back on Earth,” Natasha says, but stops herself before she accidentally goes too far. Perhaps that was already crossing a line.

Tony doesn’t respond for a while, but finally settles on the words. “I don’t regret what we did.”

Natasha chooses her next words very carefully as her eyes flutter open. “We?”

“When you barged in on my farm that day, with Steve and—god, I can’t even remember now.”

“Scott?”

“Right, Scott.” Tony plays with a tiny dandelion in the grass, plucking it from the ground and twists it in between his fingers. “Anyway, before I went, Pepper told me they were all going to be okay. I couldn’t have done it if I’d thought for a second…” 

“Tony.”

He drops the flower and pushes himself up to sit on his knees. Natasha follows and wraps an arm around his back, resting her head on his shoulder.

“You did good, Tony. You were the best father you could’ve been. She’ll grow up knowing who you are, Pepper will make sure of that. If you think that’s not important, I can tell you that that’s going to mean the world to her.”

She feels Tony relaxing into her, resting his head over hers. They hear the sound of the trees shaking around them as birds start to flutter among the woods. Just when they’ve gotten comfortable with the silence, they notice the sound of wood snapping and in front of them; a deer emerges, curiously looking at the two of them.

“Should we go back inside? You can tell me more about all those years I missed after Germany.”

 

-

 

To most people, death isn’t usually an occasion to celebrate, but Natasha and Tony aren’t most people. She remembers when they first met and Tony had thought that birthday, that year, was going to be his last.

If it were my last day on Earth, I would do whatever I wanted to do, with whoever I wanted to do it with.

Natasha never thought that she’d miss celebrating her last day on Earth, but she certainly never thought she’d be given the chance to live up to that old promise with Tony Stark again.

They finish a round of dancing all night long, doing everything they can (and everything they can’t) from a waltz, to a tango, rocking out to heavy metal, doing their rounds of karaoke, Natasha doing a full ballet routine while Tony stands on the living room table and tries to follow suit, until they settle into a slow dance to some Duke Ellington on the record player.

As she rests her head on Tony’s chest, swaying gently to the sound of the saxophone and light piano, she realizes she’s never felt this free in her life. Always bound by duty, responsibility and thinking about her team, her job, her world—it finally hits her that this is it. She’s stuck in eternity, not free from the confines of this land, but free from the universe outside it. She thinks about Tony’s legacy with his family and then thinks about her own; in the family she made with the Avengers, her friends. How will they remember her?

And then, as if he’s been listening, Tony says softly, “You’re a hero, Nat. Biggest of us all.”

She makes a humming sound, stepping to the side to the beat of the music as she clasps his hand a little bit tighter.

“None of this would’ve been possible without you.”

“You’re underselling yourself just a little bit, Stark.”

“No, you are.” He looks her as she finally looks up to meet his eyes. “I’m serious, your sacrifice really made all the difference. A million things could've gone wrong between Vormir and the moment I held the Stones in my hand, but you had faith in us. You know what that's called? Heroic. You deserve to have your name plastered on the monuments just as much as I do.”

“They’re building monuments now?”

“I put it in my will. Pepper will take care of it. It’s done.”

Natasha smiles, earnest with the faintest hint of a blush on her cheeks, masked by the warmth of the fireplace. “You’re too much.”

“My point is, I know the others aren’t around to say thank you for what you did. But I am. Somehow, by some strange whim, I ended up here and I am bringing the gratitude of the universe to give back to you.” 

“Thank you, Tony,” she says, trying to blink away her tears.

“I can see you crying, it’s okay. You’ve seen me cry, multiple times. Let it out, trust me, you’ll feel better.” 

“Isn’t the afterlife supposed to be blissfully devoid of heavy emotions?” Natasha hears her voice cracking.

Tony shrugs, “Well, I joined you here. I tend to carry around all my heavy baggage with me. I’ve been told it’s infectious.”

“Like a disease?”

“Exactly like a—” Tony’s mouth falls open and morphs into an amused smirk as the music switches to a loud and proud disco tune. “Okay, that’s it, I’m in charge of the jukebox again. Disco is not allowed, not in my afterlife!”

Natasha starts to laugh, and they spend the rest of the night just sitting around on the sofa, telling stories about the music they listened to growing up, which naturally gets them into quite a bit of discourse.

They fall asleep right in front of the fireplace that night and many nights after that, despite having their own rooms. Natasha figures that it’s lonely enough being dead, why isolate herself, even more, when there’s someone else out there to spend days in eternity with? Tony seems to have the same idea, anyways. They play games, tell stories, eat and drink to their hearts’ content every night just to remind themselves that this can be good, their hearts can still shine even if their world far away has turned off the lights for them.

 

-

 

One night, neither of them can sleep. 

“Why do you think we’re here?” Natasha asks, clearing up the chessboard after her win evened out the score between them. It’s 50-50 between them at the moment; they’ve actually played exactly 100 games of chess. Even if the afterlife, Tony Stark needs mental stimulation and Natasha just wants a little bit of friendly competition, really. 

“Not sure, I’ve thought about every possibility.” 

“Which we’ve been over.”

“We have, but none of them seem to make any sense.”

“I like the one about purgatory. Maybe the gods really haven’t decided where to put us yet.”

“Yeah, I can imagine how that’s a tough one for them considering how we literally sacrificed ourselves to save the universe. Come on, if anything we should've been greeted with the choir of angels.”

“Think about it, though. That’s really the only thing we have in common, about our current situation.”

“Maybe this is a special type of place for people who did exactly what we did.”

She leans on the sofa and stretches her legs out on the floor in front of her, sweatpants feeling as soft as ever. Tony climbs onto the sofa and nearly knocks the cup of tea out of her hands as she throws a pillow at him.

“I take that back, this isn’t purgatory, this is just straight up hell." 

Natasha rolls her eyes and tries not to smile as Tony starts giggling at his own joke into the pillow. She shakes her head and decides to let the topic rest for the night. It’s kept them awake for too many nights and she’s afraid if she thinks about it too much, the more this place is going to scare her.

She can’t be afraid of this place, not if she’s going to live here forever.

She hasn’t mentioned it to him yet, but she’s been having dreams again. Not of someone entering the door again, but of a new light coming from above. Is this a sign that someone else is arriving? Or of one of them leaving to go towards that light? If Tony leaves, Natasha doesn’t know how to make sense of this place anymore. It’ll eat her up alive, thinking about why they’ve put her in here and why is it that being dead feels like starting a new life.

 

-

 

It’s an accident, a fluke, that happens one day when Tony’s tinkering around with the heating in the basement, because it’s winter, and apparently there are four seasons in the afterlife too. He accidentally opens a hatch that leads to a tunnel downstairs and for the first time in a long time, Natasha picks up her gun again.

They follow the tunnel, which stretches out for miles as they walk on for what feels like days. Natasha hears the sound of the river running above them and even waves from an ocean on a beach somewhere. They must’ve walked past the borders of the land now. It seems like a lifetime when they finally reach an opening above them, but time doesn’t even matter anymore and they can spend forever doing whatever they like, however long it takes.

As they emerge from the tunnels through a hatch in the ground, it becomes clear that they’re no longer on a place that resembles Earth.

“You’ve been to space, right?” Natasha asks. 

“Once or twice. You too, as I recall,” Tony says, looking around at the huge swaths of land in front of them, a borderless city with beautiful alien flora growing among old ruins.

“Once. Recognize this place?”

“Nope, and you?”

“Nope,” Natasha replies. “I took a nosedive at the only alien planet I’ve been to and it didn’t look exactly like this.”

Someone suddenly appears from in front of them: a tall, strong green woman with red hair and a sword who stands like a shining monument among the rubble.

“It was Vormir, the place where you took your life. Or should I say, traded it for an Infinity Stone. We are at Zen-Whoberi, my home planet.” She looks at Natasha, then at Tony, curiously eyeing them as if they were trespassers. Or perhaps long-foreseen visitors.

“Sorry, but are we supposed to know who you are?” Tony asks.

“I am Gamora, daughter of Thanos. I was sacrificed by him for the Soul Stone.”

“So that’s who Gamora is,” Tony says, pointing at her and plastering on a tight-lipped smile. He turns back towards her, “You caused quite a scuffle while your friends nearly tried to kill us back on Titan.”

Her eyes suddenly soften, like she’s seen (or heard about) a ghost. Everyone lowers their weapons as the atmosphere in the air shifts from tension to a raw feeling of defenselessness, among all three of them. “Peter. Did you meet Peter?”

“Yeah," Tony replies softly. "Hard to forget. Quill, wasn’t it? Guy from Missouri?”

And then, like a dam breaking open, Natasha sees the moment her heart breaks. She remains stoic and doesn’t let the tears fall from her face, but Natasha knows that it’s all over. Everything’s broken inside.

“Come on,” she says, stepping forward to take her hands in hers, tender and willing. “Let’s go and find a quiet place to rest.”

 

-

 

It turns out that death is a little less lonely with one more person around. Especially a person who praises Natasha and Tony for the sacrifices they made to the universe when that choice had been taken away from them. Gamora, in many ways, is certainly a daughter of Thanos—strong-willed, fearless, incredibly powerful and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve what they believe in. 

But the core of her soul is vastly different from his. She, like Natasha and Tony, believe in preserving life. They’ve all seen the worst parts of people—if anything, all three of them, at some point in their lives, were the worst parts of what people could be. But their lives were changed when they met the family they found in their teams. Natasha found purpose and real friends in her life; Gamora found love and understanding of what family could be; Tony found peace within himself, at last.

They keep dancing, as much as they can, with songs that Gamora chooses more times than not because it reminds her of Peter and the Guardians. Tony discovers that Peter Quill has excellent taste in music. Natasha can understand wanting to keep Quill's memory alive because when she can, plays a tribute song or two for Steve, Bucky, Sharon and Sam. She remembers all the parties they had together, fighting over which songs to play and taking turns to try to teach Steve how to dance. She hopes he’s out there dancing still, if not for them, for someone else. 

“Your sister misses you,” Tony tells Gamora when they’re slow dancing together one night. 

“So does your family,” she replies and holds him a little tighter when she spins him back into her arms.

Gamora finds her way into Natasha’s heart pretty quickly. They find out they have more things in common they could have ever imagined for two people who lived in different corners of the galaxy. Death has a way of bringing people together, like connecting faraway stars in the distance with a single string of fate.

“Your life seemed incredibly difficult, from the stories you've told me. But I think the bravest thing you’ve ever done was letting those people into your life,” Natasha says, before correcting herself, “well, when I say people I mean talking raccoons and trees, but you get it.”

“You are the most selfless person I have ever met, Natasha Romanoff of Earth.” 

Tony smiles, watching the two of them pay compliments to each other all night long, which really, becomes a daily event in this place. They wake up piled on top of each other, hands tightly wrapped around someone else’s waist, heads buried in chests, soaking up the heat of each other’s bodies as if their hearts are still beating and warm blood is still running through their frozen veins.

“Guess you’ll never miss me again, Agent Romanoff,” Tony says as they’re going to bed one night. 

“Guess I never will,” she replies, and kisses him on the forehead.

They’ve each given their lives for a Stone, or more, because of their love for the people who made them who they were at the end of their lives. They did it for their loved ones as well as the people who still had the chance to change as they did. They’ve lived, they’ve died and now they’ll rest easy knowing that the people they became saved lives underneath billions of stars in the universe.