Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 5 Scene 2
It looks like a graduation program.
No, really, it does; the paper is heavy, expensive, the ink barely dry. Some of the wet pigment catches on his finger, and it comes away as black as night.
When he can’t find his name, he wonders if - hopes - there has been some mistake.
The booklet, as if it can read his mind, flips to the beginning. On the second page, there it is, his name is printed neatly - above it, a black and white picture of him smiling.
Anthony Edward Stark, it reads. His are the actions that killed thousands and saved the universe.
Before he can process what this means - ishedeadishedeadohmygodheisdead - the booklet turns itself to the first page, displaying a familiar face. Tony drops the program, swallowing back the bile in his throat. In the heat of battle, he had forgotten - how had he forgotten - oh god.
Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Hers is the sacrifice most noble and infinite.
The voice sounds altogether hopeful and broken. He looks up so quickly that his head spins a little; the light of the blinding sun he is just now noticing makes her shine like an angel, and maybe she is, now that he’s dead and she threw herself off a cliff on some alien planet to save the universe.
“Nat,” he breathes.
“Tony,” she repeats, like a broken record. Her expression is pained as she takes him in, her gaze moving from his face to his bloody arm and then back. She knows, she has to know, but she can’t stop herself from asking. “What did you do? Why are you here? Morgan and Pepper-”
He begins to shake at her words, and she kneels down. After a moment of hesitation, she lays a gentle hand on his knee, murmuring soft words to him that he can’t bring himself to understand. He looks up at her, knowing this is unusual for their relationship, but they’re dead. He’s done with stupid pride and pointless boundaries and pretending like she’s not been one of his only friends for years. After another short moment, something poignant and unsaid passes between them; he takes her hand and pulls her closer, and she lets herself melt into his arms.
Two hours later, he asks her where the hell they are.
“We’re not…” she pauses, motioning around her, “dead. Not yet, I think.”
He shoots her a questioning look, and she launches into an explanation about a Norse land of fallen warriors, from which his weird graduation program thing came. He asks why they aren’t there, and she shrugs. All she was told was that they weren’t ready. They are now outside the Hall of the Norns, waiting for judgments or tests or something entirely different, but according to Natasha, the Norns requested that she retrieve and not leave him.
“There are a lot of them, but only three that matter,” Natasha tells him. They are still crouched on the marble staircase outside what must be the Halls. The structure is enormous; Tony can’t see the sides or end of the building, only endless white marble walls and pillars. Tall, vibrant grass stretches out as far as the eye can see behind them. Instead of green, it is a deep red, with thousands of white flowers and silver trees sprouting out from the dirt. The sun shines brilliant and bright, so much so that Tony can barely look at it. He has pulled out of Natasha’s embrace; they aren’t touching, except for the hand that Tony keeps wrapped around Natasha’s elbow. Whether he keeps it there to ensure that she’s still tangible or won’t leave, he doesn’t know.
Once he has taken his fill of the sight, Natasha pulls him to his feet, leading him up the stairs. “I’ve only met one of the three,” she tells him. “An old woman. She called herself Urd of What Once Was. She thanked me for my sacrifice, then told me that I wasn’t done yet. There are…” she pauses, looking around with a familiar strategic gleam in her expression, “always eyes on me. I can feel them. They’re waiting for something. Well, you, but now-”
They enter the building, coming to a stop in front of a large tree that dominates the entrance hall, which has no ceiling. There is a well at its base, surrounded by three weathered stone stools, each next to a basket overflowing with thread. At a closer glance, Tony can see that the tree is not made of wood, but of billions upon billions of thin, golden threads.
Somewhere a few seconds after this revelation, he stops being able to process what this place is, what it means. Wherever the fuck he is, he’s dead. He can never see Morgan or Peter or Pepper or Rhodey or Steve ever again. He thought dead might be like peace, but it’s not. Apparently, it’s him and Nat in an enormous Hall of goddesses as they try to solve another mystery. He wants to rest .
Tony lets out a shuddering breath, and Natasha turns to him with her lips pressed tightly together and her arm outstretched, as if a steady hand could solve anything. “I snapped, Nat,” he admits. “With the stones. That’s how I died. And Pep-” he holds back sobs, ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm, “she told me that I could finally rest. I want to rest.”
In a movement that Tony has never seen from her, Natasha turns with furious eyes to the stools, like she’s seeing something he can’t. “This isn’t fair,” she says, her voice tight and quiet in a way that scares even him after knowing her for over a decade. “I can’t just lead him around as if he didn’t just save all of our asses.”
Tony pulls at Natasha’s elbow, getting her to turn back to him. “Steve doesn’t like that kind of talk,” he teases, but it is an exhausted, pained kind of teasing. It still works, though, and Natasha smiles sadly back at him.
“C’mon, Stark,” she says, tugging her elbow out of his grasp and taking his hand instead. He can’t shake the feeling that he’s heard those words before, a million years ago, and this half-familiar Natasha fills him with a weak sort of comfort, a bandaid for a fatal wound.
Still, it is comfort, and he lets her lead him away from the tree.
Ten hours later, Tony realizes he has no need to sleep.
“Are we just supposed to… talk?” He asks, disbelieving. They are out on the balcony of the room Natasha led him to when they had left the tree room behind them.
Natasha shoots him a smirk, the first true smile he has seen since she found him on the steps. “Isn’t that what you’re best at?” She teases.
He gives her a look, ready to retort when a knock sounds on the door. Tony eyes it warily, but Natasha calls out for whoever it is to enter without a second thought.
He doesn’t miss the furious glint in her eyes, though. Whoever it is, they are not allies.
Tony’s eyes widen as he takes in their two visitors. The first woman glides in with sure steps and a faint smile on her lips. She looks around thirty, dressed in a flowing white gown. Her hair is as black as night, woven braids creating a natural crown around her head. Her feet are bare on the marble floor. The second woman is young, maybe an older teenager, blonde hair pulled into two messy braids that frame her face. She looks up at the older woman with an expression of both awe and annoyance, a look only a teenager could pull off. She is dressed similarly, her fingers tangled in a mess of string that she seems to be trying to unknot without even looking down. They seem human enough, but if Tony squints, he can see that both women are outlined in a faint golden glow, and he suspects he knows exactly who these two are. Natasha greets the older woman with a slight incline of her head. Not quite a bow, but respectful, and Tony knows her well enough to understand that she’s definitely not fond of their visitors.
“Anthony Stark,” the older woman says, her voice quiet. Somehow it still reverberates loudly in Tony’s skull. “I am Skuld, of What Shall Be. My sisters and I are the Weavers and Protectors of the Well of Fate. I trust you had a peaceful journey.”
Tony scoffs. “You trust wrong,” he replies, and Natasha tenses. Play nice with our hosts, she had warned several hours ago, but all he wants is to be at peace. All he wants is Natasha to be at peace. And this What Shall Be nonsense is keeping them both from it. “Why are you keeping us here?”
The younger girl moves out from behind Skuld. “I am Verdandi, of What Is Coming Into Being. As your friend has told you, you are in the Halls of the Well of Fate. We are keeping you here because-”
“- my sister,” Skuld interrupts with a sharp glance, “has no perception of the future.” Verdandi rolls her eyes, and Tony thinks this might be an old argument. “You have no need to know why, only know this. You will be here until you are ready.”
Natasha speaks now, and Tony recognizes her expression as calculating. “When I arrived,” she begins, “your sister told me that I had to wait for someone. Someone that I needed to move on.”
Skuld nods. “And your someone has arrived,” she replies to the unanswered question, nodding at Tony.
Natasha nods. “I thought so, but she also told me to move on, there would be… rules.”
Verdandi raises her hand, bouncing on her toes. “I’ll take this one! Just two rules, if you please. Don’t try to leave, and don’t lie.”
Tony chokes a little, but Natasha raises an eyebrow. “Don’t lie?” She clarifies, slow and deliberate and with just a hint of threat in her tone. Tony thinks this is her way of expressing surprise, and not for the first time he’s reminded just how much of a badass she is.
Verdandi tilts her head, as if lying is a foreign concept to her. “Well, that’s not quite right. You can’t lie here. Sorry.”
After asking what she means by this, the Norn gestures for him to go ahead and try. Tony looks at Natasha, who just shrugs in response, as if to say you’re already dead; it can’t kill you.
“I hate cheeseburgers.”
Three seconds later, he yelps as a shock runs through his body. Natasha strides over to take his arm, allowing him to lean on her. Tony shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts, which are not a little fuzzy. He grips Natasha’s shoulder, attempting to stay upright. She is speaking, and he tries to listen. “This is wrong,” she is saying darkly, glaring at the Norns. “He’s been through enough for this universe, which you’re supposed to protect, and you want to hurt him more?”
Verdandi shakes her head frantically. “No no, we’re trying to help you!”
“That’s enough, Sister,” Skuld interrupts again, watching with something like satisfaction in her eyes as Tony shudders lightly, clinging tighter to Natasha’s arm.
A moment passes as Natasha glares daggers at their visitors/captors/whatever. Tony just stares at them, wondering when the universe decided God or just Absolutely Nothing was a bad idea and put these two in charge instead. “Okay, I’m pretty sure you haven’t thought this through. I lie all the time. She-” he sticks a thumb in Nat’s direction “- made a living out of lying. What can you possibly get out of this?”
Skuld smiles serenely. “All will be revealed with time,” she intones, gesturing for the younger Norn to follow her out of the room, ignoring Tony’s continuing questions. “This is a time for you to rest and heal,” she reminds them as she comes upon the door.
“I’m uninjured and wide awake, lady,” Tony retorts, ignoring the last aftershock as it passes through his body.
Skuld turns back, and it is as if she is looking not at him, but into him. “You are soul-sick, Anthony Stark. And Natalia is in great mental pain.” Tony whips around to look at Natasha, who looks away. “Honesty is how you will heal not in body, but in spirit. I’m afraid that is all I can tell you.”
Tony has no words left, watching as the two goddesses exit. Natasha comes up next to him. “When I got here,” she begins, “The other one told me this place is sentient.” Confusion wells up in Tony’s eyes when he looks over at her, and she shrugs. “It becomes what we need,” she explains, “and right now, I’d like a gun and a target that has dark hair and an annoying expression on its face.”
Tony tries to smile, but it comes out as a grimace. “Lead on, MacDuff,” he gestures, and he follows her to the next room.
Yeah, shooting helpless targets sounds like a great way to manage all the confusing emotions that are clouding his mind right now. He’ll figure out how to help them find peace when he doesn’t want to die. Again.
Eleven days later, Tony makes the first attempt at a true conversation.
“You couldn’t move on,” he observes. The sun is setting through the space they like to call their living room, casting a faint red and orange glow over the white walls and furniture. Tony isn’t sure if the sunset is real, or if it is an illusion to keep them comfortable. Considering the prickly nature of the Norns he has met so far, he’s guessing it’s probably real.
Natasha shrugs. “I wanted to,” she tries, and just like it had done for him, a spark of electricity snaps at her feet. She jumps out of the way gracefully, but not in time to avoid letting out a small gasp of pain.
Tony narrows his eyes; Natasha has the right to lie, even if it hurts them both. “This is bullshit!” He yells, staring at the ceiling, not sure why he’s decided that it’s where these sadistic Norns are. “Skull, Veranda, whatever the fuck your stupid names are - she shouldn’t get punished for this.” Whether ‘this’ is an automatic response or a calculated deception, he doesn’t care. He refuses to be bullied into being genuine after all the shit they’ve both been through. How will he know whether she truly wants it?
Natasha sighs, putting a staying hand on his hand. “Tony,” she warns. “I’m not sure getting angry with them is the best idea.”
Tony whirls on her, something in his eyes that makes her take a step back. The rooms feels like it is shrinking down on them both, and she can’t look away. “You jumped off a cliff, Nat!” he yells, words spilling out of him as if he cannot keep them back. “We didn’t get the chance to say goodbye- we couldn’t even bury your body. Clint just… fell to his knees, and I knew .”
“You feel guilty,” she realizes. “Why?”
“Because you were my teammate, and I wasn’t there for you.” The floor shocks him. “Fuck!” Natasha just watches him, eyes wide. The air trembles with something, and it is if the Halls themselves are listening to his outburst.
“Tony,” she prods. “I’m sorry, but honesty is what’s going to get us out of this place.”
Tony sits on the white couch and buries his head in his hands. He looks broken, vulnerable, and she knows that if she wanted, she could trick him into spilling everything. Immediately, she suppresses that impulse, the ugly, loveless Black Widow roaring to get out, like it always does.
The sun has set now, but Natasha makes no move to flip on the lights. They sit there in semi-darkness, waiting for Tony to say something that Natasha is sure will make her stomach turn. She will be as patient as he needs; fuck the goddesses that are making them go through this.
Why are they not allowed to rest?
“I had to ask…” He trails off, swallowing, beckoning her over to stand before him. She does, perching on the coffee table so their knees brush. “I didn’t know, Nat, and we’ve known each other for more than a decade. We’ve been at odds, we’ve been nothing, but we’ve also been friends. And I had to ask .”
He sounds agonized. “Ask what?” She says softly. “Whatever it is, Tony, it’s okay.” She only realizes what she’s said once it’s hanging between them, and she is silently grateful that Tony is unaware of the fact those were her last words. As it is, she has to take a shaky breath just to focus back on him.
Luckily, it is as if he didn’t hear her. “If you had family,” he spits out, self-loathing permeating the words. “I didn’t know - I guess I never cared, never thought. If there was a sibling, an aunt, a parent-”
“You knew deep down that there was none of that,” she tries to absolve him, the knot in her stomach fading.
Tony takes her hand between his. “I know - I know - but that doesn’t make it right. You cared about Pep, Rhodey, Morgan, Peter - you knew the story of my parents.”
Natasha shakes her head, leaning back. “And I lied to you-”
Tony laughs, but it is strident and harsh. “Stop it, stop making it okay,” he orders. “I’m trying to apologize - just stop it.” He pauses, holding her hand tighter as he takes a deep breath to gather himself. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so guilty,” he admits. “Knowing you but not knowing you.”
Natasha feels a little bit repetitive, but she shakes her head again, taking her free hand to rest on their clasped ones. “You knew me, Tony. You knew that I wanted to fight, to defend, that I had red in my ledger, and I needed to wipe it out. You knew about the person I wanted to be, tried to be. That’s more important to me than knowing my past.” She pauses, her thoughts moving back to his first question, trying to shake off the strange feeling that his apologies have given her. “I didn’t want to move on,” she admits, low and earnest. “I wanted the team back together; I wanted to save the world. I think…” she pauses, and he lifts his head to look at her, dark eyes tracing her face as if she was the last person in the universe. In a way, she was. To the best of their knowledge, they had each other now, and that was it. “I think it was all I had left in the world. I had no one to pull me out, no great romance like you and Pepper.”
Tony smiles then, sad but reminiscent, and this is the first time he’s thought of Pepper in the last eleven days without breaking down. “She grounded me,” he tells her. “She was beautiful, stubborn, the best woman I’ve ever known…”
Natasha listens quietly as Tony spins the tale of how he met the love of his life, how she saved him when the world thought he was saving her. He talks through the night, and never once does he let go of her hand.
Eighteen days later, they try to leave the Halls for the first time.
They make to the last of the steps leading up in the maze of a building, endless fields of red grasses and white flowers filling their vision, before they blink and realize they’re back in their rooms.
Thirty-two days later, Natasha takes a deep breath in the middle of a game of Double Solitaire.
“Did you ever forgive Steve?” She asks, refusing to look at him. Her eyes are focused on the game, but her body is tense. They’ve talked a lot in the past month, but they’ve both avoided the other Avengers like a landmine, choosing instead to tell each other childhood stories. Well, Tony tells Natasha childhood stories. They had gotten through Natasha’s childhood with six bottles of whiskey and watery eyes and two broken lamps. Natasha had held his hand so tightly that Tony is sure, if they weren’t dead, she would’ve broken it.
Even through that messy conversation, the Avengers had been off limits.
Tony considers this. “I don’t know,” he says slowly, taking the electrical zap with closed eyes. Natasha reaches forward to steady him, and he knows without looking that she’s glaring at the light fixture above them. They both know that the Norns aren’t above them in the tall-ceilinged, one story building, but it feels good to direct their anger somewhere.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she swears. “I want to know, but-” she sighs in frustration “-it isn’t fair.”
“I want you to know,” Tony blurts out, and to both of their surprise, no shock is forthcoming. “So yeah, I do know… it’s just complicated.” No shock. “I trusted Steve. I teased him relentlessly, was jealous because my father loved him more than me, but Nat? I could see why.”
Natasha shakes her head. “You are worth just as much as Steve Rogers, Tony Stark. I won’t let you believe otherwise.”
He waits for her shock with defeat, knowing deep down that she couldn’t believe that. Not after how close those two had been, not after she chose Steve over him.
To his complete and utter surprise, she remains steady.
“You believe that,” he breathes. She nods, giving him a gentle smile that he has never seen before. “No,” he admits, unable to stop himself. Not wanting to stop himself, he corrects. “I never really did. Not for the Accords, I forgave him for that. I’m not sure I was doing the right thing either. But dropping off the face of the earth? Leaving me with the idea of the Avengers, but taking the heart of it with him? I want… hope to forgive him for that. I really do.”
You are the heart of the Avengers, she doesn’t say. She doesn’t think he’s ready to hear it. Instead, Natasha swallows. “I’m sorry to ask you like this - but I need to know…” she trails off, uncertain, and he presses his hand over hers on his arm in encouragement. He knows what she wants to know, and he is happy to give her an answer. There must have been something of that feeling in his expression, but she pushes forward. “Did you ever forgive me?” She asks finally.
He smiles with no shadows hiding in the corners of his mouth, teeth and eyes and all. “I have now.”
Forty-two days later, they have nearly exhausted the subject of Steve when Tony thinks of another question. The burden that comes with both lying and trying not to lie has almost faded away, and Tony is left to bask in the feeling of openness, of trust. Before, he had not been certain Natasha would ever speak to him like this, with a willingness to be honest. Now, their responses might require thought, but that hesitance is gone. It is freeing.
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t strangle a Norn or two for hurting them to get to this place, but he supposes Norse goddesses aren’t wrong about everything.
“Steve said that we were your family,” he begins. They are lying on the dining table, both facing the ceiling, Natasha with her head toward to the door and Tony with his toward the balcony. He always faces this way, so when he turns his head, he can see the stars and imagine that Pepper and Morgan are looking at the same ones, that they are happy somewhere out there.
“That’s not a question,” Natasha observes.
He looks at her sadly. It doesn’t need to be, he doesn’t say, for him to know it is true.
“Why didn’t you come over more?” He continues, sitting up. She stays horizontal, and he crosses his legs, his knee pressing into her hip. “After, to the cabin,” he clarifies at her furrowed brow. “You would have been welcome.”
Natasha shakes her head, looking up at him. She makes no move to join him upright; in fact, she looks comfortable, he realizes, though her position is quite vulnerable. “You really think we had the foundation for that?”
Tony nudges her with his knee, a hard question on his lips that he frames as a statement. He knows she’ll understand. “You thought we were your family,” he says, soft and quiet. “But you didn’t… if you had made that effort… I would have been thrilled,” he confesses, and he’s not lying, feels the warmth in his heart at the thought of more than an intangible Auntie Nat of whom he had told Morgan stories. She had come over several times to make cursory amends, to fulfill some odd expectation from Pepper that he had never bothered to find out about. She has always been a ghost in his life; those moments of something more, he now realizes, were precious. His family was wonderful, but he had always sought recognition from his teammates, sought understanding for a shared experience only they had together.
“I was afraid,” Natasha admits. “I was terrified.”
Tony takes her hand. She looks away, but she doesn’t let go. “Why?” He asks, though he’s not sure he wants to know the answer.
Natasha shrugs, but her lower lip wobbles a little and Tony’s heart hurts at the sight. “I thought I was a monster,” she whispers. “You knew a version of me, the version that let all the vitriol just…” she trails off, flapping her hand in the air, and he nods in understanding. He knows what it is to protect oneself. “I thought Bruce might - but then, he was never a monster. He didn’t want to be there, like I did. So he left.”
Tony squeezes her hand. “You’re not a monster, Natasha.”
Natasha closes her eyes, and he doesn’t comment on the teardrop that streams down her cheek. “You said once that there was nothing real about me. You were right.”
The whole table zaps to life.
They instinctively roll off to hit the floor, Natasha elbowing Tony in the stomach in the process. Before he can muster another tirade of anger about their situation, he hears her sobs.
No, he realizes. He hears her laughter.
“Nat,” he gasps, still out of breath from her accidental assault. “Please don’t lose your mind,” he begs, only half in jest. “I can’t handle this crazy place without you.”
Her laughter tapers off, and her wide, smiling eyes find his a second later. “No, no,” she says, slumping down next to him with uncharacteristic looseness in her limbs. “I just realized that I’m real. I’m real.”
And she is, Tony thinks. He can’t understand the torture, the conditioning, the years of pain. But he knows Natasha Romanoff, Avenger and Super-Spy, is the real deal. “Listen,” he begins. He needs to tread carefully. “You’re strong. You’re fierce and clever and a strategic genius. You care about people, and you care about the universe. You have the most dysfunctional family in the world. But you have one, because I’m in it, and I say so.”
Natasha’s breath hitches, but Tony doesn’t look over at her. She wouldn’t want that. Instead, they stare at the ceiling for hours, hand in hand. Eventually, she pulls him to his feet and kisses him gently on the cheek.
He squeezes her hand once more before releasing it. “Don’t mention it, Red,” he replies, and for the first time in forty-two days, he doesn’t feel tired.
Sixty-two days later, Natasha is wandering by herself when she comes again upon the tree and the well.
The tree really is beautiful, she thinks, now that her bitterness and anger has faded to a sting, and the ache in her heart is growing lighter and lighter. She wonders if it is the place, or Tony, or both. The well underneath it churns out a rainbow of colors, throwing all of the white and gold in the room into bright shadows. Now, not for the first time, she wonders what it all means.
A few moments later, she hears the soft raps of a cane echoing off the walls. She doesn’t turn, waiting for the old woman to come up beside her. They stare into the well together for a long moment before the woman speaks.
“I would ask if you’re enjoying your stay with us,” she begins, voice raspy and sharp. Her words are louder than her sisters, but they don’t have the same annoying echo that Natasha hates. “But,” she continues, “I’m not my sister. I know you aren’t.”
Natasha doesn’t take her eyes off the well, but she leans back, bringing Urd of What Once Was into her line of sight. Of the three Norns, Natasha likes this one the best, though they have barely spoken. “You see the past,” she replies. “You know what I was. I know when someone has an ulterior motive.”
Urd raises an eyebrow. “So you have us Norns figured out, then? Isn’t that nice?” Her tone implies it’s anything but.
Natasha shrugs. “I wouldn’t say that,” she demurs, tracing a fingertip along the stone of the well. “Figuring out someone has ulterior motives doesn’t mean knowing what those motives are.” The Norn peers up at her, gaze piercing. It would cut into Natasha’s soul, if she didn’t already know how to protect herself from the kind of power that comes from judging eyes. “I do wonder one thing in particular, though. If lying is an anathema to you, and after what you’ve done to my friend and me, I have to believe that - then what about your lies makes them justified?”
Before she can say another word, a bony hand shoots out and grasps her wrist, pulling her closer to the tree. “You want to see my justification, girl?” She snarls. “See the whole of creation!” The command is more of a bellow, and as the world falls away from her, the tree comes alive.
NATALIA ALIANOVNA ROMANOVA. UNDERSTAND.
Understand what? Natasha thinks in a panic. I can’t see . And she can’t, not at all, the whole world is a blurry gold. The only thing tethering her to reality is the point where Urd holds her by the wrist; if she let go, Natasha thinks she’d either drown or fly. Then, all at once, she sees Vormir, the fall, her own broken body at bottom of the chasm. She hears Clint’s screams. She hears the guide’s laughter.
NATALIA ALIANOVNA ROMANOVA. THIS WAS NOT YOUR PURPOSE.
Her body rushes back to her in a flood, and she comes to with Urd still holding her wrist and gripping her waist with her other arm.
“Do you see?” Urd whispers. “Do you?”
Natasha looks up at the Tree, then down at her hands. She thinks about her broken body at the base of that cliff; she thinks about Tony’s trembling fingers and his lacerated arm. She thinks about wormholes and brave tin men with two hearts: one in their vulnerable, all-too-human bodies and one outside, an indestructible symbol, shining blue for all the world to see. She thinks about earning the trust of a fellow assassin in a Romanian hotel room and earning a friend in a stranger’s guest bedroom and earning nothing when a brother-in-arms loses everything, all because she’s too ashamed of her own misjudgments to cross an ocean to kick his ass off the couch and into her arms. She thinks about closing portals too soon and earth’s mightiest heroes and loving a man who lets go when she wants to stay and letting go herself to the lullaby of her best friend’s screams. She thinks about the harbingers of a better life, about letters crashing to the ground, leaving the only one that matters, the first, battered and bruised but still standing. She thinks about what it is to be a part of something.
What it is to assemble.
“I’m beginning to,” she admits, because if she learned anything, it is that the bravest thing she can do in this terrible and beautiful place is be honest.
Tony finds her several hours later and leads her to their room. She tells him about the Tree, then she finally finds the strength to tell him about the fall and the lullaby and the body.
When she has no words left, they decide without speaking to leave the mysterious Tree conversation alone for now. Still, it hangs onto them, and the importance of it keeps their minds buzzing for days.
Because if Natasha’s sacrifice wasn’t her purpose, then what was?
Ninety-nine days later, Tony joins Natasha on the balcony, leaning back against it so he can see her face.
“I’ve thought a lot about love the past few days,” he tells her, smiling in greeting when she takes her gaze away from the stars to stare at him in surprise. “I loved Pepper and Morgan, always will, but I never thought about it like this. What it means.”
Natasha gestures for him to continue, and he turns, looking out at the night sky with something like wonder and dread in his eyes. She doesn’t take her eyes away from him.
“I didn’t say it enough,” he admits. “I always thought, well, they know. I should’ve been telling them every second.”
Natasha shrugs. “It’s not about the words, Tony,” she replies, nudging him with her shoulder. He looks back at her then, smiling. “It’s about how you show it. And you did. You were… are a good man. Always have been. I knew it the second you asked me what I would do if it was my last birthday, and I should’ve known it earlier.”
Tony’s smile flickers before lighting up like a thousand stars. “I love you, Nat,” he tells her, low and serious, and she can’t stop her tears. She whispers the eight letters back to him, not like a prayer but like a promise. The words themselves are more concrete than heavenly anyway; they are a refusal to return to how they were in the past, an oath to protect each other for as long as they have left. He gathers her to him, tucking her head under his chin, after endless days of phantom pains and twinges, his arm doesn’t hurt one bit.
They stay like that for a long time.
One hundred days later, they are joined by a familiar face.
Natasha runs out onto the steps, the sun in her eyes, but she doesn’t have to see it for long because she launches herself into Steve’s arms, burying her face in his shoulder. He catches her with a grunt and a shocked burst of laughter.
Tony is several feet behind her, and he throws his arms around them both. After spending several months with this man, Natasha can read him like a book, can feel the forgiveness come off him in waves before he says a single word, and she is so ridiculously proud that she can barely breathe.
Okay, that might actually be because she is being squeezed around the waist by a super-soldier.
“What the hell?” Steve breathes, and Tony snorts in laughter.
“Language, Cap,” he warns, taking a step back. Natasha goes with him, but she takes one of Steve’s hands in hers.
He is just looking at them in disbelief, as if he cannot quite trust that they are standing in front of him, smiling and whole and not dead in some coffin or on some unknown planet. “Did you just hug me?” is what he manages. “Where are we? Who…? Hug?”
Tony smirks. “Are you asking?”
Natasha takes pity on him. “When you’re stuck in some Norse afterlife with this one for months on end,” she answers wryly, “you become a hugger.” She ignores Tony’s faux-offended gasp, wacking him lightly on the shoulder.
“I’m dead,” he breathes.
Tony smiles sadly. “Did you live a good life, Steve?” He asks, and he means it. He hopes Steve was happy; he deserved it.
Steve nods, eyes shining, and something in Tony heals. “The best,” he replies, pulling them both into another tight embrace. Steve has always been a hugger, and he plans to take advantage of this miracle for as long as he can.
One hundred and three days later, Steve finds Tony without Natasha for the first time.
He is in the entrance hall, gazing up at the tree, and as Steve walks up to him, he gets the feeling that both of them have been waiting for this moment for a long time.
“I’m sorry you didn’t find rest,” Steve says.
Tony shrugs. “It’s okay,” he replies, “I’m not sure I’m meant to rest.”
Steve looks over at him, eyebrows furrowed and eyes concerned. “You deserve it though, Tony. If anyone deserves it, it’s you and Nat.”
“There’s so much I still want to do,” Tony admits. “We could still do so much good. I’m past arguing that it isn’t fair, but…” he trails off with a sigh, sitting down hard on one of the benches that surrounds the tree. Steve joins him, watching his expressions carefully. “Nat says this tree is called Yggdrasil. It’s supposed to be some Norse mystical representation of life. All of it.” He reaches up, pointing to a strand that’s turning from deep gold to a frail grey. “Sometimes, Nat and I sit here and just watch it end. All our lives, we’ve killed or saved. Now, we’re helpless. We just watch .”
Steve shudders. “Sounds awful,” he observes, his own heart skipping a beat as the thread goes completely dark, as if it is something he was never meant to see with his human heart and his human compassion. “And we can’t do anything about it?”
Tony barks out a laugh. “Nope, and you can bet the old hags around here won’t do a thing.” His voice raises slightly at the end, staring at the Well at the base of the tree as if he can see something Steve can’t.
Steve just nods; he has seen the Norns while wandering the past few days, but none had approached him. Maybe it is because he had taken death relatively well, considering he had lived a full life. Tony and Natasha speak about them like they’re secretly evil, but neither will tell him why. From the looks they exchange when he asks, it’s not only a little bad.
Tony lets out a sigh then, turning to Steve. “I forgave you, you know. And I’m sorry.”
Steve nearly gets whiplash as he turns to Tony. “What?” He breathes.
Tony shrugs. “It’s stupid to hold a grudge when you’re dead. I did some bad things, so did you. You left me, and I forgive you for that.” He pauses, looking like he’s struggling to keep his eyes on Steve. “You don’t have to forgive me,” he adds, and though the words look painful, Tony still seems to be okay with them. “But I forgive you.”
Steve blinks back tears. “Of course I forgive you, Tony. Of course I do.”
Tony, inexplicably, looks at the floor before he looks back at Steve, grinning. “Are we good, then?”
Steve is getting ready to nod when he realizes that they aren’t. Not quite. “Do you mind if we… talk about it?” He asks hesitantly.
Tony looks at him for a long time before nodding. “Sure, Cap,” he replies with a sad smile. “Let’s talk.”
They talk for hours upon hours; Natasha finds them on that bench eventually, and they scoot apart to make room for her. When the words stop, they all look up at the tree with an inscrutable look in their eyes, and the Norns looking in from the doorway all begin to smile.
One hundred and thirteen days later, Natasha takes out a knife and slices away the blonde at the ends of her hair.
Tony has seen her take down fifty men twice her size, vengeful gods, homicidal robots, and countless other threats. He has watched her sacrifice and mend and break. Her natural hair shines brighter when the dull, bleach blonde strands hit the floor like a halo around her, and her dark red waves and wry smile take him back to 2012, when they could look at themselves in the mirror and mouth the word ‘hero’.
He has watched her avenge, but to him, she has never been so strong as she is now, with their past on the floor at her feet and the future in her bright eyes. They will be okay.
It’s time to discover what future awaits them.
A hundred and fourteen days later, they find the eldest Norn walking in the gardens.
“You can choose to leave,” Urd tells them, and she sounds bored as she does, rapping her walking stick along the path as she walks ahead of them. Tony, Natasha, and Steve trail behind her, sneaking glances at each other out of the corners of their eyes.
“You mean we could have been in some Norse paradise this whole time?” Tony is snide, disbelieving. Natasha elbows him in the stomach.
Urd one-ups her by wacking him in the knee with her stick. “Quiet, boy!” She pauses. “Valhalla would welcome you,” she adds, reluctant as she spins around to eye them. “But you would cease to have a purpose.”
Steve just looks back. “I’ve only been here for several days, but I think I speak for all of us when I say we might be tired of having a purpose.”
Natasha jerks her head around to stare at him before her eyes whip back to Urd. “And what’s the alternative?” She asks.
Urd cackles. “Clearly I was right to tell my sisters that she is the smartest of you all,” she observes, giving Natasha an approving look. “The alternative, girl, is to work for us. Help us bring balance to the universe.”
Tony sputters at her. “After you sent electric shocks through us for months? Fat chance, lady,” he retorts.
“What?” Steve asks, his voice low and dangerous. His hands curl into fists.
Natasha throws her thoughts in the ring before things can come to blows. “What’s in it for us?” Natasha asks.
Urd rolls her eyes. “Life, my dear. You get to live. And be together.” She waves her hand at the lack of space between each of them. “You spoke much about being together in life; now, togetherness is our gift to you after life.” She pauses, ignoring their surprise. “For the record, I thought the shocks were a bad idea - I am the Norn of the Past. I have seen your nightmares, your trauma, your pain. My sisters have no such vision; it is not their fault they do not see.” Her words are not kind, but they are honest, and Steve’s shoulders drop a few inches.
Tony rolls his eyes, ignoring her half-apology. “You mean, we could go back…?”
Urd shakes her head, and for the first time she seems genuinely apologetic. “No, Anthony Stark,” she admits. “You cannot reveal yourself to your wife and child, but know that they will live full and beautiful lives. My sisters and I guarantee this.”
“Bucky and Sam?” Steve asks, and Urd nods.
“Clint? His family?” Natasha adds, and Urd treats her with a sharp smile.
“The world in the balance, and you gamble for the life of one man?” She intones; Natasha refuses to give her a reaction, nothing to show Loki’s words might still haunt her.
Instead, she shrugs. “Doesn’t throwing myself off a cliff to save the universe give me a pass?” She feels Tony and Steve shudder at her words; Tony has never liked her careless words about her death, and it seems Steve feels the same. You deserved better , Tony has whispered to her through many nights. You are missed. It has taken hundreds of murmurs in the dark for her to believe him. Urd is obviously unaffected, but she nods all the same, and Natasha sighs in relief. Clint will be okay. Little Nathaniel will be okay.
“I want to do it,” Natasha announces, knowing she is sealing all of their fates with her words. Tony would have equivocated, but eventually said yes. Steve’s sense of honor is too great to allow the universe to go unprotected when he has the ability to protect it. But both will never allow her to go alone, and she is certain of this when Tony reaches over and squeezes her shoulder, prompting her to look up at him.
Their eyes meet, and she can feel him reading her intentions. “There is no blood left in your ledger, Nat,” he reminds her. “No responsibility.”
Natasha shakes her head, and tears well up in her eyes. “It’s more selfish than that.” He waits for her to gather herself. “You both are my family.” She reaches back to cup Steve’s elbow, but she doesn’t take her eyes off the man in front of her. “If there’s a chance we can stay together, I have to take it. And if we can do some good while we’re at it, well-”
“I’m convinced,” Tony interrupts, moving his hand from her shoulder to her cheek as he wipes away her tears with his thumb. “Cap?”
“I’m with you both, no matter what.” His words are quiet but powerful, and something sharp permeates the air, something new and strong. Natasha turns and wraps her arms around his shoulders in thanks.
“But first,” Tony adds, “we get a vacation. A long, all-Norn-expenses-paid vacation, because I used the infinity stones a few months ago and my arm still feels like it’s been stung by a thousand angry bees.”
Urd sputters out some annoyed response, but Tony and Steve take Natasha by the hand, and they head for the space they have claimed in the Halls. The whole universe is out there, and they mean to explore it. They pass the Well and Tree without a glance, knowing that it will soon determine the rest of their existence.
This is their universe, after all, and it is in the hands of beings who like to take a backseat. But Tony likes to get his hands dirty. Steve is the first to wade into a fight. Natasha’s mind is already calculating all the damage they can do, all the improvements they can make. They will not vanish on the universe, which houses all that they love, all that they died for.
They refuse to leave it behind.