On the morning that everything goes to hell, Ice wakes up slow.
He shifts under the sheets a little, trying to find a position that will let him go back to sleep — after all, it’s the weekend and he doesn’t have to get up yet — but the sunlight streaming through the windows prevents him from doing so. And once he’s awake, he's awake, so he spends the next few minutes getting his bearings and blinking the sleep out of his eyes.
Maverick is in front of him, tucked into the circle of his arms, soft breaths brushing against his collarbone. Their knees are intertwined, one of his feet thrown over Ice’s calf and one of his arms flung over Ice’s waist. He smiles into the dark hair in front of his nose — all these years and he still can’t believe his own luck — and says, “Morning.”
Maverick mutters something that doesn’t even sound like English and adjusts his position, turning over and burying his face in Ice’s shoulder. “Mm,” he mumbles. “Shut up, Kazansky. Tryin’ to sleep.”
Ice kisses Maverick’s hairline. “Sleep, then,” he says. “I’m going to go take a shower.”
Maverick’s eyes open as Ice extricates himself from his arms, and even half-asleep he somehow manages to look offended, like Ice leaving him should be classified as a federal crime. “No — stay.” His hand falls on top of Ice’s wrist. “Five more minutes.”
“Mav,” Ice says, because he’s not the type to lay around all day and they both know it, but then Maverick kisses him and he decides to put his protests aside for a little while. Neither of them are in the mood to take things any further, so it’s soft and lazy and wonderful. Still, Ice knows if he doesn’t get out of bed now then he never will, so he breaks away, pressing a kiss to Maverick’s nose to show that there are no hard feelings. “Gonna go take a shower.” He lets his fingers trail suggestively down Maverick’s thigh. “Want to join me?”
“Nah. Sleeping and not feeling guilty about it at all.” Maverick grins crookedly at him. “Don’t have too much fun without me.”
Ice laughs, shaking his head as he climbs out of bed and heads toward the bathroom. “I’ll do my best.”
Ten minutes later, when he comes out again, Maverick is gone.
Maverick isn’t in the house. He’s not in the bedroom or the kitchen or either of the bathrooms and he’s not in the garden or on the porch. His motorcycle is in the garage and his phone is charging on the kitchen counter, so he must still be here somewhere, but fifteen minutes of desperate searching has brought no results and Ice is starting to panic.
He’s fifty-nine years old. He’s a captain in the United States Navy. His callsign is Iceman, for crying out loud. Panic is not a feeling to which he’s accustomed, but his husband is nowhere to be found and his heart is jackhammering against his ribs and his breaths are coming short and fast, and shining through the worry and the confusion that are tearing him apart is pure, unadulterated blood-coagulating panic.
“Maverick!” His shout echoes around the house, bouncing off the walls, and the lack of an answer makes his heart constrict even further from terror. “Mav!”
Then from outside comes a wail that sounds barely human, and Ice throws the door open, not even caring that he’s only wearing a bathrobe and his hair is still wet. The lady from next door (Sherry Robinson, the single mother) is kneeling on her driveway, clutching her chest and screaming and sobbing like she’s just been stabbed. Forgetting about his own problems for a second, Ice sprints across the street and kneels beside her. “Hey, are you okay? Hey! What happened? What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” She looks up at him, tears streaming down her face, and she grabs him by the collar of his robe. “What’s wrong? My son — my baby boy, he just disappeared. He’s gone, he just vanished right in front of me, oh Christ, oh my God, my baby—”
A numbing, fearful cold spreads through his veins. “What? What’re you talking about? Did — did someone take him?”
“No one took him!” Sherry screams, and it sounds physically painful. “One second Jamie was there and the next he was gone! He j-just up and vanished into the goddamn wind!” Her grip on his collar becomes tighter, tight enough that under any other circumstances he’d be worried that she’d rip the fabric. “Where is he? What happened to my son?”
Ice’s jaw works noiselessly as he tries to come up with an answer — or another question, or a reassurance, something, anything — but then she’s released him and she’s sobbing again, curled up in the fetal position on her driveway. Sirens ring out from further down the road, and if he pays attention he can hear more screams, more sobbing, not just from Sherry but from everyone at every house on the street.
Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
In a daze, he stumbles away from Sherry and back toward his house, where he picks up his phone from the kitchen counter and dials 911. He knows it’s not proper protocol to report someone missing yet — it’s barely been twenty-four minutes, let alone twenty-four hours — but panic is choking the air out of him and Maverick and Sherry’s son and God knows who else are missing. This is no coincidence. Something is seriously wrong.
The call doesn’t connect the first time, and the next three times all he can get are busy signals, and after the fifth failed attempt he throws the damn thing across the room out of sheer frustration, where it hits the wall and falls onto the tiled floor. He’s satisfied by that for about five seconds until he realizes what he’s done, and he hurries to pick it back up again. The screen is scratched and shattered, but it seems to be working fine.
Then it rings, and the noise startles him so badly that he curses and jumps about a foot in the air. His thoughts catch up a second later — what if it’s Maverick? — and he answers without even glancing at the caller ID. “Mav? Mav, is that you?”
“Tommy! Oh God, you’re okay. Thank God. Thank God.”
The tiny part of his brain that isn’t engulfed in sheer terror sits up and pays attention. “Taylor?”
“Everyone’s gone, Tommy. I — they just — half the base is gone. One second they were here and then they were gone. They — they vanished into dust right in front of me.” He’s never heard his older sister sound so frightened in his life, and that terrifies him even more. “It’s chaos here, everyone’s freaking out. They’re saying it’s happening all over the world, and Mom’s not picking up, and — God, Tommy.”
Ice sits down hard on the floor. The phone is shaking so badly in his hand that Taylor’s voice is vibrating. He thinks she might be crying. He thinks he might be a few seconds away from joining her.
Everyone’s gone. Vanished into dust. Chaos. It’s happening all over the world.
What the hell was going on?
They’re calling it the Decimation. The President, half his Cabinet, three Supreme Court justices and two thirds of Congress are dead, which throws Washington DC into a state of turmoil. Troops are ordered to different parts of the country to quell the riots that are rising. Gas and food prices skyrocket. All non-emergency services are shut down until further notice. Every channel on television either showcases static or the blare of the national emergency siren, and the phone lines are jammed so badly that it takes sixteen hours before Ice’s mother can notify him and Taylor that she’s alright.
There’s shakily-filmed video circulating the Internet of people all over the world disappearing into dust, just like Taylor had said. But it can’t be real, it can’t be, because that means that it must have happened to Maverick too and Ice refuses to accept that. He refuses.
Two days, two hours and twelve minutes after Maverick disappears and the world goes shit over teacups, the sound of someone frantically knocking at his door startles him out of his worry. He slowly stands up from the couch, wondering if he’s hallucinating, but the knocking does not abate.
Then the door explodes off its hinges and flies across the room, and Ice has time for exactly one thought — what the fuck? — before a blur of red and blue follows, stopping in front of him and materializing into a woman with short blonde hair. “Jesus Christ, Kazansky,” she says, acerbic but clearly relieved. “Ever hear of answering the goddamn door?”
Ice has to lock his knees together to keep himself from falling down. He knows this voice, he knows this face, but it’s not possible. It can’t be possible, and yet… “Carol?”
“Hey there, Iceman,” says Carol Danvers, callsign Avenger, with a very familiar smile. “It’s good to see you too.”
Here’s how it had gone down.
In the spring of 1988, Ice went to a services dinner in Bakersfield; not because of the food or the atmosphere, but because someone had had to go on behalf of TOPGUN and (to Maverick and Viper’s amusement) he’d drawn the short straw. The dinner was just about as boring as he’d expected — the food was bad and the talk was dull, as was the speaker they’d hired — and he was debating going back to his hotel room and giving Maverick a call when the woman next to him nudged his elbow. “Am I the only one that’s bored as hell?”
The corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Definitely not,” he said. “I think the speaker’s going to fall asleep at the podium.”
“Not if I fall asleep where I’m sitting first. How can he make Thunderbirds sound so goddamn boring?”
“You’re telling me,” Ice said, now liking the woman beside him even more. Anyone who shared his appreciation for aircraft was someone he wanted to befriend, so he stuck out his hand. “Tom Kazansky.”
“Maria Rambeau.” She shook it. “I’d ask which service you’re with, but those dress whites give it away.” The same went for her Air Force uniform. “Naval aviator?”
Ice inclined his head. “Callsign Iceman. And you’re a pilot?”
“Yeah. Callsign Photon.” Someone from further up the table shushed them, and both Ice and Maria glared back. “Want to take this conversation elsewhere?”
Ice glanced back up at the podium, where the speaker was outlining the components of the latest Thunderbird model with the air of someone explaining how grass grew, and he nodded. “Got a place in mind?”
The bar Maria had in mind was smoky and dimly-lit and clearly hadn’t been renovated since Kennedy was president, but its vibe reminded Ice of the O Club back at Miramar, right down to the crowds and the Donna Summer playing from the jukebox in the corner. The two of them ended up sequestered in a booth at the edge of the room, laughing and talking about everything and nothing.
Ice learned that Maria was a talented pilot who liked Coronas and could tell a dirty joke like nobody’s business. He also learned that she was the proud mother of a four year old girl named Monica, whose picture occupied about ninety percent of Maria’s wallet. She didn’t mention the father, which meant he was either dead or out of the picture and Ice wasn’t stupid enough to ask. Instead, Ice shifted the conversation to their respective jobs, and Maria, as it turned out, had plenty of stories to tell — many of which featured her best friend.
“—and then Carol said, ‘No, you watch it.’” Ice choked on his beer, and Maria wiped away tears of mirth. “Ahh. She’s a reckless idiot, but she’s my reckless idiot, y’know?”
That inspired Ice to regale Maria with stories of his own reckless idiot. It wasn’t a competition, not exactly, but Maverick Mitchell and Carol Danvers were pretty evenly matched in the reckless idiot department. Maria’s eyes went wide at Ice’s retelling of Maverick’s 4G inverted negative dive, and Ice in turn gaped at the story of how Carol punched out and threatened an officer who had harassed Maria.
Once Ice had settled back into the booth with their third round of drinks, Maria spoke up — but this time her voice was quieter, more probing. “Sounds like you and Maverick are pretty close.”
Ice didn’t react outwardly, but he felt his heart miss a beat. He opened his mouth to say something like yeah, he’s a good friend, has been for a while now but something in her eyes made him stop, reevaluate the situation. “Yeah,” he said, deciding to take a leaf from Maverick’s book and throw some caution to the wind. “Sounds like you and Carol are too.”
Silence stretched out as Maria sized him up. Then, cautiously, “How long’s it been for you?”
“Six months,” Ice said. Well, six months since they’d shifted from being friends with benefits to — whatever it was now. Dating. Boyfriends sounded incredibly juvenile, so Maverick just referred to Ice as his wingman and Ice pretended not to like it. “And you?”
“Couple years.” Maria smiled, and all of the tension seemed to leave the air at once. Whatever show they normally put on for other people they could leave at the door, and Ice found it nice that he could let his guard down with someone other than Maverick or his sister for once. “It’s always nice to find a kindred spirit. So to speak.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Ice said, and they raised their drinks in unison before knocking them back.
“It’s hard on base, sometimes,” Maria said once they had put their drinks down. “Carol and I are the only ladies in our squadron — we try to be discreet, but I think people suspect.” Then she paused, her expression going from contemplative to downright devious. “Would be nice, you know, if I knew a kindred spirit who could help out.”
Ice caught her drift, and considered it. He and Maverick didn’t face the same level of scrutiny as Maria and Carol, but it’d be nice to have a friend as a shield from rumors that could cost him his job. Maybe they could come to an arrangement.
Two months later, he and Maverick drove to Kern County and had dinner with Maria and Carol. Maria had greeted him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and Carol had eyed him in a way that made Ice feel like he was being X-rayed before she stuck out her hand. “Carol Danvers,” she said. “Callsign Avenger.”
“Tom Kazansky,” he replied, shaking her hand. “Callsign Iceman.”
“Good to meet you, Iceman.” Carol nodded at him before glancing at Maverick, a small smile tugging at her mouth. “And you must be Maverick.”
“That’s what they call me,” Maverick said with a grin of his own, all easy charm. “Nice to meet you too.”
Maverick and Carol got along like a house on fire, and Maria rolled her eyes fondly right alongside Ice at their antics. Ice found himself liking Carol a lot too — she was funny and cocky and determined and fiercely loyal — and best of all, no one looked askance at them the entire evening.
It became a regular thing after that. Ice pretended to date Maria, and Maverick pretended to date Carol. The four of them got closer, going on group dates every time they had leave. Carol named her boss’s cat after Goose (which Maverick pretended not to cry about) and Ice and Maverick even got to meet Monica. Ice wasn’t a huge fan of children, but Monica was a sweetheart and he liked her a lot too.
Their arrangement lasted all the way until the fall of 1989, when Carol was killed during a round of routine drills with some doctor named Lawson. The funeral was small, quiet (which Carol would have surely hated), attended only by them, Monica, and Maria, who was clearly devastated and trying hard to keep it together for her daughter, who was still too young to understand what was going on.
They still kept in touch afterwards, the three of them, through postcards and phone calls and the occasional visit. Maria invited them over for Christmas several times as well as to Monica’s high school graduation, and Maria and Monica were both invited to his and Maverick’s wedding in 2011, where they kept an honorary seat open for Carol and drank to her memory for most of the night.
And that had been the end of that. Until now.
As the saying goes, rumors of Carol’s death were greatly exaggerated. By the time she’s done explaining everything, Ice is glad that he’d had the foresight to direct their chat into the living room so he could sit down. His mind is buzzing with alien races and complicated wars and mysterious objects straight out of the comic books that Taylor had read when she was younger; none of it makes sense, and at the same time it all makes too much sense.
Still, no explanation can make the fact that the woman who his husband pretended to date thirty years ago is now a superhero and hasn’t aged a day any less goddamn strange than it already is. Jesus, she looks young enough to be his daughter.
“You know,” he says, clearing his throat. He keeps starting every sentence like he doesn’t have the breath to finish them, but that tends to happen when you’ve been dealt one too many shocks in less than seventy-two hours. “Mav always said,” says, he says, he’s not fucking dead, he’s just missing and there has to be a logical explanation, “that the Avengers were named in honor of your callsign. I guess he was right about that after all.”
“Yeah. Yeah, he was.” The corner of her mouth quirks upward, but there’s no humor to her smile, just a weary sort of exhaustion. “Wish I could’ve found out about that under better circumstances, though. And about you and Mav. When did you two tie the knot?”
“Six and a half years ago, officially. We had to wait for DADT to get repealed.” But Ice is more focused on her other words to expound more on his marriage. “Carol. Did they — did the Avengers call you back here because of what…of what happened?” Her nod punches the air from his lungs. “I…what happened, Carol? What really happened?”
She meets his gaze evenly, but it doesn’t assuage the sudden wave of terror that has reached up his throat to choke him. She wouldn’t lie to him; he knows that. But every cell in his body is screaming at him to cover his ears, to live in ignorant bliss for a few moments longer. “There was…an alien. Thanos, from the planet Titan. He wanted to bring balance to the universe…by erasing half of all sentient life. And the Avengers fought him, they wounded him, but…but he succeeded.”
A cold hand wraps around his heart and squeezes tightly. “What?”
“He succeeded. Half of…half of the universe was killed when he snapped his fingers.” Carol’s voice breaks, and the part of him that isn’t engulfed in terror wonders if she’d seen this for herself. If the most important parts of her universe had been affected as well. “They just…turned to dust, and vanished in the wind.”
No. God, no. Desperate denial pounds a staccato against his brain, and he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe for fear, because that means that Maverick is really… “No,” he whispers. “Carol, tell me that’s not true.”
She doesn’t deny it, doesn’t reassure him. “It’s true,” she says. “I’m sorry, Tom. I’m so sorry.”
Every emotion he’d pushed down behind a mask of composure over the last two days comes pouring out of him, shaking his body in huge, wracking sobs that leave him wrung out and choking for air.
Maverick is dead. Maverick isn’t missing; he’s dead. Half the universe had disappeared into dust in one fell swoop, taking the love of his life with it, and it’s not goddamn fair.
He didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye.
“Where is he?” He doesn’t even recognize his own voice when it grinds out of him, twisted with grief and rage. “Where’s the bastard that did this?”
Carol, who had moved to his side to comfort him through his tears, hesitates. “Word is he disappeared after snapping his fingers, but we don't know where. They’re working on locating him now. To see if we can reverse it.”
His head snaps up. They can reverse this. The Avengers can track Thanos down and make him reverse this and bring Maverick back. Yes. “Let me help.”
Carol’s brows furrow. “Tom—”
“He killed Maverick, Carol.” His voice is steady even as his face crumples once more, and he angrily swipes his tears away. “He killed my husband. And if there’s a chance that they can fix this, then I want to help. I have to help.” He swallows hard. “Please, Carol. Please.”
For a moment she just stares at him, sizing him up the same way she had in that diner thirty years ago, and he keeps his expression resolute. Ice cold. “He killed Maria,” she whispers. “Monica too.”
He’d assumed as much, but it still hurts to hear. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanos will be too, once I’m through with him. Once we’re through with him.” She offers her hand to Ice, who grasps it firmly. “We’re going to get them back, Kazansky. You and me.”
He grins his shark grin, all shining teeth and the promise of trouble. “Damn straight.”
So these are the Avengers, Ice thinks. A formerly-frozen super-soldier, a self-proclaimed genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, one of the greatest scientific minds in the world, a Russian former assassin, and a literal god of thunder; accompanied by a full-bird colonel, a blue cyborg woman, and, for some reason, a sentient raccoon. Earth’s so-called Mightiest Heroes, all of whom are lounging around a conference table in upstate New York and talking themselves in circles.
For the last several years, he’s seen the Avengers face the impossible. Alien invasions, insurgent artificial intelligence, warlords and gods and too many explosions to name. But never in his life has he seen them look so defeated.
It’s mildly disconcerting, to say the least.
Captain America — Steve Rogers — rises the second he notices Carol and Ice enter the room. Stark stays seated; he’s hooked up to an IV and looks like he barely has the strength to be awake, let alone stand up. Virginia Potts, his fiancee and the CEO of Stark Industries, sits next to him, wearing an expression that suggests the threat of hell will not remove her from his side. He respects that.
“Carol,” says Rogers. “You came back.” His eyes go to Ice, who straightens imperceptibly. “And you brought — your father?”
To be fair to Rogers, it’s a logical assumption, but that doesn’t stop Ice from recoiling at the very thought of being the father of his husband’s ex-girlfriend. Carol snorts, running a hand through her hair. “No,” she says. “This is Tom Kazansky. He’s an old friend of mine.”
“Iceman, right?” says the colonel, rising and coming forward to shake his hand. “Colonel James Rhodes. Your sister and I served together a few years back — Colonel Taylor Kazansky, callsign Molotov?”
“Yes, that’s her.” Ice has heard a lot of things about James Rhodes from Taylor, all of them positive, and he accepts the other man’s hand. “Good to meet you, Colonel.”
“Not to break up the mood in the room,” says the raccoon, and honestly, that might just be the strangest thing that Ice has seen all week. “But why exactly did you bring him here?”
“Same reason you’re here, fur-face,” Carol shoots back. “So he can help us take down Thanos.”
“Carol, you can’t bring a civilian into this—”
“Civilian?” The temperature in the room seems to drop twenty degrees as Ice steps forward, flinty-eyed and deadly serious. “I’m a captain. And I earned my rank, which is more than I can say for you, Rogers. Thanos killed my husband. You want to stop me from helping you out, you’re going to have to shoot me.”
Silence stretches out, long and fraught with tension. Then Stark laughs out loud, and everyone turns to look at him. “What?” he says. “I like this guy.”
“Everybody here has lost someone, Steve,” adds Rhodes. “We’re going to need all the help we can get.”
Ice hadn’t expected the support from Rhodes or from Stark, but he’s grateful for it nonetheless. Rogers, on the other hand, still looks hesitant. “I — how old are you?”
“Fifty-nine,” retorts Ice, who is not here for this bullshit. “How old are you, ninety-five?”
Rogers looks away. “A hundred.”
“Right,” Ice says. “That’s what I fucking thought. So don't bring age into this. Give me the chance and I’ll kick Thanos’s ass with the best of them.”
Silence again. Ice crosses his arms over his chest, and Carol stands firm beside him. Rogers scans the room, as if looking for an ally; upon finding no further objections, he sighs. “Have a seat, Captain Kazansky,” he says. “Welcome to the team.”
Ten days, seven hours and fifteen minutes after Ice and Carol arrive at the Avengers compound — and twelve days nine hours and twenty-seven minutes after Maverick had disappeared — there’s a signal sent up from a planet millions of miles away. A cosmic burst of energy whose source can only be the Infinity Gauntlet. Thanos.
They pile onto the Benatar, which is piloted by Rocket the sentient raccoon (who Ice had quickly learned does not like being called a raccoon), who threatens them all with being thrown out the airlock if they throw up in his ship. Even though Ice had spent the last forty-plus years flying planes that routinely traveled over six hundred miles an hour, the jump into hyperspace comes so suddenly that it almost makes him lose his breakfast. But he pushes through it, digging his fingernails into his palms until his fingers go numb.
I’m going to get you back, Mav. Just you wait.
After Carol scopes out the planet and announces it poses no security threat — and seeing her glowing and floating in space would give Ice a conniption under any other circumstances — they fly down and land in the middle of a garden that would give Eden a run for its money. Thanos’s armor hangs from a pole like a scarecrow, and Ice’s grip on the weapon that Stark had lent him tightens. This bastard had killed half the universe — half of his universe — and one way or another, he’s going down.
In the end, he goes down a lot easier than any of them had expected. Carol forces Thanos onto his knees, Banner bursts out from the the floor grabbing Thanos’s bare arm, Romanoff tases him, and Thor jumps out, swings his axe, and slices the Infinity Gauntlet right off of Thanos’s hand. Stark and Rogers enter last, and Ice, Rocket, Nebula, and Rhodes aim their guns directly at Thanos’s head.
But there’s something wrong. Thanos’s entire left side is burned and blistered, including his face. He looks weak, unsteady. Pathetic. Nothing like the formidable opponent that the Avengers had described, nothing like the monster that Ice had dreamt up.
Then Rocket curses, and Ice’s blood freezes in his veins when he looks over and sees the Gauntlet lying on the ground, cracked and burnt. No Stones to be found.
“Where are they?” Stark sounds and looks ready to kill. “Where the hell are the Stones?”
“Gone.” Thanos’s voice is a low, metallic-sounding rasp, like he hasn’t had much cause to use it since that fateful snap of his fingers. “Reduced to atoms.”
Carol grabs his head and forces it further backwards, eliciting a painful-sounding groan. “I don't like that answer,” she snarls. Power flickers at her fingertips. “Try again. Where are they?”
“I used the Stones to destroy the Stones. It…nearly killed me.” He gives a soft chuckle, like this whole fucking thing is one big joke. “But the work is done. It always will be. I am inevitable.”
Ice’s hands shake with rage. “You murdered trillions,” he snaps, his voice growing louder with every word. “You murdered my husband!”
“The universe required correction.” Thanos doesn’t even look at him. “After that…the Stones served no purpose…beyond temptation. So I destroyed them. You should be thankful.”
“Thankful?" Anger blazes bright within him, and he lunges forward, ready to tear this bastard apart with his bare hands, but Banner wraps his arm around Ice’s stomach and keeps him in place. Still, he struggles to break free, struggles to keep back the flood of furious tears. “You son of a bitch. You son of a bitch!”
“He must be lying,” Rhodes says, quiet and desperate. “We have to tear this place apart; he has to be lying.”
“My father is many things,” says Nebula, speaking up for the first time since they’d entered the room. Ice pauses for a moment in his struggle to stare at her. Her eyes are dry, her voice is steady, but she sounds devastated by her own words. “A liar is not one of them.”
“Ah.” Thanos turns his head in her direction. “Thank you, daughter. Perhaps I treated you too harshly—”
But he never finishes his sentence. With a roar of rage, Thor summons his axe to his hand, and, before anyone can stop him, slices Thanos’s head clean off its shoulders.
Everyone stares at the alien that had wiped out half the universe, now a limp corpse on the ground. Rogers drops his shield on the ground. “Thor. What did you do?”
Thor blinks, nonplussed, though the magnitude of his actions seem to wash over him as he glances toward the dead body on the ground. “I went for the head,” he says. Then he turns on his heel and walks out of the hut, the light of the sun illuminating his back for the briefest of moments before the door slams shut behind him.
Someone is talking to him. He can hear it, but it sounds like it’s coming from miles away, from the bottom of a canyon, from under the ocean. It’s a meaningless gabble, words full of nothing.
“Tom, can you hear me?”
He can, but he can't speak or move. Not because he’s forgotten how but because there’s no reason, none at all, why he should. Why should he do anything ever again anyway? There’s no point to anything anymore.
That breaks through the white noise pounding against his brain, and he automatically looks up. Carol is kneeling before him, her eyes soft even through the power that’s still making her skin glow. The ship is empty aside from the two of them, so they must have landed back on Earth by now. Had the whole trip back really passed by without his notice?
“Hey,” Carol says. “You alright?”
A weak, pathetic noise wobbles out of him. Maybe in another life it could have passed for a laugh. “Really?”
“Okay, stupid question,” Carol allows. Despite everything, the corner of her mouth quirks upward in a half smile, but it vanishes just as quickly as it’d appeared. “I’m sorry, Tom.”
He shakes his head. “Don't be,” he says quietly. “It’s not your fault.” It’s no one’s fault — not Carol’s, not Rogers’s, not even Thor’s, no matter how much the god of thunder seems to be blaming himself now. Tears brim in his eyes, but he makes no move to wipe them away. “We were just…too late.”
The words seem to hang in the air, suspended by their mutual grief. They were too late. Too late to bring back trillions of innocent lives. Too late to bring back Maria and Monica, too late to bring back Maverick. And now there’s nothing they can do about it.
Carol is speaking to him again, and he makes an effort to tune back in. “This might not be it,” she says. “I’ll go back to space, track down everyone I know — everyone that’s left that can help. Maybe there’s still a way that we can get everyone back.”
Might, maybe. Ice knows she’s trying to give him hope — even if she does not believe it herself — but hearing that just makes everything worse, somehow. “Maybe,” he echoes. “If you…if you find something, let me know.”
He stands up, and Carol grabs his wrist before he can take more than two steps. Even though her hands are still bathed in bright light, her grip is pleasantly warm. “Where will you be?”
“Same place you found me,” he says. His exhaustion is wearing him down, grinding away his bones and his heart and his very soul, leaving nothing but grief. He feels like he’s aged thirty years in the span of one day, and looking at the face of his old friend is not helping matters. “I’m going home.”
“—thing on? Is this — oh, okay. Good.” The image wavers and goes blurry for a moment before sharpening again. A dark-haired man winks at the camera, grinning at it like they share a secret. “This is Commander Pete Mitchell, coming to you live from my wedding. My wedding. God, that never gets old.” Someone makes a dirty joke in the background, followed by a peal of laughter, and he flips them off. “Fuck off, Slider.”
“Stop telling the guests to fuck off, Maverick. They might take their presents back.”
“And here,” the camera pans over to a blond man, who rolls his eyes and looks as though he is trying very hard not to be amused, “is the man who married me. Commander Tom Kazansky. Only took me five times to get him to say yes.”
“The sixth one was the only one that counted as a proposal. You didn’t even get on your knees the first three times.”
“I know.” His grin, if possible, gets wider. “That part came later.”
“Jesus Christ, Mitchell.” He goes red, but it’s clear that he’s not really embarrassed. “I can’t believe I married you.”
“Hey, no takebacks. ‘Til death do us part, remember?”
The blond rolls his eyes again before tugging the dark-haired man close and kissing him. “I remember,” he says once he pulls back, so quietly that only the camera picks it up. “‘Til death do us part.”
“Good.” He smiles. “Hey. Hey, Ice.”
“I love you.”
His eyes soften. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, Mav. I love you too.”
The video ends, but the final image blurs through the mess of tears in his eyes, and Ice chokes on a sob. “I love you, Mav,” he whispers. “I love you so much. I’m so sorry.”
“—thing on? Is this — oh, okay. Good. This is Commander Pete Mitchell, coming to you live from my wedding…”
Ice doesn’t remember how time had passed when Maverick had been with him. But now that he isn’t around, time refuses to pass at all. It elongates and stagnates, and he endures it. But only just.
To cope, he does his best to keep busy. He throws himself into his work at TOPGUN, even though it hurts like hell to teach the next generation of pilots without Maverick at his side. He calls Taylor and his mother three times a week, just to make sure they aren’t going to vanish too. He goes to group therapy once a week with several other people who lost their loved ones to the Decimation, and tries not to cry too much.
Surprisingly, the Avengers keep in touch with him. Tony Stark invites him to his wedding, and Ice sends him a gift to celebrate the birth of his daughter. Rhodes (or Rhodey, as he’d insisted on being called) visits TOPGUN now and then, and they swap stories over drinks at the O Club. Carol visits once every month or so, and they usually end up sitting on his porch drinking beer in silence and trying not to let their minds stray to their significant others.
It’s only when he’s not busy — when he’s left alone with his thoughts — that he lets himself drop the façade, lets himself succumb to his grief.
Some nights are better than others. Those are the nights where he goes through every video of Maverick in his camera roll just so he can remember the sound of his husband’s voice, the way he’d laughed, the way his eyes would crinkle at the corners when he smiled. Those nights, he can close his eyes and pretend that everything is alright.
And then there are the worse nights, the nights where the videos and photos don’t help. Those nights, all Ice can think of are Maverick’s last moments. Wondering if he’d been awake or asleep when he’d — when he’d gone. Wondering if Maverick had known what was going on, if it had hurt. Wondering what Maverick’s last words had been. If maybe Maverick’s last thoughts had been about him.
Those nights, Ice just wishes he could have had the chance to hold Maverick close and say goodbye.
(Most nights, he wishes he had been the one to go instead.)
The pain of separation still drags through his heart like claws. It feels like centuries have gone by since he last heard Maverick’s voice or saw him smile outside of a photo album, and still Ice is not used to his absence. Still, he puts his wedding ring on every morning and wears Maverick’s dog tags around his neck. Still, he glances around to find Maverick whenever he enters a room. Still, he rolls over in the middle of the night and reaches for his husband, half-asleep, and finds only an empty bed.
A year goes by. Then two years, then five. And it seems impossible that the world is still going on around him.
It’s been a shit day to compound a shit week (and a shit five years) and all Ice wants to do is collapse on the couch, open a bottle of wine, and forget about the world for a while. He grabs his mail and trudges up the driveway to his house, flipping through as he ascends. Junk mail, magazine for which he doesn’t even remember getting a subscription, junk, phone bill—
“Hey there, Iceman.”
Ice doesn’t drop his mail all over the ground from shock, but it’s a near thing. “Jesus, Carol,” he says. She gives him a snappy salute from where she’s standing on his porch — maybe one day he’ll get used to her short hair but today is not that day — and he stops in front of her. “You’re going to give me a goddamn heart attack if you keep that up.”
He waits for her to make a crack about heart attacks being likely for a man of his age, but she stays silent. In fact, her expression is as serious as sin — this is clearly not a typical visit. “Tom,” she says. “They figured it out.”
For a moment all he can do is stand there in shock, unable to understand what Carol is talking about. Then her words land like a bullet through Ice’s heart, and he grits his teeth so hard that his jaw twinges in pain. “Don't,” he grinds out.
“Give me hope.”
“I wouldn’t if there was none to give.” Carol meets his gaze evenly, the way she always does when she’s telling the truth, but he looks away. He can’t listen to this. He can’t. “Rogers and Romanoff sent me an update; they said that they’re working with Banner and someone named Scott Lang on figuring out time travel—”
There’s no humor in the laugh that escapes him. “Time travel?” he repeats incredulously. “What do they — what is this, Back to the Future? That’s not physically possible.”
Carol stands her ground, because of course she does. “There’s a lot of things that have happened lately that shouldn’t be physically possible,” she says, her voice low. “Half the universe got wiped out by a giant purple alien wielding a golden glove. I haven’t aged a day since 1989. I have superpowers, Kazansky. You tell me how that’s physically possible.”
He’s got no comeback for that, but he’s not about to back down either. “Carol, listen to me. Time travel is a pipe dream. It doesn’t make sense, it violates all known laws of quantum physics, there’s no way—”
“There’s always a way.”
“No. Not this time.” He pushes past her, climbing up the steps of his porch, and he fights the childish urge to throw his mail down on the ground and slam the door behind him. Time travel, honestly, of all the stupid goddamn ideas—
He stops in his tracks. “What?”
“You’re scared,” she repeats. “That’s why you don't want to do this. You’re afraid that it’s not going to work.” His lack of answer seems to be answer enough, and she sighs. “I get it, Tom. Really, I do. But if there’s a chance that we can get everyone back then we have to take it. We owe it to everyone that’s not with us anymore to try.”
His grip on the envelopes in his hand tightens. “I know,” he whispers, so quiet that he wonders if she can even hear him. “But I can’t, Carol. I can’t…” I can’t do this again.
The words go unspoken, but she seems to understand. Her hand goes to his shoulder, squeezes once before letting go. “Think about it, Tom,” she says. “At least do that.”
There’s a surge of heat and power that makes the air around them crackle and the hair on the back of Ice’s neck stand up, and then Carol Danvers is gone. And Ice is alone again.
That night, Ice can’t sleep.
He keeps tossing and turning in bed, unable to nod off, Carol’s words still ricocheting in his head like a bullet in a metal box. She’s right, after all. She always is. He is scared. No, that’s not it, he’s goddamn terrified. Up in the air he might be ice cold, no mistakes, but on the ground is where things get difficult. And Christ, have things gotten difficult.
It might have been over thirty years since he sat in a classroom and learned about quantum physics, but he still remembers what his professors always said. Quantum physics is not magic. No matter how strange the field seems, the bedrock principles of physics still apply: energy is still conserved, entropy still increases, nothing can move faster than the speed of light. Time travel just isn’t possible.
And even if it is — even if the Avengers somehow found yet another way to make the physically impossible possible — he can’t do this again. He can’t. He can’t get up his hopes again only to have them dashed. He barely survived losing Maverick the first time and if they do this and it doesn’t work, he’s not confident that he’ll be able to survive the loss a second time. Is it really worth it to break his heart all over again over something that probably won’t even work?
But then his thoughts stray to his husband, as they often do. Maverick wouldn’t just sit by and let himself succumb to grief if their places were reversed. No. He’d be out there with Carol doing whatever it took to fix things, risking it all for the tiniest chance of success.
Ice is not the type to take risks. He prefers to play by the rules; he always has. But Carol is right. If there’s a chance that he could see Maverick again — talk to him, hold him close, hear his laugh, see him smile…
Well. He owes it to his husband to try.
There’s a brief pause. Then, “Kazansky.”
“You were right.” She doesn’t say anything, so Ice takes that as his cue to press on. “I am scared. I’m terrified. Terrified that this isn’t going to work, or that we’ll screw up and make things even worse than they already are. But — you’re right. If there’s a chance that we could get Mav back — that we could get him and Maria and Monica and everyone else back — we have to take that chance. And I’m willing to take it if you are.”
The silence goes on for so long that Ice wonders if she’d hung up on him, but then she lets out a little laugh. “Good,” she says. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Much like the last time Ice and Carol were in upstate New York, all the Avengers are gathered in a conference room discussing what to do. But this time there’s a distinct feeling of determination in the air, nothing like despair and defeat of last time, and it fills him with hope. Maybe they can really do this after all.
“Look,” Rogers is saying from his position at the head of the table. “Almost everyone in this room has had an encounter with at least one of the six Infinity Stones—”
“I haven’t,” says the man to his right. Ice doesn’t recognize him and figures this must be Scott Lang, the man that Carol had briefly mentioned. “I don't even know what the hell you're all talking about.”
“It’s really not that complicated,” says Carol, and it’s honestly a little funny to see everyone’s heads swivel toward her at the same time. “They’re the remnants of six singularities that existed before the Big Bang, which were then compressed into Stones after the universe began and were dispersed throughout the cosmos.”
“There’s the Mind Stone, the Reality Stone, the Power Stone, the Time Stone, and the Soul Stone. Oh, and the Space Stone. Or the Tesseract, whichever you prefer.” Ice shrugs nonchalantly, trying hard to keep a straight face. “No big deal.”
Scott’s jaw is roughly at his knees. “Sure,” he manages. “That clears it up.”
“Hey, Tom.” Rhodey gets up from his chair and strides across the room to shake their hands, grinning. “Carol. It’s good to see you both again.”
“Tom?” Tony repeats incredulously, pointing at Ice. “Uh, his first name is Captain.”
Ice rolls his eyes, but a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth anyway. “Good to see you too, Tony.” Then he turns to Rogers, and his smile fades slightly. It might have been five years since the whole civilian mishap, but he can still hold a grudge with the best of them. “Captain Rogers.”
Rogers nods. “Captain Kazansky.”
“Lot of captains in the room,” Scott says with a nervous laugh. No one answers him. “Uh, so...who are you guys, exactly? Did we — did we meet at the airport?”
Ice has no idea what he’s talking about. Thankfully, Carol answers instead. “No,” she says. “We helped them track down Thanos the first time. Are you the one who escaped the quantum realm?”
“Yeah! Yeah, that’s me. Scott Lang. Or Ant-Man, if you want.”
“Ant-Man,” Ice repeats. “Because you — can control ants?”
“Oh no. ‘Cause I can shrink to the size of an ant. I can also make myself really big, though. So it’s not exactly the most accurate name.” He tapers off with another nervous laugh. “So. What’re your superhero names?”
“Captain Marvel,” says Carol, at the same time Ice says, “I don’t have one.”
“He’s lying,” Tony says from where he’s lounging in his chair. “His superhero name is Iceman.”
“Because you — uh, can shoot ice from your hands?” Scott punches the air and makes a weird noise with his mouth. “Like that lady from Frozen?”
Jesus. Mav would give me hell if he heard Scott say that. “No,” he says, trying to be patient and not roll his eyes and not quite succeeding at either. “I’m a pilot; a naval aviator. Iceman’s my callsign.”
“Right,” Carol says, clearly no longer in the mood for small talk. She sits down in the empty chair between Natasha and Banner — and apparently the rumors are right; he really is permanently in the form of the Hulk. Rhodey offers up his seat, but Ice refuses; he’d rather remain standing. “So. Time travel. Where are we with it?”
“It worked.” This answer comes from a vaguely familiar-looking man with tattoos all over his arms and a deadly serious expression. Ice isn’t sure who he is, but figures if he’s at this table that he can be trusted. “We tested it.”
Out of all of the answers he’d expected, ‘it worked’ had not been one of them. “Seriously?” he asks in disbelief. “What about the — what’s it called, the Planck’s scale? Isn’t quantum fluctuation supposed to mess with that?”
“You’d think, but it doesn’t,” Tony says. “We found a way around it.”
Rogers eyes him with interest. “When did you become an expert in quantum physics, Captain Kazansky?”
“Last night,” Ice deadpans.
Carol and Tony laugh, and Rogers blinks. “Seriously?”
“No.” It takes a lot of effort to keep from rolling his eyes. “Haven’t gotten much use out of it lately, but I have a Master’s degree in it. And in electrical engineering.”
“Hey, same here! Up top.” Ice makes no move to high-five him, and Scott eventually retracts his hand. “Cool. Uh, anyway. So we figured out the how, now we’ve just gotta figure out the when and the where.”
“I’ve got the when and where for you,” Rocket says. “We go back in time to when Thanos was born and,” he makes a noise with his mouth like a piece of celery breaking in half, “snap his scrawny little neck. Boom. Problem solved. Everything back to normal.”
“Okay," Banner says. "First of all, that’s horrible—"
“It’s Thanos!” Rocket protests. Ice is inclined to agree with him.
“And second of all,” Banner continues, “that’s not how time travel works. You can only go where you’ve already been. So unless you were personally there for his birth, that option’s moot.”
Rocket makes an expression that on any other being could be classified as a pout. Tony is next to speak up. “The Stones have been in a lot of different places throughout history. Our history. Not a lot of convenient spots to just drop in, so we’ll have to choose our targets carefully.”
“Right.” Carol leans back in her chair. “So we go back, we get the Stones before Thanos gets them, Thanos doesn't have the Stones, and everything goes back to normal.”
But Banner’s shaking his head again. “No, that’s not how that works. Think about it. If you go into the past, that past becomes your future, and your former present becomes the past, which can't now be changed by your new future. Changing the past doesn’t change the future.”
Ice feels the beginnings of a headache coming on. “So you’re saying every time we take a Stone, it creates another timeline?”
“Taking a Stone will create another timeline, yes,” Banner says. “But once we put all the Stones back, all the alternate timelines will get erased like they never happened.”
That makes sense, even though Ice still wishes they had the option of going back in time and killing Thanos as a baby. “Alright,” he says. “So when and where are the Stones in our history?”
“Let's start with the Aether,” Rogers suggests. “The Reality Stone. Thor, what do you know?”
Ice startles as Thor stumbles out of his chair and heads toward the front of the room. He’s gained some weight since the last time Ice had seen him, and his hair is long and dirty. Looks like he’s been handling it worse than everyone else, he thinks. Not that I blame him.
“The Aether,” Thor says. He’s swaying a little as he speaks, and that bewilders Ice even more. Is he drunk? “The Aether, first, is not a stone. Someone's called it a stone before. It's more of a…an angry sludge, sort of thing. Here's an interesting story, though. About the Aether. My grandfather, many years ago, had to hide the stone from the Dark Elves. Scary beings. So Jane, an old flame of mine, she stuck her hand inside a rock this one time, and then the Aether stuck itself inside her. And she became very, very sick. So I had to take her to Asgard, which is where I'm from…”
“Uh, Thor,” Natasha says carefully, “maybe you should sit down—”
“No, no, I’m not done yet. Uh, where was I. Ah, yes. I took Jane to Asgard, and she met my mother. Who’s dead now. And Jane and I aren’t even together anymore, so, uh — nothing really lasts forever. The only thing that is permanent in life, is impermanence.”
Ice pinches the bridge of his nose as Tony and Rogers finally get Thor to sit back down. “Okay,” he says. “So the Reality Stone was on some place called Asgard—”
“Asgard’s not a place, it’s a people,” Thor says from where he’s buried his face in his arms at the table. “Used to be a place. Then it got destroyed. During Ragnarok. My sister was there. I got my hair cut. It was a fun time.”
“Right,” Ice says. “Okay.”
“Was the Reality Stone on Earth at any time before that?” Rhodey asks Thor, who shakes his head.
“Nope. Just on Asgard. I’ll get it for you.”
“Oh, uh, thanks Thor, but you don't have to—”
“Yes I do.” He looks up, and his expression is so radically different from earlier that it takes Ice aback. There are dark smudges under his eyes, which are soft, pleading. He looks desperate, and stone cold sober. “I can do this. I need to do this. Please.”
Rogers exchanges a look with Tony, who sighs. “Alright, Thor. It’s all yours.” He pulls up a hologram and writes Reality Stone — Thor, Asgard 2013 on it. “What’s next?”
“Quill said he stole the Power Stone from Morag,” Rocket says.
Rhodey frowns. “Is that a person?”
“No,” Rocket says, like it had been a stupid question. “Morag’s a planet. Quill was a person.”
“Thanos found the Soul Stone on Vormir,” Nebula says. Her tone is so dark that it makes everyone look over at her with concern. “It’s a dominion of death, at the very center of Celestial existence. It’s where — where he murdered my sister.”
That takes the wind out of their sails. Then Carol speaks up. “I’ve been there before,” she says quietly. “Back when I was with the Kree. I’ll get the Soul Stone.”
As no one else had been to Vormir before, Tony nods and writes Carol’s name underneath Thor’s. Soon after, Nebula volunteers to go to Morag in 2014, and Rogers to New York in 2012 to retrieve the Mind Stone. Banner says he’ll talk to someone named Wong about retrieving the Time Stone from the Sanctum Sanctorum (whatever the hell that is). And then all that’s left is the Tesseract.
“If you pick the right year, there are three stones in New York,” Natasha says. “The Time Stone, the Mind Stone, and the Space Stone.”
“No way,” says the stranger — who Ice remembered is Clint Barton, also known as Hawkeye. “There’s too many factors in play, Nat. What if we mess up and Loki gets his hands on the Tesseract before we do and disappears? Then what? We’ve got to spread it out.”
“I agree,” Rogers says. “Where else was the Tesseract in history? In our history?”
Carol frowns. “I gave it to Fury to give to SHIELD in ‘95. Before that, Mar-Vell — my mentor — she stole it. She was using it to try and unlock light-speed travel back in ‘89.”
“Where did she get it from?” Rhodey asks. “Or when, technically.”
“My father recovered it from the Arctic Ocean back when Cap first became a Capsicle,” Tony says. “After that, Stark Industries moved it from place to place to study it. Lots of military bases in the ‘80s.”
Natasha’s already got a list pulled up, and projects it so everyone can see. “It was in California in the late ‘80s, before Stark Industries noted that it was missing,” she notes. “Here, check it out. This could be an opportunity. August 5th, 1986, they were transporting it to a Navy base in San Diego called—”
“Miramar,” Ice says. Everyone turns to look at him. His heart is in his throat and he kind of feels like he’s going to faint, but he somehow manages to speak steadily. “Naval Air Station, Miramar. Also known as the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, or TOPGUN.”
Silence. “So,” Scott says awkwardly. “You know the place?”
“Yeah.” Ice clears his throat. “Yeah, I do.” It’s where I met my husband. “I was there that August. I’ll get the Tesseract for you.”
“Five years ago, we lost,” Rogers says. “All of us. We lost friends. We lost family. We lost a part of ourselves.”
Thor and Tony nod. Wong — Banner’s friend from the Sanctum Sanctorum — makes a noise of agreement. Nebula’s expression does not change, though her fists clench imperceptibly at her sides. Carol offers her hand to Ice, who takes it. He could really use the support right now.
“Today, we have a chance to take it all back,” Rogers says. “You know your objectives. Get the Stones, get them back. One round trip each. No mistakes. No do-overs. We’re all going somewhere we know, but that doesn't mean we should know what to expect.”
That’s an understatement.
“Avoid your past selves. Remember your missions. Be on your guard. This is the fight of our lives, and we're going to win.” Rogers’s jaw tightens. “Whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes,” Tony echoes.
Then Thor. “Whatever it takes.”
And Wong. “Whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes,” Nebula says.
“Whatever it takes,” Carol says.
Ice’s remaining hand goes to his chest, where his time travel jumpsuit conceals the dog tags (Maverick’s dog tags) hanging around his neck, and he nods. “Whatever it takes.”
They step back, keeping a few feet of distance between themselves — except Tony, who is going to 1986 with him and thereby stays by Ice’s side. Rogers looks over to Banner, who stands with the others by the rows of computers. “Ready, Bruce?”
“Ready, Cap,” says Banner. “Initializing time travel in five, four…”
Ice exhales, trying to ward off the sudden wave of nerves. This is going to work. They can do this. He knows they can.
And worst comes to worst, if the journey kills him, then at least he’ll get to see Maverick again—
The world blurs, and everything goes white.
It’s like a scene out of his nightmares — his heart’s in his throat, blood rushing in his ears and eyes watering as he falls. There’s no end in sight; in fact, there’s nothing in sight. Everything is a blur of bright color and high-pitched sound, and Ice has never been more terrified in his entire life.
Wind rushes past him, buffeting him forward with increasing speed. The rush of blood in his ears becomes a raging chorus of noise, deafening him, climbing to a peak, and he shuts his eyes—
And he lands hard.
The sudden return to solid ground and fresh air makes him stumble, and Ice bends over coughing, choking on the sickly sweet bile rising in the back of his throat. His lungs are burning and he’s sweating and he feels a little like he’s on fire. Is he on fire? He glances down and is relieved to find that, no matter what his brain tells him, he’s still somehow in one piece.
Tony’s right next to him, clutching the back of a bench and dry-heaving, looking about as healthy as Ice feels. “God,” he manages. “You know, they did not make it seem this bad in Back to the Future.”
“They were in a car.” Ice forces himself over to the bench and sits down with a thud, feeling — for once — every one of his sixty-four years. “Maybe that protected them from the worst of it.”
“Once we get back I’ll sue them for false advertising.” Tony wipes his brow and sits down beside Ice. “So this is the place?”
Ice looks up. It might have been a while since he’d been here — they’d moved the program to Naval Air Base Fallon in Nevada in ‘96 — but he still recognizes the base like he’d been here yesterday. The main building, the runways, even the roar of the jets in the sky; everything is just like he remembers. They’d landed in the main parking lot. Maverick used to park his motorcycle around here somewhere… “Yeah,” he says. “This is it.”
Tony stands up, clasping his hands together. “Okay,” he says. “We’ve got fifty-eight minutes to get in and out with the Tesseract before we risk messing up the space-time continuum beyond repair. It’s…” He checks his watch. “A couple minutes past noon now. Stark Industries will be making the drop at twelve-thirty. You’ve got to intercept them by then.”
They’d rehearsed the plan hundreds of times since last night, and Ice knows it like the back of his hand. Tony will stay behind and guide him through the halls, keeping an eye out via a pair of tiny drones, and Ice (in full dress uniform) will pretend to be a visiting captain. The people from Stark Industries will be carrying the Tesseract in a briefcase, Ice will do a briefcase swap at the very last moment, and then (with luck) they’ll be out of here and back to the present with time to spare.
Ice takes a look at himself in the side mirror of the van Tony’s temporarily hijacked. He looks good; as crisp and put-together as a man of his rank should be. He’s still got his wedding ring on and his husband’s dog tags around his neck, but the latter is well hidden under the uniform. Most importantly, he looks very different from his younger self, who right now is likely focused on whether or not he and Slider will win Top Gun — and on pushing down his burgeoning feelings for his hotshot self-proclaimed rival.
Tony’s voice comes in through the earpiece Ice is wearing, which is the size of a grain of rice and almost completely unnoticeable. “Ready, Iceman?”
Ice nods. “Born ready,” he says. “They in the building?”
“Just entered. Check this out.”
Ice turns around to see Tony sticking a tablet out the window for him to look at. On the screen is a group of several businessmen, accompanied by a few soldiers and a very unimpressed sixteen year old Tony Stark.
Tony winces. “Jesus,” he says. “I can’t believe I used to wear my hair like that.”
Ice remembers how he used to have frosted tips and gives an involuntary shudder. “Could be worse.” Then he squares his shoulders. “Alright. I’m going in.”
Tony hands him the briefcase. “Good luck, Iceman.”
There’s a little bit of Maverick in his answering grin. “Won’t need it.”
Walking through the halls makes Ice feel all sorts of nostalgic, even with the pressure of the mission on his back and Tony’s voice in his ear. There were the locker rooms. There were the main classrooms. The briefing room. Viper’s office, which thankfully has the blinds shut. So many memories.
“Alright, heads up. They’ve got the briefcase. Two hallways over.”
Ice switches directions, keeping his head up and his expression cool. There aren’t many people around, but the ones that are here get out of his way and stand at attention the second they see his expression and the insignia on his dress whites.
He can hear the people from Stark Industries before he sees them, and pauses for a moment. Around the corner come the naval officers (all lieutenants, from what he can see) and the businessmen. Young Tony Stark is nowhere to be found — probably messing around with something or other, if Ice has to guess — and Ice steels himself. Here we go.
Decoy briefcase in hand, he rounds the corner as well, deliberately bumping into the businessman carrying the Tesseract-occupied briefcase so that both of them drop what they’re carrying and Ice lands hard on the floor. One of the lieutenants curses upon seeing Ice on the ground and quickly helps him to his feet. “Sir! Are you alright, sir?”
“At ease, Lieutenant, I’m fine.” Ice glares at the businessman, mustering up all of his irritation and annoyance as he snatches the briefcase (the one he came for) off the ground. “What business do you have here, gentlemen?”
“Sir,” interjects another lieutenant. “They’re here on behalf of Stark Industries, sir.”
“Stark Industries,” Ice repeats, keeping his gaze cool. “Right. I heard this morning that you would be visiting.” Then, deciding to mess with them a little, he says to the third officer, “See to it that they pay more attention to where they’re walking, Lieutenant.”
The man stands at attention. “Yes sir.”
“Sorry about that, Captain,” says the man he’d bumped into with a placating smile. “Got a lot on my mind, as you can probably imagine.”
Ice eyes him. Something about him is familiar. “What’s your name?”
“Stane. Obadiah Stane.”
Tony inhales sharply and Ice immediately recognizes him. He’s much younger and has a full head of hair, but this man would go onto become the temporary CEO of Stark Industries after the death of Tony’s parents — and later would try to kill Tony himself. “Well, Mr. Stane,” says Ice. He checks his wristwatch. Twenty minutes left. “I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this short. Good luck with…whatever venture you’re working on.”
“Thank you, Captain,” says Stane.
“Prick,” Tony mutters.
Ice nods, and graciously moves out of the way so the contingent can pass aside. Then, before he can even decide what to do next, a young man trudges down the hallway, followed by an older man with thinning gray hair. “You’re getting good at this, Jarvis. Too good. Maybe I should put a bell on you.”
The other man — Jarvis — just laughs, exasperated but fond. “It isn’t that difficult, sir,” he says. “I just follow the commotion, and you’re usually on the other end.”
Young Tony puts a hand to his chest in shock. “You wound me, Jarvis. Consider me thoroughly wounded.” They pass Ice, who’s doing his best not to stare, and Tony (and Jarvis) nod at him politely. “Still. Better catch up before Obie blows another gasket.”
Then they’re gone too, and Ice is alone again. Checking both ways to make sure no one else is coming, he unlocks the briefcase and opens it. A glowing white cube the size of a small alarm clock stares up at him, and Ice can’t hide his grin. Mission accomplished.
“Shit. Hey, Iceman, heads up. Some Tom Selleck wannabe is heading your way.”
Tom Selleck wannabe — oh shit. Viper. And probably Jester and the other instructors, given their proclivity to wander the halls in groups. He knows it’s likely they won’t recognize him, but they’ll definitely have a lot of questions as to why a captain they don’t know is at TOPGUN, so he’s going to have to hide.
Glancing around desperately as the footsteps get louder, he spots a door marked Storage and, after snapping the briefcase shut, heads toward it. Thankfully it’s unlocked, and he steps inside and quickly closes the door behind him. The footsteps and familiar voices pass by a few moments later, and he gives a sigh of relief. That had been a close one. Turning around, he sets down his briefcase and leans against the door, intending to take a moment to catch his breath before heading back over to Tony.
But he’s not alone. There’s someone sitting in the corner of the room, knees pulled up to his chest, head buried in his hands, shoulders shaking from tears. Then his head snaps up, and Ice can see the exact second it registers that a) he’s not alone and b) he’s in the same room as a captain, and he scrambles to his feet and stands at attention like he hadn’t just been crying for who knows how long. His eyes are red and his skin is blotchy, but Ice would know his face anywhere.
“Lieutenant Pete Mitchell, sir,” Maverick says, his head held up high despite his obvious devastation, and it takes literally every ounce of willpower that Ice possesses not to burst into tears on the spot.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” he manages, and he means it. He means it so much. He clears his throat in an effort to compose himself, because Maverick is so young and looks so upset and is staring at him like he’s a stranger and he can’t stand any of it, and says, “Captain Tom K—” Don’t use your real name, you idiot! “—uh, Cruise. Captain Tom Cruise.”
Ice could hit himself. The hell kind of a name was that supposed to be? A Navy officer named Cruise? Even Maverick doesn’t seem to buy it; he raises his eyebrows as if to say Really?, and it’s such a familiar expression that Ice almost laughs.
“I’m visiting on behalf of Stark Industries,” he adds, and this at least seems to go over better. Hesitantly, he moves closer, trying to project an aura of calm. “Are you…alright, Lieutenant?”
It’s a stupid question because Maverick’s clearly not alright; his eyes are filled with tears and his mouth is twisted like he’s barely holding his emotions back, but he nods anyway. “Yes sir.”
Sir. A distant, formal term of respect — a term that he’s been called thousands of times but never by Maverick, and it makes his heart take refuge somewhere in his throat and threaten to choke him. “May I ask what happened?”
Maverick’s throat bobs, and he inhales sharply. “I lost a friend, sir,” he whispers, and Ice thinks of course. Of course. How could he have forgotten? August 5th, 1986. The inquiry into Goose’s death. And Maverick’s in full dress uniform — had he just come from there? God, why did the universe have to be so cruel? “And it was my fault.”
“No it wasn’t.” The sentence comes out so vehemently that Maverick flinches and oh God, no, that wasn’t what he wanted at all. The last thing on Earth he wants to do is make Maverick afraid of him. Softer, gentler, he amends, “I’m sure it wasn’t.”
“He was my RIO, sir.” Maverick’s voice quivers like he’s just holding onto his composure by the skin of his teeth, and it’s physically painful to see the man he loves so upset. “My responsibility. And I…I got him killed. I failed him.”
Ice bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood to keep himself from screaming It wasn’t your fault, Mav, it wasn’t, it wasn’t, please believe me, I love you I love you I love you. “Where are your friends, Lieutenant?” he asks instead. “You got anyone to help?”
“They don’t need to hold my hand, sir,” Maverick says, and the worst part is the quiet conviction in his words, like he really believes that he’s unworthy of receiving any comfort. “They lost one of their own too.”
Before Ice can stop himself, he strides across the room and pulls Maverick into a fierce hug. For a moment, Maverick is stiff, unmoving, and Ice can feel the terror rising in the back of his throat like bile because what if he’s gone too far and accidentally ruined everything, but then Maverick lets out a tiny sob and his arms come up around Ice, clinging to him like Ice is a lifeline. Ice’s hand comes up to cradle the back of Maverick’s head, and he’s trying hard not to start crying himself. The man before him might not be the same man he'd lost, but he’s still Maverick, and for that, Ice will give him all the comfort he needs.
Eventually, though, Maverick pulls away, looking only marginally more composed than Ice feels. “Sir,” he says, his eyes somewhere to the right of Ice’s head.
Ice knows he should get going — the time is running out and surely everyone else has returned to the present by now — but he can’t make himself leave yet. Not with Maverick still upset. “You don't have to be alone, Lieutenant,” he says quietly. “You’ve got the right people in your corner to help you get through this. Seek them out. It’ll get better. I promise.”
Maverick nods. His eyes are full of tears again. “Yes sir.”
There’s nothing else for him to say, so Ice returns to the door to pick up the briefcase. He’s still got ten minutes to make it back to Tony and head back to the present without messing up the space-time continuum, so that’s good at least, even if it means he has to leave Maverick for what could be the last time—
“Sir?” Ice turns around to see Maverick take a hesitant step forward, uncertainty written all over his face. He’ll take uncertainty over overwhelming grief any day, though, and he raises his eyebrows. “Will I — will I see you later?”
Ice stills. “You can count on it,” he finally answers. At the very least, that’s true. “Take care of yourself, Lieutenant.” Please.
“Sir,” Maverick says, and Ice can still feel his eyes on him long after he leaves the storage room and closes the door behind him.
Tony is waiting for him in the van, and is unusually quiet as Ice climbs into the passenger seat, holding the briefcase with the Tesseract in it tightly in his hands. “So,” he says at last, and his voice is softer than normal. “That was your husband, huh.”
Ice gives a tight nod. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, that was him.”
But it wasn’t. Not really. The Maverick that he’d just encountered — the sobbing, miserable young Maverick in that storage room — is not the Maverick that he misses. He’s not the same Maverick who Ice married, the one he’d wake up next to in the morning who would smile softly and kiss him and then demand to be the little spoon for just a moment longer. But once upon a time his Maverick was that Maverick, and Ice hates himself for not being there in his time of need.
“He never told me,” he says numbly. Tony glances over at him. “He never asked for help. He just…decided to quit after the inquiry and — and I shamed him for it. We all did.” He lets out a shuddering breath, burying his head in his hands. "God. I failed him, Tony. Why…why do I keep failing him?”
“You didn’t fail him, Iceman—”
“Yes, I did. I did. He was crying, he was alone. And I couldn’t...I couldn't comfort him the way I wanted to, or hold him, or anything. I couldn't even tell him to go look for me — we weren’t good enough friends back then for him to accept any comfort that I might have given him." Ice exhales, trying to pull himself together, but it comes out more like a sob. “I left him, Tony. I left him alone again.”
There’s a hesitant pause, then, “What do you mean, again?”
“The morning — the morning of the Decimation, we were in bed, and I left him to go take a shower, and…and he was alone when he died. I never…” His voice twists, breaks. Goes small. “I never even got the chance to say goodbye to him.”
For several seconds, the only sound in the van is that of Ice’s ragged breathing. Then there’s a strange shuffling noise, and Tony clears his throat. “Hey,” he says. “Iceman.”
He’d rather keep his face in his hands for the foreseeable future — the better to avoid the pity in Tony’s eyes — but something in Tony’s voice makes him look up. Tony’s holding out a photograph, encased in a flimsy plastic frame, and Ice takes it. The photograph is of Tony, likely taken before the Decimation, and a teenage boy with curly brown hair. They’ve got their arms around each other, making peace signs behind the other’s head, and both of them are grinning. The boy is holding a certificate, but Ice can’t read the words on it; the font is too small and the paper is upside down. “What am I looking at?”
Tony taps the photo, right above the boy’s head. “Peter Parker,” he says. “He used to swing around Queens as the friendly neighborhood Spiderman. Heard of him?” Ice shakes his head, and Tony shrugs like he hadn’t expected otherwise. “That’s okay. But he was — God, he was so smart, and so excited to help people. He used to leave me voicemails about how he’d save random old women who bought him churros.” Tony’s laugh is wet. “A real pain in my ass, but…he was a good kid. A really good kid.”
Ice’s stomach sinks. “What happened to him?” he asks, because Tony’s use of the past tense had not escaped his attention.
Tony breathes out. “We were on Titan,” he says quietly. “Me, and the kid, and this wizard, and a team of alien misfits that called themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy. We were going to take down Thanos together, but our plan didn’t work. He disappeared before we could kill him. And then…they all started to disappear too.” He presses his lips together, inhales sharply. “And Peter — when he started turning to dust, he was clinging to me, sobbing, crying that he didn’t want to go. He…faded away in my arms.”
Ice looks down at the photograph again, trying to imagine it. That poor kid — Christ, how old was he? Fifteen? Sixteen? — clinging to Tony, sobbing, and Tony had just had to stand there and take it, trying to soothe something that couldn’t be soothed away. What would it have been like if Ice had stayed in bed those extra ten minutes and saw Maverick start to fade away? Would Maverick have tried to stay stoic for his sake, or would he have been screaming, crying like Peter Parker had, begging Ice not to let him go?
Maybe it’s better that you weren’t there, says a little voice in the back of his mind, the one that often told him the truth no matter how uncomfortable it was. Mav would never have wanted you to see him like that. And you wouldn’t have been able to handle seeing him like that either.
“I blamed myself a lot after he died,” Tony is saying, and Ice tears himself away from his own morbid thoughts so he can pay attention. “For letting him come with me to space, for giving him that new Spiderman suit to begin with. I couldn’t live with myself, knowing that I failed that kid. It took me five days before I could wash his — before I could wash the dust off my hands.”
Ice swallows hard. “I’m sorry,” he says. It’s too much and too little all at once, but he means it. He really does. “I’m sorry that you had to go through that.”
“Yeah, well, we all did. We all lost people we cared about when Thanos snapped his goddamn fingers.” Ice gives him the photograph back, and Tony tucks it back into the pocket of his jacket. “My point is,” and now his voice is much quieter, “I might have made mistakes, but Peter dying wasn’t my fault. It took me a long time to see it, but I know now. I didn’t fail him by letting him come to space with me, and you didn’t fail your husband by not being there when he faded away. The only thing that deserves the full brunt of the blame is Thanos.”
Ice nods, too numb to speak. Too afraid that he’ll start crying again if he opens his mouth.
“We’ve got the Stone,” Tony says. “We’re nearly there. And — what’s your husband’s name again?”
Ice isn’t sure what to be more taken aback by: the fact that Tony had spoken about Maverick in the present tense or that he’s asking a question he certainly already knows the answer to, given that he'd been listening to Ice’s conversation via the earpiece. Still... “Maverick,” he finally says. “Maverick Mitchell.”
“Maverick,” Tony repeats, like he’s tasting the name on his tongue. “His parents not like him or something?”
That startles a laugh out of him — his first genuine laugh since this entire mess of events got started. “His parents liked him fine,” he says. A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “His real name’s Pete; he just always preferred to go by his callsign. Said if he’d earned it, he might as well use it.”
Tony snorts. “Sounds about right,” he says. “Very sensible.”
Out of all the words that could be used to describe his husband, sensible is definitely not one of them, and it makes him laugh again. “Yeah, that’s Mav for you.” Ice’s smile fades when he realizes that he’d lapsed into the present tense as well, and he looks back down. “Well. It was, anyway.”
Tony reaches out, grasps his shoulder tightly. “Hey,” he says. “Like I said, we’ve got the Stone now. You’re going to see him again soon. I promise.”
Ice manages a nod. “Yeah,” he whispers. “I hope so.”
Their second attempt at time travel isn’t nearly as painful as the first had been, but Ice still lands in the throes of a coughing fit upon returning to the present, grabbing onto Tony’s arm for balance, the briefcase with the Tesseract in it cradled against his chest.
Rhodey jogs up to the platform, and he helps Tony get Ice back up to a standing position. “Jesus — you two alright?”
“I’m fine,” Ice manages. He rips off his helmet and takes deep, steadying breaths. Fresh air. Thank God. This whole thing had better work, because he’s got a feeling that his next jump into time and space might actually kill him. His heart is hammering against his ribs so loudly that he’s sure everyone can hear it. “Tony?”
“Don’t worry about me, Elsa, I’m fine.” Tony’s voice is light and casual, but Ice is married to Maverick Mitchell and knows exactly what it looks like when someone is trying to hide their pain behind confidence and stupid jokes. Tony is pale and sweaty, holding onto Rhodey and taking deep breaths. “We the first ones back?”
“No,” says a voice from the side, and Ice looks up to see Wong standing next to Banner, Natasha, Clint, Rocket, Scott, Rogers and Thor. “We are still waiting on Captain Danvers and Nebula.”
“How much time do they have?”
“Four minutes,” Banner says. That’s not exactly reassuring. “Did you get the Tesseract?”
“Yeah.” Finally having caught his breath, Ice straightens up and nods at the briefcase still clutched to his chest. “In here. Did you all get what you came for?”
Wong nods, as do Rogers and Thor, who looks different than Ice remembers him. No longer is he silent, back stooped with grief; now he stands tall, more confident, his head held high and a familiar-looking hammer (hadn’t it been destroyed?) in his hand.
The platform that Ice is standing on starts vibrating, and Banner curses. “Off, off, get off, someone else is coming back—”
Ice, Rhodey and Tony get off the platform and shield their eyes just in time; the room glows white and Ice’s ears pop. When he opens his eyes again, two figures are standing there — Nebula and Carol. Thank God.
Nebula takes off her helmet first, squinting around the room like she can’t quite believe where she’s standing. “As requested,” she says, showing them the Stone in her hand. There’s something different about her too, but Ice puts it down to the trauma of traveling through time and whatever she’d seen on Morag. Maybe she’d even run into her sister the same way he’d run into Maverick.
Either way, it’s none of his business and she’d gotten the Stone, so he turns to face his other friend. “Carol, did you get the—”
His voice cuts off. Standing before him with her helmet tucked under her arm is a woman he’s never seen before. A woman with short, graying hair and a lined face; she looks his age, maybe a little younger. But this can’t be right. This can’t be Carol Danvers. Can it?
“Hey there, Iceman,” she says. Her smile is crooked, almost sad. “You know, I think I wear this whole silver fox thing better.”
He doesn’t laugh. He can’t. “Carol,” he whispers. “What did you do?”
“The Soul Stone required a sacrifice.” Nebula’s voice is soft, almost surprised. “She gave something up.”
Ice swallows hard. “What did you give up?” he asks, even though he already knows the answer.
Carol holds her hands out, palms up. Ice waits for the telltale flicker of her powers, but nothing appears. Yet Carol’s voice is steady when she answers, “Nothing that I wasn’t afraid to lose.”
“Whatever it takes,” Ice says, feeling numb.
Carol nods. She’d given up her powers, her immortality, everything for the slimmest chance of reversing the Decimation, and still she holds her head up high. She’s the bravest person he’s ever met. “Yeah,” she says. “Whatever it takes.”
“Alright,” Rocket finally says. “So the glove’s ready. Question is, who’s gonna snap their freaking fingers?”
Ice hesitates. Part of him wants to step forward and volunteer, but he remembers what the Infinity Gauntlet had done to Thanos and he wants to still be alive and in one piece when Maverick comes back. (He doesn’t know whether that makes him practical or a coward, and he doesn't really give a shit.)
From the looks of it, everyone else is thinking the same thing, which is why it’s a surprise when Thor steps forward and says, “I’ll do it.”
“Excuse me?” Carol says incredulously. Even now that she looks her actual age, her death glare has the same force behind it, and it actually stops Thor in his tracks. Well, that and Ice and Tony moving forward to prevent the god of thunder from reaching the glove.
“Yeah, Thor, wait just a second,” Rogers says, clearly trying for a more diplomatic approach. “We haven't decided who's gonna put that on yet.”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” Thor shoots back, eight different kinds of sarcastic. “What, were you just sitting around waiting for the right opportunity?”
“We should at least discuss it,” Scott tries, but Thor is already shaking his head.
“Look, us sitting here staring at that thing is not gonna bring everybody back. I'm the strongest Avenger, so this responsibility falls upon me. It's my duty.” He tries to move forward again but this time Banner and Rhodey join Ice and Tony in stopping him, and he lets out a frustrated snarl. “Stop it! Just let me — just let me do it.” His voice goes tight and quiet, like he’s holding back tears. “Please. Just let me do something good.”
“Thor,” Tony says, not unkindly. “Look, it's not just the fact that that glove is channeling enough energy to light up a continent — I'm telling you you're in no condition to do this.”
“No condition — what do you think is coursing through my veins right now, Stark?”
“Cheez Whiz?” Rocket suggests. Carol whacks him on the head.
“Lightning,” Thor snaps, ignoring Rocket. “Lightning is coursing through my veins. I have Mjolnir again, I’m worthy. I can do it.”
“You never needed the hammer to be worthy, buddy,” Banner says. These words actually seem to hit home, and Thor ducks his head, blinking back tears even as his grip on said hammer tightens. “Anyways, it’s gotta be me.”
“What?” Natasha immediately shakes her head. “Bruce, you can’t.”
“You saw what those Stones did to Thanos,” Banner says, echoing Ice’s own thoughts on the matter. “It almost killed him. None of you could survive.”
Clint frowns. “How do we know you will?”
“You don’t.” Banner shrugs, trying for a smile. “But, uh, the radiation’s mostly gamma, so. It's like I was made for this.”
No one can come up with a reason for Banner not to wield the Gauntlet, not even Thor. Tony clears his throat. “Okay,” he says. “Then let’s do it.”
They move into one of the side conference rooms, away from the Quantum Tunnel and the most expensive equipment. Everyone is crowded into the room, and Ice stands by the window, looking out across the ground floor to the world outside. Bleak, gray, but if this works, not for much longer.
“You remember,” Tony is saying to Banner. “Everyone Thanos snapped away five years ago — you’re just bringing them back to now, today. Don't change anything from the last five years.”
Banner nods. “Got it.”
Everyone shuffles back, gives him some space. The box with the Gauntlet in it opens up with a whoosh, and Banner bends down toward it.
“FRIDAY,” Tony says, his voice so quiet that Ice wouldn’t have heard him at all had they not been standing so close together. “Do me a favor and activate protocol 8.”
Metal shutters suddenly come down over all the windows, obstructing Ice’s view of the outside world. The facility must have been placed on lockdown — Good call, he wants to say, but his anticipation and nerves are making him shake so badly that he can’t speak. He fiddles with his wedding ring, unable to look at Banner picking up the Gauntlet, so he glances to the right, where something strange catches his eye.
Nebula is standing by the Quantum Tunnel, the light from the computers illuminating her face. When had she left the room? And why is she turning the time machine back on? What is she—
“Wait,” he says sharply, “wait, stop,” but Banner snaps his fingers, and for the second time that day, everything goes white.
Consciousness arrives in slow, painful waves, each ebb and flow making him lunge for concrete thoughts before they fracture apart between his pounding temples. Something had happened. Something — something bad. What had happened to him?
He’s on his back. His head is throbbing, and he can feel something sticky trickling down his forehead, matting his hair. He tries to move his arms, which are fine if a little stiff, but when he tries to move his left leg the scream that rips free from his throat is barely human, and he almost passes out again. Broken, then, or a really bad sprain. He can’t make himself look.
It’s dark. He can’t see anything, and his body is wracked with shivers, and there’s so much dust in the air that he can barely breathe without choking. “Help.” His voice is barely audible, strident with pain and tears, and he clears his throat. “Please. Help me.”
He’s not sure how long he lays there, unable to move or think beyond incoherent words of pain, but suddenly there’s light. So much light that he groans and squeezes his eyes shut. Is he dying? Is this the end? He didn’t think going to Heaven would hurt this much.
Then the light fades a little, enough that he no longer feels like his eyes are going to melt out of his head, and Ice opens his eyes again.
There’s a face swimming in his line of vision, sweaty and darkened with soot. Their mouth is opening and closing — he’s being talked at, apparently, though he can’t hear it well enough through the blood pounding in his ears — and he takes in concerned eyes and dark hair and dares to hope. “Mav?”
“Oh, Jesus,” says the voice, sounding like it’s coming from the bottom of a deep, deep well. Not Maverick, then, and it’s a testament to all of the other pain he’s feeling that this heartbreak barely registers. “No, Iceman, it’s Tony. Can you hear me?”
Tony. Tony Stark. Pieces of memory start coming back to him, bit by slow bit. “What happened?” he manages, even though the enormity of everything else that he wants to ask threatens to tear him apart. “Did it work?”
“I don’t know. I — the compound collapsed. I thought it might have been from the shockwave from the Snap, but that’s not it.” Tony’s eyes bore into his. “You were telling us to stop before Bruce snapped his fingers. Why? What did you see?”
Had he? He forces himself to think, to focus. They’d all been in that conference room, and he’d looked out to see someone messing with the time machine. To see— “Nebula,” he says. “She…she turned the machine back on. She brought something back.”
Tony swears. “Shit,” he says. There’s a rumble around them that shakes more dust from the ceiling, and Tony nods once. “We’ve gotta get out of here. Find the others.”
“Tony.” Ice coughs, and it comes out hoarse, raspy with dust and something that he prays isn’t blood. “I can’t. My leg…”
Tony startles, like he’s just now noticed that Ice’s leg is hurt. Ice makes himself look down and almost throws up then and there. It’s twisted at an odd angle, bone jutting from his bloody knee. Christ. Oh, fucking Christ. And he knows from the way Tony’s arm is pressed against his waist that he’s not completely unscathed either, so he makes a snap decision.
“Go on without me.”
“Go find the others.” He coughs again, hard enough that he can feel his lungs rattle. “I’ll be okay. Leave me here.”
“The hell I will.”
"Shut up," Tony snaps. He really is just like Maverick sometimes, cocky and loyal and determined to make the riskiest decision every time. “Hey. Hey, Iceman, look at me.” Ice complies. “Carol would kill me if I just left you here — and I've never even met Maverick, but he’d kill me for leaving you here too. No heroic sacrifices today. Alright?”
He manages a nod, his throat tight. “Alright,” he whispers. “Okay.”
Before either of them can figure out what the next move is, a portal opens in front of them, outlined in a fiery orange, and out steps Wong, brushing his robes off like he navigates the ruins of a compound every day of the week. “We must hurry,” he says. “Let’s go.”
“Hey, Mr. Miyagi, we’ve already reached that conclusion, thanks.” Tony’s voice is dry and sarcastic but the note of relief is blatantly clear. He shifts backward, no longer looming directly over Ice. And Ice starts giggling, because isn’t that funny. Usually he’s the tall one. Mav would get a kick out of that if he were still alive. “Help me get him up, he’s going into shock.”
“No need.” Wong kneels next to him, and Ice’s hysterical laughter abruptly stops when Wong’s hands land on his knee, glowing a very pale blue. He’s expecting excruciating pain, but it just feels cool and refreshing, and he relaxes, the tension leaking out of his muscles as Wong heals his leg. Wong sits back after a few moments. “How do you feel?”
Ice experimentally flexes his leg. To his surprise, it’s fine. Completely fine, like it had never been hurt at all. And now that he can actually move again it’s a little easier to push his panic and hysteria and the remaining pain away. “Better,” he says truthfully. “Thank you.”
Tony offers his hand, and Ice lets himself be pulled to his feet. It’s too dusty in the room to breathe properly, but he makes a valiant effort anyway. “Where are the others?” Tony asks. “Are they okay?”
“Captain Danvers is fine, as are Captain Rogers, Colonel Rhodes, Thor, Rocket, and Agent Romanoff. Agent Barton, Scott Lang and Dr. Banner are nowhere to be found.” Wong hesitates for a moment, and Ice braces himself for things to get worse. “Nebula betrayed us. She brought an army back from the past, and they destroyed the building.”
“Who’s leading this army?”
Ice already suspects the answer, but Wong’s reply makes his entire world crumble to dust all over again. “Thanos,” he says. “Thanos is back.”
Carol throws herself into Ice’s arms the second he and Wong and Tony portal their way out of the ruins of the compound. “Are you alright?” she demands, pulling away a moment later. There’s a bruise blossoming at her temple and a cut on her shoulder leaking blood through a makeshift bandage, but she otherwise looks unscathed, and so do Rogers and Thor, who are standing beside her. Thank Christ. “Tom!”
Ice startles, realizing he hadn’t answered. “Yeah. Yeah, Carol, I’m fine, I’m okay.” Thankfully neither Tony nor Wong speak up about his formerly broken leg, the thought of which still makes him want to throw up.
Carol doesn’t look like she believes him, which leads him to think that he must look like complete and utter shit, but before she can call him out her eyes shift to something to the right of him, and her expression goes slack with shock and — is it even possible? — fear. Ice turns around as well, and his breath catches in his chest.
Thanos is there. The bastard that had wiped out half the universe, that had killed Maverick and Maria and Monica and countless others, is sitting less than five hundred feet away from them. The sky is tinged gray from the smoke and dust of the ruined building, but Thanos looks for all the world like he’s relaxing outside on a sunny day, completely carefree. Ice has never hated anyone or anything so much in his life, and it takes every bit of rational thought he has left to keep himself from marching across the field and strangling Thanos with his bare hands.
“What’s he been doing?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Thor says. His tone is calm, casual, yet Ice can sense the simmering hatred lurking beneath the surface. “Where are the Stones?”
“Somewhere under all this,” Tony says grimly. “Nat and Rhodey are searching. All I know is he doesn’t have them.”
“Good,” Rogers says. “So we keep it that way.”
Carol clears her throat. “You know it's a trap, right?” she says bluntly. “He’s not just sitting there sunbathing.”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “And I don’t much care.”
Thor laughs, but there’s no humor behind it. “Good,” he says. “Then we’re in agreement.” In a flash of light and power that makes the hair on the back of Ice’s neck stand straight up, Thor summons both his axe and hammer to his hands. “Let’s kill him properly this time.”
As Ice has no weapons on him (and Carol no longer has her powers), they can do nothing but stay behind with Wong and watch as Thor, Tony, and Rogers stride across the field to meet Thanos, their heads held high.
“So,” Thanos says. His voice carries all the way to where Carol and Ice and Wong are standing, and he shudders. It’s just the same as he remembers from his nightmares. “You could not live with your own failure. And where did that bring you? Back to me.” He has the audacity to chuckle, as if the Avengers standing before him are barely worthy of his attention. “I thought by eliminating half of life, the other half would thrive. But you’ve shown me that’s impossible. And as long as there are those that remember what was, there will always be those that are unable to accept what can be. They will resist.”
“Yep,” Tony says. “We’re all kinds of stubborn.”
“And I’m thankful,” Thanos says. “Because now, I know what I must do.” He rises to his feet, towering over them as he puts on his helmet. “I will shred this universe down to its last atom. And then, with the Stones you’ve collected for me, create a new one. One teeming with life. One that knows not what it has lost but only what it has been given. A grateful universe.”
The very thought of Thanos snapping his fingers again and killing even more innocent people sends a shiver down Ice’s spine. No. They can’t let that happen. He’ll face Thanos himself before he lets that happen, weapons or no.
Rogers sounds about as horrified and furious as Ice feels when he says, “Born out of blood.”
“They’ll never know it,” Thanos says simply. “After all…” He summons his dual broadswords to his hands. “You won’t be alive to tell them.”
It really says something when the three strongest Avengers — a super soldier, a man with unlimited technology at his disposal, and the actual god of thunder — prove to be no match for Thanos at his full power. Carol grabs his arm tight enough to bruise when Thanos kicks Thor to the ground, where he sprawls unmoving next to a feebly stirring Tony, and then faces Rogers, who has staggered back to his feet with Thor’s hammer in hand.
“We need to help them,” Carol hisses. “Tom, we have to—”
“What can we do?” he snaps. He hates feeling helpless, hates it almost as much as he hates the bastard that they’re too weak to fight. If Rogers and Tony and Thor are struggling, then he and Carol have truly got no chance. Then again… “Wong, what if you—”
Ice’s words cut off, because apparently sometime in the last few minutes — or hours, or years, or however long this already interminable fight has gone on for — Wong had disappeared, leaving him and Carol alone in the ruins of the Avengers compound. Fear sticks in his throat, making it hard to breathe, and he doesn’t even bother to conceal it.
“In all my years of conquest,” Thanos is saying, and Ice’s gaze automatically returns to the battlefield. Rogers is on his knees, his shield broken, Thor’s hammer no longer in his hand. Thor and Tony aren’t moving. “All the violence and slaughter — it was never personal. But…” He moves closer to Rogers, kneeling like they’re sharing a secret. “What I’m about to do to your stubborn, annoying little planet… I’m going to enjoy it. Very, very much.”
While he speaks, his army descends from the ship hovering in the sky, or appears out of nowhere to flank him. Aliens, humanoids, everything in between — loaded with weapons and grins dripping with the promise of death. And yet Rogers does not back down. Slowly, painstakingly, with a fierce determination, he tightens his broken shield to his arm and staggers back to his feet. Ready to face Thanos’s army alone.
Ice steps forward, prepared to stand by Rogers’s side and die beside him if it means keeping the Earth safe, but Carol’s nails suddenly dig into his arm. “Tom,” she says. “Check it out.”
Ice looks to the distance, to Rogers’s left, just in time to see three figures step through a portal outlined in yellow. He can’t make out their faces, but before he can ask who they are, more portals begin to open up around them, revealing more and more people — alien, human, everything and everyone. The remaining heroes willing to make a last stand against Thanos and his forces.
The rubble shifts further down the field, and a giant red and white figure emerges — so Scott Lang hadn’t been kidding, he really could become bigger — with Rocket on his shoulder and Rhodey flying above him in his War Machine armor. Rogers straightens up further at the sight, and Thor’s hammer flies across the field and lands in his hand. “Avengers,” he says, and though his voice is hoarse it carries across the battlefield like the ringing of a bell. “Assemble.”
Both armies have just begun to charge at each other in a wave of noise and chaos and determination when Wong rematerializes behind Ice and Carol. “Sorry for leaving,” he says. The corner of his mouth quirks upward, which must be the stoic magician’s equivalent of a Maverick-style shit-eating grin. “I had to summon our reinforcements.”
“No problem,” Carol says, “provided you can magic us up some way to join the battle too.”
Wong waves his hand, and in the space of a pile of rubble are two fighter planes — an F-16 Lockheed and an F-14 Tomcat, virtually identical to the one he’d flown all those years ago at the USS Layton rescue. Despite everything, Ice laughs out loud, and he swears that Wong winks at him before he disappears again in a swirl of orange and black.
Ice glances at Carol. “Ready to show these bastards how we do it?”
Carol’s responding grin is as sharp as a knife blade and twice as deadly. “Higher, further, faster, baby.”
Ice hasn’t flown combat in years, not since he’d officially transferred to TOPGUN, but the second he gets into the air everything comes flooding back to him, ready to be accessed. It might not be MiGs he’s trying to shoot down this time, but he can still do this. He’s got this.
Their main target — or so they’d agreed back on the ground — is Thanos’s ship, the Sanctuary II, which proves to be a more daunting task than they’d assumed since the ship is about the size of the former Avengers compound and can somehow fire back.
“Son of a bitch!” Carol veers a hard right to avoid the latest missile that Thanos’s ship had fired at her, cursing as she pulls back. “We need to knock out those blasters, Kazansky.”
“Yeah, I know, I know.” His mind is racing almost as fast as his heart, and he clenches his fist tightly, the dog tags he’d wrapped around his hand digging into his skin hard enough to hurt. Talk to me, Mav. “Don’t suppose you fought a ship like this when you were still with the Kree?”
“Nah. Seen my fair share since then, but not with this many blasters. They see a target, they’ll fire.”
Shit. “These ships have any blind spots?”
“If you’re coming from the left, yeah.” Carol catches his drift at once. “Tom, don't tell me you’re—”
“Figured I might give Mav’s way of doing things a try.” Adrenaline is thrumming through his system, setting all of his nerve endings alight. If Maverick or any of his students would try a stunt like this, he’d scream at them until his voice gave out, but this situation calls for a reckless pilot, not one who only plays by the rules. “I’ll come at them from the front, you knock out the blasters from the left. They can’t fire on both of us at once.”
“Got it.” Carol doesn’t sound thrilled with the plan, but she doesn’t try to talk him out of it, and for that, he’s beyond grateful. “Ready to engage?”
Carol veers left, and Ice engages. Immediately the Sanctuary’s blasters start firing on him, each bolt the size of the Tomcat he’s flying, and he can hear Maverick in his head screaming for him to move, damn it, Ice, move! If he hadn’t spent the last forty years in the cockpit of a plane, he would’ve been blown to pieces by now.
But then one by one, the ship’s blasters burst into flames, and Ice joins Carol in firing every missile he has at the ones that are remaining — and then takes great pleasure in helping his friend blow the ship to pieces. He can practically hear Thanos cursing them out, and he grins at the very thought.
"There’s Thanos,” Carol says, and he can hear the vicious grin in her voice. “Let’s send him our love.”
His grip on Maverick’s dog tags tightens. “You read my mind, Danvers.”
They’re barely a thousand feet from the ground when Thanos’s army notices them, and Ice doesn’t even have to exchange a word with Carol before they start mowing them down. From where he’s flying he can see Rogers and Thor exchange their weapons, Rocket picking off aliens one by one, Clint and Natasha fighting back to back. And there, in the center of it all — Thanos, the Mad Titan, fighting Tony Stark.
Ice swoops down and fires a missile directly at Thanos, who somehow manages to fucking dodge it and continue to fight Tony like nothing had happened at all. Shit. He flies back up to where Carol is, and he’s about to suggest to her that they tag-team, blast the hell out of Thanos together, when Carol’s voice rings out in his ear. “Did you just take out that guy?”
“No, the alien fucker that almost jumped onto my plane. He just disappeared before my missile could hit him, like he…”
The conclusion hits Ice like a missile to the chest, blowing every other thought apart. He looks out through the windshield, and all across the battlefield below them people are disappearing into dust, fading into the wind, and Ice’s heart stops. Oh Christ. Oh, fucking Christ, no. Not again. This couldn’t be happening again.
“We need to land,” Carol says, and Ice doesn’t waste time arguing with her.
They land within a hundred feet of the place they started. Ice jumps out of the cockpit and lands on a pile of rubble, scrambling down from it onto the ground, and Carol does the same. He’s expecting to be blown to bits at any moment by Thanos’s forces, but as he looks around, he realizes that the alien’s forces are nowhere to be found. They’ve just vanished, like they’d never been there at all. And that means...
There’s a crowd of people gathered around something about fifty feet away from them. Carol shows no restraint as she shoves them out of the way, pushing her way to the front with Ice right behind her.
Tony Stark is on the ground, propped up against the remains of a wall, with Rhodey and Pepper Potts and a teenage boy by his side. His face is darkened with soot and sweat, burned and blistered. His eyes are open, but they’re glazed and unfocused, and the arc reactor in his chest is dimly glowing, flickering. He’s dying. And when Ice sees the remains of a golden metal glove on his right hand — and the blood and burns all over his right side — he understands why.
No heroic sacrifices today, he remembers Tony saying to him what feels like a hundred years ago, and he stifles a sob. Did that not apply to you, Tony? Why didn’t that apply to you?
Then there’s a whomp of displaced air, and two more people appear by Tony’s side. One of them is Wong, who looks completely unruffled by the battle that had just taken place, and the other is a tall, thin man with the strangest facial hair Ice has ever seen. Wong puts his hands (now glowing a pale blue) on Tony’s chest, and the other man starts saying something in a language that sounds older than the earth itself. Slowly, ever so slowly, the lines of pain and exhaustion ease out of Tony’s expression, and his body goes limp.
“What did you do?” Pepper’s voice trembles. “What did you do to him?”
“We put him in suspended animation,” the second man says. The magic he had done seems to have taken a lot of energy out of him, and now he looks about as exhausted as Ice feels. “He’s still alive, but we need to get him into surgery if he’s to stay that way.”
“Right,” Carol says. “And — sorry, who are you, exactly?”
The man glances over at her, almost surprised. “Stephen Strange,” he says. “Master of the Mystic Arts, Guardian of the Eye of Agamotto.” Then, almost by way of an apology, “I would have offered my help sooner, but I was left…indisposed by the Decimation.”
“We all were,” says the teenage boy by Tony’s side, who Rhodey now has his arm around. “Well, not all of us, but most of us. And — and you guys brought us back.”
One second he's fine, if still a little confused, and the next he feels like he's in a jetwash, crumbling away, in a flat spin heading out to sea. Nothing makes sense, and yet everything makes sense. Stephen Strange. The boy who Ice would have bet his pension on being Peter Parker. All of those reinforcements appearing out of nowhere not long after Banner had put on the Gauntlet and snapped his fingers. Ice had been so preoccupied with his injuries and Nebula’s betrayal and Thanos’s reappearance that he hadn’t stopped to consider if their plan had actually worked.
Indisposed by the Decimation. You guys brought us back.
And if they’d all come back — if their plan had really worked — then that meant…
There’s a noise like a can of beer fizzing open, and when Ice turns around, there are two portals — one for him and one for Carol, whose hands are shaking so badly that if she still had her powers she probably would have sent photon blasts flying everywhere. His feet carry him toward the portal, but he stops at the opening, glances back at the others. Tony is still lying there and the sight makes him hesitate, prevents him from moving any further. “Will…will you…”
“We’ll be fine.” Ice’s eyes cut to Rogers, who stands next to two men that Ice does not recognize — two men who must have been brought back by their plan as well. “Go on, Captain. Go to your husband.”
Far be it from him to take orders from Captain fucking America, but Ice doesn’t need to be told twice. Carol, whose expression has hardened into a mix of anticipation and determination, nods at him, and together they run into their respective portals without looking back.
Before the portal has even fully closed behind him, Ice is sprinting up the driveway to his house, kicking up dust and gravel. He knows he’d left the front door unlocked, but he throws his weight against it so hard that something in his shoulder cracks and the door slams open wide, practically knocked off its hinges. His heart is in his throat as he staggers into the living room, desperately searching for any sign of life. Please. Please. Please.
“Maverick! Mav, are you — where are you, Mav? I’m here!”
But there’s no reply, nothing but the sound of the clock ticking on the wall. The house is just the same as he’d left it, empty and alone, and Ice cannot accept that. Not after everything he’s been through. He refuses to accept it.
“No. No, no, no — Maverick! Mav!”
Whirling around, he bursts into the kitchen, and then switches directions and checks both bathrooms and the bedroom and then the living room again, his breaths coming in painful gasps and tears burning his eyes as he screams for his husband, Maverick’s name mockingly echoing around the house until it is sound only. There’s no one here, but Maverick has to be here; Thanos is dead and they brought everyone else back and he has to be here—
“Goddamnit, Maverick, answer me! Answer me! Please!” His voice is breaking, his heart is breaking, crumbling in his chest, and it hurts. It hurts so much that he thinks he could bleed to death from the pain of it. “Please, Mav. Please. Don’t be — God, please don’t be…”
The world tilts on its axis, and his legs give out from under him.
They’d failed. It hadn’t worked. They’d risked their lives, they’d violated all known laws of physics by going back in time, they’d killed Thanos in a battle that had nearly cost Tony Stark his life, but they’d still failed. He had failed. And Maverick is gone.
His chest heaves with sobs. Sharp pain reverberates through his kneecaps but he can’t bring himself to give a damn. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. Nothing will ever matter again.
Maverick is gone. Gone forever. And he’s not coming back. He’ll never see Maverick smile again, never feel his husband’s lips against his again, never hear him complain about their newest students or sing along to the radio or say—
His heart stops cold.
There’s a hand on his shoulder. Someone is touching his shoulder. Moreover, someone just said his name, and the voice is familiar. He knows that voice, he knows it better than his own, but his mind must be playing tricks on him out of grief because it can’t be, it can’t be, because — because…
Forcing his emotions aside — forcing every desperate grain of hope aside — Ice makes himself look up.
And he stares. Jaw hanging open, eyes gone so wide the whites were likely showing all around. Unable to hear anything over the sudden thunder of his own pulse.
“Mav?” His voice sounds foreign to his own ears, choked and hoarse, and barely more than a whisper. He doesn’t dare speak any louder for fear it will scare this hallucination away, and that would be more painful than anything Thanos could throw at him. “Are you…are you real?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Maverick’s brows furrow, and he shifts closer, gently brushing his other hand against the side of Ice’s face. “Ice, what happened to you? Are you okay?”
The sheer amount of love and concern in that question shatters Ice’s paralysis, and Ice bursts into tears, lunging forward and clutching his husband as tightly to him as he can. Only Maverick would ask him that after disappearing for five years, and that means that Maverick is really here. He’s real. He’s real and warm and not fucking dead and Ice breaks down completely at the thought.
They’d done it. He hadn’t failed.
“Oh Jesus.” He’s crying so hard he can barely breathe, and the feeling of Maverick’s arms around him after five years without it makes him cry even harder. “Oh God, Mav. I love you. I love you so much. Don’t ever leave me again.”
“Ice, what the — are you crying? What happened? I was only gone a few minutes…”
The laugh that tears free is wild and dancing on the edge of hysteria, because of course it’d only been a few minutes for him. Of course it had. “It was a lot longer for me.”
Maverick’s hand pauses for a second in its motion of tentatively stroking Ice’s back. “Well,” he says softly, “I’m here now. I’m here. I’ve got you.”
Neither of them move for a long, long time.
The sun has long since set by the time Ice finally manages to stop crying. Maverick had insisted on patching him up and getting him something to drink, and now they’re both in the kitchen, Ice taking tentative sips of water while Maverick cleans and dresses the cut on Ice’s forehead, wipes most of the soot and grime and blood away. He works in silence, though Ice can feel the worry in Maverick’s hands and gaze, like he’s afraid Ice will disappear or keel over if he’s not careful.
Ice can relate. God, can Ice relate.
Eventually, though, Maverick puts the remaining bandages and wipes and ointment back in their first aid kit, and he sits down across from Ice. He’s barely an arm’s length away but Ice still feels cold from the sudden loss of contact. Maverick doesn’t say anything, just waits, and Ice clears his throat.
“There was a battle.” His voice is so hoarse that it sounds like he’d replaced his vocal cords with sandpaper, but he pushes through. “The Avengers. This alien, Thanos — he got his hands on something called the Infinity Gauntlet. They tried to stop him, but he snapped his fingers, and half the universe disappeared.” He swallows hard. “Including you.”
“Jesus.” Maverick exhales shakily, but he doesn’t look all that surprised. He’d probably assumed as much considering Ice’s reaction to his return. “I…how long?”
He looks down, pressing his lips together. “Five years.”
“Five years?” Maverick sits back in his chair with a thud, looking stunned. Ice can see him putting the remaining pieces together, can see him beginning to understand the magnitude of Ice’s reaction, and why Ice looks like he’s aged about ten years in the last five. But he just reaches out and takes Ice’s hand in his own, squeezing it tightly. “It’s been five years for you? Oh, Ice.”
Ice chokes on a sob. God, he’s missed this. He’s missed this — missed Maverick — so much. “Yeah,” he manages. “It was…hard. It’s been hard.”
His hands are shaking again, and he busies himself with taking another sip of water. Maverick pulls his chair closer to Ice, moving his hand to Ice’s knee. “How did…” He pauses, as if he’s trying to think of the best way to phrase it. “How did I come back?”
Ice exhales. Where does he even begin? “You remember Carol?” he finally asks. “Carol Danvers?”
Maverick’s brows furrow. “The one who died back in ‘89?”
“Right. Well, apparently…she’s not as dead as we thought. She showed up at my door two days after the Decimation.”
“Did…did what killed me bring her back?”
“No.” Ice can hear Maverick’s unspoken question and shakes his head. “No, she was alive before that. And she’s still alive now. The accident that we thought killed her…it gave her superpowers. She’s been in space protecting the universe since ‘95.”
Maverick lets out a low whistle. “Did Maria know?”
“Yeah. She knew.” And if Maverick is back, then that certainly means Maria and Monica are too, but he doesn’t care about them right now. “Anyway. Carol showed up here two days after the Decimation…”
It takes just over half an hour to explain it all. How he’d met the Avengers. How he’d gone to space and watched Thor cut Thanos’s head off. How he’d spent the last five years forcing himself into his work to avoid his grief until Carol had come to him, telling him about time travel. How they’d all traveled back in time to get the Stones (though he doesn’t specifically say when he’d gone). How Thanos from the past had come to the present to wage war on them. How he and Carol had blown up Thanos’s ship together. How Tony had wielded the Infinity Gauntlet and killed Thanos, nearly killing himself in the process.
“When Carol and I realized that the plan worked and everyone had come back, Wong and Strange opened portals for us so we could go home. She went to go find Maria and Monica, and I went to find you.” Ice looks down, remembering the sheer terror and utter devastation he’d felt upon thinking he’d failed and Maverick was gone forever. “And now…now you’re here again.”
Then Maverick’s hands are on his face, cupping his chin so they can look at each other, and Ice lets himself lean into the gentle touch. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I’m here, Ice. And I’m not going anywhere, okay?”
He manages a smile even though his eyes are burning with tears again. “You promise?”
“Yeah. Yeah, Ice. I promise.”
“Why didn’t you ever ask for help?”
Maverick looks down at him, confused. They’ve moved back into the living room and are sitting on the couch together, Ice’s head resting against his husband’s chest while Maverick runs a hand through his hair. “What?”
“After Goose’s death.” Maverick’s hand pauses mid-motion because Ice knows even after all these years Goose’s death is still a painful subject, but after seeing what he saw, Ice has to ask. “After the inquiry. Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
“Oh.” He can tell Maverick has no idea why Ice is bringing this up now, but thankfully he doesn’t ask why. “I, uh. I guess…I didn’t know how. And I didn’t want to bother you. Any of you.”
“Where are your friends, Lieutenant? You got anyone to help?”
“They don’t need to hold my hand, sir. They lost one of their own too.”
“I’m sorry, Mav,” Ice whispers. He’s wanted to say that since yesterday. Since 1986. “That I wasn’t there for you. That none of us were.”
“It’s okay,” Maverick says, and the hell of it is, he seems to mean it. “Well, I mean, I wasn’t completely alone.”
Ice stiffens. “What do you mean?”
“After the inquiry, I ran into this captain. He was visiting the base on behalf of Stark Industries, but he saw that I…that I wasn’t holding up well. And he talked to me; said that I had the right people in my corner and if I sought them out, I’d — are you… Ice, are you laughing?”
And he is, he really is laughing. He’s laughing so hard that his shoulders are shaking, that tears are running down his cheeks for what feels like the hundredth time that day. Maverick must think that he’s taken leave of his senses for good, but he doesn’t care.
“Ice, what the…” Maverick stops, and Ice can almost see the numbers floating around his head. How Ice had traveled back in time, how there had been a captain visiting Miramar on behalf of Stark Industries. “Holy shit. Ice.”
Unnerved by Maverick’s serious tone, Ice raises his head out of his hands. “Yeah?”
“Captain Tom Cruise, Ice? Really?”
“Listen,” Ice protests, but he’s laughing too hard again to explain any further than that. Maverick seems to get it, and now he’s laughing too. They’re both two idiots, sitting on a couch and holding each other and laughing through their tears.
“God, Ice,” Maverick says, swiping a hand under his eyes once they’ve both finally gotten a grip. “I can’t…I can’t believe that was you.”
His voice is so full of stunned disbelief that Ice leans over and presses a soft kiss to his hairline. Just because he can. “Yeah,” he says. “That was me.”
There’s quiet for a moment, a comfortable silence; then Maverick nudges him. “Hey,” he says. “Hey, Ice.”
“I love you.”
The dam breaks again. “Yeah,” Ice whispers, his throat tight. “Yeah, Mav. I love you too.”
“Buy you a drink?”
Ice turns around, already grinning at the familiar voice. “I think it’s an open bar, actually, but it’s the thought that counts,” he says. Maria rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling too, and he leans over to give her a hug. “It’s good to see you, Maria.” Never mind that they’d FaceTimed each other at least ten times in the last two weeks — she’d been gone for five years, and being able to see her in person again would never get old.
She kisses him on the cheek. “You too, Tom. You look good.”
Maria joins him at the bar, making herself comfortable at one of the available stools, and orders a Corona. The bartender passes it to her, and Ice raises his eyebrows when she reaches out to take the bottle from him. “That’s new,” he says, nodding at the ring on her left hand. “When did that happen?”
“Oh, this old thing?” Maria holds out her hand as if she’d just noticed that the ring was there. “Few days ago, officially.” She shrugs, grins sheepishly. “We would have invited you and Mav, but Carol woke me up with the idea in the middle of the night and we went to the county clerk’s office with Monica that same afternoon.”
“Don’t worry about it, Maria, really. I’m happy for you.” He really is. After everything that she and Carol had been through over the last thirty-plus years, they deserve to be happy. “Speaking of Monica, how’s she doing?”
“She’s doing alright.” Maria nods in the direction of the living room, where Monica’s perched on the armrest of one of the couches and is deep in conversation with Natasha Romanoff. “Carol and Fury were talking about getting her to take up the Captain Marvel moniker now that Carol’s retired.”
“Think she’ll be up for that?”
“She’s been a SHIELD agent for years; she’s got the proper training. Plus it’ll let her put the photon blasters she built when she was sixteen to good use.” Maria takes a pull from her beer and shoots him a very Maverick-like mischievous smile. “In a word? Definitely.”
Ice laughs, and for the next few moments they sit in a comfortable silence, surveying the room together. Tony’s lakehouse, as it turns out, is a pretty good place to hold a party, especially one to celebrate the reversal of the Decimation — and the fact that they’re all still here. All of the Avengers are in attendance, including Wong and Dr. Strange, Peter Parker and his aunt, SHIELD Director Nick Fury and Maria Hill, Scott’s girlfriend Hope van Dyne and her parents, and the alien misfits better known as the Guardians of the Galaxy. It had started an hour ago but would probably go well into the evening, long after the drinks and the shawarma would run out. Not that Ice is complaining.
A flicker of red and blue catches his eye, and Ice looks over in time to see Carol come up behind Maria and kiss her on the top of the head. “Got the food you wanted,” she says, setting down a plate full of rice and lamb shawarma on the bar counter and grinning like the cat that ate not only one canary but the whole flock. “Hey there, Iceman.”
“Hey, Carol.” He gives her a hug as well. “Maria told me the news; congratulations.”
“Thanks. I’ve been wanting to do it since 1983, so better late than never.”
Maria raises her eyebrows. “We didn’t even get together until 1986, Carol.”
“Yeah, I know.” That earns her an eye roll and a tender kiss. Ice can’t help but smile at how relaxed they are with each other, how happy. “So,” she says to Ice once Maria’s pulled away and started digging into the food that Carol had brought her, “where’d Maverick go? He was in line with me but I lost track of him.”
Even though Ice logically knows that Maverick is alive again and isn’t going anywhere, his heart still skips a beat at the question. He casts his eyes across the house, searching, and upon finding no sign of his husband decides to investigate further. “Probably still outside,” he says, hoping he sounds composed and not on the early edge of unnecessary panic. He asks the bartender for a Stella Artois, and upon receiving it, he hops off the barstool. “I’ll go check.”
“Have fun,” Maria calls after him, and he raises the beer bottle in a toast before he cuts through the room.
He’s halfway across the living room when his path is suddenly blocked by Steve Rogers, and he almost spills his drink on the floor. “Sorry about that,” says the captain apologetically. “I didn’t see you there.”
“That’s alright, Captain Rogers.”
“Ah,” Rogers says, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. He didn’t know Rogers was even capable of acting awkward. “Well. I’m not really a captain anymore, so maybe you can start calling me Steve.”
That throws him for a loop. “You retired?”
“Yeah.” Rogers gives a sheepish shrug, and when his eyes briefly go to Sam Wilson, one of the men that had been lost in the Decimation as well, Ice understands without him needing to say anything else. “Figured I might try to get some of that life that Tony was always telling me about.”
The corner of his mouth quirks upward. “That’s good, Steve,” he says. “Good for you.”
Steve smiles back at him. Thankfully he seems to sense that Ice had been on his way elsewhere, so he just claps Ice on the back and heads over to Sam, and Ice continues through the living room. Clint and his wife beat him to the screen door, and he holds it open for them before following them outside.
There are a few tables set up outside, groaning under the weight of all the food that Tony had ordered, and the people that are outside are either drinking and laughing together in small groups or watching the volleyball match that Thor, Scott, Clint’s children, Cassie Lang, Harley Keener, Peter Parker, and Morgan Stark are all partaking in. The tension leaves his body in a whoosh of air when he spots Maverick talking to Tony, both of their faces illuminated by the tiki torches strategically placed around the porch, and Ice heads over to them. “Hey,” he says once he reaches them, pressing a quick kiss to Maverick’s temple. “Got you a beer.”
“Aww, thanks Iceman, you shouldn’t have,” Tony says, and Maverick laughs. “You know, your husband and I were just talking and I’ve gotta say, he’s pretty cool.”
Ice groans. “Oh God, Tony, please don't say that, it’ll go straight to his ego.”
Maverick puts his hand over his heart, mock-wounded. “What, Kazansky, you don't think I’m cool?”
“I’ve seen you step on flowers and apologize to them, Mav,” Ice deadpans. “I’m pretty sure that out of all the things you are, cool isn’t one of them.”
Maverick’s retort is cut off by the arrival of Morgan Stark, who Tony picks up without a moment’s hesitation — or a thought toward his right arm, which is badly burned and (according to Strange, who’d performed the surgery) likely will never work the same way again. Shifting her on his hip, Tony says, “Hey squirt, wanna say hi to Mav and Ice?”
Her eyes go wide. “Is your name short for ice cream?”
“Oh yes it is,” Maverick tells her, wearing the smirk that always makes Ice torn between smacking him on the head and kissing him dry. “That’s exactly right. It’s because he’s so sweet.”
“I hate you, Maverick.”
“No you don't.”
“No I don't,” Ice concedes. It might’ve been more convincing if he’d actually managed to keep a straight face while saying it. To Morgan, he clarifies, “It’s actually short for Iceman.”
Morgan’s mouth purses, and she gives a nod of approval. “That’s a cool name too,” she declares. Then she says to Tony, “Daddy, I want a juice pop.”
“What a coincidence, so do I,” says Tony. Morgan beams, putting her arms around her father’s neck, and Tony leans into the touch, holding his daughter close. “Let’s go, Morgoona.” He winks at Ice and Maverick and says, “Have fun, you two. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t — and nothing that I would do either.”
“What exactly does that leave?” Maverick asks, and Tony just laughs in response before he heads back into the house. Shaking his head, Maverick accepts the beer bottle and takes a swig from it. “I can’t believe you’re friends with Tony Stark, Ice.”
“Me either,” Ice admits. “But he’s a good guy.” He nudges Maverick’s hip. “Kinda reminds me of you, actually. All the reckless heroics.”
Maverick makes an indignant noise. “Excuse me, I am nowhere near as reckless as Tony Stark. In fact,” and now he’s grinning as mischievously as Maria had at the bar, “I have it on good authority that you think I’m sensible.”
“What are you — no, I said nothing of the sort. Tony was the one who said that.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t talk him out of it.”
“Well, I guess I thought calling you a reckless idiot when you weren’t there to defend yourself would ruin the mood.” Ice tries to keep his tone casual, but the mere memory of the five years he’d spent without Maverick sends a sharp twinge of pain through his heart.
“Since when has that ever stopped you?” Maverick returns, keeping the light banter going like he always has, but he takes Ice’s hand in his. That helps a little. “I also heard you roasted Captain America. That’s what the kids are calling it these days, right?”
“Jesus Christ.” Ice stares at him, unsure of whether to groan or laugh out loud. At least he’s not thinking about the Decimation anymore. “First of all, please don’t ever say that again, and second of all, how do you even know that?”
“Tony showed me a video.”
“Oh my God.”
“No, no, Ice, it was great, really. One of the best things I’ve ever seen. You should win an Oscar for that speech.” And there’s that smirk again, utterly unrepentant. “‘And I earned my rank, which is more than I can say for you, Rogers.’ I can’t believe he called you a civilian, by the way. He’s not even a real captain!”
Maverick looks so affronted by the slight that Ice feels like he has to put him at ease — even if he does like the idea of his husband indignantly defending his honor. “Don’t worry about it. He called me Captain Kazansky for the last five years straight; I think he’s made up for it by now.”
“And I’m sure that that ice cold vibe of yours had nothing to do with that.”
“Of course not.”
They stand in easy silence for a while, lit only by the porch’s warm flickering light, and listening to distant whoops and shouts and laughter, and the buggy sounds of the woods. He watches the sun set over the lake, a beacon of dark orange against a creamy pink sky, reveling in the calm joy of the celebration and the steady presence of his husband beside him. A presence he'll never take for granted again.
"So," Maverick says, and Ice glances over at him. He sets his empty beer bottle on the nearest table and nods in the direction of the lawn, where Thor and Scott and some of the kids are herding people over to the makeshift volleyball net. “Looks like they need more people for the next match; want to join?”
Ice laughs, and nothing — not even the exhilaration of being in the air — had ever felt so free. “Sure,” he says. “Lead the way.”