Everything hurts as she reaches out with shaking hands for the broken remains of the helmet. It whirrs as it comes to life and the recording begins.
The world is ending, she is dying, but she smiles.
“Hey Mr Rogers,” she says. “Steve. If you find this recording, don’t post it on social media. It’s going to be a real tearjerker. I don’t know if you’re ever going to see this. I don’t even know if you’re still…”
Tear threaten to overwhelm her and Natasha forces them down.
Stark’s are made of iron, Howard’s voice snaps in her head.
Fuck off dad, she retorts.
“Oh, God, I hope so,” she whispers.
She’s lost so much. She can’t lose Steve too. She’s already lost Peter, and she lost…
She lost everything on that rock.
“Today’s day twenty one? No, twenty two. You know, if it wasn’t for the existential terror of staring into the literal void of space, I’d say I’m feeling a little better today. The infection’s run it’s course, thanks to the blue meanie back there. Oh, Pepper would love her. Very practical. Only a tiny bit sadistic.”
Nebula reminds her of Tony, in a way. She’s been raised by a monster, made into a weapon, and doesn’t know how to be anything else. Maybe that’s another reason why Natasha connects with her, mothers her.
“So the fuel cells were cracked during battle, and we figured out a way to reverse the ion charge, bought ourselves about forty eight hours of flight time. But it’s now dead in the water.”
If she had moisture to spare, she thinks she’d be crying by now.
She wants her husband.
She wants her brother.
She wants Peter.
“A thousand light years from the nearest Seven Eleven. Oxygen will run out tomorrow morning, and that’ll be it.”
She’s going to die.
She knows she’s going to die, and she hates it. Hates that there’s nothing she can do. Nothing, despite all her knowledge, all she’s worked for, all she’s poured over and absorbed in an attempt to be good enough as a Stark. All that knowledge, and for what? She’s still going to die, they still lost, she’s still alone.
“And Steve, I know I said no more surprises, but I gotta say, I was really hoping to pull off one last one.”
She swallows, and her hand falls to her stomach. Her empty stomach, in more ways than one.
“But, it looks like… Well, you know what it looks like. You’ve been here too, right?
“Don’t feel bad about this. I mean, actually, if you grovel for a couple of weeks, and then… move on, with enormous guilt.”
Her throat feels tight, and she’s light-headed. The oxygen is slipping away. Each breath takes her closer to the end, and then…
“I should probably lie down,” she mumbles. “For a minute. Rest my eyes. Please know, when I drift off and be like everything lately, I’m fine. I’m totally fine. I dream about you. Because it’s always you. Always.”
She’s drifting now, everything’s spinning. So she reaches out and flicks off the helmet.
Then, pulling on the jacket that belongs to a dead woman, she lies down and waits to die.
“You’re totally rambling,” Pepper tells her, slowing to a walk.
“No, I’m not,” Natasha insists.
“You’ve lost me.”
“So, you know when you’re dreaming, and in the dream you’ve gotta pee,” Natasha explains, falling into step with her best friend.
“And then you realise there’s no bathroom, and everyone’s watching and-“
“And then you wake up and in real life you actually have to pee,” Pepper finishes.
“Yes,” Natasha nods.
“Everybody has that.”
“Right. That’s the points I’m trying to make,” Natasha says, walking backwards so she can face Pepper, even if Pepper’s face is making the weird Natasha you’re talking like a crazy person expression that she gets sometimes. But it’s okay, because Natasha knows that this time she’s not crazy. She has proof. “Apropos that, last night, I dreamt that Steve and I had a kid. It was so real. We named him after Barnes. James.”
“Right,” Pepper says slowly. “So you woke up and thought that-“
“Expecting,” Natasha nods.
“I had a dream about it, it was so real,” Natasha tells her.
“If you wanted a kid, you wouldn’t have done that,” Pepper replies, tapping on the casing in Natasha’s chest. Pepper’s never understood that Natasha needs to be out there, needs to be fighting, needs to know that she’s doing all she can to make sure no one dies unnecessarily.
“It’s nothing, it just a housing in it for nanoparticles,” Natasha insists. She glosses over the fact that Steve didn’t see it that way, something that Pepper already knows. Hell, everyone knows, after one particularly loud discussion - Natasha refuses to call it a fight - about it.
“You don’t need that,” Pepper insists.
“I’m just trying to protect us,” Natasha says. “Just incase there’s a monster in the closet.”
Pepper shakes her head.
“So you have a dream that you and Steve have a kid, and now you think you’re pregnant?”
Pepper gapes at her, but then a voice calls, “Natasha Stark,” and then they’re face to face with a wizard and Bruce stumbles through a portal and into her arms and Natasha feels a discomfort in her stomach that has nothing to do with morning sickness.
When Carol lands and puts the ship down, Tony’s heart hammers in his throat. Carol turns and her expression is one of such sorrow, that for a second he thinks that she was too late. Then the ramp drops, and suddenly Natasha is there, limping down the ramp, arm in arm with a blue woman.
Steve is gone. He sprints across the grass, and Tony’s right behind him, but he can’t match a super soldier for speed. Still, he’s flooded with relief because his sister is here and home and alive. It means he’s only lost one of the two most important people in his life.
“I couldn’t stop him,” he hears her say as he approaches.
“Neither could I,” Steve replies, his arms around her shoulder and waist, and Jesus, she is so, so thin.
Hey you,” Tony murmurs, drawing her into a hug.
“I lost the kid,” Natasha says.
“Nat, we lost…” Steve can’t even finish.
But then Natasha looks at him, and her expression is broken, and Tony feels sick with the realisation of what’s coming.
“I lost both of them,” she whispers, and her hand is on her belly. Steve turns pale, and squeezes his eyes shut, before scooping her up into his arms and carrying her inside.
And Tony just stands there and wonders how much more Thanos can take from him.
Steve’s on a mission when the call comes in.
He’s with Tony and Sam, and it’s Tony who takes the call, looking up sharply with worried eyes. He steps across the quinjet and holds out the phone to Steve. Steve frowns.
“Bruce,” Tony says.
Steve’s eyes widen. They haven’t seen Bruce in three years, not since the Hulk flew off in a quinjet after Sokovia. They had no idea if he was alive, safe, anything. Natasha beat herself up for it, blaming herself for driving him away. Tony took is hard too; he’d always had a bond with Bruce. Steve thinks that if Tony wasn’t so completely in love with Bucky, he and Bruce might’ve been something.
Steve takes the phone.
“Bruce?” he says.
“Hi Steve,” and it really is Bruce’s voice that replies. “Where are you?”
“Somewhere over Russia,” he tells him.
“Because it’s stupidly big,” Sam yells from the pilot’s seat.
“So you don’t know what’s going down in New York?” Bruce presses and Steve’s heart freezes. Because New York is where Natasha is, and if something bad happened in New York, she should contact him. Or FRIDAY should.
“No,” he replies. “Bruce, what happened?”
So Bruce tells him. About the donut-shaped alien spaceship in the sky, about the wizard and the time stone. He tells him about Thor, about Loki and the tesseract, about Thanos.
“Where’s Natasha?” Steve asks. He can feel Tony’s eyes burning into him, can feel Tony’s need to know his sister is safe. Steve thinks he might throw up.
“Steve, I’m sorry. The last we saw, she was flying after the ship. She’s gone.”
“Look after her for me?” Steve whispers and Pepper nods.
He knows it’s a pointless question; Pepper’s been taking care of Natasha since long before he knew her. But still. He can’t help it.
Then he steps out of medical and slides down the wall to the floor and cries.
Silent sobs wrack his body, his face shining with tears, but he doesn’t make a sound. All he can see is Natasha’s ribs sticking through her torso, all he can hear is her anger as she yelled to them, reminding them that she told them that something big was coming. A suit of armour around the world doesn’t seem so bad now after all.
He thinks back, to the days before Ultron, when they began to talk about having a baby. And then, in the days after, when they agreed that it wasn’t the right time. Natasha would step back from the Avengers for a while first, Steve would train up the new Avengers, and then they could start talking again. It was for the best they decided.
What idiots they were, he thinks.
They had a baby, and now it’s gone. Like Peter Parker, the boy he knows Natasha thought of as a son. It was no coincidence she started mentoring him after Ultron. Natasha was made to be a mom. He was the one who had doubts, and now look where they are.
As much as he wants to stay there forever, Steve forces himself onto his feet. They know where Thanos is, and they’re going to get him. They’re going to get the stones, and they’ll bring everyone back. And they might not be able to bring his son back, but he’ll damn well try.
So he gets to his feet, suits up in his old SHIELD stealth suit, and follows the racoon out into the repaired spaceship.
As the stars reflect in his eyes, Steve thinks, it’ll all be over soon. They’ll bring them back.
It’s all going to be okay.
Five years later
Tony dances. He doesn’t know what else to do, so he dances. He dances until his feet bleed, and he doesn’t even give a shit because why should he? There’s no one else to care. Rhodey, Carol, Nebula, Rocket, they’re all out on missions that are important, they are, and Steve, Steve’s running group therapy sessions for the ones left behind and living his life with Natasha.
Tony needs him, needs him like air, because he’s out there and he’s alive, but the fucker abandoned Tony too. Doesn’t he get it that Tony lost too? That Tony’s alone too? If Clint was here then, maybe, maybe, he wouldn’t be quite so alone.
But Clint’s not here.
So Tony dances.
He dances to new music, because the familiar pieces dredge up too many memories, and he can’t deal with that shit right now. But even so, dancing to new music, he still feels phantom arms around his, can still hear the sound of another pair of feet, still waits for strong hands to catch him when he spins too hard and too fast.
So he dances harder and faster again and again and again until he falls to his knees and sobs in an empty compound, gasping for air and praying for someone to hear him.
“I’d offer to cook you dinner, but you look miserable enough already,” Steve says, and Tony looks up. He tries to blink away the tears, and forces a smile.
“Here to do your laundry?” he jokes, as if it doesn’t hurt like a bitch that everyone is gone.
Except for him.
“You know, I saw a pod of whales on my way up here,” Steve says, and Tony’s known him long enough to know that is tone is far too casual, far too conversational.
“In the Hudson?”
“Water’s cleaner, less commercial fishing,” Steve shrugs as he sits down.
“Don’t you dare tell me to look on the bright side,” Tony warns, because brother-in-law or not, he might actually stab Steve if he tries that one. “Or I’m going to throw this peanut butter sandwich at you.”
Steve smiles. Then his face falls.
“I keep telling everyone they should move on,” he says. “Some people do. But not us.”
“I don’t know Rogers, looks like you’re doing pretty good for yourself,” Tony shoots back. Because Steve can do this, he can drop in and say hi, but then he goes back home. Because even the man out of time has a home in this shit show of a world, the world after.
Tony has nothing. He has the next mission, and nothing else. And now, there’s only one mission that matters, but honestly, he doubts he’s any closer to succeeding in that mission than he was five years ago. Thanos is gone, the stones are gone, there’s nothing he can do.
He’s not a supersoldier, he’s not a demigod, he’s not a giant green rage monster.
Fat lot of good it does him.
“I used to have nothing,” Tony says. “And than I got this. This job. This… family.”
He thinks of Clint, the asshole, who fought for him. The first person ever to do that. Of Laura, and Cooper and Lila and Nate, who called him uncle Tony and gazed up at him with such love and adoration, as if they couldn’t imagine him ever doing anything wrong.
(If only they knew)
“And I was better because of it.”
And he was, he really was.
“And even though they’re gone, I’m still trying to be better.”
All he’s ever wanted is the freedom to be himself. The problem is, without his family, he doesn’t know what that is.
Steve ducks his head. He has the decency to look ashamed at least. Part of Tony wants to take it as a victory, but it’s hollow. Like everything these days.
But then they’re interrupted by an alert, and a video pops up, showing Scott Lang standing outside the compound. Which is… all kinds of impossible, because Scott Lang disappeared five years ago.
“Is this an old message?” Steve asks.
Hope blooms in Tony’s chest and he’s crying again.
“It’s from the front gate.”
Natasha steps out of the house and breathes in the air. She’s been a city girl most of her life, but she loves this, loves smelling pine and water and hearing bumble bees bounce off of the window. She steps off of the porch, crossing the grass to the tent by the edge of the vegetable patch that Steve is cultivating with a single-minded focus that he used to pour into missions.
“Jojo,” she calls.
Natasha perches on the too small wooden chair.
“Joey S Rogers, you want lunch?” she tries again.
The tent opens, and a tiny figure appears with an unexpected piece of headwear.
“Define lunch or be disintegrated.”
“You should not be wearing that, that’s part of a special birthday present I’m making for auntie Pepper,” Natasha says, pulling off the helmet to reveal her daughter’s face. She presses a kiss to Joey’s cheek. “You thinking about lunch? Where did you get this?” she asks, holding up the helmet.
“Really? Were you looking for it?”
“No. I found it though,” Joey replies, bouncing up and down.
“You like playing in the garage, huh? So does Mommy,” Natasha says. She hoists Joey up onto her hip. “It’s fine. Auntie Pepper never wears anything I buy her.”
She turns back towards the house, and that’s when she spots the car in the driveway. It stops, and the doors open. Steve is there, but so is Tony and the ant guy from Berlin.
“Daddy!” Joey cries, wriggling in her arms. Natasha puts her daughter down, and she dashes across the garden and into Steve’s waiting arms.
“Hey baby girl,” Steve murmurs, pressing his face into Joey’s strawberry blonde hair.
Steve stays inside with Joey, while Natasha takes coffee out onto the porch, where Tony and Scott are waiting. And they talk, and Scott proposes time travel, as though it’s just that easy, as if the idea isn’t laughable.
And then Tony says, “We can’t do nothing. We’re the Avengers. Now, we got shit to avenge.”
“Sure,” Natasha snaps. “And when your plan relies on more than the plot of Back to the Future, then you can give me a call.”
Brother and sister glare at each other, and all Natasha can think about is that last argument, four years ago, when Tony accused her of giving up.
The door bangs open and Joey races over, climbing into Natasha’s lap.
“Daddy told me to come and save you,” she declares and Natasha smiles. She kisses Joey’s blonde head.
"Good job,” she murmurs. “I’m saved.
“What are we gonna do? We need her. What are we going to do, stop?” Scott asks as they return to the car.
“No, I wanna do it right,” Tony sighs.
"We’re going to need a bigger brain.”
“I had a moment of inspiration, I’d like to see if it checks out,” Natasha says, turning on her workbench. “So, if I can run one last sim before we pack it in for the night. This time in the shape of a mobius strip. Inverted, please.”
“Processing,” FRIDAY replies.
“And don’t worry if it doesn’t pan out,” she sighs. “I’m just kind of…”
“Model rendered,” FRIDAY informs her.
She watches the holograms dance before her eyes. This is crazy, right? She’s crazy. But then she thinks about the picture of her and Peter. She thinks of him fading away before her very eyes. She thinks about the pain of losing not one but two children in one day. And she thinks, what if?
Then suddenly the simulation finishes running and the screen flashes two words: MODEL SUCCESSFUL.
Natasha falls back into her chair. She gasps.
“Shit!” she exclaims.
“Shit,” a small voice echoes behind her.
Natasha spins around and finds Joey sitting on the stairs, wearing a shit-eating grin that is pure Steve Rogers.
“What are you doing up little miss?” she asks.
“Shit,” Joey repeats.
“Nope. We don’t say that. Only daddy says that word. He coined it, it belongs to him.”
“What are you doing?” Joey asks.
“I got important shit to think about,” Natasha retorts.
“Are you thinking about juice pops?”
And Natasha smiles. God, she loves this kid. She loves the innocence of her little girl, innocence that Natasha herself was never allowed to have. First she was an orphan, and then she was a Stark. Joey will never know the type of childhood she had.
“Yeah,” she replies. “I was thinking about juice pops. That’s extortion by the way.”
And when she holds out her hand, Joey bounces over and takes it, her palm so tiny and small against Natasha’s, and she wonders how she ever lived without her.
“Are you all done?” Natasha asks, once she’s tucked Joey back into bed. She takes Joey’s stick from her, and wipes the sticky residue from her mouth. “I love you tons,” she whispers, leaning forward to kiss Joey’s forehead.
“I love you three thousand,” Joey replies.
“Wow. Three thousand? That’s crazy. Three thousand.” She shakes her head. “Go to sleep or I’ll sell all your toys,” she calls over her shoulder, and she heads downstairs with Joey’s laughter echoing in her ears.
Steve is sitting on the couch with a magazine, and Natasha is overwhelmed once again with how much she loves this man. He’s everything she’s ever wanted, and he’s given her the world more than once.
“She loves me three thousand,” she informs him. “I think you were only in the low six, seven hundreds, right?”
They share a grin.
“What are you reading?” Natasha asks.
“Article on composting.”
“What’s new in the world of composting?” she asks, her eyes already drifting back to the model she left open on her workbench. The model for time travel. That works. It’s all she can think about, and she doesn’t hear a word Steve says. “I figured it out,” she interrupts. “Time travel.”
“Seriously?” Steve puts down his book. “Natasha, that’s amazing.”
“Part of me thinks I should just lock it up in a box and bury at the bottom of the lake and go to bed,” she confesses. Because, yes, it works. But is it worth the risk? Is it worth losing her daughter, is it worth losing this life, with her husband, with her family? Tony’s face bursts into her mind, and Natasha wishes it wouldn’t.
“Yeah,” Steve nods. “But would you be able to rest?”
And that’s why she loves him, because he knows her so well.
Tony steps out of the building and exhales.
Well that went terribly.
Sometimes, it’s so hard to hang onto hope. He wants to believe, wants so desperately to believe that they can get the stones and bring everyone back. Bring Bucky back. But he doesn’t know if they can.
He scrubs a hand down his face.
The roar of an engine cuts through the silence that permeates everywhere now. Tony frowns. The engine’s getting closer. Raising his head, he spots a black sportscar racing up the driveway. He doesn’t recognise it, but he hopes, oh does he hope, that he knows who it belongs to.
The car skids to a stop a few feet away, then reverses slowly, stopping infant of him. The window rolls down, and sure enough, it’s Natasha in the driver’s seat, with Steve beside her.
“I thought I recognised your driving,” Tony says. “Only you drive that badly.”
“Only we drive that badly,” Natasha corrects, climbing out of the car. Tony doesn’t deny it. It’s a Stark thing, driving like they devil’s after you. “Let me guess. He turned into a baby?”
“Among other things,” Tony nods.
Natasha snorts. Then she pulls something that looks like a cross between costume jewellery and a watch and hands it to him.
“I figured it out.”
“Of course you did.”
Then Natasha becomes serious.
“Tony, my priorities have changed. I want to bring them back, I do, but not at the cost of everything I have now. I’m all for saving the world. And maybe not die tying would be nice.”
“Agreed,” Tony nods.
He understands. He doesn’t want anything to happen to his niece either. He may not be a major part of her life, but he sees the love in Steve’s face whenever he visits, sees how happy Natasha looked when she held Joey in her arms, and he loves her for making them happy. He knows what and who Natasha lost that day on Titan.
“Besides,” Steve adds, opening the trunk and pulling out his shield. “I gotta get this outta the garage before Joey starts using it as a sledge.”
It’s good to have them home.
Tony arrives just in time to see the man fall. The figure with the sword, the water running off of his leathers, cleans the blade on his arm and sheathes it once more.
He pulls off the hood and calls, “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Neither should you,” Tony replies.
The figure turns and Clint looks at him with dead eyes, and it hurts. It hurts so much to see Clint like this. Tony remembers the cocky asshole he slept with way back in Budapest, and he can’t reconcile him with this shadow in front of him.
Tony steps forward. His throat closes.
“We have a chance,” he says. “To bring them back.”
“Don’t,” Clint says.
“Don’t give me hope.”
Tony gives a shuddering gasp.
“I’m sorry it took me so long.”
They all stand ready, in their new suits, all of them matching, and Tony thinks to himself, We look like a team.
Okay, it a team that includes a blue alien cyborg, a giant green rage monster, a talking raccoon, and his brother-in-law, the previously frozen supersolider from the nineteen forties, but it’s a team none the less.
He looks across at his sister and smiles.
“See you in a minute.”
They’re all so young.
That’s the first thing Natasha thinks when she sees them.
Especially Tony and Clint, standing by the bar, pouring themselves drinks. Their faces are unlined in a way that they haven’t been in a long time. Despite everything they’ve seen up until this point, it’s nothing compared to what’s coming.
Even Thor, the untagging demigod, looks younger.
And Steve, her husband the supersoldier. Of course, that could be the outfit too.
“Urgh. Mr Rogers, I almost forgot that that suit did nothing for your ass,” Natasha smirks.
“No one asked you to look, Mrs Rogers,” Steve retorts, and even over the comms, she can hear his smirk.
“It’s ridiculous,” she informs him. “And I’m always looking.”
“I think you look great, Cap,” Scott pipes up. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s America’s ass.”
Natasha snorts, then ducks out of sight as the STRIKE team appears.
“I bet the racoon didn’t have to climb a mountain,” Tony mutters and Clint laughs, and Tony feels, despite everything, like he’s coming home. Clint’s by his side, with his bow - although he kept the sword which, Tony won’t lie, is kinda hot - and they’re saving the world.
The alternative’s not an option.
“He’s not a raccoon, you know,” Clint calls.
“Whatever, he eats garbage.”
“Welcome. Clint, son of Edith,” a voice echoes, and they both draw their weapons. A figure in a cloak appears. “Anthony, son of Maria.”
“Who are you?” Tony asks, and it takes every bit of his training not to react to his mother’s name being spoken for the first time in years.
“Consider me a guide, to you, and to all who seek the soul stone.”
“Oh, good. Tell us where it is, then we’ll be on our way.”
And that sounds really great right about now. There’s something about this place that makes his skin crawl, even without the ominous floating figure in the black cloak.
(Seriously, how the hell did his life get this weird? Oh yeah, he slept with Clint Barton, then allowed him to recruit him to SHIELD. That was it)
“Oh, Liebchen. If only it were that easy,” the figure says and moves forward, and Tony can see his face for the first time and, son of a bitch, is that Red Skull? Tony makes a mental note to tell Steve, because that son of a bitch is still alive.
Red Skull, or whoever, leads them to the edge of the cliff, and there goes that ominous feeling again.
“What you seek lies in front of you, as does what you fear.”
Well, isn’t that just peachy? Tony fears a lot of things. But he still steps up to the edge and stares down.
“The stone is down there,” he realises.
Which, okay, not ideal but whatever. It does make the climbing up a mountain thing a tad more irritating, but you know, he’s cool, it’s cool.
“For one of you,” Red Skull confirms. “For the other, in order to take the stone, you must lose that which you love. And everlasting exchange. A soul for a soul.”
Natasha freezes as she locks the briefcase.
She knows that voice. Grabbing the briefcase, she turns and tries to walk away, but then Howard calls, “Hey, door’s this way pal,” and she stops.
“Oh,” she says, turning towards her father like it’s no big deal.
“I’m looking for Doctor Zola, have you seen him?” Howard asks.
“Doctor Zola? No, I haven’t a soul,” she replies.
Why the hell is she nervous? It’s not like Howard can recognise her; she hasn’t even been born yet.
“Do I know you?” Howard asks.
“No sir,” Natasha replies. “I’m a visitor from MIT.”
“MIT. Gotta name?”
“Maria,” she blurts out.
“That’ll be easy to remember, since it’s my wife’s name.”
“Howard Stark,” Howard shakes her hand, and Natasha wishes she’d allowed Tony to teach her how to lie under pressure, because she is terrible at this. “You look a little green around the gills there, Rogers.”
“Oh I’m fine,” Natasha waves him off. “Just… long hours.”
“Wanna get some air?” Howard suggests, and Natasha smiles as she’s hit with the memory of her early days in America, before Howard started pushing her to be worthy of the Stark name, when she was terrified and alone, and he would scoop her up and carry her outside, pointing out different things and telling her what they were called in English.
“Yeah,” she snaps back.
“Need your briefcase?”
Right. Tesseract. Time heist. Saving the universe. That was a thing they were doing.
“Big date?” she asks as they step into the elevator, indicating to the can of ravioli and the bunch of roses that Howard is carrying.
“My wife’s pregnant,” Howard explains, and Natasha realises that it’s Tony, it’s Tony that she’s pregnant with.
“How far along?” she asks, trying to calculate.
“Far enough that she hates the sound of my chewing.”
“My husband whistles when he breathes,” Natasha smiles. “We have a little girl.”
“Yeah? A girl would be nice,” Howard muses. “There’s a chance she wouldn’t turn out exactly like me.”
And Natasha stares at him, and now that they’re face to face, suddenly the good times are coming back to her. And there were good times, she realises. She just forgot thanks to all the bad times.
“Would that be so bad?” she murmurs.
Maybe it’s time to stop being angry.
“So where are you with names?” she asks as they make their way outside.
“If it’s a boy, my wife likes Almonzo.”
“You might wanna let that stew a while,” she says. “You’ve got time.”
Holy shit, mom, what were you thinking? Almonzo? Jesus.
“Yeah. What would you have chosen? If it was a boy?”
The answer is there instantly. Same as she knows that the baby she lost on Titan was a boy. He was James, but she’s never told anyone that, no one except Steve.
“Anthony,” she replies instead. “After my brother.”
Howard nods, considering.
“Let me ask you something, when your kid was born, were you nervous?”
“And your husband?”
“Did you feel qualified? Like you had any idea how to successfully operate that thing?”
“I literally pieced it together as I went along,” Natasha replies honestly, “And I thought about what my dad did, and uh.”
She catches sight of Steve across the compound, throwing her a thumbs up.
“My old man never met a problem he couldn’t solve without a belt,” Howard grunts, and okay, that explains a lot.
“I thought my dad was tough on me,” she admits, “But now, looking back, I try to remember the good stuff. He did drop the odd pearl.”
“No amount of money ever bought a second of time.”
This time, Natasha would exchange every penny she has for it, for this moment. To see Howard again and remember that it wasn’t all bad. To remember laughing with him as she pretended her English was worse than it was while he tried to teach her how to say tree.
“Smart guy,” Howard nods.
“He did his best,” Natasha realises.
“I tell you, that kid’s not even here yet, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.”
Natasha catches sight of Steve pointing to his watch, but she can’t go yet.
“Good to meet you, Rogers,” Howard says.
“Yeah,” Natasha shakes his hand. “Howard, everything’s going to be alright.”
Then because she can’t stop herself she hugs him.
Then remembers that she’s not his daughter yet, and she’s just some random stranger hugging him at work.
“Thank you,” she says. “For… everything you’ve done. For this country.”
Howard looks at her strangely, but then Natasha catches sight of Jarvis in the background, with his hair less grey than she’d ever seen it, so she doesn’t care, she just smiles and hurries back to Steve.
“Hey. How’s it going?” Clint calls, waving to the dude in the cloak who’s still standing by the edge of the cliff. He laughs, but laughing is the last thing he feels like doing right now. “Jesus,” he mutters, crossing to where Tony sits on a rock, his expression pensive and serious in a way that once would’ve seemed impossible. These days, a lot of things were possible that shouldn’t be. “Maybe he’s making this shit up,” he grunts.
“No,” Tony shake his head. “I don’t think so.”
“What? Cause he knows your momma’s name?”
“I haven’t spoken her name forty four years,” Tony says. “Thanos left here with the stone, without his daughter. That’s not a coincidence.”
Tony’s always right.
“Yeah,” Clint sighs.
“Whatever it takes,” Tony murmurs.
Clint stares towards the edge of the cliff, towards the guy with the red face and the floaty cloak. He thinks of Lila, of archery. He thinks of Cooper, of mayo on hot dogs. He thinks of Nate, of a baby in his arms. He thinks of Laura.
And he thinks of Pietro Maximoff.
“Whatever it takes,” he echoes.
Tony stands, face to face with Clint.
“We don’t get that stone, billions of people stay dead,” he points out.
Including Clint’s family. Including Bucky, the man who put the light back in Tony’s eyes.
“I guess we both know who it’s gotta be,” Clint nods, and he’s okay with this.
Well, okay, it sucks. It really, really sucks. But he’s okay with it. He’s done good, hopefully. He’s made a difference, or at least he’s tried to. It’s okay. Not great, but it’s okay.
“I guess we do,” Tony agrees.
Clint takes Tony’s hand. It’s still a paradox, how Tony manages to have both soft and calloused hands all at once. He’s going to miss this asshole.
But then their eyes meet, and Clint realises that Tony’s looking at him with the same expression that Clint is wearing.
“I’m starting to think we mean different people here, Tony.”
“The last five years, I’ve been trying to do one thing: get to right here,” Tony hisses. “That’s all it’s been about: bringing everybody back.”
“No. Don’t you get all decent on me now.”
“What? You think I wanna do it? Take a swan dive off a cliff with a pretty permanent ending? I’m trying to save your life, you idiot.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want you to, how’s that?” Clint retorts, stepping closer. He swallows. “Tony, you know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve become.”
“I don’t judge people on their worst mistakes.”
“Maybe you should,” Clint whispers.
Tony smiles at him, but Clint’s close enough, he can see the tears in his eyes. Clint raises a hand and wipes them away. Tony catches his hand and presses a kiss to his palm.
“You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?”
They press their foreheads together and just breathe. God, there’s so much Clint wants to say, wants to tell Tony. He wants to thank him, for al the times he’s saved Clint’s life, all the time he had his back. He wants…
He wants Tony to be happy.
Gathering his strength and his courage, Clint steps back and nods, “Okay. You win.”
Tony’s mask slips, for a second, and Clint sees: Tony doesn’t want to die.
And then he knocks Tony on his ass.
“Tell my family I love them,” he says.
But Tony fights back, throwing Clint off of him. He’s on his feet first, because he’s always been a quick little bastard.
“You tell them yourself,” he says, and then he shoots Clint with his bites.
Clint shouts, the electricity stinging, and it hurts, it hurts, but he has to get up, he has to, because Tony is running towards the cliff edge and no, he can’t, he can’t let Tony do this, he can’t watch Tony die. He snatches an arrow, draw his bow, and fires at the edge of the cliff. The arrow explodes on impact and throws Tony to the side.
Clint drops his bow.
He starts to run.
He meets Tony’s eyes.
He can do this.
Only another body crashes into him, and it’s Tony, he knows that without looking, because he knows Tony. He hears the hiss of a line, and they smack into the side of the cliff. His head rings, but Clint realises that the line is attached to his belt, and Tony’s hanging onto his other hand. Which means there is no way for Clint to fall without Tony falling too.
“Damn you,” he hisses.
He tries to reach Tony with his other hand, he does, he tries so hard and it hurts, oh God, it hurts. Everything hurts. He can’t breathe and he can’t let go because Tony’s arm is slipping and no, no, it’s not supposed to be like this, this isn’t supposed to happen, and he can’t, he can’t.
“Let me go,” Tony says.
“No,” Clint refuses. “Please no.”
Not Tony. He can’t lose Tony. There’s no guarantee this’ll even work, and if it doesn’t, he can’t live without Tony. He needs him.
“It’s okay,” Tony whispers.
And it would be so much easier if Tony would just hang on, but he’s not holding Clint, and his grip is slipping, and he can’t, he just can’t.
“Please,” Clint whimpers.
And Clint’s staring so hard at his face, that he doesn’t notice Tony plant his boots against the side of the cliff, not until Tony pushes and the force wrenches his arm from Clint’s grasp.
“No!” he cries.
But there’s nothing he can do. Tony’s falling, and Clint curls in on himself, unable to look. And then he hates himself, so he looks, and Tony’s lying there, he’s just lying there, and he’s not moving and Clint can see the blood, red on stone, and he hates it, he hates everything, he hates Thanos, he hates Vormir, he hates the dude in the cloak, he hates it all.
And then he must black out.
When he wakes, he’s lying in water. And what the hell, he’s miles away from the mountain and the cliff, and there’s no red faced figure in a cloak.
But there is something in his hand. And when he opens it, he sees the glowing orange stone and he laughs because, holy shit, they did it. And he looks round, ready to tell Tony that they did it. Only the words die on his lips as he remembers.
Natasha gasps and they’re back, they’re standing on the landing pad and she grins. Because they did it, they actually did it, and they made it back. She’s flying high from the realisation that she just successfully conquered time travel, and she got to see Howard and that was better than she’d imagined.
Then Steve says, “Clint? Where’s Tony?” and she comes crashing down.
Her head snaps round, to the space beside Clint where Tony should be, wearing a cocky grin and winking proudly at her.
Only, there’s no Tony.
There’s just Clint, wet hair plastered to his scalp, and a broken expression on his face, and Natasha knows that her brother is dead.
Steve finds Natasha in the lab. Her eyes are red and she studiously avoids his gaze.
“I have to, uh, I have to get to work,” she says, her voice breaking. “We need, we need that, the, uh, gauntlet. And then. And then.”
Steve steps forward and pulls her into his arms. She tries to resist, but Steve doesn’t let her. He pulls her in, cradling her against his chest. Natasha stands stiff for a minute, her lip wobbling. She swallows, then once more, and the she breaks.
Her head falls forward onto his collarbone, her shoulders shake as she sobs and she clings to him, and Steve feels his own tears re-emerge. He clings to his wife as tightly as he dares and buries his nose in her hair, breathing her in.
Natasha shakes and sob, she wails, and it’s agonising to hear. It would be painful from anyone, but from Natasha, who never cries like this, and who he loves second only to their daughter, it’s a physical ache that tries to overwhelm him.
He places kiss and after into her hair and whispers, “I love you. I love you so much.”
“I want my big brother,” she chokes, and that’s it, Steve’s gone. Any hope of dignity or holding himself back is gone. Tears flow freely down his face and into her hair, and if he could, he would never let her go.
Clint picks up the phone with shaking hands. It’s Laura’s picture on the screen and he wants it so badly to be her. God, please. He doesn’t think he could handle it if this failed.
Not when he’s lost Tony.
He swipes his finger across the screen and presses the phone to his ear.
He lets out a noise that ends up somewhere between a gasp and a sob and he’s crying, because that her, that’s his wife on the other end of the phone.
They did it.
Thank you Tony.
Then the world explodes.
His head rings.
Through the fog and the ringing and, okay, yeah, all the pain, he hears something.
“Steve? Come on honey.”
Steve blinks and pushes himself up, hating the way his head swims..
“That’s my man.”
He looks up and Natasha’s standing over him in the suit, sans helmet. She smiles at him, and Steve thinks that she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. He loves her so much.
“You lose this again, and I’m keeping it,” Natasha says, holding up his shield.
Steve smiles. He stands, takes the shield, then pulls her in, cupping her face with one hand as he kisses her.
“I love you,” he whispers.
Natasha nods. She swallows.
“Whatever it takes,” she murmurs.
“Whatever it takes,” he echoes.
“Let’s get this son of a bitch.”
He’s in agony but Steve forces himself up onto his hands and knees, ignoring the way his limbs shake. His hands tremble as he tightens the straps on his shield, only half of the shield is gone now, swept away by Thanos.
It feels oddly symbolic.
But Steve tightens his shield and hauls himself to his feet and steps forward.
Just one man against an entire army.
Like hell he’s going to back down now.
“…Cap, do you read me?”
“Cap, it’s Sam, can you hear me?”
“Cap, it’s Sam, do you read me?”
Steve presses his hand to his ear in disbelief.
“On your left.”
He turns to his left, and orange spark cut a circle in the air, shining bright like a sun in the darkness. Then three outlines appear, walking closer, until finally Steve recognises them: T’Challa, Shuri, and Okoye.
But it’s not until Sam swoops through the portal on his wings that Steve smiles.
Then, there are portals everywhere, filling the sky and shining down golden light on Thanos’ army.
There are faces Steve recognises, and faces he he doesn’t, people whose identity he can figure out, and those who he has no idea. But none of it matters. Because they are here, with him, with Natasha, with Thor, standing together in the face of Thanos and his army.
“Avengers,” he calls.
Mjolnir flies across the battlefield and into his waiting hand.
And with a roar, they charge.
“Hey,” a voice calls and then suddenly Peter Parker is standing in front of her and Natasha wants to cry. “Holy cow, you will not believe what’s going on!” Peter exclaims, as though he hasn’t been dead for the past five years. “Do you remember when we were in space? And I got all dusty?”
No, it’s just been filling her nightmares for five years, but whatever.
“I must’ve passed out because I woke up, and you were gone. But Doctor Strange was there, right? He was like, it’s been five years, come on, they need us. And then he started doing the yellow sparkly thing that he does all the time-“
And she can’t wait any longer.
Natasha steps forward and pulls Peter into her arms, holding him as close and tight as she always wanted but never dared to.
“This is nice,” he mumbles.
And Natasha chokes out a laugh, and presses a kiss into his hair.
She has her boy back.
Natasha hauls herself to her feet, raises her head and finds herself staring straight at Strange, who stares back at her while holding back the river. And it’s his expression that makes her stop. He’s looking at her with such sorrow, such regret, such pain that she has no choice but to stop.
“If it comes down to a choice between saving you or the kid, or saving the time stone, I will not hesitate.”
"How many did we win?”
“It was the only way, Natasha.”
“Tell me this is it.”
“If I tell you what’s going to happen, it won’t happen.”
Strange raises a single finger.
And then she cannot breathe, because she understands. For one moment, only one single moment, she allows her eyes to fill with tears as she holds his gaze. Then she tears her eyes away from him, looking across the battlefield for Steve.
She needs… everything. She needs her husband. She needs her daughter. She needs her best friends.
She needs her brother.
Tony’s the brave one.
Tony’s the one who didn’t hesitate to sacrifice himself to get the soul stone, despite knowing it would mean he would never see Bucky again. She needs that bravery now.
But then the moment’s over, and she blinks the tears away. She hardens her heart, she grits her teeth, and she knows what she has to do. And she knows she can do it.
After all, Stark’s are made of iron.
Natasha Stark launches herself at Thanos, only to be thrown aside.
Thanos sneers and raises the gauntlet.
“I am inevitable,” he declares and snaps his fingers.
Thanos looks at the gauntlet with dawning horror. Because the Infinity Stones are gone. When he looks up again, Natasha Stark raises her hand, the nanoparticles of her suit creating a gauntlet for the six Infinity Stones. She gasps, as the power surges through her body, and it’s pain, so much pain. But she holds his gaze steady, fearless, even now.
“And I am… Iron Woman.”
She snaps her fingers.
He sees Rhodey, and he knows that’s where she’ll be, that’s where nat is, because Rhodey is her oldest friend, and if she’s going to be anywhere, she’s going to be with him. He runs, and he hears Peter say, “We won, Ms Stark. We won. Nat.”
Steve puts his hand on Peter’s shoulder and gently moves him towards Rhodey. He drops what’s left of his shield and Mjolnir, unclips his helmet and tosses it aside, then falls to his knees.
The right side of Natasha’s face is… gone. It’s burned, and he can smell it, and he wants to throw up. But her lips twitch every so slightly, and he knows she recognises him. He covers the reactor with one hand; slowly, Natasha’s hand covers his own.
It’s barely there, and if it was anyone else, they probably wouldn’t hear it. But he can, because of the serum, he can hear it, and the rattle in her breath.
A death rattle.
“FRIDAY?” he says.
“Life functions critical.”
Steve gasps, and nods, confirming what he already knows. Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Steve forces a smile.
“Hey. Hey you,” he murmurs. “Listen. We’re, uh, we’re gonna be okay. Me and Joey, we’re going to be fine. Yeah?” He smiles, even as the tears begin making tracks through the dirt on his face. “We’re gonna be okay. So you, you can rest now.”
He leans forward and kisses her temple, pressing his lips against her skin and praying that she can feel it.
“You can rest now,” he whispers.
Beneath his hand, the arc reactor flickers.
The light fades.
Natasha’s hand falls away.
Steve draws a ragged breath and starts to cry.
Bucky scans the battlefield. It’s over now, somehow. He spots the racoon and quickly turns away. He’s not giving up this arm for anything. He sees T’Challa, and then finds Shuri and Okoye, and it’s a relief to see his friends alive.
Sam swoops out of the sky, landing a few feet away and gives him a nod. Bucky returns it. Yeah, okay, the bird’s alright.
Speaking of birds, he finds Clint and darts across the field to the archer’s side.
“Barton,” he calls.
Clint turns and stares at him.
“Have you seen Tony?” Bucky asks. Tony’s the one person he hasn’t seen throughout the battle, and the one person he really wants to. He can’t imagine the pain Tony’s gone through, five years alone.
Clint looks away, takes a heaving breath, and when he turns back to Bucky, his eyes are full.
And Bucky knows.
“We went to get the stones,” Clint explains, his voice thick. “Tony and I, we went to this place called Vormir. To get the soul stone. And, uh, and to get it…” He swallows, and some of the tears begin to roll down his cheeks, leaving clean lines through the dirt. “A soul for a soul,” he says finally. “It was supposed to be me. It should’ve been me. I’m so sorry, Barnes.”
“You were with him?” Bucky asks, and his voice is hoarse, huh, isn’t that weird? Clint nods, unable to speak. “Good,” Bucky says. “I’m glad he wasn’t alone.”
He turns away. There’s nothing of Thanos or his forces left, they’re all dust now. So in lieu, Bucky picks up an abandoned gun and launches it through the air with a roar, then falls to the ground and cries like a baby.
“Everybody wants a happy ending, right? But it doesn’t always roll that way. Maybe this time. I’m hoping if you play this back, I hope it’s in celebration. I hope families are reunited. I hope we get it back, and something like a normal version of the planet has been restored, if there ever was such a thing. God, what a world. Universe, now. I mean, if you’d told me ten years ago that not only were we not alone, but to this extent… I mean, I wouldn’t have been surprised but come on, who knew? Epic forces of darkness and light that have come into play, and for better or worse, that’s the reality that Joey’s going to have to find a way to grow up in.”
The helmet sits on the table, the eyes glowing a familiar blue as it projects the recording into the corner of the room.
“So I thought I’d better record a little greeting, in case of an untimely death,” the hologram of Natasha explains, sitting cross-legged on a workbench in the lab, because even in death, she can’t sit on a chair like a normal person. “On my part. I mean, not that death at any time isn’t untimely. This time travel thing that we’re trying to pull off tomorrow, it’s got me scratching my head about the survivability of this thing. Then again, that’s the hero gig. Part of the journey is the end. What am I even worrying for? Everything’s going to work out exactly as it’s supposed to.”
The hologram stands and walks towards the helmet, the pauses, and looks straight at Steve and Joey.
"I love you three thousand.”
And then she’s gone.
And despite the tears on his face, Steve smiles.
“You have to return the stones to the exact moment they were taken,” Banner explains, “Or-“
“I know,” Bucky interrupts. “Lotsa bad things happen for a lotta good people. Don’t worry big green, I got this.”
“You know, I could come with you,” Sam offers.
“You know, I could get the impression you actually like me,” Bucky retorts.
“Yeah, screw that,” Sam snorts. “You’re on your own, asshole.”
“That’s more like it,” Bucky claps him on the shoulder. Then he turns to Steve. He knows Steve’s going to give Sam the shield so he can retire and spend all of his time with Joey. Sam’s going to make a great Captain America. And Steve’s a great father. Bucky wishes he could’ve seen Natasha with Steve and Joey. He bets that was a sight.
“Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” he tells Steve.
“How can I?” Steve replies. “You’re taking all the stupid with you. I’m gonna miss you buddy.”
They hug, just like the last time they spoke those words. And just like then, it’s going to be a long time until they see each other again. When they separate, Bucky steps up onto the pad and picks up the case with the Infinity Stones with one hand, and the gun, Tony’s gun, with the other.
“It’s gonna be okay, Steve.”
“How long will it take?” Sam asks.
“For him? As long as he needs,” Banner replies, and Bucky barely contains his smile. “For us, five seconds.”
The five seconds pass, but Bucky doesn’t reappear.
Steve smiles, even as Sam and Bruce start freaking out. He turns towards the lake and spots a familiar figure.
“Sam,” he calls.
When Sam looks in his direction, Steve nods towards the shoreline and the outline. Sam stares in confusion, but Steve’s not confused, he knew what was going on from the moment Bucky told him not to do anything stupid, although he thinks that really he knew from the moment Bucky offered to return the stones. Steve crosses the grass, and finds himself looking at his best friend, his face lined and weathered with age, his hair cut short once more.
“Hi Stevie,” Bucky grins.
“You’re late,” Steve teases.
“Well, I put back the stones, and I, uh, kicked Red Skull’s ass again. And then I thought, maybe it was time to see what that life you found with Nat was like.”
Steve’s eyes fall to the ring on Bucky’s finger and he smiles.
“You wanna tell me about him?”
Bucky smiles like the little shit he is.
“No. I don’t think I do.”
Tony walks out onto the balcony and breathes. Below, Budapest is beginning to wake. He smells the coffee from the cafe on the corner, and the pastries from the bakery two blocks down, and he wonders about getting some for breakfast.
There’s no rush.
A pair of arms slip around his waist, but Tony doesn’t jump. He heard the footsteps on the wooden floors of the apartment. A kiss presses against his neck, as he begins tracing the gold in the metal arm.
“Kintsugi,” Bucky’s voice rumbles. “Japanese art of repairing broken pots with gold. Because broken objects aren’t something to hide, but to be proud of.”
Tony finds comfort in those words, relief that this Bucky, this Yasha, with more lines around his eyes and more peace in his soul than the man Tony knew doesn’t see Tony as something broken or damaged. He turns in the circle of Bucky’s arms and presses their lips together.
“Dance with me,” Bucky murmurs.
There, on the balcony in Budapest, they dance.