A/N: Do you need healing after the A4 trailer? Never fear! After well over a month, I've returned with it! Nearly 4k words of healing! Because who cares about canon!
(Translation: THAT TRAILER MESSED ME UP MAN I'M NOT READY FOR A4 AT FRICKIN ALL AND I'M ALREADY REREADING THIS FIC TO COPE HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO HANDLE 3 HOURS OF THAT)
Gamora stood frozen. She didn't dare believe it. She didn't dare move, she didn't dare blink, she didn't even dare to breathe. From the moment Thanos's soldiers had landed on her planet, from the moment he put that knife in her hands, he had controlled her life. Even after her escape, the knowledge he was out there haunted her, her deeds under his control following her.
And now he was dead. Felled by a simple blow lethal to any species.
Nebula dared to take a step forward. Gamora's trance broke and she moved, guarding her sister's back. Carefully, Nebula nudged Thanos's shoulder with her foot. When he didn't stir, she kicked him. And kicked him harder. And harder. And harder.
"Nebula!" Gamora cried, grabbing her shoulder. "Nebula, stop, please."
She punctuated every word with a kick. "He didn't suffer enough."
Gamora edged around to look her sister in the eye, but she didn't try to block the kicks. "That wasn't the goal, sister. If we tried to make him suffer, we would be just like him. But you know what we did do? We killed him. You killed him. And he died knowing we would undo everything he recruited and tortured and trained us to help him do. He died a failure."
Her breaths came in ragged gasps, tears in her eyes. "I hate him. But I- I don't know what I am without him."
Gamora ducked her head, glancing at Rocket and Groot as they came up to the sisters. "On Knowhere, I thought I killed him. And for a moment… I cried. I cried. For him. And I hated myself for it. But the truth is, it's because he's part of us. A part we both despise, a part we both want to leave far, far behind us. And we couldn't really even start to move past that, because we both knew he would come for us one day.
"Neither of us knows what we really are without him, Nebula, because we can't. He stole that from us. But starting right now, right this moment, we can become more than what he made us. We can stop running, stop hiding, stop fighting. We can rest. We can go home. For the first time since we were kids, Nebula, we can do whatever we want. We don't have to be scared anymore."
Gamora cupped Nebula's cheek, brushing her thumb over the metal around Nebula's eye. "I don't know what I am without him either. What I do know, though, is that it's time for us to grow, Nebula. Together."
For the briefest, most precious moment, Nebula truly smiled. It was tiny, but it was there, and it warmed Gamora's heart more than she had ever thought possible.
Then a dinosaur roared.
Loki picked himself up, gingerly rubbing the dust off his aching chin. Thor and Mother steadied him, and he let himself lean on her, staring at Thanos's body. He touched his throat, and a drop of blood smeared on his fingertip. All those years of feeling Thanos's fist around his throat, both metaphorically and literally, were finally… over.
Thor wrapped his arm around Loki's shoulders. "You're finally free."
Loki let his magic filter through his throat, healing its aches and scratches. "Somehow, I don't believe the nightmares will understand that."
Thor scrubbed a hand over his face. "Take the win, Loki. For once in your life, don't try thinking ahead. Just take the win."
"He's right, darling," Mother said, brushing strands of hair from his face.
"You're the one who taught me to always think ahead, Mother."
"And sometimes," Heimdall said, coming up behind them, "it's best to just enjoy the moment."
Loki turned around, smiling warily at the sight of the others. They had accepted him easily mid-battle, but now… he didn't know. "It was fun."
Fandral smiled back. "It was good to fight alongside you again, Loki."
Volstagg clapped his shoulder enthusiastically. "It was good indeed, my friend. I've missed that."
"Thank you," Loki murmured. "And… I am sorry."
Hogun shook his head. "We turned on you as well. I often wondered – as did we all – what would have happened had we talked with you in your hour of need, rather than suspecting you so quickly."
"I still lied to you. And sent the Destroyer after you. And proceeded to lie some more."
"You sent the Destroyer after him," Fandral said, pointing at Thor. "We simply got in the way. And since when did you not lie to us, trickster?"
It was said in jest, and Loki chuckled. "That is true."
Hogun held out his hand. "Stay good, Loki."
Loki shook it. "That won't work for me, Hogun. Even before."
He stepped back with a shrug. "It was worth a try."
"Well, we'll be seeing you, then," Fandral said. "Hopefully in a few thousand years. So long, friends."
Thor smiled bittersweetly. "It was good to see you all once more."
Fandral gave them a quick salute, which Sif returned, and then Thor summoned the Bifrost, sending the three warriors back to Valhalla. Sif watched, her shoulders slumping just that tiniest bit, the Bifrost's light glinting off tears Loki knew she wouldn't shed until she had some privacy.
Mother lowered her head, reaching across Loki to take Thor's hand. "That would be our cue-"
A dinosaur roared.
Loki whirled around. With no more Titans to attack, their attention had returned to the assembled humanoids. Clint threw up his hands. "Oh, come on. This is just our luck. We kill the purple maniac, and now dinosaurs want to eat us. This is just. Unbelievable. Un-fu-"
I'm still with you, Loki.
Loki's hand flew to his forehead, as if he could touch the voice echoing in his mind. Because it was familiar, heartbreakingly familiar, a voice he thought he would never hear again. "Carita?"
Gamora glanced back at him, forehead furrowing in confusion. "Loki, why are your eyes orange again?"
Loki looked at the Soul Stone, glowing brightly in Stark's Gauntlet, making the yellow Mind Stone shadowy in comparison. The Soul Stone has a few more gifts to give, my beloved. New and old.
On instinct, Loki threw his hand up. "Disappear."
Just as the original Spinosaurus, burns streaking down its sides, was reaching for Okoye, it disappeared. In a wave of orange, so did the entire pack. She stepped back quickly, and upon noticing Loki's outstretched hand, gave him a nod of thanks.
"Wait," Stark said, "I thought you returned the Soul Stone's energy to me?"
"As did I," Loki said, lowering his hand. "But it doesn't appear to be done… helping me."
"That's right, my beloved."
Loki's head snapped up, eyes flying wide. He clutched Carita's hilt tightly, not daring to turn around. Because that was the same voice, the same voice he knew and loved and missed with all his heart, but it wasn't in his head. But she couldn't be real. She couldn't be.
Except the others were turning. Some were aiming weapons, some only half-lifting them, the rest just confused. "Who the hell are you?" Stark demanded.
Gamora stepped forward, looking over Loki's shoulder. "Carita?"
"No, Carita is Loki's blade," Thor said slowly. "Right?"
"She was human first," Mother murmured, looking up at Loki.
Gently, a hand slid into Loki's. He couldn't resist glancing down, and even through the tears he was fighting, he recognized her. He recognized her slender fingers, her tender touch, the silver ring on her finger set with a single emerald. "You're an illusion, an extension of the Stone, like Gamora's mother was."
"I'm not," she promised in her lilting accent. Never letting go of his hand, she cupped his cheek, turning him towards her. Her hair was pulled back into an intricate design he had once done for her, and she looked up at him with her glowing eyes, the ones he had called his emerald stars. "I'm me, Loki."
"Prove it," he whispered.
She closed the distance between them, fitting against him perfectly. Rising onto her tiptoes, she slid her hand back, twining her fingers into his hair, and she guided him down. Her familiar lavender scent wove around them as their lips touched, warm and soft, and she tasted of the chocolate they had shared on their last night together.
His eyes drifted shut, his free hand sliding around her waist to rest on the small of her back. Her lips quirked against his, the corners twitching up into a brief smile. He broke away only to rest her forehead against hers, letting his eyes stay closed. "Carita," he breathed.
Her breath tickled his lips, thumb trailing along his cheekbone. "I'm here, love. I'm here."
Tony pointed at Loki and Carita. "Can someone tell me what the hell is going on?"
But Thor was useless, gaping at his brother. Frigga patted his shoulder, exchanging a happy glance with Heimdall. Loki pulled back, keeping one arm around Carita's shoulders and putting a hand on his hip as he turned to Tony. "So I've been to Earth before New York. Problem?"
"Yes," Clint said. "Many, many, many problems. Starting with how in the hell you landed a human woman?"
"I think your brother would appreciate that explanation as well," Heimdall said, gesturing at Thor, whose jaw was still on the floor.
Loki sighed. "Asgard had secret passages, and several decades ago I found one that led to the forest outside of Carita's town. She found me, we spent time together, fell in love, and when she died, I became disenfranchised with your planet until I returned to conquer it. Are you sufficiently caught up now?"
"I'm more weirded out than anything," Clint muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You mean you were just hanging out on our planet? Doing nothing evil?"
"I haven't been doing evil things for even ten years, Barton."
"You have been stabbing me for 1,500 years," Thor reminded him.
"Lightly stabbing, Thor, you always walked away. Mother would've stopped me otherwise."
Thor turned on his mother. "You never even tried to stop him?"
"He would have only stabbed you harder, sweetheart."
"Which is so not important right now, guys," Scott broke in. "My daughter is still… where were you exactly? I mean, is she dead, is she happy, is she…?"
"She's happy," Gamora promised. "She's somewhere between alive and dead, but she is happy."
"And you know this for sure?" Steve asked. "Everyone who's in there is happy?"
Peter nodded. "It put us all into our own paradises. I was with… with, uh…"
Loki took over, sparing Peter from remembering. "We were happy, with everyone we loved and no memories of anything painful from our real lives. Whoever you have in there, they're not suffering."
Everyone we loved.
Tony wrapped his arm around Peter, holding him close, reassuring himself that he could hold him close again. "May and MJ are waiting for you, kid," he promised quietly, kissing his hair. "And we'll get Ned back."
Peter nodded, leaning into the hug. He turned his face into Tony's shoulder, and he let the armor melt away, giving him something soft to hide in. Rhodey came up on his other side, laying a hand on Peter's shoulder.
"So how do we get them out?" Okoye asked. "One at a time, the same way you did?"
Sif shook her head. "There are trillions of souls in there, that would take a lifetime."
"It's as simple as a second snap," Heimdall told them. "The only question is, which one of you will do it?"
"It's my Gauntlet," Tony said.
"Tony, no, we barely agreed to this when you only wanted to use the Time Stone," Steve protested. "You can't handle all six. Look at what the snap did to Thanos's arm."
"Let me do it." Thor held his hand out. "Asgardians and Titans have comparable strength. I'll survive."
"Are you sure?" Gamora asked. "It wounded him. At best, you will be no better off."
Thor shrugged. "I can accept the risk."
"Thor…" Loki said with a hint of warning. But his eyes gave away his concern. Thor looked back, resting a hand on his shoulder, and for the first time, Tony didn't see a pair of princes, or a hero and a villain, or an Asgardian and a Frost Giant.
They were just brothers. Brothers who had been torn apart, and through the sheer power of losing everything and everyone else they'd ever had, they'd come back together. And now, as the warriors they knew filtered back into the Bifrost, Thor was volunteering to risk the only family Loki had left.
"Thor, you can't risk yourself like that, Asgard needs you," Tony pointed out. "Your brother needs you."
Loki glanced at him, but Thor was already shaking his head. "You have a fiancée, Tony, a pregnant one. You're one of the strongest men I know, but if the snap did that to Thanos, it could destroy you, and I refuse to risk that."
"He's right," Sif said. "No human could handle it. It has to be one of us."
"And as I will have to focus my energies on ruling a fractured kingdom from now on, I can afford a wounded arm," Thor said, holding his hand out again. "Please, Tony. I was too slow to kill him in Wakanda – let me fix this now."
"All right," Tony agreed, fully retracting his armor. "All right, you can do it."
He slid it off with a grimace, stumbling at the sudden exhaustion that hit him. Rhodey and Peter caught him, Thor reaching out to finish taking the Gauntlet. Pain flared in his arm and hand as he spotted the burns left behind, burns that matched the intricate markings on the Gauntlet. "I thought it felt really hot," he muttered.
"Loki can try to patch that up," Thor said.
Loki looked at Tony, a silent question, and after a moment's hesitation, Tony nodded. The magic that filtered around his arm was green and ice cold, slipping around his limb, fitting perfectly into the burns. After the initial sting, the pain all but disappeared, the burns darkening and then fading to pale red lines.
"That is the best I can do against a pair of Infinity Stones."
Tony flexed his fist – a dull pain, definitely there, but manageable. "I can work with this. Thank you, Loki."
Those are not words I ever thought I would say.
A grin tugged at one corner of Loki's mouth for a second, the trickster evidently sharing the thought. Then their attention was on Thor, gritting his teeth as Loki and Wanda added the other four Stones to the Gauntlet. Loki and Frigga positioned themselves on either side of him, Sif and Valkyrie hovering nearby, ready for whatever happened.
Thor closed his eyes. "Bring the dissolved back to those they love."
His snap echoed through the sudden silence.
Gamora waited with bated breath.
Light flared from the Stones, twining up Thor's arm. He fell to his knees, saved from falling further only by his family. He clutched his wrist, panting, but he didn't take it off. And no one tried to make him. Just in case.
Gamora grabbed Nebula's hand, ignoring the fact that she didn't squeeze back. She just needed to hold onto someone. Just in case.
Everyone spun to face the new voice. A cloud of dust spun like a miniature tornado, reassembling into a man with a metal arm. He patted himself, as if disbelieving he was whole, then looked up at the other man, brows furrowed in confusion.
Steve ran forward, sweeping him into a hug. When an equally confused man in a grey-and-red suit reformed next to them, he grabbed him too. "Sam! Oh, thank God."
A third cloud caught Gamora's eye, and this one formed a familiar shape. "Mantis!" she cried, hurrying to hug her, for once not caring if their bare skin touched. Mantis started to gasp a little, happy tears falling down her cheeks as she returned the hug.
Gamora whirled to hug Drax, again not caring that he smelled like he hadn't showered in days. "What happened?" he asked, reaching for Mantis. Groot joined the hug, Rocket and Nebula standing by, both pretending they didn't have tears in their eyes.
"We'll explain later," Gamora said, going back to hugging Mantis. "I'm just glad you're alive."
Gamora sucked in a breath, torn between freezing and whipping around. She settled on turning slowly, keeping her eyes low. They landed on a pair of familiar old boots, traveling up to a leather jacket she had stolen on many occasions, and finally meeting the gentle green eyes that had been her home for four long, beautiful years.
He started raising his trembling hand, as if reaching for a ghost. "You… but Thanos said… Nebula said…"
She had told him, back at the beginning, to not expect much public physical affection from her. Not because she didn't love him – he meant more to her than she had ever thought possible – but because it had been drilled into her since childhood that showing affection marked your weaknesses. It was a tough habit to break, and not one she really wanted to break in front of some of their clients and most of their enemies.
But he was crying, and she was crying, and he had died, and she had died, and people or no people, she needed to hug him.
So she ran. She crossed the distance between them in two bounding steps and leapt into his arms. She hooked her legs around him and held tight, burying her face in the crook of his neck. "He threw me off a cliff," she whispered, not hiding the tremor in her voice. "And then he turned you to dust."
Peter sank to his knees, letting her sit on his lap. He held her tight, running a hand through her hair, and she could feel him shaking. "We're back," he whispered. "We're back, and we're together, and that's what matters."
"Do you remember anything?" she murmured.
"You mean like Yondu and my mom never dying? Going back to Earth years ago? Watching Missouri sunsets with you?"
"I'm sorry," Gamora breathed. "I'm sorry for pulling you away from that."
Peter leaned back, and she tilted her head up to see him furrowing his brows. "Gams, I was dead. Do I have new memories of my mother and Yondu that I wouldn't trade for anything? Yes. But they're gone. You're not. You and Mantis and Groot and all the others – you guys are who I'd rather be with. Besides, it's… it's me who should be apologizing."
Gamora shook her head. "You pulled the trigger, that's more than I ever should've asked of you-"
"Not just that," Peter interrupted, looking at the others with eyes full of guilt. "When Thanos told us you were dead, I… I snapped. I ruined the plan, I hurt Mantis, and I- I got half the universe killed, Gamora. Because I couldn't control myself for five damn seconds."
"That was always part of the plan, Star-Lord. The real plan."
Gamora and Peter looked up to see a man with a billowing red cloak beside them. He crouched to look Peter in the eye. "I saw 14,000,605 futures, Peter. In the ones where you did hold it together, we lost. That plan that I let all of you think we had on Titan? It was always doomed. Whether it was by you losing it, or Nebula not showing up, or Thanos killing your name twin over there, or millions of other things, it never prevented the snap. Nothing prevented the snap."
Peter opened and closed his mouth a few times. "You- you couldn't have told me that, Strange?"
Strange shook his head. "In the futures where I did tell all of you that our plan was doomed, we lost. It would change your behavior, which would change the outcome. None of you could know what had to happen."
"Come on, Quill," Strange said. "How would you have taken it if I told you that you had to let Drax and Mantis die? How would Tony had taken it if I told him he had to let Peter die? How differently would you have fought if I told you Gamora was dead, or would you have been able to fight at all? It was hard enough for me to know that my cloak and I had to die, and leave our fate entirely in the hands of strangers who could've made the wrong decision at any point in time. I couldn't burden anyone else."
Peter blinked slowly. "So… this isn't my fault?"
"None of this is anyone's fault. Only Thanos is to blame."
Gamora smiled, kissing Peter's cheek. "Well, uh, thanks, I guess," he said. "I'll work on believing you later."
Gamora sighed, dropping her forehead onto his shoulder. "Mantis, come here and hug him."
Gleefully, the young empath obeyed.
Tony held Peter tight, grateful for Rhodey's steady strength beside him. Gamora was running to her family; Strange and Wong were hugging; Natasha was sliding in between the soldiers, taking her turn to welcome back Bucky and Sam. Fury and Hill rematerialized together, and Natasha broke from the soldiers to greet them.
Across the field, three little voices cried "Daddy!"
Scott and Clint were running before any kid even finished the second syllable. They both fell to their knees, skidding the last few feet to crash into their kids, wrapping them in hugs Tony was fairly certain would never end. Scott peppered his daughter's hair with kisses, Clint switching between kissing Cooper and Lila. Laura reached them, Nathaniel held in her arms, and Clint reached out to pull her close, kissing her fiercely. Hope and the twins joined their respective families, grinning.
"Come on," Tony muttered, watching each reforming cloud of dust. "Come on…"
"She'll be here, Tones. She'll be here."
Tony looked back at Rhodey, wishing he could share his confidence. Wishing only to know that his new scars were worth it, that the pain was over.
Peter saw her first, pointing at a spot a few yards away. She was wearing an old t-shirt and sweatpants, her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail, but never, never in all the years of knowing her, had she ever looked more beautiful to Tony. He was running before she was entirely whole, and his hug was tight, the kiss he pressed to her lips long and tender.
"What happened?" Pepper breathed when he finally pulled back, searching his eyes before their surroundings. "Am I… Is this an alien planet?"
Tony nodded, cupping her cheeks, just… holding her. "I'll explain later, but all that matters is that you're alive. And…" Tony bit his lip. What if the snap or the time traveling had changed something? "Happy mentioned… a certain type of doctor's appointment…?"
Pepper remembered with a gasp, hand flying to her stomach. "The snap- what if it-"
She broke off abruptly, spinning around and doubling over to vomit. Tony winced, holding her hair and rubbing her back. "It's morning somewhere, I guess."
Pepper straightened, panting a little. "I wanted to tell you in a prettier way, but… You're going to be a dad, Tony."
Tony beamed, kissing her cheek. "Believe me, after the first way I found out… That was gorgeous."
She smiled softly, leaning against him as Rhodey and Peter joined them. "Let's go home. All of us."