Three Months Later
Heimdall already knows who is approaching him before they slow to a halt beside him.
"What news, gatekeeper?" The Queen asks. There is exhaustion in her voice, a bereft tone that breaks the heart of the reserved warrior she speaks to. Who speaks now is not Queen of Asgard, but simply Frigga, mother of two bright, reckless boys, and worried to death by them.
"Midgard still stands." Heimdall responds, bright eyes gazing far beyond the glimmering sky above them. Though he is not looking now, he knows from times past what that realm will look like: an expanse of blue and green and white, still rotating undeterred by any magic incantation. "Her people have suffered great tribulation, and will continue to, but they have not been destroyed."
"And what of my sons?" The Queen does not hesitate, does not stammer nor stutter. There have been and always will be two sons of Odin in the eyes of his wife, whatever the King himself, or Asgard as a whole may believe. It almost makes Heimdall smile, but he keeps his sentiment to himself. "What of Loki and Thor?"
"They are as well as can be expected." Heimdall lets his answers remain simple, straightforward, bearing only the most necessary information. "Mjolnir is still lost, beyond my sight."
"A pity." Frigga sighs, looking out over the stars as if he might see the mighty hammer soaring through the darkness between them. "It was a fine weapon."
They stand in silence above the rift, mere feet from that dreadful spot in which Loki plummeted into the darkness. It echoes with the memory, with Thor's pained screams, the disappointment of a father and a son. Heimdall tries not to glance that way all too often.
"Have they… spoken much?"
There is reluctance, reticence, to his queen's voice then, and quite suddenly the tone of the conversation shifts. Heimdall turns his gaze, looking upon Frigga's distraught face, the downcast glance of a mother unsure of how best to care for her troubled sons.
"Some." He begins. "It is not easy for them." Turning, he lets his gaze fall, looking lower in the sky. "But they are trying, and both have found support in the mortals around them."
"Both?" Surprise shows in her voice as Frigga turns. "Loki as well?"
"Hm," A dash of humor touches his voice then, "Loki, too, has found companionship in Midgard. Among Thor's mortal allies, there are those who will tolerate his presence: some for the sake of Thor; others out of compassion. Though he is not close to anyone, there are bonds there which, with time, may strengthen and grow."
Laughter bursts from the Queen, a quick release of energy. "I can hardly believe it. How did this happen?"
"It is quite the story, and a lengthy one."
"Still, I would hear you tell it." Frigga says, nodding firmly. "If these mortals and their world are to be my sons' new home, I would know as much as I can of it, and them."
Heimdall, shifting his eyes, looks to his queen. "From the beginning, then?" He asks. Frigga's reply is a simple, short nod. "Very well." When the gatekeeper looks back out over the vast distance, his eyes take on a brighter hue, swirling and glowing as they gaze out into the sky. "From the beginning."
My gaze reaches far, and sees deeply into every realm, as you know, my Queen. Yet I can only see that which I look upon, and no Asgardian can turn back time. Thus, my eyes have seen little of these Avengers.
Little more than half a year ago, your eldest son returned to Midgard, to find Loki and the Tesseract. It is then that my gaze was drawn to these mortals. Five of them, young even for their kind, and yet together alongside Thor they defeated the Chitauri and ended Loki's schemes.
I was intrigued by them, as were we all. For the Allfather's heir to so cherish an alien world… many of our people were disdained to see it.
"And you, my friend?"
Perhaps I was confused, for a time. But I have come to see what Thor sees in them, and they are wondrous indeed. Flawed, conflicted, yes, but all the more fantastic for it, and the Avengers are examples of the best and worst they have to offer.
"Good they may be, but I fear what may come should this divide between our people deepen further. Should Asgard and Midgard be turned against one another, I would not have my son trapped between."
I do not believe it shall come to that. I cannot say we shall never war against the mortals, but should such a thing occur, Thor would never be abandoned by his mortal allies …
A Few Minutes After the Apocalypse that Wasn't
The world is a dim, hazy blur, all sights and sounds painful to him… his head aches, made even worse as he realizes his ears are ringing loudly. But slowly, through the din, other sounds come to him, muffled tones as if from a long way's off…
"Careful, give him room!"
"Is he alright? Sit him up, make sure his throat's opened up –"
"Don't worry, buddy, help's on the way, there's an ambulance coming –"
He knows them, these voices, he knows them well… and when finally he manages to part his weary eyes, he knows the faces just as familiarly.
"My friends," Thor whispers, eyes half closed, already falling shut again.
"Shush, keep your energy," Natasha's voice comes to him from his side, where she is pressing cloth against his arm. Though his sight is blurry he sees that she has lost her shirt, wearing only a sports bra.
"Black Widow, you…" He coughs, voice rasping. "Your covering… have my…" His words end as he remembers he left his cape with Loki… is his brother all right?
"Half dead and he's still worrying about other people." That is… that is Steve, just above him, whose hands must be those supporting his head. A short burst of sheepish laughter escapes him, and it sounds so happy, so care free, Thor cannot help but smile. "Now I feel bad, I didn't even notice you'd taken it off."
"Cotton absorbs liquid better than whatever polymer it is you're wearing." Natasha answers quickly. "And Bruce really can't afford to lose anymore clothing."
"I, however, am always willing to sacrifice my dignity for the team." Tony's voice just barely reaches Thor, it is so rough and quiet, and layered over with Bruce's insistence that the man be quiet and rest. "Do I have any dignity left to lose, actually? Doesn't matter – Tasha, take my clothes. The media has already seen all of this a thousand times."
"They haven't seen you since Afghanistan, and I know you've made sure to keep it that way." An indignant squawk is his only reply. Thor, still half awake, looks up and sees the woman above him smiling, beaming like he's never seen. "Whereas I really don't care."
The rustle of clothing comes from his other side, and though Thor cannot turn to see him, he recognizes the purple shirt thrown Natasha's way. "There we go, more bandages for the dying Asgardian. Now I'll just go wrap my pants around Coulson's head, and Tasha and I can have an undies party. He's alive and mind-control free, by the way. Just FYI."
"Hey, don't get snarky at me, I'm technically still dying, right now, as we speak." Tony stabs back. "And I heard about your stunt, buddy! Soon as I'm back in the garage I am upgrading your uniform to include magnetized boots that keep your ass firmly on the ground."
"And I'm putting a tracker in your goddamn ass! Yours too, green bean!"
The conversation doesn't end; it lulls back and forth, tired and relieved, full of quietly expressed joy that they are all still here, all alive. Thor listens for as long as he can, smiling brightly, before darkness overtakes him again.
"They are quite fond of him, then."
"I had feared those bonds were lost to him."
They certainly suffered, and bent, but were never broken.
They have never quite opened themselves to one another, not even as close as they have come.
Asgardians who go into battle together know that secrets and pains kept hidden from your allies may bring every warrior down. But these warriors, even your son, have hesitated to allow such closeness between one another. Hidden wounds and old losses gone unremarked have driven them further from one another.
"Their enemy… Magneto, was it? He exploited this."
Surely. Much as others had seen that he would.
6+ Months Ago
If Nick has to stand and listen to this bullshit for one more minute, he's going to have a migraine for the rest of the day. As it is, he's sure his head is going to be pounding straight through lunch, and that's annoying enough.
"Hill," He finally spits, irritated and totally done. "Cut the line."
"Yes, sir," She says over the indignant, angry reactions of the Council, which are cut short very quickly.
When the room is finally quiet, Nick lets out a heavy sigh, shoulders drooping just slightly. What a goddamn day. Hell, goddamn year. This has never been an easy job, but ever since Loki arrived on the scene and the Avengers came into existence, it's been one bureaucratic headache after another.
"They have a point, you know," Hill mutters, standing arms crossed behind him. "It worked once, but that was a very close call and a damn lucky shot. Now, they've all gone separate ways, and none of them seem all that interested in getting the band back together." Hill hesitates, not because she's nervous, but because she wants to emphasis her meaning. "They aren't a team, sir."
No, they aren't. Nick knows they're right – what the Avengers did was proof that this Initiative could work, that his plan could work, but it wasn't solid. Scientists can't perform an experiment once and run off and publish their work after all. Repeat performance is the key.
After a moment, Fury lets out a quiet sigh, leans forward onto the railing and hangs his head.
He knows this can work, the glimmers of greatness are in these people, and they shine even brighter when they come together. But it isn't perfect. Each is a bundle of issues and problems spikier than a cactus, headstrong, recalcitrant, powerful people with powerful personalities. This is more than risky, it's a disaster waiting to happen.
But he knows it could work, and if it does, it may just be the best thing to happen to the world in quite a long time. Because the world needs heroes, now more than ever, especially given the conflicts Fury knows are on the horizon.
They can do it. They have to do it. They just need… a little push.
"Hill," He says finally, lifting his head.
"Write up some invitations." Fury starts as he turns and begins striding from the room.
"For what sir?"
Answering without faltering in his walk, the Director says, "We're having a funeral."
"This… director, he arranged to bring them together?"
It has always been his belief that a team of heroes such as the Avengers could do much good for the world. Yet, as he saw then, and as we have seen since, they have not yet become the team they can be, that they need to be, to act as defenders of Midgard.
"Was it then they came to live together?"
No… that would be some time yet. Only Bruce Banner, the Hulk, and Tony Stark, the Iron Man, came to live together at that time. Which was fortunate, given the timing of the Brotherhood's first attack against Stark.
"The Brotherhood being Magneto's people."
When they learned that Banner had come to live with Stark, they attempted to kill Stark and summon the Hulk, so that the other Avengers would blame him for Stark's death. It was, instead, the Hulk who protected him from harm, and this crisis is that which brought all the Avengers together.
"Yes, I remember. You summoned Thor to alert him of it."
And once again, Nick Fury aimed to bring them to remain as a team…
The Night After the Brotherhood's First Attack
"Sir, we've found it."
Spinning around, Fury strides quickly from his place in the center of the heli-carrier to the computer where his officer has pulled up valuable information. The officer looks confused, glancing from the screen to the Director.
"Sir, uh… are you certain this is the information?"
"Don't question my methods, officer, I get enough of that from everyone else." The Director mumbles, looking it over. "Very good. Send it to my office."
As he quickly saunters away, Fury allows a brief smile to come over his face. He'd had a hunch about that project of Stark's, but hadn't been sure. Now, he has proof, and it is exactly what he needs.
Stark is one of the greatest variables in this project of his. He's volatile, anti-social, carries around a ten ton weight of issues and traumas, arrogant, reckless, and bad with authority - especially authority figures in red, white, and blue who come too damn close to reminding him of his father. Stark could make or break this team, and handling him has been difficult.
But, given what Fury's just found out, it looks like Stark wants the Avengers to work out as much as he does. Why else would he build a house that big, with that much variation, specified so directly to the five people he calls teammates? This is perfect – because it's just the place the Avengers need to be able to live together and finally connect as a team. And, best of all, it means Tony Stark wants to be part of that team.
It seems there is hope for the Avengers, yet.
It was certainly never easy for them. Each so very different and suffering a different kind of pain, attempting to understand and come to know one another, and more often hurting each other as they did so.
"Who does that sound like?"
Thor and Loki did come to mind. As children they were very opposed.
"Sometimes I wonder if that opposition truly faded as they matured… or if Loki simply learned to keep it out of sight."
Your youngest has certainly been acting strangely these last months. It was he, after all, who resurrected the Son of Coul.
"And brought Thor to Midgard in their hour of need. I cannot understand him anymore, cannot imagine what is going through his mind…"
The mortals have had that trouble, as well.
The Night After the Apocalypse-That-Wasn't
When he manages to finally make his way down to the interrogation room, Bruce finds Steve standing outside the room, watching through the glass. He comes up to stand beside him, peering through himself, to see no less than twelve SHIELD agents, all of them armed, in the room with Loki. Fury is in the center, making demands and asking questions, but Loki isn't even looking at him.
"Has he said anything?"
"Not a word." Steve sighs. "They even offered to let him go see how Thor's doing, but he just laughed. I don't get it. First he's ready to level the planet, now he's helping us out. And this back and forth with Thor… guy's messed up in a big way."
"That's an awfully nice way of putting it." Bruce sighs, crossing his arms.
"How's Tony doing?"
"SHIELD put him on a helicopter straight for the mansion. He should have a replacement reactor and be up on his feet in the next day or so." Saying those words sends a thrill of relief through him every time. To think they came so close to losing him, to think the only reason he's alive is because of Magneto… "And on the subject of bad guys being strangely helpful…"
"What's with that?" He frowns, the name sending a rumble of anger through him, and he hears Hulk growl. It's all right, big guy, we're just talking. "He's been trying to kill Tony for months!"
"All I can think of is Prof. Xavier." Steve shrugs, glancing away from Loki for just a moment. "They were old friends, after all. Maybe he convinced him to stand down."
"Hm." Bruce isn't so sure – to have been that full of conviction, that ready to kill in the name of a cause, only to stand down because a friend asked him to? "Maybe." He looks into the cell. Loki hasn't even blinked, let alone said anything. "What are they gonna do with him?"
"With Loki? Or Magneto?"
"I'm not sure what can be done, with either of them." Sighing, Steve lifts a hand to rub his brow. "At the moment, Magneto's got leverage over us. He's the only one keeping Tony alive, and we can't throw one of McTaggert's power repressors on him without compromising Tony." When his hand falls he looks back up into Loki's cell, eyes half closed from exhaustion. "As for him… apparently he's been banished."
"What, from Asgard?"
"It came down the grapevine somehow, apparently. He's not allowed back, and they don't care what we do with him."
"Great," Huffing, Bruce frowns, another burst of anger rising. It's not a threat, not a risk that the Hulk will come out… it's just a feeling. And he's allowed to feel it. "They're dropping their problem child on us."
"Not just him."
Surprise widens Bruce's eyes, even as he spins back towards Steve. "Thor, too?"
"He sprung Loki free, after all. Twice. Poor guy." Another sigh, followed quickly by a yawn. "He risked everything to help us, lost his home, his most prized possession… saved my life... though I can't imagine why."
"No, it's… you should've seen him, before. We fought pretty badly." Shame and embarrassment have lit up Steve's cheeks, and he turns away as he talks. "I screwed up, and got his brother hurt when he came to help us. I couldn't bring myself to trust either of them, and now they've both saved my life, and the planet."
"You had every right to be skeptical of Loki, Steve." Bruce reaches out and puts a hand on Steve's shoulder. "And I'm sure Thor will understand. He thinks the world of you."
"He did. I'm not sure he does, anymore."
If I may ask, my Queen…
"Why did my royal husband banish them? I asked the same of him, and to me he said, Something had to be done. He could not be seen favoring our children after so many major, repeated transgressions of our laws."
Yet, he has placed Thor right where he wishes to be, and Loki with him. I must wonder if this is truly a punishment…
"As do I, gatekeeper."
"What about you?" Steve says suddenly, a few minutes later. "Why aren't you with Tony?"
The question sends a shiver of anxiety through him. The image of his departure, being lifted into a helicopter, IV in his arm, blood and bruises all over, kept alive only by the fickle hand of their enemy… it was nigh impossible to let him leave, and stay behind.
"He asked me to stay."
"Oh. That's…" Steve hesitates, clearly struggling. "Weird."
"We, kinda, um," Flushing red, Bruce lowers his head, lifts his hand to his face – only to remember he isn't wearing his glasses, so he can't adjust them. They were destroyed hours ago. "Something happened before all this started, and I think Tony's a little… stressed by it."
"Is that why you were fighting?"
"What?" He turns, confused, then remembers the house. "No, that was all Magneto. This was… before that." Heat floods his veins as he remembers with vivid clarity the quick, fervent kiss they'd shared that night. How warm Tony was, how bright, the way his voice had grown so thick – please believe me, please believe me… It seems so long ago, now.
"You know how he is. Personal stuff makes him nervous."
Steve doesn't ask anything else, which is a relief. Because the more he thinks about it… the more Bruce starts feeling nervous himself.
"This Magneto… What became of him?"
Much what you would expect. He was arrested for his crimes, but was not detained for long.
Three days after the Apocalypse-That-Wasn't
It's hardly a surprise when he reads the paper one morning and sees that Eric has escaped. It was inevitable. He is much too powerful, and the authorities too woefully unprepared, for any prison to keep him. What does come as a surprise happens a few hours later, when Xavier is preparing for his afternoon class, and is suddenly blown away by the presence of a mind he has not felt in decades.
Throat dry, Charles lifts his unsteady hand and reaches out for Wanda. 'I believe your father is here to see you.'
In reply he hears her laughter. 'I don't think it's me he's looking for.'
He was afraid of that. Though he'd known that, in taking in Pietro and Wanda, seeing Eric again was only a matter of time, he didn't think it'd be this soon. And he'd never imagined in all his years Eric would ever remove that infernal helmet around him.
Charles moves into the backyard where he sees the children have already vacated the area. He doesn't see Eric at first, but that hardly matters. He can feel him, know him, a heavy thrumming potency demanding his attention. But then he sees the tall, lean figure standing imposingly in the center of the courtyard. Long cape billowing behind him, his helmet tossed aside to the ground.
"Eric, you…" Charles is deeply touched by this, more than he can say. So he broadcasts it in such a way that Eric will know if he wishes to. He'll know that this brief gift is something he will treasure for the rest of his life. A momentary fulfillment of long repressed emotions and desires denied.
"Hello again, old friend."
"Hello," He can't help but laugh at the absurdity. "What brings you here? I would imagine the authorities would look for you here first of all."
"Let them." He steps closer. "I do not fear human authorities."
"No, you never have." And he has never had reason to, even now. Humankind is now better armed than ever to take down mutants, dangerous or otherwise, thanks to McTaggert and her research. McTaggert, who is even now resting in the mansion behind them, basically in a coma, trying to recover from an injury no one has ever seen the like of. There is little Xavier thinks he can do for her, but he will do all he can. And this time, he does so with her permission granted.
When he comes back from his thoughts on his old friend Moira, he finds his other oldest friend, Erik, standing right in front of him. "I needed to… wanted to explain myself, to you."
"You don't owe me an explanation, Erik." Oh to say that name. Yes, it stings and burns, but it's bittersweet. "Whatever this mission against the Avengers was, it's over." At least that is what he hopes.
"Don't I?" Erik's voice is sharp, acerbic almost, when he retorts, as if they're arguing ethics or morality like they did in the old days. "For dragging you into this, for allowing your people to be injured? For being so damn distant for so long?"
Ah, and here is the root of it all. Forty years of silence. Decades of distance and uncertainty. An abrupt, sudden end that left them both adrift. Unbidden memories surge to the surface of his mind, and undoubtedly Erik can feel them, too.
Now, with nothing to stand between them, Charles suddenly knows. All these years, he's lived in isolation, in silence, made lonely by his position, his role as teacher and leader, playing a part which left him cold and alone in bed at night. And here, too, he sees Erik has done the same – played the militant, the instructor and the leader, a role which took a strength and hardness that left him alone as he'd always been. Even his children, born of – a human, Charles realizes and lets the knowledge stun him – even they keep their distance from their father. Their choices have brought them to this.
"It's alright, Erik." Without the helmet, Charles is inundated with all that is in his mind. The pain and anger of his youth no longer pushed to the boiling point, but resting at a constant simmer in the back of his mind. In addition there's guilt, regret, sorrow, loss, grief, endless grief, and decades of solitude and loneliness. So much regret. "We were young, we both –"
"I left you," He says suddenly, voice tight and thick, head hung long so his white hair falls over his eyes. Erik doesn't have to see them to feel that he is starting to cry. "Bleeding and broken on the beach, and I left you, surrounded by our enemies!"
"And I all but pushed you away, Erik!" He has thought so long on this, on that moment. He still believes Erik was in the wrong to kill those people. With the clarity of age and time, he knows now why Erik felt he had to, he understands. And he realizes what it was that kept Charles from reaching him, the foolishness of trying to tell a concentration camp survivor not to blame men following orders. But more than that, it was their farewell, their brutal goodbye, that led to their parting. "You tried to reach me and I pushed aside your hand. I was – angry, and I acted like a fool."
Erik shifts, and Charles can see his eyes now, looking down at his chair. "I hurt you."
"Inadvertently, yes." In more ways than you will ever know, he thinks. But he can't put that burden on his friend, can't let him know. This reunion is already on rocky footing. "Just as I have inadvertently hurt you. It seems that is all we've ever done."
A bitter laugh escapes Erik then. "Yes, that much is true." For a tense moment, they are both quiet, still. When Erik lifts his head and breaks the silence, his eyes are dry and his expression grim once again. "I still believe much as I always have. I may not be as… militant, as I was in my younger days, but neither am I so foolish to believe that all this…" He gestures around them, not to the garden or the mansion, but the atmosphere, the world which now knows about them. The reaction which is building and building and ready to burst. "… will not bring about blood."
"I'm not so foolhardy to believe it won't, Erik." Charles starts, feeling them falling into the old comfortable dialogues. "But I cannot believe that all mankind will stand rigidly against us. The Avengers have already proved you wrong on that."
Chuckling, Erik shakes his head, a smirk rising to his lips. "Well, then. Where does that leave us?"
Charles doesn't answer. He simply looks upon him. Upon the aged face within the shadows of which he sees the bright eyes and firm lines of a tortured brooding young man, a man with the soul of a poet and the anger of a vengeful god.
"Charles," Erik finally says. "I never meant to hurt you."
Who reaches out for who, Charles cannot say, but then they're holding hands, and it is a relief, and a shock. His voice trembles when he speaks. "Nor I you, old friend."
They laugh, their voices fragile, and weak, but they are here, holding hands and talking. This is the calm before the storm, he knows, and he can feel it building all around them. What the future holds he shudders to think. But Erik is here, and suddenly the world no longer feels so very cold.
"Do you have some time?" Erik starts again. He begins to walk, still hold Charles hand, and Charles feels his chair begin to move without his intervention. He smiles.
"I believe I could afford to take some time to myself." He replies with a smile.
"Good," Erik grins. "I'm taking you to lunch with a friend." The man must feel the confusion rising in his mind, because his grin widens and he continues. "There's someone who is very excited to see you."
And it hits him – and his chest tightens with nervous joy. "Well, then," He starts, mouth dry. "Let's not keep her waiting."
For good or ill, Magneto has escaped his confines, and returned to his brethren. A great conflict is on the horizon. Now that they have been revealed, they will be challenged, attacked, and maligned. But the combined might of Erik Lensherr and his Brotherhood, Charles Xavier and his X-Men, and the support of the Avengers will not be so easily deterred.
"The Avengers assist them?"
Yes, quite passionately. Stark Industries has begun an outreach program, devoting much time and energy to the support of Prof. Xavier's efforts to raise awareness and start a political movement for mutants. There is talk of bringing a mutant into the fold of the team, as well, though their chosen candidate must first convince her father to allow such a thing. It is slow going.
"And how have the Avengers fared in these troubled times?"
Well, in most cases, recovering given time. But not all their numbers have… Come through so easily.
Two weeks after the Apocalypse-That-Wasn't
Clint has half a mind to turn around and leave the office the moment he enters the room. He knows what this is about, and it comes as no surprise. It was inevitable actually. Given everything that's happened… He's surprised it didn't come sooner.
In the old days, he would've left already. In the old days he wouldn't have come at all. Going to the doctor on a regular basis is bad enough, but a psychologist? No way in hell. What could a shrink tell him that could possibly help? He's seen it all before. People who want to help but don't know how; people who take a sick enjoyment out of dissecting the pain of others. In the end, it just causes more of a headache.
So why is he here today? The $1,000,000 question. Scoffing, Clint stands and begins to pace the room. He wishes he knew. Up until an hour ago, he was determined to stay home, where he's been for the past two weeks, hidden away with Coulson and Tasha and the rest of them. They've been staying in this fancy old hotel, courtesy of Stark, hidden away from the eyes of the world. SHIELD has come and gone, hardly leaving them alone, banging on the doorstep every hour, not to mention the press, but the Avengers themselves had hardly moved. And damn who can blame them, they just saved the world again.
Clint's been postponing this, dreading it, and he's not the only one. In fact he thinks every team member has been bugged by somebody to go see a shrink, but so far he's the only one to give in.
He knows he's gotten pretty messed up. Always has been, nature of the job. But these last few months… He can't imagine hell has anything on what his life's been. But he's never been one to go to other people for this kind of shit, because that kind of bleeding heart BS only ever ends in trouble. He has enough pain to go round to not go asking for more.
A knock at the door has Clint jumping out of this skin, proof enough that he's not quite himself. Nobody on the team is, but an argument can be made that he's been the worst off the longest. So here he is. Probably making a huge mistake, but at least he's giving it a shot. After all, he did give somebody a promise that he'd start trying.
As the doctor enters the room, he remembers that promise vividly. That night after the Apocalypse-That-Wasn't as they've all been when calling it, standing in the midst of chaos yet overwhelmed with relief, he and Agent Phil Coulson had a long overdue heart-to-heart. In the hours that followed, anger, tears, joy and sorrow were all felt to the fullest extent. It was hard. Painful like setting a bone, or cleansing an open wound, but certainly cathartic.
"Mr. Barton," he hears the psychologist start. "I'm surprised to see you here. I was certain it would take at least more than a week and a half to lure you in here."
"Yeah, well," Clint shrugs. "Me too." She laughs at that, and says something back that Clint barely hears. He's still in his memories, remembering a night not long ago that was both the end and the beginning. So much has changed and will continue to and sometimes when he stops and thinks about it, it's terrifying. Five years ago he could never have imagined this, none of it.
They sit, they talk, time seems to fly. She asks him all the usual questions. Shit about his family, friends, love life, 'how do you feel'. Eventually they get to Loki, and all the weird shit that he somehow managed to get himself into. Mind-control, super heroes, gods and aliens and dead friends coming back to life. Figuring out that maybe friend was in exactly the right word. Not knowing what to do with that. Not knowing what to do with anything.
"Do you think of yourself as a hero?"
Clint opens his mouth to answer, and can't seem to find any words. He's not sure what to say. The truth probably sounds a little pathetic. He's never felt like the hero; he's never felt like much of anything. At his best, Clint was a good agent, a tool to be used, not valuable and easily replaced. This did with the Avengers wasn't about being a hero, he was simply serving his function, following orders. There's nothing heroic in drawings arrow and letting them fly because it's his job.
She smiles at him, and it seems they're done for the day. Tells him to consider the question and try to respond next time. As he leaves, Clint goes back to that memory. The night after the end that didn't end, when the world was over and they were all still alive.
"We all have our own lives," Coulson started. "Sometimes, we're lucky enough that they intersect, but there's never a guarantee that tomorrow won't be the last time that happens."
"What are you on about?"
"I can't be the center of your universe, and you can't be mine."
How did -? The security footage. Of course, because SHIELD records fucking everything.
"Look, I didn't mean – I'm not" Nerves jangling up and down his spine, Clint had tried equivocating, giving any explanation but the real one. "Just don't worry about it. It's my problem, I won't bother you with it."
"That's not what I meant." Standing, Coulson had moved in front of him, kneeling until they were eye to eye. "Human beings do desperate things to survive. I'm not blaming you for clinging to what you had, but times have changed. You may not see it, but it's not just you and me against the world anymore."
"Yeah, there's Tasha too."
"You have a whole team at your back now Clint. You have a home. Most of your life, you've lived for reasons outside yourself, for the mission, for your team. It's been hard to watch but I'm sure it was harder to live through. All I ask is, try placing yourself at the center of your universe."
At that time, he laughed. It sounded ridiculous and practically impossible. You had to be someone to matter, to love yourself like that. Clint's not sure he can do it.
But, hell, he's tried more ridiculous and impossible shit before, for less important reasons. They could put his face on the 'I'd do it for Klondike bar' ads. So he's gonna give this whole self love thing a shot (and make a lot of terrible jokes about it).
If not for himself, then for the friend he lost, then found, then almost lost again - the friend he made a promise to. And maybe eventually, given time, he might learn how to do it for his own sake.
There is still a long road ahead of all of them.
"But now they have one another."
Yes. They will not have to make the journey alone.
"And how do you believe they will fare?"
Given the events of these last few weeks, I am certain they shall pull through.
"What of Jane Foster? You have not mentioned her."
She is alive and well; and, by equal parts her choice and his, no longer Thor's chosen.
12 days after the Apocalypse-That-Wasn't
It's after her first cup of coffee one morning in the aftermath of the end of the world that Jane realizes it's time to go.
She and Thor have talked, time and again, since the end, well, ended. It hasn't been easy. They all still carry the weight of their wounds, from both on and off the battlefield, and the air's been thick with tension that has never really faded. Something's changed now.
Before, there was a silent unsteady peace, an unspoken agreement to let certain things lie. Problems which seemed too big to tackle, issues which were always being pushed aside for another day. The team constantly seemed too rough, too unsteady, and it only seemed the risk of falling apart was too great to try addressing the cracks coming through.
Now, those cracks have become canyons, those problems for another day into disasters in the now. It's clear they can't function as they were, if they were ever really functioning at all. They all seem to realize it. But no one seems to know how to even begin. For the first few days, they were separated, each being treated for injuries, or reporting what had happened. It was easy to ignore what would have to be done. But since they've left the SHIELD heli carrier, the Avengers have acted less like a team, and more like morose, grumpy teenagers, trying their best to avoid one another, despite the fact they're all staying in the same house together.
Or at least, almost all of them.
"Dr. Foster?" Jane glances up at the ceiling, the only response she has to give for JARVIS to reply. "Your escort awaits you at the door."
Cringing Jane stands and picks up one of her luggage bags. Part of her hopes it's Thor, but she knows this will be easier if it's not. They've already said their goodbyes after all. Full days and nights just talking to each other, recognizing what went wrong, remembering the good times. Saying farewell with their eyes, their lips, their bodies and souls. Jane Foster will always love Thor, to the Moon and back, but relationships can't be built on love and passion alone.
So, she's going her own way. SHIELD has offered her a job, a fantastic one, doing what she does best. Finally, she's really being recognized for what she can do, for her discoveries, her abilities. Though it means leaving so much behind, disappearing into a lab and perhaps never coming out, she has to take this chance. This is what she wants.
"Coming!" Picking up a few more bags and throwing one or two over her shoulder, Jane starts for the door. She's not sure whom she's really expecting, but she can say she would never have thought Director Fury himself would be standing there. "Oh," she murmurs stunned. "Hi there."
He's not in his usual dark garb, though he is wearing black. Fury is adorned in a nice suit, a gestalt grey tie around his neck. This could almost be a dinner date, except Jane is certain she'd know if it was a little sooner, she thinks. Then she wonders, does Fury even date? She realizes and she knows next to nothing about him, but then, that's how he likes it after all.
The super spy cocks an eyebrow at her, glancing at her luggage. "Need a hand?" He reaches out to take some from her and she lets him.
"I didn't think I was important enough to merit a visit from the director himself," Jane begins, before realizing she hasn't even said hello. "Not that I'm not thankful, I mean, it's just a little odd-"
"Don't go panicking on me," he interrupts, holding up a hand. "This isn't a test or anything." There's a little smile on his face, and it surprises her to see it there. "When it comes to the Avengers I've found it's better to handle things myself."
"Am I an Avenger?"
"I'd say so." They start heading for the elevator, Fury in the lead. "You might not be out there bashing heads in, but you've been pulling your weight like the rest of us. If you can manage to build an Einstein Rosen bridge for earth, then the world will owe you more than all the Avengers combined."
A nervous laugh rises on her throat. "I'm not so sure about that."
They move through the rest of the house in silence, passing unnoticed out the front door. Jane's already made her round of goodbyes. There really weren't that many to make. The car out front is an old Cadillac that's seen better days. They pack her belongings into the back, Fury takes a seat behind the wheel, and off they go. So ends Jane Foster's stint as the partner and friend of the world's greatest super heroes; not with a bang or a whimper, but steady, solemn silence.
She wonders for the thousandth time if she's not making a mistake. What she's giving up others would kill to have. What's she seen, what she's been a part of, is an experience unlike any other. So why is she walking away?
"Feeling all right?"
"Yes I'll be fine," Jane insists quickly.
"That's not what I asked." They pull onto the highway, gaining speed. "Sure, you'll be fine, given a day or a month, probably more than that. But right now, I'm guessing it looks like the world's fallen down around you, and it probably feels like shit."
The frankness of it takes her by surprise. In a way it's refreshing, and she can't help but laugh. "Damn right it feels horrible. I'm probably an idiot."
"What the hell for?" Fury laughs, too. "For ending a relationship with a guy whose interests, life style, and cultural norms just don't mesh with you? A guy who, if he isn't up in the magical rainbow in the sky, he's across the world fighting bad guys? The first time he left earth, you didn't see him or hear from him for a goddamn year!"
Well, when you put it like that… "I guess I just should have tried harder to make it work." She thinks of her mother married to the same man for 20 years, her high school sweetheart. Of her brother and sister, happily married, one with a kid on the way. Of holidays and family reunions spent listening to the questions, when are you getting married? Is there a man in your life yet? Of lonely nights spent brutally aware of the emptiness next to her in bed; of sexual romps which left her momentarily satisfied, and dismally disappointed come morning.
Maybe she just thought that finally she was finding what everyone said she was supposed to have. Maybe she clung to it so hard, not because she wanted it, but because she wanted to want it.
"It was supposed to be perfect, wasn't it?" She continues, voice shaking slightly. "Practically a hand wrapped fairy tale ending. A prince falls out of the sky right into my lap, and now I'm leaving him."
"Life isn't one kind of story, kid, - it's all of them, all the time, and it's always changing on you." Fury has his eye trained on the road, barely glancing at her, yet Jane feels he can see right through her. "Some days, you'll be stuck in the middle of a tragedy watching the world drop out under your feet. Other days it's a sit com and the good times keep on coming. But it never stays that way. So, your fairy tale ended. It happens. Doesn't mean there isn't another one coming around the corner."
The longer the Director speaks, the lower Jane's jaw drops. When he's done, she can't help but laugh again. When she does, he turns and looks at her, his expression a mix of his own amusement, and indignation. "What? Did I say something funny?"
"Sorry, just – I never in my life would have imagined having this conversation with you, um, sir."
"And why not?" It's sharp, but Jane realizes it's supposed to be playful.
"Well, you're – you're the director of the most powerful spy organization in the world, not a therapist. … you aren't a therapist are you?"
"Hell, I should be. I do enough of it anyway." He sighs as they pull in to the airport. There's no check in, no baggage claim, no public jet. The little plane on the runway waiting for them is just for her, and whoever has been assigned as her body guards. The perks of working for secret government organizations.
Silence falls again as they pull closer. But Jane is gnawing at her lips, turning his words over and over. A thought is bubbling up, and comes out, unbidden. "Growing up, you… they always tell you love only works a certain way." She hears Fury hum in agreement. "The handsome knight, the beautiful prince, riding off into the sunset… I always felt… wrong, for not wanting that."
"And what did you want?"
Another laugh, this one nervous and quiet. "I don't know. I guess I just – I wanted sex, and love, and to have fun, and it didn't matter if it was a prince, princess, or whatever the non-binary term might be, anybody at all – I just wanted someone."
Color rises to her face. "It's, um – it's a –"
"Part of the transgender identity spectrum." Fury says for her. "I know. I only ask because not too many people outside certain circles know about it."
She turns to look at him, but all she sees is his profile. He's still facing the road. "Yeah, well, I guess I'm in those circles."
"Have you told anyone?"
"Thor knows." Nervous, she clenches her hands in her lap. "It's one of the reasons this was so hard." How many times has she started dating someone, only to have them react with anger and revulsion once they learned more about her? About her identity, about her life?
"I can see that."
"No," He shakes his head. "But there are SHIELD agents who are. You're not alone."
Well, she thinks with a shy smile, that much is heart lifting, at least.
They fall quiet once he parks, moving out of the vehicle as SHIELD agents begin unloading the car. Fury's voice switches to authority as he walks her to the plane, explaining where she's going, what she should expect. Fury shakes her hand, wishes her well, and stops at the bottom of the ramp into the plane. She's halfway up that ramp when she hesitates, and turns around.
"What about you?" Jane asks suddenly. Fury cocks his eyebrow, head inclined forward in question. "Have you reached the fairy tale part of your story yet?"
For a moment, Jane gets to enjoy the look of pure shock on Nick Fury's face. He covers it quickly, straightening his posture, meeting her eyes. "That's not a possibility for me."
Frowning, Jane turns all the way around. "Why not?"
Fury gives a little sigh, his expression dropping, as if exasperated. "Everybody's got their own story, but we're all part of a bigger story too, and we have roles to play. Who I am – who I have to be – doesn't allow for certain… aspects… most people get out of life." He glances away for just a moment. "There's no fairy tale ending waiting for me."
"Well, I hope you're wrong." Jane finds herself saying. She's really not sure what to say to such candid, raw honesty. "Because you deserve one. It seems to me you're always helping everybody else find theirs, after all."
Fury smiles, very briefly, and then turns and begins sauntering away. "Goodbye, Dr. Foster." Then he's gone.
"He seems a good man, this Director."
Yes, I – yes. I do believe he is a fine man.
"How does she fare in this new work of hers?"
She fares well, and all the more for meeting her new body guard.
Three Days After Jane Left the Avengers
"… here is your room, Dr., and your office is down the hall…"
"Yes, thank you!" Spinning, Jane gives as bright a smile as she can manage. "Thank you, but I think I can manage from here." The officer nods, and in the next moment he vanishes. As soon as he's gone Jane huffs and collapses onto the nearest chair, slumping downward. "Oi."
What a rough few days. She's not sure how much time she spent in the air, but it was too much, and then having to go through so much paperwork and security checks and organizing… ugh. She is tired to the bone, and all she wants is to crawl into bed and sleep for a week.
Well, she also really wants to see her lab so much, but exhaustion comes first.
She's halfway to her bed when there comes a knock at her door. "Damn it all to hell," She lets out quietly, then decides, fuck it, she's going to pretend to be asleep. If she lays down quickly and quietly and doesn't respond, maybe they'll –
"Okay, look, I know it was a long-ass flight, but I promise I don't have any papers for you to sign, I just want to say hello!"
Jane is immediately on her feet and at the door in the next instant. "Darcy!" She looks as if she's barely changed, still with the same bright smile and half-moon glasses and thick hair. God, she's gorgeous. Hopefully she'll take the flush in Jane's face as joy and not anything else. "Oh my gosh, what are you doing here?"
She holds out her arms, and Jane notices for the first time that she's wearing a SHIELD uniform. "Haven't you heard? I've moved up in the world." Smiling, she drops her arms. "I took that job offer Coulson gave me."
"Wait, you work for SHIELD?"
"Sort've." She shrugs. Jane steps aside to let her in, and she explains as she enters. "I'm not a legit agent, but I work for them. Since I'm basically an expert in working with superheroes and shit now. I have 'field experience' because I had lunch with Thor at a diner once."
They both laugh at that, bubbly and full of joy. Jane can't keep a smile off her face. "That's awesome! I'm so happy for you!"
"It's pretty great. Mostly I just tell people what to do. And I take a lot of classes, too, How to Save World 101, Intro to Super Spying, you know."
Giddy and elated, Jane can't suppress a giggle. "I can't believe this! And I thought I was going to be all alone up here."
"No way," Darcy smiles in response, appearing to be just as joyful as Jane feels. The look, and her tone, and the words she says, send a comforting heady feeling of warmth spiraling to her head. "Not while I'm around."
"She is well, then. I am glad of it."
As is your son. They still speak quite often.
"Is he still in recovery?"
No, he returned home three days hence…
Three Days Ago
Peggy Carter's grave is near the top of a sunlit hill, a plain, simple tribute bearing her name, her rank, and the long years of her life. Steve thinks she'd of liked it. He, on the other hand, is somewhat dissatisfied. After all she did for them, all the lives she helped save, all she receives in memory is an ordinary grave, a footnote in history. Eclipsed in the shadow of Captain America, like so many others.
Who is he to receive all this acclaim? He had the easy part. To play a role, to inspire, and then to let himself fall. It was people like Peggy and Howard who had the hard part, who worked and struggled and bled to protect the people. They didn't have his powers, but they were so much more than he could ever be.
"Hey," Steve begins hesitantly. "I, uh, I brought you flowers." He holds out the bouquet, as if she can see him. "I'm sorry it took me so long." Kneeling, he sets the flowers in front of her grave, lingering to let his fingers trailed over the words on the stone. "I guess I just… Didn't want it to be real."
But this, this is very real. Proof that Peggy really is gone. They all are. His team, his friends, his whole world… All in what felt like the blink of an eye. Everything and everyone he knew and loved just gone. Evaporated into thin air, with Steve left behind.
"I'm sorry." Steve's hand shakes as he pulls away. Sorry for failing everyone, sorry for being so useless, sorry for being the one history will remember even though he doesn't deserve it. "I'm sorry I never made our date."
Behind him, he hears grass rustle with the heavy tramp of footsteps. He ignores it. "I'm lost, Peggy. This is so out of my league… This place, this modern age, it doesn't need me. I don't have anything to offer. I thought maybe with the Avengers, I could do some good. Instead I constantly screwed up, dragging them all down with me, and I almost damned the world doing it. I don't belong here. In fact I… I'm not sure I ever really belonged anywhere."
Steve has always been a burden: to his family, to his country, to Bucky. Always needing help and protection, with nothing good to give in return. When the war started, he wanted nothing more than to carry his weight, to stop being useless. But even after receiving the serum, all he was, was a trained monkey, a puppet being played by his strings. It was only when he joined the Howling Commandos that he found a semblance of belonging. It was wonderful, and all too good to last.
In this new century, daily life has become a war itself. A struggle to get up in the morning, to feel something other than the great loss and bitterness burning in his chest. Being with the Avengers was a constant struggle, but it made him feel alive, like nothing else. For a while, he had a home, family, and…
"Oh, Thor," Steve whispers, raising his hand to cover his mouth as tears build in his eyes. "I'm so sorry."
"I believe your people would say, 'that's my line'."
Steve is on his feet in an instant, spinning round to see a tall, familiar form blocking the sun. He's in jeans and a tank top, two week's worth of stubble on his face, lit up by a warm, friendly smile. In this light, he looks very much like the god he supposedly is.
It stalls his thoughts and sends his heartbeat spiraling upward, after a brief moment where it felt as if it had stopped entirely. Steve opens his mouth and nothing comes out. He tries again, with the same results, unable to move past the shock of seeing Thor here, of seeing him at all.
Thor must feel the same way, because he's not saying a word. His smile widens, eyes bright and warm, and Steve feels a lump rising in this throat. Then he remembers. Quite suddenly, it all comes back, their terrible farewell, Thor's miraculous return, the rifts that have arisen between them.
"Thor, I… I'm so sorry, I never should have - " He's cut off before he can finish by Thor's raised hand.
"You are not to blame, Steve." Thor drops his hand. The expression on his face is heartbreaking in its sincere regret. "Your leadership and instruction has been instrumental in keeping us together. It was my thoughtlessness, my arrogance, which divided us."
"You were doing the right thing!" This is ridiculous. How could Thor not blame him? How could anyone not see that it was Steve's failure, his inability to adjust and adapt as quickly as the future demanded, that led to the Avengers downfall. Thor was only trying to help, and Steve refuse to listen. Refused to let go of his own position, inflexible and archaic, just like Tony always said. "I was the one that turned you away without even trying to understand."
"But were you not right?" Thor looks incredulous, gesturing wildly with his arms. "You were correct to doubt the team's ability to work with my brother. If I had considered that, if I had not pressed so needlessly… If I had not hesitated to return…"
"We needed magic on our side. As far as any of us knew, Loki was our only option. I should've listened to you." Suddenly, Steve bursts into laughter, just as the tears start flowing. "I can't believe we're having this conversation."
Thor, watching him quietly, ignores his panicked outburst. "Perhaps that is what it comes to. What all of the Avengers struggles come to." Through blurred sight, Steve looks at him, once again overcome by the sheer power in his presence. Even without his armor, he is otherworldly. "We should have listened to each other. From the start."
He's right. Steve knows he's right. But he also can't shake the feeling that even if they had communicated better, even if the Avengers hadn't kept their distance from one another, they still would have failed, because Steve would have failed.
"But I must insist upon taking this portion of the blame." The Asgardian glances away, eyes downcast. "If I had waited any longer, you would have been lost to us, and the fault lies with me."
Steve remembers his utter terror, the cold emptiness of the air as he plummeted towards space… But even more vividly, he can recall a strong grip around his waist, bright eyes blazing with anger and fear, Thor putting him down hard, before taking to the air…
"Why?" He finds himself asking. Inclining his gaze to the ground, he hesitates to say anymore. The question is vague, but he can't find the strength currently to make it any more direct.
The wind whispers through the rows of graves. At his feet, Steve watches the flowers at Peggy's tombstone waver as it blows. He thinks of how terrible it is, to stand in mourning before one lost lover, about to lose another.
Thor moves, his feet entering Steve's line of sight. "Somehow I feel that you're not asking why I blame myself." When Steve refuses to look up, he feels a hand touch his jaw. It doesn't force movement, merely caresses the skin there, encouraging. "Given my behavior, I understand why you doubt me." The pain and in Thor's voice is so thick Steve has to look up. His eyes are narrowed and mouth tight, as if he's restraining himself. Thor's hand moves to cup his cheek, as heat rises to the man's face. "I swear upon all the nine realms, that I will redeem myself in your eyes. Never again shall I give you a reason to doubt my loyalty, and my love for you."
The longer he listens, the more Steve feels his chest tighten, shock and awe growing. But when he hears that word, all of a sudden the world stops spinning. Everything closes in to a pin point, in which all Steve sees are Thor's glistening eyes and that word, that one word circles round his mind, never ending.
"Thor, you…" Throat dry, voice roughened by emotion, Steve reaches with a tentative opened hand, just barely stopping before touching the other man. "Do you mean that?"
Thor's hand closes the distance and claps Steve's. "Every word."
He's not sure how it started, not sure who moved first, and frankly he doesn't care. All of a sudden they're kissing, the space between them erased, bodies pressed in tight. For a moment Steve feels like he's floating away, before he realizes he's literally rising as Thor's thick arms grip him tight and lift. A sweet high floods his head. This is nothing like that brief, bitter moment what feels like ages ago, this is – this is a promise, a reunion, an apology, an oath, it's passionate and powerful and Steve could swear he felt a current run through them, tickling his fingers.
They break away, heavy for breath, foreheads touching. Steve's gaze falls. Half lidded eyes see the grave at their feet, and a small smile lifts his swollen lips.
"Thor?" The man grunts in reply, one of his hands brushing through Steve's hair, from his crown to the base of his neck, again and again. "Do you fondue?"
He can't help but grin at the bafflement on Thor's face. "Well, I..." The thunderer hesitates, before sighing. "I cannot say I know what 'fondue' is."
They turn as one from the gravesite, arm linked in arm, and Steve feels like a new man. There's happiness and wonder bubbling up within him. All his concerns and doubts have not gone away, but now, now he has something – someone – to cling to. Now, he does not have to face them alone.
"Technically, it's a – a kind of food, I guess, or a way to eat food. But it's also… well, it's a long story." He laughs, remembering those good times past, all the fond memories. It still aches, and it likely always will.
"I would like to hear it, if you wish to tell it."
Smiling, Steve nods as they come to the bottom of the hill. Then he hesitates. For a brief moment, he turns his head, looks back over their shoulders, to the grave where the bouquet lay. It is almost beautiful, the way the wind dances with the grass and flower petals, how Peggy Carter's name is highlighted by the sun. And in that tiny, infinitesimal moment, Steve Rogers could have sworn he saw her, at the top of the hill, hair windblown and her smile bright.
"It was a sort of joke," He starts when he turns away, walking with Thor thigh to thigh. "Between a very close friend and I." When he looks up, Thor is smiling, and seems to be walking on air just as much as Steve is. "I think you two would've liked one another."
And so, as they start walking to the parking lot, Thor reiterates. "I would appreciate the story."
Steve laughs. "It's embarrassing. I made a complete fool of myself."
Thor returns with his own chuckle. "I am no stranger to that."
"I am proud of him. He has grown so much, and continues to do so. One day he shall make a fine King."
Yes, he will. Though I hope that day is far off yet.
"His companions seem well, considering. But not all of them have been seen. How have the others fared?"
The Captain, as you just witnessed, has begun to mend, and Thor with him. I believe their bond shall be all the closer for what they have survived. Clint Barton, the Hawkeye, has kept his promise to seek assistance, and he and his partner have fared well for it.
"The mortal Asgardian?"
A strange situation. His powers have caused him grief, but all considered, he is lucky indeed. Phil Coulson shall survive. He has left his organization, and is with the Avengers now.
"What of the other agent?"
Romanov? She has departed SHIELD as well, but her passing was not quite so smooth…
One Week After the Apocalypse-That-Wasn't
It has been nearly an hour since her reprimand began, and they still aren't done yammering.
Natasha didn't really expect anything else. The higher ups, her bosses, her co-workers, they've been waiting for this. Whetting their appetite, anticipating this moment, which they all saw as inevitable. Eventually she'd show her true colors, eventually she'd reveal herself for the traitorous, disloyal piece of trash she was. And they were right.
It doesn't matter why she did it, it doesn't matter what for, just that she betrayed them. After all her work, all the years spent proving herself, earning her place in SHIELD – all lost, and for what? The emotionally constipated peanut gallery that was the Avengers? The team that barely even functions as a team anymore? She picked her side, and she saved the world. But it has cost her everything. She'll find a way to be okay with it. She's lost everything before.
Natasha's not actually listening to the yelling, she's just nodding when necessary, appearing to be as contrite as is plausible. Hands behind her back, posture stiff and upright, though she's aching and sore and tired. It's only been a week since all the cards came down and she hasn't stopped. There's been reporting to do, interviews to give, testimonials about her disobeying orders, and she's had teammates to care for, reporters to talk to, calls to make. The Avengers don't even have a damn home anymore. Half of them are in the hospital, the other half devastated by the events of the last month. She's the only one still standing. So, she's handling it.
Thinking back, Natasha considers what would have gone differently if she'd kept her mouth shut. Nothing, really, she thinks. Tony didn't have to know about Rhodey being caught. The team didn't have to know about her and Clint's mission. Yet… she can't bring herself to regret it. One whim, one foolishly emotional decision, and her career is down the drain. All because she didn't want to lie to her friends.
Friends. Natasha almost lets a laugh escape through her penitent mask. Is that what this is? The Avengers, her friends? Maybe. Perhaps they were before. Now, she's not even sure they're working together anymore.
Her thoughts, and the officer's shouting, are interrupted when the door to the room bursts open. Natasha lets out a string of curses in Russian in her mind. Who in the world is foolish enough to enter uninvited into a meeting of some of the most powerful and influential members of SHIELD? Fury, at the other end of the table, looks confused as hell too – but then, he smirks. And that's even more confusing than the bursting into the room thing.
Before Natasha can spin around and see who it is, the person begins speaking, and of course. That's who it is.
"Yeah, uh, hi, sorry to break up the love fest, but I am a busy man and I have been here for practically four hours –"
"Yeah, whatever – a damn long time, and nobody's even paid me any attention, even though you guys," She hears him moving, can practically see him accenting his speech with his hands, "are the ones who rang me up, and called me over here. So, what's the deal? Do you want to talk business, or do you want to keep shouting at one of the heroes who helped save the world, and in association, all of your miserable asses and the sticks shoved up them?"
There's an uproar then, violent and cacophonous, but it's not aimed at her. It's aimed at him, the man just behind her to her left, who's taking it all with his usual flare. But he's not entering the room fully, not moving into her line of sight.
"Agent Romanov," She lifts her gaze to Fury when he addresses her. There's a glint in his eye, and he looks pleased, which means this was all his doing. It's… startling. And a little nerve wracking. Having other people watch out for her like this. "You are hereby dishonorably discharged from SHIELD. Dismissed." That was strangely quick, too. Whatever SHIELD wants Tony for must be important, or Fury made shit up to get him here. She can't stick around to find out, so she turns on her heel and moves for the door. Briefly, she gets a look at Tony, but he moves just as quickly out of sight. It is not a good sign.
Once she's out of the room, she leaves all thoughts of him behind, concerned only for the reality of now. She has to move, get out of the heli-carrier, get out of the country –
She freezes head to toe, frozen by the voice, which calls her name one more time before approaching her. Natasha turns. Before her, Pepper Potts stands in all her Glory, red eyed, pale faced, hair pulled into a messy bun. They haven't seen one another since this all began. She's sure she's not much to look on, either.
"God, I was so worried!" In an instant she's wrapped up in Pepper's arms. "Why didn't you call?"
Guilt strikes her like a knife to the chest. "Been busy," is her weak excuse. She's not sure what else to say. The reality is, letting go is easier when you don't have to say goodbye. "How have the two of you been?"
Pepper glances back towards the room Tony is in. "Pretty much the same. Between rebuilding the armor, the mansion, and the tower, and dealing with SHIELD and the press, it's been an enormous headache."
She nods, unsure of what to say. This was a farewell she didn't anticipate. She's caught unaware, and it's prickling against her skin, the nervousness rising in her throat. It would have been so much easier just to vanish. But that's a selfish thought. Virginia Pepper Potts deserves better than that.
"And how have you been?" Pepper moves closer, a hand rising to her arm. "Are you okay?"
"Fine. Bruce took the brunt of Phil's attack." She barely had a scratch on her from that fight, and she doesn't wonder if Phil wasn't somehow, someway, forcing himself to hold back. Fighting for control from within.
"You know that's not what I meant."
The call-out stings, and reminds her of why she's here, what's happening. A loss so great she could never have imagined it years before. The subject of her nightmares in past days. "I'll get over it. I've rebuilt my life before."
"Who said anything about rebuilding?" She moves so close they're practically breathing the same air. "SHIELD doesn't have a say on who's with the Avengers. They can't kick you off the time."
"I'm a liability. SHIELD won't let what I did pass, and eventually they'll come for me. Fury can't keep them at bay forever."
Another hand rises, taking hold of her other arm, and they grip her tight. "And when that happens, the Avengers will be there. They'll have your back. Don't run off, Tasha. Stay here. Let us help you with this." And at those last words, a finger traces the inside of her arm, and the implication is heavy. Let me help you, she's saying, let me in.
Natasha hesitates. Lifts her eyes, meet's Pepper's own. All she can do is nod, but it is enough. There will be no more distance, no hiding or running anymore. She's part of a team. They are a team, her and Pepper. And together, they'll face this down.
"I can't promise I won't do what I have to in order to protect my people." The unsaid implication is heard loud and clear once again. Natasha will do anything to protect Pepper. If SHEILD comes for them, Natasha will bring the whole damn thing down to protect her.
Pepper nods, and smiles. Natasha finds herself smiling back.
"It seems they have made many enemies in all of this."
True, but they have made friends as well, and reunited with friends of old…
A Week after the Apocalypse-That-Wasn't
General Ross's funeral has an eerie sense of familiarity to it.
That may be because it's in the same graveyard that Coulson's was in, that fateful day months ago. It may also have to do with the fact that, once again, Bruce is standing by a friend, trying to support them with no idea how. Just because he has a new leash on life with his ability to feel emotions more freely, doesn't mean he knows what to do with them.
Betty's been quiet and dry-eyed through the ceremony, staring down into the grave with half-lidded eyes. Bruce knows there's no love lost between them, but he was still her father. They were close, once, years ago. Right now, she doesn't seem all that grieved.
Later, when he finds it in himself to ask her, Betty smiles slightly. "I mourned my father a long time ago. The man they buried today, that wasn't the man who raised me." It's sharp and bitter and deeply sad, so Bruce says nothing else. He tightens his grip on her hand, and hopes it's enough.
They eat lunch at a little bistro near the cemetery, sitting in a lull of silence that begs to be filled. It's comfortable, but it's anticipatory. Finally he decides they've waited long enough.
"What happens now?"
Before, his life on the run and her father's hatred of him were the biggest barriers between them. There were other obstacles, personal roadblocks, but nothing so big to keep them apart – save the first two problems. Now, Hulk is a national hero, and Ross is dead. Nothing stands between them; nothing but tense silence and a table top.
"SHIELD's offered me a job. Hopefully this time I won't get kidnapped on my way there." Betty starts with a chuckle. "I'm not sure if I'll take it. I don't know how… well equipped… I really am for this hero business."
And there it is, the answer. Ross or no Ross, this isn't the life she wants. It tells him what he needed to know, and knowing it, somehow it's a relief. She looks up, eyes wide at his expression. "What?"
"… I don't know. I guess I thought I'd be more disappointed hearing that." He admits. "But I'm… relieved. I'm sorry, maybe that's not something I should say."
"No, no, I understand." Betty replies, setting her fork down. "I get it. Don't think that because of all this you're under any obligation to feel like we should get back together. That's not why I invited you to come today."
"I just… I would like to be friends again." She looks away, biting her lip, eyes half closed. "If you want to try."
A smile brightens his face, and he reaches out to take her hand with no fear of the consequences. "I really do, Betty." She smiles back.
They eat in silence for a while, heads ducked down to the table, worn and weary. Every so often, Bruce glances up, as if to make sure this is all still happening. Hulk is giving off a happy rumble, almost like a purr, in the corner of his head.
"So, how are you and the Avengers?"
He shrugs, unsure of what to say. "Hanging on, I guess." It's been… awkward is the best word. Everyone has been kinda quiet, just trying to navigate around one another without facing each other. Clint won't be in the same room with Thor for five seconds, and Natasha has made being incapable to find an art. And Tony…
"Been rough, huh?" Betty looks concerned.
"Kinda an understatement." A rough laugh escapes him as he sets his fork down. "We didn't exactly save the world through trust and loyalty."
"But you did save the world."
Yes, they did. They did at that.
"I guess we're just… I'm not really sure what happens next. I don't think anybody is." Bruce sighs. "Steve is better since Thor pulled through, but he still acts as if we're going to make him walk the plank or something for "failing" as a leader. Thor won't stop apologizing and looking like a kicked puppy all the time. Clint and Natasha may as well not even be in the house."
"What about Mr. Stark?"
"…" A deeper sigh. "We don't know. Rhodey says he's fine."
"He's not at the house?"
No, and he hasn't been seen by any of them since the almost end of the world. He flew off in that helicopter to his mansion, got his replacement reactor, and… vanished. Bruce sees him on TV from time to time, talking about the "mutant issue", or about repairs to his buildings. But he's never on the screen for long.
"I'm not sure he's on the team anymore." Bruce forces himself to say. Every word hurts. "I mean, he hasn't officially resigned but, he may as well have."
Betty's response is a snort, which takes him by surprise. "I sincerely doubt that." She says in reply. "When I saw him, he was all but waving pom-poms for the Avengers. Building a house for all of you, funding you, supplying you with weapons and upgrades and equipment. And that day I was there he even made us breakfast!"
Yeah, Bruce remembered that. In fact… "Tony was usually the one who cooked. If we didn't order in."
"And I'm guessing he paid when you ordered in."
Yeah, he did.
"Bruce," Betty, leaning across the counter, takes his hands in hers. "I'm not exactly his friend or anything, but I think Tony Stark must really care about the Avengers, to do everything he has for you guys. So I doubt his vanishing act has anything to do with not wanting to be on the team anymore."
Frowning, Bruce looks to the table top. "Then, why'd he run off?"
"Don't know." She replies. "Maybe you should go ask him yourself."
"What of Stark? Did the last member of the team ever return?"
No longer the last, truth be told. They are seven now.
One Month After the Apocalpyse-That-Wasn't
Rhodey sighs for the fifth time as the elevator door opens. He walks out onto the third floor of the mansion, one of Tony's "spares" that the Avengers have been borrowing, clenching and unclenching his fist. He's not nervous, he's just… tense. Over his shoulders he has two duffel bags, and behind him he's pulling a suitcase. There's more in the car, but it can wait until morning. The drive was killer, and he wants to crash.
And there it is – the knowledge that has him reeling. He's living here now. He's an Avenger, full-time, ordered by his superiors to "report to Captain America", words every military officer has wanted to hear at some point in their life. He is beyond thrilled, he's beaming, there's a skip in his step, and baby animals are probably singing a happy song somewhere. Life is good.
Rhodey can't keep the smile off his face as he comes upon his room. JARVIS opens the door for him, and he thanks him as he moves in, only to hesitate at the sound of voices down the hall. Glancing that way, he sees two broad figures moving down the hall, … holding boxes?
"Hey, Rhodes!" And that is Steve Rogers calling him by his name, like they are friends, like he is friends with Captain America, and for a moment all Rhodey does is stare in shock with his mouth open as Captain America waves at him in his blue and white stripped pajamas. Oh my god, he is seeing Captain America in his pajamas, he is talking to Captain America, this is – this is –
"Are you well, friend?" A hand touches his shoulder with such heft and force he feels it to his knees, and damn Thor is taller in person. Thor is more everything in person. "We have brought your things! Allow me to set these in your quarters, and I shall return to your vehicle and retrieve the rest."
He steps past Rhodey before the words can catch up with Rhodey's stalled brain. "Huh? Wait, no, you don't have to –" But Thor is already gone by then, barreling down the hall half dressed, wearing what Rhodey would have sworn were Harry Potter boxers. But he can't possibly have seen that.
"Don't worry about it, we're happy to help." Steve smiles and Rhodey loses his voice again. This has to be a dream. He stares as the man enters his room and sets the boxes down, putting his hands on his hips and looking around. "Looks like Tony went ahead and decorated for you." Decorations? Who the hell cares what the room looks like, Steve Rogers is in his room! Oh, Rhodey is so glad he didn't say that out loud.
"This was my room when I used to stay over, before the whole Iron Man thing." Then, they both became so busy, they're "sleepovers" as Tony called them happened less and less. It's been… hard… being so distant. Hopefully being on the same team, they'll be able to make up for lost time.
"How is he, by the way?" Steve asks nonchalantly, arms crossed. He's trying very hard to look relaxed but it's really not working. It's… kinda adorable. Rhodey would laugh but this is Captain America. He can't laugh at Cap!
"I think you know the answer to that." Sighing, Rhodey moves towards the bed and sets his things down. "I've been to see him a few times, but I can't get through to him. I doubt anybody can, but Bruce."
"He's, well… it's…" He's not sure how much he should say. Revealing too much might just push Tony further away, if it got back round to him.
"He told me something happened between them, before." Steve continues. "Is this about that?"
"Oh, yeah." It's about how Tony Stark can't handle being open and vulnerable emotionally and is terrified of being rejected. "He's not avoiding the team so much as he's avoiding Bruce. I've tried to get him to come talk to the man like a grown person, but he won't budge."
"Maybe I could talk to him?"
Okay, that time, Rhodey can't stop the laugh. "I'm sorry, it's just –" Steve's pout just makes him laugh harder. "It's not you. Just – the idea. Tony would move out of the country faster than he would talk to you about emotions."
Now, the pout is a real frown, sad and mopey, like a puppy. It's upsetting, and it's not okay that Rhodey is the one that put it there. "Hey, that's – it's nothing on you. It's just… Tony's kinda got this thing."
"Thing?" Cap looks skeptical.
"About you. Captain America, I mean." Rhodey sits on the bed, feeling exhaustion setting in, trying not to yawn. "His dad was all about you growing up. Telling war stories, talking about his friend Steve, how great he was. He spent so much time trying to find you, he never realized he lost his son along the way."
"Tony pulled a lot of shit, trying to get his dad's attention. He became your devotee as much as his father's, maybe to impress him, maybe thinking he'd figure out how to earn the guy's love and respect if he could be more like you. You were his hero, growing up. The father figure he wanted but didn't have. And now, you're a real person that he can actually disappoint, and that terrifies him."
"… oh." Steve looks worse. "I never realized… I always thought he thought I was an idiot."
"Tony comes across like that." If they're going to talk, Rhodey may as well do something. He stands, grabs a bag, and starts unpacking some. "He really doesn't understand boundaries, or social cues, or… anything about people. But when he cares about you, he goes all out. He might not say it, but he'll let you know it, some way or another."
Now, Steve is smiling, a light blush on his cheeks. "Well, that's… good. I think I know what you mean." Morose mood gone, Steve moves towards the bed. "Can I help you unpack?" He sets his hands on the nearest box, about to open it, when Rhodey remembers what's in it –
"No!" He dives forward, hand covering Steve's on the box. When he looks up, Cap is staring at him like he has two heads. "No, it's – sorry it's just very personal – to me. Unpacking."
"Okay." Steve doesn't seem insulted, just… weirded out. That's better than insulted, Rhodey guesses. "I'll go help Thor carry in the rest then."
"Thanks," Rhodey nods, and watches Steve run out the door. Only once he's certain Steve's gone does Rhodey open the box. There, on the very top, is a replica toy shield, and an action figure, discolored and worn with age. Beneath them are years of collectibles, toys, comic books, clothing, memorabilia from his youth. Rhodey picks up the toy, which looks nothing like the real Cap at all, yet still means something to him after all the years it had kept him company. He only looks for a minute, risking just that long, before stuffing it all back in the box, sealing it, and sticking it in the bottom of his closet.
"Is that it, then? Rhodes joins the Avengers, and Stark leaves?"
No, my queen. It does not end there.
One Month, Five Days After the Apocalypse-that-Wasn't
Tony Stark sits in his garage, working at his desk, his dinner plate untouched next to him. Pepper must've dropped it by at some point. She's been living upstairs, handling his affairs, a life saver in all meanings of the word. He doesn't know what he'd do without her, her or Rhodey.
It's late, beyond late, and he's tired to the bone, but he can't stop working. He can't stop. Stopping means letting his brain rest, it means all the distractions leaving so that all he's left with are his thoughts. The last thing he wants right now is to hear himself think. That's why the music is blaring loud, why he has so many projects going on, why he hasn't stopped to eat, or sleep, or even breathe in hours, maybe days. He doesn't want to think.
Thinking means letting in all the feelings that have been running through his mind, waiting to be processed, all the events that have happened, all the near-losses, the almost-failures, the pain -
"You cannot avoid it forever," Strange had told him before he left. "Though I know you will still try."
That's another person he hasn't thought about, another thing he's been avoiding. So much he doesn't want to explain, to himself, to anyone. Like why he trusted a complete stranger more than his supposed friends, his team, to help him save the world. Why he went to get the support of a handful of untrained teenagers, rather than the Avengers. Why he's so afraid of letting people in, he almost let the whole world blow up to avoid them.
There's a sudden crash, which Tony quickly realizes was simply him, throwing his tools across the room. So much for not letting the thoughts in. They've been banging on the door for days, fighting to get in, and the more tired he gets, the harder it is to avoid. He's exhausted now, and all he can do is slump down in his chair, clutching his head, burdened with regrets and self-loathing.
Bruce. Oh, what must he be thinking? Maybe he hates him for avoiding him, or maybe for the attack in the mansion. They never talked about it, Tony never explained that it was Magneto, not him. Who would believe that? Who would believe a grown man, an Avenger, was attacked and taken control of in his own home, barely putting up a fight? It's so stupid. Bruce will never talk to him again.
It takes a minute for Tony to realize he's crying, sobbing into his arms, but by then he doesn't care. JARVIS is talking to him, asking if he's alright, but Tony can't bring himself to say anything. He's not alright. He probably won't ever be alright. He had the greatest thing in the world, he had what he'd always wanted, friends, family, a place to belong, somebody who was idiotic enough to maybe love him, and he screwed it all up, like he always does and always will. But this time, he almost brought the whole planet down with him.
He's been hiding here for weeks, building and repairing and drawing up plans. Thinking about anything but himself and his own problems. Avoiding most of the world and his friends, except for Rhodey, Pepper, and JARVIS. Hiding in the dark, hoping all his problems will just go away.
He stays like that for a while, sobbing, hiding in the dark.
This was a triumph. I'm making a note here – "huge success".
But there's a noise.
It's hard to overstate my satisfaction.
It's a song, something from a game Bruce and Tony play… used to play. It was a joke, that he put it as Bruce's ringtone, something they laughed about. Bruce had something similar for him, too, another Portal song, but the one from the second game. They used to laugh about that.
Aperture Science. We do what we must because we can.
It starts going off, and keeps going. Slowly, Tony raises his head, stunned out of his own misery by something as little as a phone ringtone. He hasn't heard his phone in weeks. No one calls him anymore. Unsure of where he even stashed it, Tony glances around, digs through drawers, and finds it tucked away under a pizza box. It's…
It's Bruce. Of course it is, but there, on the phone, that's confirmation, it really truly is – Bruce.
In all this time, Bruce hasn't called. Hasn't tried to reach him, or talk to him. He's kept his distance. And now… now… god, Tony wants to hear his voice. To see him, talk to him. He stares at the phone, almost caressing it, awed by the idea that all he has to do is push a button and he'll be able to hear Bruce again. But it's a monstrous task. The fear – the idea that it may not go well – that it might be the end… and before he knows it, the phone stops ringing.
"No!" Another jolt of terror shocks him, sends him reeling as he stabs at the phone, hitting redial. No, no, no, he can't have Bruce thinking he was turning him away, that he was ignoring him, no, at the very least Bruce has to know that Tony cares, that Tony will always care, that he will always be there to pick up the phone – so he dials, and puts it to his ear, and he waits, and waits –
Well, here we are again.
It's always such a pleasure.
The song, it's… it's in the room, behind him. He turns, phone still on his ear.
Remember when you tried to kill me twice?
He ends the call, and the ringtone ends, but he's still there, still standing there in the center of the room with his hands in his pockets, shaggy hair as unkempt as always, glasses half falling off his nose – Bruce.
Tony rises, stands as if to move towards Bruce, then hesitates, falters. But he remains standing, hands half raised as if to reach for the man, stock still in the air. Confused, he glances at the phone still in his hand.
"I wasn't sure you would want to talk." Bruce's voice, breaking the silence, hits him like a freight train. He almost gasps at the force of it, of hearing that voice again, of the reality of being here, with him… "I thought… if you answered the phone, there was a chance." So, then he'd been upstairs. JARVIS must have let him in, must of told him Tony's reaction to the phone going off.
Mouth dry, eyes half closed, Tony mumbles, "Chance for what?"
"A chance to mend this." Bruce gestures to both of them, to the air between them. "Whatever happened to us."
What can he say to that? Nothing, so that's what he does. Keeps his mouth shut. He wants to scream, to fall to his knees and beg forgiveness, but it's like he's far away watching this all happen to someone else. He's panicking, his hands are shaking, he has no idea what to do so he does nothing at all.
"I, um," Bruce, who seems as nervous as Tony, takes a hesitant step forward. "I know… we didn't exactly part on the best of terms. I'm not really sure what happened – I know Magneto was involved, and I know it wasn't your fault. I don't blame you for that."
"But, I do know that – well…" Sighing, Bruce glances down, hands still in his pockets. "I realize that you've been more than kind to me, you've given me a home, a new chance at life. You've been…" Looks up, and his eyes are watering, and Tony can't take this, oh god. "You've been amazing. And I have no idea how to repay you."
"You don't have to – Bruce…" Tony holds his hands up in surrender, as Bruce steps closer.
"I want to, Tony. I want to." Bruce continues, his voice evening out. "I guess… you must be upset by what happened, that night. I just want you to know, I'm not going to… to try and make you uncomfortable or make you feel like you have to be something to me to keep me around. I'll always be your friend, Tony."
"People do things they regret." Bruce starts, looking down. They're barely a foot apart now. "I just don't want you to feel like I – I expect something you can't give. So…" He shrugs, seemingly unable or unwilling to continue.
Stunned, Tony lets his mouth fall open. "Is that – that's what you think this is?" He starts. Perhaps it's just the fact he's talking, or the fact that he sounds like he's about to stop breathing, but Bruce looks up with wide startled eyes. "You think I regret kissing you?"
"Well, I just – I realize it was a vulnerable time, and you take comfort in the physical, and that's okay, so I thought that maybe you thought I was thinking it was more than that, and I – I made a huge ass of myself didn't I?" It must be the dumbstruck expression on Tony's face, because Bruce is letting his voice slow to a halt as he starts to grimace.
"Bruce, you – you idiot." Some of the fire returns to his veins, some of his life is back. How in the world can someone so smart be so stupid? "This isn't – I betrayed you! I turned on you and then instead of going and finding you and explaining like a real boy, I decided to go drink myself to oblivion and then try saving the world with a guy who pulls rabbits out of hats and a bunch of teenagers!" Frustration edges into his voice. He starts swinging his arms around, pacing, letting his anger flow through his body. He feels alive. "I was a complete idiot, I was selfish, and I let that get in the way of saving the goddamn planet!" Now, he turns back on Bruce, who has gone stock still. "We almost failed because of me!"
There it is, right there in the open. They won by a hair's breadth a damn lot of luck, because Tony was too afraid and too self-centered to think about anyone but himself. If he'd gone to the team, if he'd brought Dr. Strange to them and they'd gone after McTaggert together… but no. He had to clam up and retreat and run away like he always does, and try and throw it all together by himself. Fuck.
His hands fly up into his hair, gripping at the roots and tugging, even as anger transforms to panic again. He's still shaking, perhaps also because of the sleep deprivation and hunger, but mostly the panic. He falls into the couch, letting his head fall down, dizzy and shaky and beyond upset –
"Tony," Bruce starts, hands coming over Tony's. "Tony, please listen to me." He feels the other sit next to him, thigh to thigh, and tries not to shudder. "This wasn't your fault, not alone. We all have a share of the blame." Gentle fingers pry his hands off his face, and then cup his chin. Reluctantly, he turns to face the man, finding them so very close he can taste Bruce's breath between them. "Yeah, you ran off, you were afraid of talking to us. So was I. I've been running for years, running from myself, and because of that, Hulk didn't understand what was happening to you. We could have stopped Magneto there, if I hadn't been so damned determined not to let the Hulk in."
No, this isn't – "This isn't your fault, Bruce,"
An exasperated look comes over his face. "Tony, the Hulk had no context to understand – anything. I was so afraid of him, of what he represented, that I cut him out. Now…" Bruce shrugs, glancing down. "Now, we share everything. We're even talking. And now, together, we're not a threat – we're a team. We helped saved the world. And so did you!"
"Wait, you…" Leaning back, Tony looks him over, as if searching for signs. "You and Hulk are buddy-buddy now."
Bruce smiles, and his eyes flash bright green. "Yes, I guess we are. Or we're working on it."
"Oh." Holy shit. "That's… good."
"That's why you've been hiding from the team?" Bruce starts again, leaning closer. "Because you thought you were to blame?"
No, that's not quite – but he can't talk about – he can't say… he… "Sort've." Tony shrugs, pulling away from Bruce. "Mostly, it was you."
Bruce doesn't say a word, doesn't react. Sighing, Tony stands and starts to pace.
"I'm not good with people Bruce. I fuck everything up. Pepper, Rhodey… I love them to death but I've hurt them both so bad. I learned a long time ago that I can't be with the people I love. I don't know how. I love too much, or not enough. I get too close, don't know how to pull back, how to stop. I push and push and – I hurt people."
He stops a sob in his throat, swallowing. "I've already hurt you and Hulk enough. Done enough damage to everyone." To Steve, to the whole team. He's hurt them all so much because he's an asshole and that's all he'll ever be.
"You love me?"
Three words, and they shake him head to toe. He doesn't say anything. Doesn't have to.
He hears movement behind him: Bruce, standing to leave. "If this is really what you want, then I'll respect that." Bruce starts. "But, consider this at least." Move footsteps. "I know you blame yourself for a lot of things, and some of that is deserved. We all have our sins. But, I think you've forgotten some important things, too." He's quiet, for just a moment. "You aren't responsible for what Ross did to me with the weapons he bought from you. But this… this, you are responsible for."
Tony waits until he hears Bruce leave and reach the top of the stairs before turning around. For a moment he sees no change, nothing. Then he notices the little piece of paper on his desk. It's not a piece of paper, actually, upon closer inspection. It's… a napkin. Looks damn old in fact, stained and worn, and… there's some writing in the middle.
Chin up, big guy. It says, followed by a number. It's his old cell number, from ages ago. At least a decade. How…?
Oh. Oh. Oh my god.
He barrels up the stairs to the first floor, bursts out the front door, to find…
There is not one Avenger, but six waiting for him outside his front door. Bruce, in front, hands still in his pockets. Behind him, Tony can see all of them: Thor, Clint, Natasha, Steve, and Rhodey. All standing there, staring at him, with… with what? Tony can't really see through the tears in his eyes.
"What is this?" He walks up to Bruce, thrusting the napkin out to him.
"You still don't remember?"
"I…" He thinks so. Yeah, he does. "That can't have been you. I'd remember."
"Apparently not." Bruce smiles softly, gently. He reaches out and takes the napkin from Tony's hands with reverence. "I was barely an adult back then, anyway, just starting out in research. It was a rough spot. Stuff with my family, my love life, my career… it felt like everything was falling into ruin. The first time I "got low"."
Bruce unfolds the napkin fully, looking at it with something like awe. "I was at a conference, and I just felt so alone, so overwhelmed, so useless and upset, I… I went to the top floor and thought about jumping off." He smiles at that, somehow. "But that's when I found out the top floor was a flat reserved for the guest of honor for the event, and I was trespassing. Or so the drunk guy in the Jacuzzi told me."
"I wasn't drunk, I was… okay, I was drunk." He was really drunk, he remembers that. This had been… what, early nineties maybe? Genetics conference?
"That guy," Bruce continues undeterred. "Instead of kicking me out, he made his… very attractive… guests leave, and he sat down with me. Talked me off the edge." The napkin, fully unfolded, is turned towards Tony. "He saved my life that night. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him."
There, in the corner, beneath the messily scrawled number, is a name: Tony Stark.
"When I left you that night Magneto showed up, it was to get this." Bruce starts again, ignoring Tony's shocked silence. "I knew you didn't remember, but I always will. I thought it would be good to let you know that… you haven't just hurt people, Tony. You've saved lives. Including mine."
"Mine, too, loads of times." Clint offers up, raising his hand. "Which I am plenty grateful for, by the way."
"We all owe our safety and peace of mind to you, Tony Stark." Thor adds. "You have given us a home, provided us with bedding, refreshment, feasts. We owe you a great deal."
"No, you – you don't – I almost got you all killed."
"I think we all had a hand in the massive fuck up that was the Apocalypse-that-Wasn't." Natasha interjects, which makes Tony groan.
"Please tell me you're not calling it that."
"Too late. That's what you get for not being around to name our successes post-mission."
"Tony," Now, Steve's stepping up, and he feels his heart rising into his throat again. "I know we've… had our differences. And I think we've all made mistakes these past few months, but I'd like to think we've learned from them. The Avengers mean a lot to me. And, while I feel like I haven't been the leader you've deserved…" Words that prompted a chorus of angry refusals and jeers, "I would like to give it another shot. But I can't do it without you – without all of you."
"Why not?" Tony snorts. "You've got Iron Man Point 2."
"Oh, don't you dare," Now Rhodey steps forward, swinging an arm around his shoulder, pulling him in tight, and it's played like a joke but this is protective, defensive. Rhodey's an Avenger now but Tony is his family first and foremost, and that warms the man's quaking heart. "I'm a soldier, not an engineer. We need Iron Man and War Machine, not one or the other."
Tony, finally looking away from the little piece of paper that means so much more than it seems, lifts his eyes to them. "You – You sure? I mean," He snorts, trying to play it for laughs. "I'd think you'd be better off without me."
That statement receives as many outright refusals as Cap's did; and that, that is what brings the smile back to Tony Stark's face. That is what tells him, he's finally home.
"So, they are all back together then."
They are a team now, and all seems to be going well.
Division X is no more, and Moira McTaggert has been discharged from her post. The existence of mutants is now known, and that is a battle which is yet to be waged. But that is not for some time yet.
There is much more I would have you know, though the tale grows long, so I shall explain as swiftly as I might. The mutant Darwin has been reunited with his kind, and his friends; he recovers, with close watch by the one called Alex Summers. They share a close bond, which may grow closer yet.
The one they call Wolverine, he too was reunited with an old friend. Steve Rogers meets him from time to time, to talk and drink. He has fared better with such support from one who knew him before.
Dr. Strange has gone much the way he came; swiftly, without warning or sign. Where he may be, the mortals do not know, but he keeps watch over them. His duties demand much, but he is a willing and able mage. Midgard is well guarded by him.
The Avengers have spent much time together, connecting the pieces of their puzzle, reexamining this last mission, and what went wrong. They have grown closer, and realized much. Your son now courts the Captain, and they seem well off together. There is another who holds their eye, but it may be some time yet before such realizations come to pass.
They are doing well, for now. They trust one another, and though they may not always agree, they speak to one another, as equals, harboring few secrets.
Tis not perfect, my queen. There are troubles which will pain them yet.
"But that is the nature of all things, and perhaps mortal life most of all."
"… and Loki. He is…?"
Alive. He has found a home, of sorts, as well.
Two Months After the Apocalypse-that-Wasn't
"You've got to be kidding me."
That seems to be the shared sentiment around the room, if the looks on the Avenger's faces are anything to go by. Well, everyone but Thor, but that's no surprise.
"I've heard a lot of bad ideas in my life, but this… oh, man," Sputtering, Tony doubles over in laughter. "This is – you're serious! Oh my god, this is going to be terrible and hilarious, possibly at the same time."
"We can't keep him," Fury starts. They're standing on the first floor of the new Avengers Mansion, in New York. It's a wide open room, warm and inviting, but for the tension that's exuding from its occupants. "He's escaped more than half a dozen times. We've had him running around the building, acting the imposter, pulling pranks on guards, destroying vital equipment, erasing computer files – he's just fucking with us! But we can't stop him, and it's only so long before he decides to up the ante."
"So, what, you're dumping him on us?" Clint retorts from his corner. He's kneeling on the arm of a chair, perched like his namesake. Sitting beside him is none other than Phil Coulson, who has been very quiet this whole time.
"What else can I do? Our prisons can't hold an Asgardian mage with powers we can't even begin to understand. Even your people aren't sure exactly what Loki's capable of since he came back from space." Thor, expression grim, nods at that.
"Tis true. He outmatches ordinary mortals by far."
"We are superheroes, not demi-god babysitters." Clint tries again, fuming.
"But if we don't take him, who will?" Natasha, leaning against the far wall, looks no happier, but seems resigned to it. "We can take him down. If he escapes from a SHIELD cell, or a federal prison…"
"Ordinary citizens don't stand a chance." Steve finishes for her. His look is firm, and he's made up his mind. "She's right."
"Oh, fuck me." Clint lets his head fall back, and Tony starts to laugh somewhat hysterically.
"That's it, then." Steve turns, facing the whole team, all of whom are gathered though not all have spoken. But all of them look decidedly uncomfortable, even Thor to a degree. "Loki's moving in with us."
"He is with the Avengers, then. Thor must be pleased."
Indeed, though his allies have not been quite so agreeable. Most have ranged from a lack of caring to outright violent intent, neither of which is uncalled for.
"Yes, he has wronged them greatly."
Yet, they have treated him well, all else concerned. He is lucky. And perhaps, he can learn from this.
"You said he had grown close to a mortal?"
Oh, somewhat, but… perhaps I should not say. It is a tale still in the telling, and even I cannot see the future to its end. Permit me to wait a while, and see what comes of it?
"Very well. I did mean to ask you to continue this watch. I would know how my sons fare."
Perhaps we shall discuss it twice monthly? On every other Saturday? This would work well, I believe, for you and I; and the writer.
Ah, forgive me; I forget the reach of my eyes. Worry not, my queen. I shall watch over your sons.
"Thank you, Heimdall. I… would see them well."
As would I, your majesty. As would I.
"These are wonderful."
Steve blushes at the compliment, fidgeting a little. "Not really. It's just a hobby, I'm not that good at it."
"You do yourself a disservice." Thor insists, flipping another page. "These are wonderful. I am honored to have been the object of such skill."
Somehow, the flush manages to grow strong. "Oh, well… I'm glad you like them."
Smiling, Thor looks back up. "Not nearly as much as I like the one whose hand drew them."
This is a moment, isn't it? The room seems so hot, he can barely stand it. Are they… are they getting into something? Is that what's happening? Thor is drifting closer, or maybe that's Steve leaning in –
The house shakes suddenly, like an earthquake cracked the ground open beneath them, and in moments both Avengers are on their feet. Steve barrels for the door, bursting into the hall. He finds Natasha rushing towards the East Wing.
"What happened? Any idea?" He asks as he catches up to her, hearing Thor's heavy strides behind them.
"No idea, I was in the gym when I heard it –"
They turn a corner and find the hall is just gone, a whole section of the house decimated. And in all that chaos, Clint Barton sits in a bathtub that is now cracked and falling to pieces, water draining away, covered only by a magazine that he'd been holding.
"This – this is Loki's fault." Clint seethes, red in the face. "I know it. It has to be."
By now, the others have arrived. Tony's barefoot and holding a bagel in his mouth, clearly having just crawled out of his workshop, while Bruce looks more put together but he's still wearing only one of his lab coat sleeves. Rhodey is in his suit, responding to a possible emergency with militaristic perfection, but now he's just laughing at Clint in the bath tub.
"Ha, ha." The archer snorts. "Laugh it up, asshole."
"Clint," Steve, who is smiling now that he knows there's no danger, nods to the ground. "I think you're blaming the wrong Asgardian."
Of course, he really needn't of said anything. Thor's already jumping down, moving to the crater Mjolnir created with glee.
"This is the third time this month." Tony starts with a huff, taking the bagel out of his mouth. "How in the hell do I get insurance to cover 'destruction by God Hammer'?"
"I have no idea, but please let me be present when you try," Natasha says with a smirk. "I want to watch."
(Okay, not quite…)
Nick Fury is in his robe, settling down to relax and read a good book before bed, when his doorbell chimes. What the hell? He cocks an eyebrow, glancing to the front end of his house. Nobody comes here without clearing it with SHIELD first. Nobody even knows where this place is!
Frowning, he sets the book aside and draws his gun out of the bedside table, moving towards the stairs with quick, steady precision. Then, he backtracks heading to the back of the house, quietly opening the porch door so he can circle the intruder around from behind –
He doesn't get that far. As soon as he opens the door, he's greeted by a stranger in gold armor standing on his back porch. He doesn't seem to have a weapon of any kind, but he's clearly powerful, and he's a big guy to boot. Fury's got his gun on him in half a second, fuming, wondering how the hell this guy got here, who the hell is he –
"Who are you and what the hell are you doing at my house?"
"I am Heimdall, Gatekeeper of Asgard," The man begins, and he – he fucking kneels. The hell? "And I come before you to request a boon."
"A… what now?" Frowning, Fury keeps the gun up, but he is beginning to see this probably isn't a threat. Asgard. Great. Like those immortal assholes haven't been causing him enough trouble lately.
"A boon." Heimdall, whoever that is, asks again.
"Uh huh." Snorting, Fury keeps his gun trained between the man's eyes, which are merely inches away from the barrel of his gun. Is this guy asking to get shot? Would a bullet to the head even kill an Asgardian? For a moment, Fury wonders if he's really in deep shit here, and considers pressing the button on the watch on his wrist that will bring SHIELD down on this place in full force.
"Fear not, I mean no harm. I come not as a vassal of Asgard, or in service to her King, but for my own desires."
"Is that supposed to mean shit to me?" This is very confusing. He can honestly say, with all the weird shit that has happened in his life, having a handsome – and yes he is very handsome – immortal warrior pop up on his back porch and kneel in front of him, well, that's a new one.
"It means that I am only here to speak for myself, and to ask that you grant me an honor which would lift my heart."
Fury keeps the gun right where it is. But he maybe, just maybe, might be feeling extremely out of his depth right now. "Okay. Fine. Ask away." This can't get any weirder right?
Heimdall smiles, the fucker, and the look is radiantly beautiful on his face. "Would you, Nicholas Fury of Midgard, grant me the honor of allowing me to court you?"
Well, damn. He was wrong.
(For real this time!)