(Written for a tumblr prompt that asked for a bonding, raucous party after the well-deserved fall of Thanos - and who's getting something a little more than that, despite my original intentions. This has been on AO3 for a while and I apologize for the delay in uploading it to here - I've recently had to move and that threw everything out of whack for a little
The new society at the end of the short is a reference to a similar organization in the comics, with a similar goal.)
A Wake for the Living
. . .
Mantis wrung her hands nervously as she shot glances around the room, looking at Avengers and allies and just flat-out survivors. There were just so many people! Going from a planet of one to a ship of half a dozen to this packed tower of, of… she didn't know how many. She'd been with the Guardians for a while, yes, but she had spent a lifetime alone. There were still moments where the vastness of everything simply overtook her.
And it didn't take a stretch of her empathic abilities to see the currents trailing under the joy thronging all around her. So much exhaustion crinkled at the corners of so many eyes. Peeking out from under sleeves and collars were the telltale whites of cotton wraps and bandages. They'd won their greatest battle, but it had cost. Many of the Avengers and their new friends were sleeping hard, with dreams reminding them of how bad it was and how it could have been even worse. She could have drifted around the room, let her fingers tell her what she already knew, but it would have been rude.
So she stood by one of the couches in a way that kept her out of traffic, and she smiled spritely for anyone that passed by, and she twisted her hands together feeling out of place among all these nice pink humans, and she simply didn't know what to say to make anyone feel better.
"It's all right," said Drax behind her. She turned to look up at him, his serene, broad face, the drink with a tiny paper umbrella in his hand. "This is the war quiet. When the bodies are dead and left to fire. It's a good time, but it's a very tiring time." He looked down at her without wincing for once. He was so single-minded, and he'd known so much grief it was sometimes hard to read him. "I remember my wife-"
"I…" She hadn't meant to cut him off, not as quickly as she had. "I am sorry, Drax. I didn't mean to stop you. I just…" Mantis frowned, trying to think about how to put it. "I want to think about the living instead."
He nodded. Whether he understood or not, he at least respected what she said. Then a big, goofy, broad grin filled his face. "I'm going to wrestle the big green man later!"
Oh, dear. "Drax, I… don't know if that's wise."
He laughed, delighted, and he shambled off again. She watched him try to eat the silly little purple paper umbrella that had been in his drink, waiting for him to spit it out.
He did not.
Mantis heard the crunch as he pushed his way into the crowd of exhausted heroes here for the survivor's celebration, and winced as she watched him swallow it. His joy, at least, seemed untarnished inside and out. There were no questions in him.
It was something she envied.
. . .
God alone knew how Tony Stark could manage to be fashionably late to his own party in his own New York Tower, but there it was, and here he came. Romanoff was fond of telling people that Tony's real superpower was the way he perfectly leaned into his own giant ego and somehow made his tendency to be obnoxiously in the middle of everything into something charming - most of the time - and the relaxed joy on his face looked real enough to tell everyone cheering his swaggered entry that, yes, it was over. It was actually over.
Except for the clean-up, which, thank goodness, the Avengers, via SHIELD, had damage control people for that. There was a massive alien ring-ship finishing its rapid decay somewhere just off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, among other disasters left behind like scars. Those who had arrived on it - the mad titan himself, and the rest of his 'black order,' Thanos's twisted idea of family - were no longer threats to the galaxy and beyond.
It had been four days since the last fight, where Thanos had attempted to bring the completed Infinity gauntlet to bear against all of existence. And he had failed, in no small part by a last minute turn expected by only a tiny faction of the sprawling group now filling the dedicated party floor of Avengers Tower. Thor grinned now and again, his arms crossed against himself, looking at the stony face of his brother as Loki studied the drink in his hand in silence. Loki had pulled one more act of bitter betrayal just before the final act of the war - but it had been against that mutated, awful idea of Thanos's family, and it had opened up a chance for them all to fight back their enemy's faltering power. Just a thin, scant chance that led to a kind of chaos most of them could barely outline now, removed from the situation.
The mood of the group hovered somewhere between exhausted and jubilant. Four days to recover from a struggle that seemed like an eternity - and with the Time stone in the mix, who knew how long it had really been. Or what had really happened, or been true.
That stone's last wielder, Doctor Stephen Strange, grabbed a tiny snack off the buffet table and a bottle of water, his path taking him past the still-quiet Loki as Thor wandered off towards a knot of warrior women from various worlds talking to each other. Loki looked at him. Strange looked evenly back.
"Still fancy yourself some kind of sorcerer?" There wasn't a knife in Loki's hand this time.
"Think I've done alright." Strange popped the small nugget of brie en croute into his mouth, chewing contemplatively and deliberately not thinking too hard about the last few days. Tony toured the room in the background, visiting various groups and swaggering his way towards his mech bay. Neither of them looked at him. "Necessity is a hell of a teacher."
"Might've said desperation."
"That, too." They kept eyeing each other, not saying what could be said. "What are those illusions you do, anyway? Refractive light manipulation, etheric warping-"
"Trade secret." Loki looked away. "Family secret."
"Ah." Strange seemed to let it go. He gestured at Thor with the bottle of water in his hand. "I don't even know half those people, but I can tell he's gonna go down like a lead balloon."
Loki watched Thor as he seemed to hover around the Valkyrie. For her part, she was ignoring him in favor of talking to several of the other women. Nebula looked as awkward as he felt next to her sister, Gamora, the SHIELD woman, Hill, was nursing a drink, and Romanoff just looked delighted with the whole spread of weirdness in front of her. "Between you and me, he's been ignoring the obvious in front of his face this whole time, but since she's been staying quiet ever since Asgard fell, it's like he keeps forgetting she exists. Which is one of his greatest idiocies, but no one's perfect." He managed to make the entire mini-diatribe sound extra-insulting, which was probably the reason why he'd said anything.
"She his type?"
"Sif? She was born to be his type." He jutted his chin at the Valkyrie, fixated on Gamora in a particularly remarkable way. "Look at how damned brainless he is."
. . .
Scott let Luis do the talking to the attentive knot of old Air Force vets, some of whom seem to know the incongruously young blonde woman in the Nova Corp-style flight suit that's been otherwise keeping to herself. Luis's Tokyo-Drift style of storytelling had a knack for both confusing and luring in listeners, and Scott was just too damn tired for once to add his own clever remarks as a kind of director's commentary. Luis and the rest of the crew seemed cooped up inside themselves, vibrating alive, almost incandescent at surviving the end of the world.
Scott realized he was tired. Like, legitimately, bone-deep tired. All he wanted to do was go to his ex-wife's house, give Cassie the sort of giant, squeezing, aching hug that would give away all the things most people didn't know and he hoped to God would never knew about the last couple of weeks, and go sleep for a goddamn month.
"Okay, so, like, over in Queens? This kid-" Luis points across the room at a gangly teenager talking to a girl his age whose riotous hair was knotted up in a messy bun. "This kid jumps out of a bus and starts hauling ass towards the big alien ring, right? And they're waiting for some sort of defense, only who the heck expects a kid. But he packs a punch, the little guy, and can take a hell of a beating, which is good, because the big guy over there on the ring packs an even bigger punch and Mr. Stark is listening in, and-"
One old guy nods along behind gigantic tinted lenses, adding in an uh-huh at all the right moments, the perfect listener, a gravelly old New York creature, that living piece of Central Park architecture. Scott is so tired that for a moment it seems to him like the old guy has heard it all before, and he would even swear the guy tips Scott a knowing wink as Luis half-turns and flings his hand to indicate another player on the giant mess of a stage that has been their own personal Apocalypse Now Redux, but that's obviously bullshit.
He looks for Hope, sees her grinning into her cell. That's going to be Hank, Scott realized. Hank hadn't come. Hank was even more tired than Scott, and had the self-assuredness to know when not to show up to a celebration. He'd sent wine, though. An utter shitload of really good wine.
That the party was being thrown by a Stark probably mattered a little to Pym, although Scott personally felt it was time for a lot of bad blood to go down the drain.
Starting over. All of them. Wiping out what remained of the past, which thankfully wasn't much.
For, like, the sixth time. But who was counting?
He patted Luis on the back without interrupting him, and swung his way towards Hope to figure out how the hell it looked like she still had energy left. Teach me your secrets, wise ass-kicking lady. I've already given up trying to be the better half in this relationship.
. . .
"I don't want to be rude."
"Previous personal experience leads me to doubt you." T'Challa's expression didn't change, but his voice was light and amused. "It must be said that… they are… remarkably cohesive in terms of their color scheme."
"That's awful, too." Shuri's brow furrowed tighter as she looked at the row of Iron Man suits in their standby pods. She didn't bother with his attempt at tact. "The gold is too light, and the red too brazen." She shook her fingers at them as if they were misbehaving pygmy mice. "And the programming!"
"What about the programming?" Tony sauntered down the handful of steps into the bay, as if on cue.
Shuri crossed her arms against herself and took a slow inhale as her thumb fiddled with a pretty blue bracelet made of interlink comms pearls, each one feeling warm from vibranium and the whisper nano-tech making them nearly alive. "I think you're using unnecessary CPU cycling time, and it's affecting the overall performance of the suits."
"Unnecessary?" Tony took a sip, watching her, glancing at T'Challa as he turned to face Tony, Shuri slightly guarded behind his shoulder. They'd been allies, but now they were on strange turf, and there were going to be all new questions to come. The struggle in Wakanda had been horrifying. That so much yet stood was a testament to the country, when they'd already shown so much strength becoming part of the rest of the world.
Tony wanted them to stay allies. For a lot of reasons.
"I'm not sure it was completely necessary to meld an adaptive AI to the suits when a basic heuristic command package would save you many, many uptime seconds in an active situation. It's just not optimal."
Tony took another sip. He didn't look offended. He wasn't. "You ever been on a really long road trip? I mean, like, four hours with your legs getting wiggly and all the good crossword puzzles already done."
Shuri shook her head.
"Comes a point when having something friendly with you is better than pure optimization. Keeps you human." Tony came down another couple of steps until he was even with the Wakandan royalty, pacing wide and respectfully around them until he was closer to his suits. "Sort of like our big tech lines. You can optimize to the very cutting edge, but people like to connect with stuff, too. They like things to be sleek, or cute, or easy to use, and you gotta get in a whole different design department to make what's under the hood actually appealing to people so they'll use it." He gestured with his drink. "You do the Panther suits, right?"
"Nanotech, fiber weave, vibranium inner, and one sweet neckpiece controlling it all. I mean, that is neat stuff." He grinned at her. "Looks swag as hell, too, right?"
She saw where he was going with that and rolled her eyes. "That's different."
He waggled his head left and right agreeably, knowing she knew and knowing he'd be a dick if he got condescending about it, so he made sure he wouldn't. She was on a totally different level than him. It wasn't even threatening, just gave him the absolute amazement of watching a new star pop up in the sky. "It's a little different, sure. Because you want your stuff to represent what's important to you, not just on a personal level, but to all your people. The Panther is part of your culture. It's got meaning to you in a way that I don't get, and I'm sure as hell not going to say anything else because I can't." He jutted his goatee at the suits. "So that said, how would you describe me?"
T'Challa shared a knowing glance with his sister, a stony-faced look with a microsecond flash of white, grinning teeth.
Tony didn't wait, didn't need to see the expression. He kept looking at his suits, half of them hiding the sheer amount of internal damage that still needed to be repaired. Downstairs in an emergency bay, the remnants of the Hulkbuster sat in a heap to remind him of how bad it had gotten. He hadn't gone to look at it since the end of the war. He knew he was going to shake for at least an hour when he did. His voice stayed light and cheery, the irreverent Tony Stark voice, patented and as famous as he. "Exactly. So, put optimization aside, and definitely including the paint job - are these damn things me or what?"
Shuri laughed, realizing somehow that they had a similar language after all. "Mr. Stark, they are most definitely you."
"Exactly, kiddo. Now come on back up to the party and kick my ass around a while about fusion versus kinetic energy." He looked down at Shuri, thinking again of new, bright stars where there'd once been nothing but the black. He didn't look at T'Challa, who'd seen enough of the frontline to know that he was faking some of his cheer. Like everyone was doing. He didn't need the confrontation. He needed some peace, and to hear kids laugh. He'd damn near died for that. Part of it came out in his voice. "You meet Peter yet? I mean, in a situation where we're not all about to die."
Shuri couldn't help but laugh again, doing more for his tired soul than six magic rocks ever could have. "No, Mr. Stark. Not yet."
"You'll like him. He's a big-eyed, big-hearted twerp who's gonna blow me out of the water some day in the lab. School him even harder than I deserve, he'll take it all and thank you for more."
She took his arm and went up the stairs with him, T'Challa staying close but knowing there wasn't any more threat. They wanted the same thing, clawed for it, killed for it. That bright, better future.
For these kids.
Tony left his drink on a counter as he swung Shuri towards Peter centered in his awkward knot of friends.
. . .
"Remember?" Bucky's voice was rusty, like it was literally coming back from the front line in Poland as he talked, briefly, about the old battle decades ago. "God, that was a hell of a fight."
"March to May in the trench. Felt longer." Steve was just as taciturn, not drinking the whisky in front of him. The drink didn't matter. The company did. Small words, small phrases. In them, all the other things unsaid. Sleeping from one great war to another, the two of them. Only Bucky had woken up to see - be part of - some of the smaller bits of hell in between, and he hadn't known. Now there were all these memories, fragments of blood and bone, and after it all, they'd gone back to the old patterns. The bars in London, Madrid, a too-brief return to New York. Same bars. Same faces. Same looks in the eye.
Shell-shock they called it then. Called it other things now. This was a new bar, but the look was all too familiar.
"You two look like shit." Sam dropped onto a stool next to them. Steve saw his face, knew he got it. He'd seen it the first time he'd really talked to the Falcon, knew the man knew the same lessons about war. It made making friends easier, because they knew the same secrets. "Guess that tells me how I look."
Steve arched an eyebrow, let Sam steal his drink. Bucky didn't say anything, but he slid his drink over to clink the rim of the stolen whisky, then took it back for a sip.
"We shouldn't be alive," Steve said, finally. He realized he sounded awed when he spoke. Four days of not thinking about what had happened, until he realized he'd done nothing but think about it. The holes. The empty places. The question was earnest. "How did that happen?"
"There's my friend." Bucky leaned over the bar, looking at his reflection in its clean surface. "Getting optimistic in his old age."
Another glass clinked onto their area of the bar, a thick-bottomed tumbler filled with the sharp scent of vodka. Steve looked up into the youngish, out of place, out of time face. Like his, again. Carol Danvers grinned back, something sardonic and hard and well-trained in it. He didn't quite know how to place her in his mind, but he liked her. A pilot who'd been in the shit - in an awful lot of ways. The old men Scott Lang had been talking to had come with her at her request. Remnants of her own past. More secrets Fury had held. "I overheard that."
She elbowed at him, dropped herself onto a stool. "Nobody's talking about it."
"What's to talk about?" Bucky shrugged. "We had another war. We won. It's over."
"But what do you actually remember about it?"
Danvers couldn't know how much a line like that stung, so he didn't lash out. Bucky sounded irritable instead, the only acknowledgement she'd accidentally hit him. "What does it matter? You know how it is. Sometimes that's what war is. Just a… mess inside your head."
She took a knock off the glass. "Not like this, though. I agree with the Captain. We weren't supposed to survive that."
Steve pursed his lips, looking at his now-empty glass in Sam's hand. "What do you remember, Danvers?"
"I remember that alien planet. I remember the big purple asshole charging up… something… I remember someone yelling something I can't remember. Screaming it. I don't know. I think I saw a knife. I saw the blue girl run in." Her voice trailed off, became soft. "Then… nothing. We gathered our people. We drifted apart to lick our wounds. We showed up here. We knew we'd won. But… I feel like I'm deliberately trying to not think about it. Like something squirming."
"More than I remember." Danvers was one of the weird ones. Like that Quill guy, over in the corner, playing with the Stark corporation's in-home soundsystem. Born here, but part of the strange vastness of space now far more than they were ever part of Earth. Both of them seemed fairly okay with that. Steve got it. Even when you were home, you weren't always home. He trusted her recollection, because that same look was in her eyes.
A shout came up behind him, a goading catcall. Distracted, Steve leaned back to see the giant rock-guy named Korg grinning at the Valkyrie.
. . .
"That's not something you want to try." The Valkyrie put the steel bottle down, a vintage that had come with refugees via the remnants of another, less hostile alien ship.
"Hey, if I don't win, I don't cry myself to sleep at night. Didn't become king of Asgard, not gonna lose much here, either." Tony flexed his armored hand with a grin and a wink up at Korg, already happy with how Shuri was hitting it off with the Queens kids over in a quieter corner. A scrap of Iron Man nanotech had flowed up his fingers and over his shoulder, making his dark suit gleam red. Invisible connections under the skin toughened his spine and armored his muscular structure, giving him up to two-hundred footpounds of possible leverage in that arm before risking physical damage to himself. "It's science, babe."
She pointed a finger at him in a warning. "Don't call me that."
"Never again." He'd only said it to give her an antagonistic reason to give in to his dumb idea. He thumped his elbow down onto the counter. "Come on. One try. Just to see if-"
The Valkyrie gripped his hand, cool and firm, the sense of skin ricocheting through his sensors, and half a second later several hundred pounds of raw Asgardian pressure called her the instant winner of his personal re-enactment of Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top.
Okay. He thought he might very well lose. Maybe not that fast. "Wow," he said from where he was now half staggered and trying to not drop entirely on the floor.
"I did." The arm itself was a prototype he hadn't gotten a chance to try on Thanos, one of a half-dozen last ditch possibles he'd had in mind for the final throwdown. This answered a question for him. It wasn't a question where he really needed an answer, but now he had it.
Tony remembered an awful lot of his questions. Hell, he'd set up most of them, a domino line of last ditch chances. He grinned at the Valkyrie, thanked her for her indulgence by casually dropping a bottle of a rare Macallen vintage whisky in front of her from his personal stash, and did his best to swagger on like nothing had happened.
They would have died, any other way than how the war had gone down. They all would have died screaming, and stayed dead, as Thanos killed everything seeking some demented idea of balance. Silence was a kind of balance, Tony guessed. The void was balanced. He slapped Clint Barton on the shoulder, tossed him a meaningless wink, and moved on into the crowd in a way that never gave up who he wasn't looking at, never gave up the horror he kept thinking about, that he'd seen the cusp of.
The Mantis girl kept stealing a glance at him. He knew about her.
There was a thin nanoweave along his wrists. Even by chance, she wasn't going to touch him. He wasn't going to let her.
Absolutely no one else could know what he knew.
The only way they had all been saved was the one three of them had committed to in desperation.
God, he wished he could forget.
. . .
The party went on for hours, the cheer beginning to become something real, the scratchy memories fading faster and being replaced with the sheer weight of being alive. People drifted off, ready to sleep better, ready to see what came next. The kids took off for ice cream at an old timey shop uptown. T'Challa hung back, talking with SHIELD operatives, but eventually he'd slipped away, too. The tower became quieter, save for the sound of Thor snoring softly from a room nearby.
Tony closed the door on the sleeping king, looking around, testing his monitors. No, it was finally peaceful. Don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. He smiled, a real, small, tired smile, and he passed back through the main room where the party had been, and through his lab, and then into a little alcove where he did a lot of his thinky kind of work sometimes, where things could never be overheard.
Stephen Strange was there, like he'd asked.
Both of them had their masks off. Both them were as tired as he was, knowing what he knew, seeing what he had. For the first time in a week, Tony let his armor drop. It was just him, his suit jacket peeling off, an AC/DC tee soaked through at the pits, and he looked worn to the bone. "Nobody's on the trail."
"No," said Strange. "I was afraid of Mantis, but I think she simply doesn't want to know. Most people are just…letting it go."
Loki sat in the seat farthest away from the other two, still keeping himself distant in more ways than one. "So the secret buries itself." He licked his lips, not looking at them. "Experience dictates to me that is rarely the best solution. Conspiracies tend to immolate, and they don't care who they burn."
"But it'll buy time. A season of rest."
A soft sigh exhaled out of Loki at Strange's words. "Time." He stole a single glance at the man, leaving the real question unasked - how much power did the stones still have over them? "What'll that be worth if this all starts over again? All that rest, and for what? Will everyone have learned enough to be stronger next time?"
"I don't know. Would letting everyone remember be better?" Strange's question was sharp-edged. In it was a kind of cruel bribe. If everyone remembered what had really happened to stop Thanos, Loki would look even more like one of the last standing heroes of the final hour. It had cost him just as much as it had cost the other two.
Each of them, the last wall against Thanos's full power, as everyone else lay dead or dying.
The betrayal hadn't been enough to weaken Thanos. More had to happen. And they'd done it - through Strange's powerful connection to Time. Through Loki and his connection to both Reality and Space.
Through Tony, in a suit that let him touch the raw stones without destroying him, as they scrabbled for a chance to twist the full, unleashed power of Infinity away from Thanos.
"No." Because Loki knew it wasn't just them, really. Nebula had been torn apart for that chance - taken the gauntlet away just long enough for them to have an in. Another ruined member of the warlord's warped family, turning on him, as he had. And for that, she was alive now.
She, like the rest, would do better never to remember that. It was the only gift Loki could leave someone that by all rights could - should - kill him.
Because he knew full well what it was like to be dead, and he believed no one else should have to suffer that knowledge. His face was a white mask. "No. But someday someone will ask the questions again."
"Then we consider lying about the answers." Tony said it evenly. He didn't make it sound like he liked the idea - he didn't.
"From a conspiracy to a full on secret society." Loki snorted as Strange put his face in his hands and began to rub, hard.
"That's us. The goddamn Illuminati." Tony didn't care if Loki got the reference. "The three people left in the galaxy that know what really happened, and where the stones are now. And I can't speak to you two, but I would rather die than let anyone else take us to that point again. Make us all look over the precipice at the apocalypse." He inhaled, then let it go again. "I've been carrying it since Sokovia. Maybe in a way I knew something like this was gonna happen since you hit New York."
Bitter - "Do please keep bringing that up."
"But it can't happen again. We gotta move on. We gotta let it all change, let it be as good as it can be for the next generation." He pointed at the room behind him. "Those kids are gonna save us. We're just holding it together until they do. That's all we gotta do. Damn right I will lie to protect their chances."
Loki glanced at Strange again, who still said nothing. "Not your first secret society," he grated, a jab of his own at the whispers that had led to the near-destruction of the human sorcerer colony of Kamar-Taj.
Strange shook his head, letting it hit. "I'm not entirely happy with this one, either."
"Don't have to be. Is there another way to do it?" Tony stared at the two sorcerers in turn. Somehow, someway, he wasn't outnumbered despite the raw math of two on one. He'd finally accepted it - science wasn't everything. So now he was using improbability itself. Hell, it was good enough to save a universe.
Again the silence.
Loki ignored the jut of Tony's chin, stared up at the dead eye of an inoperative security camera. "Lies have a way of mutating, Stark. They slither. They change who they answer to. Ask me, I'd know. If we lie about this now, we have to lie about it always, and we have to know when to change the story." He took a breath, then kept going, slow and even. "Someday others might have to know the secret, if a little, if some shape of it. Which version do they learn? Who initiates them? What happens when the lie betrays us and everything blows apart?"
Tony finally sat down at the table, looking at him. They were good questions, but in the end, it didn't matter. "We'll figure it out. Buying time, big guy. It's all we're doing. We're a patch on a dam, and we know the water's gonna come."
Loki licked his lips. It was his softer way of allowing a defeat. "I'm going to resent having to remain in contact with you two," he said, and he didn't sound resentful.
"Same," said Strange, and he laughed suddenly. It sounded honest, light and alive.
Tony dropped the other bottle of rare, expensive whisky on the table that he'd been keeping ready for this moment. He popped it open, passed it to his right. No glasses. "To the new Illuminati. Keeping the lights off until it's time to confess the end of the world."
Strange took a knock, passed it to his right. "To the damned Illuminati."
Loki held the bottle for a while. Then he drank from it, too. His smile was wry and unpleasant. "To the Illuminati, and to bastard lies saving the day one last time."
"I'll send a Christmas card around." Tony got up from the chair, turning his back on the other two men. "Maybe Easter, too."
The dry snort followed him down the hall, and into a future where everyone lived, and no one had been left behind. For the future of their kids, and the kids after them.
And all it was going to cost was the consciences of three men. At least they could share the weight. Hell, maybe someday they'd even be friends, tied together through this awful thing they were going to do.
Tony didn't sleep well anyway.
. . .
Do not expect too much of the end of the world.
~ Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco
. . .
3/6/2018 - All rights to the usual suspects. Thank you for coming.