Been There, Blown That Up
Summary: After Loki's defeat and his fall from the portal, Tony starts preaching about a murderous purple titan out to get them in the depths of space.
On the other side of the universe, Nebula loses her cool approximately two seconds after laying eyes on Thanos and finds herself on a wild chase through the galaxy. Now, where exactly was that pathetic piece of rock Terra again?
Tony startled awake and spared himself the fate of slumping sideways and faceplanting onto his kitchen floor.
He looked around the darkened room blearily in an attempt to puzzle together what he'd been doing. A half-eaten sandwich was on the table next to a massive (tragically empty) coffee mug. Leftover bandages and other supplies were scattered across the table. His phone had dropped onto the ground – maybe that was what had woken him up.
While Tony was busy eyeing his surroundings like a particularly sleep-deprived zombie, JARVIS had the consideration to turn on the lights at a non-retina-destroying level.
"J," Tony muttered, dragging a hand over his face and suppressing a yawn. "What time is it?"
"Just past 4am, Sir."
Tony hadn't looked at a watch in hours, so he couldn't tell how long he'd been dozing. "Wonderful."
He cast his phone a passing glance and decided to leave it where it was. If the call had been important, whoever had been on the other line was welcome to call again (and listen to the lovely voicemail he'd recorded with DUM-E's help). If they were important to Tony, JARVIS would just redirect the call.
He heaved himself up from his seat and winced as the movement pulled at his injuries. They weren't life-threatening, but not exactly minor either, and Tony was under strict orders to have someone check on them at least every couple hours.
"Would you like me to call for assistance?" JARVIS asked.
"Nah, it's fine." Tony tugged up his shirt and took a glance at the bandages. So far they hadn't bled through. "Just sore. I'll have someone help me change them in the morning."
The hours after a drawn-out battle were odd. Time didn't exist. Everybody moved in a haze of exhaustion and leftover adrenaline, and in between dressing wounds and making phone calls – ensuring that family and friends had gotten out in one piece – nobody really had the energy to do anything else.
They'd spent months preparing for this day, and Tony found it hard to believe that it'd had come and passed without a single casualty on their side. The evacuation had gone off without a hitch. The team had worked together gorgeously, longtime friends and new acquaintances alike. Thanos was dead, and much of the suffering he'd caused them the first time had been prevented.
They'd reached their goal, and now the fighting was over... right? They'd taken care of everything along the way – everything they'd known of, everything they could have possibly prevented. Why did it feel like the other shoe had yet to drop?
"How's the timeline looking?" Tony asked, tearing himself out of his thoughts and not knowing how long he'd been standing around motionlessly.
"There are a few unknown variables neither you nor Miss Nebula have sufficient information on," JARVIS said. "Namely the time in between Mr. Banner's disappearance in Sokovia and his reappearance in New York two years later, as well as the happenings in Wakanda and those concerning Miss Van Dyne and Mr. Lang."
Tony hadn't known T'Challa, Scott and Hope well or long enough to know what they'd been up to without them. When the Hulk had catapulted himself into space after Sokovia, nobody'd known what he'd gotten up to until he'd crashed into the Sanctum bearing the news of Thanos' arrival.
"Other than those," JARVIS continued when Tony didn't reply, "there are no open threats recorded in my data banks."
"Which doesn't mean that there aren't any. Just that Nebula and I didn't know about them. Or that we hadn't lived through them yet."
"Perhaps so," JARVIS said. "Nevertheless, you've just saved billions of lives. Perhaps it is time for a little rest."
"Rest, huh?" Tony tried to see himself relax after months – perhaps years – of constant vigilance and found that he couldn't do it.
In many ways, the past months had been easier than anything he'd known for at least a decade in the old timeline. He knew for a fact that Nebula felt the same way. But there'd always been the knowledge at the back of his mind that if he failed – failed to bring together the team, failed to stay ahead – they were all in danger of being plunged right back into the disaster of a reality they'd left behind.
"Easier said than done," Tony muttered. There was no switch he could flip to shed the tension he'd brought over from his first life.
Tony made himself steer towards the common area. Wandering around the tower in the dark was still better than barricading himself in the empty kitchen.
Tony heard the snoring long before he stepped foot into the room. He couldn't tell who was louder: Rocket or Drax – both buried in a small mountain of blankets and the rest of their team sprawled out around them.
Everybody else was too exhausted to be troubled by the noise. Most Avengers hadn't bothered to drag themselves into their rooms and were now piled up on the various couches, armchairs or simply on the floor.
Tony contemplated asking JARVIS whether he'd saved pictures from all angles (one needed to seize blackmail opportunities when one saw them) when Natasha's eyes peeled open and squinted at him sleepily.
She raised an arm – and her blanket – in a clear invitation to snuggle down in between her and Sam. (Tony wondered how he could possibly sleep while Clint's elbow poked into his back the way it did. He wondered even more how Clint managed to perch on the back of the couch without rolling off in his sleep.)
Tony hesitated, simultaneously feeling like he could sleep for a day and like he wouldn't be able to keep his eyes closed if he tried. He shook his head and mouthed 'later'. By the time he'd turned around and headed towards the exit, Natasha's eyes had already fallen shut again.
Tony had barely made it out into the hall before quite literally bumping into Carol.
"Can't sleep?" Tony noted Carol's jacket and the small backpack slung over her shoulders. "You don't look like you're planning to stick around."
"I'm not." Carol paused, and she looked at him as though he was a piece of a particularly tricky puzzle.
Tony couldn't blame her. She'd only met him earlier that day (or the day before, seeing as it was already morning) and her only prior impression of him was as the guy who'd somehow messaged her in space and bullied her into reconnecting with her old spy buddy.
Speaking of which:
"We're checking up on an old friend." Fury stepped next to Carol with a bag of his own.
"She's fine," Carol elaborated. "She doesn't live in New York. But it's been a long time."
"Too long," Fury agreed.
Tony didn't know either of them well enough to begin to guess who they were talking about. He could only assume that it was an acquaintance of theirs from the time they'd first met.
"Sure." Tony took a step to the side to free the hallway. "You're always welcome at the tower. Our doors are open." He paused. "It'd be a shame to have to say goodbye already. Who knows when you're gonna be back on the planet."
Carol's eyes flickered to the side and back to Tony, almost as though she was trying hard not to steal a glance at Fury. "We'll see." She shouldered her backpack up from where it had slid down. When she next spoke, her voice was softer than before. "Thank you. For the offer, and... everything."
Her lips curved into a smile, small and hesitant. Tony returned it easily, hoping she would take him up on the offer eventually. Carol seemed to take a little time to warm up to people, and Tony would hate to see her leave before they had that chance.
He watched the two of them go and hoped that it wouldn't be too long until they met again.
Something occurred to Tony on his way to the penthouse, and he faltered in his steps.
"The kids aren't back yet, right?"
"Not yet, Sir."
As soon as they'd realized where the battle would take place, they'd sent Shuri, Peter and his aunt to stay with family of Ned's – upstate and far away from danger. Had the invasion spread without them being able to stop it, Tony wouldn't have hesitated to stick them all on the next plane to Wakanda.
"All three of them have voiced the desire to return to the tower as soon as they are allowed. As has Mr. Keener, although he has reluctantly agreed to settle for a video call in the morning to, quote, 'make sure that nobody kicked the bucket while he was stuck watching the news reports back home'."
Tony huffed a laugh. "I guess I'll manage to squeeze a video call into my schedule." If he didn't, Harley would likely try to find a way from Tennessee to New York by himself – one that would undoubtedly end with Tony having to send a private jet to pick him up and all around more work for him.
"Remind me if I haven't taken care of it by 9."
Tony entered the penthouse. The sky was still dark – it would be another two hours at least until sunrise – and behind the glass door, Tony saw a lone figure sitting at the edge of his balcony.
Nebula looked up to the stars when Tony stepped outside, and she didn't turn her head when he took a seat next to her. The ceramic tiles underneath his palms were icy to the touch, the air around them crisp and making his eyes water.
New York was too bright to spot more than a handful of stars even on a clear day, but Nebula didn't seem to mind. She'd declined the makeshift prosthesis a half-awake Tony had offered her and leaned back on her sole remaining arm.
"What are you going to do now?" Tony asked, breaking the silence between them as gently as he managed.
The only reason Nebula had come to Earth at all was so that they could pool their resources and beat Thanos together. Now that he was gone, Tony wasn't sure how much longer Nebula would want to stay.
She was silent for a long while. The fever-bright shine of her eyes had dimmed. "I don't know."
Tony bit his lip, trying not to let her aimlessness get to him. Everything in Nebula's life had resolved around Thanos – at first in the form of her loyalty towards him, then in her goal to take him down and get her revenge. With both of that gone, what was left?
"You know," Tony said, the words oddly heavy on his tongue, "I'm sure your sister would be happy to have you. You've been getting along with her team."
"She already offered."
Tony's heart sank. "Oh. That's... great! I'm glad." He paused. "Are you going to accept?"
Nebula stayed silent.
It was difficult to guess what Nebula was thinking while she wasn't looking at him. Tony didn't know whether she needed – or wanted – help making her decision, or whether she'd come here to be alone. She didn't tell him to leave, so Tony stayed.
"For what it's worth," he said eventually, "there'll always be a place for you on Earth."
Nebula didn't answer. New York spread out before them – empty apart from a few people braving the streets on foot. Almost everything was still blocked off from the battle. Tony had never seen the city this peaceful before.
Nebula didn't need to say anything. Tony'd made his offer – as had Gamora. There were other options, too: a universe full of choices that had nothing to do with Thanos or Nebula's need to break free of him.
Whatever would happen next, it was for Nebula to decide on her own.
It had been five years, two months and forty six minutes since Nebula had pierced Thanos' heart and stopped his pitiful existence, and still she seemed to have nothing better to do in her spare time than loiter around soft, primitive Terra.
She supposed that compared to her prior life, it was a sad yet infinite improvement. (The company definitely was.)
"Shuri asked about you, you know?" Peter said over the coms, picking up his unfortunate habit of uninterrupted chattering. "She's gonna come to America for a visit soon – Ned's already on board, and Harley's trying to make it work around the same time, wish us luck – and you seriously gotta get a phone until then, or Shuri's gonna make you."
"Spider-Man," Nebula said. "Concentrate."
"Right! Yes. My bad."
Nebula crawled her way through the ventilation shafts and trusted Peter to do the same from the other side of the building. There was a faint light ahead of her – she was almost at the destination.
Two minutes of silence were evidently plenty.
"Speaking of phones, do you think you could take a look at mine? I know that's not your specialty, but I dropped it on patrol and I really don't want to bother Mr. Stark about it again."
Peter's voice kept lowering in volume, suggesting that he was getting closer to their target. By the time Nebula was atop the entrance hall, he'd fallen silent entirely. They were no longer alone.
The doors on both sides of the room were flanked by armed humans. Civilians sat on the floor, hugging each other and hiccuping muffled cries.
"Do you have visuals on the hostages?" Nebula murmured, just loud enough that Peter would hear.
"I'm in the southeast corner."
Nebula turned her head. On the other side of the room she saw a vaguely humanoid shape hugging the shadows above a large window.
"Good. We will strike together and take out the hostiles before–"
"So um, Nebula." Tony's voice rang over the coms. Nebula winced at its volume. "Quick question, don't want to make accusations, but you didn't bring Peter along to the hostage situation, did you?"
There was a pause.
"Now!" Nebula called, and she let herself drop from the ceiling while Peter flung himself into action.
Nebula had taught him well, and the fight was over within only a couple of minutes. The goons were all strung up in Peter's web and the hostages secured. Nebula and Peter didn't stick around after the police stormed in.
"That was so awesome!" Peter swung through the city next to Nebula's small glider, his voice thrilled. "Mr. Stark, did you see us on the news?"
"You mean did I see you two take on a hostage situation when Nebula was supposed to take you on a light, harmless workout in the city?"
Nebula suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. "I wouldn't have taken him with me if I'd known he wasn't ready."
"That's not what– We talked about this, you can't just–" Tony broke off in a heavy sigh. "You're the one who's gonna take it up with the kid's aunt, not me."
"I think you're overreacting." Steve piped into the conversation as though he'd been a part of it from the start. "Peter didn't get his powers yesterday. I think you can afford to cut him some slack."
"Have you been listening this entire time?" Tony asked.
A different voice cut in. "Ain't the kid strong enough to lift a bus by himself?"
"Exactly. See? Bucky gets me."
"That's not the– Look, super strength doesn't equal bulletproof, okay?" There was a pause. "Wait, was it you two who turned off Peter's practice mode in the training rooms?!"
"I told you it wasn't me!" Peter cried.
"You weren't complaining at the time."
"Oh, hey Nat," Steve said. "When did you get back?"
"Okay, if one more person shows up, I'm closing this com line," Tony said. "Do none of you have anything better to do?"
"Have you not also been listening in, doing nothing?" Nebula pointed out.
"Excuse you. I've been working my ass off over here, trying to–"
"Relax, honey. She's two. It's scientifically proven that kids only start remembering stuff from age three upwards."
"She doesn't need to remember who it's from to learn the word," Pepper muttered.
"Morgan's there?" Peter's delighted voice rang over the com line. "Hey there, Morgan!"
Nebula felt a fierce spark of emotion at the mention of Tony's and Pepper's daughter. Tony called it 'affection'. Nebula called it 'the violent urge to slaughter everybody who so much as touched a hair on her perfect, fragile head'.
"Don't waste your breath," Tony said. "She's cranky because Thor woke her up from her nap."
Nebula narrowed her eyes. She made a mental note to have a talk with Thor.
Peter kept swinging towards the tower beside her. "Thor came back? Was Loki with him?"
"I don't think so." Tony paused. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh! Nevermind. It's nothing."
"Don't even try it. Didn't we agree not to have unsupervised interactions with him anymore?"
"I never agreed to that," Peter muttered.
Tony's voice took on a strict tone. "Do I have to remind you of the bully incident in sixth grade?"
"Mr. Stark," Peter whined. "That was ages ago."
"And yet May still brings it up whenever she's mad at me about something."
It wasn't much longer until they arrived at the tower. Peter excused himself almost immediately to finish some of his homework, although he called after Nebula to ask whether she wanted to join a video call with his friends later.
"Don't forget you promised to come to the workshop for some repairs," Tony yelled all the way from the living room.
"Fine," Nebula called, answering both.
She managed to enter her room without another person holding her back. Nebula liked spending time at the tower – she really did. But at times the sheer amount of people attempting to socialize could be overwhelming.
They knew not to bother her in her room.
Nebula plucked her communicator from her bed – her own, interplanetary device, not the flimsy thing Tony had given her to communicate with the team – and she checked it for messages she'd missed.
There was one from the Guardians. Nebula didn't waste time calling them back.
Rocket's face popped up on the display. "There you are," he muttered. "We tried calling earlier."
"I took the kid out for some training," Nebula said. "He has improved much since the last time you've seen him."
"Oh?" Rocket's eyes gained a spark of interest. "That's awesome. It's about time we got to take him and his little friends along on a trip." He shook his head and let out a huff. "Can you believe it? Almost adults, and they've never been to space before. It's not healthy, being on a planet this long."
Nebula could say for certain that several people would offer vehement protests. She'd never understood the human need to shelter their young from any and all experiences that could serve as learning opportunities.
She didn't say so out loud. It was an argument Rocket could fight for himself.
"Why have you called?" she asked instead.
"Right. We're in the area, just about finishing up a job. We'll pop up for a visit afterwards. You gonna come with?"
Nebula had been on Terra for several months. It was longer than usual – although she'd stayed for even longer periods before. Travelling with her sister and her team was almost as irritating in the long term as the tower was – the trick was to figure out the right balance so she wouldn't lose her mind through excessive exposure.
Nebula hadn't yet managed to make up her mind when Quill's voice rang in from the background. "Rocket! Are you chatting right now?!"
"So what?" Rocket turned his head. "If you've got someone to call, pick a different channel."
Quill's voice gained in volume "You're driving! Eyes forward, genius!"
Rocket rolled his eyes but turned back. "I gotta go. Seems like I've got a wimp sitting in the backseat."
"Wait, is that Nebula? Dude, tell her what we stole from that arms dealer!"
"Do you want me to focus on steering or keep chatting?! Make up your mind, man!"
Nebula made the decision for them and cut the com line. She couldn't quite tell whether the call made her more or less likely to take the Guardians up on their offer.
She changed the channel of her communicator to the one she shared specifically with Gamora.
'Rocket delivered your message,' she wrote, and hesitated. She settled on a curt, 'I will come with you once you arrive.'
She put down her communicator on the table beside her bed. Right beside it stood the small music box Shuri and Harley had put together during a science binge that had consisted of three sleepless nights and days.
On the windowsill to the right was an Airilian plant, brought back from one of the Guardians' trips – a flower that bloomed for roughly four Terran years.
Nebula's eyes strayed further. There was the plastic figure that was supposed to be her – a piece of a special Avengers edition Peter and Ned had stood two hours in line for.
There was more. Sentimental clutter and useless junk strewn around her room with no other purpose than to serve as a reminder of her achievements in life. Pictures decorated the walls, a myriad of colors and memories – Terrans seemed almost addicted to record all the major and minor experiences in their life.
Nebula felt like after all this time, she finally started to understand the point of it. Her room in the tower felt hers more than anything else in her life ever had. She wasn't even living in it the whole time, but it was always there when she returned. Hers, and nobody else's.
"Apologies." JARVIS tore her out of her thoughts. "Dinner is almost served. I have been asked to extend an invitation."
Nebula narrowed her eyes. "Who cooked?"
"It was Miss Mantis' turn today." He paused. "She has done her very best to recreate a foreign recipe with the ingredients Earth cuisine had to offer."
Nebula relaxed, assured that acceptance of the invitation would not end in food poisoning. She didn't trust even half the inhabitants of the tower with so much as a wooden spoon. "I'll come."
She paused, her gaze lingering on her wall of pictures. The first of them – a blurry picture of herself sitting in Tony's workshop, scowling into the camera next to DUM-E – had been pinned onto it by Tony as a joke. Other pictures had joined, and soon other people started to follow Tony's lead.
By the time Nebula had realized that it wasn't a normal Terran tradition (no other room in the tower had pictures plastered across its walls like tapestry) it had already been too late.
"Are you quite well?" JARVIS asked when after several minutes Nebula had yet to move.
She tore her eyes away for good, knowing it would be there for her once she returned. "I'm fine."
Nebula was more than fine. She had a place to call her home and people to call her friends – perhaps even family. The shadow Thanos had cast over her life had long since faded. That above else – shaking off the taints of his legacy, of the life that had Thanos standing at its center – felt like her truest, final triumph.
All the times in her life that Nebula had tried picturing victory, she'd never imagined it tasting quite this sweet.
A/N: Well. That's it folks.
Thank you so much for sticking around to the end. :) This is the first longer story of mine I've finished, and it's an absolutely amazing feeling. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did!
One last gigantic thanks to my amazing betas - I love you guys to bits, and without you I'd have likely given up on writing long before I reached this point. So, to To Mockingbird, Igornerd and PyrothTenka - thank you!