Gambit Declined

Summary: Tony offers to sacrifice his life in order to defeat Thanos. Nebula refuses.

Chapter 1

The sight of Thanos fades into the background as Nebula's eyes lock onto Tony.

The sounds of the ongoing battle echo in her ears – the battle cries of allies, the inhuman screeches of the vermin fighting for Thanos and the whir of Leviathans spreading destruction from the skies. The only sound louder is the blood pumping through Nebula's veins. It pounds in her ears like a wardrum.

"Tony," she whispers, and, breaking out into a run, she shouts, "Tony!"

Neither he nor Thanos seem to hear her. The Gauntlet shines golden on Thanos' hand and the fighting around them halts.

"I am inevitable."

There are no gems gleaming among the gold and Thanos doesn't realize it. He snaps.

Nothing happens.

Time seems to come to a standstill.

Tony pants, the strain of the fight catching up with his fragile, human body. The glove of his armor – unremarkable compared to the one Thanos wears and built by unremarkable, human hands – shines with the colors of the universe.

"And I..."

Four brave morons sharing the brunt of the power stone almost died when they used it against Ronan. There are six stones, and Tony has them all. He's alone.

"... am..."

He won't survive it. He'll die, letting the power of the infinity stones surge through his body in order to end it all.

"... Iron Man."

Tony sets his fingers in a snap and Nebula launches herself forward.

There's metal pressed against her body and a bright light. Pain. All consuming pain and Tony's gasp sounding breathless in her ears, power coursing through her body, burning through her veins like liquid fire.

Nebula tightens her grip around Tony and screams.

She wakes to the feeling of ash on her skin and thinks, Not again.

Their loss on Titan was devastating. The years that followed were worse. Ash in the air, on their skin, in their lungs, ash where the Guardians had stood and the sorcerer and the kid. Only Nebula and Tony on a barren planet, drifting through space, wasting away. Mourning. Scheming.

Nebula pries open her eyes in time to watch Thanos disintegrate and dares to hope.

She looks at Tony and hope warps into dread.

She thinks that her mouth is moving but no sound escapes. Her lips taste like blood and burnt flesh.

She tries again to call his name and fails and decides to concentrate on her legs rather than her vocal cords. One of them is gone. The other is charred down to its pain receptors. She crawls instead, using her semi functioning arm to claw her way forward inch by inch.

She reaches Tony at the same time that Steve finds them both.

"Tony," he whispers, standing frozen in place. Useless.

Nebula ignores him and claws her spasming hand into the hem of Tony's armor. It's torn open or melted or both, dented in some places and scorched black in others. One half of his face is blistered and Nebula can't tell whether the injuries underneath the suit are superficial or deadly.

If she had control over her body, she'd check for herself.

"Tony," Steve whispers again, more frantic. "No. Tony."

Nebula tries to get her voice to work. A growl is all that she manages, closely followed by an almost feral sounding, "Do something."

Half of Nebula's body is falling to pieces. The stench of scorched wires and melted metal burns in her nose. Nebula musters all the energy she has left – perhaps the leftovers of the infinity stones' power flowing through her body – and shouts, "Do something! He's alive!"

Steve looks at her and stumbles forwards. Pepper is faster and breaks out into a run mere seconds after her armor touches the ground. Rhodey is right behind her.

"Tony," she breathes, stumbling out of her suit and to Tony's side. She has to navigate around Nebula to do so, and Nebula can't bring herself to care. "Tony."


Tony's voice is weak and Nebula hates the sound of it. They survived the end of the world together. They survived the endlessness of space. They survived years in a hopeless, bitter version of reality and yet, they came out swinging.

Who has the nerve to tell them that this is the end for the both of them? For either of them?

Nebula coughs in a grovelling, harsh sound that feels like glass shards in her throat. The missing pieces of her body are making themselves known. Nebula's control circuit is screaming at her to power down and conserve energy – or else letting her know that she reached the end of her existence.

"What happened?" Rhodey asks on Tony's other side, his voice both sharp and trembling. His eyes wander towards Nebula and he can't hide the horror in his gaze. Nebula's mutilated body must make a horrendous sight.

She almost wants to tell him that it isn't a big deal – almost her entire body is replaceable – but her voice seems to have stopped working again. She shivers and wonders which part of her had been damaged to cause the malfunction.

"He used the stones," Steve says, his brows set in a firm line. His eyes twitch over to Nebula. "They did. She... They... Tony took the stones and did the Snap. Nebula shared the backlash."

Tony's head perks up at the sentence, glassy eyes struggling to focus on Nebula. "Nebula..."

"Shut up."


"Save your breath," Nebula snaps, and she hisses at the pain it sends coursing through her body. She'll kill him herself if Tony survives the backlash of the stones only to die through overexertion afterwards.

"FRIDAY. Diagnosis, now." Pepper's voice trembles as she speaks the words. She wrings her hands in the need to reach out to Tony but doesn't know where to touch that won't make it worse.

"Vital signs are deteriorating rapidly," FRIDAY says. "Condition is critical but not yet terminal."

"In other words," Nebula forces out through clenched teeth, "quit dawdling and move!" She's screaming out the last bit and exerts the last of her energy.

There's no more talking. Steve reaches forward to pull Nebula off of Tony – mumbling empty apologies as Nebula's pain receptors flare up in agony – and Rhodey heaves Tony into his arms, armor and all.

Tony's lips are moving but Nebula can no longer make out the words. Rhodey keeps whispering, "You did it. We won. You did it, Tones," and other meaningless chatter as he breaks out into a sprint as quickly as the burden in his arms allows him to.

Pepper flies ahead of them, perhaps hunting down some sort of medical aid.

Steve stays behind. His hands hover over Nebula's body. "Nebula. Nebula, you need to tell me how to help you. How bad is it?"

Nebula doesn't muster the strength to answer. Tony is taken care of and Nebula lets go.

There's darkness and pain, satisfaction at their victory and guilt at its cost. Thanos' demise plays on repeat in Nebula's head, years and years of longing, of yearning for revenge wrapped up in a single moment.

Tony's death follows Thanos' more often than it does not. Nebula can't bring herself to decide whether it is worth it.

Nebula dreams.

And lives.

And wakes.

"I didn't think you'd make it," are her words of greeting upon opening her eyes. Rocket isn't looking at her but sits nearby and in a comfortable position that suggests he's been there for a long while.

Nebula pushes herself up on limbs that feel foreign and strange. They work, which is enough.

"Where's Tony?" she rasps, taking in her surroundings with a fleeting glance. It isn't worth any more of her attention than what is necessary to determine that Tony isn't there.

Her eyes linger on the Guardians sleeping in one corner of the room – Gamora among them – but she forces herself to move on. Later.

"We won, in case you're interested."

"I know," Nebula growls. "I was there." She felt their 'victory' burning away half of her body. She needs to find out what it did to Tony.

Rocket grunts in acknowledgement. "Thanks for that, I guess." He turns towards the door and Nebula is tempted to try out the weapon systems of her new arms in his direction. (She doubts there are any. She already hates them.)

Rocket throws a glance over his shoulder and says, "You coming or what? He's this way."

Nebula almost stumbles in her hurry to follow along.

Tony looks better than the last time Nebula saw him. He still looks like he's on the verge of death.

Gray skin stands in contrast to white bandages. The Avengers-themed blanket somebody threw over him looks almost offensively colorful in comparison.

Pepper sleeps in an armchair next to his bed, her hair an unkempt mess and wearing clothes that look as though she wore them underneath her battle armor.

The kid – Peter – sits in a corner with a much younger child, playing some sort of silly game.

A news report is shown hovering above the bed, depicting footage of the battle and the aftermath. Images of Tony keep flashing over the screen, in his armor, without it, during the battle and being carried away afterwards. He looks like a corpse. The public is in a frenzy.

"All stations are showing the same," Rhodey mutters without looking up. His eyes twitch back and forth between the screen and Tony in an almost convulsive gesture. "The public hasn't seen anything of him besides that footage. Most think he died."

Looking at Tony now, Nebula can't blame them. If it wasn't for the mild shifting of the blanket to the rhythm of Tony's breathing, she might have come to believe the same.

"It's you!" Peter jumps to his feet and stands in front of Nebula in an instant. "Everybody says you saved him! He almost died when he saved us, but he didn't, because of you!"

He looks as though he's seconds away of hugging Nebula. Nebula shies away with a glare. He grabs for her hand instead and holds on tightly. "Thank you so much! If it wasn't for you, he... Mr. Stark would have..."

He beams, but his eyes are wet. Nebula doesn't know what to say, so she doesn't say anything at all.

"Thank you," Peter repeats, tightening his grip around her hand. "Thank you so much."

Nebula has always been horrible at dealing with sentimentalities. She squeezes Peter's hand briefly and pulls away. He doesn't stop her when she steps closer to Tony's bed.

"How is he," she says, for some reason failing to raise her voice in a question.

"He'll live," Pepper replies, evidently having woken from her exhaustion-induced nap. Her words lift a weight off of Nebula's shoulders and she closes her eyes in a moment of indulgence. "His injuries run deep, but... he'll live. He's gonna recover." She says it although she needs to convince herself of the fact.

Nebula steps around Pepper. Nobody stops her when she sits down besides Tony. Nebula leans back against the wooden frame of the bed and waits.

A/N: There's gonna be three parts of this. The next is going to be from Tony's POV.

Writing this did wonders to soothe my grief after Endgame. Enjoy!

Beta'd by the wonderful To Mockingbird and PyrothTenka!

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