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Carbon and Ash

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“Steve?”

Steve turns at the sound of his name. Bucky’s voice should never sound like that, panicked and soft, as if he’s—

Bucky breaks apart as Steve watches, his eyes fixed on Steve’s face until the last second as if Steve is somehow going to fix this, it’s going to be okay, Steve’s never let him down yet, until his eyes go gray and lifeless and he dissolves into slowly spinning fragments of ash.

Steve lowers himself to the forest floor carefully, like the old man Natasha teases him about being. With one gloved finger, he touches the outline of sooty gray ashes, already dissipating on the breeze. The air smells like blood and fire and smoke, choking his throat and stinging his eyes.

Bucky. He shapes the word with his mouth, unsure if he actually says it. Bucky can’t be gone. He looks up, numb, as Natasha kneels beside him, sympathy in her eyes.

“We have to go,” she says.

Steve shakes his head mutely. He’s not leaving Bucky. Not again.

Natasha’s mouth turns down. “People need us, Cap,” she tries, her voice gentle. “Look.”

Against his will, Steve turns and looks down the hill toward the site of the main battle. The attacking ships had scored the earth in huge, deep gouges, scars that gape open to the sky. Smoke rises in black, greasy clouds and bodies—Steve swallows against the nausea. So many bodies, flung to the ground like ragdolls, arms and legs and heads askew. Survivors wander the battlefield, voices overlapping in a ragged melange as they call to each other and for their friends.

They need him. Steve flattens his hand on the ground briefly, and stands.

 

Thor spots Steve from across the field and meets him halfway. Steve’s eyes are bruised, shadows in their clear blue depths, and Thor grips him by the shoulder. Steve blinks as if not fully present.

“I am sorry for your loss,” Thor says, the words feeling childishly inadequate against the tragedy of Steve’s devastation.

But Steve doesn’t laugh at him, or throw the words back in his face. He simply nods. “Yours too,” he says, and somehow he means it.

Thor releases him and steps back. “I have need of your strength,” he says, and Steve follows him to the ship that is listing dangerously over the trench it tore through the earth before coming to a stop. Between the two of them, they drag the vessel back upright so that the doors will open, and Thor raises a brow at Steve.

Steve’s smile is wolfish, a baring of teeth as he sinks into a crouch and Thor opens the door. Three of Thanos’s creatures tumble out and Steve is on them before they can regain their feet. He moves faster than thought, slicing through one, gutting the next, and dropping to one knee to rip the throat from the third.

The creatures’ snarls bubble as blood foams, but then fade into stillness as Steve rises again. He gives Thor a nod and they move through the field shoulder-to-shoulder, dispatching every creature they come across and calling for help for the wounded.

The sympathy in Thor’s eyes is hard to bear, so Steve doesn’t look at him, focusing on triage for those who need it.

A young woman in the Dora Milaje uniform clutches at his wrist. She’s been laid open from shoulder to hip by vicious claws, and Steve swallows back nausea and covers her hand with his own.

“You’ll be alright,” he tells her gently.

Her eyes say she knows he’s lying, but she doesn’t argue. Steve relinquishes her to the medics who join them carrying a stretcher, and rises. His back aches and his eyes burn.

Getting old, Bucky teases him. Steve blinks away tears and turns to find the next person in need of help.

 

——

 

Bucky opens his eyes, or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe they were always open. He doesn’t know. He can’t feel anything. He doesn’t seem to have a body, for that matter. He’ll be upset about that at some point, probably. Right now figuring out where he is seems more important.

Everything is grey. The landscape is shades of grey, charcoal, and black, bushes growing small and stunted close to the ground and blackened trees reaching gnarled branches to the dark sky, and it stretches out endlessly, as far as he can see in every direction.

It doesn’t take him long to realize he’s in the copse where he—his mind stutters away from the word and he looks around again, trying to orient himself. There—that’s where Steve was standing when—

Bucky turns—he does have a body, he realizes, but it’s faintly misty and insubstantial. He can see trees through the hand he raises.

Steve. He can’t speak, Bucky learns quickly, but that doesn’t stop the grief that rips into his chest. He is dead, and Steve is alone. He starts walking blindly, uncaring of his direction. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be a way for him to get back to Steve.

He doesn’t know how long he walks. Hours, or minutes, or days. Time blurs like the branches on the trees. When he finally stops, he looks around and horror slices through him, so sharp he doesn’t feel the pain at first. He hasn’t moved an inch. He’s in the same copse he was in when he woke up.

Bucky goes to his knees. I can’t be here. I have to go back. Steve needs me.

When he looks up, someone is standing above him. Bucky’s eyes travel up over black leather pants, a black and green coat and a pair of broad shoulders, to a jawline of carved marble and icy green eyes.

He's in color, Bucky realizes, and he scrambles to his feet as the man’s eyes narrow.

“Who are you?” His voice is smooth and cool, like rich, sweet cream.

Bucky opens and closes his mouth.

The man makes an irritated noise and snaps his fingers. Bucky grunts as feeling slams into his body—his no longer see-through body, undeniably solid and real again.

“I asked you a question.”

“Bucky—James Buchanan Barnes,” Bucky manages. His voice is cracked and strangled and his throat feels dry as a desert. “Where are we? And who are you?”

The man arches an eyebrow. “I am Loki.” He waits, as though Bucky should know the name, and scowls when Bucky just stares at him uncomprehendingly. “God of mischief? There are entire legends and books and endless stories about me?”

Bucky shrugs. “I didn’t pay much attention in school. Where are we?”

“Well, I’m assuming we’re dead,” Loki snaps, tugging at his cuffs. “At least I know I am, considering that whoreson Thanos put my own knife through my chest.” Something flickers across his expression. Bucky knows that look. He’s felt it enough himself. Grief and regret and deep, yawning loss.

“I’m pretty sure I died too,” he says. “But I think this is Wakanda, or at least… some version of it. You weren’t in the battle, were you?”

Loki shakes his head. “Something pulled me here. I don’t know what, but it was powerful. The last thing I remember was being on our ship, and now I’m here.”

“Is there anyone else?”

“Probably.” Loki sounds supremely disinterested.

“Shouldn’t we look for them? Help them? And why are you in color but everything else is black and white? What’s with that, anyway?”

Loki glances down at himself as if surprised. “I don’t know. Perhaps because I’m a god.”

“Well, if you’re a god, then get us out of here.”

“You think I didn’t try that?” Loki flicks imaginary dust off his sleeve. “I’m stuck here too, apparently.”

“But you gave me back my body, and my voice.” Bucky turns in a circle. The landscape looks the same. “There have to be others. We have to find them. Help them.”

Loki rolls his eyes.

“Maybe one of them can help us get out of here,” Bucky says pointedly, and Loki stills.

“Fine,” he finally says, as if it makes no difference to him.

They find Wanda first, flickering in and out of sight on her knees beside Vision’s motionless body. She’s even fainter than Bucky had been, and Bucky gets the feeling that her grip on the world is even more tenuous than his was.

She looks up, silent words spilling out in a jumble until Loki snaps her fingers and suddenly she’s in color.

“—wake up, I can’t wake him up, help me—”

Loki kneels beside the body, movement fluid and graceful, but shakes his head after a minute. “He’s gone. Look, he’s fading.”

No,” Wanda says, grasping at Vision’s arm, his face, anything she can touch, but her hand sinks through his body and she jerks it back with a horrified expression. “No, Viz, you can’t leave me, please don’t leave me—” But it’s too late. Vision’s body goes misty, then transparent, and then dissipates in tiny fragments as Wanda sobs out loud, burying her face in her hands.

Bucky shifts his weight, not sure what to do. Steve would know. He’d touch her gently on the shoulder and say something comforting and meaningful. Maybe he’d hug her.

He clears his throat. “We need to get out of here. I have a theory.”

Loki stands and brushes off his knees as Wanda follows suit more slowly, tears tracking silver down her face.

“We definitely died,” Bucky says. “But… Vision actually, I mean he—well…. So if he couldn’t be saved, but we’re still here, then maybe—”

There’s confusion on Loki’s face but it clears abruptly. “You think this is like a… a purgatory, perhaps?”

“Yes, that,” Bucky says. “Probably. Not heaven but not hell.”

Loki rolls his eyes at that and mutters something about Christian superstitions under his breath. It doesn’t sound complimentary. But his eyes are thoughtful and he nods abruptly.

Wanda holds her hands out in front of her and a red spark flickers between them, making Loki jump.

“I can’t access my powers properly,” she says, frowning. “I can feel them, but it’s like I can’t reach them, somehow.”

Loki’s focus switches to Bucky. “Do you have powers too?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Unless you count my arm.” He lifts his left arm, feeling the servos whirring inside it, and flexes his fingers.

“Well, if we need to punch something, I’ll let you know.” Loki scowls, the expression somehow not lessening his beauty. “I have to reach Thor.”

“He’s not here,” Wanda says.

“Yes,” Loki snaps, “I know. That’s why I have to reach him. Perhaps he can help.” He mutters under his breath again, but Bucky doesn’t try to understand him.

Loki folds himself to the ground and crosses his legs, closing his eyes.

“What are you doing?” Wanda asks.

Loki opens one eye. “I’m praying.” He closes it again, the message clear. Shut up.

Wanda wipes her face and glances at Bucky, who shrugs.

“Have you seen anyone else?” he asks.

“No,” Wanda says. “There must be more, but I haven’t—”

A wild crashing in the underbrush stops her and they both fall into defensive postures, only to relax when Groot comes stumbling out from the trees. Loki sighs and snaps his fingers.

Groot shakes mud off one foot. “I am Groot.”

“I know,” Loki says, not opening his eyes. “Be quiet, I’m trying to get us out of here.”

“I am Groot,” Groot mutters, but settles down at the edge of the clearing.

“Anyone else?” Loki says, the sarcasm in his voice almost lethal.

A slim young man nearly falls into the clearing. His hair falls into a face still round with youth, eyes big and scared. Loki sighs and snaps his fingers and the young man feels his chest and stomach as if not sure he’s real.

He looks up, fixes on Bucky, and says, “Um.”

“Hello, Peter,” Bucky says.

“H-hi, Bu—Mr. Barnes… Sergeant Barnes, s-sorry, hey, no hard feelings, right? You’re not going to punch me again, are you? Because I can’t shoot any webs right now and you’d probably kick my ass and I really don’t—”

“Relax,” Bucky says, amused in spite of himself. “I think we have bigger problems right now.”

“Yeah, like where are we?” Peter says, craning his neck to look up at the sky. “I was on a completely different planet—is this Earth?”

“I think so,” Bucky says. “Loki’s trying to get us out of here.”

“Can I help?” Peter says earnestly, and Bucky gets the feeling that Peter does everything just as earnestly. It’s sweet, really, and he doesn’t want to see that get crushed, so he clears his throat.

“You can stay back and let us handle things,” he says, voice gruff.

Peter flinches but nods and steps back, ending up near Groot, who waves at him.

“I am Groot.”

“Peter,” Peter says, rubbing his arms through the spandex like he’s cold.

Loki swears viciously in a language that is definitely not from Earth and rolls to his feet. “I can’t reach him,” he snarls.

Someone else steps into the clearing and Bucky doesn’t want to admit to the relief he feels when he recognizes T’Challa.

Even after Loki snaps his fingers, T’Challa’s skin is ashen grey, his eyes haunted. “We are trapped in some sort of mid-world, aren’t we?”

Bucky nods.

“My sister? Nakia?”

“We haven’t seen them,” Wanda offers, and T’Challa closes his eyes briefly and then nods.

“So how do we get home?”

“I was just saying,” Loki snaps, “I need to reach Thor. If anyone can open a gateway back to our world, it’s going to be him.”

There’s a roaring in the air suddenly, like wind howling around them, but no branches are moving. Bucky turns in a circle but sees nothing but the same grey landscape. He turns back just in time to see a rip appear in the air, a jagged slice that widens and expands, and Bucky can see color through it, greens and golds and vivid blue, and he opens his mouth to speak just as Steve steps through the opening.

His eyes find Bucky first, frozen in place, and Steve is moving, saying something, relief and joy on his face but Bucky can’t move, his feet are nailed down and his voice has dried up again. Steve reaches him, pulls him in, tucks Bucky’s face against his throat and holds him, his breathing sharp and ragged.

Bucky finally finds his voice. “Please don’t be dead too,” he whispers.

Steve’s arms tighten and then he pushes Bucky away enough to meet his eyes. “I’m not. I’m not dead, okay? I’m here for you.”

There’s noise behind them, more people coming through the gap, Thor’s voice rising in surprise, Shuri saying something, but all Bucky can see are Steve’s blue eyes fixed on his, that lovely, open, honest face that always showed every emotion he ever felt. Right now there was relief on it, but also apprehension.

“Buck?”

Bucky opens his mouth to tell Steve he shouldn’t be there, that it isn't safe, that he—Bucky—is dead and Steve shouldn’t have risked himself coming to find him. Instead what comes out is, “I love you.”

The apprehension on Steve’s face melts into joy and he reels Bucky back in and then they’re kissing and it’s strange and unfamiliar and yet somehow the most right thing Bucky’s ever done, Steve’s mouth warm and his breath sweet and oh, the little noises he makes—

Thor slaps Bucky on the shoulder and they jolt apart. Steve says something rude under his breath and Bucky glares, but Thor is grinning and doesn’t seem to notice.

“You brought my brother back to me,” he says, and sweeps Bucky into a hug.

Bucky makes a muffled noise, pretty sure he’s being suffocated, but allows it, mostly because he can see Steve out of the corner of his eye and the big blond idiot is smiling through his tears.

Finally, Thor releases him and clears his throat. “Alright now,” he says. “Through the portal, single-file.”

They obey, and Bucky steps onto green grass under a sky so blue his eyes hurt. He shields them, looking around. They’re still on the battlefield, corpses of the monsters that attacked them littering the ground, smoke rising from several places where they’ve been piled into a sloppy pyre and set alight.

Steve is right beside him.

“How?” Bucky asks.

“It was Shuri’s idea,” Steve said. “She thought there was a chance that the dead weren’t fully gone, but instead in a sort of liminal space. It took some doing, but Thor used Stormbreaker to tear the veil. He says he can repair it, too, but I missed most of how, I was busy worrying about you.”

“We have to get the rest,” Bucky said, but Steve caught his arm.

“We will,” he said. “Thor’s on it, okay? And he’s got Loki—he can help. Will you—” He stops and starts, mouth working. “Stay with me?” he asks.

Bucky steps in close. Steve smells like smoke and blood and grease, hair in his face and soot marks on his skin, and Bucky reaches up, cupping the back of Steve’s neck with his real hand, curving his fingers over the bumps of vertebra.

“Always,” he whispers, and pulls him down into a kiss.