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Watch Our Souls Fade Away

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"He did it."

The words feel like bile lodged in Nebula's throat; her voice appropriately lifeless as the weight of her failure rests firmly on her shoulders.

There's no response, not that she expects one. Titan has been still since the child faded to ash in Stark's arms, as though the universe itself is frozen in horror over what has transpired. Any acknowledgement Stark could offer is suppressed as he closes his eyes and brings bloodied hands to his face, and Nebula turns away when observing his silent grief starts to feel inappropriate.

She keeps her head to the ground and surveys the empty spaces where the Guardians stood only moments before. There's nothing left to show that they were ever there; even the ash has been carried away by the breeze. The sight causes something to twinge uncomfortably in her chest - something sharp and unrecognisable - and for one sickening moment she wonders if this it. If she too will fade, leaving the grieving human alone on an unfamiliar planet.

Seconds pass. The pain doesn't subside but nonetheless she remains solid, and Nebula wonders if she should be grateful for that. Perhaps it's impossible for Thanos's purge to claim her. There's so little left of the girl she once was that it's doubtful she's even truly alive in the first place.

Her gaze eventually settles on an area of scattered ash coating the ground beneath her feet, and the phantom sensation of bile returns to her throat. She tries to remember who it might have been. Mantis or Quill, perhaps. They'd been standing together near the end; Nebula can remember all too well the girl's panicked warning before she'd faded to nothing in Quill's arms; remembers the confusion on his and Drax's faces before they too had been taken.

A foolish idea grips her then.

She could collect what little remains of the Guardians to provide them with something resembling a proper burial. Perhaps she could also travel to Vormir and find what remains of Gamora – if there is anything left – so she too can be laid to rest.

Such sentiment is unlike her. Thanos beat that softness out of her long ago and replaced everything he could with cold metal, yet Nebula can still feel the ghost of Gamora's hand against her cheek and the pain of loss burns so fiercely she's surprised she doesn't scream. Physical pain is a familiar companion, but this gnawing emptiness is something she is woefully unprepared for.

She turns away before she can indulge in childish sentiment. Gamora is gone, along with her family. They are unable to care what happens to them now, and Nebula has far more pressing concerns than burying her dead.

It's hard to tell how long it's been by the time she returns to Stark's side. Titan is a frozen shadow of its former self – for all she knows they've been here for days – and the man has barely moved since she left him. Bloodied, trembling hands have drifted to his chest while haunted eyes stare out to the wastes beyond, and when she looks closer she can see ash coating his hands and face.

The boy, she thinks with something that might be regret. She can still hear his pleas, the way he'd begged not to be taken even as his body started crumbling from within.

Nebula is no stranger to watching children die. Her own childhood was spent living under the constant threat of it, but it's not a sight she ever got used to. She supposes that's for the best. Accepting such horrors would make her almost as monstrous as the man who raised her.

"We can't stay here," she mutters, her voice quieter than intended. Stark must hear her, however, if his small flinch is any indication. He turns hesitantly, perhaps only now realising that she hasn't vanished as well; as though the preceding seconds have been spent under the certainty that he is the last man in the universe. She can't quite determine if his expression betrays relief at being proven wrong, or sorrow over seeing her beside him rather than the boy he lost. "The remaining stone was on Earth. Going there is our best chance of finding Thanos."

It's a lie and she knows it. Thanos surely has all of the Infinity Stones now, and there is nothing else tying him to Earth. By the time they reach the planet, her father will likely be basking in his victory in some forgotten corner of the galaxy. And yet, she knows there's no other option.

Neither of them have anywhere else to go.

Stark doesn't respond, not that she expected him to. Unfazed by his silence, she extends a hand and watches him consider it for a moment before taking it in his; sweat and blood and ash staining the cool metal of her fingers. It becomes painfully clear as he tries to stand that his wound is a debilitating one, no matter how expertly he hides his agony behind a silent wince. No matter. She's strong enough to hold him upright with a hand around his waist - his free hand coming to rest over the sealed wound at his side - and together they half-walk, half-stumble towards the deserted ship that was once her sister's home.

The home of a family who will never step foot there again.

Nebula supposes they wouldn't protest to her stealing it even if they were capable of doing so, and the thought only serves to make the void within her feel all the more profound.


The ship has managed to escape relatively unscathed following the carnage on Titan, which must be their first stroke of luck all day. The odd scrape and dent littering the exterior had made Nebula doubtful, but after she clumsily guides Stark to a pilot's chair and starts up the engines, the Benatar comes to life without complaint. Nebula thinks she spots a spark of life in Stark's eyes as they lift off and surge towards the atmosphere with a burst of speed, but the dullness returns before Titan is even a miniscule speck at their backs. She supposes she must look as he does, although she no longer has the option of crying.

Stark continues to say nothing, though she's in no hurry to initiate conversation either, and the silence in what must have been a rowdy ship only serves to strike home how empty the universe is now.

As soon as Earth's co-ordinates are entered into the navigational systems, Nebula activates the auto-pilot and abandons the Captain's chair in search of... well, anything. Resources mainly. Her weapons lie damaged and useless thousands of miles behind her, but it doesn't take long to locate the Guardians' impressive stash of grenades, blasters, and cannons. Discarded clothes and half-eaten snacks litter the entire ship, but Nebula ignores them as she tracks down the store-cupboards and quickly takes stock. There's enough food and water to last several weeks, though the thought of eating turns her stomach, and with some further digging she's able to detect a medical kit behind something that looks suspiciously like a bomb. She hurriedly selects a half-empty bottle of painkillers labelled as 'Terran-friendly' (the fox's doing, she presumes) and a scanner, before taking them back to the flight-deck and swiping a bottle of water en-route.

"Take these. They'll help with the pain," she instructs before dumping the medication onto Stark's lap and returning to her seat. She doesn't observe him long enough to see whether he obeys her or not, her attention stolen by the device in her hands. The scanner is stuck on the wrong setting, but she quickly adapts it to assess Terran biology before lazily aiming it in Stark's direction.

As soon as the results appear she begins to wonder why she even bothered. His blood pressure's too low and his heart-rate too high if the flashing numbers are to be believed, but she has no idea what to do with that information. Her specialty lies in tearing men apart rather than fixing them after all.

She can deal with it later. The scanner may not be happy with its assessment but Stark is hardly seconds from death either, so she sets the device aside and shoves water at him. In a rare display of sense, he accepts it and utters something that might be 'thanks' before taking in desperate gulps, pouring what little remains afterwards onto his hands in a fruitless attempt to wash the blood from them. He looks ghastly in the pale light of the ship; his skin almost transparent and dark circles lining his eyes, with sweat covering his face in a thin sheen. Nebula's seen healthier corpses, and with that thought she turns away to watch the stars go by.

It isn't lost on her that the painkillers remain untouched.

Stark reminds her of Quill during the frantic aftermath of Ego's destruction. He too had been a trembling mess once the adrenaline had worn off and the bitter reality of what had happened – what he'd lost – had encased him in numb shock. Nebula had watched from the sidelines as her sister took Quill in her arms, holding him while he cried and clung to her like a child, and only Gamora's comforting words could break him from his feral display of grief.

There's the fatal difference, Nebula thinks. Quill had had Gamora by his side, along with Groot and Drax and Rocket. He'd had Kraglin to share his grief, and Mantis to lull him into a dreamless sleep at the end of the day.

Stark only has her, and she him, and that's the equivalent of having nothing when they're both as broken as each other.


 "Gamora."

The utterance breaks Nebula from a mindless reverie. The transition to awareness is a painful one, and there's an instant in which she hates Stark for croaking out her sister's name. She had been happy to forget her loss; to look out at planets which remain deceptively beautiful despite the horrors they've just witnessed, but she finds she can't resent Stark for the interruption.

It's the first thing he's said since they left Titan. It's also proof that he's still alive and that she isn't alone in the universe.

She turns to face him and finds with some relief that he looks better. Not healthy by any stretch of the imagination, but she's been able to force more water into him and he's currently picking at a half-eaten Yaro Root. She'll even take the fact that he's managed not to throw anything back up as a hopeful sign. There's still not enough colour to his face and she doubts the med-scanner will be optimistic if she bothers to recheck it, but there's a chance he might survive the trip at least.

He notices her looking his way and seems to shrink under her gaze, before burying any reluctance and sating his curiosity.

"Who was she?"

The use of past-tense doesn't feel right. Nebula wonders if it ever will. She's known Gamora almost as long as she can remember; has spent most of her life loving and hating her in equal measure, but always needing her on some level. As an opponent. As a sister. Until recently the two had seemed to mean the same thing and it had hurt to think that Gamora would only ever see her as someone to be beaten, but then she had taken Nebula in her arms and whispered 'You will always be my sister', and Nebula had had to walk away in order to stop herself from breaking.

She'd heard those words many times as she cried in Gamora's arms - back when she could still cry - but years of pain and fighting led her to forget what such comfort was like. Thanos had slowly poisoned her love for Gamora, the one good thing she had in her life, and it had taken far too long to fix what he'd broken.

And now she'll never see her sister again. Thanos has taken Gamora away once and for all, along with her precious Guardians and half of the universe for good measure.

Nebula's never hated him more.

Stark is still looking at her expectantly, and though part of her wants to run away or shut him down, she finds herself answering his question.

"She was my sister," she says, the 'was' feeling like razor-wire on her tongue. She thinks she sees something like sympathy slip onto Stark's face and she has to look away before his pity burns her. "Thanos took us as children. He murdered our families and half of our people and trained us to do the same to others. Failing him meant death, or worse."

She looks at her cybernetic arm, remembers how easily she'd been taken apart after her failed attempt to kill him, and suppresses a shudder.

"Gamora was always his favourite, but she hated him as much as I did. Perhaps more. She got lucky though; she was able to escape and find people to care for. People who loved her.

"I never got any of that. Gamora was all I had, and Thanos killed her like she was nothing."

She remembers the dawning realisation too clearly for comfort. Remembers the suspicion that had gripped her upon noticing Gamora's absence; remembers the growing dread as Mantis detailed Thanos's anguish, and a sharp jolt as loss gripped her with crushing intensity.

She'd envied Quill his ignorance as he continued to question Thanos. For a few precious seconds, he got to indulge in the hope that Gamora could be saved.

When there's no response beyond the low hum of the ship's engines, she turns to find that Stark's gaze has wandered. He watches the universe pass them by in quiet contemplation, and part of her wishes to leave him to it. It's almost uncomfortable when awareness returns to him and his eyes meet hers once again.

"Quill loved her."

It isn't a question, but Nebula nods anyway.

She doesn't blame Quill for his anger, though part of her wants to. It would be so easy to pin the blame of everything on one identifiable source; to believe that they might have won if not for one vital miscalculation. At the time it had irked her that he could be so open with his grief while years of training forced her to bury her own, yet when he'd lashed out at Thanos she had done little to stop him.

It is naïve, she thinks, to believe they would have won with the plan they had. Besides, even if that was the single, crucial moment which could have prevented everything, the fact remains that Quill isn't the only one to blame for how events transpired.

"She was an idiot," Nebula says, the venom in her voice surprising even herself, and for a moment it feels like fire runs through her veins. The ghost of a warm palm against her cheek burns faintly, and she wishes she could take herself back to Thanos's ship and convince Gamora that her life isn't worth the trillions who suffered once their father got what he wanted. When Stark looks at her in confusion, she simply shakes her head and continues.

"I tried to kill Thanos weeks ago. Clearly I failed."

'She very nearly succeeded' flashes through her mind like a vicious taunt. She had come so close to running her blade through her father's throat and watching the life drain from him, but it hadn't been enough. How close she'd come no longer matters. When it comes to killing Thanos, there is an immense chasm between 'nearly succeeding' and actually succeeding, and her failure has cost an unimaginable number of lives. "He captured me. Tore me apart. And once he got his hands on my sister, he gave her an ultimatum. Either she told him the location of the Soul Stone, or he would kill me while she watched."

"One life lost to spare trillions. She shouldn't have had to think twice. But she chose to save me, and Thanos got what he wanted."

The enormity of her sister's decision only sinks in when Nebula finally brings herself to say the words. The sudden weight of responsibility is unbearable; the loss of her sister magnified on a scale Nebula cannot comprehend and the finger of blame pointed squarely in her direction.

She forces herself to meet Stark's gaze, braced for his hatred, but finds only an exhaustion similar to her own. His eyes are unfocused, hazy, and he opens his mouth as though to say something before thinking better of it. His hand twitches weakly against his chest and Nebula thinks his breath is shallower than usual, but she refrains from mentioning it.

She wonders if he resents her for being alive when his child is not.

Wonders if he resents himself for being among the half that survived.

"I'm sorry," he says finally, the words caught on a whisper, and Nebula can't tell if they're meant for her or everyone they've failed.

Probably both.

She thinks of the child who died in his arms, hears the echo of 'I don't wanna go, please', and thinks he might understand her pain more than she wants to imagine.

"I'm sorry about your-" Nebula pauses then, realising she doesn't actually know what the boy was to him. A son? They looked similar enough for that to be true, but then her only prior exposure to Terrans had been Quill and he also bore some resemblance to the boy. She doesn't even know what his name had been. All she knows is that he'd been important to Stark, and that he'd died terrified on a planet that was not his own.

"I'm sorry," she reiterates, because that's ultimately the only sentiment that matters.

Silence consumes them after that. Nebula wishes she could find comfort in that, but it only takes her back to those long moments on Titan in the wake of Thanos's destruction. The galaxy is too quiet now, and the beauty of each passing star is not enough to distract from that knowledge. The only sounds left are the hum of engines and Stark's harsh breathing, and neither does anything to spare her from the growing emptiness in her chest.

"Peter wasn't mine," Stark says eventually, and it takes longer than it should to realise he's talking about the boy. "He shouldn't even have been with me. I tried to send him home but he didn't... he never listened to me. Always wanted to help where he could; never seemed to matter how much danger he was in."

There's a broken sound then that might be a laugh. Nebula watches as Stark brings a hand to his face, trying to anchor himself before he can descend into hysterics. A tear slips down his cheek but he pays it no mind, and his next words seem to be for the benefit of him alone.

"He should have been at home."

"It wouldn't have made a difference," Nebula points out; words that sounded reassuring in her head escaping with a coldness that makes Stark flinch. "He would have died anyway."

"Maybe," he concedes with less resistance than Nebula expects. "But he would have been home. He'd have been with his friends, or his aunt, or-"

"Or he would have died alone," she continues, and the prospect makes Stark's mouth clamp shut as all other possibilities escape him. The boy had been scared and trapped on unfamiliar soil, but he hadn't been alone. That's more than most people got. "There's no changing what happened, Stark."

Thanos doesn't discriminate after all. That was always the point; that the slaughter was random, unbiased.

Fair.

The thought makes her seethe. It isn't fair that babies will have been robbed from their cradles while vicious murderers escape unscathed. It isn't fair that an innocent boy would always have died, on Earth or on Titan, while Nebula of all people gets to survive a little longer.

Her father would call the deaths of innocents a necessary sacrifice. He probably considers himself a martyr for having to be the one to make it.

Nebula's reminded again of just how close she'd come to killing him, his confirmation of that fact ringing in her ears, and it makes her want to break something. She wonders what the universe would look like at this very moment if she had only been a little faster, a little quieter, more patient. What would have happened if her blade had hit home and she'd completed her singular, lifelong objective.

"I'm going to kill Thanos," she says without thinking. She wishes the words sounded like an oath rather than some childish fantasy, but she knows as she utters them that there's nothing else she can do.

It's an impossible task if ever there was one. She's already failed to carry it out once, and that was when he had only the Power Stone in his possession. And yet, deep down, she knows she cannot rest until her sister is avenged and Thanos lies dead at her feet.

And if she fails? Well, she doubts she'll live long enough to care.

Stark glances at her upon hearing the vow and her skin prickles under his gaze. She expects mockery, or pity at the very least, but she thinks the glint of hope in his eyes may be worse than either of those.

"On your own?" he asks, his voice reduced to a hoarse breath, and the words give her pause. She hadn't envisioned a scenario in which going after Thanos wasn't an individual endeavor. The few she may have trusted to join her are scattered on Titan and Vormir, and though she's fought by the Guardians' side once or twice, having allies isn't something she's used to.

"If I have to."

There's a beat then, which suits her just fine. She's more than happy to let the matter drop considering nothing he could say can possibly change her mind. It doesn't matter that killing Thanos will accomplish little; she can't afford to rest while he still breathes.

"You shouldn't have to," Stark utters, and before she can stop herself she throws a venomous glare in his direction. Her mind has already added 'kill him' to the end of his sentence, and it reminds her too closely of Gamora for comfort; the way she'd insisted that killing their father may be an impossibility and had tried to convince Nebula to stay with the Guardians instead. She only realises she's misjudged him when he offers a weak smile in response to her glare. "Go it alone, I mean. We can help. Whoever's left of 'we' anyway."

It's a proposal she can't bring herself to consider. She's been alone for far too long to imagine a scenario in which that changes now, and the prospect of there being anyone left who can help her is painfully laughable. Stark certainly isn't a candidate. In the time since acquiring his injury he's only grown paler, as though the life is draining from him in slow-motion. The idea of him surviving the trip to Earth is starting to look far-fetched, let alone the rest of the war.

And yet, there's some warmth to be found in the fantasy of having people fighting by her side; of having allies willing to die alongside her.

She only wishes her sister could be among them.

There'll be time for such pipe dreams later. Nebula turns away from Stark, wordlessly cutting the conversation short, and studies the detailed maps displayed on her screen instead. The news they offer is hopeful for once; Earth is only two systems away and there's no indication that the trip should be anything but a simple one.

She quickly assesses Stark and decides he won't be of much use for the rest of the journey. The man could probably use some rest anyway. Nebula's reasons may be selfish, but she finds that she wants him to survive long enough to reach home; imagines that the quiet of the ship in the wake of his death would make the proof of her failure inescapable, and that's a blow she is unwilling to deal with. She has been lonely her entire life, but she knows that truly being alone in the universe will be another matter entirely. One she's not yet ready to face.

She eyes the painkillers that have fallen to the floor during the flight and gathers them up, before throwing the bottle onto Stark's lap.

"Take these," she orders, and to her relief he takes the bottle and obeys her without question. "Get some sleep too. We'll reach Earth in two hours."

She considers making a bee-line for the med-scanner, before deciding neither she nor Stark likely want to know what it'll say. Instead, she settles on what was once Quill's chair and relinquishes manual control of the ship, guiding them towards whatever remains of Stark's planet.


Stark actually manages to doze in ten-minute increments, which is better than Nebula anticipated.

She's only forced to wake him on two occasions; once in order to key in the co-ordinates for a place named 'Wakanda' that he assures her is where he'll find his team-mates, and again once they're hovering over said country so he can assure some panicked soul over the comms that they are indeed allies with no intention of continuing Thanos's slaughter. Nebula's grateful that the mere mention of Stark's name seems to reassure the humans watching the skies. She would prefer not to be shot down after miraculously surviving everything else this day has thrown at her.

The human on the other end of the comms guides them towards a vast stretch of grass on the outskirts of a towering city, and the mass of broken bodies and wandering soldiers is enough to suggest this was a battlefield not too long ago. The survivors are scattered across the plains, calling out names of people who have likely crumbled to ash, and there's a dusty haze in the atmosphere that Nebula would rather not think about. As the Benatar makes its final approach, a small crowd starts to gather around the ship, awaiting her occupants.

Nebula kills the engines and places a gentle hand on Stark's shoulder, rousing him just enough to let the fact that they've made it sink in. His eyes dazedly scan the outside view before he closes them again, takes a breath, and waits; as though for something terrible to steal this moment away from him.

Nothing comes for them. Not this time. His home - what is left of it - remains standing in the ten seconds of quiet he allows himself, and once he seems to have reassured himself of that, he takes Nebula's proffered hand in his own and attempts to stand.

Said attempt is pitiful as his legs adopt the consistency of water, collapsing beneath him at the slightest application of weight. Nebula's quick though. She catches him before he can fall and forces him upright, and he has the good sense to wrap an arm around her in order to steady himself. Once they're as stable as they're likely to get, he thanks her with a weak smile and puts one shaky foot in front of the other, letting her guide him slowly towards the exit. They stumble twice, their combined weight and exhaustion making for a graceless display, but it isn't long before Nebula's able to release the latch that will allow them to feel the outside air.

"I never asked your name," Stark breathes, his head resting awkwardly on her shoulder as his remaining strength is sapped by the effort of standing. She shrugs, not knowing why her name could possibly matter now, but she finds herself obliging his implied request anyway.

"Nebula."

He hums under his breath in acknowledgment, before all other sounds are eclipsed by a metallic drone as steps lower themselves towards battered ground. The noise is unnerving after several hours of quiet, however the instant the contraption completes its descent it's replaced once again with an imposing silence.

Each footfall seems to boom across the land. It takes only three steps for the gathered crowd to be revealed, but the silence continues on even after their feet hit solid ground. Nebula surveys the throng, taking in expressions of disbelief and pain, and numbness most of all; a shock she doubts will ever truly fade. Most are focused more on Stark than the unfamiliar creature holding him, but the few whose gazes do meet hers are filled with palpable suspicion, and she spots one or two hands edging towards concealed weaponry.

Not that she can blame them. Trust is not something she's made a habit of earning.

The silence is finally broken when a lone voice cries out "Oh god, Tony!", and Nebula watches as a tall, dark-skinned man pushes through the crowd to rush towards them. Stark practically launches himself into the man's arms as soon as he's close enough, and there's a familiarity in the way he clings to his friend that reminds her of someone else; of choked pleas and 'I don't wanna go' repeated like a mantra. She pushes the image from her mind, assuring herself that Stark is safe in this stranger's arms, and approaches the two as quickly as she dares. The other man glances at her with something closer to gratitude than fear, and something in her chest twinges at the sight, but she ignores it as more people deem it safe to come forward.

"He's wounded," she informs them with comfortable detachedness, because she knows Stark well enough by this point to realise he's unlikely to tell them himself. "There's a stab wound on his left side."

Stark takes that as his cue to collapse like a puppet with broken strings, and his friend starts shouting frantic instructions to anyone who'll listen before getting to work on Stark's wound. She trusts him to help far more than she trusts herself and she quickly backs off, her presence largely forgotten by the crowd. She's happy enough to lose the spotlight. No longer concerning herself with Stark is making her own exhaustion take hold, and part of her is prepared to descend into unconsciousness for a matter of hours.

Such plans are interrupted by a gentle hand on her shoulder. Nebula spins defensively, one arm raised to attack if need be, but something in the eyes of this new stranger makes her pause. He's paler than most of the others and his beard is scruffier than Quill's had been at its worst, but his eyes are kind and trusting in a way that reminds her of Gamora in happier times. There's pain there as well, mountains of it, but she imagines that's something shared with every survivor in the universe.

"Thank you," he says with a weak smile, his voice rough and broken like Stark's had been on the ship. Like her own must surely be. "Thank you for bringing him home."

Nebula acknowledges his words with a curt nod, and it's enough of a dismissal to send him back to work. There's a team surrounding Stark now. He's no longer alone, no longer her concern, and she reassures herself that he's likely as safe as it's possible for him to be right now before wandering in the direction of the ship and hoping to be left alone.

"Nebula?"

No such luck, it would seem. The voice surprises her with its familiarity, and she looks down to see that cursed fox (Rocket, she remembers) staring up at her as though she's grown another head.

The sight of him gives her pause. Beneath his shock at her appearance, there's a fragility that was never there before and - buried even deeper than that - hope. He's cradling a gun which is far too large for him to comfortably wield, and his eyes keep darting towards the empty ship in anticipation of a family who will never emerge from it again. Nebula's chest tightens beyond her control as she realises she'll have to be the one to shatter that hope into dust.

"They're gone," she says, her tone surprisingly dull considering the weight of those two words.

She watches the news hit Rocket with a sudden jolt; watches denial take hold as he shakes his head and directs a surprising degree of fury towards her with a single look. They've never seen eye to eye – have been enemies far longer than allies – but his distrust still has the power to make her feel unbelievably small.

"No, that's not-" he stumbles back, the idea that everyone he loves is gone threatening to bring him to his knees, but he holds on long enough for a final burst of denial. "All of them?!"

Nebula nods, unwilling to elaborate beyond that. There will come a time where she will have to tell him what happened. How Mantis barely had time to give a warning before fading to nothing, followed by a confused Drax and defeated Quill. How Nebula had left what little remained of them on Titan in favour of getting Stark home. How Thanos had murdered Gamora and had the gall to feel anguish in the aftermath, as though he hadn't had the power to spare her and cast his genocidal fantasies aside.

This is no time for words, however. Rocket finally lets himself collapse, the gun falling from his grip and landing with a dull thud, and Nebula joins him without thinking. The evidence of battle remains apparent; the creatures that comprised Thanos' army already rotting beneath a blistering sun, and rivers of black blood trickling through grasses that were once a spotless green. There's still ash in the air – Nebula wonders with sickening curiosity how many people she's breathing in – and her ears are filled with the cries of people's names, as well as the piercing silence that answers them.

Rocket cries silently beside her and his shoulders shake as he tries to stop his grief from pouring out of him. Nebula can't even manage tears, but she lets herself indulge in her own pain and closes her eyes as it consumes her. This ache is all she has left. Perhaps the only thing she'll ever have, even if she achieves the impossible and kills Thanos. That victory won't have the power to change anything, and acceptance of that fact fills her with emptiness.

Regardless of what happens, she's never going to see Gamora again. Rocket will never get his family back. Stark will still have lost a child who may as well have been his own, and one half of the universe will still be left mourning the other.

Her father has won.

Nebula releases a shaky breath and opens her eyes, taking in the sights of an unfamiliar planet and trying not to scream. Her eyes fall to her hands and she notices they're still covered in Stark's blood; faded red caked along metal grooves. The area where she left him is empty now, his friends having carried him to safety, but the uncertainty over whether he's even alive only unsettles her further.

She wishes this were all a dream. She wishes she were a child again, long before Thanos slaughtered her family and stole her from her home. She wishes she could wake in Gamora's arms as she often had many years ago, even if it means being forced to fight her come morning.

Anything has to be better than this bitter loss.

Before she can shatter completely, Nebula clenches her fists and slowly rises from the ground. Her eyes dart briefly towards the abandoned ship, but her legs ultimately carry her in the opposite direction; guiding her towards the city where Stark and his team await.

She doesn't need to look to know that Rocket is following her, and she slows her pace so he can walk by her side. They make for an odd pair, she imagines, but he is the only one in the universe who can possibly share her grief and she owes him an explanation for why he no longer has a family.

That can wait until later though.

For now, Nebula focuses only on putting one foot in front of the other, and if she keeps her head down she can almost ignore the plumes of ash blotting out the sun.