"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.
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.
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.
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.
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 unconscious 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.
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.
Thank you so much for reading! Nebula proved to be rather difficult to write, but I adore her character and am still holding out hope that she will be heavily involved in taking down Thanos in the next movie.
First of all, thank you so much for the lovely response to this story. I wasn't expecting it to get the love that it has and I've been a little blown away by it. I'm so grateful for all of your kudos and comments so thank you!
I did originally have plans for this to be a longer one-shot, only to cut it back when the first chapter became something of a monster while writing it. Hopefully I'll be able to explore those ideas more deeply by the story's end. With that said, I hope you enjoy this chapter!
It feels like a shadow has been cast over the world. A hush stalks Nebula like a ghost as she wanders the palace halls, each footstep seeming muffled when it should be echoing far and wide.
It's been a while since she lost Rocket on her travels. Though she barely knows him, his absence feels like a missing limb; amplifying her isolation more than curious looks from passers-by ever could. That's the problem with being trapped on a planet so uninvolved with space travel. She can go nowhere without sticking out like a sore thumb – without being studied under lingering gazes – and her desire to wander back to the ship threatens to overwhelm her once or twice. Not that there'd be any point in that; she has nowhere to go.
She tours the quiet halls with muted interest, keeping her head down whenever she passes stoic guards or weeping civilians. Her presence is known to them at least – courtesy of the bearded stranger called 'Steve' - and she faces no resistance as she wanders aimlessly.
If she'd been in the mindset to appreciate it, she may have found the palace beautiful. Each room bathes her in warm gold, a stark contrast to the black caverns of her childhood, and tall windows showcase a landscape that must be stunning when not clouded over by ash. Night fell hours ago and a pale moon acts as the only source of relief from the dark, with the evacuated city still and silent beneath it. She wonders what it would have been like to see this country thrive, before Thanos snapped his fingers and sent the universe into ruin.
It is strange, she thinks, to have such a clear divide between past and present. A single action on Thanos's part has split history into 'Before' and 'After,' and she doubts anyone truly knows how to adapt to that.
She doubts her father even knows.
She shakes her head, wiping such musings from her mind, and settles for simply moving forwards. She focuses on her breaths which are still too forced for comfort; on her fists clenched at her side; on the constant ache, as damaged cybernetics announce themselves one by one. The effects of being systematically taken apart by Thanos, followed by her defeat on Titan, have finally declared themselves. She knows she will have to find somewhere to do repairs soon.
Not yet though. For now, the pain is a comfort. An anchor that keeps her in the present, dissuading thoughts of Thanos and Titan and 'Where is Gamora?"
Any degree of physical agony is better than reliving those horrors again.
Gold shifting to blinding white has her glancing upwards, and she realises that her wanderings have taken her to the medical wing. 'Stark' she thinks with a twinge of concern, knowing she'll either find him here or in a crypt. Hopefully the former, though what he'd prefer is likely a more complicated matter.
She wanders the endless corridors, past medics in spotless white robes who watch her with suspicion but otherwise say nothing, and glances into every room. This must be where the wounded from the battle were taken. Most rooms contain soldiers barely out of their armour, discarded weapons lying by their sides, and she recognises a fair number of claw-marks and bite wounds from Thanos's horde. The nurses spared in the slaughter look like they haven't slept in days, dried tear-tracks implying they're working through their grief. Nebula supposes there must be a certain desperation to keep as many alive as they can. Their planet has already lost so much.
In the end, she's directed towards Stark's room by a small, white-haired woman with pale skin; one she vaguely recognises from her arrival here. The woman escapes quickly enough – either for food or sleep or space to grieve her losses - but Nebula pays her no more mind and follows her hurried instructions. Two flights of stairs take her up to the private quarters, and she emerges onto a quiet corridor with dimmed lights. She takes in the number on each door, letting distant rhythmic beeps guide her, and she only stops when she reaches Room 10 as the woman had instructed.
There's no need to venture inside. The door hangs open, bathing her in a soft orange glow from a bedside lamp, and she sees Stark lying asleep on the bed.
He's no longer alone. The man who'd been the first to approach when they landed - 'Rhodey' Steve had informed her – is curled up on an armchair having dozed off himself. There's a woman with orange hair and puffy, tear-stained cheeks sleeping in a chair of her own; head resting awkwardly on Stark's chest while her hand clutches his so tightly it must hurt. Stark looks as fragile as he did back on the ship – perhaps more so. Nebula's eyes follow the tubes attached to his arm and face, feeding blood into his veins and air into his lungs while he sleeps. The sight makes her skin crawl - too similar to her own experiences of being tied to a table and taken apart piece by piece - and there's only a minute comfort to be had in seeing his chest rise and fall with every breath.
"He's going to be okay," a voice announces behind her. She spins sharply in response, reaching for the concealed dagger she'd stolen from a weapons store earlier. She only calms when she takes in her visitor's face; watches him raise his hands in playful surrender while giving her a small smile that seems to require a lot of effort. "Sorry. I should stop doing that."
"Yes, you should," she responds coldly, but she lets herself relax all the same. She still feels highly strung, as though the slightest noise will set her off, but Steve's eyes are kind and she manages not to flinch as he joins her by the doorway.
"It's lucky you got him here when you did," he says, his voice a low whisper though his tone betrays his gratitude. Nebula can only scoff at the idea of them having luck on their side, but she doesn't interrupt. "The doctors said it might only have taken another hour for him to bleed out."
An hour. That's how close she'd come to being left alone on a ship that didn't even belong to her. She wonders if there's anything more she could have done – anything to grant him more time - but she knows deep down that she wouldn't have known where to start. She's accustomed to running repairs on her own body and piecing broken machinery back together, but organic human beings are beyond her skillset.
She knows how to stop their hearts, not keep them going.
They stay like that for a few moments, trapped in comfortable silence. Stark remains still on the bed, as does Rhodey as he dozes on his perch. Even the woman's movements are minute; a small frown and a shift of her position, until her head comes to rest over Stark's heart and she visibly relaxes.
"They're going to be married soon," Steve says, probably more to himself than to Nebula. Such domesticity is a foreign concept to her. The closest comparison she can draw is that of Gamora's love for Quill, and that's not something she wants to dwell on right now. "It's hard to imagine him settling down."
Steve backs away from the door with an exhausted sigh, and Nebula glances his way long enough to see him slump onto an uncomfortable chair. He runs a hand through his messy hair and huffs a shuddering breath, and the moment feels so private that she's forced to look away.
"What happened out there? Tony couldn't tell us," he manages after a pause, and she doesn't need to ask to know that 'there' means space. Titan. From what she's gathered Stark had vanished without warning, casting doubt over whether he was even alive. The intricate details of what occurred billions of miles away likely haven't been shared yet.
"Same thing that happened here," she replies, unwilling to elaborate beyond that. Especially if Stark has been unable to open up himself. "We lost."
It's not enough. The silence following her words feels crushing and she closes her eyes as she's forcibly dragged back to Titan. Back to Thanos batting them away like flies, and once-living allies drifting away like smoke.
"There was a child with him," she adds, because it feels important somehow. The boy's death had dealt a heavier blow to Stark than his wound had, and it's what's going to linger like a disease even as his body physically heals. Just as Gamora's loss will leave a permanent scar within her own chest. "He didn't make it."
She looks back at Steve and watches as confusion melts into dawning realisation, and he closes his eyes before burying his face in his hands.
"The boy from Queens," he says, the words escaping on a breath.
"Peter, I think," she confirms, vaguely recalling Stark saying his name on the ship.
Steve brushes a hand across his face and seems to blink back tears, refusing to let them fall while someone watches. He rises to his feet with an exhaustion that makes him seem older than his years, before rejoining her as though to ensure himself that Stark is still breathing; still there when so many others are gone.
A thought occurs to her then and she finds herself asking, "How many people lived on this planet?"
He glances at her for a moment, as though only now realising she is inhuman – that this world is not her own - and the pause lasts so long she doubts she'll receive an answer.
"Close to eight billion, I think," Steve murmurs, and she thinks the jolt that strikes her must hit him too. Almost four billion people are dead on this planet alone. Everyone from children to the elderly, rich to poor, civilian to warrior. The number doesn't feel remotely real; too substantial to comprehend.
They're all gone. Because she failed to kill Thanos; because neither the Guardians nor the Avengers nor anyone else could stop him from snapping his fingers.
Because Gamora bargained for your life and lost her own, Nebula remembers, and she's surprised the knowledge doesn't make her run away in shame.
She sees a grey tinge to Steve's face alongside a haunted stare that no longer acknowledges the room's occupants, and she knows she isn't the only one with blame resting on her shoulders.
"I heard you know Rocket and Groot," he says after what feels like hours, breaking from his trance and reaching for anything else to talk about.
Nebula can't help but feel regret at the mention of the tree. He had only been a baby when she'd seen him last, and she's surmised enough about Rocket to know that losing Groot must have been agonising enough on its own. He was already drowning in loss by the time she told him what happened to the others.
"Know them?" she asks, because it feels ridiculous to phrase it that way. She's fought them and fought with them, has stayed on their ship once or twice, but the only thing linking them had been Gamora. With her gone, Nebula doubts she can truly consider Rocket a friend, but he's the only one left who knows her beyond her reputation. The only one who might understand what she's lost.
She can't even begin to comprehend how that happened, but she knows her sister is to blame.
His absence gnaws at her, reminding her again of how isolated she is on this planet. In his grief there's no telling what he's up to, though she doubts it's anything good.
"I should look for Rocket," she announces, pushing away from the doorframe and casting a final glance towards Stark. She envies him for being able to indulge in unconsciousness, no matter how briefly, but she knows his pain will return when he wakes and she'd rather not be here when it does. "He's probably gone and blown something up."
Steve smiles weakly, turning to watch her go, and the burn of his eyes on her back makes her pause for a moment.
"I'm sorry for your losses," she mutters, an empty courtesy she's heard all too often between grieving families in the halls. It's become as fitting a saying as 'goodbye' of late. Everyone has lost loved ones after all.
Steve acknowledges the words with a small nod, his expression momentarily betraying grief before he pushes it aside. "I'm sorry for yours too."
Nebula lingers only for a moment - the image of Gamora's face shrouding her in ice for a fleeting second - before she turns and leaves him without another word.
It doesn't take long to locate Rocket's whereabouts.
The palace has quietened further and the lights have been dimmed to accommodate the late hour, but she imagines any sleep the inhabitants get will be restless. She can't remember the last time she herself slept. Rest isn't something that tends to come naturally, though she cannot run from it forever regardless of her wishes. In spite of Thanos's many 'improvements' to her body, the basic requirement of sleep has stubbornly remained.
She can last longer than most, however, and she comfortably slips through the shadows in search of the creature she lost hours before. The moon is at its highest peak, casting the palace in a pale glow, and it's almost peaceful enough to make the silence bearable.
Her first glimpse of Rocket is a tiny movement at the corner of her eye as she passes what looks like a ballroom, decorated with intricate gold tendrils snaking across the walls. Rocket is at the far end of the hall, sat by a bar that reminds her of dingy cantinas where she would hide following her desertion of Ronan, albeit without the accompanying grime, blood and shattered glass. She approaches carefully as he takes a swig from a bottle almost a large as he is, an empty one already toppled over beside him. He's drunk, or on his way there if his trembling hand is any indication, and he slams the bottle on the counter once he's had his fill.
She should have thought to come here earlier. There are only so many places one can go when they find out they've lost everyone they love.
Rocket's ears twitch upon sensing her approach, and he clutches his head in his hands as though to avoid facing her. She remains silent as she settles on the stool across from him, eyeing the bottle herself and wondering if it will make her feel anything. Her liver was replaced years ago and she's never experienced the indignity of being drunk, but there's plenty of alcohol waiting in the bar if she's willing to test her limits.
She's seen what it does to people. Perhaps it'd be enough to make her forget these past few days.
As though reading her mind, Rocket nudges the bottle across the counter and finally acknowledges her with an expression that isn't filled with bitter loathing.
"You should try this," he says, trying to keep his voice light with considerable effort. "The humies call it 'scotch'. Feels like you're pouring fire down your throat, but it's good."
She scans the bottle with some trepidation, before casting any doubt aside and taking a healthy swig of its contents. It does indeed feel like fire – a pleasant burn which trickles down her throat and settles in her chest – and it beats the tasteless swill she's used to on backwater trading planets. She sets the rest aside however, knowing that if she starts now she'll never want to stop and she needs a clear head. There's no telling when the next threat will arrive.
"You're going to kill yourself," she notes, eyeing up the finished bottle lying on its side along with the half-empty one she's just sampled. She's vaguely aware that Rocket's cybernetically enhanced as she is, but there's probably some limit to what his organs can take.
Not that he seems to care. Her words elicit little more than a shrug and a muttered "Tha's the plan," that doesn't seem entirely in jest. Venom grips Nebula and she feels herself seethe on Gamora's behalf, wondering what her sister would say if she were here to see him now.
Only Gamora isn't here. That's the problem.
"You can't avenge them if you're dead," is all she says, and Rocket glares at her with a raised eyebrow intended to mock. She assumes they're both thinking the same thing; that there's little point in chasing revenge now. They'll still be left with nothing whether they get it or not.
Silence washes over them for a moment and Nebula lets her eyes drift shut. It's still too quiet. She misses the hum of engines that have accompanied her for most of her life, and the prospect of being stuck on one planet makes her tense.
At least here she might be given something to do eventually. She can run back to the ship now and leave this planet if she truly wishes, but her journey will be an aimless one if she does.
She opens her eyes, sees Rocket wipe a traitorous tear from his cheek, and notes that he hasn't touched the scotch since passing it over to her.
"I guess this is what happens when I jinx it and say I've got a lot to lose, huh?" he asks, staring at his hands in an attempt to hide his tears. Nebula doesn't understand what he's referring to, but his pain is clear enough. "How-"
He chokes on the question and closes his eyes before continuing. Not that he needs to; a chill has already settled over Nebula upon realising what he's about to say.
"How did it happen?"
"How did they die?" is what he really wants to ask, but Nebula imagines that might be too final. The Guardians were always larger-than-life - sometimes unbearably so - and thinking of them in the context of death feels unnatural.
She quarrels with the answer for a moment, wondering if it's something he's truly ready to hear. Explaining Mantis and Drax and Quill will be easy. Rocket has already seen the same happen to Groot, by all accounts. Gamora though... Nebula isn't sure how to approach that. She's not even sure herself how her sister died – whether or not she suffered – and the uncertainty makes her feel sick.
In the end she decides on a somewhat comforting lie. The truth – if Rocket ever decides he wants it - can wait.
"The same way it happened with everyone else," she says dully, envisioning their slow disintegration with sickening clarity. "It was quick. Painless. They didn't even know what was happening."
Rocket studies her intensely, as though having sensed the crucial omission, but then he seems to deflate in front of her eyes. Neither of them have the energy to do more than sit and dwell on what's been lost, wondering why they are all that remain. She knows Thanos's purge was indiscriminate, but it still feels wrong that they are the last two standing of their shared family.
"What happens now?" Rocket asks with a softness that's unlike him, and Nebula wishes she knew the answer beyond the obvious.
"We kill Thanos," she responds. The words sound empty to her ears, but they seem to be enough for Rocket. He glances at her with something that might be trust, trust she hasn't earned, before releasing a sigh and reaching once more for the scotch.
He doesn't drink from the bottle immediately. Instead, he raises it above his head with a mock cheerfulness that fools neither of them.
"To the biggest idiots in the galaxy," he toasts, before taking one last swig and leaving the bottle unfinished on the counter. He doesn't utter another word before leaping off the stool and scurrying away with only the slightest hint of a drunken stumble. Nebula imagines he's running off to build a makeshift arsenal of weapons purely as a distraction.
Perhaps that's not the worst idea in the world.
She sits alone for a few moments, eyeing the abandoned scotch with renewed interest, before casting temptation aside and rising to her feet. She needs to get some rest whether she wants to or not, and a sharp pain in her leg reminds her there's still repair-work to carry out.
What'll happen after that remains uncertain. She has a lot of work to do if she truly wants to destroy Thanos however, and she's wasted more than enough energy on grief.
Thank you again for your lovely response to this story! I'm having a lot of fun writing it, especially exploring the potential dynamic between Tony and Nebula. This chapter ended up being longer than I expected, but I hope you enjoy it regardless!
Madness claims her within a week.
It was only a matter of time, she supposes. Sitting still has never been in her nature, and her impatience rises with each passing day even while the Earth struggles to move on. Every second wasted not chasing Thanos feels like a failure, restlessness crawls beneath her synthetic skin like ice, and by the week's end she's either desperate to kill something or explode or both.
Sharing space with Rocket doesn't help. The fox, or whatever he is, at least has the grace not to speak to her often, but his presence on the ship is inescapable. He seems determined to tear the Benatar apart until there's nothing left but scrap; fashioning a personal arsenal of enhanced blasters and explosives from anything he can get his hands on. Nebula wonders how long it'll take him to consider using her for parts. She's already caught him eyeing up her metal arm, and the only reason she hasn't kicked him off the ship yet is because she knows he has more of a claim to it than she does. His family lived here – some of his fondest memories dwell within these walls – and the only reason he even lets her stay is because she was the one to rescue it from Titan.
There's always the option of staying at the palace. The offer has been extended to her multiple times, though she's never given it much thought. As insufferable as Rocket's constant tinkering is, the spotlight that accompanies her once she ventures from the ship is even worse. Curious, even frightened, stares follow her wherever she goes – dissecting her to figure out what makes her tick – and she hasn't been able to return to the city since that first night.
The Benatar remains where it landed, a lone vessel on an upturned battlefield. The yearning to bring it to life and escape to the stars is unbearable. Knowing that Thanos still breathes is even more so. The longer she dwells on this planet - forced into inaction - the more she wants to snap, and she imagines it's probably a good thing she's fled from civilisation.
And now there's a headache brewing. A dull throb pulses beneath her temples, forcing Nebula to close her eyes against the ship's dim light. Pain has always been her companion, but the aftershocks of everything Thanos did to her on his ship have truly taken hold of late. She can't slumber without waking to phantom shocks tearing through her frame, and parts of her wiring are breaking down faster than she can repair them. Every movement hurts, every breath feels like a knife, and the tight band around her skull is only the latest in a long line of agonies.
It's a distraction at least – one which tears her thoughts away from the emotional pain she refuses to confront – but it's too much of one. She cannot focus on anything while her body screams with every movement; a fact emphasised upon looking down at the blade she's sharpening for the umpteenth time this week. The silver glint of its surface is too bright, the faint music playing over the speakers too loud, and she snarls as she throws the weapon aside to search for the scanner she'd used on Stark what feels like forever ago.
Rocket glances up from his latest project as she upturns the ship in search of the device. It can't be too far from the flight-deck. It's where she had it last, and neither she nor the fox have needed it since it dispassionately announced that Stark was dying. The sooner she finds it, the sooner she can determine just how broken her systems are and get to work on repairs before she falls apart entirely. She imagines that would only waste her sister's sacrifice further.
You hear that, Gamora? she thinks with more venom than she intends, but suppressing her anger has become an impossibility of late. Looks like you sacrificed half the universe to buy me a week.
Once she seems to be in danger of tearing the ship apart faster than Rocket could ever manage, she turns to the creature on the floor and tries to keep her tone semi-civil. "Where's the scanner?"
"The what now?" he asks, distractedly fishing a wire from a short-range radio before reattaching it to a dismantled blaster.
"The med-scanner. You used to keep it in your first-aid kit," she clarifies, trying to remain calm even as agitation simmers beneath her skin. She points to the store-room she'd raided on her trip to Earth, and Rocket's ears twitch in recognition.
"Oh yeah," he drawls, proceeding to rifle through the trash-pile that surrounds him until his claws brush against the familiar device. "Catch!"
She does so easily, only to find the scanner completely gutted. The screen has been removed, exposing a mass of wiring and panels underneath, and its batteries are nowhere to be found, likely having been reassigned during Rocket's efforts to turn himself into a one-man-army. Nebula clenches her jaw, trying to retain some semblance of restraint as she returns her attention to the creature. Her presence has already slipped his mind, if his humming of the annoyingly upbeat song coming through the speakers is any indication.
"Do you have any others?" she asks, aiming for detachedness that melts instantly when his response is an indifferent shrug.
"Probably already been turned into a bomb if I did," he mutters, tearing apart a tangled mass of wires before deeming them useless and throwing them aside. "What do you even need it for anyway? The palace has a lab if you got something that needs checked out."
"I'm not going to the palace."
"Well then you're all outta luck," Rocket says with what looks like a sneer, and something within Nebula snaps. This is far from their first argument. With the exception of the night in the bar, most of their interactions have concluded with them wanting to tear each other's throats out. She's in pain and can't walk without hearing a whining creak of metal, while he's lonelier than he's been in years, and it's only ever a matter of time before one or both of them abandons all restraint.
Rocket's next words do little to help matters.
"It probably wouldn't have worked on you anyway. It's not like it had 'cyborg' as a setting."
The gutted scanner is launched at him before she can think, and she can't help but feel a grim satisfaction when he scurries out of the way at the last possible moment. "Why the hell did you-"
"If you keep tearing this ship apart we'll never leave this planet!" she hisses, strutting past him as his infuriated gaze follows her. She snatches a stolen dagger from her meagre pile of belongings, taken by the impulse to breathe fresh air and tear something apart, and she purposefully ignores the twitching of her fingers as faulty wiring protests beneath metal skin. Hatred burns with a ferocity that would bring tears to her eyes if she were still capable of producing them. She hates this stupid planet and the people on it; she hates Rocket purely for being there, and the Guardians for being absent from a ship that is now too quiet; she hates Gamora for sentencing her to this empty existence, perhaps even more than she did when they considered each other opponents before sisters.
It's not a pleasant sensation. The fire only adds to her pain, but she's too tired to extinguish it.
"I can do whatever the hell I want!" Rocket snarls, and it's only when Nebula turns to the ship's hatch that she realises he's stormed over to her side, bringing himself to full height as though that will make him seem powerful. It's almost laughable considering she could easily crush him underfoot, but she has enough restraint to avoid that temptation. "It's my ship!"
A trembling breath follows his words, his anger faltering while hers also slips away. Neither say anything for what feels like hours, and part of her wants to laugh at the inappropriately cheerful song playing over the speakers. It's another reminder that the ship is too empty now. That's ultimately why neither of them can settle. It's wrong that Quill isn't flying the ship, belting lyrics at the top of his lungs while Gamora smiles or mimes along; it's wrong that Drax or Groot or even Kraglin aren't there to balance out her and Rocket's volatility. It's wrong that Rocket has to say 'my ship' rather than 'our ship'.
She had only spent a significant amount of time with the Guardians once, during the aftermath of Ego, but that had been enough to leave her reluctant to fly off on her mission. Their dynamic as a family was something she hadn't experienced since she was a little girl who had no notion of fighting, and part of her had envied Gamora for finding it. Perhaps it wouldn't have suited Nebula. She was so used to being alone that even a tender embrace from her sister had initially felt threatening after all. And yet, she occasionally finds herself wondering what it would have been like to have a real family, and she hates Thanos all the more for denying her the closest chance she got to having one.
Anger leaches from Rocket in the form of a dejected sigh, and he shakes his head before wandering back to his projects. Nebula watches long enough to see him dismantling another radio – their last by her count – before approaching the hatch and escaping into the afternoon sun.
The fresh air filling her mechanical lungs is so sweet she can almost ignore the burn as she takes a breath. Emerging into the open bathes her fully in the scorch of the sun and she raises her head to let warmth wash over her face; calming her anger to a faint simmer and making her feel like a child for letting it consume her in the first place. The landscape is clear when she looks ahead. The ash has long since drifted away, removing the haze that once sullied the view, and the towering city flanked by green forests and vast plains seems inviting for the first time since her arrival. Evidence of the battle still lingers; while most of the bodies have been cleared away, the odd eviscerated creature remains rotting in the sun, and the grasses of the field seem to have been hacked from their roots to expose the underlying dirt, but Nebula has seen far more gruesome displays in her time.
She wanders in the direction of the city, mindlessly twirling her dagger and throwing it into the eye of any rotting creature she finds. She never misses. It's been years since she has. Part of her yearns to spar with someone - to train in preparation of facing her father - but there's no-one left to spar with. Perfection may have been unattainable in Thanos's eyes, but she's still one of the fiercest killers in the galaxy; there's little else in the way of training needed. Either she's strong enough now or she never will be, and it's not as if she has a rival like Gamora to hammer home her insignificance anymore.
(She can't begrudge her sister that. Gamora had been trying as desperately to survive and outlive childhood as Nebula had; she'd simply been better at it. The failing cybernetics that now comprise her body are proof of that).
She only pauses once she reaches the outskirts, the streets slightly busier than they'd been when she left a week ago. Slowly but surely people are attempting to restart their lives in the wake of overwhelming loss, even if the ability to come to terms with what happened must still be beyond reach.
Aches and pains she'd tried to ignore come rushing back and she sucks in a breath as agony washes over her - as though Thanos were still torturing her. She can almost hear Gamora pleading with him to stop, as clearly as she hears the echoes of Quill's 'Did we just lose?' mixed with Peter's 'I don't wanna go' every time the world gets too quiet.
Rocket had told her to go the lab if she was desperate. The idea of facing anyone is unbearable - the prospect of admitting her pain even more so - but she can't conjure plans to defeat Thanos if she remains immobilised like this. She's capable of enduring more agony than most experience their entire lives, but she needs a clear head and that hasn't been possible since her systems started failing her.
A scan is all that's needed. Any repairs she can do herself once she knows what needs fixing. It's not like she would trust some stranger to carry them out anyway, no matter their capabilities.
She can survive one scan.
Nebula's not sure what she expects when she's finally escorted to the palace lab, situated deep within a mountain which gleams a pleasant blue.
It has taken longer to get here than she would like, having gone via the palace itself only to be redirected by several Dora who have insisted on accompanying her. She doubts the security detail is for her benefit; they may be aware of her presence in their country but she is still an outsider they know little about, and the fact that she'd had to relinquish several blades upon entering the lab has hardly endeared her to them. The place has a warmth that Nebula wasn't anticipating, however. Her prior experiences have been of darker caverns within Thanos' or Ronan's ships – torture chambers in all but name as their experiments concentrated on new ways to harm her - but her current descent down a spiral staircase is lined with vibrant artwork that feels inviting despite everything, and the bright lighting inspires the same peace as the gold of the palace walls.
A Dora announces her presence once they reach the heart of the lab – a vast, inviting space carved into rock and facing out to the glittering caverns of the mountain. A young girl looks up from her desk in response, her shock at Nebula's appearance passing like a fleeting shadow as she rises from her chair and approaches with a warm smile. She looks barely older than Stark's boy had been, and it isn't lost on Nebula that the smile requires some effort, but her instincts don't scream at her to run either. This girl seems kind enough, as she nods pleasantly to the surrounding Dora in dismissal before offering a hand to Nebula.
"It's nice to finally meet you. I've heard so much from Mr Stark and Captain Rogers," she says, and Nebula can't quite mask her surprise. She supposes she should be relieved at the news that Stark is awake, despite having attempted to banish any thoughts of him from her mind. However, the idea of him and Steve telling others about her only makes her tense. They barely know the first thing about her besides the fact that she hates Thanos as much as they do. They don't even know of her reputation, or the extent of the blood she'll never be able to wash from her hands.
If the young scientist notices her unease she has the grace not to mention it, and when Nebula neglects to shake her hand she simply lets it drop without comment. "My name is Shuri. Come, take a seat."
Nebula does, following Shuri to a padded table surrounded by electronic screens and yet more intricate artwork. The technology on display is far closer to the standard Nebula's used to than anything else she's encountered on Earth - as advanced as some of the more developed planets she's visited - and the familiarity instills a vague sense of comfort that she hasn't felt in a while. It's almost a shame she has no plans to linger here.
"I need a full-body scan," she explains before Shuri can ask, glancing down at her hands and noticing a lag in the left arm. "My systems are failing faster than I can keep track. I need to see everything that's broken so I can know exactly what needs fixing."
Shuri nods before picking up a small device, letting her fingers dance across the screen as she keys in data. "That should be doable. If you wanted I could also help with your repairs? Our technology should be able to-"
"Just the scan," Nebula clarifies a little too quickly, though Shuri doesn't seem to mind the interruption. Getting help would probably be quicker, she knows, and she's strapped for resources on the Benatar as it is, but the thought of another's hands taking her apart and interfering with her systems is enough to make her flinch. Shuri seems kind, trustworthy, but Nebula can't take the risk.
The scan itself is a painless affair. Nebula lies back on the table - banishing past memories for the time being and focusing only on the faint burn of every breath - while Shuri works silently by her side. Her hands dance across floating holograms as more and more of Nebula's body is unveiled, highlighting any areas of disrepair she comes across to be assessed later and occasionally keying in notes as she goes. Her face is fixed in deep concentration, her smile having dwindled to a tight line as the world vanishes around them. As images start to form of Nebula's chest and eventually her brain, concentration and curiosity melts into something far less clinical, and there's a trace of horror on Shuri's face once the scan is complete that remains imprinted on Nebula's mind even after the girl recovers herself, announcing that she can sit up with a falsely cheerful, "All done!"
A little more tinkering is all that's needed to have the entire scan projected before them. The workup of her body is something Nebula's seen once or twice before, but it's not something she ever gets used to. A mass of metal and wiring stares back at her; everything from her heart to her brain to her skin incorporated with some level of machinery, to the extent that the few areas of remaining organic tissue seem miniscule.
She was born with none of that. Thanos has slowly replaced her piece by piece. Even her mind is a meld of organic neurones and binary code, something that can malfunction as easily as the rest of her, and she doesn't blame Shuri for the horror she'd so quickly tried to hide.
The girl patiently points out every area of disrepair while Nebula listens intently. She'll need to open the plates of her left arm to access the faulty wiring within. The systems in her legs are still recovering from the electricity that surged through them during her torture but rebooting them shouldn't be a problem, and it seems the pain in her chest is something she's stuck with. A side effect of combining tissue organs and cold metal with little regard for comfort. She locks away the information for later, already keen to get to work on repairs, and it takes a while before she realises that Shuri has stopped speaking and is solely focused on the hologram before her.
"How much of me is machinery?" Nebula asks without thinking, and Shuri hesitates in response. The question should probably be 'How much of me is left?' and Nebula almost utters it before thinking better of it. That's not something Shuri needs to be burdened with.
The girl analyses the scan for a moment, seeing information in the dense numbers that Nebula can't interpret, before the answer comes as a quiet, "93%."
Nebula wonders if that should make her feel anything. Shock, perhaps, or grief, or yet more hatred towards Thanos as if she hasn't collated enough. Instead the answer washes over her like a cold nothingness, not even granting the momentary fulfilment of having her curiosity sated. She assesses the entire scan once again – her failing body looking back at her like the lifeless machine her father would have been happier with – and files away the information she needs before lifting herself from the table. She's gotten what she came for.
"Does it hurt?" Shuri asks with a surprising boldness, and Nebula tries not to appear threatening when she turns to face her. The question doesn't bother her, not really, but she can't tell whether Shuri is merely intuitive or if she's somehow been betraying her physical ache without intending to, and the uncertainty unnerves her.
Shuri must sense that too. "Forgive me. The technology here is advanced, but there are some areas... I can't imagine it not being painful."
Concern, Nebula realises with a jolt. The girl is actually concerned on her behalf, and she's not sure whether to laugh bitterly or run from the lab without looking back. She settles for doing neither and simply looks at the scan again, seeing for the first time the inelegant joints of limb to bone and rushed connections between wiring, carried out the night before a sparring match with her sister. She's come to accept the pain. It is a part of her as surely as her jealousy of Gamora had once been, much as she loathes it, only she's not sure how to convey that to the child before her.
Admittedly, Nebula had already been dealt her fair share of horrors by the time she was half Shuri's age, but she's found in her limited experience that human children tend to cling to a certain innocence longer than she ever got the chance to.
"I can deal with it," is all she says in response, itching to get away from civilisation once more. She has already been here too long.
No such luck. As though a switch has been flicked in her brain, Shuri's eyes become ablaze with intelligence and ideas, and she starts manipulating the scan to focus on individual elements of Nebula's body – figuratively cutting her into pieces like a premature dissection.
"You might not have to," she says, and Nebula wishes she'd stop talking before the sweet notion of a painless existence can sound real. "It would be difficult, certainly, but I believe there are modifications I could make to your systems. At the very least I could reduce the need for repairs, but there should be a way to minimise your pain if I-"
"No," Nebula interrupts, and though her voice sounds calm there's a finality there that has silence descending between them. Shuri looks her way, and something in her expression must betray her unnease, as it's enough for the girl to set the hologram aside and shut down the scanner; the surrounding screens mercifully going blank. "I know you want to help, but you can't."
"Okay," Shuri concedes, and Nebula can't help but feel grateful that she offers no resistance. Part of her had been expecting a fight. For the girl's need for a project - a distraction most likely – to render her unwilling to give up on her half-formed ideas, but instead she simply offers a smile before handing over a note of all repairs Nebula needs to perform.
It's then that it hits Nebula that Shuri's smile is a little too tight and requires more effort than it should, the bags under her eyes implying too many days without sleep, and her need for a project to carry her away all too familiar of someone she knows.
"Who did you lose?" she asks, and she knows from the way Shuri freezes that she's hit the nail on the head.
"My brother," Shuri replies after a beat, voice strong despite everything, though for the first time she seems even younger than her years. Still a child, even with so much responsibility resting on her shoulders. "Our king."
Nebula nods, hoping to convey something that approaches sympathy, but elects not to say anything else. Part of her wonders if she should mention Gamora. It occurs to her that she's encountered people who have lost children and best friends and lovers, but Shuri is the first she's met in the After who knows what it's like to lose a sibling. She wonders if that brings its own specific brand of pain that only others who have experienced it can comprehend. Then again, she imagines Shuri's relationship with her brother had been warmer than her own with Gamora for the most part, and Shuri also doesn't have the added guilt of being to blame for the circumstances they are currently navigating their way through.
Shuri is too kind to deserve that overwhelming blame, whereas Nebula imagines that particular brand of self-loathing is something she herself has earned many times over.
She utters a soft 'thank you' and this time shakes Shuri's hand when it's offered, before making her way to the spiral staircase sans escort. It's surprising that Shuri – a princess, presumably – hasn't called the Dora to collect her, but perhaps she's intuitive enough to know there's no need. Either that or she's too naïve for sense, though Nebula hasn't gleaned that impression of her.
"Nebula?" Shuri calls, forcing her to pause on the steps and look back. There's a hint of hesitation on the scientist's face, but it passes to make way for a genuine smile that leaves Nebula wondering what she's done to deserve her kindness. "My offer stands if you change your mind. You don't have to, but I'll be here if you do."
Instinct screams to shut her down. To outright refuse any offer of kindness and return to her ship without sparing another thought for the scientist and her offers to fix the multitude of faults residing within her broken body.
Instead she simply acknowledges Shuri's words with a nod and something that might even be a smile, before climbing the stairs to the mountain's surface.
For the first time in days, their ship is empty when Nebula finally makes her way home.
A brilliant orange sunset warns of the approaching dark and the M-ship casts long shadows across the grass. The peaceful evening isn't enough to banish the chill that settles over her as she notes the absence of light from within the ship and silence taking the place of music and Rocket's tinkering. She calls his name upon stepping foot on the ship only to hear nothing in response, but she ultimately decides that's for the best. There's no sense in the air that they're under attack. Most likely, Rocket has finally escaped to drown his sorrows further or reunite with Thor – how he'd managed to befriend a god, she'll never know - and given how antagonistic they've been towards each other all week, she could probably do with a break from him.
Taking advantage of the ability to do so alone, she sets about gathering tools she'll need for her repairs and sets Shuri's notes on the work-bench so she can prioritise her work. Rocket seems to have an endless supply of tools gathered around his makeshift arsenal, and she loots anything that seems remotely useful before settling on the bench and getting to work.
It's a tedious, often painful, process. She starts with her calves as the problems there seem to be the easiest to fix, and she cares more about maintaining the ability to walk than she does her other discomforts. Accessing the wiring requires her to remove the plates making up her synthetic blue skin – an action always accompanied by a sickening hiss – and taking a look at the damage.
It's better than she'd expected. Two wires controlling proprioception and balance are unsalvageable, but they're easily replaced thanks to Rocket's endless supply of spares, and she even manages to endure the electric shocks they induce without screaming. She notes regretfully that some pain receptors are beyond saving, doomed to cause a sharp twinge with every step she takes, but it's nothing she can't handle. Damage like that riddles her body and she's never bothered to fix it before now; she can take one or two more without complaint.
Time escapes her as she works, her legs alone taking hours as the sky outside turns an inky black. The lights from the city provide a comforting beacon on the occasions when she looks up from her work, and eventually she decides she can no longer tolerate the silence and activates Quill's Zune. The unique pleasure he found in music is something she may never understand, but as background noise it's surprisingly pleasant, and she finds some of the melodies sticking in her mind as she works.
Once repairs on both legs are done, she reattaches the plates with a satisfying click and wipes oil and grime onto her jacket in an attempt to spare her hands from staining. Assessing her hard work, she extends her ankles and hears the barely-audible, healthy whir that indicates her motor systems are functioning, and it doesn't take long for the pain of digging around her own body to ease.
She's tempted to bypass rest and simply move onto her left arm, before a harsh banging from outside has her leaping to her feet and spinning towards the source.
It sounds like something colliding with the ship's exterior; three rhythmic knocks followed by an expectant silence. Nebula waits for one breath, two, then feels synthetic synapses flare with tension as the knocking continues. It's too loud to be Rocket, and he would just invite himself in anyway. She can't hide and wait for whoever it is to leave - they've surely seen the lights and the music may be loud enough to be heard if someone's listening for it – so she takes initiative and heads towards the hatch, picking up one of Rocket's enhanced blasters en-route.
She pulls the latch to release the steps, then waits with the blaster primed at her side. Perhaps she'd been tempting fate by wanting so desperately to kill something earlier, but she doesn't have time to dwell on that before the light spills over a familiar face and her tension slips away like smoke.
"Are you always this welcoming?" Stark asks, a single eyebrow raised as he eyes the blaster pointed squarely at his chest. His tone implies he's only half-joking, especially as her shock at seeing him means she's neglected to lower the weapon.
She quickly corrects that, jerking her head in a silent invitation and stepping away from the hatch to let him climb the stairs unimpeded. His emergence onto the ship is accompanied by a wince that suggests his wound is not entirely healed, but he masks his pain expertly as he takes in his surroundings, eyeing Rocket's collection with interest. Nebula sets the blaster aside and lets herself wonder why he's even here; he probably shouldn't be out of the palace so soon after being confined to a hospital bed. The late hour suggests he's made a cunning escape, and she can only imagine how his self-appointed guard will feel upon finding him missing.
She doesn't care all that much for their concern, but she'd rather not be blamed for stealing him away when they eventually track him down.
Words escape her for the moment, and all she can do is watch like a shadow as he wanders around the ship, past her workbench and over to the flight-deck. He freezes upon reaching the pilots' seats, and it's then that she remembers she never bothered to clean them - his blood still stains the leather as a bitter reminder of their trip here. She half-expects him to bring it up, but he simply turns back to her with a smile that fails to meet his tired eyes.
"Queen, huh?" he asks, pointing to the speakers which continue to play Quill's music as though nothing has occurred. "Had you down as a Zeppelin fan."
"It's Quill's," she says, before catching herself. "Was Quill's. Rocket refuses to stop listening to it."
Stark hums under his breath before approaching the work-bench and letting himself collapse onto it, somehow making himself at home while also seeming entirely out-of-place.
"Why are you here?" she snaps, because in the five minutes he's been here he's failed to say anything remotely worth her time, and she can't help but feel a little tetchy at the sight of him. The last glimpse she got had been of him unconscious in a hospital bed, and she's gone a week without hearing anything until Shuri brought him up in passing. She needs this to be more than a social call if he wants to stay any longer.
It takes him a moment to answer, and she notices that despite the lightness of his attempts at interaction, he looks thoroughly exhausted. He's not as transparent as he'd been on Titan, but he's still ghostly pale with dark shadows under his eyes, and his hand trembles when he brushes it over his face.
"I needed to get away," he admits, glancing over to her with a tight smile that vanishes almost as quickly as it appears. "Everyone knows what happened now. Back on Titan. I held off on not telling them the gory details as long as I could, but they're an annoyingly persistent bunch. Especially Pepper. She'll probably kill me for this."
He smiles fondly and it's probably the only genuine one she's ever seen from him, but even that doesn't last. "I needed to escape for a bit. Figured you at least wouldn't treat me like I'm made of glass."
He might as well be, she thinks while looking at him. One shove would likely be enough to knock him to the floor. That said, he's right in assuming she isn't one for tenderness, and she releases a sigh of acceptance before wandering to the store-room.
"You want some scotch? Rocket 'borrowed' some from the palace earlier," she offers, reaching to the upper cupboards to claim some for herself regardless of his answer.
There's a bark of laughter which seems to surprise even Stark, before he rejects her offer with, "I'd better not. I've been doing well on that front."
Nebula merely shrugs, reaching for the bottle herself only to feel a sharp, electric snap that makes her hiss and stumble backwards. The metal arm trembles as she tries to regain control only to eventually flail by her side, useless, and she snarls at herself in an attempt to ignore the burning pain that consumes her left side.
She shouldn't have answered Stark's knocking. She should have stayed where she was and gotten to work on her arm before it could give up on her like this. Clenching her teeth to distract from the pain, she slams the cupboard shut with her right arm and wanders back to the main quarters, the scotch forgotten. It's only when she looks up that she notices Stark has risen to his feet, his eyes scanning her defunct arm with something that might be concern.
"Do you want me to take a look?" he asks, already taking a stride forward, and she feels her temper rise further. What is it with this day and engineers wanting to take her apart? "If you want to, I mean-"
His hand is raised, seeking permission, and she catches him with a glare that succeeds in making him pause.
"Touch me and I'll put another blade through you."
There's a beat, one in which he almost seems to take her threat seriously, before he manages a weak smirk that miraculously reaches his eyes. "No you won't."
She glares at him a while longer, trying to hold onto anger at his presence and concern and that damned smirk which seems to mock her even when his playful tone suggests otherwise, only to conclude that it's useless. Exhaustion takes hold and she sighs, muttering a quiet "damn it" before wandering to the bench and slumping gracelessly onto it. With all control wrestled from her arm, its dead weight pulls at her shoulder and she massages the cramp as thoroughly as she can before giving up. The ache is hardly new; she's used to worse.
Stark hovers to the point where it starts to become annoying, but he deems it safe to return to his spot on the bench before she can snap at him again. It isn't lost on her that his eyes are still locked on her arm. He reminds her of Shuri and Rocket – desperate for some project so they can forget the world for an hour or two – and she'd sympathise more if their respite didn't come at her expense.
"I wasn't lying you know," he says, her threat having taken away none of his nerve by the sound of it, but she doesn't have the energy to follow through on it. Besides, it was enough of a pain getting him home alive; stabbing him now would probably be counter-productive. "I could take a look, see what needs fixing. Would save you from having to do it, and I still owe you for that whole 'saving my life' thing."
Nebula neglects to mention that she had hardly been instrumental in saving him. All she'd done was bring him to the people who could, although he doesn't seem to care for that difference. She eyes the tools on the bench, knowing she's perfectly capable of repairing the arm on her own, but seeing as her prior efforts have only resulted in further disrepair perhaps a second opinion would be useful. Her skin bristles at the thought of letting someone else have that power - synthetic nerve endings firing with tension - but she knows she can easily overpower him if he hurts her.
Hell, a stiff breeze could do that.
"Screw it," she mutters, echoing two of Rocket's choice words. Stark at least has the grace not to look too eager at the opportunity to study alien tech. She makes quick work of separating the plates of her forearm, cursing under her breath at the resultant stab of pain before sitting back and letting him get to work. The temptation to keep her gaze fixed on some distant corner nags briefly, but she'd rather not leave him unsupervised. The arm's useless enough as it is without some inexperienced human making it worse.
Only he isn't inexperienced, she supposes. Assuming his armour on Titan was designed by him, he has impressive enough capabilities to make Thanos bleed. A single drop of blood, certainly, but more than most ever manage.
He works in silence for the most part, and Nebula's content enough to leave him to it. The wiring and mechanics are a mess, her prior attempts having only been temporary measures as she'd resorted to using what little resources she had, but Stark doesn't seem to mind the challenge of fixing the faults he can access. She finds herself bracing for pain more than once, knowing when to expect it from past experience. Occasionally she is unable to hide it. Even if she's able to suppress a sharp hiss, her clenching her fist is enough to shift the mechanics and have Stark pausing until she urges him to keep working.
The music continues to play. Nebula's unsure of how many songs Quill's device has, but there are some she recognises from living with Rocket this past week, and she has to admit that the melodies can be pleasant. Calming. She catches Stark humming absently to a slower song, and if she closes her eyes she can imagine that Quill and Gamora are here to dance to it. What's left of her heart aches at the notion. It is foolish to indulge in such a childish fantasy, she knows, but her eyes remain closed just a little longer as she allows herself to picture her sister's smile.
"I've been thinking," Stark utters after what must be close to an hour, his voice seeming unnaturally loud in the quiet of the ship. She opens her eyes to look at him, seeing oil staining his hands as he becomes distracted by a particularly tangled mass of wires. Thanos's torture seems to have burned them to a crisp, to the point where Nebula's surprised her arm's function lasted as long as it did, and sure enough Stark ends up reaching across the table for a set of replacements.
"Sounds ominous," Nebula responds, not entirely sure if she's joking or not. Stark doesn't seem to know either; his resulting smile tight and forced as he makes an effort not to meet her eyes, and Nebula wonders if she truly wants to hear what's on his mind.
Not that it looks like he's going to give her a choice.
"Doctor Strange said he saw fourteen million potential outcomes of our fight with Thanos and only one where we win," he says eventually, and Nebula's expression must be one of perplexity for he quickly elaborates. "Not sure you were there at the time. He was the wizard; the one with the Time Stone."
Ah. She did know who he was referring to then. The man hadn't made much of an impression on her during the fight – too caught up was she in her own fury and grief – and Thanos had already vanished by the time she found Stark with a hole in his side. Strange must have been the reason her father acquired the Time Stone, and Nebula finds a chill settling upon her as she begins to comprehend his final cryptic message. She'd thought nothing of it at the time - he'd simply been another ally to crumble before her eyes – but now his voice rings loud and clear as she recalls his final "There was no other way."
Stark must hear it too. Perhaps more clearly than she does; the words had been intended for him after all.
"Strange saw an outcome where we win, yet he still gave up the Time Stone to save my life."
Nebula can practically feel the guilt rolling off him in waves. It mirrors her own too closely for comfort, and the echo of Gamora's hand on her cheek returns like a brand.
"But we didn't win, did we? I mean, this," he lifts his hand and twirls a finger in the air, encompassing the ship and the broken universe beyond it. "This isn't winning. This is barely surviving. There's got to be something we're missing here. Something else we can do."
"Maybe there isn't," Nebula proposes with a tinge of desperation, because she can tell where this is headed, and she thinks the false hope that's slowly consuming Stark will be enough to destroy her. She has enough pain resting on her shoulders without adding to it further with sanguine fantasies. "Gamora gave up a stone to save my life too. Sentiment makes people weak; Strange was simply a victim of it."
"No, that's not it. Strange would have thrown me under a bus if he had the chance," Stark laughs bitterly, and Nebula can't help but believe him. "He knew something, he must have done."
She can see it happening in real-time – the dawning of futile hope in a man who otherwise has none - and it makes the void within her feel like a black hole.
"Maybe we can bring them back."
"I'm serious," he interjects before she can shoot him down, and the hope in his eyes is so overwhelming – so unbearably naïve - that she has to look away. "What if we can figure out a way to reverse what Thanos did, maybe even stop it from happening again? What if there's a way to bring Peter back; to bring Gamora back?"
Mentioning her sister is a low blow and Nebula flinches as though she's been slapped. She has half a mind to jerk her arm away and kick him out, repairs be damned, but she's somehow able to restrain herself. Her voice is tight however, clipped, as she utters a dangerous, "You must be a fool to believe that."
"I don't have a choice. I have to believe it."
"Then you are a child!" she snarls, unable to hold back her anger any longer. She turns to him with steel in her eyes, a sick sense of satisfaction washing over her when he recoils as though struck. Perhaps it is cruel to snatch hope from him when he has so little left, but she's spent her entire life running from hope and it's probably the only reason she still breathes. It's a dangerous drug that has killed many more than she has, and gods help her but she can't watch as it destroys Stark too.
There's quiet for a moment broken only by an inappropriately upbeat song, though through the roaring in her mind Nebula can barely hear it. Guilt claws at her chest as Stark slumps in defeat, returning to work on her arm with a shaky exhale that seems to threaten tears. To his credit, they never fall.
"I know," he mutters, managing to summon a weak smile. "Trust me, I know. But I need to believe there's a way we can fix this, because if this is reality now - if this is all there is - then I don't want it, I don't want it."
She's not sure what to say to that. Her fury leaves her almost as quickly as it arose, leaving only a bitter ache in its place. It's easy to understand why Stark can't accept the reality that's been thrust upon them. It's only been a week; barely enough time to consider the prospect of moving on, let alone make a start on it.
Nebula wonders how long it'll take for the universe to fully recover. Thanos often boasted that the planets he decimated became havens – paradises – as a result of his actions, but it must surely have taken years of mourning and turmoil for that to happen. Too long to wait, considering a mere week has left her fraying at the seams and Stark grasping at fantasies in order not to shatter completely.
She wonders if he realises that he is lucky, despite everything. Unlike Rocket – unlike her – he still has family remaining. He has Rhodey and Pepper and Steve and various others who've been by his side since he returned home, overjoyed to see him alive regardless of the circumstances. Interfering with Thanos, with time itself, may risk those precious few lives further. Then again, it's likely difficult to count one's blessings when the fact remains that his heart only beats because countless lives were exchanged for his.
She knows what that's like. Knows what it does to the soul, and the fact that they're both still here to endure it is a miracle.
"I wish it were possible," she whispers, barely loud enough for him to hear. It feels like a confession; an acceptance that she too would give everything to set things right, though she knows there's nothing to be done. "I just don't see how. We failed when he was half as powerful as he is now."
Stark nods, failing to meet her eyes. The thought has likely occurred to him too. They're lucky they still have Thor on their side at least, but the other remnants of his army are woefully unprepared for another fight. Even Nebula isn't prepared. Her desire to kill Thanos will most likely end in failure, though she cannot bring herself to care about that.
They sit in silence for a while, Stark finishing up work on her forearm and moving to the complex mechanics of her shoulder. At some point she stops feeling the need to scrutinise his every action and faces a dark corner instead, emptying her mind as fully as possible. It's such a long time before either of them speaks that when she hears Stark's voice it seems unnaturally loud.
"I had to call his aunt a couple of days ago," he murmurs with a tremble in his voice, and Nebula notices that he's paused his work to wipe grease on his shirt. His eyes have gone dull again - his mind wandering far from the confines of the ship - and it isn't lost on her that he forces out every word as though they physically pain him. "Peter's aunt. I wanted to meet her in person, but Pep won't let me leave until she's 100% sure I'm all fixed up. Got to the point where I just couldn't leave May wondering why her nephew hadn't come home."
Nebula imagines the woman must have had some idea, assuming she'd been paying attention. Then again, lack of confirmation tends to inspire hope no matter how terrible one's circumstances are, and it's likely the agony of not knowing with any certainty whether her nephew was alive or dead had been too much to bear. It's something she hasn't let herself dwell on too deeply; the number of those who vanished without witnesses, whose deaths may never be confirmed, and the pain their loved ones will experience as they futilely wait for them to return.
"You know what the worst thing was?" Stark asks, his breathing harsh and a bitter laugh overwhelming him before he can stop it. Nebula can only shake her head in response. "She thanked me. I was expecting screaming and blame, and I got it, but it didn't matter because I deserve that. Hell, I deserve worse. But by the end of the call, she'd calmed a little and she actually thanked me for telling her. For being with him. Like this whole mess wasn't my fault in the first place."
"You couldn't have-"
"Couldn't have stopped him from dying, I know," Stark admits, though the knowledge doesn't seem to make a difference. Tears return to his eyes but they refuse to fall, and his body is so tense with rage or grief or both that it must surely hurt. "But Strange still bartered Peter's life for mine. He risked trillions of lives for mine."
"Gamora did the same for me," Nebula reminds him, the words tasting like ash on her tongue. "You're not the only one to blame, Stark."
That seems to strike at the heart of the issue. Stark releases a defeated sigh and ducks his head, his hands trembling in his lap and his breaths coming too quickly for comfort. It is a strange burden for them to share – to be responsible, no matter how unintentionally, for the deaths of so many –and she thinks she understands why he is so desperate for that glimmer of hope; for Strange's dying words to mean something beyond pained acceptance.
"Would you join us?" Stark asks, his voice a mere whisper and so small he may as well be a child, though his eyes look older than his years when she returns his gaze. That spark of hope still persists, however, and Nebula suppresses the urge to stamp it out. Doing so would be a cruelty only her father would approve of. "If we figured out a way to make things right, would you join us?"
"If it gets me closer to killing Thanos, I guess I'll have to."
That's all that matters in the end. Stark can chase his dreams of reversing the slaughter to their inevitable failure all he wants, so long as she gets a chance to put a sword through Thanos's heart.
"You know there's a line, right? A lot of people want to kill him, including an actual god," Stark jokes, his voice light for once and a small smile gracing his lips even when she throws a glare in his direction. "Don't look so offended. My money's still on you."
Somehow, impossibly, she manages to smile at that. It's a small thing – a tug of the lips that may well resemble a smirk – but it's something.
They pass the next few hours in relative silence. Stark tinkers away at her damaged shoulder while she focuses on the music to escape from the occasional bursts of pain his work elicits. The inky blackness of night eventually lightens to the pale glow of an approaching sunrise, highlighting the sleeping city in the distance through the ship's windows. It won't be long before its occupants awaken and Stark's absence is noted, though he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to return.
It takes her by surprise when the plates of her arm slide shut – all repairs completed for the moment – and Stark wipes an arm across his forehead that leaves an oily streak. He looks exhausted, and the early hour reminds Nebula that she too is in need of rest, but his eyes seem to hold more life than they had earlier; as though the work has dealt him a temporary sense of purpose.
"I've done what I can," he states, and Nebula assesses his handwork by clenching her fist and rotating the shoulder. The movement feels slightly stiff at first but becomes fluid with time, and to her relief his repairs have lessened the pain a little. "Should buy you some time, though you're looking at needing a replacement soon. That thing can't be comfortable."
The idea of having another part of her removed and replaced makes her chest clench and she holds her tongue to prevent herself from snapping again. She is so unused to people caring about her comfort that having two people mention it in the space of a day is unsettling. It's as though her weaknesses are being exposed to the world in sickening detail.
Stark means well, however, so she merely huffs a sigh and rises from the bench, craving some distance after so long spent beside another person.
"The girl in the lab. Shuri?" she asks before she can stop herself, and when Stark nods a confirmation she continues. "She said she could run repairs. Offered to dampen down the pain."
"You gonna take her up on it?"
"I don't know."
It is strange. Despite her conviction when she'd refused Shuri's proposal, Nebula's mind has neglected to drop the matter in the hours since. She's reminded of when she finally confronted Gamora on Ego and felt all her hatred - her all-encompassing need to win - being sapped from her upon finally achieving her victory. Admitting that she'd only ever wanted a sister, never an opponent, had changed her relationship with Gamora irrevocably.
With time, she'd come to acknowledge that change as being for the better. It was good to have a contact out in the galaxy - someone to trust and perhaps even love - but she remembers all too well the sucking void she'd felt as she left the Guardians behind. It had been odd to emerge into a life in which her motives weren't fuelled by the desire to better Gamora. She didn't know what she was without that desire, and the shift had gnawed at her for a long time before she'd felt able to accept it.
She imagines it'll be the same here. She's known this agony since her very first modification at the tender age of eight, and she doesn't know what she is without it. What her existence will be like without that permanent distraction.
"I don't think I want the pain to go away."
She doesn't know what makes her admit it, but she knows as soon as the words are out that they're true. Her eyes rise to meet Stark's, half-expecting him to regard her as something broken. He wouldn't be the first. Even Gamora had been guilty of it on numerous occasions.
Instead she finds something that might impossibly be understanding, and he regards her for a long moment before rising to his feet.
"I take it you've seen this thing I have on my chest?" he starts, tapping on the glowing blue device resting beneath his shirt. She nods, though admittedly she's never given it much thought. It seems firmly attached to his skin, but she knows from seeing him in the hospital that it can be detached, and from what she picked up during the battle it seems to be instrumental in powering his suit. Any significance beyond that is lost on her.
"I used to have something similar to this, only it was literally embedded in my chest," he continues with a haunted expression she knows too well. So, Stark knows what it's like to be modified. Perhaps that's why he seems so concerned by her pain. "It wasn't by choice. Started out as a literal car battery, designed to keep shrapnel from tearing my ticker to shreds. I replaced that with one of these," he taps on the device again with something that might be fondness. "It's called an arc reactor. Could power my heart for several lifetimes if I needed it to.
"Only, it hurt like a bitch. I couldn't bend over without feeling like I'd been punched; couldn't take a full breath 'cause it took up too much room in my chest - squashed my lungs to the side. But it powered my suits and kept my heart in one piece, so I dealt with it. Even after the stuff that was powering it tried to kill me."
He pauses, expression lost in the past for a moment. Nebula feels a phantom ache in her own chest; she knows what it's like to have her sternum and ribs and lungs pushed aside to make way for metal. The only difference is that she continues to endure it while Stark seems to have been freed.
"Took a couple of years, but I started to work out ways to safely remove the shrapnel so I wouldn't need the reactor anymore. Weird thing is, when the time came I was scared shitless of getting rid of it. It was like it had become a part of me; felt like I couldn't be Iron Man without it. Only thing that persuaded me to go ahead was the hope that the pain might get better. Well, that and Pepper."
A fond smile graces his lips then, and Nebula realises way too late that this 'Pepper' must be the orange-haired woman from his hospital room.
"And did it?" she asks, eyes fixed on his now barren chest as she wonders whether she truly wants the answer. "Get better?"
"For the most part," he admits with a shrug. "I've got a pretty impressive scar to show for it. Sometimes breathing still hurts and my ribcage is never going to be the same. But I have more stamina now - I'm actually better at being Iron Man without it. And I don't catch Pepper looking at me like I'm broken anymore. Or at least, I didn't before all this happened."
She can't tell if that's the answer she wanted or not; can't tell if her questions were seeking dissuasion from undergoing Shuri's repairs or conviction that they'd be the right thing to do. She feels like she's acquired neither. Losing her pain, or as much of it as can be taken away, sounds like such an outlandish concept that part of her wants to laugh, yet she's unable to make a sound. If she focuses, she can feel every faulty wire in her machinery - every awkward join of metal to flesh - and though the pain is exquisite, it is all she's known for as long as she can remember.
Stark seems to sense her hesitation, and his ability to read her like a book unnerves her more than it should.
"I get it if you don't want to do anything," he says with what might be intended as a reassuring smile, before looking away as though to release her from a burning spotlight. "I'm just saying it might help."
With that, he seems to have said his piece, as though he instinctively knows she has nothing to add. He wanders towards the flight-deck, allowing himself a precious few seconds to admire the sunrise before releasing a sigh and returning to the ship's hatch.
"I should head back. I've probably given Rhodey an aneurysm by now," he says with finality and a breathy laugh, only half-joking by the sound of it. Nebula merely nods in agreement before wandering over to assist him. She tugs on the latch to release the steps, drowning in the deafening drone as the mechanics fall to the battered earth below, and the sound echoes in her ears even as the world returns to silence. Stark lingers for a little longer, perhaps dreading his return to reality more than his jest had let on.
Sure enough, when he gives her one last glance there's a sincerity there that contradicts his attempts at lightness.
"We'll find a way to make things right, even if it kills us," he promises, and he sounds so convinced she almost believes him. Almost. "We could really use your help. You know Thanos better than anyone."
It's not the first time he's invited her to help his friends and she suspects it won't be the last. Having allies in her fight against Thanos is an attractive prospect, but the thought still gives her pause. Most people who have fought by her side have perished over time while she lives on, alone, and the thought of more people dying only for their mission to fail fills her with ice.
Stark doesn't seem to expect an answer right this minute, which she takes is a small mercy.
"Go to your friends, Stark," she commands, and to her relief he reads her words as a final dismissal. With little more than a strained smile and a nod of farewell, he descends the steps and moves out to the world beyond – likely preparing himself for his friends' wrath – and she watches him go until he's a mere speck on the horizon before closing the ship. Her left arm moves smoothly for the first time in over a week, and the relative absence of pain makes her close her eyes before longing can overtake her.
She wanders over to the work-bench, resigned to carrying out her remaining repairs. It doesn't take long for his words concerning the arc reactor to sink its teeth into her mind, however, and before she can stop herself she throws a screwdriver aside in frustration and damns his name.
There's a further three days of indecision, but she finds herself bathed in the warm light of Shuri's lab sooner than anticipated. Apprehension claws at her as she descends every step, and the thought of more hands taking her apart almost convinces her to go back the way she came and never return.
All fear vanishes once she emerges into the heart of the mountain, however, and certainty grips her for the first time since her arrival on Earth once Shuri welcomes her back with a warm smile.
This is technically part one of my original intention for chapter 4, before it became something of a monster and splitting it in two started to look like a reasonable option. Thankfully, part 2/chapter 5 is almost finished so that *should* be up fairly soon.
Thank you so much for your continued interest in this story! I hope you enjoy this and I'll try to get chapter 5 up as quickly as I can.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shuri's talkative when she works. Words pour from her with unabashed eagerness as she explains every fine detail of her process - every repair and modification she makes - and she doesn't seem to mind Nebula's own lack of conversation. The technicalities of what's being explained are far beyond even Nebula's expertise of her own body, but she finds comfort in having Shuri describe what she's doing at all times; implicitly offering an escape at any moment should the ordeal become too strenuous.
For her part, Nebula remains silent besides the odd utterance of consent for Shuri to go on, and a refusal of any medications or anaesthetic. The latter point makes the scientist seem reluctant, albeit momentarily, but Nebula knows she can't afford to lose consciousness as someone makes alterations to her body. Shuri is as delicate as possible as she replaces faulty machinery with Vibranium, to the point where Nebula often braces for pain that doesn't come, and when more extreme modifications do arise, she finds herself able to clench her teeth and bear it. Shuri's warned that her usual pain may not dampen for a while – assuming the repairs are even able to touch it - but wiggling her toes and taking a breath during each pause is enough to assure her that her systems are now more stable.
They leave the replacement arm until last. Nebula can't quite contain her surprise when Shuri casually mentions that she already has one prepared. Sure enough, she's eventually faced with an arm the same shade of dazzling blue as the mountain's core; similar enough to her own skin-tone that the connection may well end up looking seamless.
"You don't keep those lying around, do you?" Nebula asks, unable to imagine why Shuri would have one prepared considering the hard 'No' she'd been given three days earlier. The girl simply laughs, a refreshingly carefree sound that must be a rarity these days, before shaking her head.
"Not usually," Shuri admits as she settles by Nebula's side to get a feel for how to carry out the exchange. Studying the flawless sheen of the replacement up close – the Vibranium's power implicit in every inch – makes Nebula's own feel like something Rocket would put together while drunk. "But Mr Stark insisted you might change your mind, and I like to be prepared."
"Of course he did," Nebula mutters, lowly enough for Shuri to give no indication of having heard her. Part of her yearns to confront Stark and order him to keep his nose out of her business, but considering the prospect of an improved arm is hardly an unappealing one, she supposes she can set her irritation aside for the moment.
Removing the arm marks the first point of the day where Shuri is silent. After having her voice act as a reliable anchor to the present for so long, the sudden quiet is unnerving. The strings keeping Nebula in place fray and unravel as her mind wanders back to crueler hands taking her arm from her torso; her eye from its socket; her brain from her skull. There's music playing in the background but it's so unlike the songs Rocket blares that it's difficult to connect to it, and the harsh crash of activity within the mountain takes her momentarily back to Thanos's ship. She doesn't panic – she hasn't done that in years – but she surprises even herself when she eventually shatters the calm.
"Your brother," she hears her own voice saying absently, and the world returns to her in almost blinding detail. Shuri's deft fingers freeze against her shoulder, the girl's breath caught in her throat for a moment, though she quickly recovers. "Tell me about him."
There's a quiet beat of hesitation, but once Shuri starts speaking, it's a while before she stops. Nebula lets her carry on without interruption, closing her eyes against the pain as she listens to tales of King T'Challa. Shuri tells her of the times they would race each other on the plains beyond the city; how he would let her win every time even when she called him out on it. She tells of how he would read her stories and sing her to sleep when she was very young - a memory that only returned after she heard he was gone; of how he'd encouraged her interest in science and engineering, even when the elders were sceptical of her abilities; of how he'd willingly played a role as a test-subject once Shuri started developing her own version of the Black Panther suit at the tender age of eight.
"I was eleven when he first used my design in combat," Shuri states proudly while carrying out the final touches on the new arm, the old one having been cast aside long ago. Shuri's voice has grown stronger over the hours it's taken to get to this point; the pain of her brother's loss temporarily drowned out by the warm memories of him in life. "He returned from his mission with a dumb grin on his face and told me it was perfect, but I knew there was still so much work to be done before it was even close to that. He said the same after every mission – every update - no matter how many times I reminded him there would always be improvements to be made."
It's such a sharp contrast to Nebula's relationship with Gamora that even as curiosity gnaws at her, she finds herself unable to interrupt. All those years spent fighting each other in combat feels like a tragic waste in light of what could have been. Out of nowhere, Nebula finds herself nostalgic for the early days when Gamora would sneak over to her bunk, having memorised the guard's rotation and identified the ten minutes they could spend together unseen. The two would hold each other to make up for the bruises they'd been forced to leave earlier, talking wistfully about their plans to revolt against their captors and free their other siblings. Their time together was always too brief. The guards would return almost as soon as they had vanished, forcing Gamora to crawl to her own bunk like a shadow, leaving only a dark void where she had once been.
With time, Nebula had forgotten those stolen moments of comfort. It is only now that she is starting to recall them in any clarity, and her chest aches at the bitter reminder of what she's lost.
"You're still working on the suit," she acknowledges finally, in an attempt to distract herself from a nagging sense of grief. Her eyes had earlier fallen to an impressive display of sleek black armour at the opposite end of the lab, half-drawn specs projected onto surrounding glass, and it's only now that she realises what it must be.
"Yes," Shuri says, her hands trembling slightly as she too takes in the display before returning to her work. "The mantle of Black Panther is one that is passed down through the generations. Someone else will take it up one day."
"Is that someone you?" Nebula asks out of curiosity. The girl doesn't come across as a fighter, though there's certainly a strength to her that would prove useful in battle and her fierce intelligence is as deadly a weapon as any Nebula's wielded.
"I don't know," Shuri admits with a weak smile. There's a tear-track on her cheek that Nebula hadn't noticed before now, but her eyes remain clear despite her evident grief. "I'm more of a scientist than a warrior, but there's no-one alive who knows that suit better than I do. Whoever takes the mantle will need me by their side."
What's left to fix is carried out in comfortable silence. The sharp ache of everything that's been done to Nebula starts to take hold, and when the arm finally connects with a satisfying click, she finds herself releasing a strained exhale and closing her eyes to fight off the ebbing waves of pain. To Shuri's credit, though, she does feel less broken now. More held together than before, when she'd been in constant danger of falling to ruin.
When she rises to her feet and tests the weight of the arm, an unfamiliar lightness takes her aback. She hadn't realised just how heavy her old one had been, but now that she has the new one resting by her side, the absence of a persistent, cramping ache has a lump forming in her throat. Nebula wonders if Shuri realises that she doesn't deserve this, but she has no desire to bring that up and descend into an argument.
Instead, she simply gives Shuri as solemn a 'Thank you' as she can muster and makes note of her parting words of advice, before starting the journey home in a body that no longer feels like her own.
It's only later, once she appraises herself in a broken mirror from Quill's old quarters, that she comes to appreciate the extent of all that's changed. Her return journey to the Benatar had been an interesting experience, to say the least. For the strongest metal on Earth, the Vibranium within her is shockingly light, and it had taken a mile or two to become accustomed to walking on legs that suddenly felt as weightless as air. Hell, so much of her is Vibranium now she's surprised Wakanda hasn't laid a claim to her body.
The new internal mechanics run more smoothly than the old ever did, even when they'd been brand new. The absence of a faint mechanical whine with each joint movement and a renewed elegance to her fine actions had been so jarring, she'd had to pause in the middle of a busy street, keeping her head down to shield herself from stares. Shuri hasn't diminished the level of threat Nebula poses, to her relief. Slamming her new fist into a wall en-route had left a dent impressive even by her standards, and she'd journeyed home via the forest to practice throwing blades at anything unlucky enough to move in her presence. Not only was her aim always true, but each movement flowed more gracefully with every dagger she launched.
Peering into the mirror, she exposes her left shoulder to assess the connection between the new arm and her body. The join is seamless. Even the colour is an almost perfect match, to the point where from a distance it may even look organic, and there's barely a groove to be felt where synthetic skin meets metal.
It's not the only alteration to her appearance. The harsh, jagged metal encasing her left eye and embedded in her skull is now overlain with a sheet of blue Vibranium, making her skull seem smooth and untouched by metal. A purple plate has replaced the silver atop her skull, blending perfectly with her skin, and though she can feel the difference in texture beneath her fingers, the mirror convinces her that the connections are invisible. It's still inevitable that Nebula will stand out among the Wakandan crowds on the rare occasions she ventures outside, but Shuri's work has made her appear less cold and artificial, even while soulless black eyes stare out from what appears to be an unspoiled face.
There's still pain, though she'd anticipated that. One does not endure their entire body being altered without having some residual agony, no matter how expertly Shuri targeted what Thanos had broken. What's surprising is how bearable it all is. What was once a relentless, uncompromising ache with every movement has dulled to a gnawing throb at its worst. Her breaths still come with a certain tightness but the burn is gone; what remains of her lungs expanding fully without the sensation of a dagger entering them on each inhale.
And she can think, clearly, for the first time in decades.
"You're not quite as freaky-lookin' as you used to be," Rocket admits as he too assesses Shuri's handiwork, seeming both impressed and envious at the results. Most of the outer changes are subtle enough that Nebula's surprised he even noticed a difference, though perhaps the way he's eyeing up her left arm provides an explanation for that. "Still a raging psychopath though."
She rolls her eyes but says nothing in response to his goading. They've been doing well since their last fight when it comes to remaining civil – Rocket having finally escaped the ship to drown his sorrows with Thor – and she's no longer on-edge enough to rise to his teasing. Not killing him and turning him into a hat is a feat she's become rather proud of, and she'd like to continue that streak.
A faint rapping on metal has her looking down to find Rocket closely admiring her arm for far longer than is necessary, before glancing up at her with a cunning smirk. "Yeah, I'm definitely taking this off you at some point."
So much for restraint. She shoves him away, albeit with less force than intended, but he merely wanders back to his corner with a satisfied snigger. It looks like she'll have to start sleeping with one eye open, though that's hardly a new skill for her.
Turning back to the mirror, she allows herself one last moment to admire Shuri's work; the subtle differences that have masked a little of the damage Thanos did to her, no matter how superficially. Her new arm could be mistaken for flesh in the right lighting, and her skull appears almost as smooth as it had years ago, before she'd even heard the name 'Thanos'. No degree of alterations will ever be enough to wipe out all that her father has done to her, but for now she seems almost whole. Less like the broken creature she'd grown accustomed to staring back at in reflections.
She wonders if her father will see the same when she drives a sword through his heart.
Wakanda's serenity is eventually broken by the arrival of a Sakaaran escape-craft; a moderately sized vessel which descends from the sky at a snail's pace as though wary of being shot down.
Half the city seems to have gathered to watch its approach. A long line of Dora Milaje and members of the Jabari tribe stand guard in the centre of the field, protecting Wakanda's citizens, while curious onlookers gawp and point behind them. The absence of fear marks a pleasant change from the last time alien vessels landed here. The ship's arrival must have been anticipated, Nebula assumes, and it isn't long before Thor emerges from the crowd to confirm her suspicions.
The god stands tall and unmistakable before the humans that surround him, watching as the ship makes her final descent onto a field which now seems to double as a landing pad. Nebula and Rocket observe from the safety of the Benatar as a small group of Asgardians materialise from the ship, some hanging back in fear while others rush forward to greet their king. A commander leads them onwards – a dark-skinned woman donned in intricate armour – and there's a palpable moment of hesitation in the air before she and Thor throw themselves into a tight embrace; their fervent greetings heard clearly even from a distance.
Nebula watches the proceedings take place with muted interest, content to simply appreciate the feeling of warmth on her new skin for an hour or two. She's settled on a wing of the Benatar, her legs dangling from the edge while Rocket fidgets restlessly by her side. It's difficult to tell whether he's happy on behalf of his new friend or not. Every time Nebula thinks she sees a fond smile cross his face, it's quickly banished in favour of a melancholy that makes him seem impossibly old.
"You shoulda seen him when their distress signal came through," he says wistfully, nodding in the direction of Thor who is now keenly engaging with what remains of his people. Most are indistinguishable from Terrans at this distance, though Nebula recognises the odd reptilian creature from her time spent on Sakaar's plazas, and there's even a giant creature composed entirely of rocks. She and Rocket may no longer be the most conspicuous creatures on Earth. "Was like watchin' a dead man be zapped back to life."
The Dora and Jabari suddenly part to reveal Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri, who step forward to personally welcome the newcomers. The air stills as a civil discussion passes between both parties; Thor and the ship's commander pleading their case for asylum now that Asgard is gone. The tension is finally broken when the commander bows to Shuri in gratitude, and Nebula spots several Asgardians hugging each other out of relief before the crowd makes their retreat with the new arrivals in tow.
It's Rocket who moves first once the excitement has passed, stretching his legs with an exaggerated yawn before rising to his feet.
"Lucky bastard," he mutters under his breath, resentment dripping from his tone like acid. "Guess he has something to lose now."
What he wouldn't give to receive a distress call of his own, Nebula imagines. To be working away in the Benatar or sleeping at night only to be roused by Quill's frantic voice going "Where the hell are you?" or the tree grumbling something in Grootspeak over the comms. She doubts he truly begrudges Thor his momentary glimpse of happiness, but she can still feel Rocket's jealousy pouring off him in waves as he throws himself off the wing and storms back into the ship.
The smart thing to do would be to leave him stewing in his anger and grief for a few hours, but with the plains now empty, there's little left for Nebula to do out here. She could raid the Sakaaran ship for weapons if she were desperate, though she's unlikely to find much of use in an escape-craft and stealing from refugees is a tad low even for her. Or rather, she has little to gain from doing so.
The only other option is to return to the palace with the others, but the idea of being among such a vast, excitable crowd makes her anxious to the point where retiring to the ship is the only real option she has.
It always takes her by surprise when she steps inside to find just how gutted the place is. Nothing has survived Rocket's plundering besides the bare essentials necessary for flight. Even Quill's precious speakers have been reduced to scrap, though Rocket's spared the earphones and continues to listen to his captain's music at all hours of the day. The effort doesn't seem to have been worth it. Nebula managed to nab some of his blasters for target practice earlier in the week, and though they certainly pack a punch, they'll barely land a bruise on Thanos assuming he is the intended target. The bombs, she's stayed away from. Having them lying around the ship unsettles her enough as it is, even with Rocket's assurances that the Guardians let him get away with making them all the time. Nebula cannot imagine her sister being so reckless as to allow such a thing, though she doubts anyone has the power to stop Rocket when he's on a self-appointed mission.
The creature now seems to be in the process of assessing each and every one of his creations, separating blasters and grenades and cannons into two piles she can only assume are split into 'may be useful' and 'heaps of junk'. By appearance alone, it's difficult to tell which is which. Rocket barely glances her way as she settles on the bench beside him, watching as he goes about his work in a fit of rabid desperation. The only time he even looks up is to chuck a faulty blaster against a wall, shattering it with a satisfying crash, and by the time he finally acknowledges her he has two distinct piles of weaponry on either side of him.
"I'm leaving," he announces with conviction, rising only to pace the cramped confines of the ship, albeit never making an effort to follow through on his words by approaching the flight-deck. "I hate this - this waiting. I hate this stupid planet. I hate that the asshole who killed my friends is still out there and we've been sitting here doing nothing!"
He kicks the workbench with such ferocity it must hurt, though he doesn't cry out. Instead he simply collapses to the floor, dejected, and keeps his head down as he tries to gather his breath. Nebula can only watch, a trace of sympathy stubbornly gnawing at her. She feels the same, deep down. Sitting still has done nothing but make her feel more hopeless, and her aim of killing Thanos seems to slip through her hands like water the longer she stays on Earth.
However, she also knows that she can't win on her own. Even Rocket's involvement may be more of a hindrance than a help.
"We might not need to wait much longer," she says, though she struggles to believe her own words. "Last I saw Stark, he was working on a plan of his own."
Rocket laughs bitterly at the notion, clutching his head in his hands before looking up at her with a sneer. It's half-hearted - what energy he has for hate already wasted after seeing Thor's good fortune – but the desired effect comes through all the same. Any faith he had in the humans or Thor or anyone else likely dissipated days ago, perhaps as far back as watching Groot fade before his eyes.
"If Stark had a good plan we'd be halfway across the universe by now and Thanos's head would be on a spike!" Rocket mocks, though he doesn't seem to find much pleasure in doing so. "I've heard bits and pieces of their plan from the big guy. It's hopeless, all of it. Just some fairytale they're holding onto because they can't accept that everyone is dead."
The truth of his words sinks like a stone within her. She had accused Stark of something similar, almost a week ago; had called him a child for even trying to believe he could bring his loved ones back. Admittedly, Rocket is hardly in a position to judge when it comes to being unable to let go of one's dead. He's been clinging to Quill's music since the very beginning. Groot's electronic games remain intact even when it seems every other piece of machinery has been torn to shreds, and Drax's family heirlooms are displayed among Rocket's personal belongings. He's even claimed a gun that belonged to some nameless soldier from the battle, and the fact that it remains notably absent from his pile of weapons implies he can't bring himself to use it.
"So what's your plan then?" Nebula asks, trying to keep the edge out of her tone and failing remarkably.
"We go to Thanos," Rocket says with a mere shrug, likely having given the specifics little thought beyond that. "Throw everything we have at him until he dies or we do. Or both, I don't care."
Nebula scoffs and surveys his handiwork, his precious arsenal in the fight against Thanos; pointedly ignoring the venomous spite he throws her way with a single glare. "I know my father. Your weapons won't even leave a scratch."
"Then we pay a visit to my friend Eitri," he says, as though that could possibly offer her any explanation.
"We met him on Nidavellir," Rocket interrupts, waving a dismissive hand in the air while a chill runs through Nebula at the mention of the place. "He made Thor's axe. We'll just convince him to make us something awesome as well."
The sheer idiocy of his words would have her laughing out of spite, if she weren't so trapped within her own memories. Nidavellir is a place she's only heard mentioned in the context of Thanos achieving his goal – promising the tool that would allow him to destroy half the universe with a single snap of his fingers. Upon seeing her father with the gauntlet in hand, she'd been certain there would be nothing left of the place. That Thanos would leave even one survivor capable of making another gauntlet seems like an oversight, but then, he does like to consider himself merciful.
Even if Rocket somehow convinced this Eitri to create a weapon capable of bringing down gods, he would never be able to wield it without withering away or burning to a blackened husk. The plan is so foolish that Stark's vague notions of reversing Thanos's wrongdoings feel ingenious in comparison.
"Even Thor's axe wasn't enough to finish him," is what she settles on saying with a measured breath. "We wouldn't stand a chance."
"I don't care," Rocket snaps, and it hits her that he really doesn't. He has no strategy. No plan, beyond charging at an opponent who can and will kill him in a heartbeat. He's spent almost two weeks on Earth building and rebuilding weapons which don't have a hope in hell of defeating Thanos, but he doesn't care about any of that. All that matters to him is hunting down her father and going out all guns blazing. And if he dies? Well, then there's a small chance he'll see his family again so why the hell should that frighten him?
She hates the fact that she understands his reasoning so clearly.
"I'm leaving before dawn," he says with a conviction that doesn't suit the creature before her; this hunched over thing with grief in his eyes who has resigned himself to a self-imposed fate. "If you're not on the ship by then, you can stay on this dumb planet with the humies for all I care."
"You don't even know how to find him."
It's a weak argument and she knows it, but she's far too close to resigning to rashness herself for comfort. Impatience she fought so hard to banish returns with a fervour; her fury at the fact that she's barely accomplished anything in the two weeks since Gamora died threatening to smother her. Rocket sees through her as though she were composed of glass, if the half-hearted sneer he adorns is any indication.
"Like that'll be difficult," he responds, his sneer quickly transforming into a pained grimace. "He ain't exactly inconspicuous. Someone must know where he is; all we need to do is ask around."
It's then that Nebula realises there truly is no way of reeling him back from this. Tomorrow, the ship that has become her temporary home will fly off whether she's onboard or not, and Rocket will dedicate what remains of his pitiful existence to tracking down Thanos with the intention to kill. He'll fail, and likely so will she if she accompanies him, but it's been a long time since either of them cared about their own fates. At least they'd be doing something, rather than withering away on a planet they will never call home, and though the bare bones of what Stark is planning seems the more hopeful option, Nebula's unwilling to wait around for a plan that is just as likely to fail as Rocket's.
If she does choose to accompany him, she can likely take him straight to Thanos herself. She's almost certain of his whereabouts, to the point where it surprises even her that she hasn't stolen a ship and flown off to meet him already.
Perhaps there's a naïve part of her remaining that still wants to believe they can win. However, being in this hollow corpse of a ship with a broken creature beside her is enough to bring her crashing back to reality. In the end, she has two options; two plans to follow in the absence of one of her own. Rocket's aiming purely to kill, while Stark dreams of repairing what's been broken. The latter promises a more attractive outcome, much as she wants to see Thanos suffer, but it's also just as likely to fail. The crucial difference is that if Rocket's plan fails, the worst that can happen is that they'll die in seconds, whereas if she lets herself believe in Starks plan and it fails, she'll end up losing what little hope she has left in the process.
Her father might not even grant her the mercy of killing her if that happens.
"Fine," she says eventually, with such detachedness that she may as well be dead already. She looks up to find Rocket studying her intensely, distrusting her even now, though he at least doesn't question her further. "I'll go with you."
So that's that. Before dawn has even risen on the morrow, she and Rocket will be travelling billions of miles away to fight a madman she's dreamed of killing since she was a child. A man she's already fought more than once and - she very nearly succeeded - failed to kill, surviving only through foul luck even as those more deserving of life crumbled to ash around her. There's no grand plans this time; no intentions of sneaking onto his ship and slaying him from the shadows, or joining the Guardians and some humans in one last effort to remove the gauntlet. There's nothing left but the fight and its inevitable failure, and perhaps there will come a point in the days to come where she will be willing to accept that.
"We'll find him on Titan," she continues, leaning back on the bench to stare straight at the wall. She can feel her heart sink at the prospect of returning to the planet where everything went to hell; where Rocket and Stark lost their family and she discovered the loss of her own.
"Titan?" Rocket asks, head tilted to one side as though she's speaking in tongues. "Ain't that a wasteland?"
"It is," she replies, remembering all too well the uncompromising dust on every surface she collapsed against; the withered structures that time and turmoil had obliterated, and the orange wastes that stretched as far as the eye could see. How fitting that that was what remained of her father's home. "But with the reality stone Thanos can make it seem like a paradise. All he wants now is a quiet life - to rest under a 'grateful universe,' he used to say."
Nebula can only shrug. She'd never wanted to understand how Thanos' mind worked, and she won't pretend to now.
With that, and the sudden all-consuming knowledge that she's just signed her life away, she pushes herself up from the workbench and stalks towards her modest pile of belongings. She easily locates her threadbare jacket borrowed from the Ravagers what feels like a lifetime ago and throws it on, before tying two empty sheaths to her belt and heading towards the ship's hatch.
"Wait for me," she commands as she pulls the latch, her tone leaving no room for argument though she doubts there's anything she can do if Rocket disobeys her. In order to avoid looking at him, she draws her attention back to the pitiful display of weapons on the floor. "The palace has weapons made of the strongest metal on this planet. They probably won't make a difference, but they'll be better than this lot."
"You plannin' on stealing 'em or asking nicely?" Rocket asks with an edge that implies he already knows the answer.
"What do you think?" she asks, successfully resisting the urge to roll her eyes. Perhaps she should feel regret about pilfering supplies from those who have accommodated her for so long, but 'asking nicely' risks giving away her intentions, and she doesn't want to be forced into changing her mind when her convictions are frayed enough as it is. "And you're hardly in a position to judge."
"Point taken," Rocket admits, sounding prouder of his unsavoury reputation than he should be. Any glimpse of humour vanishes in an instant however, as his tone morphs into one as stern as a creature of his stature can muster. "I mean it though. If you're not back by dawn, I'm leaving you here."
"I don't doubt it," Nebula mutters. Hell, she wouldn't put it past him to spend hours waiting for her return, only to fly into the stars the instant she appears on the horizon.
Though, she supposes if that ends up being the case there's always a Sakaaran ship mere yards away in need of a purpose.
Without bothering to look back at Rocket, Nebula steps into the afternoon sun of Wakanda and finds herself wondering, not for the first time, how the world can be so peaceful when there's a bitter war raging inside her.
Valkyrie and Korg are alive because both Thor and I need a little happiness after Infinity War (I'm hoping they were among the half of his people who were spared by Thanos).
Thank you again for reading this chapter!
Here's part two of what would have been a rather long Chapter 4 if all had gone according to plan. I hope you enjoy this and thank you for reading to this point!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Stealing two Vibranium blades is an easier affair than Nebula anticipates.
Admittedly, she has intimate knowledge of how to navigate the shadows after so many years spent in the dark, not to mention an extensive history of thievery. The palace's Weapons Store is a place she already raided on her first day, though the immediate shock of Thanos' slaughter was on her side then, and anyone who discovered her would have had more pressing issues on their mind than an alien thief. Even so, sneaking into the vault – situated next to the training pits where Dora are forged into warriors – requires far less ducking out of sight than expected. It's possible that the arrival of the Asgardians has drawn attention elsewhere. The flurry of activity as she ventures through the heart of the palace confirms those suspicions, and she wastes little time in taking advantage of the distraction to locate suitable weapons for herself.
There will be reparations for her crime if she chooses to stay. She is not naïve enough to believe she has gone entirely unseen – scanners or cameras may have spotted her even if the human eye has not – and though the Asgardians have provided a feeble distraction, it will not be long before her actions are noted. She could end up facing several Dora outside the Benatar if she returns late. Perhaps they're already there. They would certainly be justified in tracking her down; Vibranium is so very precious here.
Not that she knows what'll happen if it comes to that. She has little desire to fight anyone besides Thanos himself, and especially not the Dora Milaje who have already suffered the loss of half their sisters. Perhaps if she had been caught she would have resorted to Rocket's suggestion of asking nicely, but that would force her to reveal her intentions and she has no doubt word would reach Stark or Shuri before she even made it back to the Benatar. Their disappointment is not something she is willing to face before flying off to her destruction; leaving without a trace suits her far more comfortably.
Upon leaving the palace with two deadly blades sheathed at her belt, though, she finds she has no desire to run back to the ship. Not right away.
With little regard for where she's actually going, she lets her feet carry her in the opposite direction of the field; towards an impressive mountain range which surrounds Wakanda like a silent guardian. The sun is in no danger of setting any time soon – as draining as this day has felt, it has barely been three hours since the arrival of Thor's people – and if this is truly the last day she will spend on Earth she may as well see it in all its splendour.
How Wakanda compares to the rest of Earth, she cannot say. She doubts Quill originated from a country as proud and formidable as this one. However, it's likely to be the last place she'll ever think of as home, and she might as well enjoy her final night instead of wasting it in a hacked-apart ship, trapped with a creature she wants to strangle more often than not.
As soon as she's free from civilisation, she lets herself break into a sprint. The lightness of her new body has made her faster as well as banishing some of her pain, and she indulges in the changes as she runs through the green veld and up precarious slopes; the miles passing her by with only the slightest burn in her legs.
She stops only once she reaches a grassy cliff-edge facing out to an endless valley. A sheer drop promises to shatter her should she fall, while dense green forests guard a wide, sparkling river which stretches out to the waterfalls beyond. The sunset casts a pale pink glow over the view, reminding her of planets lightyears away with red skies and twin suns, and she can almost pretend she is somewhere that truly feels like home.
For as peaceful and welcoming as Earth has been - or at least the small corner of it she's experienced - this life isn't one that suits her. The magnificence of Wakanda strikes a vast contrast to the grubby trading planets she thrived on before her capture at the hands of the Sovereign. She is better suited to survival on planets where one has to be armed at all times to avoid being robbed or killed; where one cannot spend time in a bar without being drawn into a fight or watching one unfold; where alleyways are dense with pickpocketing children, and the streets are filled with a symphony of deals as conmen advertise defective wares to the ignorant. Places like that are what she deserves, and she has always found them more comfortable as a result. It's also remarkably easy to build up a dangerous reputation, should having one be of benefit on planets such as those.
This world of palaces and technological advancements beyond all imagining feels unreachable - though she's only really dwelled on the outskirts of it - and a world where the idea of being safer in a group rather than alone is accepted as truth is too unfamiliar for comfort.
It is beautiful though, so she lets herself recover with heaving gasps and takes a seat by the edge, her feet dangling precariously to the earth below as she watches the sun descend below the horizon.
Just an hour. That's all the time she needs, then she'll head back to the Benatar to embark on her doomed quest with Rocket. Just one hour of peace before everything ends will be enough.
Fat chance of that.
Pink has barely shifted to an inky dark blue - the moon barely creeping into the sky – before she hears a faint hum in the background. She remains still as she listens, hearing it come and go as though flying in circles, and she's ready to dismiss it as another ship – hardly a rarity here – before it starts to increase in volume and draw closer. Cursing under her breath, she backs away from the edge and rises to her feet when distant humming morphs into the unmistakable roar of propellers, and when something drops to earth behind her with an audible 'clunk,' she unsheathes a sword and spins in the direction of the intruder with her blade ready to tear them apart.
She refrains from striking true when she recognises a familiar red and gold suit, though fury burns in her chest at the sight of it. Armour that was in the process of regressing into a glowing chest-plate re-embraces Stark as her blade hovers threateningly close to his throat, though it leaves enough of his face exposed for her to see an awkward mix of amusement and terror.
A small part of her – miniscule enough not to disturb her too deeply – wonders what would happen if she took a step forward. Wonders if his armour is strong enough to protect him from her blade, or whether it would be that easy to kill him. If she were any angrier, she may even have considered it; it's likely his suit wouldn't stand a chance against Vibranium, regardless of the clear expertise behind it. He is the last person she wanted to run into today, and knowing that her plans of escaping without trace are now moot makes her uneasy.
The fact that he's been able to locate her the moment she strays from the city only adds to what is quickly becoming overwhelming distrust, and her stolen blade burns her hand in a silent accusation.
"If I find you've placed a tracker on me, I swear I'll-"
"Relax, Terminator," Stark interrupts - unwisely she might add - before raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. When Nebula can't sense any hostility from him, she reluctantly takes a step back to grant him space to breathe, albeit her blade remains stubbornly raised. "No tracker, promise. I was just out on a flight when FRIDAY - that's my AI by the way. Say "hi," FRIDAY."
Nebula startles as a disembodied female voice arises from nowhere, uttering an almost bored "I'd rather not, sir," before it hits her that it's originating from Stark's armour.
"Rude," Stark scolds the AI with something that might be fondness. The armour peels away from one hand at his silent request, and he uses it to wipe sweat and exhaustion from his face. It's clear he's been flying for a while. Sweat sticks his wayward hair to his face and neck, and his face is flushed from a winning combination of strenuous activity and the Wakandan heat. "Anyway, Fri pointed you out while I was flying. Looked like you could use a friend out here."
"Bold of you to assume I consider you a friend," she mutters, though the venom she hoped to conjure doesn't materialise. What's left of her fury flickers and dies within her, and she finds herself lowering her blade without thinking.
"True," Stark admits, though his tone remains light and he's smiling weakly as though she's in on some joke. It would be infuriating if she had the energy to care. "But I've had enough enemies to know the difference."
That almost tempts her to laugh. The first time they met, Nebula dragged him onto a ship and flew him home when he would happily have wasted away on Titan. The only other occasions they've exchanged words have started with her making some threat on his life, including this very moment. And she's met his friends; she may not know them well but they seem kind. Stable. If she's closer to a friend than an enemy, she doesn't want to know what monsters Stark has hidden away in his nightmares.
Then again, they can't be much worse than her own.
Deciding she isn't pissed off enough to kill him, she returns her sword to its sheath, pointedly ignoring Stark as he studies the blade and seems to realise where it came from. She turns her back before he can call her out, returning to her place by the edge. "I don't think your friends will approve of you being out here on your own."
"It was actually Pep who suggested it," Stark says, seemingly frozen in place for a moment before his footsteps draw closer; a mechanical whine followed by a click signifying his armour's return to the arc. "I think she thought I was going mad and needed some air. She's probably right; she always is."
He wanders towards the cliff-edge on shaky legs and settles on a jutting outcrop of rock as he catches his breath, still winded from his flight. The valleys and rivers below are now spread out as dark silhouettes, lit only by the pale glow of a rising moon. Nebula's content enough to watch the view in silence, ignoring her companion while he too remains quiet, and time seems to slow just enough to grant them peace before he elects to be the one to shatter it.
"Rocket told me you're planning on leaving."
"Of course he did," Nebula mutters, closing her eyes as she visualises strangling the fox with her bare hands. So much for slipping into the shadows to acquire weapons and escaping Earth under cover of darkness. She had wanted to leave without a trace – without being forced to bid farewell to people she's already spent too much time with – though she supposes she was trying her luck when she left Rocket on his own.
That is one of the worst things she's discovered about close proximity to others. Secrecy no longer exists.
"Well, I say he told me. He told Thor over a scotch and I happened to be in earshot," Stark admits sheepishly, her resultant glare not enough to diminish his weak grin. He still looks exhausted after all this time - sleep either having eluded him or haunted him on the rare occasions he's able to get it - and she doubts he's any closer to healing than he'd been last week. No number of smiles will be able to disguise the fact that he's wearing a mask of false-cheer. "He needs to watch himself on that stuff."
Nebula hums in vague agreement, trying to ignore the heaviness that dwells in her chest. This is not a conversation she wants to have. It's been enough of a trial accepting that tomorrow she'll be leaving on a mission that will inevitably kill her, and she's not sure she can handle the strain of someone trying to pull her mind in the opposite direction.
"I take it you don't approve?"
"It isn't up to me," Stark concedes, and she's grateful he recognises that without resistance at least. He leans back against the rock and slumps in defeat, rubbing tired eyes before turning to face the impressive view. He has the air of a man with an insurmountable weight on his shoulders, to the point where she's surprised it hasn't already crushed him. "Besides, you're not the only ones. Now that Thor has a ship, he's planning on tracking down Thanos himself and finishing what he started. I bet he'd already have done the weird 'rainbow-bridge' thing by now if he knew exactly where to find him."
That is news to her. She wonders if this too is something Stark has discovered upon eavesdropping on Rocket's conversations. "I thought he was working with you?"
"He is. Was," Stark clenches his eyes shut and hangs his head as he exhales a shaky breath. He recovers quickly, as though afraid she'll judge him as weak if he falters too long, but the smile he gives her is an unmistakably dejected one. "I don't know anymore. All I know is that tomorrow he's flying off to who knows where with a group of friends, and we're not invited."
"Perhaps he got impatient," Nebula suggests, remembering Rocket's outburst and her own simmering restlessness all too well. "He wouldn't be the only one."
"I think it's more than that," Tony says, as though willing the words to be true. Hoping that he isn't being abandoned out of frustration or the fact that he isn't doing enough; hoping that his efforts throughout the past two weeks haven't been in vain. He still wants to believe they can win, Nebula realises, and something that might be pity consumes her.
Stark lingers where he stands for a moment before huffing a sigh and wandering closer to settle by Nebula's side. The sheer drop to the earth below doesn't seem to phase him as he lets his legs dangle from the cliff, though she supposes he would simply summon his armour to rescue him should he fall. Or perhaps he wouldn't; looking at him, it's hard to judge whether he'd even want saving.
"I think he's leaving us behind so he doesn't have to lose anyone else," Stark admits, and Nebula feels a jolt of pain run though her as she finds herself empathising with that reasoning. "You should have seen him earlier. He was all set to go on his own until Valkyrie twisted his arm, and he's not letting the other Asgardians join him. The rest of his gang are all strays from elsewhere. The only reason he can't stop them from coming along is because the ship is technically theirs, and it's not like he's their king so..."
"Valkyrie?" she asks, the name summoning some half-forgotten memory, though she doubts it's of anyone she's met. Anyone who can twist Thor's arm and change his mind is someone she would remember.
"Sorry, forgot you hadn't met her," Stark clarifies with a weak smile. "She's his second in command. At least I assume she is - she led the survivors to safety when Thanos attacked their ship. Can you believe she's old enough to be one of Thor's childhood heroes? I'm starting to wish we could keep her."
So that's where Nebula's heard the name. The Valkyrior are legend. Ancient warriors who once defended Asgard, until they were all brutally slaughtered at the hands of some nameless monster. That one still exists is news to her, and she can't help but wonder if a warrior that ancient and powerful could stand a chance against Thanos, or whether he would be the one to finally wipe out her kind.
If the Valkyrie is among the last of Thor's precious Asgardians, Nebula supposes she understands why he needed to be forced into taking her with him. It must be a heavy burden; the looming possibility of being the last of your kind.
"Thor's lost enough," Stark says finally, with an exhaustion that reminds her he knows a little of what that's like. They both do. "Those Asgardians who were on the ship? They're all that's left. I think he's just tired of losing people."
Nebula doubts that last sentence applies only to Thor. The way Stark clenches his jaw as though in pain only assures her of that further.
"How much of your army will be left when we're gone?" she asks, wondering if she really wants to know. Their numbers are pitiful enough without considering the effect of their group shattering into fragments; her and Rocket going it alone, while Thor escapes with a band of warriors whose numbers may not even reach double-figures, judging by what she'd seen of his people.
And then there's Stark, left behind with Steve and Rhodey and whoever else remains, having watched the most powerful among them blow away like smoke or escape to the stars.
"It won't even be an army. We'll be a band of glorified cheerleaders," he says, before descending into choked laughter that forces him to bring his hands to his face. They stay there for a long while as each inhale shudders in his chest, and for a moment Nebula wonders if she's watching the death throes of a man on the verge of breaking. It's only when his hands come to rest over his mouth and glazed eyes stare out at nothing that she realises he's shed a tear.
"I don't know what to do," he finally admits, his voice a trembling whisper. "Not even Cap knows. It's always a bad day when that happens."
It hits her then that for all her references to Stark's 'plan' – both mentally and to Rocket – she doesn't actually know if he had one. If he was ever able to develop something beyond mere fantasy; if he accomplished more than grasping at straws thanks to a vague hope burdened upon him by Doctor Strange.
Wonders how close he'd come to having a strategy that may or may not have worked, before all his efforts slipped away only hours ago.
"Your plan," she asks, regarding Stark carefully as exhausted eyes rise to meet her own. "What was it?"
At first all he can offer is a forced shrug, as though that's all the answer she could possibly need. He must sense that she is serious, however – that she has little intention of mocking him this time – so he wipes unshed tears from his face and clears his throat, effortlessly putting on a mask of composure before he starts speaking.
"We'd have needed the gauntlet," he starts, wincing at the memory of the item that destroyed existence as he knew it. "The Time Stone. Wong – he's a wizard, like Strange was, he's been in touch - he says it can be used to reverse damage if used correctly. Said he watched it reverse the end of the world once, and none of us ever noticed. If we figured out a way to get ahold of it, maybe we could go back to before everything... to before."
"If Thanos still has it, you'll need to kill him first," Nebula reminds him. They tried removing the gauntlet once and Thanos had beaten them back like flies. Quill's grief hadn't helped, true, but now they are all consumed by loss, and she imagines coming face-to-face with the cause will only make them more volatile in his presence. "You'll never take control of it while he lives."
"I was hoping we could just wing it when we got to that part," Stark confesses with a forced laugh, before looking down at his hands as though shielding himself from her judgement and the reminder of his own futility. "It's a terrible plan, I know."
"It's not even half a plan," she tells him, though not unkindly. It's more than she and Rocket have, albeit just as doomed.
"Yeah," Stark mutters, shaking his head and gazing out to the horizon. "And it's all we have."
There's only quiet then as defeat sinks into the atmosphere like a stone, making their surroundings feel like a crypt. The world continues to insult them by being oppressively peaceful in spite of the ugliness it has witnessed in recent weeks. There should be screaming and raging and defiance, and perhaps there is elsewhere on Earth, but here there's merely a calm acceptance that belies the fact that the entire universe has fractured irreparably. The beautiful view she had come specifically to see feels like something Thanos would appreciate – its sense of peace a sign that his actions were justified – and Nebula finds herself having to close her eyes and swallow down bile at the thought.
"There's something else," Stark says, once he's recovered the nerve to speak, and an involuntary shudder takes hold as Nebula notes a tentative edge to his tone. Either what he's about to say scares him or he's scared of what it'll do to her, and she finds she isn't in a hurry to find out which. "Thor's been doing research into the Infinity Stones. He's old enough to have heard the legends so he's the closest thing we've got to an expert. Besides Wong, I guess. He's mainly been looking into the Time Stone, but apparently there's some interesting details concerning the Soul Stone as well."
Ice slips into Nebula's heart at the mention of the thing that destroyed everything she even remotely cared about. Her breaths freeze in her chest and pain traps her in a merciless grip as she fights the urge to run as far away as possible in order to avoid what Stark has to say.
"I don't want to know."
"You might," he insists, though not without sympathy. "Thor says that to acquire the Soul Stone you need to make a sacrifice. 'A soul for a soul' is how it's written apparently. Only, there isn't a specific mention of death. I mean yeah, the word 'sacrifice' is pretty clear, but the texts and legends are pretty big on the victim's soul being the thing that's offered, not their life."
"Is there a difference?" she asks. She's never given much thought to souls – if they exist at all she doubts she even has one to spare – but she's familiar enough with sacrifices, especially in Thanos' eyes, to know that Gamora is dead regardless of what some ancient text has to say.
"I wouldn't have thought so either," Stark agrees, turning his eyes away as though to escape her pain. If he is truly sorry for exacerbating it, however, that isn't enough to shut him up. "Thor figures there might be. Y'know, semantics and all that. It's a long shot and it'd be cruel to promise anything, but he thinks there's a possibility Gamora's soul is tied to the stone. If we, hypothetically, got our hands on it, it might be possible to release her."
The prospect once again has the sensation of ice snaking into her mechanics; leaves her feeling torn and frayed and so exposed she has to turn away before Stark's empathy brands her. That Gamora may have been denied the small mercy of having her soul vanish to nothingness upon death - that some part of her may remain forever trapped in Thanos' possession - is enough to make Nebula want to scream and tear the world apart. That she does little more than clench her jaw tightly at the news is a credit to her restraint.
She wishes Stark hadn't told her. Wishes he would disappear like smoke and leave her to her grief, but he remains by her side and she remains unable to cry or scream or do anything she wants to.
And yet, if she allows herself even a fragment of Stark's hope, this could mean there's a chance that Gamora can be saved. The odds are insurmountable (one in fourteen million, she remembers) but it's more than she had this morning. More than she's had since learning of Thanos's grief and putting two and two together with sickening clarity. If she escapes with Rocket on the morrow, then there is no doubt she will never see her sister again. Worse, her sister may be trapped in the Soul Stone for all eternity. However, if Stark and Thor and everyone else clinging to fantasy are able to put a functional plan together then perhaps - just maybe - her sister at least could be saved.
If Nebula were able to wield the gauntlet herself, she thinks she would willingly let the universe and everyone in it rot if it meant destroying Thanos and saving her sister, and the savagery of that thought momentarily disgusts her.
A similar line of thinking is what led to Gamora being sacrificed in the first place.
"If, hypothetically speaking, someone was able to wield the gauntlet," Nebula starts, feeling like she has to force every word from her throat, and she curses herself for humouring Stark like this. She's starting to think he's not the only one clinging to hope. "It might not be too complicated to undo everything."
Sure enough, her words elicit a spark in his eyes that's almost childlike and she's taken with the sudden urge to extinguish it, but she brushes that aside. Now is not the time to be cruel.
"Go on," Stark urges. Nebula regards him for only a moment - trying to piece together the late-night musings she's wrestled with since he planted a seed of false hope in her mind - before forcing herself to continue.
"Thanos snapping his fingers wiped out half the universe," she explains, banishing the memory of Quill and Mantis and Drax fading away; of Strange's final words and Peter's desperate pleas. "But I doubt that's an inherent power the stones possess. It's far too specific. Wiping out half of all life to allow the other half to thrive, that was his motive. It always has been, ever since I was a child. Chasing that goal is why Gamora and I were trained; the stones only granted him the power to achieve it.
"If one of you were able to acquire every stone and your aim was to undo his actions, or reverse time, or even just bring one person back..." she pauses, thinking of Gamora and wondering if she could truly be selfish enough to resurrect her alone; sacrificing the universe for the only person she loves. She wonders if Stark would do the same for Peter. "Perhaps that's all it would take. The snap of two fingers."
"Maybe..." Stark murmurs, considering her words thoughtfully without seeming to care that her ideas are as fanciful as his. He eventually meets her gaze with something that might be hope, and she must be unable to conceal a flash of irritation if his knowing smirk is any indication. "Hypothetically speaking, of course."
The smirk doesn't waver. If anything, the briskness of her retort makes it spread further - a wicked amusement glinting in his eyes - and she has to look away before she gives into the temptation to punch him.
"It would need to be Thor or Valkyrie. Someone capable of withstanding the gauntlet's power," she continues, as though the interruption hasn't occurred. "Anyone else would be destroyed by it in an instant. Even Thor might not be strong enough. And you'd still need to take it from Thanos, and he's already beaten us once. This time he won't bother keeping us alive."
"You sound like you've given this some thought," Stark says, and not for the first time his ability to read her has her bristling at her own transparency.
He obeys, to his credit, though that damned smirk remains even as his attention returns to the view. The moon has climbed higher in the sky, bathing them both in a pale glow that makes him seem like a ghost. Nebula tries not to take that as an omen.
She can't have many hours left before Rocket grows impatient and abandons Earth without a thought for whether she's with him or not. Likely his drinking session with Thor will occupy him until midnight at least, but after that she'll be playing a dangerous game the longer she stays out here.
That is, of course, unless she decides to stay. To indulge in Stark's fantasy of restoring the universe, and helping his team accomplish it using what little expertise she has. Either option will bring her face-to-face with Thanos – may even let her tear his army to shreds in a fit of pent-up savagery beforehand – yet both seem equally doomed to fail.
The difference lies in how long it'll take to face her father in battle once again. Logic dictates she should go against him with a plan, with allies and a strategy the like of which Stark is offering, yet she has been restless since the very first moment she set foot on this planet. Every breath Thanos takes is an insult; every second she wastes not hunting him down like a dog feels like she's spitting on the memories of the trillions who died because of her.
She doesn't know how much longer she can wait.
"I've always dreamed of killing Thanos," she admits, staring straight ahead to avoid seeing Stark's reaction. She knows he is listening however; can feel the laser-focus of his eyes on her. "Believing I'd one day be able to inflict the same pain he sentenced me to is the only reason I'm alive. Once I would even have torn the universe apart myself if it meant destroying him."
She still might, if it comes to that. The universe has never done much for her after all, and her hatred of her father burns more fiercely than any love she has for anyone else. She knows Stark will not approve of that sentiment however – might even see her as a threat and feel more inclined to stop her from leaving - so she neglects to mention it.
"It never mattered that it was impossible before, and it doesn't matter now. Whatever happens, I have to face him. I can't wait any longer."
It's then that she forces herself to look at Stark, and she hates that he seems to understand her reasoning. Part of her itches for a fight or argument so she can feel like she's won – agreeing with Rocket earlier was weird enough as it is - but he simply regards her the same way he likely regarded Thor when he too proposed his intention to leave.
Allies are falling away from Stark like water through cupped hands. It won't be long before he's forced to part ways with Wakanda as well; he is merely a guest here after all, just as she is. Nebula supposes he always has the option of giving up. Of going home with those he has left, marrying the woman he loves, perhaps even helping to rebuild the world in smaller ways. Of moving on, if that's even possible, and spending the rest of his life trying to ignore how empty the world seems.
Giving up doesn't seem to be in his nature, however. Just like it isn't in hers, or Rocket's, or Thor's. Stark knows as well as they do that there's no moving on from what Thanos did, and that letting the titan get away with what he's done would be an atrocity.
"We've convinced Thor to wait until tomorrow night," Stark says eventually, seeming relieved at having won those few extra hours. "Cap's proposed an early meeting to discuss our options. I won't insist, but it'd be good if you stayed long enough to hear them."
Her instinct is to immediately shut him down - to inform him that she will be in an entirely different star system by that point - but she pays him the dignity of considering the invitation. One meeting is unlikely to change anything, she knows that much. There have likely been numerous meetings between members of Stark's team since he woke up in hospital, and if they haven't been enough to convince Thor to stay she doubts another will help. Judging from her conversation with Stark, Nebula already knows about as much as she needs to, and it's unlikely tomorrow's meeting will uncover any new information. There's also little more she can offer beyond more blood for Stark's army.
"If it were up to you," she asks, in one last ditch attempt to make up her mind; to know if she should still feel any urgency to wander back to the Benatar. "If that meeting goes the way you intend. What do you want to happen?"
Stark doesn't seem to know how to answer. She watches him wrestle with his thoughts for a moment, his mouth opening only to clamp shut again as words fail him, and before long he's left shaking his head with a weak shrug and staring out to the valleys beyond. A bird calls happily from the trees below their feet, completely oblivious to the internal battles raging nearby, and Nebula feels like a child for envying it as much as she does.
The silence stretches beyond comfort and into a heaviness that makes her chest feel tight, and it's enough to make her give Stark up for lost and consider going home before she finally hears his voice; stronger than she expected and washing away a little of the pity she was starting to feel for him.
"I think-" he trails off, hesitant for only a moment before finding his words again. "When Thanos defeated us, we were scattered across the universe. We were separated and he tore through us like we were nothing. If we'd been together... I don't know if it would have made a difference, but we might have given him more of a fight.
"And yeah, we've lost half our numbers and that... there's no recovering from that. There can't be. But I still think the best course of action is to stay together. All of us."
He turns to look at her, implicitly including her in the context of 'us', and if he wasn't wearing his sincerity on his sleeve, the absurdity of it all might have made her laugh. Instead, she simply feels a solemnity of her own seeping into her chest and it strikes her that his words have only made her feel more lost.
"Maybe," he says in what might as well be an agreement. They both know there is only one scenario out of millions where they come out on top, and they are all so broken that the possibility of achieving that victory left them behind long ago. What matters now is how they go out; whether they choose to fight or wither away in their grief. "At least we'll fail knowing we did everything we could. At least we'll be together."
Those final words take him by surprise, as though released without a filter, and his brows raise in an almost comical fashion as he looks away from her in a daze.
"God, I'm starting to sound like Cap."
"Is that a bad thing?" Nebula asks, vaguely remembering that 'Cap' is Steve and unable to comprehend any reluctance to sound like him. The man has always seemed pleasant enough to her, albeit she's met him three times at most and Stark has known him for years.
"It's weird, is what it is," Stark laughs in disbelief. If the realisation has accomplished anything though, it's that he looks lighter now than he has for what must surely have been weeks.
When all he gets in response from Nebula are eyes narrowed in confusion, he decides to take pity on her. "We didn't always see eye to eye. You know, before."
Before. Before Thanos, before Titan. Before Stark lost Peter, along with half of the universe. Before Nebula lost Gamora. Doubtless Steve has lost his fair share as well - there isn't a person alive who hasn't - and Nebula doubts that petty feuds or arguments from Before have the power to hold weight anymore. Stark may even have been mortal enemies with Steve before Thanos's attack for all she knows, and it still wouldn't matter now. Not when a far more devastating opponent has crushed them into the dirt.
There's a sudden electronic 'ping' that forces Stark to glance at a flashing device on his wrist, and whatever he sees is enough to have him pushing away from the cliff-edge and rising to his feet.
"I've been summoned," he offers as an explanation, a somewhat apologetic smile forcing itself onto his face as he glances homeward. It hits Nebula then that this might well be the last she ever sees of him; that soon he will be encased in his suit and flying off into the night, leaving her behind to dwell on whether she will be doing the same in a matter of hours. She's not entirely sure how that idea makes her feel.
In characteristic fashion, Stark decides to complicate matters by lingering for a moment – the suit refusing to come forth – before turning to her once more.
"Look, we're meeting in the throne room at seven am," he says, in a manner she thinks is supposed to sound flippant yet betrays his desperation all the same. She knows instinctively what he's about to say, knows that the best course of action would be to refuse him, but he forces the words out so quickly she doesn't get the chance. "If you're not already halfway across the galaxy, it'd be good to see you there."
"Tony, please," he insists, not seeming to notice the way Nebula grimaces at his interruption. "People only call me Stark when they're pissed at me."
"You must hear it often then," she deadpans, and Stark's so taken aback that he releases a bark of laughter before he can restrain himself.
Nebula resists the urge to smirk, and finds her gaze wandering to the stars set against a pitch-black sky. They appear so small and untouchable from here, but she knows that in a matter of hours she could be flying among them; resting by a window on the Benatar as distant planets and suns and nebulas pass by, close enough to touch. She has always been more at home out there than she has with her feet stuck on solid ground, and the idea of catering to Stark's request to stay on Earth a little longer is one she instinctively balks at. Convincing Rocket to stay, assuming he hasn't already left her behind, will likely be more of a trial than she's willing to deal with at this late hour.
Then again, there's little harm in a few more hours when they've already been here for weeks, and if Stark succeeds in convincing Thor's army to work with them then she could be in with the chance of facing Thanos with better odds on her side.
If she leaves with Rocket, they will undoubtedly be defeated in battle against her father. If she joins an army which includes gods and legends, perhaps there's a tiny chance of taking him down, even if the universe at large can't be fixed.
"I'm not making any promises," Nebula says finally, drawing her gaze from the stars just in time to catch the hopeful smile that crosses Stark's face. "But I'll see if I can convince Rocket to stay a little longer."
That seems to be all the assurance Stark needs. After a quiet murmur of thanks, a flurry of red and gold emerges from his chest to encase his body entirely. In a matter of seconds, he's launching into the air with a deafening roar, leaving her alone on the mountain.
She watches the trail he leaves across the sky - a brilliant fiery streak heading towards the city – and tries not to think of how easily he changed her mind when she'd considered herself set in her convictions. It has been too long since she's operated alone. All these team-players are brushing off on her in the worst possible way, and she can't help but shudder at the idea that she's slowly being compromised by her time here.
Not that it matters. In a matter of days to months she will likely be dead and gone, and any weakness on her part will be forgotten. How long she continues to survive will depend on her ability to persuade an immovable Rocket to hang around on Earth for a few more hours, and she isn't betting on herself winning that argument.
As she walks past towering mountains and through the green veld towards the city, she finds herself glancing up at burning stars - yearning for them like a child yearns for home - and wonders whether the prospect of not dying alone is worth denying herself the opportunity to fly among them for a little longer.
She makes a detour on the way back to return the stolen blades, having decided there's no point in enraging her hosts if there's a possibility she might stay after all. There must be some weapons among Rocket's arsenal that are equally effective, and at the end of the day, Wakanda and its people have offered her too much for Nebula to justify betraying them.
This time she does encounter a Dora on her way out; a striking woman armed with a deadly spear and even deadlier smirk upon recognising Nebula. She merely glances at what is now a weaponless belt, however, before amusement flares in her eyes and she carries on with her rotation without having uttered a word.
Nebula, for her part, can't help but be taken by the certainty that she's just dodged a bullet.
The throne room is already crowded by the time Nebula drags a reluctant Rocket there the following morning. There are more people here than she's interacted with the entire time she's been on Earth, and she forces her expression to remain neutral as she wanders into the vast space. Rocket will pick up on any weakness or indecision, she knows. He's already threatened to leave her behind if he gets the slightest hint that this meeting will be a gigantic waste of time, and he hadn't appreciated her retort that she'd simply join Thor's gang if that were the case.
She'd rather it didn't come to that, however, so she fashions her expression into one of steel and quietly takes in her surroundings.
The room is as beautiful and inviting as the rest of the palace; an open circular space with a ring of grand chairs surrounding an elegant throne in the centre. Tall windows allow the room to be lit by the pleasant orange glow of the morning sun, and the floor is composed of sheet glass, offering a view of the mountainous caverns beneath their feet. A squad of Dora Milaje stand still and composed on the outskirts of the room, while their general and the towering leader of the Jabari tribe stand guard beside an empty throne, as though still trying to protect a king who will never sit there again.
Nebula watches as the general is joined by the white-haired woman she met in the hospital wing, and the two exchange a respectful nod before facing the crowd before them. Thor and his group of warriors, including the woman Nebula now knows to be a Valkyrie, stand off to the side as though preparing to withdraw at any moment, though Thor's tense expression does soften when Rocket abandons Nebula's side to join him. Shuri is deep in conversation with a timid-looking man whose name Nebula cannot recall; Stark is sitting on the sidelines with Pepper and Rhodey, who manage to elicit what seems to be a genuine laugh from him; Steve stands alone for a moment, surveying the room and giving anyone who looks his way a friendly smile, before he too wanders over to discuss something with Thor.
There are others she doesn't recognise even by appearance - mostly Wakandan warriors whose dress implies they all originate from different tribes - but she doesn't particularly mind. Nobody pays her much in the way of heed, and considering the variety on display within Thor's army, she's no longer the most conspicuous person in the room. The giant creature made of rocks makes the sight of Rocket casually chatting with a god seem run-of-the-mill.
It simultaneously feels like too many people and not enough. Nebula's skin prickles uncomfortably at being surrounded by so many – mostly strangers – yet as she surveys the gathering and imagines them all fighting Thanos, she cannot envision any outcome besides failure. The one victory Doctor Strange had foreseen would likely elude them even if the missing half were still present, and it suddenly fills her with certainty that she will watch most if not all of these people die should they seek out her father.
That she too will die beside them.
She hopes it is quick. Painless. These people deserve that mercy at least, even if she doesn't.
Her musings are broken by echoing footsteps headed in her direction, and she startles when a woman appears before her. It's the woman with orange hair – Pepper, Stark calls her – and Nebula forces herself to relax at the intrusion when she's offered an apologetic smile.
"You're Nebula, right?" Pepper asks with only the slightest hint of hesitation. Nebula wonders if she's encountered many creatures not of Earth, though she imagines the answer to that is 'no'. "You brought Tony home?"
It takes a second to remind herself that 'Tony' is Stark - that humans often have two names – and she nods. That confirmation is enough to elicit a warm smile and a shaky breath, and for a moment Nebula fears the woman will try to embrace her out of gratitude. She doesn't, mercifully seeming to sense Nebula's unease and having the intelligence to respect it.
"Thank you," Pepper says instead, fighting back tears she's likely been waiting weeks to shed, though she appears strong enough to contain them. Nebula can see why Stark is taken with her. "When I lost contact with him, I thought..."
Her mind drifts and she holds her tongue, eyes faraway for a split second before she gathers herself and clears her throat, gifting Nebula with one last smile. "Thank you. For everything you've done."
Nebula isn't sure what 'everything' is supposed to encompass, but she doesn't mention it. Thankfully, Pepper doesn't seem to expect much more from her; returning to Stark and Rhodey's side as soon as Nebula acknowledges her thanks with a modest nod and something she hopes resembles a smile. Stark himself catches her eye upon his lover's return, however, and before Nebula can entertain any notion of hiding in some forgotten corner, he rises from his resting place and approaches her through the crowd.
"I half-expected you to be in a different solar system by this point," he jokes, his eyes scanning the room before landing on Rocket, who by the sound of it is comparing experiences of criminal activity with an overly eager Valkyrie. "So, you managed to convince the raccoon."
"He threatened to take my arm and strand me on your planet if this ends up being a waste of time," Nebula admits, and Stark's visible amusement should probably annoy her more than it does. "But here we are."
Stark's smile softens, and he slowly takes in the gathered mass of people as though expecting them to vanish at any moment. Given that at least half of the party were willing to jump ship and leave him only last night, she supposes he can't quite believe he even has this many on his side.
"Thank you," he says when he turns back to her, and she doesn't know how she got to the stage where she's had two people say those words to her in the space of five minutes. "We could really use your input."
'You know Thanos better than anyone,' he'd said last week. On that count, he's right and in terms of having even a remote semblance of an idea of how to reach him, she's probably way ahead of everyone in this room. She wonders if they have any idea of how that came to pass. How many people she's killed on the titan's behalf throughout the years, even as her hatred of him burned like fire in her chest. Then again, it is the end of the universe and everyone in this room is desperate, including her. If she truly only has days or weeks to live, she may as well try to wipe away some of her past mistakes and do something right for a change.
Gamora would have been proud of that sentiment, she thinks bitterly.
Stark leaves her side without her noticing, and there's a palpable shift in the air as Steve Rogers finally abandons his post and wanders to the center of the room, caught within the ring of empty chairs. Clamorous discussion within multiple parties quietens to a hush as the Captain locks eyes with Stark, and the two share a resigned nod before Steve's eyes drift to every other member of their group. Nebula watches silently as he adopts the mantle of leader with such ease it may as well be a second skin.
"Avengers!" he starts before breaking into a fond, nostalgic smile. That one word is enough to elicit scattered laughter from certain individuals in the room, including Stark, the white-haired woman and Thor.
The reference is lost on Nebula, but even she notices the shift of energy in the room. There's a sudden preparedness in the air that none of them have felt in weeks, as friends and family look to each other with determination, and for one precious moment she lets herself wonder if this small army actually has a chance of winning.
One chance in fourteen million, Strange had said.
Whether Rogers or Thor or even Stark will be able to lead them towards that chance remains to be seen, but in this brief moment their task no longer feels entirely impossible.
"It's about time we got to work."
I should probably confess at this point that I'm avoiding speculation regarding Avengers 4 as much as I can (including fan theories/comics/director's interviews etc) so I can watch it relatively unspoiled when it comes out. Therefore, anything that happens from here on out in this story is neither a prediction of what I think will happen or even remotely close to what we'll actually see in the movie. Some details may also end up being slightly vague/hand-wavey to compensate, so I apologise in advance; my primary aim going forward is to finally start giving these characters a break after Marvel and I have tortured them for so long :P
It's also been a while since I last saw Infinity War, so it's possible I've either forgotten or completely made up some details (e.g. regarding the Soul Stone), but hopefully it's not too distracting.
With that out of the way, thank you so much for reading this and for your continued support! I hope you enjoyed this chapter and I'll aim to get the next one up as soon as I can.
Just a quick warning that there will be a time-jump (no pun intended) and a fair amount of disorientation at the beginning of this chapter. There's also likely a fair amount of hand-waving as well - as mentioned before, I'm probably leaning closer to wish-fulfillment than anything resembling an educated prediction of what Avengers 4 will bring, but it's been nice to finally reach the more hopeful part of this story!
Thank you so much for reading to this point and for all of your kind words! I hope you enjoy this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There's dust everywhere. Lodged in her throat, her lungs; stinging her eyes until she has to clench them shut. Nebula imagines it's also clogging up her mechanics, burying her alive from within. She coughs and the dust fills her mouth, making her choke, and she can taste rust and metal in the air.
It takes a moment to realise she must still be on Titan. Her fingers brush ash and rubble as she weakly assesses her surroundings, but there's an oppressive throb in her skull that stops her from thinking - scrambles her scattered memories - and all she can see with every blink is an all-consuming green.
Exhaustion is clinging to her now. It's been a constant companion throughout the weeks (months?) she's been fighting alongside the Avengers and the assorted strays they've gathered over time; vengeful bands of guerillas from across the galaxy offering blood and warships; Lady Sif, returned from a covert mission to find her home destroyed and half the universe with it; various superpowered individuals from Earth including a Captain by the name of Danvers. Stolen moments of rest have become a precious commodity, only heightening her current fatigue, and her body screams as cybernetics try to heal what's broken. Even Shuri's enhancements cannot save her from the persistent ache which consumes her with every little movement.
She could sleep here, she thinks. The air is still and quiet, which feels like a contrast to something she can't remember; something lingering at the back of her memories. Her skull feels like it's going to explode and every breath hurts, but closing her eyes helps. Crushing blackness doesn't surround her when she does so, however. That familiarity has been replaced by the same shade of green which exploded around her only moments ago.
(A sharp snap, a moment where she wonders if her eardrums will burst from the force of it, and the sickening sensation of being jerked backwards as that oppressive green blinds her)
She groans against pain and fatigue; turns her head into the dirt and coughs as more dust lodges in her throat. Her body is sprawled in an awkward position but the thought of moving makes her flinch, the promise of pain too great to bear. There's blood or sweat or both clinging to her synthetic skin, and she wonders if it is her own before recalling a flash of blades hacking mercilessly through an opposing army. Her fingers are still curled around a weapon that has killed hundreds in recent weeks. It had been nice, she recalls, to quieten her mind and indulge in sadistic instinct as she forged a path towards Thanos (have they reached him yet? She can't remember), but all that pent-up rage has abandoned her; leaving her weak as a child as she lays upon the broken remains of her father's home.
(She's covered in the blood and innards of Thanos's army; formless raging creatures who act only as meat to be sliced along with what remains of his children - siblings she's cut down without a second thought as she tries not to think of the only sister she ever loved. She approaches the heart of the fray, the taste of metal and electricity on her tongue as Thor obliterates more than she ever could, and avoids looking at the dead around her for fear of seeing her allies. She can hear Rocket nearby, screaming obscenities at any creature who dares approach him and firing blasts from weapons that have survived far longer than anticipated, but she ignores him in favour of seeking out Thanos)
The silence when she's dragged back to the present feels like being sucked through a vacuum; the sudden absence of her allies eliciting a crushing weight in her chest. Her skull continues to throb mercilessly as past and present splinter into fragments in her mind. Where is Rocket now? Where is Thor? If they were still here they would be rather difficult to miss, unless they too are caught in this broken state, awaiting consciousness or death or whatever else can plague them now.
They're dead, her mind supplies, grasping at the most likely probability if only to spare herself from inevitable disappointment, though surely she would know with certainty if they were gone; would know the cold grip of failure as surely as she knows her own name. The overwhelming defeat - the sense of irrefutable failure after so long spent fighting towards an impossible victory - would cause far more agony than these dull aches she's suffering now.
Then again, perhaps it wouldn't. Even at her most hopeless she's never been one to entirely give up on her goal of destroying Thanos. Maybe this numb, broken emptiness is all that's left of her when there's nothing else she can do.
(Thor's axe – Stormbreaker , she thinks - is lodged in Thanos ' left shoulder, mere inches from his throat; blood flows from his wound even as he continues to fight those holding him down. Wong's magic and Danvers' power and the strength of several Asgardians and Kronans is almost enough to overwhelm him, though not quite, and they seem to provide ample distraction from Stark and Valkyrie and Steve working together to get even a remote chance of removing the gauntlet)
Nebula tries to remember if they succeeded, but her memories are hazy enough as it is. What knowledge she has of recent days consists mostly of living in the dark confines of her ship, watching the stars pass her by with an odd sense of calm, and rare moments of camaraderie between herself and Stark and Rocket and any others willing to join them. It had been easier than expected to become part of a larger team – to join something of a family – as her initial reluctance wavered once they set off into space and she was finally returned to her element.
Only now she has no idea if anyone is still alive. She doesn't know if they've lost or won; doesn't even know if she herself is dying, or where Thanos is, or...
(She launches herself at Thanos without care as soon as he's distracted; charges towards him the same instant he tosses Val and Steve aside with a flash of purple - the power stone, perhaps - while Stark's improved armour stays put, though the air is suddenly filled with the unmistakable scent of roasting flesh. A brief jolt of concern that Stark's the last hope remaining grips her, before she casts it aside and throws herself into the air with twin Vibranium blades in hand – freely offered rather than stolen this time - propelled by her new strength granted by Shuri . Thor fills the air with lightning as he approaches with the intent of aiding Stark, the static in the air seeming to slow time, before...
Before Nebula's blades strike true in Thanos ' heart at the same moment Stark frees the gauntlet with an agonised cry)
Bile rises to her throat at the memory but she cannot force it up. There's a pathetic whimper that she'll later realise is coming from her own throat, and she cringes against the sound before opening her eyes. The sky is red and still and her hands are splayed out before her, only one of her twin blades left to hold onto. She can feel blood on her face and both hands are covered in the stuff – black and red and blue – and she wonders if any of it belongs to Thanos; if the broken images in her head are fantasy or memory. Memory, surely. Her mind cannot be so cruel as to trick her at a time like this.
Though, every time a memory returns she finds it slipping away as though she's trying to grasp smoke, and the suffocating quiet gives no indication as to whether she's won or lost.
Is Stark even alive? Is she alive or is this some version of hell? Is Thor still here, or Danvers, or Steve?
The only response she gets is silence; a quiet breeze blowing dust over a dead planet that refuses to grant her answers.
(Someone must prise the gauntlet from Stark, or share the burden at least, for the screams stop after what feels like hours. Had he tried to wield it? She doesn't know, though his pained gasps suggest he's still alive and that would be impossible, surely...
Nebula's focus narrows out of necessity. She looks to the monster who called himself her father; ignores the bitter disappointment in his eyes as she draws herself to full height and hisses "You should have killed me!" before twisting the blades, forcing them deeper into his chest, finding herself rewarded for her efforts when blood spills from his lips)
She refuses to believe that was fantasy. She has dreamed of killing Thanos for so long, yet even at her most arrogant the notion of actually doing so had never felt quite as real as it does now. She can't-
(She thinks the light fades from his eyes, though it's hard to tell with the cacophony of noise around her; warriors on both sides fighting and dying, ships falling from the sky to shatter on unforgiving ground, the core remains of the Avengers keeping his army at bay somewhere nearby. Someone – Thor or Danvers or anyone else with the power to do so – must have control of the gauntlet by now, but all she can focus on is the dullness in her father's eyes as the titan starts to tilt, to fall, with Stormbreaker and two of Nebula's blades embedded in his flesh, and she makes a move to pull one of them free so as not to be left unarmed.
And then there is the snap. The sensation of being jerked backwards. Reaching out for something, anything, to keep her upright only to fall, with no indication of how long it'll take to land; thinking briefly of Rocket and Stark and Thor and Steve, and Gamora most of all, before her world becomes nothing but green)
She can't remember if any of that was real or a dream. Doesn't know if she is still dreaming now. Perhaps she has fallen victim to the Reality Stone as punishment for her betrayal; helpless as Thanos gifts her with the vision she has wished for her entire life, only to let it crumble to ash while he exposes her as a pathetic creature he could crush in an instant.
As nothing continues to happen, the notion of this being a cruel trick seems all the more plausible, and Nebula closes her eyes again to avoid facing the inevitable pull back to reality.
(Fighting. Screaming. Blood. Thor's lightning and Danvers' strength. Her own scream of rage. A flash of purple and the smell of someone burning. Nebula's blades in her father's chest. A deafening snap and the world being swallowed by Green)
Her pain, though - the ache spreading throughout her entire being. That certainly feels real enough.
("You should have killed me!")
With a harsh gasp, Nebula finally returns to the present; pushing herself up from dust-ridden ground and coughing hard to clear her lungs. Every breath burns within her chest as she takes great, heaving gulps of air, but the sudden influx of oxygen clears her head and if she closes her eyes she can feel the green slipping away. Her cybernetics groan under her weight as she forces herself into a seated position, but she can forgive them that. They've been put through the wringer in recent weeks, as the journey to Titan was frequently interrupted by those loyal to Thanos, basking in his victory and ready to defend their saviour from any promise of threat. That they even made it to this planet is an achievement in itself, and Nebula quickly scans the desolate horizon to assure herself that she is still here. That the journey itself was not a dream.
It hadn't looked so barren in her memories, though. Using the power of the Reality Stone, Thanos had transformed it into a beautiful paradise; somewhere he could live and die in peace. That had been smoke and mirrors obviously - a childish trick - but the grass beneath her feet had felt real as she fought on the battlefield, and the skies had been blue overhead as they charged onwards until Thor's lightning had blackened them. All of that is absent now. The sky is a hazy orange, clouded over by dust, and the mirages of proud buildings have faded to reveal the rubble beneath. Titan hasn't looked so extinct since...
Since before. Before the snap. Before she ventured to Earth with Stark in tow after watching their allies die.
That's not... she refuses to let herself hope, even as the familiarity of that particular shade of green begins to dawn on her. It is still uncertain whether she even succeeded in killing Thanos. There is so much blood on her hands that there's no way of telling if any belongs to him, and the idea that they may have achieved more than that...
She banishes it. Her heart is too shredded to be torn apart again as all hope falls to ruin, and her head hurts too much to comprehend the idea that they might, impossibly, have won. Her hands come up to cradle her skull and she closes her eyes - green having faded to white spots against a returning blackness - and she only looks up once the air is broken by the voice of a ghost.
"Where'd he go?"
Nebula's head jerks up so quickly she's surprised she doesn't hear a snap.
If she betrays her shock then Quill neglects to mention it. He's standing before her now, wielding his blaster with little care as tears threaten at the corner of his eyes and panicked breaths escape his lungs. His head whirls round as he scans his surroundings, his weapon primed to fire at anything that moves, and Nebula can't tell if he looks more grief-stricken or scared out of his mind. He hasn't even noticed that her appearance and clothing have changed in what can only have been minutes, and she has to glance down at her left arm to be certain that Shuri's replacement remains attached. Not that she needs to; the lightness and gnawing aches where there should be agony is assurance enough.
"Did you see where he went?" Quill asks, looking to her with a desperation she doesn't have the context for. It's been so long since she saw him last – since she watched him dissolve into ash with a defeated 'Oh man' - that even if she knew exactly what point in time this was and what to say to him, she still wouldn't be able to say anything. Her tongue feels like it's stuck to the roof of her mouth, and when she looks around she spots an equally frightened Mantis and Drax wandering among the debris.
Not for the first time, she finds herself wondering if she truly is dreaming.
"-Thanos? He was right there, I saw him, he was fighting that wizard guy and the guy in the robot suit, what's his name..."
Without a second thought, Nebula forces herself to her feet - suppressing a wince as she does so - and storms past Quill in search for her ally. Team-mate. Friend. Whatever he is, he was by her side when the world faded to green and brought her here. If anyone knows what the hell is happening, he might.
At the very least, he'll be able to offer more insight into their situation than the Guardians ever will.
Climbing over rubble and old ship-parts and scorched rock (the moon, she remembers; Thanos had torn it from the sky only to restore it After the snap) eventually brings her face-to-face with Strange, and she glowers at the man whose final words have caused so much agony over recent weeks, only to remember her priorities. It doesn't take long to locate Stark after that, as she finally spots him cowering against the remains of a brick wall.
The closer she gets, the clearer it becomes that he's a mess. His face is white as a sheet - a cold sweat giving his skin a translucent sheen so that he appears half a corpse already - and he's cradling a burnt, blackened hand against his chest while breathing through what must be considerable pain. Most of his armour has been reduced to a shattered heap around him, but Nebula knows by appearance alone that it's a newer model, designed to be better-suited for space travel after his first experience on Titan. That, combined with injuries she knows he didn't sustain last time he was here, is enough to convince her that he too has been dragged back to this place (this time?), and when feverish eyes glance up to acknowledge her, he smiles with weak familiarity that implies he still knows her.
The relief she feels at that knowledge surprises her, though even she can't deny the comfort that washes over her at seeing him alive, if not entirely whole.
The air is broken once again by a cry of "Where is Thanos!" courtesy of Drax, followed by Mantis' timid response of "I don't think I can sense him." Quill hasn't stopped shouting since Nebula saw him - either at his team-mates or at the absent titan himself – and his final call is simply one of, "Show your face, you giant purple asshole!"
Nebula tunes out the noise before their incessant shouting can deafen her or make her even more on-edge than she already is, and instead she finds her attention wandering back to the sorcerer.
Fury, white-hot and all-consuming, grips her at the sight of him, even when she knows deep down that it's no longer justified or relevant. He has haunted her and Stark's minds like a parasite for what feels like years; his cryptic warnings and final words keeping sleep at bay in the weeks following the Snap. His sacrifice of the Time Stone in exchange for Stark's life had only served to plunge her ally into self-loathing that threatened to crush him under its weight, and Nebula's so intimately aware of what guilt like that does to the soul that part of her wishes the same agony upon Strange.
Then again, his promise of a scenario in which they ultimately defeated Thanos was often the only thing spurring them on. The only thing keeping them going on their journey towards Titan, even as they constantly faced enemy warships intent on wiping out their pitiful armada before they even reached the planet. That knowledge isn't enough to stop her from hating Strange, but it does instill a level of restraint as she looks at him.
It becomes a trial to ignore his own penetrating gaze once his eyes dart from her face to the new arm by her side. His eyes dance over to Stark as well, noting his new suit and clothes underneath - possibly even the way he seems to have aged years in the space of what must only have been seconds from Strange's perspective – and annoyingly he seems to understand more in that moment than Nebula does.
Approaching footsteps are enough to break through her trance, and she drags her eyes away from Strange only to find herself face-to-face with Quill once more. The man looks on the verge of falling apart in his frenzy as any feeble control he possesses slips through his fingers. There's a strange sort of melancholy to seeing him again. Nebula was never too attached to him in life beyond what he meant to Gamora, but she has just spent around three to four months listening to his music and hearing Rocket's fond memories of Quill, to the point where she'd almost come to mourn him in her own way. It is strange for him to be here now, solid and alive, and she imagines he would simply dissolve into ash if she were to reach out and touch him.
Quill doesn't remember, she realises. Doesn't remember dying; doesn't realise that he's been dead and gone in the eyes of her and Stark and Rocket for months.
"Is this it?" he asks with barely contained terror in his eyes, and when it becomes obvious that Nebula cannot provide an answer, he turns towards Strange instead. "Have we lost?"
The planet stills as Strange considers the question, his eyes darting between Nebula and Stark as an unspoken connection passes between them; a certain knowledge that is unreachable to the Guardians. Nebula would very much be interested to know what he has to say, even as a more vicious part of her wishes never to hear his voice again. Even she is not entirely sure what is going on. She cannot tell if they've truly won or if they've been zapped back in time to endure the whole ordeal again; whether in five minutes she will be forced to watch her allies disintegrate into nothing, just as they had a lifetime ago.
"No," Strange says eventually, the edge of his lips curling into a knowing smile as he looks directly her way in favour of acknowledging Quill. "No, I don't think we have."
The gravity of that confirmation barely has time to sink in when a small figure emerges behind a tall pile of rubble, seeming bruised and winded but otherwise still in one piece.
"Mr Stark?" Peter asks, glancing around the small gathering before his eyes widen at the sight of his mentor slumped against a nearby wall; pale as a ghost and clutching his ruined hand to his chest. Stark simply freezes in response, his eyes still fixed to the ground as though looking up will shatter a cruel illusion. "Are you okay? Your hand, it..."
The words trail off as Stark finally drags tired eyes upwards to take in the boy he lost, so long ago now. He remains frozen for a second longer - his chest still to the point where it must feel like he's suffocating - before he releases a soft "Pete?" that only seems to add to the boy's concern.
Peter draws closer, hesitant, as Stark rises to his feet and stumbles towards him without a care for his own weakness, and when he appears to be in danger of collapsing, the boy rushes to catch him without a second thought.
That small contact is the only confirmation of life that Stark needs. Without warning, he pulls Peter into an embrace so tight it must hurt them both - clings to him as though terrified he'll be left grasping nothing but air soon - and a broken sob is finally released against the boy's shoulder. Peter's hands remain awkwardly by his side for the split second it takes to overcome the shock of what he's seeing, before they slowly return Stark's embrace and his body loses a little of its tension.
"Okay," Peter says with a soft laugh. "This is happening."
He doesn't seem upset by that. Confused, yes, and Nebula can hardly blame him, especially upon hearing Stark's soft assurance of "You're alright," whispered over and over; likely trying to convince himself of that more than anyone else. It only serves to make the boy more worried on Stark's behalf, though there's no remedy in the universe for that.
You have no idea, kid, Nebula thinks, as she watches Peter close his eyes and sink into an embrace that's in no danger of breaking apart anytime soon. No idea that you're not even supposed to be alive.
No idea what your death did to him.
Her eyes roam over the wasteland where she'd been fighting only hours ago. The vast armies are gone, along with the piles of enemy dead. Thor's lightning is nowhere to be seen or heard. Thanos doesn't emerge even after the Guardians' constant goading, and Nebula hopes for their sake that it's a sign he's dead and not on Earth, minutes away from collecting the last stone. Her mind struggles to keep up with the possibilities. She can't comprehend where she stands now; whether the future she lived in, the one dwelling only in her memories, even still exists. Whether there were others caught in the Time Stone's crossfire, dragged back to the present with their memories intact, or whether she and Stark are the only ones doomed to the knowledge of how close they all came to losing.
Nebula wonders if she'll ever truly understand what happened.
"Hey, Mr Stark?" Peter's voice pipes up again, and Nebula's attention returns to the pair just in time to hear an encouraging hum emerge from the man in question. "Does this count as a hug?"
There's a burst of laughter at that, a fragile thing that could almost be a sob. It sounds genuine however - betraying Stark's relief all too clearly - and it hits her that this is probably the first spark of pure happiness he's shown in all the time she's known him.
"Yeah," he says, the word released on a shuddering breath. "Yeah, this is a hug."
"So, where are we headed?"
Stark answers Quill's query with "Earth" in the same instant Nebula bites out "Wakanda"; struggling with the weight of the man due to her own aches and pains while Peter supports him on his other side. When Quill glances between the two of them with his brows raised in confusion – something Nebula imagines she'll see many times from this point onwards – Stark simply nods in her direction and adds, "What she said."
Suspicion seems to simmer beneath Quill's skin as he regards them both, his breaths already strained from uncertainty and fear and suffocating grief. Losing Gamora is still fresh for him, Nebula remembers. Her own pain has faded to a dull ache in her chest which never really leaves her, but over time it has become bearable at least. Occasionally it will return with a vengeance and she will be immobilised by it - often following a battle once her adrenaline has crashed - but she now has enough distance to power through it and keep fighting. In comparison, Quill has just learned of Gamora's death only to have her murderer vanish without a trace, and Nebula finds herself pitying him knowing his mind must surely be in turmoil.
She tries to avoid all thoughts of her sister for the moment. Though the instruction given by Thor stated that whomever wielded the gauntlet should concentrate on releasing the trapped soul as well as fixing everything else, the actual moment had been so rushed that Nebula doesn't even know who snapped their fingers in the end. Who took it upon themselves to restore the universe? Did they remember to save Gamora? If they wake in this present with the gauntlet still in their possession, will they have the state of mind to release her? Will releasing her even bring her back, or will it simply let her soul pass on to whatever uncertainty awaits after death?
Too many questions. Nebula can't bring herself to dwell on them too closely for fear of building up hope that will ultimately fade away. It is fortunate enough that half of the universe has presumably been restored; asking for anything more may be testing her luck.
Urgency takes hold of Quill at last as he finally directs them all into the Benatar, and Nebula notes that the ship has once again endured its time on Titan admirably. Stepping within its confines is a peculiar experience, to say the least. The ship has served as Nebula's home for months and seeing it restored and whole, with no trace of Rocket's extensive pillaging, brings something that might be nostalgia. It looks exactly as it did all those months ago, when she first dragged Stark onboard and took him back to Earth. Digging further into the recesses of her memory, she notices that even the discarded clothing and half-eaten snacks are in the exact same places - on the exact same surfaces - and the workbench she had claimed as her own months ago shows no evidence of the grime and oil stains left behind from various repairs.
This isn't her home anymore.
Unlike the last time she fled Titan, she does not find herself moving towards the flight-deck. That role goes to Quill and Drax as they bring the engines to life and summon the navigational equipment, setting their co-ordinates for 'Wakanda, Earth'. Nebula is left without a role to play, but she brushes that aside as she settles Stark on the cot that was once hers; sitting beside him and Peter as the ship lifts off the ground and launches towards space with a violent burst of speed.
Once they breach the atmosphere and the turbulence dies down enough that she can stand without falling, Nebula leaves Stark with Peter in order to locate the painkillers and med-scanner she knows she'll find in the store-room. As her hands fall upon the maddening device, she lets herself smirk at the memory of the gutted husk it had become once Rocket got ahold of it, before forcing herself back to the present. Now is not the time to lose herself in memory. There is still so much urgency in the air even as she's taken by a lightness she hasn't felt in years.
By the time she returns with medical supplies and a bottle of water in hand, Doctor Strange is crouched at Stark's side, and a protective streak burns violently within Nebula before she can cast aside her distrust. The sorcerer is delicately studying the blackened remains of Stark's left hand, while Peter looms by his side like a silent, bewildered guardian. Whatever conclusion Strange draws has him muttering an incantation under his breath, and Nebula watches with mild fascination as a blue light coats the burn, solidifying into something resembling a transparent glove which glints like ice. The effect it has on Stark is instantaneous as he sighs in relief, leaning his head against the panel at his back and closing his eyes as he takes even breaths for what might be the first time all day.
"That should preserve the hand until we return to Earth," Strange promises, before glancing up to Nebula and offering a small smile that she refuses to return. "I can't promise anything beyond that, I'm afraid."
Stark simply nods in understanding - dismissing Strange with a murmur of thanks - before glancing at Peter and attempting to give him a reassuring smile. It more closely resembles a grimace to Nebula's eyes, and it doesn't seem to have much effect on Peter either. The boy seems torn between staying by Stark's side – his concern palpable as he anxiously fidgets with his hands – and exploring the spaceship further. He'll be unused to such environments, Nebula assumes, if this is truly his first time away from Earth. Peter's concern must be wearing on Stark as well - much as he's unlikely to admit it - but his eyes light up a little when his mentor gives him an encouraging nudge and says, "Go on, kid. I'm sure they won't mind if you go exploring."
When Nebula utters a confirmation, Peter wisely acknowledges the implied dismissal and wanders off to explore the ship, stopping first by a window to gaze at passing stars and planets with childlike wonder. Nebula watches him for a moment, trying to banish all memory of him crumbling to ash, before turning to Stark and noting the fondness in his eyes even as pain threatens to flare up again. Refusing to waste any more time, Nebula hands over the bottle of chilled water - which he gulps down greedily - followed by painkillers which still bear the words 'Terran friendly' in Rocket's messy scrawl.
"Actually take them this time," she murmurs, lowly to ensure the others don't hear her, and Stark does her the courtesy of obeying. He swallows down two tablets with water as instructed, before closing his eyes as he awaits their effects. Strange's spell seems to provide some relief, if the colour returning to his cheeks is any indication, but doubtless he has numerous aches and pains elsewhere from endless days of fighting.
Fishing out the med-scanner, Nebula quickly aims it at his body and assures herself that he's not dying this time at least. There's no hole in his side requiring urgent attention she cannot provide, though the hand is likely a lost cause and he has widespread bruising from other injuries. His heart-rate is high, though that'll be the pain, and there's far less flashing numbers than there'd been when the device was last used on him. Stark might actually be okay, and she resists the relief that thought gives her far less than she expects to.
Once again, she wonders if he had actually managed to wield the gauntlet, even if only for a moment. The burn is likely due to a blast from the power stone if memory serves her right – which, admittedly, isn't a given – but Stark must have had the gauntlet in hand for a few seconds before it was taken by whoever elicited the snap. Logic tells her that if he'd tried to wield the gauntlet, the sheer magnitude of its power would have caused him to wither and die - collapsing to dust under its sheer intensity - but then, it wouldn't be impossible. One often hears legends of weapons forged on Nidavellir choosing who bears them – of kind-hearted children being able to pick up and admire such tools, while genocidal warriors crumble under their might. Perhaps Stark is worthy. Perhaps she or Steve or even Rocket would have been just as capable of wielding the gauntlet as ancient warriors like Thor or Valkyrie.
She supposes she'll never know. All she knows is that she and Stark are alive, which is an outcome she hadn't dared envision even during her more optimistic moments.
They must have reached a different system by the time Quill switches to auto-pilot and rises from the captain's chair. He wipes exhaustion from his face and takes a measured breath, before regarding the assortment of individuals on his ship with as stern an expression as he can muster. It's not quite convincing – Quill has always possessed a certain vulnerability in Nebula's eyes and recent events aren't helping – but his tone is serious when he addresses the group.
"Okay, now's the time for someone to explain what the hell is happening."
"Would if I could," Nebula responds, ignoring the weak glare Quill throws her way. He's confused and hurting, she reminds herself, and being left in the dark in a situation like this must be torture. "Ask the sorcerer. He seems to know more than he's telling us."
It's not entirely a lie. Strange probably knows even more than she does. All she has is her own perspective of how the universe changed months ago and the vicious fight she's endured since then to help restore it. Strange, on the other hand, witnessed fourteen-million scenarios as an omniscient watcher, including the one which led to victory; the one she can only hope she is living in now.
"Mr Stark?" Peter asks, stepping away from the window and forcing the man in question to open his eyes. "Do you have any idea what's going on?"
He's thinking of the hug, most likely. Of watching Stark break down and lose all restraint as relief threatened to suffocate him. Nebula wonders if that's a side Peter ever saw of his mentor before... well, Before.
Stark considers the boy for a moment, as though silently debating over whether he should offer even a weak explanation, before he leans back with his lips quirking up in amusement.
"You ever see that really old movie 'Back to the Future'?" he asks, much to the confusion of Peter and Nebula both, before shaking his head and wincing. "No, that's not right. 'The Terminator'? What other time-travel movies are there? 'Back to the Future 2'?"
"Wait, they made a second 'Back to the Future'?" Quill asks, his eyes lighting up with a little of their old spark; childlike excitement overwhelming the events of the day if only for a moment.
"And a third," Peter tells him, his own concern briefly forgotten. "They're pretty good actually... Wait, did you say time-travel?"
Stark huffs a laugh before closing his eyes again, seeming to battle another wave of pain before it settles to something bearable. "I'll explain later, I promise."
The assurance likely isn't adequate, but Peter appears wary enough of Stark's exhaustion and pain to let the matter drop. Quill seems to do the same, glancing towards an unforthcoming Strange before releasing a sigh and returning to Drax's side; regaining manual control of the ship purely so he has something to do. Mantis continues to rest in the corner, regarding them all with wide-eyed curiosity and seeming to see more than she lets on. Nebula wonders if her empathic abilities have allowed her to read the situation more deeply than the others. Mercifully, the girl doesn't let on if they have.
Her own exhaustion crashes over her without warning, and she brushes a hand across her face before rising to her feet. Part of her is desperate to simply watch the stars; to look out at all those planets which had once seemed so empty. Was that truly only months ago? It's been a while since she lost track of time - the persistent blackness of space and odd resting hours making the days blend into one another – but the immediate aftermath of Thanos' purge feels like years ago. One could almost believe it was, looking at the permanent lines surrounding Stark's eyes.
She's prevented from going over to the window by a hand which comes to grip her wrist tightly, and she looks down to find Stark staring at her with wild-eyed urgency. If he looked any less hopeless she may have torn her hand away, but instead she crouches beside him so he can lower his voice to a whisper; frightened of the others hearing his frank desperation.
"Please tell me this is real," he pleads, his eyes darting to Peter and the Guardians – around a ship he now knows well, yet in this condition must seem unfamiliar – before falling back to her. "Tell me I haven't gone mad."
Nebula wishes someone could assure her of the same. The situation they are in now is one they have been fighting towards for a brutally long time, and though the fact that they reached Titan at all is a testament to how they never gave up, she doubts either of them truly believed they could win. Seeing the others alive and well in the present is something they could only have dreamed about, and she refuses to consider how unimaginably cruel it would be to wake right now and find that none of this had been real.
That Peter was still dead. That Thanos still lived.
"Well, if you've gone mad that makes two of us," she assures him with something that might be a smile, and she gets a weak laugh for her efforts.
Stark doesn't look entirely reassured, and Nebula knows she won't allow herself to relax until she knows exactly where they stand. However, some tension does finally leave his body, and she watches him tilt to the side as his eyelids flutter; sleep already in the process of claiming him. She guides him down onto the cot and brings over a pillow so he can rest his head, before rising to her feet. "Get some rest. We'll all still be here when you wake."
Stark nods and cradles his wounded hand to his chest before closing his eyes, his breaths evening out within a matter of moments. Nebula stays just long enough to be certain he's okay – or as close to it as he's ever going to get - before tearing her eyes away from him. Rather predictably, she finds Peter watching them with trepidation as any excitement over flying through space is drowned out by fear over Stark's wellbeing, and it only seems to grow stronger when Nebula walks over to him.
"Stay with him kid," she orders, adopting a tone which leaves no room for argument. "Trust me, he needs you."
The boy doesn't need to be told twice. Peter only regards her for a moment - intuition burning in young eyes so fiercely he almost reminds her of Shuri – before wandering over to Stark's side, settling on the floor beside him like a loyal puppy. Nebula glances towards the window, debating with herself for a moment, before tearing her eyes away so she can approach Mantis instead.
"Can you stay with him as well?" she asks, ignoring the girl's confusion at being confronted; though perhaps she always looks like that. "Help him sleep if he needs it?"
Mantis looks over to where Stark rests, and something that might be sympathy crosses her face before she nods obediently. She's barely moved to stand, however, before Nebula holds out a hand to stop her.
"No prying," she warns, and the seriousness of her tone is enough to have momentary fear flashing across the girl's face before she fights it off. "No digging around his emotions. Just help him sleep."
The request must be reasonable enough in spite of the unspoken threat beneath it, for Mantis nods before walking over to Stark's side. Peter visibly flinches upon having his reverie interrupted, but Mantis' presence ultimately draws no protests.
With that small task completed, Nebula finally drags herself over to the window; clenching her eyes shut against exhaustion as the weight of everything finally settles upon her. She can't remember the last time she slept. The battle on Titan had lasted days, with little respite as Thanos' army kept them at bay. Days in which she's done little more than kill and yell instructions as she forged a path towards her father, trampling over allies and enemies alike in her quest to reach him. She's grateful now for the time spent gathering their numbers; Thor and Valkyrie and Sif all being instrumental in recruiting fresh blood for their army once they finally left Earth. They may have lost the element of surprise by doing so, and it's likely Thanos used the time to gather numbers of his own, but she's become all too aware of the fact that the small group of Avengers who gathered together all those months ago wouldn't have lasted an hour on their own.
The battle will never happen now, she realises. Those people they recruited to fight and die in one last act of defiance are currently out among the stars, with no idea that the universe ever needed their help.
The dull throbbing of her head that accosted her upon waking on Titan returns and she groans against the pain, struggling to comprehend everything that's happened. Strange could probably tell her, she supposes. Maybe Thor or Danvers too, if she ever sees them again.
All she knows with any certainty is that she bears the scars of a war that might never happen now; that she has come from a future that is no longer real, no matter how vivid her memories of it are.
The Time Stone ensured that much.
Opening her eyes exposes her to planets she vaguely recognises from before; dense with green forests and glittering blue oceans not unlike Earth, though the twin suns millions of miles in the distance is enough to tell her she's in an entirely different solar system.
Last time she passed them by, they were missing half their residents. Their people would have been mourning, screaming, dying; crumbling to ash as a result of her father's 'mercy'.
Now they'll simply be getting on with their lives, ignorant to the fate they've just narrowly escaped. It disturbs Nebula that she can't see the difference. The planets look the same as they had a lifetime ago, when she'd taken a grief-stricken Stark home while suffocating under the weight of her own guilt. All that's changed is that the universe no longer feels as empty as it once had, but she knows that is simply instinctual on her part.
Half of the universe's occupants have just escaped destruction, and most of them will never know.
"How long has it been?"
Nebula jumps at the sudden arrival, cursing herself for letting her guard down so fully she didn't even notice Strange's approach. She should know better than that; she was taught better. It's a sign that she's likely wearier than she realises, and she can tell the scowl she gives Strange is half-hearted as a result. Some of her resentment towards him has wavered, admittedly. It's possible that - through a variety of means and circumstances she cannot comprehend - he is the reason they even got ahold of the gauntlet and Time Stone in the first place; the reason she is even here to see these planets with half their inhabitants restored.
His voice is lowered, she notes, and she glances around the ship to ensure they are alone. Quill and Drax are arguing about something in the flight-deck, too caught up in their own pettiness to care about anyone nearby, and both Peter and Stark are fast asleep while Mantis stands guard, awaiting any hint of a nightmare. There is little danger of being overheard, so Nebula huffs an exhausted sigh before responding to Strange's question.
"I don't know," she admits. Strange, damn him, only gives her a smile she thinks is supposed to be encouraging. She doesn't know why she's bothering to talk to him; he likely already knows all the answers before he even asks. "I lost track. Months, probably."
The words sound dull coming from her lips. Her voice is toneless, exhausted, and though there should be a gravity to what she's saying, she can't quite gather the energy to summon it. Strange doesn't seem to notice. Perhaps he even empathises with her situation. For the first time, Nebula finds herself wondering how it must have felt to watch fourteen-million scenarios play out, only to emerge into the present and find that mere minutes had passed.
"We watched half the universe die," she adds, her voice barely above a whisper.
"I know," Strange says, glancing back to the wounded man on the cot before regarding Nebula with something that might be pity. She wishes she could wipe it away. She doesn't need pity from anyone, especially not him. Then again, she supposes there's no other appropriate reaction to hearing of the unique trauma she and Stark have lived through. "I saw."
It strikes her with a sudden ferocity how unfair it is that he's seen everything that happened without being forced to endure the torture of experiencing it. He remains unchanged, while she and Stark have suffered physically and mentally for what feels like years. He may know what they've gone through – what the cursed few with memories intact have experienced – but at the same time he can't possibly begin to understand it.
Because he blew away like smoke before the reality of Thanos's actions even had a chance to sink in.
"I watched you die," she snaps, immediately regretting the venom in her voice. None of this is Strange's fault. If anything, he's helped them in small ways she may never fully comprehend. There's only one person to blame, and as far as Nebula knows she's already killed him.
"Well," Strange replies, seeming unphased by her anger though there's a trace of amusement in his eyes. It doesn't seem to be at her expense, however, and it passes in an instant only to be replaced by a sudden wearied sincerity. "You're not the first."
Nebula would call him out for being cryptic again, but there's an honesty to him that makes her hold her tongue. With nothing left to say, she simply returns her eyes to the view in a silent dismissal, and Strange has enough sense to take the hint.
They're in a different galaxy now; almost half-way to Earth if her memories can be trusted. Perhaps she'll find something in the way of answers there. Or not. She can't help but wonder if it even matters or if she should just be grateful that they have somehow managed to win.
There will be time for explanations later. Time for reunions once she returns to Earth, assuming people like Rocket and Steve and Thor even remember what happened, and time to learn what happened to the Soul Stone. To her sister.
For now, though, she simply wants to wash the blood and gore from her body and find a quiet place to sleep while the remainder of the journey passes her by.
If she's lucky, she might even wake to find that none of this was a dream.
Thank you for reading! I have the first draft of the next chapter written and the bare-bones of an epilogue laid out, so it shouldn't take too long to finish this story (so long as uni-work/life doesn't get in the way!).
Thank you again for all of your kudos, bookmarks and comments! I appreciate each and every one so much and your response has been hugely encouraging while writing this story, so thank you!
Thank you so much for your lovely responses to the last chapter! This one wrestled with me a little more, but I'm choosing to blame that on the fact that it was originally planned for the end of chapter 6. If this experience has taught me anything, it's that my chapter-planning skills are useless!
Thank you again for reading to this point. I hope you enjoy this chapter!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They arrive on familiar Wakandan soil with far less fanfare and suspicion greeting them this time around.
Even the young voice reaching out to them over the comms seems to have been awaiting their signal, going so far as to identify the ship by name before Quill can say a word. Nebula takes that as an assurance that there's at least one person on Earth who remembers as much as she does. Perhaps Steve or Rhodey; someone who was there to greet her when she first arrived and had enough sense to warn the Wakandans of their imminent visitors. Sure enough, as they make their final approach, the only crowd awaiting them is a gathering of Dora Milaje led by Okoye, though if she recognises Nebula when she emerges from the Benatar she gives no indication of it.
The field still shows signs of recent bloodshed, though Nebula notes that it's far less ruined than the sight she'd grown used to over the weeks she stayed here. There's considerably fewer bodies than last time for a start. The earth looks slightly less upturned, as though the battle was cut short before the worst of the damage could be dealt, and most importantly the air isn't thick with ash and dust. The blue of the sky is clear – no longer seen through a haze – and each breath no longer carries the sickening combination of oxygen and human remains. Okoye looks battle-worn, but she stands as tall as Nebula has always known her to be and the spectre of grief is notably absent from her eyes.
The general surveys the group before her with mild curiosity as they emerge, though she betrays no recollection of the ship itself. All that crosses her face when she glances at Nebula is an unmistakable flicker of suspicion upon regarding her arm, clearly fashioned from Vibranium, but she seems to brush that aside as an impossibility. Her attention is drawn to the more peculiar among their group soon enough – eyes scanning Drax and Mantis and Strange with something that might be weariness – before she finally regards Stark with some degree of familiarity.
A few hours of rest have done Stark a world of good. His hand is still receiving weak protection from the shimmering blue spell and there's an evident limp as he walks, but he's able to support his own weight at least, even as Peter hovers nearby like a protective mother. The cold sweat has passed and there's some colour in his cheeks, battling the transparent sheen he's had since Titan, and the faux smile he gives Okoye could convince almost anyone that he's not falling apart at the seams.
Almost anyone. By this point Nebula can see through him as clearly as though he were transparent, but she doesn't say anything for fear of shattering his mask.
"It's good of you to finally join us, Mr Stark," Okoye greets him with professional courtesy; the final nail in the coffin which confirms that she truly doesn't know him. Doesn't remember. Stark succeeds in giving nothing away - no indication that he has encountered Okoye many times during meetings and training – but Nebula cannot help but notice how weak his answering smile is.
"And I assume the rest of you are the 'Guardians of the Galaxy'?" Okoye continues, choosing to address Quill as though hopeful that he is perhaps the more normal of the bunch. Nebula supposes that depends on one's definition of normal.
"And the Avengers!" Peter interjects eagerly, eliciting a fond if slightly exasperated shake of the head from Stark and a lovely, musical laugh from Okoye.
"Oh, I'm well acquainted with you lot, trust me," she replies with a wicked smirk, and Nebula glances over to Stark to see hope flaring in exhausted eyes. "My Dora Milaje and I will escort you to the palace. Our king has extended an offer of hospitality at Captain Rogers' request and I've been assured you can all be trusted. I would advise against proving him wrong."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Stark promises, much to the general's amusement. Having sparred with Okoye herself in order to train before leaving Earth, Nebula can't help but agree. There's a certain elegance to the way she fights, to how expertly she wields her spear in combat, that even Nebula has caught herself envying. She had a ferocity too, though perhaps that had been borne of grief.
With the niceties out of the way, the Dora Milaje set about escorting them towards the towering city; Okoye taking the lead, while the woman Nebula knows to be Ayo leads a squad at the rear to ensure they don't get any bright ideas and wander off. The rest of the world may not be recovering from Thanos, but Wakanda has still endured a battle and Nebula doubts alien visitors can be trusted even with Captain America vouching for them.
As they near the outskirts of the city, Stark finally accepts Peter's offer of support in a silent confirmation that he's weaker than he's letting on. Not that Nebula can blame him. Her own exhaustion continues to weigh her down even after achieving three hours of uninterrupted rest. Strange lingers close to the pair while Quill hovers nearby, pale-faced with eyes clouded over from dread as he takes in the scattered remains of alien creatures. Mantis and Drax seem to be hanging back, though Nebula can't be bothered checking up on them. Likely Ayo's displeasure will be made clear if either Guardian wanders too far from the pack.
"What happened here?" Quill asks eventually, having broken from his trance and approached Okoye with caution; his eyes falling upon her impressive spear more than once. If she minds his presence, she makes no mention of it, though there's a downturn to her lips as confusion briefly claims her too.
"That's something we're still trying to figure out ourselves," she admits, and Nebula surreptitiously focuses on every word she says in a silent quest for answers. "There was an army at our border, trying to steal something your Avengers call the 'Mind Stone'. We were close to being overwhelmed when they just vanished - literally - into thin air. I still can't explain it myself. One moment I was trying to protect my country from an alien threat, the next they were just... gone. You wouldn't know they'd been here at all if it weren't for the dead they left behind."
"Something similar happened to us," Quill tells her, and Okoye's eyes turn to him with burning curiosity; a silent urge to go on. "We were fighting Thanos – that must have been his army you saw – then all of a sudden there was this weird flash and he was gone."
His eyes dart around the field, taking in every detail before it can become hidden away by fast-approaching skyscrapers, and once again Nebula finds her eyes drawn to Stark's. Their glance achieves little more than a silent confirmation that they're only slightly less in-the-dark than Quill and Okoye.
"I thought he'd won," Quill admits with a whisper, appearing older than Nebula's ever known him to be as guilt rests on his shoulders, in his eyes; weighing down on his soul in a manner she knows only too well. "I thought he'd come here to finish what he started."
"Well, if he is here he's yet to announce himself," Okoye says, though she doesn't seem entirely reassured. It is difficult to bask in victory when the circumstances surrounding it are so uncertain, Nebula imagines. She can certainly relate on that front. "If Bast has any mercy, he never will."
The journey towards the palace passes in relative silence after that. The path is a well-worn one for Nebula, containing quaint alleyways and arresting towers and open squares from her memories, yet so much has changed that she might as well be seeing it all for the first time. The city is hardly at its busiest – many are likely still in the process of returning home after the widespread evacuation efforts – but already the streets are noisier than she has ever seen them. Curious onlookers dart glances at their strange party wherever they go, yet their faces hold none of the grief and pain that once plagued them relentlessly. Instead, everywhere Nebula looks, people are slowly but surely returning to a sense of normality.
As they pass through the busiest sector of the city, Nebula can see a market in full swing. The vibrant colours of traditional clothing and artwork greet them wherever they turn, painting the world in dazzling shades of red and blue and green. The scents of freshly picked fruits and sizzling meat dishes makes her mouth water, and she begins to wonder when she last ate; her ears are filled with traders proclaiming their deals and, as they draw closer to the square, the sounds of traditional drum-beats and chanting, while a pleasant female-voice rises above it all, singing wordlessly as she lets the music guide her.
Nebula has never heard music here before.
"It's beautiful," Mantis says with childlike wonder, and Nebula can't help but agree. It has been so long since she stepped foot on this soil that she's taken aback by how much she's missed it. It is strange to see it like this, so vibrant and loud. So alive.
"Is this what Earth's like now?" Quill asks, making no attempt to hide his awe as his eyes dart in every possible direction, including skyward as the air is filled with ships returning from the safety of the mountains. It's only then that it hits Nebula that this must be the first time Quill has returned home since he was a child; the first glimpse of Earth he's had in decades.
"Don't get too excited," Stark warns him, though not unkindly. He too seems to have been gifted with a renewed appreciation of the city, if the way he's eagerly pointing out all the sights to an equally excited Peter is any indication. "You won't find this in Missouri."
That miraculously draws a laugh from Quill, one that seems to surprise even him. It's the first glimpse Nebula's gotten all day of the man she remembers – the man her sister fell in love with – and as childlike joy continues to overwhelm the grief and panic in his eyes, she starts to believe that he might actually recover from this. That his being brought back from the ashes won't have been in vain, even if Gamora is truly gone.
She banishes all thought of her sister before her mind can dwell on black-painted possibilities. Before her relief at seeing Wakanda and the people within it so alive – at seeing the Guardians and Peter and even Strange once more – can turn into rage at the fact that they are alive when it is likely her sister is not.
Overall it takes close to an hour to reach the palace from where the Benatar made its descent, by which point neither Stark nor Nebula seem to care about hiding their need to sleep for five years. It hasn't escaped her notice that Peter has ended up taking more and more of his mentor's weight throughout the journey. By the time they reach the palace square, he has an arm wrapped tightly around Stark's shoulders and has saved him from stumbling once or twice. Nebula has managed to remain on her feet so far at least, but she can feel a heaviness under her eyes and a screaming ache from every part of her - both organic and mechanical. She's starting to wish her body would start acting like the months they're recovering from didn't happen as surely as the rest of the universe has.
A familiar face is there to greet them once they've cleared the extensive runway bringing them to the palace steps.
If Okoye's prior references hadn't already confirmed that Steve was among the few cursed to remember, the sight of him certainly does. He shaved his beard before the battle on Titan, Nebula remembers, but enough days have passed that the overgrown stubble on his cheeks is almost as scruffy as it'd been when she met him. Old eyes rest upon a face which is slowly starting to catch up to his years, thanks to the now permanent dark circles surrounding them, and he's lost a little of the conviction in his posture even as he stands tall to greet them. He's as exhausted as she is, and Nebula finds herself wondering if she's just as bad at hiding it before deciding she'd rather not know.
At the sight of the few familiar faces among their group, however, Steve's eyes brighten with a spark that Nebula has seen survive untold horrors, and his breath catches in his throat when he locks eyes with Stark.
Neither seem to know what to do for a moment. Of the two of them, Steve's the one to move first; taking a hesitant step forward at the sight of Stark's tired smile before stopping abruptly.
Only for Stark to proclaim "Screw it," just loudly enough for Peter and Nebula to hear as he stumbles over to meet Steve halfway. Any hesitation seems to shatter once they fall into an awkward embrace; their relief at seeing each other alive so palpable, Nebula's skin could burn from being close to it. Steve's hugging Stark so tightly it must hurt, and he closes his eyes for a moment before pulling away with a smile that seems to drop years from his face.
"I was starting to think you hadn't made it," Steve says, only half-joking by the look of it.
Nebula can hardly blame him. There was a moment upon waking on Titan where she had assumed the same. That Stark was dead, along with everyone else; that she was too, or on her way there at least. Those final seconds had been so frantic it had been impossible to know for sure if anyone around her was alive or dead, and the last glimpse she'd gotten of Stark prying the gauntlet from Thanos suggested the latter far more strongly.
"You have such faith in me Rogers," Stark jests, though his expression turns serious quickly enough. A weak smile lingers at the corner of his mouth, surviving in spite of his exhaustion, and any forced lightness is replaced with solemnity when he adds, "It's good to see you too."
Steve smiles, a small broken thing, before finally acknowledging the rest of their gathering. The Dora Milaje have stepped aside having found no reason to distrust their charges, and the others have simply been left to watch the brief reunion with expressions ranging from disinterest on Drax's part, to outright bewilderment on Peter's.
"You must be the Guardians of the Galaxy," Steve says as he focuses on the trio in question, before extending a hand to Quill. The man shakes it as a polite courtesy, even though his confusion hasn't lessened any. "I've heard a lot about you from Rocket."
"Rocket's here?" Quill and Drax ask almost simultaneously, and Nebula finds herself wondering the same. It's possible that Steve's referring to the stories Rocket will tell once he has enough alcohol in him, but his reaction to the outburst implies he's referring to something beyond a mere slip-up.
It is strange, considering how often she's felt the urge to kill Rocket throughout her time with him, but the silent confirmation that he's alive is one that relieves her.
"And Groot," Steve adds with a fond smile, before his gaze finds Nebula and seriousness takes hold. They regard each other with a short nod, a silent confirmation that they remember their times as comrades, before his attention returns to the Guardians. A layer of seriousness remains in his tone however, Nebula notes absently. "I think you should follow me. I can take you to them."
The Guardians offer no complaint to that, and the rest follow on for lack of anything better to do. Strange has been rather quiet throughout the whole affair, though the same curiosity that overtook him when he studied Nebula on Titan is clear to see on his face when he silently watches Steve. For familiarity's sake more than anything else, Nebula finds herself gravitating towards Steve once they reach the vast atrium greeting visitors to the palace. It doesn't take long for her mind to be consumed by how loud everything is now; her eyes wandering over the multitude of people who likely weren't here before.
How many of them had turned to ash by the time she first arrived on Earth? How many wandering the halls, casting incredulous glances at the likes of Mantis and Drax, have been given a second chance at life without realising it? Nebula doesn't know – doubts she even wants to know – though she imagines the answer must be a considerable number. The cacophony of noise feels inappropriate after the weeks of respectful quiet Nebula had witnessed here, and she can't help but hate herself a little for finding it so uncomfortable. This is surely better than the grief-stricken hush had been, but the unfamiliarity of it all still gnaws at her like a dull ache.
She's grateful when a distraction arrives in the form of company as, likely having noticed Nebula edge towards Steve, it doesn't long for Stark to follow suit.
"Uh, kid?" he says in a manner which could be taken as apologetic, as he gently removes himself from Peter's supportive hold and tilts his head towards Quill. "Can you hang back with Flash Gordon and his crew? I need to talk to the adults for a bit."
"I'll be eighteen in six months, Mr Stark," Peter says with mild exasperation, though his shy smile implies he's not entirely serious. A single raised eyebrow from Stark is all it takes to discourage any argument, however, and the boy wisely doesn't protest further. Obediently, he hangs back to join Quill and Strange; an utterance of the word 'movies' seeming to be all it takes for the boy's presence to be accepted by the former.
Stark's eyes linger on Peter a moment longer than necessary – though it's difficult to begrudge him that - before he finally joins Nebula and Steve, and the trio walk side-by-side as they ascend a spiral staircase. They must make a sorry sight, Nebula thinks, as she looks down at her tattered armour and the remaining traces of blood on her hands; looks at Steve's messy hair and beard, and the way Stark ends up needing a strong arm around his waist to keep him upright. If they had more sense they'd get some rest now and leave the bulk of conversation to later, but that would require more patience than any of them have to spare.
"Tell me what you know," Stark asks eventually, voice lowered as though afraid of being heard over the surrounding din.
Steve's jaw clenches, the inevitability of Stark's request likely something he'd hoped to put off. It's possible the answer is 'nothing'. If Nebula were asked the same it's what she'd say. She can say what she remembers happening and what she assumes happened, but the actual knowing is a privilege that hasn't been bestowed upon her.
The silence stretches to the point where it becomes unbearable, though nobody takes it upon themselves to shatter it. They eventually clear the spiral staircase and emerge onto a corridor lined with tall windows, overlooking Wakanda with the sun high above her and the air free from ash. Nebula watches Steve gaze out to the view – one he likely expected never to ever see again - before his attention is drawn to Stark's injured hand cradled against his chest. The protective spell is faltering at last – the blue flickering too often for comfort – and its lessened effects are evident in the way Stark sucks in a pained breath.
"I think you should get that checked out first," Steve tells him plainly, and it's hard to tell if the recommendation is borne of genuine concern or a desperate need to delay the wider conversation that's needed.
"It's protected by magic thanks to a wizard who looks like he's just walked out of Fantasia," Stark replies, impatience dripping from his tone despite his efforts to keep it light. "It'll last another hour. Talk to me, Capsicle."
Steve hesitates for a moment longer before glancing at Nebula, who merely shrugs in lieu of providing backup.
"There's not much I can say," he admits, his voice lowered so only the three of them can hear. "One minute I saw Thor take the gauntlet from your hands, the next there was nothing but green. I woke up around the time Thanos's army disappeared. Into thin air apparently, though I didn't see it."
"Do you know why?" Nebula asks. The question had first occurred to her when Okoye described the army vanishing without trace, almost like those who had fallen to ash months before. It's something she should take as reassurance – that more lives were spared from Thanos' lackeys and her siblings – but it almost seems too easy. Surely there must be strings attached; consequences for escaping fate so easily. But then, she supposes that allowing cataclysmic changes to be passed with relative ease was always part of the gauntlet's function.
"I'm the wrong person to ask," Steve admits with a soft laugh. "Thor's doing, maybe. He might have added it as a caveat when he snapped his fingers."
So, Thor was the one to wield the gauntlet in the end. Perhaps that explains why everything seems to be too easy – too perfect. If anyone can not only control the gauntlet - even for a moment - but also force six infinity stones to bend to their will in order to put as much right as possible, it makes sense that it would be the 1,500-year-old god among them. Keeping a clear head in the frantic heat of battle likely came more naturally to him than any of the mere mortals in their army.
Nebula wonders where he is now. If he is awaiting their arrival with Rocket – the two would surely have found each other in the confusing aftermath if they both lived – or whether wielding the stones was enough to destroy him. Hopefully the former, considering the universe now owes him more than it can possibly comprehend. Even she would balk at the injustice of him not being alive to reap the benefits of his actions.
"How many of us remember?" Stark asks, in a sombre tone which implies that what he really wants to know is how alone they are. How many share their burden; how many will go to sleep at night with the memories of their loved ones falling to ash?
"Almost none," Steve says, and Nebula feels like she's been punched. It's hard to tell if the answer relieves Steve or if it weighs as heavily on his soul as it does on hers; as it likely does on Stark's.
It takes a while for him to elaborate. His eyes close briefly as he lets himself indulge in exhaustion, before he's forced to open them and don the mantle of 'Captain' again.
"Those that died, they don't remember anything as far as I can tell. Thanks to the Time Stone, the final sequence of events leading to Thanos killing them no longer happened, so there's no reason for them to remember anything.
"As for those of us left behind, Thor says it depends on our proximity to the 'snap'. Those within range - about a half-mile radius is his best guess, though it could be even less than that – we kept our memories. We just replaced our old bodies when we were sent back, so everything we remember - everything we went through – that still happened to us. But we're the only ones. Anyone not caught in the crossfire got erased along with the rest of that timeline. Everything just... reset for them, like it did with everyone who died. People like Bruce and Nat – anyone who was on the outskirts of the battle – they don't remember anything. I've tried to jog their memory, but there's nothing after Thanos's army arriving in Wakanda."
Steve stops for a moment, his exhaustion so palpable even Nebula's tempted to force him to get some sleep.
She imagines Thor's hypothesis explains why she woke with the aches and pains of a battle that will technically never happen now. Why Stark still faces losing a hand and has visibly aged despite the Time Stone fixing as much as it could. Why Steve bears the exhaustion of months without rest that will now never come to pass, yet Okoye bears no scars from what happened. Only those caught right at the heart of the second snap will ever know what it's like to lose half the universe, and that's, what? One hundred at most, friend and foe alike, out of trillions?
Steve finally breaks out of his exhausted trance only to regard an already shaken Stark with something that might be sympathy.
"Rhodey doesn't remember either. We called Pepper too, she's on her way, but she doesn't..."
It's a disquieting thought. Nebula had come to know Rhodey better as the Avengers ventured out to space and the close confines of their ships forced people to spend time together. She tended to gravitate towards Stark and Rocket, which meant she also spent a lot of time with Rhodey and Thor, and they naturally partook in several drinking games or card-tricks after stressful days of failed recruitments or attacks by enemy vessels. Rhodey taught her how to play the Terran form of poker while she taught him how to gamble using Sakaaran dice scrounged from Korg's ship, something which had caused Stark a lot of grief as Rhodey grew more skilled.
It is strange to think that that Rhodey no longer exists. In this timeline he will never go on to watch half of his friends die; will never watch a half-dead Stark be dragged out of an alien ship only to have him collapse in his arms; will never watch the world he's fought to protect all his life fall into turmoil. He will never acquire the dark shadows under his eyes or the deep lines that aged his face over the course of mere months. Just as the Pepper who kept Stark sane while his world was falling apart - who saw her husband off one last time with a mix of dread and steel in her eyes - no longer exists to await his return from war.
Nebula supposes their wedding will need to happen all over again now, though she imagines it'll be a far less private affair this time around.
It's not just them. Bruce and Natasha as they are now will never know what it's like to lose most of their friends. Okoye and M'Baku will not experience the loss of their king for many years yet, nor the guilt of losing half their fighters. The Shuri who lost her beloved brother is gone, even as her repairs can be felt in every step Nebula takes. Instead she will be able to hug T'Challa whenever she sees him and tease him relentlessly while continuing work on his suit, comfortable in the knowledge that he will be the one to don it.
Half of the universe no longer knows the exquisite pain of losing the other half.
If the notion is strange to Nebula, it seems to completely throw Stark for a loop. There are whole months of experiences spent with the two people he loves most that only he will remember. Neither Rhodey nor Pepper will ever truly know just how close they came to enduring unspeakable losses and battling through the pain out of necessity. Stark may tell them what happened, or at least Nebula hopes he will if only to relieve some of the weight from his soul, but she doubts it will be the same.
They will help him, though, if he's ever able to explain what he's gone through. There is no doubt in her mind about that.
"Good," Stark says, though his expression is unreadable as his eyes remain fixed to the ground; his jaw clenched tightly in a way that must hurt. "I wouldn't wish those memories on my worst enemy."
Nebula supposes there's truth in that. As much as having Rhodey and Pepper remember everything would probably help, it would be selfish, perhaps, to force them to endure the same memories – the same nightmares – that will never stop plaguing Stark, or her, or Steve.
"Who does know?" Stark asks when he finally lifts his head, and Nebula notes the unshed tears burning in his eyes.
"Thor, obviously," Steve replies, smiling weakly when he gets an exasperated glare from Stark in response. "He returned earlier with Rocket and Groot in tow, same as last time. Groot obviously doesn't remember, but Rocket does. He'll want to see you, Nebula."
"I doubt it," she mutters, casting a glance back at the Guardians who seem to be following closely while muttering conspiratorially amongst themselves. By this point Rocket will surely be sick of the sight of her, whereas he's yearned to have his family back since that first awful moment of learning they were gone. He would have sacrificed himself multiple times throughout the war if it meant there was a slim chance he could see them again.
If Steve hears her he doesn't mention it, though perhaps he's wisely assumed that arguing with her when she's this tired and on-edge would not be recommended.
"Wong knows. He teleported here as soon as he woke up back in New York. We're awaiting contact from Val and Korg, but it's a safe bet they remember too," he continues, and Nebula nods as she remembers Valkyrie and Steve helping to remove the gauntlet before a harsh blast from the power stone had thrown them aside - Thanos's last act of defiance before her sword breached his chest. "Carol probably knows as well, though I'm still trying to figure out how to contact her. That's it from our lot, as far as I know."
That's not even double-figures. True, there will likely be a scattered few across the universe who volunteered to join them later on – those who happened to be within range once the Time Stone was forced to act – but there's no way of knowing who. The only ones who matter are Thor, Danvers, Steve, Wong, Valkyrie, Korg, Rocket, and Stark. And Nebula, forced among them by the cruel hands of fate. It's almost enough to make her descend into hysterics, but a sudden thought stops her before she can unleash deranged laughter; a thought that has ice slipping into her frame and halts her breaths before they can escape her lungs.
"What about Thanos?" she utters, so lowly she's surprised anyone hears her. It's like she's afraid a spell will be broken if she speaks her father's name; as though just thinking about him will undo her final act against him. A sudden need for proof overwhelms her; a craving to see his blood on her hands and blade, or at the very least a body. The fact that he hasn't emerged from the shadows in the last two days is almost reassuring, but she can't stand the idea that he may simply have vanished into thin air as Quill had suggested. It would be poetic – him coming to the same fate he sentenced trillions to - but if ash is all that's left of him then she will never know if he is truly dead, and she'll never be able to live with that.
Nebula has fought with the aim of destroying him for far too long. She cannot waste the rest of her life withering away from uncertainty over whether or not she succeeded.
"Caught in the crossfire," Steve replies, though in her turmoil Nebula almost doesn't hear him. "If he was dead when Thor snapped his fingers he likely stayed that way."
"Then why did he vanish?" she asks, and it strikes her that she sounds like a petulant child demanding answers no-one can give her, but she needs to know. "Why wasn't his body sent back with us?"
"Maybe there are different rules for the dead," Steve suggests, and Nebula's simultaneously grateful for the empathy in his voice while also wanting to tear it away from him. She closes her eyes, takes a breath, and tries to remind herself that Steve knows as little as she does; that demanding answers from him is unfair. "Maybe Thor made him disappear with his army. This whole thing is unprecedented – none of us really know what's happening."
"And it's possible he was sent back," Stark interjects, and Nebula almost jumps at the sound of his voice. Steve's explanations seemed to shock him into uncharacteristic silence, though there's none of that to be found in his attempt at reassurance. It hits her then that he's concerned on her behalf – offering her, of all people, comfort - and it makes her bite her tongue in shame. "Our original fight with him covered a wide area. He could have been buried under rubble a mile away and we'd never have noticed."
"Thor's on his way to Titan as we speak," Steve assures her, and it hits her then that her fear must be hopelessly transparent. "You're not the only one who needs proof. But it shouldn't be necessary. We all watched him die."
Did they? Had he even been dead when Thor snapped his fingers or was he hanging on by a thread, spiting them at a crucial moment all over again? Then again, she supposes if he'd been alive at the end he would simply have been sent back to the past like everyone else and she'd have faced him again on Titan's wastes. Sans gauntlet, which may have given their meagre numbers a fighting chance, but she thinks the idea of having to kill him again would be too draining to bear.
It would be better than this uncertainty though.
They slip into a heavy silence for the remainder of their journey through the palace. A hush has descended over the halls, just as one had on her first night here, though this time Nebula knows it's entirely in her head. She needs to sleep, to think. She needs to force herself to accept everything that's happened and how utterly unfair it is that most of the universe gets to carry on with life as though Thanos' slaughter didn't happen; as though it wasn't plunged into loss and grief and darkness all those months ago. Not that she would wish that upon anyone, not again, but she wishes she hadn't emerged from this situation feeling so... isolated.
She has never minded being alone. It was her natural state of existence for so long, once she learned she could trust no-one and Thanos's efforts to poison her love for her sister began to take hold. It has been more difficult to adapt to life on crowded spaceships these last few weeks than it ever was to survive alone on backwater planets, yet the idea of this all-encompassing loneliness - the knowledge that there are very few alive who know what she's suffered – is immobilising to the point where it feels like she can't breathe.
Apparently she's not the only one.
"So, we're the only ones who'll ever know what happened," Stark states, his eyes hazy and fixed on a random spot on the floor as though the truth of his words is only just sinking in. As though he's just realised that he's going to have to reunite with Rhodey and Pepper and most of his team-mates having endured months of grief in the space of what, to them, will have been a matter of seconds.
"Looks like it," Steve says, his voice carrying the gravity they're all feeling, and for a moment he looks very old yet also impossibly young. "That future doesn't happen now. Thor fixed everything, or as much as he could anyway."
"By snapping his fingers," Nebula mutters blankly.
Steve huffs a laugh, before hanging his head and uttering a quiet, "Yeah."
"But we remember it."
"I know," Steve says, making no attempt to hide his weariness even when he flashes her a weak, all-too-brief smile. "I guess we'll just have to figure out how to live with that."
How? Nebula wants to ask, but the question gets caught on her tongue when she realises there's likely no-one alive who can answer her.
The din slowly returns to her consciousness to the point where the palace feels too loud; much louder than she's ever known it. Steve casts a glance back to the rest of their party, ensuring they're still close behind, before leading them up one last flight of stairs, and only then does Nebula realise he's directing them towards the throne room. She hasn't stepped foot there since the meeting which finally forced everyone to butt heads and share their ideas, before finally agreeing that working together would be the best course of action. The relieved smile on Stark's face then had been so blinding you could probably have seen it from Titan, which acts as a sharp contrast to the exhaustion that claims him now; his eyes unfocused as he walks and a grey tinge to his skin implying that neither the painkillers nor Strange's spell are offering much benefit anymore.
If Nebula had the energy, she'd take him off Steve's hands and drag him towards the hospital wing herself, but she doubts Stark would forgive her if she forced him to wait even longer to reunite with his loved ones.
It seems to take an age to reach the Vibranium-lined doorway leading to a packed throne room, though it can't have been more than twenty minutes since they met Steve on the steps. Nebula barely has time to glance inside before Steve draws to a halt, casting a hesitant glance in her direction before turning to the rest of their group.
"Guardians," he starts, addressing Quill above all, and Nebula watches suspicion claim the man once more. Not that he can be blamed, considering he's just been excluded from a secret conversation that Nebula of all people was privy to. It's possible she'll need to explain everything that happened to Quill in painstaking detail if only to avoid spending the rest of her life fending off his questions. "When Thor returned with your team-mates, there was someone else with him, someone asking after you. She -"
Nebula doesn't need to hear more and neither, it seems, does Quill. All those concerned glances thrown her way by Steve suddenly make sense and she inwardly curses him for his silence as she storms into the throne room, eyes scanning allies both recognisable and not before eventually landing on Rocket.
The creature doesn't even notice their arrival; too caught up in berating Groot for some annoyance or other even as sheer relief burns in his eyes like fire. Beyond feeling vaguely glad that he's in one piece, however, he's not the one to claim Nebula's attention. Her eyes are instead drawn to the woman by his side, whose head is bowed while dark hair conceals her face from view. She's so motionless, so quiet, that for one horrific instant it seems as though she's still dead, and any urgency falters as fear claws at Nebula's chest.
The name escapes Quill on a broken whisper, as though he's just been punched in the chest, and his face betrays his fresh grief even as a broken smile threatens to cross it. It falters only when Gamora glances up; haunted eyes widening as she spots him along with Nebula and the remainder of the Guardians trailing behind. As though a spell has broken, Quill launches himself at her while she rises to her feet to meet him, and when he takes her into his arms it's with such force that Nebula's surprised they don't fall over.
"I thought-," Quill starts, forcing himself to break the hug if only to study every inch of Gamora's face; a disbelieving smile overwhelming him even as tears fall from his eyes. "Thanos, he said... Mantis felt-"
Words fail him and his head falls to Gamora's shoulder the instant she takes control, holding him close and shutting her eyes to conceal unshed tears of her own. There's a broken "You should have turned right," from Quill that makes Gamora flinch, but she recovers quickly and adorns a small smile that only brightens further when he looks at her once more.
"I'm here," she assures him as she glances over to the other members of their small group. Her gaze seems to linger on Nebula most of all, before her eyes are torn back to Quill. "I'll explain everything later, I promise."
That only succeeds in getting Quill to release an exasperated laugh, though any flicker of annoyance at her words doesn't last. "I think I'm going to spend the rest of my life hearing that."
Nebula, for her part, watches the whole affair as through frozen, her feet nailed to the glass floor and her breaths refusing to escape her lungs. For a moment it feels like the slightest movement will shatter the illusion. That the world will fade in a flicker of red and she'll find that this whole thing has been the Reality Stone's doing, and she can't breathe out of terror that she'll watch all these people - watch her sister - fade to nothing. Watch her father snatch away her last chance of recovery, maybe even happiness, with a cruel smirk as he mocks her for letting herself hope; for letting something as foolish as 'love' claim her, if only for one person.
A gentle hand on her shoulder elicits an involuntary flinch that momentarily prepares her for a fight, though it also serves to bring her back to reality. To watch as the world doesn't fade; as Gamora remains solid and real barely feet away, comforting a man who also can't believe she's there in front of him. Nebula turns to find Steve standing beside her, and though part of her wants to rage at him for daring to touch her, she finds the contact reassuring. An anchor tying her down to the present when her own mind is doing a poor job of it.
"How-" she starts, before faltering when the word emerges on a mere whisper. If Steve sees any less of her for that momentary weakness, he gives no indication of it. Then again, she knows him well enough by now to know he wouldn't.
"Thor," he tells her, and she supposes that much was obvious. "He asked the Soul Stone to release her, and by the time he woke up she was standing right beside him. Rocket actually hugged her by all accounts, though don't tell him I said that."
Given Rocket's usual resistance to any form of physical contact, Nebula struggles to imagine that. Though, at the same time, she supposes there's no other way he could react. Likely Groot received similar treatment when Rocket saw him again, considering the tree was the closest thing he had to a son.
Is the closest thing. Present tense. She'll need to get used to using that again.
She isn't given time to dwell on that further, as Gamora breaks away from Quill's embrace only to immediately throw her arms around Nebula instead. The action is so quick that Nebula's immediate reaction is to tense-up; her back ramrod straight and arms stuck by her sides as they had been when Gamora initiated a similar hug on the Eclector, a lifetime ago now. She stays like that for what feels like hours before the spell breaks; before her arms slowly rise to hold Gamora close and she lets herself breathe. Lets herself focus on the warm, living body in her arms; the weight of Gamora's head against her shoulder and the way soft hair tickles her cheek.
Part of her still expects everything to fade away. To blink, only to find that her hands are holding nothing but ash; for her to turn around on a desolate wasteland and face her father's wrath, his cruel voice echoing in her ears as he says, "Did you really think I could let you be happy?"
Nebula closes her eyes. Breathes, though it takes more effort than it should. Focuses on the way Gamora clings to her, as though she too is afraid of everything crumbling to ash.
"Do you remember?" Gamora whispers in Nebula's ear, so softly she almost misses it.
When she responds with a single nod, Gamora only hugs her more tightly and utters a soft "I'm sorry" which suggests Nebula isn't as alone as she'd thought. Whether that knowledge comforts her or not, she cannot say.
"You d'asted idiots."
Rocket's outburst is what finally breaks Nebula free from Gamora's hold, and her sister shakes her head with a soft laugh before looking down at the creature who has finally decided to join them. The fury in Rocket's eyes is disarming even to Nebula, who's endured the sight of it often enough of late, and she watches as he stalks towards Quill with such intensity one might suspect he was ready to kill the man all over again. Sure enough, as soon as he reaches his captain's side he lashes out at any part of his body he can reach with clenched fists.
"Never do that again! You hear me? Don't you dare-"
"Hey, hey!" Quill retaliates, backing away from Rocket before holding his arms out to keep his sudden attacker at bay. Not that Rocket would follow; even Nebula can see that his punches are weak, half-hearted, and his all-too-recent grief is betrayed by the tears gathering in his eyes. Quill must notice, for any annoyance bleeds into concern in a heartbeat. "Do what?"
It's the wrong thing to say, though that's hardly Quill's fault. A surprising degree of intensity explodes from Rocket when he responds with a yell of, "Do what?!"
"I'm serious!" Quill insists, hands still raised as though in surrender. He's not the only one confused; Drax is staring down at Rocket as though he's grown another head while Mantis has adopted a strangely bemused expression ever since she laid eyes on Gamora. Not for the first time, Nebula wonders how much the girl has been able to piece together. "No-one will tell us what's going on."
Rocket's eyes dart to Nebula at that moment, taking in her blue Vibranium arm and the absence of silver metal on her face, and he must recognise that she is in a similar position to him. It's enough for him to trust her when she shakes her head, confirming Quill's words; his inability to comprehend the overwhelming loss Rocket has endured for so long.
As though a fire has been extinguished from within, all fight leaves Rocket in a breath and his shoulders slump downward, eyes dropping to the floor, and Nebula thinks the tears he's tried so long to hold back must now fall down his cheeks.
"Just..." his voice is uncharacteristically quiet, defeated, and he glances up at his captain with a weak smile that only barely travels to his eyes; a tiny spark of relief finally breaking through his pain. "Don't leave. Not again. I can't do this again."
Even if he cannot understand the context, the gravity of what Rocket's saying must hit Quill as surely as it does Nebula, and she watches as comprehension dawns in his eyes. As though he's finally starting to grasp that there's something far greater at play here and that the separation Rocket is referring to stretches much further than the day they'd been apart before arriving on Titan.
"Okay," Quill says, giving Rocket a weak smile that reveals his sincerity even in the midst of his confusion. "Okay, we promise."
It seems to be enough. Furiously wiping a tear from his cheek, Rocket utters "Come here then, asshole," in a voice finally recognisable as his own, before forcing Quill into an awkward hug that has them both cackling like maniacs. Nebula steps back from the fray before she can watch Drax and Mantis endure the same torture. She doubts Rocket would try anything on her out of fear of losing his head, but then, relief tends to do strange things to people so she wouldn't put it past him.
Besides, it's been easy to forget she's in a room full of people, and she can't help but scan their faces out of curiosity; eyes falling on allies and unknowns alike.
With some relief, she sees that Stark is finally allowing himself to be dragged away by a fresh-faced Rhodey and Peter. The boy seems rather starstruck - wide eyes fixing intensely on every face he sees - though he's not quite excited enough to let his mentor's injury go unchecked. Nebula watches the pair guide Stark away from Strange - who himself has located Wong in the crowd and finally seems to be in company that suits him - before focusing her attention on the rest of the gathering.
Steve must have left the Guardians to their reunions without her noticing. It doesn't take long to track him down, however, as she spots him sitting on the sidelines; content to simply listen to the playful discussion ensuing between the two men at his side. One is a dark-skinned man with the humble beginnings of a beard on his cheeks, while the other boasts a metal arm not dissimilar to her own, and it hits Nebula far too late that she's never met them before.
She's looking at Steve's ghosts.
The room is full of ghosts, come to mention it. From the resurrected Guardians and Gamora, to Strange, to Steve's friends whose deaths have sat heavily on his heart for so long. Resting by the windows, there's a young girl with hair as fiery as Pepper's resting her head on the shoulder of an android with red skin, and Nebula's lack of familiarity with either of them can only mean one thing. Shuri, M'Baku and Okoye are deep in conversation with a man dressed head-to-toe in regal purple; a man who can only be Shuri's beloved brother, T'Challa, who Nebula has come to know through the girl's stories.
Shuri doesn't know what it's like to lose him anymore. Thor spared her that pain with the snap of a finger, and Nebula can't help but envy her a little.
It is a strange experience, to be present in a room full of people who only recently were nothing but ashes. Very few of them even know they're not supposed to be alive.
Nebula finds herself expecting them all to vanish before her eyes once more. For them to disintegrate to ash in the blink of an eye and for the screams of those left behind to deafen her. For Thanos to banish this reality with a mere thought in a final act of defiance against her.
She closes her eyes tightly as the expectation builds; tunes out the noise and tries with all her might to prepare for the inevitability of having everything vanish in the space of a heartbeat.
When she opens her eyes and blinks against the afternoon sun, she finds that Shuri still has her brother by her side. Steve is still smiling fondly while his friends bicker good-naturedly amongst themselves. Stark likely still has Peter and Rhodey to hold him upright, though she can no longer see him. Rocket still has his family.
And Gamora doesn't fade away.
Thank you for reading! I still have a little bit of work to do on the epilogue, but it shouldn't be too long until this story is complete.
My weak justification for Thor being able to wield the Soul Stone without making a trade (something that only occured to me midway through writing...) is that when it comes to knowing the weight of 'losing what you love' and sacrifice, there's probably little else for him to learn. He's lost his family, his best friend, and half of the very people he sacrificed his home to save. I imagine the Soul Stone would be able to identify him as someone who inherently knows its value far more than Thanos ever could. That explanation probably falters under the slightest bit of scrutiny when put up against the movie's rules, but it was enough for me to get over a mild panic and keep writing :P
Sooo my intentions for this to be a simple, short epilogue quickly fell apart to the point where this is probably the longest chapter of the bunch. Again, my chapter planning is terrible :P As a result this is more of a conventional final chapter than a proper epilogue, but I hope you enjoy it and thank you all for sticking with me through to the end!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The air is thick with humidity as Nebula rests upon the now deserted field, the grasses damp and muddy beneath her fingers following the recent showers. Not that she minds. The brief rainfall had provided a pleasant break from the persistent heat – the droplets cool on her synthetic skin – and as she looks across the field she can pretend that all evidence of bloodshed has been washed away; the last remnants of her father's actions banished from the earth.
She turns her head to the sky as a familiar hum breaks through the quiet, watching as a glinting speck slowly descends to earth. The forcefield sparks a dazzling blue as the Benatar breaches it, appearing no larger than an insect from where she sits, and she listens as the faint hum morphs into the roar of engines announcing the Guardians return from their trip.
It's been a week since she returned to Wakanda; a week since the universe was restored to some semblance of normality without most of its occupants noticing. Quill had only been able to sit still for a day before the prospect of visiting home became too much to bear, and he'd set off with Gamora, Groot and Rocket in tow for a brief trip to America, while Nebula, Drax and Mantis elected to stay behind and await their return. She imagines Rocket would have done the same – has heard enough of his rants about this 'dumb planet' to know he has little desire to see more of it – but once Groot expressed a vague interest in going with Quill there was no doubt that Rocket would stay with him. Drax and Mantis seemed perfectly content to stay in Wakanda in the meantime, and Nebula had no great desire to see more than the small corner of Earth she'd grown accustomed to, so she'd been left behind on 'babysitting duty', as Rocket had called it.
That was a duty she quickly neglected.
After weeks of fighting and killing had come to an abrupt end, all she'd wanted was some time on her own. To claim space to rest and think and recover, if such a thing were possible. She's grown fonder of Drax and Mantis over the years than she ever expected to, but there was still no doubt in her mind that spending significant time with them would drive her mad, so she'd quickly left them to enjoy the colourful markets in the hope that they wouldn't cause too much trouble. Besides, seeing as the city is far more energetic now than she has ever known it to be, tearing herself away had ultimately been in her best interest.
The stares she receives when passing through quaint villages are bad enough. She doesn't need a thousand eyes following her wherever she goes.
King T'Challa had been thoughtful enough to set her up on a nearby farm while the ship she called home flew halfway around the world. Out there, she was blissfully alone. The only sounds consisted of insects chirping in the grass and goats crying in the distance, and she could emerge from her hut every morning to watch the sun rise over a shimmering lake. Once, the peace of the Wakandan countryside had seemed oppressive, as though the surrounding nature should have been crying out its grief along with the rest of the world. It is strange how easily she can enjoy it now. The peace seems earned, providing much-needed quiet after a ferocious storm, and she has come to appreciate such simplicities as the sun on her face and tall grasses brushing against her fingers.
It had taken a day or two for her mechanics to heal completely following the battle; time in which she'd wrestled with the idea of seeing Shuri again. The temptation had been surprisingly powerful, as Nebula slowly realised that she missed the girl's company, but her improving function had been enough to assure her that such a visit wasn't needed. That was likely for the best. There was no way on earth Shuri wouldn't recognise the handiwork in Nebula's body as her own, and that would only open a can of worms leading to a flurry of explanations Nebula doubted the girl wanted to hear. If no-one has told her already that an alternate version of her exists - one who lost her brother and had to work tirelessly in the aftermath to fix a broken country – then there's certainly no reason for Nebula to break that news.
Besides, her cybernetics healed before she even needed to face that decision. The alternate Shuri's expertise continues to be of benefit to Nebula even now, and knowing there is no way to repay her for that still sits heavily on her soul.
Running has become a pastime of late. It has been so long since she ran without the intention of hacking someone to pieces, nor out of a need to run from some unseen threat, that doing so for enjoyment alone was initially disconcerting. In the beginning her head had constantly spun backwards, seeking out threats that were no longer able to pursue her, and it had taken a couple of days to simply learn to enjoy the wind against her face; the lightness of her body as she sped across vast plains, along the border past the protective tribe with their fleet of rhinos, and up the same mountain paths she had scaled on what she assumed would be her final night here.
Emerging onto that familiar clearing overlooking the valley – this time with the sun at its peak – had made her freeze as memories consumed her. She almost expected to hear the clunk of Stark's armour falling to earth, and once again she'd found her legs dangling precariously from the edge as she rested in the same spot where she'd decided to stay a little longer and consider Stark's ideas.
It is a strange memory. Those ideas had seemed so outlandish then – her own contributions barely helping matters – and yet the plan had only altered slightly over the following months.
And they won.
They'd had to boost their numbers, certainly, and it had taken weeks to feel even remotely prepared to leave Earth, yet somehow she'd still ended up back here. She isn't some broken body sprawled across the wastes of Titan. She hasn't had to watch Rocket and Stark and Steve die before her eyes, as she imagined she would so many times before. Instead, she's been able to gaze over a familiar valley with dense forests and a river flowing beneath her feet, and for once she was able to listen to birdsong without feeling like the world around her should be crumbling to ruin.
This is what Earth is like when Thanos is unable to harm it. Though she still yearns for the stars whenever the night sky reveals them to her, it's become more difficult than it should to suppress the urge to stay a little longer.
Not that she has much choice in the matter. As the Benatar finally makes contact with solid ground - after circling the city for a lap or two in appreciation of the view – there's no question that Nebula will be leaving on it within the hour. Such was Rocket's harsh warning once their signal was picked up and they were granted permission to return. The joy in the creature's voice at the prospect of leaving Earth was palpable even through the speakers. Drax and Mantis, for all that they seem to have enjoyed their time in the city, are already halfway across the field to reunite with their team-mates, though Nebula can't quite bring herself to rise from the grass. It is too comfortable here, in this quiet corner of the world, and the Benatar felt crowded enough with just her and Rocket onboard. The prospect of an entire trip shared with several rowdy Guardians is something she's keen to put off.
They'll make their displeasure known once it becomes clear she's keeping them waiting, that much is certain. Until that happens, she intends to enjoy these moments of peace while she still can.
It should probably annoy her when, not fifteen minutes later, she hears soft footsteps moving in her direction. The interruption certainly isn't an anticipated one, though given that the footfalls only grow louder it seems it's not one she'll be able to escape. When she turns to look at her sudden visitor, however, any hint of irritation fades before it can fully consume her.
"Are you sure you don't have a tracker on me?" Nebula asks, though any attempt at sounding stern comes up empty, and she can't quite contain a smirk when Stark adopts an expression of mock-offence in response to her accusation.
He looks good, considering... well, everything. Still battle-worn with lack of sleep clinging to his eyes, but he's acquired a tan that banishes all memory of the greyness Titan bestowed upon him, and the wonder of Wakandan medical technology has returned him to his feet quicker than she'd expected. There's no hint of the Iron Man suit, though the glow of the arc reactor shines through his hoodie clearly enough, and his tracksuit combined with the sweat sticking his hair to his forehead is enough to suggest he's found as much solace in running as she has.
Stark doesn't answer her question for a while, choosing instead to wipe sweat from his face while he sits by her side, seeming to care little for mud or grass-stains. His left hand, Nebula notices, remains stuck firmly in his pocket, and curiosity starts to build before he distracts her with a sheepish grin.
"Trust me, I'm not brave enough to spy on you," he assures her, and something that might be pride burns in her chest. "I heard your ship was on its way. Figured I might as well see you off before you escape. Also-"
With morbid fascination, Nebula watches as he finally unleashes his left hand; watches the Vibranium glint in the afternoon sun as Stark experimentally flexes his fingers and clenches his fist. There's still a certain clumsiness to the way it moves, and the plain silver implies this is merely a prototype for him to test while Shuri makes her improvements, but Nebula can't take her eyes off it. When she finally does glance back at Stark's face, the expression she finds is one she can't quite interpret, even with his efforts to keep his tone light.
"We're practically twins now," he says with a smile she can tell is forced, and she looks down to see the unmistakable sheen of her own Vibranium limb; delicate blue softly gleaming under the light of the sun.
"I think you'll need more than that before we can be considered even, Stark," she deadpans, and his smile in response to that is genuine at least. One of her own tugs traitorously at her lips, but she forces it away when Stark brings his hands to his lap, cradling metal in his remaining flesh-and-blood hand with detached curiosity.
"Yeah, well," Stark says with a shrug, tearing his eyes away to regard her with a weak smile. "The arc reactor, a metal hand... I'm slowly catching up."
To that, Nebula doesn't bother holding back her smile, though she hangs her head to hide it as much as she can. It is a strange competition to have - comparing the number of body parts they've either had replaced or modified - and she hopes for his sake that it doesn't go much further than it already has. At least he was able to spare himself from the arc reactor's continued torture, while her own chronic pain has been reduced to little more than a gnawing ache thanks to Shuri's deft hands. Thanos can't harm either of them anymore - can't tear another part of her away and put metal in its place. The fact that she can smile at Stark's jokes about their shared experiences brings a vague hope that, with time, maybe she'll be able to ignore the damage her father has caused.
That might take a while longer for Stark though. As silence washes over them once again - a bird chirruping in the distance providing the only distraction - Nebula watches as he assesses the alien appendage as though he's merely admiring an intricate piece of machinery, rather than something that's now a part of him. His right hand traces the neat connection at the wrist, brushing over a pink scar and gliding onto Vibranium as though the sensation will become normal if he does it often enough.
It's not as simple as that. Nebula knows that only too well; understands the unique pain of having metal put in the place of flesh more than most.
It's not the physical pain so much that was the problem. Nebula was no stranger to that by the time she lost her arm, and she knows Stark is familiar enough with pain himself. What had hurt most was the long process of relearning how to use a part of her body that no longer acted the way it should. No matter how seamlessly her metal arm had moved in the beginning, everything else from the replicated sensations to the vast difference in power had been unbearably new. Necessity forced her to get used to it quickly, but that never stopped her from hating it nor did it make her miss her old arm any less.
"Shuri says she can add a synthetic skin over it before I go," Stark says eventually, shoving the hand back in his pocket as though sick of the sight of it. "Might even be able to add tactile sensation. Make it feel almost normal."
"I would have thought you could do that yourself," Nebula says, gesturing towards the arc reactor on his chest. He's no amateur when it comes to technology; Rhodey had told her once that Stark created the very first arc reactor from scrap metal in a cave. If Nebula had that technical know-how she'd never let anyone else lay hands on her body, no matter how skilled they were. Then again, they both know well enough that Shuri's abilities are unparalleled.
Every breath Nebula takes without pain is a testament to that.
"I could," Stark admits with a smile, pride glowing in his eyes for a brief moment before he simply gives a weak shrug. "But why do that when Shuri's the best?"
Nebula merely gives him a shrug of her own in silent agreement. The fact that she can look at her own face in the mirror and no longer spot the difference between synthetic skin and what remains of her own is enough to suggest that whatever Shuri comes up with should make the new skin appear almost seamless. Whether it'll ever feel normal remains to be seen, though Nebula's adapted to her own alterations with far more ease than she ever adapted to Thanos's 'improvements'.
"It won't be perfect," Stark admits, though that doesn't seem to bother him all that much. "But she thinks she can make it look human at least. I might even be able to look at it without being reminded of everything. Although-"
He peels the fabric of his hoodie up to reveal an angry white scar on his left side, resting just beneath his ribs. The pale line is surrounded by a faint pink from Stark's attempts at cautery, not that that had done any favours with the internal bleeding. Nebula imagines she'll find something similar if she checks his back - vaguely remembers the blade going through and through - and she feels a sickening dread rise in her chest before forcing it down. That timeline was erased, yet Stark's stuck with irrefutable proof that it existed at one point; that Thanos stabbed him with his own blade and that Nebula was only able to bring him home at the last minute.
"It's not like I can ignore this," he admits with a sigh, fingers tracing the scar tissue for a moment longer before he pushes the fabric back down and conceals it from view. "We've traveled from a future which doesn't exist anymore. I guess this is what happens when I start craving the simple life."
Nebula simply watches as Stark runs a hand through his hair, his gaze fixed on the ground before him as he loses himself in contemplation she isn't privy to. As though an invisible rope is jerking her attention away, she finds her eyes drawn to the Benatar and considers her own existence out among the stars; constantly starting over and fighting to avoid detection or death or both. Simplicity has never been an option for her. Any prospect of the quiet life her parents and village enjoyed was eradicated when Thanos's ships descended from the skies, and she was picked out from the crowd after biting one of the guards who pulled her away from her mother.
She'd been six years old when any hope of a future had been torn away from her. Any plans for a simple existence had been crushed underfoot along with the corpses of half her species.
"I wouldn't know anything about that," she says softly, part of her wondering if she truly intends Stark to hear. Even now, simplicity is likely something that will escape her. Despite the horrors recent months have wrought, at the very least there'd been something to work towards; a singular purpose to fight for. Now, she has no idea where she stands. No idea where she'll go once the Benatar takes her far from Earth.
She can feel Stark's eyes on her before even turning to look at him, and she wonders how much she's betraying through her expression alone. Hiding her emotions is something she used to be better at, but her skills have been faltering of late if the soft compassion in Stark's eyes is any indication.
"No, I guess you wouldn't," he says, and his eyes drop once again before drifting across the field, towards the M-ship sparkling beneath the sun. The hatch is open in a silent invitation, and through distant windows Nebula thinks she can see Quill and Drax doing final checks in the flight-deck; the occasional shadow of activity assuring her that the ship is no longer the empty shell it had once been.
"So, this is you leaving?" Stark asks with something unreadable in his tone, though Nebula has no desire to dwell on what it is.
"I guess so," she murmurs, wondering if she even has a choice. Despite Rocket's threats of leaving her behind she doubts Gamora would allow it, considering there's not much in the way of alternate options for her leaving Earth.
"Do you think you'll ever come back?"
Nebula finds her eyes drawn to him again, though to her annoyance his expression is still guarded, unreadable. Perhaps it would be easier to answer him if he expressed any longing for her and the Guardians to visit Earth again, or even an indication that he'll be delighted to see the back of them. They're hardly helpful in letting him pursue the 'simple life' after all. That said, when it becomes clear that she's waited a little too long to answer, the smile that crosses his face is uncharacteristically shy rather than a bitter smirk.
For one brief moment she imagines coming back to enjoy the lively markets and spend time in Shuri's lab and travel up to the mountains, until darker memories come crawling back of a country gripped by mourning and terror and pain; of mountains whose sense of peace only served to insult her, and a palace full of people rendered stony-faced in their grief. Those memories are still real to her, even if they don't seem to be to the rest of the country, and she spent far more time here crumbling under the weight of her own guilt than she's spent enjoying her second chance.
"Probably not," she admits finally, and she's relieved that Stark doesn't seem inclined to argue. Perhaps he's even grateful. They've fought and killed at each other's side for a long time now, but they were forced together by a mass genocide where they both held their fair share of guilt. Perhaps the prospect of never seeing her again is a sign that he'll be able to start moving on and healing.
It is strange that she's not sure how she feels about never seeing him again though.
"I'm heading home in a couple of days with Rhodey and Pepper," he says when the silence threatens to descend into awkwardness, and the mention of his family at least brings a smile to his face. As beautiful as Wakanda is, it isn't home for him any more than it is for her, and the prospect of heading back to normality seems to make him a little lighter. "Peter too, though dragging him away from that lab's gonna be like stealing candy from a baby."
The smile only widens at the mention of the boy, though there's a hint of strain to it. That's the problem with remembering, Nebula thinks. Stark has Peter back – the boy is alive and free to enjoy his time in this unfamiliar country with a wonder both she and Stark outgrew years ago – but for the rest of his life, Stark will never be able to fall asleep without hearing the words 'I don't wanna go' or recalling the sensation of blood and ash on his hands.
"Does he know anything?" she asks, for as undeniably young as Peter is, he has never struck her as ignorant. His eyes even reminded her of Shuri's at one point, as his fierce intuition lingered on her as though intending to burn, and the suspicion that crept over him upon their return to Earth had been clear as day.
"Not yet," Stark admits, though the notion of having to explain himself is one that makes him grimace. "I'll have to tell him though. He won't say it to my face, but I know I scared the shit out of him on Titan. Figure I owe him an explanation for that."
Nebula can't blame him for his reluctance. Watching Rocket try to explain everything to Quill and the others had been painful enough to watch and had probably only resulted in yet more confusion rather than a remedy for it. Quill, for his part, seemed to grasp the essentials enough that he spent the rest of the day in a grim daze, while the reality of how close he came to dying slowly dawned on him.
"I'll get him home first," Stark vows, determination gripping him for a moment. Nebula imagines he's been waiting months to say those words. "I'll need to be quick about it too. His aunt'll have plenty to say to me as it is without me keeping her waiting even longer."
The promise of the woman's justified anger doesn't seem as off-putting to Stark as his tone would suggest, though Nebula supposes anything will be better than the last conversation he shared with her.
At least this time she'll get to see her nephew again; will get to hold him in her arms as her worry slowly drains away.
"Thor will be heading off soon," Stark continues, poking at an overgrown weed with his remaining fingers. The mention of the god takes Nebula aback for a moment. He must have returned from Titan without her knowledge, though that's hardly surprising considering how deliberate her efforts to avoid the city have been of late. "He finally made contact with Val so it won't be long before she arrives. T'Challa's thinking of granting the Asgardians asylum here, for lack of a better option, but until then Thor's got six Infinity Stones to hide or destroy."
"Only hiding them seems reckless," Nebula mutters, an unspoken warning lurking on the tip of her tongue. Hiding them has failed before. Not even pocket dimensions and heavily guarded vaults and planets known only to a select few were able to stop Thanos from finding them. If there is anyone else even remotely like him in the universe - either now or in the far future - then simply hiding the stones will not be enough to discourage them, and the Avengers' recent victory may end up being nothing more than a quick fix.
The Infinity Stones are difficult to destroy, but not impossible, and the world will keep on turning without them. That guarantee will cease to exist even if just one survives.
"That's what I said," Stark agrees, and there's a grim layer to his tone suggesting that the stones would already be nothing more than dust if he had his way. "But they did save our asses in the end. Strange thinks there might be some benefit to keeping the Time Stone at least. Though he would, come to think of it."
Nebula neglects to tell him that the Infinity Stones only saved the universe after being used to destroy half of it. She imagines that very thought has crossed his mind often enough. The advantages of keeping them around will never truly justify the risk of the damage they can cause, and she's spent her entire life hearing Thanos detail plans to commit unspeakable atrocities using their power. He believed his motives to be justified, his actions merciful, but even as a child she was all-too-aware of the horrific potential of the stones, and after witnessing what they can do she wants nothing more than to watch them burn.
Strange, at least, seems to understand the workings of the Time Stone better than most ever could and would be a suitable protector, but even he bartered it for Stark's life. For a one in fourteen-million chance of winning. If he was willing to give it up for terrible odds before, who's to say he won't do so again? Next time they might not be so lucky.
He had been in the right though. The risk had paid off; had been a calculated move rather than some reckless act of desperation. Nebula has to keep reminding herself of that before she can descend into bitterness towards him all over again.
"Cap and the others are staying a little longer," Stark says, and it's only then that it hits her how long she's been silent. He doesn't seem to have any more energy to waste on the Infinity Stones though, which ends up suiting her just fine. "I need to go home first and have what's gonna look like the fastest change of heart in the world to appeal for their Avengers status to be restored. Which is gonna be a world of fun seeing as they're technically fugitives."
Well, that's news to her. Admittedly, she's only ever worked with the Avengers in Wakanda and any Earth politics beyond that is unavailable to her, nor is she particularly interested in it. Steve's status as the leader of the Avengers never seemed to be in dispute though. Even Stark had never questioned it in her presence, though she supposes she would have missed a lot of the earlier meetings back when sulking in the Benatar tended to be the more attractive option. Not that she can claim to know much about the group from Before anyway. After the initial meeting in the throne room, anyone willing to fight to save the universe was automatically dubbed an Avenger, and there didn't seem to be any official process to it. Nebula hadn't known what to make of the whole thing, beyond wondering why she always found herself fighting alongside people who insisted on using silly team-names.
"Wait," she says, her confusion clearer than she'd like, and she doesn't miss the amused smirk that crosses Stark's face. "The leader of the Avengers isn't technically an Avenger?"
"Kind of, yeah," Stark laughs, before shaking his head when the only response he gets from Nebula is a furrowed brow. "Trust me, that's a long story and not a very fun one. Not that it matters anymore."
Deciding that's probably as much as she wants to know, Nebula lets the matter drop. Petty squabbles or feuds tend to pale in comparison to what they've all endured and survived, and any bitterness Stark may have had towards Steve and the other Avengers must have died long ago if her observations have told her anything. She knows a little of what that's like; remembers being surprised at how easy it had been to forgive Gamora and start loving her again when they simply cast aside their need to beat each other and simply talked. When they remembered who the real enemy was and why they'd convinced themselves they hated each other in the first place.
The thought of her sister draws her attention back to the ship, and a strange emptiness fills her at the sight of Rocket carrying out final checks on the exterior. She's still within her allotted hour, she knows that much, but she likely has mere minutes before she starts wearing on their patience. It seems foolish given how much quiet time she's already had this week, but she finds herself craving more regardless.
"So, this is it," Stark states with a weighted sense of finality, and Nebula turns to find his gaze fixed on the Benatar as well. He did say he'd come to see Nebula off, and she's starting to think that wasn't entirely in jest.
"This is it," she agrees numbly, eliciting little more than a resigned hum from Stark.
Despite that understated acknowledgement, she still makes no attempt to move. Neither does Stark, though she imagines the damp ground beneath him must now be uncomfortable as it soaks through his tracksuit. Her fingers curl subconsciously around blades of grass as though to cling to this place a little longer, and she wonders if the prospect of being stuck on Earth is better or worse than the uncertainty she'll face once she leaves.
"You did it by the way," Stark says, so suddenly Nebula's surprised she doesn't flinch. His tone is unforthcoming, his eyes fixed to the ground rather than offering her clues, but in the end there's only one thing he can possibly be referring to, and a numb sensation like ice seeps into her chest.
"Thanos is dead. Thor found him on Titan, barely half a mile from where we woke up. Half-buried, apparently, though if we hadn't been so out-of-it we might actually have found him; saved ourselves some pain."
The numbness doesn't subside. If anything it gets worse and she feels her entire body go rigid, frozen in place as even her lungs refuse to co-operate, and she can focus on nothing but the grass before her. Thanos is dead. She's known that instinctively, she thinks, since slowly piecing everything together on Titan, but that tiny sliver of uncertainty had been enough to bury her in doubt. The lack of a body – the notion that he may simply have vanished – had forbidden her from relaxing, from believing Thanos was truly gone no matter how many times she reminded herself that he must be.
And now Stark is telling her there's no longer any reason for doubt. That irrefutable proof exists, even if she is no longer on Titan to see it.
That she has truly killed him.
"Thor removed his head for good measure," Stark continues, and Nebula nods in grim approval. That's a good strategy; one she'd probably have resorted to herself if she had the chance. "Which, yeah, that's a mental image I really didn't need, but at least we're sure now. You did it. It's over."
She doesn't know what to do with that information. Part of her is aware she should be relieved or happy, no, overjoyed at the knowledge that the man who has poisoned her life so completely – the man who tortured her and Gamora and Stark and Thor and half of the universe – lies dead on the forgotten ruins of his homeworld.
Only, she doesn't feel anything. She doesn't feel. The numbness has faded to a blank nothingness, to the point where she simply feels hollow.
Perhaps when the news is less fresh and she has time to dwell on the fact that she's actually succeeded after years of failure, she'll be able to close her eyes and bask in grim satisfaction to her heart's content. For now though, she's simply lost in the uncertainty of what happens now. Her entire life has been marred by a hatred of Thanos. By a need to destroy him piece by piece, in the same cruel manner he treated her for years. His death had been quicker than she'd have liked, but at least he died knowing that he'd lost; that everything he'd worked towards was mere seconds from being wiped away.
What happens now remains a mystery to her. When she dreamed of killing him before, she'd never really envisioned surviving this long after the fact. Never let herself imagine the possibility of her escaping the ordeal and having to carry on. She's let herself become defined by one solitary goal, and now that it's complete she has no idea what her purpose is.
What is left for her to do?
"Are you okay?" Stark's voice breaks her from her thoughts, and she closes her eyes as she releases a grateful sigh. His concern should unnerve her, she thinks. It's one thing she never got used to throughout her time with the Avengers; how, if she needed to slink off to repair an injury or collapse from exhaustion, she would almost certainly be stopped by someone wanting to know if she was okay. If she needed help.
It isn't unpleasant. Not really. But the unfamiliarity of it all has never abandoned her.
"I don't know," she admits, and she turns to Stark to see something that might be empathy burning in his eyes. His smile is warm, encouraging, but also tight; likely he understands her inner turmoil more than he's willing to let on. "I guess I need to figure out where I stand now."
"Yeah," he breathes, and his smile dies a little when he adds, "You and me both."
"What about you?" Nebula asks, because for all his forced attempts at lightness and the playing down of his injury, she knows him well enough to know that he too faces a long road ahead. Recovery from months of death and grief and the suffocating knowledge that trillions died in your place is not going to be as easy a fix as snapping one's fingers, no matter how often they're reminded that those months have ceased to exist. "Will you be alright?"
"Me? Yeah, I'm always alright," Stark says far too quickly, and Nebula has to resist the urge to scoff. Throughout the entire time she's known him, he's never once shown signs of being 'alright' and she doubts even their surprise victory has changed that. "What're one or two nightmares gonna do to me?"
It's possible he's hoping she'll let the matter drop – discussing feelings is neither or their strong suits after all – but she imagines her expression must say 'cut the bullshit' as clearly as her mind does. She doesn't say anything, given that she probably won't be able to contain a trace of venom if she does, but something in her face must betray her thoughts clearly, for Stark only has to look at her for a second before the facade drops and he releases a sigh of exhaustion.
"Honestly?" he asks, and she simply nods. "I don't know. I mean, I've experienced things before and come out the other end worse for wear, and then I just learned to deal with it, but this..."
He doesn't need to continue for her to know what he means. Compared to everything else he can possibly have suffered in the past – compared to everything she's suffered – the scars from Thanos' genocide will likely overshadow it all. Nebula imagines she'll spend the rest of her life expecting to wake up in that deleted reality, regardless of how genuine the current one feels.
"I won't be alone though," Stark promises, and Nebula sees a fond smile tug at his lips before he looks away from her. "Pepper and Rhodey know. I did the smart thing for once and told them everything. Figured it would only be a matter of time before they clicked that something was up if I didn't."
"Did they believe you?" Nebula asks. The Rhodey and Pepper she had come to know - albeit only a little - would have believed him easily, but they had experienced far more by that point than the Rhodey and Pepper who exist now. The story can't have been an easy one to tell, and she can see it becoming far-fetched very quickly.
Stark's answering smile offers some reassurance on that front, however, and he turns back to her with the same sheepishness from earlier lacing his tone.
"They did. One of the major downsides of knowing me is that weird shit just... happens. Stuff like this isn't outside the realm of possibility anymore. I mean, don't get me wrong; they're confused as hell and scared out of their minds, but they don't think I've gone mad. They'll look after me, keep me sane. They always do."
That's not as reassuring as it should be. Nebula frowns as something unidentifiable tugs at her chest, and she finds her eyes being drawn back to the ship before she can stop them. The sight of it only serves to remind her that she'll be leaving Earth in a matter of minutes, and that the chances of her returning are slim to none. After this, it's likely she'll never see Stark again.
As much as she initially dismissed the idea, over the months they've known each other Nebula has caught herself referring to Stark as her 'friend' more than once, and she hardly has many of those to spare. It disturbs her, much as she'd like to deny it, that as soon as she flies off with the Guardians, Stark's fate will forever be unknown to her. She'll never know if he'll go on to outlive them all or if he'll self-destruct within a week. Logic tells her that the outcome will be closer to the former – she has seen Stark survive breaking points left and right after all – but she wonders how long it'll take for the not-knowing to stop preying on her mind.
She can't help but roll her eyes in mild disgust at herself. Caring about Gamora's wellbeing is stressful enough without adding more people to the list.
"I'll be fine," Stark reiterates, and Nebula wonders if he's trying to reassure her or himself. Possibly both. "I promise."
"You better be," she mutters, though before Stark can feel touched by her sentiment, she simply rolls her eyes again and adds, "Would have been a waste of my time taking you back to Earth if not."
That elicits a full-bodied laugh that seems to take Stark by surprise, and the sight manages to lift some concern from Nebula's shoulders.
"Yeah, I guess it would have been," he concedes, before shaking his head and failing to suppress a smile. Nebula watches as he closes his eyes and releases a breath, the tension falling away from him in waves, and when he looks back to her all he has left is a sincere smile. "Thank you. For helping us save the universe."
"I don't think I can take too much credit," she says, dismissing his thanks with a shrug. It's hardly a lie; had things gone the way she planned, she and Rocket would have gone to their deaths months ago while Stark and his friends were left behind on Earth. He was the one who clung to hope in a situation where none existed, and it's probably the only reason they're both sitting here now. "All I did was tell you your ideas sucked while you were trying to fix everything."
"Okay, in your defence, my ideas did suck," Stark admits, before reaching over to good-naturedly pat her on the back. She should recoil from the contact, she thinks, but it's been so long since she's associated light touches with pain that she doesn't even flinch. "Come on, no arguments. It was a team effort. We couldn't have done it without you."
She wonders if there's any truth in that. True, it had been her blades that felled Thanos, but it's possible Thor or Danvers could have finished him off in her place. The insight she offered into Thanos' plans and mindset may have been dug up through interrogating some of his lackeys down the line, and what limited knowledge she had on the Infinity Stones may have been found later in Wong's books.
Then again, perhaps her presence was necessary. The one chance of victory in fourteen-million involved her after all, just as surely as it involved Thor and Stark. It's likely she'll spend the rest of her life wondering how that came to pass – how she of all people survived Thanos' initial genocide and all the pain that came after – but she knows by looking at Stark's face that there's little point in arguing with him further.
"Hey Neb!" a grating voice calls over the plains, and Nebula's jaw clenches as she glances over to see Rocket leaning out of the Benatar's hatch. Looks like her time is up. "Get over here or you're gettin' left behind!"
His words are followed by a rather impatient, "I am Groot!" that leads to Rocket berating the tree with all the severity of a parent, and Nebula can't quite contain a smirk as Stark breaks into quiet laughter himself.
"I think that's your cue," he says, before rising to his feet and swiping uselessly at the mud and grass-stains on his tracksuit bottoms. It takes a moment for Nebula to join him as she closes her eyes against the Wakandan sun one final time, but she too rises before long. "Wouldn't want you to miss your flight."
Neither of them seem eager to make a move after that though. As much as her eyes remain fixed on the ship, any desire to approach it refuses to make itself apparent. The Guardians won't leave without her, she knows that. She could stay a little longer if she wanted to; could visit the lab and see Shuri again, or run to the mountains for one final glance over the valley. It is foolish of her to want to stay, but as much as she's refused to think of this place as home, it's the closest she's come to having one for as long as she can remember.
But she can't stay. This isn't her planet. She can't wander into a crowd here without attracting a city-wide spotlight. And she knows that it wouldn't be long before glancing up at the stars would fill her with longing; that constantly having two feet on solid ground would drive her insane.
The decision to finally wander to where the Guardians await has barely taken hold when she's halted by a slight movement from Stark, and she watches as a silver hand emerges from his pocket before being extended towards her in a polite courtesy. It's a deliberate action on his part - extending the metal hand rather than the one that remains flesh-and-blood. If she didn't know that by instinct, his shy smile would certainly be indication enough.
"Until we meet again, Nebula," he says, as though attempting to make this farewell less final than it actually is.
Then again, the idea of returning to Earth one day - of being able to see him and the Avengers again under better circumstances... It isn't an unpleasant one.
"Until then," she says, with a small smile she makes no effort to hide, and it's possible she's merely humouring him with that promise but she can't bring herself to care. She takes his hand in her own – Vibranium meeting Vibranium – and shakes it once as she utters a final, "Goodbye Tony."
It takes a second or two for Stark's shy smile to spread into a proper one, and he ultimately has to duck his head to conceal it. In the end, he's the first to free his hand, implicitly bidding her farewell as he turns to face the ship. A final, indecipherable yell from Groot (though she has a pretty good idea of what he's saying) is enough to spur her into action and she regards Stark with a final, brief nod, before turning away and trekking across the grass towards the waiting ship.
She refuses to look back, but she knows that if she were to turn around she would find him in the same spot.
Likely it's where he'll stay until the Benatar is little more than a speck on the horizon.
Emerging onto the ship brings her face-to-face with Groot's impatient wrath and a frustrated, "What the hell took you so long?" from Rocket, neither of which she acknowledges as she settles on the only vacant seat and straps herself in. Quill is all set to go, though he at least doesn't seem to mind having had to wait, and Gamora rests on the seat below Nebula; looking up with a small smile before returning to the console at her side. Oddly enough, they end up needing to wait even longer thanks to Groot refusing to put down his game and strap himself in, but it isn't long before the engines come to life and the Benatar prepares to lift off again, receiving a final message over the comms politely wishing them a safe journey before they leave the earth in their wake.
Nebula simply contents herself with looking out the window while Quill and Rocket take charge of flying; watches Stark and the towering city at his back shrink rapidly as they climb upwards, before the world shimmers in a blue flash and the visage of a dense rainforest finally conceals him from view.
Her namesakes can be beautiful on occasion.
The nebula before her is a splash of purple against inky blackness, with pink and green swirls crawling towards the centre like smoke. She finds herself lost in the view as she sits alone in the Eclector's viewing gallery; all sense of time having left her long ago. Kraglin had been the one to direct her here, once the barrage of Quill singing at the top of his lungs and Rocket berating Groot and Drax's booming laughter at anything even remotely amusing became too tumultuous to bear. Nebula would consider seeking him out and thanking him, if the thought of sharing space with another person didn't make her feel so on-edge. The instant she wanders back to the heart of the ship, the noise will return and she won't be able to think or breathe, and right now she needs the space to do both while she figures out what the hell she's supposed to do.
When her eyes aren't fixed on the random assortment of colours before her, they wander all too often towards the hangar lying adjacent to the gallery. She doesn't need to peer inside to know she will find a vacant M-ship there, awaiting a pilot to fly it across the galaxy. Without a second thought, she could take it and go wherever she wants. There's an entire universe to explore, including a nearby trading planet composed almost entirely of marketplaces not unlike Wakanda's; albeit far dingier and boasting more counterfeit goods. Nebula could thrive on a planet like that. She could steal whatever supplies she needs to survive for the first few months, slowly build a reputation for herself, and ultimately run her own operation selling false goods to the ignorant masses.
Or she could simply travel. There is so much left of the universe that she hasn't seen yet and even less that she's had the chance to enjoy. She could fly away, stay on a different planet every night, and slowly but surely discover what life can be like After Thanos.
Or she could stay here, though even as that thought crosses her mind she finds her own instinct rejecting it. The Guardians are a family. If she were to stay, she would be nothing but an intruder.
Her musings are interrupted by the sound of soft footsteps approaching with caution, and it is only then that Nebula realises she's closed her eyes. She is still so tired - still reeling from weeks and months of fighting no matter how much sleep she gets - though something in her chest lightens when Gamora comes into view to sit by her side. The sight of her is still an arresting one, though Nebula has finally stopped waiting for a cruel trick to be revealed and for her sister to collapse into dust.
"I figured I'd find you lurking around here," Gamora says with a fond smile as she comes to rest on the bench facing the window; the purple of the nebula reflected in her eyes. She still carries that same haunted look that was present in the throne room, though over the days she has gotten better at hiding it. Nebula has avoided her own reflection for fear of what she'll find, though she now can't help but wonder if her own eyes give the same impression. "I used to come here all the time too. It's hard to find somewhere quiet on any ship with Drax on it."
A smile tugs at Nebula's lips, before her eyes are drawn back to the view. They're in a quiet sector of this star system – the nearest planet is over a million miles away – and she supposes it makes a twisted degree of sense that her crewmates would try to be extra loud to compensate. They won't be staying here long though. The Guardians have received a request for assistance from a planet halfway across the galaxy, and it won't be long before they set off on the Benatar while Kraglin hangs back to defend what's left of the Eclector. That would be the best opportunity to leave, Nebula thinks. Once the Guardians are out of the way for a few days, she can hang back and steal an M-ship while Kraglin is otherwise occupied.
Such plans can wait, however. For now, she has her sister by her side – something she never dreamed of having again – and for the moment she's content to enjoy her company in silence.
She hasn't had as much time to do that as she'd hoped during the past week, though she can't begrudge Gamora that. If she'd truly wanted to lay eyes upon her sister every waking moment, she'd have accompanied the Guardians on their trip to Quill's home, but Nebula had let the desire for her own space overwhelm any need for further assurance that her sister was alive. The memories of her embrace in the throne room were confirmation enough that Gamora was here – that Thanos would never be able to take her away again – but now, Nebula realises that even those memories pale in comparison to the relief that comes with having her physically by her side.
The thought of that embrace brings back an echo of "Do you remember?" followed by a heartfelt, "I'm sorry," and something in Nebula's chest tightens as she realises that those forgotten months were experienced by Gamora too. That she must recall her time spent in the Soul Stone, trapped under Thanos' control, and a morbid curiosity takes hold before she can stop it.
"Were you...awake?" Nebula asks, though the word feels inappropriate somehow. She hadn't wanted to know what Gamora went through – has little desire to comprehend what those months had been like for her – but it's obvious that Gamora remembers more than she's letting on. "When you were trapped. Were you aware of anything?"
Gamora hesitates for a moment, her eyes pointedly fixed on the nebula before her as though banishing the memories from her mind. Her mouth opens as though to say something before she thinks better of it - merely ducking her head while taking a few steady breaths - and Nebula can't help but wonder if she should regret asking.
"Sometimes," Gamora admits eventually, looking up to Nebula again with a weak smile that does little to conceal the unshed tears in her eyes. "But mostly it just felt like I was floating. Or drowning, rather."
Hatred flares in Nebula's chest on her sister's behalf, directed at a man who is no longer alive to bear the brunt of it. Had Thanos known that Gamora would still be present, still 'alive' in some way, when he sacrificed her? Had he even cared? Probably not. For all that he'd declared Gamora to be his 'favourite' daughter as they grew up, his children had only ever been tools to aid him in his goal. He had little love for any of them, and as soon as they rebelled against him they simply became obstacles to be crushed underfoot.
"When he snapped his fingers," Gamora says, so quietly Nebula almost misses it, and a tear finally trails down her cheek as she releases a shuddering breath. "I felt it. All those people... I felt every one of them die."
Nebula knows a little of what that's like. She hadn't needed to feel all those deaths to know she was partly responsible for each and every one, and she spent months with the weight of trillions of souls on her conscience – threatening to shatter her more completely than Thanos ever could. Stark had experienced that same guilt alongside her, as had Thor who'd eventually revealed that his brother sacrificed the Space Stone to save him, only to be murdered moments later. Their lives had seemed so meaningless, so unworthy when put up against the trillions who were sacrificed on their behalf, that Nebula had spent every waking moment resisting the urge to scream.
It was Gamora who placed that burden on her shoulders. It is unfair to think like that now, considering the months of guilt her sister has likely suffered as well, but Nebula can't simply forget the self-loathing that consumed her for months due to her sister's sacrifice.
"I-" she halts for a moment, as any words she can possibly say feel woefully insignificant. It's only when her sister's eyes meet her own, expectant and encouraging, that she releases her confession on a mute whisper. "There was a long time where I couldn't bring myself to forgive you. I loved you, I missed you, but -"
She forces herself to stop before she can raise her voice; before she can bare her soul more than she already has. Gamora's eyes burn as fiercely as her soft hand on Nebula's cheek once had - that final act of comfort before Thanos took her to the slaughter - and the reopened wound seems to suck the air from her lungs.
"It was like you'd made me complicit," she admits eventually, and gnawing guilt sinks its teeth into her before she can stop it. She knows, logically, that there is no longer any reason to feel guilty, but that has never been enough to dissuade her nightmares. To dissuade the sinking void that spreads throughout her chest when she remembers the fateful moment when Gamora sacrificed the Soul Stone's location. "Like all those deaths wouldn't have happened if you'd just let me die."
"I'm sorry," Gamora whispers, so softly it's like the words have to be pulled from her lips, and it's so unlike her – so vulnerable – that Nebula has to suppress a shudder.
Part of her wonders if she would have done the same. If it were Gamora strung up like a rag-doll, screaming in pain while electricity coursed through her, would Nebula have been willing to sacrifice trillions to make it stop?
She doesn't know, and that's possibly the most terrifying thing of all.
"Don't-" she shakes her head, before turning her eyes away and facing the splash of colour beyond the window. The universe is in one piece. Everything Thanos destroyed has been restored, and most of their mistakes have been remedied. Perhaps once she would have held onto her anger until it burned her hand, but she is old enough now to realise that doing so will only result in harming herself. "I don't blame you. Not anymore. The only person worth blaming is dead."
It is still strange to be able to say that. Even Gamora seems frozen at the reminder, her eyes drifting to the floor as her breaths cease. It is so strange to have their oppressor finally absent from their lives, after decades of pain and fighting and hatred. It's almost feels like there should be more fanfare – a parade of celebrations across the galaxy – but instead there's simply a quiet confirmation that has them frozen for a moment, dwelling on what a life without Thanos will consist of.
"What will you do now?" Gamora asks, heaving a sigh as though to release herself from her memories. She seems lighter for doing so, but Nebula imagines her sister must simply be better at hiding her pain than she is. She always has been.
"I don't know," Nebula admits, and the continuing uncertainty has her heart sinking in her chest. Her eyes are drawn once again to the hangar and she envisions the M-ships within; imagines taking one across the galaxy and leaving her past far behind her. "Fly off somewhere. Start over."
"You could stay," Gamora states, as though that option was never in question, and Nebula looks back to her as though she's spoken in tongues. It's an offer Gamora's extended before, following the destruction of Ego, but several years have passed since then and the Guardians have only grown closer, while Nebula chose to survive on her own. Staying would feel like an infringement at this stage, though Gamora doesn't seem to share that view. "It's not like we don't have room. I could show you all the best hiding places for when the boys are being annoying. And Rocket's become rather fond of you."
"Rocket hates me," Nebula points out, because the idea of him expressing fondness is so absurd she has to resist a smirk. "We can't exchange two words without wanting to strangle each other."
"Trust me," Gamora laughs, and the sound is so carefree after everything that's happened that Nebula finds herself feeling lighter upon hearing it. "The fact that he hasn't tried to strangle you is proof that he doesn't hate you."
Admittedly, of all the Guardians besides her sister, Rocket's probably the only one who's expressed an ability to tolerate her; albeit that was out of necessity. For a few, endless months they were the only people in the galaxy who completely understood each other's pain.
That thought only serves as a fatal reminder that almost half the residents on this ship now know the intimate agony of losing the others. No matter what happens, Rocket will spend the rest of his life fighting to keep his family safe, and wherever Nebula ends up, she will never be able to stop searching for news of Gamora to ensure she's still out among the stars.
"Besides," Gamora continues, unaware of the thoughts eating away at Nebula. "If Peter insists on calling us the 'Guardians of the Galaxy', you're probably the most qualified of all of us."
That's a strange thought if ever there was one, so much so that Nebula scoffs before realising the statement isn't as outlandish as it sounds. There's some truth to it, no matter how unlikely that seems.
I would help you destroy a thousand planets, she'd told Ronan once, and perhaps back then she would have done. Back when killing Thanos was the only thing that mattered; when his teachings and endless torture had bred nothing but inescapable anger; when hatred flared in her heart upon all mention of Gamora, rather than the love she'd had as a child. So much has changed since then that she can barely recognise the broken creature from her memories. And yet, the galaxy still hasn't done all that much for her. Not enough to justify her becoming one of its 'guardians' – surface-level as the title may be – and she's not sure whether she truly owes it her services or whether it owes her some peace.
Then again, the galaxy never did much for Yondu either. Hasn't done much for Gamora or Quill or Rocket, yet they still fight time and time again to keep it safe; still wear the title of 'Guardian' with pride.
The universe never did anything for Stark or Thor or any of the Avengers, yet they still risked everything to save it without a second thought and would probably do so again.
A warm hand clamps gently around her own – synthetic nerve endings identify her sister's touch before the contact can make her flinch – and Nebula slowly turns to face the longing in her sister's eyes; the solemnity pouring from her with no restraint.
"Stay?" Gamora asks, and Nebula finds herself reeling at the vulnerability in her voice; an unspoken desperation lingering in the air like smoke. "I'd like you to stay."
It hits Nebula then that she isn't the only one in desperate need of a sister.
She lets herself consider the offer for a moment; imagines what it might be like to stay here with the Guardians. Imagines waking up in a familiar bed every time she manages to claim some rest. Imagines having a home, rather than a place to linger for a few weeks before forcing herself to leave. If she stays, it might actually be possible to move on from everything Thanos has done to her. She might be able to do good for a change; might be able to work towards some degree of happiness - or at the very least contentment - while spiting her father's memory with every day she continues to thrive.
Nebula closes her eyes and takes a deep breath as she lets herself dwell on the possibilities; lets herself consider the idea of having a sense of stability. Of having a home, a purpose.
A family to call her own.
Thank you all so much for reading this story and for all of your kudos, bookmarks and comments! Writing this story has been a lot of fun and I'm honestly going to miss constantly planning it out in my head.
Your kind response has been so overwhelming and encouraging and I couldn't have finished this without your support, so thank you all so much!