I don't worry anymore
Nothing like I did before
I don't worry,
I just watch them rolling back.
I don't worry anymore,
'Cause it's all right, all right, to see a ghost.
-The National, "Santa Clara"
It’s not easier, watching Bucky die again. Repetition has not rendered the sight more explicable or acceptable. Losing him isn’t a thing Steve’s heart or mind has ever been or will ever be ready for.
Still, it probably shouldn’t feel quite so much like going insane, should it? Bucky’s quite literally fallen apart in front of him, nothing but dust left, and Steve can’t—he can’t understand it. Gravity not working would make more sense than this. The sun going out, holes opening in the sky, a talking tree, the earth gaping open to swallow all of them whole—all of that makes sense, Steve could accept all of that.
But this? Bucky’s ashes on his fingers? Steve can’t—he can’t—this can’t be real. Bucky was just here, he was right here. This can’t be all that’s left.
Well, it’s not all that’s left, not quite. There, in the pile of ash that used to be Bucky Barnes, already drifting to scatter across the soil of Wakanda, to dissipate in the air, to be nothing but dust on Steve’s hands and in his gasping mouth and in his lungs—left there, in that ash and dirt, are his gun, and his left arm, gleaming dully in the sunshine.
Steve goes away for a while. He thinks he goes away to something like those twilight, confusing, half-awake moments before he fully woke from the ice, when there was sound and light that didn’t cohere into sense, when he couldn’t quite feel his body. It’s just like that. He jerks back into awareness when Natasha’s small hands slap his face, and that’s like waking from the ice too. He’s awake, and he’s lost everything again.
“Steve. Steve, please. Come back. We need you. C’mon. Get it the fuck together, Steve.”
“Yeah,” he says, and focuses on her pale face. “Natasha.” It comes out as something like a plea. He doesn’t know what else to say.
He blinks, looks around. Oh. They’re back in the palace. He doesn’t know how that happened. His face hurts. His hands hurt too. When he looks at them, he sees why. He’s holding onto Bucky’s arm, tight, tight, so tight that he doesn’t think he can make his fingers let go. Why should he let go? Every time he has—
Rhodey’s here too. “Hey, Cap. Can you—can you let that go for a sec? Just drink some water for me, man, c’mon. There you go.”
“Where’s—where’s Sam. Or, T’Challa, Wanda, where—”
Natasha’s face goes blank, empty. Like a dead thing. Steve never, ever wants to see this look on her face again. He’s beginning to understand that maybe this is all he will ever see on her lovely face. Absence.
“They’re gone,” she says.
“No. Sam—he was in the air, wasn’t he, we just have to—”
They debrief. Or try to, anyway. Steve wonders if he should try to take some charge here, to say something, to plan, but he’s got nothing.
Thanos won. As far as they can tell, half the world’s population has just turned to ash.
Natasha’s shaking, all over, but her voice is steady. “We need to assist in the response. There’s the—the battlefield out there, there are crashed cars, planes, kids who are alone—”
Rhodey nods. His eyes are red. They don’t know what’s happened to Tony. “I’ve contacted the Pentagon, the World Security Council—they want answers, I debriefed them as best I could, but they want everyone to report in, help everyone stay calm—”
It’s all eminently reasonable. It’s what they should do. This is familiar, in its own way: the mechanical productivity of the first responder, after the natural disaster has hit. You can’t stop the volcano from erupting or the earthquake from happening, you just go in and dig people out afterwards. Tend the wounded, clear the bodies. Simple. Steve’s still good for that, this body can still help with that. If he could just convince his fingers to let go of this last part of Bucky.
“No,” says Thor. “We go after Thanos.”
It’s not just the new haircut that’s making Thor look so different right now, Steve realizes. There’s a new wildness in his newly mismatched eyes, and a persistent static crackling around him, the smell of ozone and burned things lingering. He’s like a storm that’s perpetually on the edge of breaking.
“What? Why? What would be the point? It’s done, it’s over—” says Bruce, too fast, too high-pitched. Steve hasn’t had much cause to see Bruce panicked. Usually, he hulks out by now.
“We’re the Avengers, are we not? We are here to avenge.” Thor stands. “I intend to do just that. Alone, if I must.”
“Get the stones back, and we can undo all of this,” says Shuri.
She’s the queen now, Steve’s pretty sure. He thinks he remembers her screaming, when they told her about T’Challa. She hadn’t even had to ask about Bucky. One look at Steve seems to be enough to tell everybody what’s happened to Bucky.
“Avengers is a really dumb name,” says the talking raccoon. Steve thinks its—his?—name is Rocket. “But yeah, I’m up for some avenging.”
Everyone looks to Steve. Steve looks down at Bucky’s arm, dark vibranium and shining gold, cold and still. Bucky’s hand reaching out, again, his voice saying Steve’s name, and Steve just keeps missing him, keeps failing him, keeps losing him. If the world had even the smallest particle of fairness in it, Steve would have crumbled to dust along with Bucky and Sam and the others. He might crumble to dust anyway, god knows it feels like everything that could possibly hold him together is gone, and surely even his unnatural cells should give it up, should unravel.
But they don’t. There’s some use for them, for him, still.
“Yeah, I’m with Thor and the raccoon.”
They tend to the wounded. They collect what bodies there are. They fix those things that need to be fixed before they can add to the already enormous body count.
They sleep, eventually. Steve almost grabs a hoverbike to head to Bucky’s farm, just on instinct, like Bucky’s going to be waiting there, safe and sound. Like he’ll look up from reading, sweetly ensconced in his blanket and pillow nest on the sleeping pallet he’d come to prefer over a raised bed, and he’d smile at Steve and say, hey, you’re back. Like Steve could walk over to him and drop to his knees, take Bucky in his arms, kiss him. Like Steve could hold him and breathe him in and know by scent what he’s been up to all day, whether he’s been tending the ornery goats he loves unreservedly, or if he’s been in the lab with Shuri, or out in the jungle on a hike with the Wakandan children who delight in dragging him along on their school trips. White Wolf, they call him, a nickname for which Steve has never received a satisfactory explanation, but which makes Bucky smile, so Steve just smiles too whenever he hears it.
Steve wants to do all of those things, until Natasha asks him, “Where are you going? Okoye said we’re barracking in the palace.”
Natasha bunks with him. He thinks she’s maybe worried he’ll hurt himself, so worried she’s ignoring what he knows is her own reflexive desire to run off alone somewhere to hunker down and lick her wounds. He wants to give her permission to do just that, to say I’ll be fine, you don’t have to stay, but he’s not fine and what if—what if she—anyway, he doesn’t say anything. He just lets go of Bucky’s arm and sets it on the bed. Natasha’s mouth goes tight when she sees it, but she doesn’t say anything either, and everything is so fucking quiet. Everything’s been quiet since Thanos snapped his fucking fingers and unmade half their world.
They clean up, and get under the covers, facing away from each other at first, like usual when they share a bed. Steve’s hanging onto Bucky’s arm like it’s a goddamn teddy bear. But when he hears Natasha start to cry, so quiet it’s somehow even more terrible than if she were sobbing and shouting, he leaves it and turns around to take her in his arms. They cry themselves to sleep, like abandoned children.
There’s more planning the next day, holing up with Thor and Shuri and Rocket and Bruce and Natasha to figure out what to do, while Rhodey calls everyone he can to try to figure out what the hell to do, what’s going on, where’s Tony. Steve takes Bucky’s arm with him to the meeting.
And listen. He knows it’s not Bucky, okay? He feels pretty fucking crazy right now, but he’s not that crazy. The arm is just an arm. It’s the prosthetic Shuri made for Bucky, beautiful and strong and sensitive to the lightest touch, gilded just a little. When Bucky’d asked about the gold, she’d rambled through some science mumbo jumbo neither of them had understood, but when Bucky had stepped away to poke at Shuri’s sand table, she’d leaned in close to Steve and confessed There’s no functional purpose to the gold alloy. I just think it looks nice. His arm should look nice, don’t you think? And Steve had smiled at her, so wide it hurt, and agreed.
Anyway, Bucky had chosen to hold off on using the prosthetic. It didn’t hurt him or anything, he’d assured them, he just wasn’t quite ready yet. So the arm is Bucky’s, but it hadn’t, strictly speaking, been part of his body for long. It’s like a new jacket, maybe, one Bucky wasn’t sure he’d be keeping. Steve’s not totally crazy yet, so he knows: this arm is just a highly advanced vibranium prosthetic that Bucky happens to have used for a while. Nothing more, nothing less.
He’s still not willing to let it go.
No one comments on it. They have more pressing concerns.
Around day three of planning and clean up, when Steve’s still showing up every-goddamn-where carrying Bucky’s arm with him, that’s when Natasha and Rhodey get visibly worried.
“Steve...you wanna set that down somewhere? Shuri can... can keep it safe,” says Natasha, too gentle.
“Or, if you want to...to have a burial—” suggests Rhodey.
Some people have tried to gather up the ashes. By the time the shock had worn off though, it was too late. Dust on the wind, dust everywhere. Treating it all with any particular reverence was swiftly revealed to be impractical, impossible. So yeah, maybe Steve’s lucky. He’s got something to bury. More than he had last time he’d lost Bucky. Maybe he should bury it. Bucky would like it if some part of him was buried in the welcoming soil of Wakanda, the first place he’d felt safe in decades.
“No,” is what he ends up saying.
They try to get him to leave Bucky’s arm a few more times over the next week, with kind words, with harsh ones, with logical reasons. Steve’s not having any of it, doesn’t say a fucking word because what the fuck can he say, and he’s only sorry about it when Natasha snaps, throws a water glass at his head and storms out.
Stuff like that’s been happening a lot, lately, with everyone. The stress, probably.
Anyway, Bruce and Rhodey and Thor try, in vain, but it’s the raccoon—Rocket—who finally gets Steve to say something about it.
Rocket, being an alien raccoon or whatever, has little patience or interest in human manners. He scampers up onto the conference room table and peers at Steve, and at Bucky’s arm.
“Damn fine piece of engineering. I’d be happy to take it off your hands, seeing as how’s you’ve already got two. Greedy to have any more, I say. I’d even give you a fair price!”
“It’s not for sale.”
“Yeah, yeah, fair enough. Your guy said the same thing before. But it was worth a shot.”
Then Rocket lapses into silence, his clever little hands moving, always moving, and right now fiddling with the kimoyo beads Okoye had given him. Steve’s not bugfuck crazy, not yet, but sitting here talking to a raccoon that talks back, he thinks he’s fast approaching the neighborhood of bugfuck crazy at least, checking out how much the houses cost there, instead of just circling around it. He waits for Rocket to say anything else, but Rocket doesn’t know anything about him, about Bucky. Doesn’t know anything about their whole sorry story. There’s something comforting about that.
It makes it easier to say, “It’s all I have left of him,” and the words are both true and not true.
Steve still has all the intangible things, of course, like the memory of Bucky’s smile and his love and the sound of his voice. And there are the things waiting in Bucky’s cozy hut-house outside the city: Bucky’s clothes and his goats and his notebooks. But this arm: it’s all he has left from that last moment. Steve? Bucky had said, the beginnings of fear in his voice, and then he was gone, save for this arm, and a gun.
“I get that,” says Rocket, his dark eyes so sad and kind for a moment, before he lets out a small cackle. “Ha. Left. Get it, left, like his—”
And yeah, Steve gets it, and suddenly it’s the funniest fucking thing he’s ever heard in his too-long life. He laughs, and Rocket laughs, and then Steve’s crying, awful, tearing sobs that ought to rip him in half, and Rocket’s crying too, and it’s just—it’s crazy, crying with an honest-to-god talking raccoon from space, and that sets him off into laughing again.
They subside, eventually, the storm passing over and through them. Rocket stops fiddling with his kimoyo beads and sneaks his small hand onto Steve’s forearm, quick and light.
“Hey, let me rig you up something. So you can carry it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
So Rocket makes him a holster, harness type thing for Bucky’s arm, rigged up from materials he scrounged from who knows where. Natasha looks like she wants to say something about it, and Bruce gets all sad-faced, but they all mostly give up on talking to Steve about his quite literal inability to let go of his dead best friend, on account of how he’s perfectly rational otherwise, perfectly able to contribute to the planning and the disaster response.
The last time any of the team tries to really talk to him about Bucky’s arm is when Rhodey asks, frayed and despairing, “What the hell are you even planning on doing with Barnes’ arm? You gonna carry that around for the rest of your life?”
“I’m going to beat Thanos to death with it,” Steve answers. No one laughs. Sam would’ve, even though it’s absolutely not a joke.
Thor doesn’t laugh, but he does grin savagely, and pounds him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit!”
Really, Steve thinks he’s doing great, all things considered. So what if he won’t stop carrying his dead best friend’s prosthetic arm around? If he had Sam’s wings, he’d keep those on his back too, a soothing weight. Not as heavy as the grief, of course not, but something like it: a reminder, a burden infinitely more painful to cast off than to keep.
“Steve. Does this help?” asks Natasha, small and tired, when they’re in bed together one night.
They don’t need to keep doubling up, but they do. There’s an animal comfort in it, and it helps, to have someone there in the night, when one of them inevitably wakes gasping or screaming. He thinks they’ve all had the same nightmare: the one where everyone turns into ash and dust, everyone but them, the whole world falling silent.
“Sleeping in the same bed? Sure. Yeah. But if you don’t want—”
“No, I do want, it does help. No, I meant…” she gestures at Bucky’s arm, resting on the bedside table.
Does it help. No. Not really. It’s just—it just is. Keeping it with him is a thing Steve just can’t stop doing.
But instead of giving her any proper answer, Steve says, “You remember when we broke into the Smithsonian for my old uniform? How easy it was?”
“Yeah. Got a real criminal streak in you, Rogers, I was impressed. Hotwiring cars, breaking into museums, burning down government agencies….”
“It was easy because I’d planned it out before.” He takes a moment to savor the rarity of having surprised Natasha, then continues, “When they thawed me out, they gave me all new stuff, you know. Set me up with clothes and all that. Said all my old things were in the museum, mostly, or long gone. And I didn’t care about that, most of it was stuff I didn’t really miss. But I didn’t have anything of Bucky’s. Not a single fucking thing. Not his tags, not his old pocket watch, or his field notebooks. Not his body. Just a—an empty grave. So I thought—I’ll get something back. Smithsonian’s got one of his old jackets, some other things. I thought I could just—break in. Take something. I planned it all out when I couldn’t sleep, during my runs. Did all the recon and everything.”
Natasha rests a hand on his back, and strokes up and down. “I’m sure they’d have just given you something of his, if you’d asked.”
“Yeah, probably. But I doubt they’d have given me his jacket. And that was all I could think about. Wanting that blue coat. He looked so fucking good in it, especially with the way he always kept the collar up. And I thought—maybe it’d smell like him. Stupid. They had to have cleaned it, there was no way it still smelled like him.”
“So why didn’t you pull the most tragic heist in history?”
“They put up that little video, of Bucky laughing. You remember it?”
“Yeah. That was—that was enough. I mean, it wasn’t enough, nothing but getting him back would be enough, but I could—I could look at that, and keep going.”
Natasha moves in closer, puts her arms around him. “Okay,” she whispers. “It’s okay.”
As she falls asleep, still tucked in tight against him, he wonders if she gets what he was trying to say. If you think I’m crazy now, it’s only because you didn’t know it’s been like this the whole fucking time. I just used to be better at faking it.
Tony comes back. He comes back in a sleek but battered spaceship that looks like it’s only just managing to stay in the sky, let alone travel the void of space, but apparently Tony had managed it, with the help of a blue alien robot woman named Nebula.
“Is it just us?” Rocket asks her, when they disembark from the ship, anguish cracking his voice.
“Yes,” she answers. Rocket screams, and launches himself at her, tearing with hands and feet and talons, and she takes it, just holds him tight as he makes awful, animal noises, like some wild thing being mauled.
Steve can relate. That’s pretty much how he feels all the time now. But hey, Tony’s alive. That’s something. Even if looking at Tony hurts. And not just because Steve feels guilty, still, about how things ended up between them. Tony looks like he’s aged about thirty years, Tony looks ravaged, like some pretty important invisible parts of him are missing.
“What took you so long?” asks Rhodey, even as he holds onto Tony tightly.
“Ran into some trouble on the way back, we handled it. Pepper, is she, Rhodey, please tell me Pep’s—”
“She’s fine, she made it.”
So Tony’s one of the lucky ones. He hasn’t lost everyone. He must have lost someone though if he looks like that. Steve wonders if he should ask. He waits until Tony and Rhodey disentangle themselves from each other. Is it wishful thinking, or is there relief in Tony’s eyes when he spots Steve?
“I’m sorry,” Steve tells him. “I should’ve called.”
He sees Tony’s eyes fall on Bucky’s arm where it’s hanging from Steve’s shoulder in a holster. Tony’s a genius, so he catches on fast. The lines on Tony’s face carve themselves deeper, and his shoulders slump.
“Yeah. Me too. But I’m—I’m glad you’re alive,” he says, voice breaking, and none of the rest of it matters. Not the fight in Siberia, and not two years of silence, and not even the terrible secrets and lies between them.
They don’t hug, so much as collapse upright against each other.
“So I’m gonna beat Thanos to death with Bucky’s arm. You up for getting some punches of your own in?” he asks Tony, and Tony laughs.
“We’re Avengers, aren’t we? Let’s fucking avenge.”
Their Avengers’ “what the fuck, exactly, should we do next” meeting is on hour three, with no end in sight. It’s taken that long just for everyone to get back up to speed, to cobble together some semblance of sense out of the past few days.
“We have to put out a real statement, get out there, show the world we’re still here,” says Natasha.
The thought of getting on camera to try to reassure the half of Earth that’s left that everything will be okay makes Steve want to throw up, and not from stage fright.
There are still the Accords to think of too, so he says, “And then immediately get arrested? That’s a distraction we don’t need.”
Rhodey shakes his head. “Well, Ross didn’t make it, so...that’s one less problem, I guess.”
“There you go. We won’t get arrested, probably. Listen, the shock’s wearing off some out there, we have to give people some explanation that’s not the Rapture, and we have to—”
Steve doesn’t even want to hear the end of that sentence. “Tell them everything’s going to be okay? That’s an empty platitude and we all know it. No, Natasha, our time is better served doing literally anything other than PR.”
“Well la di dah, Cap, someone got used to operating under the radar, huh? It is actually the least possible amount of accountability to go out there and tell people at least a little about what the fuck just happened. C’mon. Natasha’s right, we have to say something,” says Tony.
“What can we even say?” asks Bruce.
There’s a moment of silence as they all consider that.
Eventually, Natasha says, “That—that we all have to pull together, help who’s left. That it’s not the literal apocalypse. That’s a start.”
“Also the avenging thing, we should definitely say that,” adds Tony.
“Right, because that’s helpful, that’s really gonna stop everyone from wrecking what’s left of the world when they panic,” Rhodey tells Tony.
Steve breaks in before Tony can get into it with Rhodey. “So, what, tell people this is it, this is the new normal now? We lost, too bad, so mourn the dead and move on? No. No. I’m not saying that, I’m never—”
“Steve—” Natasha puts her hand on his arm, and he jerks away from her.
“Why are you acting like this is over? It’s not. We are going to fix this.”
“For fuck’s sake Steve, I know denial is a real tempting phase of grief, but we cannot afford it. It is over.” Natasha bites the words out, vicious and clipped, horribly clear. “We lost. It’s time to pick up the pieces, not go on some wild goose chase in space—”
“I don’t see what a goose has to do with anything. We’re chasing Thanos. It’s simple enough: we find him, we get the Stones, and we undo all of this. I told you, I will do it alone if I must,” says Thor.
Is Thor’s voice deeper now, or is that the rumbling of thunder under it?
“Oh please,” scoffs Natasha. “That’s a suicide revenge mission, not a rescue, don’t kid yourselves.”
It’s all we have, Steve wants to say, but he doesn’t. Instead, he looks down at Bucky’s arm where it’s strapped to him with the harness Rocket made. The fingers are curled a little, maybe from one of Bucky’s last movements before—before. It’s nothing like Bucky actually touching him. If Steve were to thread his fingers with it, hold on tight, it would stay still and cold, it would not grip back, it wouldn’t hold on. Steve’s never managed to hold onto Bucky when it counts, and he only ever managed to rescue Bucky once. Hasn’t ever even managed to properly avenge him, hasn’t exacted any kind of balancing of the scales of justice for Bucky’s suffering, for his stolen years and memories. Too late for any of that now, probably.
Is rescue possible? He wants to think so. But suicide revenge mission doesn’t sound so bad either.
“Are you in or out, Widow?” asks Tony.
After a split second of despair, so fast Steve thinks he might have imagined it, Natasha’s face takes on that terrible emptiness again. “The dead are dead. My responsibility is to the living,” she says, and leaves.
He doesn’t think Natasha will come back to their room again after that, but she comes back late that night, when Steve’s already in bed, her face pale and her eyes red. He lifts the covers and she crawls under them to join him, and they hold each other.
“I am trying to do the right thing, Steve. I don’t know if this is it, I never know, I’m never sure, but I thought, what would Sam do, what would Clint want, and—”
Just hearing Sam’s name is enough to steal the air out of Steve’s lungs. And yeah, Sam used to be pararescue. He’d say his responsibility was to the living too.
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. But you know what else Sam would say? ‘Y’all have a chance to keep me and half the rest of the universe from turning into dust and you’re not gonna take it? Friendship cancelled.’”
Natasha giggles, or sobs, Steve can’t quite tell which. “Your Sam impression is terrible.”
“I can’t not try, Nat. I can’t. Maybe you’re strong enough to live in this world, to help the people left, but I’m not. I’m not.”
Captain America should be strong enough. Captain America should put on the stars and stripes and get out there to lift morale. But Steve Rogers has got one last fight in him and if he loses it, he’s done.
“I can’t lose everyone else,” whispers Natasha. “I’m not strong enough for that.”
If she’d slid a knife in between his ribs, it would have hurt less.
“Please, Natasha. Who are we if we don’t try?” She punches his chest once, short and sharp, and some awful, anguished noise escapes her throat. Steve just gathers her in closer. “Nat. Please. We have to try. If there’s even the smallest chance—”
“Okay. Yes, okay. I’m in.”
The next day, the Avengers do release a statement. They give the bare details on Thanos, on what it is exactly that’s happened. They ask everyone to help each other, to take care of who’s left, to not panic.
Steve doesn’t say much. He knows the others are expecting some kind of inspirational speech, but he hasn’t got one.
Instead, he just says, “We are going to fix this.”
With Tony’s arrival, and Natasha on board, their plan starts to take rapid shape. It’s pretty much brute force, no finesse: find Thanos, get the Stones, undo all of this. Thor’s confident he can get a new gauntlet and wield it himself, long enough to fix everything.
“Will you survive it?” asks Steve.
Thor just laughs. “Does it matter?”
“Yeah, okay,” he says, shrugging, while Tony gapes.
“Uh, what? Yes, it matters! What the fuck!” Easy for Tony to say. Pepper and Rhodey are both still alive.
“Catch the fuck up, Tony, some of us are dead inside, so what the hell does it matter if—” The wounded and horrified look on Shuri’s face makes him stop. “Sorry,” he tells her, because christ, how angry and disappointed would T’Challa and Bucky be right now if he made Shuri cry.
“Yeah, it’s been like this,” Rhodey tells Tony.
Shuri sniffs loudly. “You white boys are all so dramatic.”
“Yeah, Peggy used to tell me that all the time.”
“I tell you that all the time too,” says Natasha. She looks annoyed enough that Steve’s ready to duck another water glass chucked at his head.
“I think I’m a little entitled to being dramatic, given everything.”
Tony scrubs at his face and runs his hands through his hair as he groans. “So I’ll just pencil in some time on the team schedule for the wailing and rending of garments, alright? Jesus. Nebula, tell us about Thanos’ base again—”
Nebula’s intel helps, and between Thor, Rocket, Bruce, Shuri, and Nebula, they manage to slowly get the spaceship in good enough shape for another long trip, with some upgrades. Steve helps with the fetching and carrying, and anything that requires brute strength. It’s easy, mindless: Rocket and Tony’s back-and-forth bickering provides a soothing white noise he’s not required to participate in.
His silence seems to make Tony uncomfortable though.
“No stirring speeches, Cap? No scolding about how we should all just get along?”
“Wait, I’ve got it. You only talk to your dead ex-assassin bestie’s arm.”
There’s a thought. “I’m not that crazy yet.”
He is, however, crazy enough to keep taking his phone out to call Bucky. Sometimes he gets as far as listening to the endless ringing dial tone before remembering: Bucky’s gone. It’s not that Steve is just on some long mission where he’s been on radio silence for a few weeks, and now it’s over and he can finally call Bucky again. There’s no Bucky to call.
After a sparring session with the Dora Milaje, a pointless attempt to tire himself out enough to stop thinking, he reflexively takes his phone out to call Bucky, because he’d just learned some new moves with the new shields Shuri gave him, and he wants to tell Bucky about it, when the awful knowledge hits him all over again, a wave sweeping him out into a sea of grief. He collapses right there in the palace hallway, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor with a thump.
Rocket finds him staring at his phone.
“Whatcha looking at?” he asks, hands already reaching out to examine the phone. Steve lets him take it.
“It’s a phone. A communication device.”
Rocket snorts. “Awfully big for comms.”
“It, uh, does other stuff too. Computer stuff.”
“Huh, okay,” he says, and hands it back, apparently deeming it too uninteresting to even bother asking to buy or barter for it. “If you’re gonna call someone, you should just call them. Now’s really not the time to put that kinda thing off, you know?”
Rocket sits next to him, with far more weariness than a small raccoon body should be capable of. Steve has to resist the urge to pet him. That would probably cost him a finger or two, if not his whole hand.
“Bucky’s dead, so I can’t call him.”
“Oh. Your metal arm guy.”
“Yeah. I used to—I used to call him all the time.”
Steve hadn’t been able to spend too much time in Wakanda, not without garnering unwelcome attention that could have jeopardized Bucky’s safety. He and Bucky had mostly made do with the odd long weekend, a week if things were quiet for once, and the rest of the time, they’d talked on the phone or video chatted. In its own way, it had been a blessing. They got to know each other again during those calls, awkward and halting at first, full of oddly rote pleasantries, until Bucky had very obviously lost patience and thrown himself into conversations that actually meant something. Steve thought he’d heard Shuri cheering in the background.
The calls had started with trading memories. Once Bucky was out of cryo and the trigger words dealt with, his brain had healed at a rapid pace, memories returning.
Shuri says I need to stimulate my synapses or whatever, so I’ve been writing everything I remember down, but I—can you—you’re the only one who might know for sure if what I’m remembering is real.
Yeah, of course, Buck, anything. Anything you need from me.
It had stopped being about memories pretty fast.
Steve would call him whenever he had a free, private moment, and plenty of times when he didn’t have a private moment and just didn’t care how much Sam, Natasha, and Wanda would make fun of him. Every time, Bucky would answer Hey, Steve, a smile audible in his beloved, warm voice, and he’d tell Steve about his day, about what he was doing right at that moment, about what new thing he’d just learned about the 21st century or Wakanda. Steve would share his own stories in turn, but he had nothing on Bucky, who could spin a funny or surprising story out of the most mundane moments.
I think I’m running goat rehab and anger management out here, Steve.
Yeah? What kinda rehab do Wakandan goats need?
I dunno, but I swear to god, the vibranium in the soil makes ‘em some kinda super goat. The milk and cheese taste really, really good, but jesus, at what cost? Liwa from the Border Tribe brought me a new one today, said the goat was upsetting the rhinos. And I asked, how the hell’s one little goat upsetting all those fuck-off huge rhinos, and he said, the goat has been fighting them. A goat! Fighting rhinos! What’s a goat fighting rhinos for, I asked, and he said he didn’t know, but it needed a timeout before it got squashed by an angry rhino, so here it is, I guess.
Sounds like your kinda goat, Buck.
Hmm. I named it Steve.
Steve pretty much hadn’t stopped smiling for a week, after that.
Most advanced country on the planet and we still gotta go trekking through the jungle for herbs, though I guess I don’t mind, there are these butterflies—
I love you.
Steve hadn’t been able to hold it in, had wondered why the hell he even had for so long, what reason there could possibly have been for him to dance around it for years, for decades, while Bucky had made promises like to the end of the line and not without you. The few seconds of silence after Steve finally said it ought to have terrified him, but he had known, he had just known, that Bucky was smiling. Like something in the universe changed, grew brighter, when Bucky smiled.
I love you too, Bucky had said, soft and sweet—and god, so easy, because Bucky’d always had a generous heart, and HYDRA hadn’t burned that out, couldn’t possibly have, and he’d finally felt safe enough to show it again—and then Bucky had laughed, nothing but affection in it. It take you a hundred years to work up to that?
Buck! I—I mean it. I’ve always—
“You think we can really get ‘em back?” asks Rocket, bringing Steve back to the present.
Steve glances back at Bucky’s vibranium arm, still and heavy where it’s hanging from the harness on Steve’s back.
“I think I intend to die trying.”
Rocket grins, revealing sharp teeth, and Steve smiles back. He gets up, puts the phone back in his pocket. There’s still work to do. Maybe Tony could use some help with the welding on the spaceship.
Rocket joins him, and Steve adjusts his pace for his shorter legs, though it’s not long before Rocket lets out an annoyed growl.
“Hey, you mind if I hitch a ride with you? All you giants and your huge buildings ain’t so hospitable for us smaller sentient beings.”
“Sure, hop on,” he says, and before he can wonder or ask if he should kneel so Rocket can reach his shoulders, Rocket scampers up his leg and perches on his shoulder. He’s heavier than Steve had expected. Maybe it’s all the weapons. “Alright?”
“Yeah, thanks,” says Rocket, and fidgets some on Steve’s shoulders, his little claws like pin pricks as he shifts around until he sighs. “Used to do this with Groot.”
“Not the same with me, huh?”
“No. You’ll do for now, though. Thanks.”
Steve keeps seeing the red flickers of Wanda’s power. Only in the corner of his eye, in flashes that have him turning his head wildly only to see nothing once he does. A few times, he thinks he sees the red tendrils dancing over Natasha, or Tony, and he watches them carefully in case they start acting strangely, but nothing happens. For all he knows, something’s wrong with his eyes. He doesn’t think so though. That particular shade of glowing red is pretty distinctive.
No one else says anything, so it must just be him.
The flitting flashes of red remind him of how Wanda used to use her powers for silly little things, sometimes, when she could be sure no civilians were watching. She used to say it was to practice her control, but mostly, Steve was pretty sure it was an excuse for small mischiefs like floating some whipped cream up to his mouth to give him a mustache, or rearranging the food on his plate to make funny faces. No matter how dire or exhausting a mission was, it always made him smile, at least a little, and Wanda would smile back at him with a rare, innocent delight. She’d been so young, still.
What he wouldn’t give to see that red spark now, even if it’s chucking popcorn at him, or sticking a flower crown on his head, or stealing his pens. She’d been working so hard to not be afraid of her own power.
I don’t want this, I don’t, I shouldn’t ever have asked for it— she’d cried one night, after one of the hard missions where they couldn’t save everybody, after she woke in the night crying out for Pietro. And Steve had held her and said, I know, I know, but you have it now, and you’re doing so much good with it, Wanda, I promise. He hopes she’d believed him. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe she’s gone, but her power’s left, aimless and drifting and fading. Maybe it’s a haunting.
Or, Steve tells himself, maybe he just needs more than three fitful hours of sleep a night.
He tries turning in early for a few nights, and encourages everyone else to do the same, to mixed success. Given how he dreams, his sleep isn’t restful.
Strange, dark dreams leave him drifting in a sleep that feels feverish. Instead of the unbearable silence of the moment after Thanos snapped his fingers, or the nightmarish sight of everyone he loves turning to dust, his dreams are full of a rising murmur, as if hearing a stadium full of people screaming from very far away. He sees red flickers behind his eyes before he wakes up, but when he opens his eyes, there’s nothing.
Three nights in a row he hears it, that sound, that screaming or whatever it is, rising and falling, and his dream-self runs towards it through a dreamscape of ashen voids.
Until one night, one of the voices comes clear and close, like it’s up against Steve’s left ear. Steve, it says, and it’s Bucky’s voice. Steve jerks fully awake, breathing hard. He looks at Bucky’s arm, where it’s resting on the bedside table, and for just a second, when he’s still blinking the sleep out of his eyes, he could swear he sees a faint red shimmer over it.
Night after night, it keeps happening, and if it was just Bucky saying his name, Steve could accept that, because that used to happen all the time. It’s a common near-sleep hallucination, he’s been told, to hear someone calling your name, and sometimes it’s been Peggy’s voice, or his ma’s, and on a few memorable occasions that had him flailing awake to reach for his shield, Fury’s. But Bucky’s not just saying his name, he’s talking, and sometimes Steve thinks he can hear the distant murmur of Sam and T’Challa’s voices too.
Steve, can you hear me? Please tell me you can hear me. I’m here, I promise I’m here—
I swear to god, your whole true love that’s overcome all obstacles bullshit had better be enough to make this work. I did not listen to Steve going on and on about your pretty hair and your goats and how great you’ve been doing in Wakanda just for the Greatest Love of All to fuck us over now...
Shut up, Sam! I’m trying here! Steve? Sweetheart, please—
Steve wakes up with tears on his face and a weight on his chest so heavy he can barely breathe. He rolls over and presses against Natasha’s side until she stirs and sleepily pats at him.
“Just a dream, Steve, go back to sleep,” she mumbles, and he listens to her breathing and tries very hard to think of nothing at all.
It happens again the next night.
Bucky, you must focus on him, you must believe what ties the two of you together is stronger than this.
I am! I do! Steve, are you listening? Say something, please—
Perhaps this would have worked better if you two were married.
What does that have to do with anything!
It is a bond and a vow, such things matter on planes beyond the physical. Did you make no vows to each other? I told you I would officiate your wedding, it is perfectly legal in Wakanda—
We made vows. Steve, I promised you to the end of the line, and we aren’t there yet. Please, tell me you hear me. Mantis can’t keep projecting like this for much longer.
“Buck?” whispers Steve into the dark. Bucky’s voice feels so fucking close, like if he turned just a bit, Bucky would be there, would press a kiss to the back of his neck, to the hinge of his jaw—
Yes! Oh thank fuck. Steve, listen, you have to tell Thor, it’s the Soul Stone, he has to—
And then Bucky’s voice is gone.
Are they dreams, or something else? Steve’s not sure what he wants the answer to be. Hope, it turns out, is almost as unbearable as grief.
He goes to find Thor in the makeshift spaceship hangar by Shuri’s lab. Dream or nightmare or hallucination, Steve doesn’t know which, but he has to tell Thor. Even if Thor tells him he’s crazy, at least he’ll get a hug out of it. Thor’s always been pretty tactile, but he’s more so now, and he’s a pretty great hugger, even when it ends in a lot of static shocks.
Steve’s still in the palace when he starts to actually see the ghostly outline of Wanda, right there in the grand sunlit hallway leading to the Citadel’s lowest level. The first thing he thinks is oh, okay. So this is it, I’m fully crazy now, huh? Hearing voices, seeing things, that’s all pretty classic insanity. He leans into it. Why not, right?
“You seeing what I’m seeing?” he asks Bucky’s arm. At this point, he honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it talked back, or maybe gave him a thumbs up. But the arm stays unmoving and cool against Steve’s side, and Wanda’s ghost is still right there in front of him, wide-eyed and waving her arms. “Course not, you’re an arm, you don’t have eyes.”
He doesn’t know how long he stands there, just staring, contemplating what, exactly, a person is supposed to do when they’re having a mental break. He’s spared from taking any action when General Okoye comes running in, and he looks from her, then back to Wanda.
“Captain, are you well?” She puts a hand on his arm, staring up at his face in concern, then follows his eye line. “...Is that the witch?”
“Oh thank god, you can see her too. Wanda, is that really you?”
Wanda stops waving her arms and breaks into a smile. She nods and gives him a thumbs up, then looks over her shoulder, as if someone’s told her something. When she looks back, she lifts her hands and spreads her fingers in a wait, I’ll be right back kind of gesture, then disappears.
Okoye taps and twists at her kimoyo beads. “My Queen, Avengers, everyone get to the throne room, immediately.”
It feels like it takes far too long for everyone to gather in the throne room, though Steve knows it can’t be more than fifteen minutes or so. He paces, unable to match Shuri’s tense patience as she sits straight-backed on the throne, Okoye standing tall and firm at her side. Shuri looks small on the imposing vibranium throne, but her head is held high.
Once everyone’s arrived, looking varying levels of panicked or despairing, like they’re just waiting for the next round of bad news to hit, Steve blurts it out.
“We saw Wanda.”
“What?” snaps Natasha.
“I’m not crazy, Okoye saw her too, and I’ve been dreaming, I’ve been hearing Bucky’s voice, and he said—”
Natasha steps close, and he’s not sure he’s ever seen her look so heartbroken and furious at the same time. “Steve, I know you miss them, I know this all seems impossible, but they’re—”
“I saw the witch too! As did the Dora on guard,” interjects Okoye. “Something is happening.”
“What did Bucky say?” asks Thor, his mismatched eyes intent on Steve.
“He said I had to tell you: it’s the Soul Stone. Then he got cut off, I don’t know, but if we just saw Wanda, it has to have been him, I’m not crazy.”
Thor claps Steve’s shoulders, lightly for once, then leaves his hands there as his gaze goes distant and unfocused, lost in thought. “The Soul Stone…”
“Uh huh. I’d really be more willing to believe that if you weren’t still carrying your dead bestie’s arm around, Cap,” says Tony, not unkindly. Bruce glares at him and jabs him with an elbow. “What? Are we going to pretend that’s normal? Because it’s not!”
Steve ignores him and keeps his focus on Thor, who blinks and focuses back on Steve. “The Soul Stone is one of the Infinity Stones, but its powers….they are the least understood of all the Stones. Did he say anything else?”
“He said...he said he promised me to the end of the line, and he meant it, and that we weren’t there yet.”
Shuri rolls her eyes. “Romantic, but unhelpful. What else?”
“I heard Sam...and T’Challa too,” he tells her, and her eyes go wide. “It sounded like he was talking to Bucky, telling him to...focus on me, I guess. And Bucky said something about how Mantis couldn’t keep projecting for much longer.”
“Mantis?” demands Rocket. “He said Mantis, you’re sure?”
“Mantis is an empath,” says Nebula. “She doesn’t usually project, but she can.”
“So...Cap’s not crazy then,” concludes Rhodey.
“Thank you! I’m not! Not any more than usual, anyway!”
“Alright,” says Natasha, crossing her arms and nodding. “So what n—”
Before Natasha can finish the sentence, something in the world shifts. It’s like the moment lightning strikes and the moment after it, both at the same time, superimposed: a simultaneous flash of white light and its afterimage, both of them cancelling each other out in one disorienting moment so it seems like the visible world has just disappeared into grey nothingness. Once it’s over, so quickly Steve wonders if he’d imagined it, Wanda’s there, gripping hands with a green-skinned woman in the middle of the throne room, red and gold light swirling all around them.
“Gamora?” whispers Nebula, already reaching out towards the woman.
Gamora smiles at Nebula, luminous and viciously triumphant, and Nebula smiles back, even though her hand passes through Gamora’s image. There’s something tremulous and feral about the look on Nebula’s patchwork blue face, as if she’s not used to translating joy into a facial expression.
Wanda lets out a giddy laugh, her face full of wonder. “It worked!”
“Thanos has no idea what the Soul Stone can do,” Gamora tells her, still smiling.
There’s total silence for just a few seconds. Thor’s still got his hands on Steve’s shoulders, only now he’s gripping them uncomfortably tight, and Steve holds onto Thor’s arms just as tightly. He rips his eyes away from Wanda to look at Thor, to get a quick confirmation of you’re seeing this too, right? so he sees it when the wild despair in Thor’s eyes shifts to broken hope. Then everyone rushes forward to surround Wanda and Gamora, the throne room echoing with their questions. Where are you, are you okay, what’s happening—
Shuri whistles, sharp and piercing. “Everyone! Shut! Up!” Silence descends. “Thank you. Now what the hell is going on?”
“We can’t hold this for long,” says Wanda, flickering in and out. “But everyone’s okay, we’re all in the Soul Stone, I guess—”
“We watched you all turn into ash and you’re telling us you’re all okay?!” shouts Rhodey.
Wanda wrinkles her nose into a thoughtful sort of scrunch. “It’s…complicated.”
Steve doesn’t care. They all still exist, which is good enough for him. “Tell us how to get you all back,” he says.
“Thanos thinks he has control of the Soul Stone. He doesn’t, not entirely. We’re getting more and more back from in here. If you get to him, if you get the rest of the Stones—” manages Gamora before she flickers and wavers again.
A strategy that’s not just beat Thanos to death with Bucky’s arm begins to take shape in Steve’s mind. “We’ll have two fronts to fight him on. One he doesn’t know a damn thing about.”
“So we can flank him,” says Okoye, her eyes already bright and shining. “Half of us here, half of us...wherever the rest of you are.”
All of a sudden, their plan seems a hell of a lot less like a crazy revenge suicide mission.
“Yes, exactly,” says Gamora. “We can give you enough of an opening. And the Gauntlet itself is damaged. You just have to get each stone back, maybe wield them all separately. I don’t know which of you could wield an Infinity Stone, but—”
“Worry not, I can acquire a new gauntlet. As for wielding it...I’ll take my chances,” Thor says, winking at Gamora. Gamora flushes a slightly darker shade of green.
Tony claps his hands together. “So new plan, same as the old, just with marginally better chances of success! And you know what, I’ll take it. But we’ve got a bit of a space road trip ahead of us until we can get to Thanos, you all going to be able to hold out? Are you safe?”
Wanda’s image flashes red for a moment, and she nods. “We can hold out.”
“There must be something we can do to help you in there,” Shuri says with a frown. “And how will you know when the rest of us are facing Thanos?”
“We’ll know,” says Wanda, then she and Gamora exchange a glance, having some silent conversation of their own, until Gamora grimaces.
“Okay, this is going to sound—dumb,” starts Gamora. “But we think—we think it matters to the Soul Stone. We think it’s a connection that goes between the different planes, and it gets us closer to yours, gets us more power if we use it, if it flows both ways—”
“What, what is it, spit it out!” demands Rocket.
“Love,” says Wanda.
Rocket throws his arms in the air. “Oh come on! That’s dumber than the dance-off!”
“Are you shitting me, we’re gonna have to Care Bear our way through this?” says Tony, incredulous.
Before Steve can tell him to shut up, or ask Wanda any more questions, Gamora and Wanda both fall to their knees, their images flickering and wavering wildly, their faces twisted in effort and pain. “We can’t—” Wanda gasps.
“Just get to Thanos!” Gamora grits out. “Get the Stones! We’ll—” and then they’re gone.
Everyone heads to the palace war room to rework the plan. The ship will be ready by the end of the week, Shuri and Rocket report, and Thor and Nebula have plotted a course that they say will give them the best shot at stealth, though it will make the journey take at least two weeks.
“The last thing we need is for Thanos to blast us out of the sky when we’re still light years away,” growls Nebula when Tony complains about how much time it adds to the journey.
“We need to stop at Nidavellir for the gauntlet anyway,” Thor adds.
There’s supply and logistics to think about too, and plans for the trip back home that Steve’s now maybe willing to hope will actually happen. He drafts up tactical plans with Okoye, plans that are now lighter on the suicidal risks, and heavier on feints and distractions to get at the Stones. It’s all straightforward enough, until they have to address just what the hell Wanda and Gamora had meant about love mattering to the Soul Stone.
If it’s love that counts, Steve’s not sure what he can do differently. He already loves Bucky so much he can barely stand it, loves Sam and Wanda and T’Challa with helpless ferocity. He doesn’t think a minute goes by that he doesn’t think of one of them, and he knows it must be the same for every other person left on the planet, thinking of their lost loved ones. If grief and love—two sides of the same coin in Steve’s admittedly depressing experience—if they had their own gravity, surely Earth would be a black hole by now, all the billions of leftover souls desperate and screaming for the lost ones, pulling hard enough on the fabric of creation to bring everyone back home.
Is that enough? How could it not be? He touches his fingers to Bucky’s arm, a constant reassurance, whether for him or for an unbearably distant Bucky, Steve’s not sure. I love you, he thinks, every time he does it, in the hope that it’s helping somehow.
“So, any ideas on how to keep the connection strong between us and the others stuck in the Soul Stone, or wherever it is they are?” asks Natasha.
Bruce groans and tugs at his already thoroughly mussed hair. “Yeah, not sure how to do that. Love? That’s not—that’s not an energy source we can measure, I don’t even know how we’d begin to—”
“Love is great, love is awesome, but I can’t believe we’re even discussing this. The power of love? Seriously? What are we supposed to do with that, this isn’t a goddamn Care Bear cartoon. We need to focus on how to get the Stones, and take out Thanos.”
Tony’s been pacing around the war room for the past two hours, and shows no signs of running out of steam anytime soon. Steve frowns. He really should sit down before he falls over, or maybe someone should get Pepper on the phone to yell at him. Before Steve can suggest it, Thor gets up, claps his hands onto Tony’s shoulders, and smiles down on him, then takes Tony’s face in his huge hands.
“If we fail in this, if we fail them, because of your unfortunate backwards ideas of human masculinity and your general repression, Anthony Edward Stark, I will tear your head from your body, put it on a pike, and make a monument of it. The monument will be called Bad at Feelings Genius Who Doomed the Universe.”
Steve opens his mouth to interrupt Thor, because surely he’s made his point by now, but no, Thor keeps going.
“And when children look upon it, they will cry, not because of the sight of your decapitated head, grisly as it would be, but because you failed them. ‘Why?’ they will ask, in their small, pitiful voices, ‘why couldn’t you talk about your feelings and save us all?’ And I will tell them it was because you were a coward about the things that truly mattered.” Thor looks at the rest of them. “We know what matters, do we not? I know I do, now.”
They all nod, and Thor’s face crumples for a moment, some terrible grief crossing it, before he regains control of himself and says, “We cannot afford cowardice any longer. Our dead—our lost—demand better.”
Steve doesn’t know why the hell anyone ever wants him to give a rousing speech when Thor is right there, fully capable of saying stuff like this. He feels Natasha’s foot nudge his under the table, and when he looks over at her, she’s raising a wry eyebrow. Steve’s not fooled though: her mouth is soft with something like wonder, or maybe hope.
“Uh,” says Tony, eyes wide. “...on a pike, huh?”
“He probably means that,” says Bruce helpfully.
“Right. We got it, Thor. So connection to the Soul Stone, love, how are we gonna do that,” prompts Steve.
Thor nods, and finally lets Tony go. Tony staggers to take a seat next to Bruce, who gives him a there, there kind of pat in the general vicinity of his head and shoulders. Meanwhile Thor beams upon all of them with the threatening intensity of a high-wattage search spotlight, the kind they mount on police helicopters.
“The journey to reach Thanos will take some time. We will spend that time getting in touch with our feelings and loving each other and our beloved lost comrades. We will share and communicate! We will build a bifrost of love and thus reach our beloved dead even across the voids between planes! In this way, we will make sure they remain connected to us.”
“Gross,” mutters Nebula.
“And then! We will murder Thanos with our bare hands!! Is that understood?!” finishes Thor, roaring by now, a bright, crazed grin fixed on his face. Sparks of lightning are crackling off of him. Steve inches his chair back from him, just in case.
“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” cheers Rocket. “The murder part, not so much the feelings part. But…” Rocket shrugs. “Whatever it takes, I guess...”
Tony doesn’t cheer, he just looks very alarmed and faintly ill, and Natasha’s wincing, whether from Thor’s volume or the prospect of a truly daunting level of emotional availability, Steve can’t tell. He swallows hard, none too excited at the prospect himself. Sharing and communicating about his feelings doesn’t sound great, honestly, and he’s not sure he’d even know where to start. If Sam were here, he’d know how to draw them all out, he’d get them talking with the same compassion and humor he used in his VA groups.
But Sam’s not here. Sam’s not here, and neither is Wanda, or Bucky, and that’s a mortal wound, not any kind of feeling Steve can bring himself to talk about.
But—he thinks of Bucky: Bucky as he was back in Brooklyn, and Bucky as he is now. He thinks of the wrenching, clear sincerity in Bucky’s blue eyes every time he’d set aside his glib geniality to tell Steve something real, something true. He thinks of the way Bucky’s mouth twists when he’s not sure how to get some painful truth out, but how he tries anyway.
He thinks of Bucky, of kissing him for the first time. Because it had been Bucky who’d made the first move, during Steve’s first visit back to Wakanda after blurting out that inevitable I love you over the phone. His eyes had been wide and nervous, his palm clammy with sweat when he’d reached for Steve. He’d stepped close to Steve, so close they were sharing breath, and still, still, Bucky had looked at him with wide eyes, caught between wonder and fear and love, all of it plain as day on his face. Steve didn’t think Bucky had ever looked more beautiful than in that moment. When he’d finally kissed Steve, it had been light and soft, and so fucking fragile, an iridescent soap bubble of a moment.
I wanted this for so long, Bucky had whispered. Did you know?
No. Do you still?
“Understood,” he tells Thor, and Natasha reaches across the table to take his hand, smiling.
“This is gonna be a shitshow,” she says, then takes a deep breath. “I love you.”
Steve closes his eyes and grins. Maybe this won’t be so bad. “Love you too.”
“Save it for the spaceship!” shouts Tony.
Soon enough, the ship’s ready, stocked, and fueled. It’s just the Avengers, plus Rocket and Nebula, who are headed off to face Thanos. Shuri and Okoye’s responsibilities remain with Wakanda, and the protection of Earth as a whole. Rhodey opts to stay on Earth too. In case…in case anything else happens, he says. If the Avengers don’t come back, then it will be up to them to make another attempt.
When it’s finally lift-off time, Shuri is there to see them off with a gift of vibranium. “For a new gauntlet,” she says, and Thor kneels, kisses her hands.
“Thank you, cleverest of queens. We will restore your brother to you, I swear it.”
Shuri smiles, and though there are tears in her eyes, they don’t fall. She’s too young to have to be this strong, to carry the weight of a nation and a planet on her thin shoulders. Young or not though, she is strong, and Steve wouldn’t ever bet against her.
“All the rest of you had better come back too,” Shuri says.
Thor nods, solemn, then he rises, and gets on the ship, the others following him. No one wants to make this feel like goodbye. But Steve lingers, unwilling to leave Shuri just yet. She and Bucky had been—are—pretty close, after the way she helped to heal him, and Steve will always owe her an incalculable debt for that, though he knows she’ll never see it that way. Like Bucky, she has a generous heart. He can’t leave her without one last promise.
Steve opens his arms for a hug and she latches on, her thin arms far stronger than they look.
“I’ll bring them back,” he tells her. “And I’ll finally propose to Buck. You can plan the wedding, if you want.”
That makes Shuri laugh, for the first time since half their world ended. Steve could swear the sound makes the sun shine brighter.
“I will hold you to that, don’t think I won’t!” She kisses him on the cheek, then kisses her fingertips and presses them to Bucky’s arm, still slung over Steve’s shoulder. “Keep that arm safe for Bucky, I am a busy woman, I don’t have time to make him a new one.”
“And you have to come back. That’s an order.”
“Also, and I told Dr. Banner this already, but I am telling you too: please take copious notes and readings on what space is like. You all might as well do some proper science out there and T’Challa wouldn’t ever let me start a space program—” she stops herself, blinking rapidly and sniffling, then lifts her chin. “When you get him back, tell him I am starting a space program.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, helplessly fond, and kisses her on the forehead.
“Cap, get your ass in here!” shouts Tony from inside the ship.
The ship is already starting to hum into life, the ground trembling slightly under their feet. So he steps away from Shuri, and salutes her and General Okoye, then turns and gets on the ship.
Before lift off, when they’re all still in the ship’s cramped hold, Tony whistles and claps his hands, like he’s some kind of coach and this is just some kind of championship game, not a mission to save half of the entire universe.
“Okay. Team huddle,” he commands, and they all shuffle together, Rocket scampering up to perch on Steve’s shoulder. “Listen carefully: what happens on this spaceship, stays on this spaceship. Capisce?”
Yeah, that’s probably for the best, thinks Steve, and dutifully joins the others in a chorus of “Capisce.”
Steve’s got no idea how the hell this spaceship works. He feels like he ought to make an effort to understand it, because god, he can already hear Bucky shouting in outrage: you were in SPACE on an actual SPACESHIP and you didn’t—! But mostly he doesn’t want to think about it too hard, because then he’d have to accept that not only are Bucky and Sam and Wanda and T’Challa and the Parker kid and Rocket’s friends’ lives riding on the success of this mission, but so are the lives of half of the entire, incomprehensibly vast universe.
And Steve cannot think too hard about that, not without losing what’s left of his sanity.
So talking about his feelings and communicating with his team it is. Even if that means finally talking to Tony too.
Everyone has their own berths on the ship, tiny and cramped though they are, but mostly they all end up lingering in the cockpit, where Rocket, Thor, Bruce, and Tony are taking turns flying, or in what Rocket calls the galley, the ship’s multi-purpose area that serves for all non-sleeping or flying purposes. The ship, which Rocket assures him is one of the best money can buy, seems uncomfortably cramped and tight to Steve, especially with six adults and a raccoon knocking around inside it. But Thor, Rocket, and Nebula don’t seem especially bothered, so Steve figures close quarters are a hazard of space travel, and doesn’t complain.
Even in such a tight space, Steve’s managed to mostly avoid Tony so far, probably because Tony’s trying to avoid him too, but by day two, Steve figures he’s got to face Tony and have a long overdue talk. So Steve leaves his room—Groot’s old one, judging by the persistent smell of sap and leaves—and heads for the galley. Steve finds Tony at one of the galley tables that looks a lot like a lab bench, where he’s fiddling with some device that Steve hopes isn’t necessary to keep the spaceship flying, but probably isn’t, judging by the somewhat distracted look in Tony’s eyes.
“What’s that?” Steve asks.
“Hm?” Tony looks up, then back down. “Oh, nothing much. Just a communication device, I was trying to juice it up so we can cut down on the delay between transmissions to and from Earth.”
“Good idea,” he says, then winces. Of course it’s a good idea, Jesus, Rogers, make an effort here.
“So,” says Tony, fidgeting awkwardly. “How’ve you been.”
“Not bad, before pretty much everyone I love died again. You?”
“Good, good...finally popped the question to Pepper.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Congratulations, Tony. Really. I’m happy for you two. I, uh, wanted to call, tell you that, but uh...”
He just hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it, like every other damn time he’d taken out the flip phone over the past couple years. Not even the force of Bucky’s I’m disappointed in you face had overcome Steve’s paralysis when it came to Tony, and Steve knows people think his own I’m disappointed in you face is formidable, but Bucky’s is on a whole other level, one that makes you feel like you’ve just let down a martyred puppy.
For a while, Steve had thought the letter would be enough, and then time kept passing, and the gap of silence yawned wider and wider, and Steve just—couldn’t. He couldn’t, not if it put Bucky even a single step closer to danger, not when Bucky was healing and something close to happy.
“Yeah,” Tony sighs. “Yeah, I get that. Pretty much the second a giant scary spaceship showed up over New York, I was gonna call you, but...” Tony shrugs. “It takes two to tango, and to avoid communicating like adults, I guess.”
“I am sorry, Tony.”
Tony puts the device down on the table, and looks at Steve with a bitter half-smile.
“But Barnes is more important?”
Steve hesitates, wondering if he should couch this with some kind, half-true deflection, but the weight of Bucky’s arm, still in its harness at Steve’s back, strips him of all willingness to keep tiptoeing around any part of what Bucky means to him.
Tony takes it well enough, just nodding and poking at the device on the table some more. “I was pretty pissed off your old war buddy ranked higher up than me, than our team.”
“He’s not just my old war buddy. He’s—you know, I always say friend, or best friend, and that’s—that’s not it. That’s not enough. But there’s no word big enough. So if you still plan to hurt him…”
Tony rolls his eyes, and waves the tool in his hand dismissively. “Nah. I did look at the Winter Soldier files eventually. I get it. Not to mention, Barton read me the riot act for it, among...many other things.” He winces at the memory, and yeah, Steve bets Clint had some things to say to Tony, after the Raft. “Said if I was gonna kill Barnes, I oughta kill him too, because they’d both killed people’s parents when someone fucked with their heads. So, uh. I’m sorry too. For losing it in Siberia like that.”
Natasha pops up from one of the couches, clapping with exaggerated slowness, and Tony shrieks. Steve jumps, and his head hits the ceiling. Jesus, had she been there the entire time? Fuck this tiny spaceship.
“Good job guys, and all it took was the actual apocalypse.”
On day three, Thor gets serious about them building a bifrost of love, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean, so they stick the ship on autopilot and everyone gathers in the galley, steeling themselves for some horrible emotional honesty.
“I will start!” says Thor with an encouraging smile. “I will share a memory of my dear brother Loki—”
“The one who tried to take over the Earth? That dear brother Loki?” asks Tony.
“The very same!”
Yeah, Steve hasn’t got particularly loving feelings towards Loki. But Thor really does seem to love him a lot, so there’s got to be something worthwhile about the guy.
“He threw me off a building, but okay.”
“And you were fine!”
Tony, aggrieved, opens his mouth to argue more, but Bruce interrupts. “He really did help us out on Sakaar. And he...he did the right thing. The brave thing, by staying with us to hold off Thanos when he attacked the Asgardian ships.”
“Yes. Yes, he did,” says Thor, voice thick with tears. “But that is not what I wanted to share! Do you know, while we were escaping from the ruins of Asgard, Loki turned into a snake again to cheer me up.”
None of those words really seem to make sense together, so Steve just says, “Oh?”
He looks at Natasha to see if she gets it, but no joy. She’s just got her polite I’m-listening face on, which sometimes means she is in fact listening, but also sometimes means she’s thinking about graphic ways to make whoever’s talking shut up.
“He knew that I love snakes, you see. So of course I would always pick up any snake to say hello, and to admire it.”
“A lot of snakes are venomous, you know that, right?” says Natasha.
“Yes! That’s my favorite kind of snake!” says Thor, beaming. “Once, when we were children, I picked up a lovely snake I saw, to say hello to it and admire it more closely, unaware that it was a shapeshifted Loki, and then he turned back into himself and stabbed me!”
This does not seem like a fun childhood reminiscence, but Thor’s chuckling fondly, his eyes dewy and soft with the memory. Asgardians are weird. Or maybe it’s just that Thor’s really weird and Steve never quite realized because he thought it was just that Thor’s an alien.
“Did he, uh, stab you again this time too?” asks Bruce.
“No! No, he went mblergh, it’s me! And then he hugged me!”
Well, alright, maybe that’s kind of nice.
“…and then he stabbed you?” asks Rocket.
“Only a very little, just for old time’s sake,” says Thor, wiping tears from his eyes. Bruce pats him on the back, offers him a tissue.
Steve exchanges a flat I don’t get it look with Tony and Natasha, but he supposes they don’t have to get it. They’ve just got to share a story of their own. Which is fine. Steve can demonstrate some leadership here.
“Bucky named a goat after me,” he tries, and just saying it conjures up the memory of Bucky smiling goofily in selfie after selfie with Steve’s goat namesake, sending texts updating him on Goat Steve’s adventures: Steve’s back again for another stay in goat rehab, he head butted a STALLION I love this dumb fighty goat so much. “I think it’s the most romantic thing he’s ever done for me.”
Natasha laughs, then when she sees Steve is, to his own dawning horror, getting genuinely choked up, she sobers. “Oh my god, you’re serious.”
“Oh Cap, you’ve got it bad, huh?” asks Tony with a sympathy that’s undermined by the look of poorly concealed hilarity on his face.
“Oooohh, so that’s how it is with you two,” says Bruce. “Yeah, come to think of it, that makes sense.”
Steve crosses his arms and glares at all of them. Natasha’s unimpressed.
“I am absolutely telling Barnes you said this.”
“I’m telling Sam too!”
“Oh my god, no, you cannot tell Sam—”
“Hey!” Tony interjects. “Did we or did we not say what happens on the spaceship stays on the spaceship, kids?”
“Yes! Yes, we did! Thank you, Tony.”
“What’s a goat?” asks Nebula.
“Sweet rabbit, do you have any memories of your loved ones that you would like to share?”
Before anyone can correct Thor about the many levels of inaccuracy in calling Rocket a ‘sweet rabbit,’ Rocket groans. “Listen, I’m more of a big gestures kinda guy, alright? I think flying to my certain death on a crazy scheme to get my friends back is about as much love as I can show here.”
Nebula nods and doesn’t look up from whatever repair or adjustment she’s making to her own forearm. It’s disconcerting. “What Rocket said,” she says.
“Do you not wish to assist your sister in her battle?” asks Thor, narrowing his eyes. Nebula narrows her eyes back.
“She led Thanos to the Soul Stone to make him stop torturing me. Love is a weakness.”
“Maybe so,” says Natasha. “But I think that means you owe her a debt.”
“Yes,” allows Nebula. “And I will pay it by killing our father.”
“Okay! Good talk. Does the raccoon have anything to share with the class?” asks Tony.
“The raccoon has a name, asshole,” snarls Rocket. “But yeah, okay.”
He fiddles with something on the ship’s controls, and music fills the ship. Earth music. Marvin Gaye, Steve recognizes with a painful twist of his heart. Sam loves Marvin Gaye.
Bruce laughs, surprised. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough? Where the hell did you guys get Earth music from?”
“Quill. He had a ‘mixtape’ from his mom, who was from your planet. He played it all the damned time. It was annoying as hell. But, uh, some of the music, it’s not so bad. Gamora would sing along sometimes. And Groot—” Rocket stops, swipes at his eyes angrily. “Groot liked it too, both of him. He liked to dance.”
Now there’s a sight Steve would like to see: a sentient tree dancing. He has to cover his mouth to hide his ill-timed smile at the mental image. Rocket spots it anyway and scowls, his hackles rising.
“Hey! Don’t make that face! He’s a pretty good dancer! Better than you, I bet.”
“He probably is,” admits Steve. “I’m terrible at it. But I was just thinking—I’d really like to see that. A tree dancing to Marvin Gaye. Sam loves Marvin Gaye too, likes to belt out his songs in the shower.”
Natasha smiles and laughs. “Yeah, and if we were all sharing a room or a safe house, he’d yell from the bathroom, ‘I can’t hear you! Man can’t harmonize by himself!’ So sometimes we’d sing along too, me and Steve and Wanda.”
It’s a sweet ache of a memory, and he can see the ache of it overtaking the sweetness for Natasha. So he smiles back at her and says, “A regular barbershop quartet,” hoping she’ll remember the old joke, and she does.
“Yeah, but you can’t harmonize for shit, Rogers,” she says, then joins the song and starts singing along in her husky voice. He joins her too.
“Oh, are we doing a singalong now?” says Bruce. “I, uh, do not have a good singing voice—”
“That’s clearly not a requirement,” says Tony wryly, and then he joins in too, in a shockingly strong and soulful tenor.
To Steve, there’s still a palpable absence in the harmony without Sam and Wanda’s voices. But this—this isn’t so bad.
They make their first stop of the trip on Nidavellir, where Thor tells them he knows a dwarf who can make them a gauntlet.
“Well, assuming he hasn’t turned to dust,” says Thor, frowning, before smiling again, strained and wild. “No matter! I’m sure I can work it out. How hard can it be to work a forge powered by the heart of a dying neutron star?”
“Yeah, no, I’m coming with you,” says Tony.
They come back a few hours later, dirty and frazzled, but in possession of a vibranium gauntlet. Steve’s worried at first, since Tony and Thor sound like they’re arguing, but he relaxes when he hears what the argument’s about.
“Words mean things! That was a giant, not a dwarf! Back me up, you guys, dwarves are small, right? That’s what the word means!”
“Eitri is a dwarf, Stark, dwarves look like that.”
“No, Eitri is a giant! A literal giant! He’s bigger than the Hulk!”
“So he is a giant dwarf, I do not understand why you are upset about this.”
“A giant dwarf—that’s an oxymoron!”
“I notice, Stark, that you have not spoken of any of your beloved companions!” says Thor over team dinner that night.
“Yeah, Rhodey and Pep are fine, so—”
“Remember what I said, about the pike, and the monument?”
“Right. Yes. I do remember that. Vividly,” says Tony, then shoves some food in his mouth. “Don’t know what I can say about Strange, I only just met that asshole.”
“He gave up the Time Stone to save your life,” says Nebula, her voice uninflected, but her eerie black eyes intense. “You owe him a debt.”
Tony swallows hard and sets his fork down. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do. Still wish he hadn’t pulled some cryptic wizard bullshit then died.”
“Tony. The Parker kid was with you too, wasn’t he?” prompts Natasha.
“Can I take a pass on this on account of the horrible trauma? Because the poor kid turned to fucking dust in my arms, and I—I can’t—”
“Breathe, Tony,” murmurs Bruce.
“We’re all horribly traumatized,” says Steve. “Bucky was reaching for me when he—when he—Christ, he always reaches for me, and I can never save him.” Steve’s food nearly comes back up. He swallows hard. “So no, Tony, you can’t take a pass.”
“He’s just a kid,” says Tony, head in his hands. “He wasn’t even supposed to be there, I tried to send him back home, I keep trying to make sure he stays as safe as possible even if he’s swinging around Queens trying to take out every two-bit mugger and drug dealer around, and it’s not enough.”
“Wouldn’t have helped if he wasn’t with you. Thanos would’ve turned him to dust no matter what,” says Rocket, and Tony glares.
“Thanks, that makes me feel a lot better.”
“It’s just—he’s a good kid. He’s like you, Cap, won’t stand down when there’s something he can do to help, only he’s a hell of a lot smarter and more fun, no offense. Also I kind of made him an Avenger, no take backs, but I promise you’ll all love him.”
“Tony—” starts Steve, but Tony preempts him.
“Hey, did I make a peep when you brought the Falcon on? No, no I did not! Obviously he’ll be, you know, in training or whatever until he’s of age, c’mon.”
On the eighth day, Carol Danvers shows up.
“Hey, so Nick Fury paged me, and I notice half the universe just turned into ash. Colonel Rhodes said you guys are trying to fix it? You need some help?”
When she tells them who she is and what she can do, Rocket sits back in his chair and says, “Yeah, okay, so maybe this isn’t a suicide mission.”
They spend the rest of the trip running scenario after scenario, planning as best they as they can for taking on a being with seemingly infinite power. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, Steve’s learned that more than once. But now, with more complete intel and an ace in the hole in the form of half of their team fighting from inside the Soul Stone, Steve thinks they have a shot of actually winning this. He says as much when they’re not far from Titan.
“Yeah, a really small shot,” frets Bruce. “I’m not feeling great about the one in 14 million odds Strange gave us.”
“14 million is but a small fraction of the possibilities.” Thor claps Bruce on the shoulder. “Our odds may be as good as five in 30 million!”
“Wow, you are not good at pep talks,” says Danvers.
The Wakandan cloaking technology Shuri had retrofitted the ship with gets them to Titan without being shot out of the sky, but the second they break atmosphere, reality shivers and lurches sickeningly, and the ship disappears around them. For a few wild seconds, they’re free-falling through the sky, just long enough for Thor to start summoning his lightning, and for Bruce to finally hulk out again. But then reality lurches again, and they’re on solid ground, facing Thanos. Not an ideal start to their plan, but not the worst, and not entirely unforeseen. There’s a reason Danvers is slingshotting around the planet right now.
“Hold fast,” murmurs Thor, and they all get to their feet and take position.
“Was my mercy not enough for all of you?” asks Thanos, his voice booming in the unnatural silence of Titan. “It was a fair enough fight, your defeats were honorable. If you want another round, there will be no mercy at the end of it.”
“We’re here to discuss alternative solutions to the problem of universe-wide resource scarcity. Y’know, options that aren’t murdering half of the universe’s population,” says Tony.
Thanos gives them all a condescending smile. Steve looses Bucky’s arm from its holster and thinks very sincerely about how he wants to beat that smile off Thanos’ dumb purple face. He thinks of Bucky, and feels something like a throbbing tug in his chest.
“You are all so young and naive. You’ll understand once your worlds have peace and prosperity, unburdened by the weight of caring for a population you could not support.”
“That’s really not how that works, no,” says Steve.
Is it just him, or is the sky behind Thanos brightening? No, it’s definitely getting brighter, a sun-like spot of gold coming closer. He resolutely doesn’t look up. Just a little longer, and then Danvers will hit Thanos, and this fight can finally begin.
“I’m not insensitive to your pain, I do assure you of that. I feel it too—” Nebula lets out a shriek of fury, an inarticulate no, and Steve nearly launches himself at Thanos right then and there, fuck the plan. But Thor holds Nebula back and Natasha hisses wait, so Steve waits. “Oh, daughter. I do, you know I do. I loved Gamora. I have wept at her loss. But the Soul Stone demanded the sacrifice of something I loved, and because my cause is worthy, I gladly paid the price. ”
“That wasn’t love! You hurt us and hurt us and call it love but it isn’t. It isn’t!” Nebula’s screaming now, no longer inscrutable and gruff the way she was for most of the journey here, and he can see, a little, the child she used to be before Thanos turned her into a patchwork half-machine. “What Gamora did for me, that’s love! She loved me! You tried to poison that, again and again, but I know. I know! She loves me! And that’s why you’re finally going to die, Father.”
Pity settles on Thanos’ ugly face. He flexes his gauntleted fist, and everyone gets their weapons up.
“You think that will do any—” he says, and then Danvers hits with all the force of a miniature sun. The fight is on.
To Thanos, they’re probably like a swarm of angry bees: small and not particularly effective alone, but dangerous and potentially overwhelming in the aggregate. Between Hulk beating on him, Danvers and Tony and Thor blasting him, and the rest of them taking opportunistic hits where they can, Thanos is left throwing punches and blasts of power wildly. He heals or undoes most of the real hits they get in, but it doesn’t matter: they just need to distract him enough to get at least the Time Stone free. Nothing they do means anything if Thanos can just rewind the fight.
They get the chance when Thor makes crackling chains out of his lightning, encircling Thanos for just long enough that Rocket can scramble up Thanos’ body to the Gauntlet and shoot the Time Stone free. Tony swoops in to grab Rocket, then tosses him clear of the fight.
“Hey, you’ll land on all fours, right?” Tony calls out as Rocket yowls in fury. Steve sure hopes he will.
Thanos roars, and with one pulse of purple-tinted power, breaks free of the lightning chains and throws them all back.
“This has ceased to amuse me! You think you can defeat me, the wielder of the Infinity Stones? You are all nothing compared to this power. I have made the abundantly clear, haven’t I? So this is all just an elaborate attempt at suicide. Fine, join your friends then!”
Thanos clenches his fist, and the Soul Stone pulses. Steve sprints for it, thinking maybe he can knock it loose, deflect the energy somehow, or at least take the hit instead of anyone else, so he sees it when Thanos blinks and frowns. It’s just a split-second of distraction, but it’s long enough: Steve hefts Bucky’s arm like a baseball bat, and swings at the Gauntlet with all his strength.
The vibranium absorbs the impact, but the Gauntlet doesn’t. It cracks, and one of the stones flies free. Natasha slides past like she’s taking home base, and grabs the stone, glowing a familiar eerie blue—the Stone the Tesseract housed. Before Thanos can grab or blast Natasha, the Hulk snatches her up and rolls them both clear. It leaves Steve in the line of fire, nothing between him and Thanos.
Steve drops Bucky’s arm and braces himself to face the inevitable blow. He hears Bucky’s voice—a memory, not the real thing, just a well-worn command from all the training sessions with Bucky down at the Y when they were kids: always square up, Rogers. Don’t matter how bad the bout is going. You always square up. So he does, and hopes this isn’t the knockout blow. He has one last second to think, I love you, Buck, and then Thanos’ gauntleted fist is heading towards him.
He sees a flare of fiery orange light, and he catches Thanos’ fist with his hands, just like he did on Wakanda. It’s like trying to hold back a steamroller and he’s only just barely keeping his feet under him, the Soul Stone still flashing and flickering like a flashlight with a dying battery.
“I am your master,” screams Thanos. “Obey me, Stone! Kill him!”
Oh. Wanda and Gamora and the others must be winning in there. Steve grins up at Thanos, and parrots Gamora’s words at him: “You have no idea what the Soul Stone can do.”
“Incoming!” shouts Tony, and then slams into Steve, executing a neat roll on the way to blast his repulsors at the Gauntlet. Vision’s Mind Stone flies free. Steve sees a flash of blue—Nebula—before Tony loops around and dumps Steve on Thanos’ head. “Go for his tiny eyes!”
Thanos throws him off before he can try, but that’s alright, because Thor’s really going at Thanos now. Steve can barely even see Thor he’s so thoroughly engulfed in lightning, the heat of it blooming forth from him in searing waves that scorch the ground and have the rest of them staggering back. The thunder is constant and all-encompassing now, shaking Steve’s bones.
Shit, if Thor doesn’t dial it back, they’ll all be taken out by his friendly fire. Thor’s power is as indiscriminate as a tornado right now.
Thanos directs a surge of some power at Thor, pushing him back and back until Thor’s lightning falters.
“Danvers, Iron Man, get in here!” screams Steve, but before they do, Thor throws his axe.
When the axe hits the Gauntlet, the world whites out.
Steve thinks he passes out, or maybe he just loses time. When the world returns, the Gauntlet’s in pieces and Thanos is screaming. Steve looks around, tries to get a headcount—but everyone’s on the ground like he is, Natasha prone and covering Rocket, the Hulk’s slumped on the ground rubbing at his eyes, none of the others much better off—and then he sees the remaining three Stones, scattered on the ground.
He tries to get his uncooperative body to stagger forward, to grab one of them, and he manages a couple steps before he sees the Soul Stone crack. Something like a subsonic whump resounds, and he feels his body and something deeper resound like a struck bell, a whole carillon of bells, as if a whole church tower was pealing in cacophonous joy. The feeling lays him flat again, and when he gets back up, Gamora is standing before Thanos, limned in orange fire.
“I told you, Father. That wasn’t love.” She picks up the Soul Stone, never taking her eyes off Thanos. “This is.”
The Soul Stone, cracked though it is, glows with a warm, firelight kind of glow. There’s a moment of perfect silence, just as there was after Thanos snapped his fingers, and then the entire universe inhales, and exhales.
“No!” shouts Thanos. “No!” He falls to his knees.
Nebula staggers up and over to her sister. She produces a knife from inside her forearm, another from a sheath at her thigh, and tosses one to Gamora. “Together?” she asks.
“Yes,” says Gamora, smiling at her, then she looks back at Thanos. “This time, you won’t undo it.”
“Daughters, no—” Thanos tries, but it’s too late. Nebula and Gamora’s knives have already slid in.
Thor collects the Stones one by one and sets them in the vibranium gauntlet.
“That power will destroy you,” cautions Gamora.
“I only need to use it for a minute,” says Thor.
He flexes his fist in the gauntlet, and then he’s gone in a flash of light. Thor better know what he’s doing, but Steve figures he won’t dissolve half the universe, so really, he can’t bring himself to get too worried. He has more pressing concerns.
“The others, where are they?” Steve asks Gamora.
“They’ll reappear wherever they last were, they’ll be fine, they know where we—”
Before she can finish the sentence, a portal pops into being, people piling out of it.
“Rocket! You made it!”
Steve only recognizes the Parker kid, who Tony pretty immediately clutches to his chest, both of them babbling at top speed, and he figures everyone else are Rocket’s people judging by the way Rocket launches himself at them. Steve checks on his own team and Danvers: everyone looks dazed and battered, but basically fine. And oh, okay, looks like the Hulk’s pretty thoroughly smashing Thanos’ body. Gross, but Steve’s not really opposed. He’s about to try to round everyone up so they can get off this planet already, when Thor returns with a clap of thunder, Loki in tow.
“It’s done, Thor. Take off the gauntlet,” says Loki. It’s not the smooth, wheedling tone Steve heard from Loki way back during the battle with the Chitauri. It’s something more raw and unpracticed.
“I can do more,” Thor rasps out, looking around at all of them with wide, almost unseeing eyes, like he’s seeing beyond them. He’s somehow hard to look at too closely, too sharp and too real, and some instinct in Steve is telling him to run, or kneel, as if Thor really was a god.
Natasha creeps forward, already armed again, watching Thor and Loki warily. He nods at her: do whatever you have to do.
“Thor, it’s over, you can let that go now,” tries Steve. “We’re all fine. Gamora says the others are fine.”
Thor shakes his head. “Asgard—”
“Is a people, not a place,” Loki says. “And our people are safe, you brought them back. You brought me back. Brother, let the gauntlet go. Please.”
“No, I—I can do more—” Thor shudders, falls to his knees, and Loki goes with him, hands on Thor’s face.
“You have done enough. Any more and it will destroy you. Please, please, let the gauntlet go, I didn’t die to save you so you could burn yourself up with these stupid Stones—” Loki sounds desperate, almost panicked, and Steve can see, suddenly, that he really is Thor’s little brother.
Thor lets out a terrible, strangled scream, doubling over in apparent agony, then finally, he fumbles for the gauntlet with his free hand, and Loki grabs it too, both of them pulling and tugging at it until it falls free. As soon as it hits the ground, Thor crushes Loki to him in a painful-looking embrace.
“So, is there a convenient volcano we can toss that sucker in, or…?” asks Tony. He’s still holding onto Parker.
“Mr. Stark, please, hugs are really uncomfortable when you’re in your armor—”
The wizard heads back to Earth through his own portal, saying some wizard bullshit about his sanctum and how he has to consult the texts on how to safely destroy the Stones.
“Oh, come on! You can’t give us a ride?” Tony shouts at him as the portal closes. “What an asshole.”
“He really is,” adds Loki.
“We’re not all gonna fit on the ship for the trip back,” says Steve, looking out at their increased numbers.
He goes to pick up Bucky’s arm where he dropped it during the fight earlier. It seems intact, apart from dust and superficial scratches. He’ll have to clean it up before he gives it back to Bucky. Bucky, who’s safe back on Earth. Steve’s not sure he’ll believe it until he has Bucky in his arms again. Fuck that wizard, he couldn’t have taken any of them with him?
“Worry not, I brought the Asgardian ships back. They are in orbit above Titan,” says Thor.
“Absolutely not. I’m not getting on a spaceship with these people.”
“Yeah, well same to you, pal,” says Tony, and oh god, no. No, Steve cannot spend two weeks on the same small spaceship as Tony and Loki.
Loki sneers, and plucks the stone that used to be the Tesseract out of the gauntlet. A blue portal forms in the air. Loki bows with an exaggerated flourish, inviting them to go on through. Steve peers into the portal, and sees the lush jungle of Wakanda. Or what looks like the lush jungle outside of the Golden City anyway.
“Is that gonna dump us in the void of space?” asks Natasha.
“Now why would I do a thing like that,” says Loki with a suspiciously sweet smile.
“Loki,” warns Thor, and Loki sighs.
“No mischief, I swear it. That will take you straight to your friends.”
“We will take the ships to meet you back on Earth, decide what is to be done with the Stones,” says Thor. “Go, rejoin your loved ones.”
Steve doesn’t need to be told twice. He steps through the portal.
He’s greeted with the warm, humid air of Wakanda, and the sound of joyful singing and shouts. It rings out over the former battlefield, a welcome alternative to the war cries and screams of the battle, to the terrible silence of its end. Natasha steps through the portal next, then all the other Avengers, plus Rocket.
“Gotta see Groot,” he says with a shrug.
Sam finds them first, crashing through the jungle with no subtlety. He throws himself at Steve, whooping.
“Hell yeah, you did it!” He pounds Steve on the back, and Steve just lifts him up and holds on, until Sam tears himself free to tackle Natasha.
He finds Wanda next, and though she’s glowing with joy, she’s weeping too. He holds her and asks, “Vision?” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” he says, and kisses her forehead. “Is there any chance…?”
“Maybe,” she says, then blinks her tears away. “Thank you,” she tells him. “You all really did help us in there. Now go, find Bucky.”
“Steve?” he hears, and it both is and isn’t like the last time he heard Bucky call his name. There’s no fear in Bucky’s voice this time, only joy and hope, and now when Bucky reaches for him, eyes shining, Steve finally, finally catches him.
Steve maybe kind of falls apart in Bucky’s hold.
“Bucky, I can’t do this again. I can’t. I can’t lose you.”
“Shhh, it’s alright, I know. I love you, okay? I love you and I’m not going anywhere, promise,” Bucky tells him, voice cracking, and Steve just shakes and shakes against Bucky, weeks of grief and hope finally shaking free.
Steve says some inarticulate, crazy things into the skin of Bucky’s neck then pulls back to kiss him and kiss him, every part of him he can reach. Bucky’s here, solid, real. His skin tastes of salt, from sweat and tears, and his mouth meets Steve’s with the same desperate, devouring desire, until they’re both gasping.
“Steve, Steve, hey. Hey, it’s okay, I’m here, I’m alright.” Bucky’s using his gentle, talking-to-a-scared-and-hurt-animal voice. Steve ought to object, but honestly, that’s about right, and Bucky’s voice is the best thing he’s heard in weeks besides.
He gets a hold of himself a little, though he doesn’t loosen his grip on Bucky much, just shifts enough so they can rest their foreheads against each other.
“I told Shuri she can plan our wedding.”
Bucky smiles, sweet and slow, the brightest thing Steve’s ever seen. “Yeah, okay. But aren’t you forgetting something there?”
“What?” asks Steve, blinking. The lines of joy around Bucky’s eyes are carved in deep, and Steve wants to see them way more often, like, all the time. “Oh, a ring, I’ll get you one later.”
Bucky laughs, and knocks his own head against Steve’s, gently, before kissing Steve’s nose. “Thanks. That’s not what I mean though.”
“What else is there?”
“You’ve skipped over a step here, sweetheart. Not that I mind, really, but I’m feeling a little cheated out of a proposal here.”
“Oh. Oh! Shit, sorry, I’m fucking this all up, Buck, will you—”
Bucky doesn’t let him finish. “Yes,” he says, and kisses Steve with all the devotion of the vows he’s already made to Steve, and kept, every time.
He doesn’t know how long they kiss for, only that it’s not long enough, is never gonna be long enough if Steve’s honest, but Bucky pulls back to peer at his prosthetic arm where it’s slung over Steve’s back.
“Uh, is that my arm?”
“Yeah. Oh! Do you, uh, want to put it back on?”
Bucky squints at him. “Why’ve you got my arm with you?”
“Just, you know, kept it with me. After. To keep it safe.”
“Uh huh. You coulda left it with Shuri.”
“I know, but, uh, I was going to beat Thanos to death with it.”
Bucky’s eyebrows go up, and then he gets a pretty satisfyingly soppy look on his face. It’s a lot like the look Bucky gives his goats when they do something especially belligerent that he finds inexplicably charming.
“That’s so dumb,” murmurs Bucky tenderly, and Steve’s not sure if he should be offended or not. “I love you so much, you fuckin’ idiot.”
“Hey, can I have that arm now?” calls out Rocket.
They turn to look, and see Rocket perched in Groot’s branches, his small sharp teeth on display in a happy grin.
“No!” they both say, and then Steve kisses Bucky again and again, finally at the end of their long, long war.