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The Way We Are Tied In

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Steve sits for what seems like a long time, one hand in the dirt that swallowed up what little is left of Bucky and Wanda, one hand on the gray shell that used to be Vision. He's aware of the others nearby; Bruce calls out and Thor goes and extricates him from the wreckage of the Hulkbuster armor.

Thor doesn't use the axe. That stays on the ground, charred and broken.

Steve hears other voices, distantly, but one voice keeps echoing in his ears, a question unanswered. Unanswerable. Steve?

Thanos is gone. They don't know where, but maybe it doesn't matter. It's too late to stop him.

Steve had wondered occasionally, on his worse days here in the future, if he had become not just strong but immortal. If he would still be around to see the world end. He hadn't thought it would come so soon.



Steve frowns down at the earth, and then looks up with an effort. Natasha is here now, crouching beside him, holding out her hand the way she used to hold it out to Bruce.

Natasha is alive, and saying his name.

Steve looks past her, looks around. "Where--Sam?"

Natasha winces and shakes her head. "No one's seen him. Rhodey's still looking. Come on, we're needed. Everyone who can walk."

"What..." What can anyone need them for? What good are they? They already failed.

But he puts his hand in Natasha's and lets her pull him to his feet. He looks down at the ground where there's no visible sign of Bucky and Wanda. Where Vision is lying.

"We'll get to the dead," Natasha said firmly. "Right now the living need us. You're uninjured? You can walk?"

Steve blinks, lifts each foot, testing. "I can walk."

"Good. Come on, Okoye said we won't be able to miss it. This way."

Steve looks up and sees Thor and Bruce ahead of them, and beside those two is someone who comes up to Thor's hip, carrying what's left of Thor's axe, turning it this way and that. He seems to have a tail, and ears that stick up from his head.

"Natasha? Is that..."

"Thor keeps calling him Rabbit," Natasha says. "He looks like a raccoon, though."

Steve blinks. "What about--Tree?"

"Tree's gone," Natasha says. "Rabbit saw him go. You remember who you saw?"

"I--yeah. Of course I--what--"

"They're going to be making records, Steve," she says gently. "They'll want to account for everyone. Especially us outsiders, without the beads."

Steve looks back, toward Vision's body, toward the dirt that looks the same as all the other dirt. "Bucky had one. Just the one they give babies, so far, but--"

He'd been looking forward to earning more, but he was cheerful enough about having just one. I'm not even two years old, as a Wakandan, he'd said once.

Now--now he's a Wakandan forever, Steve guesses.

Steve looks around as they come out of the trees and onto an open plain. All around them, Wakandans are headed in the same direction they are. Wounded are carried on shield-cloaks. Everyone who's not carrying someone has their wrist raised, holograms fountaining up from their beads as they check on people. As Steve watches, a woman stops walking and wails. The display above her wrist is blank. She staggers, and the woman next to her catches her and holds her up.

Steve drops his gaze back to the ground, tries not to hear the sounds people around him make. There's nothing he can do for any of them. It's done. He failed.

Abruptly, the most out of place sound imaginable starts up, loud as a shout. Calliope music, clownishly bright and tinny, is coming from... from Natasha's hip.

Natasha freezes, and Steve reaches to catch her, though she doesn't actually fall. Her face has gone as pale as her bleached hair, her eyes huge. "That's Clint. Clint's ringtone."

On the other side of that call isn't just Clint--it's his whole family. Laura and all three of the kids, including Nathaniel, who they all call Little Nat. As long as the phone is still ringing, at least one of them has to be alive; until Natasha picks up they could all be alive.

Until Natasha picks up, whoever's on the other end of that call might be alone, and doesn't know if Natasha is alive. Steve reaches for the pocket the sound is coming from, and Natasha slaps his hand away. Steve raises his hands and looks around--it's his job to watch Natasha's six while she's distracted. He sees a circling shape in the sky that can only be Rhodey.

Still looking for Sam. Until he lands, Sam might still be alive, too.

Someone presses close to him, someone his body recognizes as not-a-threat, and Steve leans into Thor's shoulder before he looks over. Bruce and Rabbit have come back too, forming up around Natasha as she hits the button to accept the call.

"Clint?" She says it immediately, as if she can forestall something by speaking first.

"Nat, what the f--fudge," he says, loudly, and at least one kid is wailing on the other end. Natasha's hand shakes and her eyes close, and Steve is pretty sure that means she's recognized Little Nat's voice. "What's going on? What happened? Why the hell--what--" Clint's voice breaks.

"Who's gone?" Natasha asks. "Who--"

"Laura and Cooper just--just--they were eating breakfast and I was going to get Little Nat out of bed and Laura said something but I didn't hear what she said, Nat, I don't know what she said and--"

"Auntie Nat!" The little voice belongs to Lila, even Steve can recognize. So two of Clint's kids are alive, as safe as any of them.

Natasha's looking around. "I need transport, I need to--Clint, I'm coming, I--"

Thor has stepped away slightly, is crouching down to Rabbit's height, the axe between their hands. Steve can't quite hear what either of them is saying over Little Nat's screams pouring out of the phone. Rabbit throws his hands up, and Thor stands.

"You know the coordinates?" Thor asks. "Where Barton is?"

"Clint," Nat says more firmly. "We're coming right now. Get both of the kids in your arms. Now." Then she rattles off the coordinates for the farm, and Thor nods, turns, and swings the axe, a short fierce stroke.

Blue electricity crackles from the head up the damaged handle, around Thor's arm, but something that must be a portal appears, rainbow-shining and wavering around the edges.

"Go," Thor says, reaching for Steve with his other hand, dragging him closer. "Go, bring them through. Quickly."

Steve doesn't hesitate, leaps straight at the light. If he can be any use to anyone--if it goes wrong and kills him--

He lands on his feet in the kitchen of Clint's farmhouse, the abrupt transition feeling dreamlike and his surroundings painfully real all at once. There are cereal bowls on the table and a scattering of something that isn't dirt across the surface. He looks around, registering that Little Nat has gone silent, and finds Clint standing by the counter with Lila pressed against his hip, Little Nat in his arms.

"Come on," Steve says, "Wakanda, it's safe. Thor made a bridge, but we gotta hurry."

Clint mutters, "Fudge," but he nods and starts hobbling forward with Lila clinging to him, her legs wrapped around his; Steve takes a quick stride, reaching out, and Clint shoves Little Nat into Steve's hands and scoops Lila up.

Steve turns to jump back through the portal before Little Nat can start to really struggle, but the kid does manage an earsplitting scream all the way from upstate New York to Wakanda. It's not even long enough to use up a toddler's breath and Steve is stumbling out into sunshine; the kid is startled silent again, long enough for Nat to grab him out of Steve's arms and hug him tight.

Steve looks back to see Clint come through with his daughter held in his arms, her legs wrapped around his waist. He's got one hand on the back of her head and his eyes are wide as he takes in the signs of the battle. The rainbow portal fizzles out, and Thor hisses and drops the axe, shaking his hand out like it stings.

Clint staggers over to Natasha, muttering something to Lila, and then he's grabbing Natasha, his two surviving children between them. Steve steps aside, pressing his shoulder to Thor's again. Rabbit is kneeling over the axe, which is smoking, muttering and pulling tools from his pockets.

Bruce is standing apart, staring at Natasha and Clint and the kids and looking lost all over again. He was gone, Steve remembers, before Little Nat was even born.

Steve looks around to see that there are still plenty of Wakandans heading toward some central point. He nudges Thor, beckons Bruce, and then taps Natasha's shoulder. She jerks to attention, looking up at him, then past him.

Steve turns and watches Rhodey's feet reach the ground. He's got the mask up in an instant, and there are tears or sweat running down his face. He shakes his head.

Sam's gone. Sam's gone and none of them saw, just let him fall unwitnessed.

"I could see there's some kind of... something set up," Rhodey says, gesturing in the direction people are walking. "Should we..."

"Yeah," Natasha says. "We'll have to let them know Clint and the kids are here, arrange someplace to stay while--"

Natasha cuts off short of suggesting what they're going to be doing for the foreseeable future. There's no knowing what comes next. Steve can't think of it, can't even absorb what's happened today, just minutes ago though it feels like years.

It feels like waking up in the future all over again, to be told everyone he loved was dead long ago. Bucky's gone all over again. Sam. Wanda. Vision. Laura and Cooper. How many others? What about Sam's family?

What about Tony? Bruce said he'd gone after Thanos, but Thanos showed up here unharmed. Steve turns to start walking again, and Thor falls in beside him, Rhodey on the other side. Rabbit has scooped up the charred axe again. Bruce walks to one side of Clint, still stealing little glances at him, Natasha, the kids.

They all walk on, and gradually the stream of Wakandans condenses around them, until they're walking in a tight little knot with people on all sides. Rabbit snarls when someone stumbles over him and dodges to walk between Steve and Thor. Steve glances over at Rhodey to see him frowning down at the raccoon-guy.

Rhodey looks up and their eyes meet; Steve shrugs.

Soon they slow to the pace of waiting-in-line, though the line seems to be moving steadily enough. Steve hears people calling out, and he knows enough Wakandan to recognize that the wounded are being called aside. They're in the line for the able-bodied.

As the line moves forward, Steve realizes they're also on the edge of the city; he can see the palace rising up ahead. He tries to see what's happening at the front of the line, but Wakanda is the rare place where he's not actually much taller than average. He glances over at Thor, to see if it seems odd to him too, but Thor has his head tilted, listening intently.

Thor, clearly, understands more Wakandan than Steve does.

It's not long before they're at the front of the line, or near enough to it for a woman in a Dora uniform to spot them; they're pretty conspicuous in this crowd. She waves to them, calling, "Outsiders over here, please," then frowns as they move toward her. "Children?"

"Mine," Clint says hoarsely. "I, uh, I was here before for a while..."

She does something with the beads on her wrist, glancing from the display that pops up to Clint and back, then nods. "You will want housing, there are rooms for you in the palace." She waves at someone, and a younger man dressed in blue steps up; she speaks in rapid Wakandan, then gestures. "You will go with him to your rooms. A doctor will come to check on the children. A precaution, quarantine."

She frowns then, and adds, "Eventually, someone will wish to know how you got here. But you are a friend of Wakanda. Today of all days you will not be turned away."

"Thanks," Clint says, then looks over at Nat and around at all of them, briefly meeting Steve's eyes before looking to Thor. "All of you. Thanks."

Steve can only nod. Thor actually steps up and clasps his shoulder briefly. "It is no time to be alone, far from friends."

Clint nods, and then turns away, and he and Natasha walk off toward the palace.

The Dora looks at the rest of them--Rhodey still in his armor, Bruce looking around with the same lost, wistful expression he'd turned on Clint and the kids, Rabbit holding Thor's axe and Thor himself. Her gaze finally settles on Steve. "Captain. These are friends?"

"Thor," Steve says, gesturing. "He came closer to stopping Thanos than any of us. And this is Thor's friend. Rabbit."

Rabbit straightens up like he's going to correct Steve about his name, and then his shoulders slump and he shrugs, still cradling the axe in his arms like a baby. Like a wounded friend.

"Thor," the Dora nods. "Rabbit. Are you willing to assist in disaster relief? All skills are needed."

Thor nods quickly, and says something in quick, fluid Wakandan that makes the Dora's eyes widen a little. She nods. "And you, Rabbit? Are you as skilled in languages as your friend? Or in technology?"

"Not languages," Rabbit says. "Couldn't even speak Groot. I do okay with... getting plants to grow. And making things work. Pretty good at disasters, usually. Not always the relieving part."

"Ah, a horticulturalist, excellent," the Dora says, tapping at her beads again. "The hydroponic facilities were damaged in places, and food supply cannot be neglected."

She reaches into a pouch at her hip and takes out two beads, offering one to Thor and the other to Rabbit, gesturing for each of them to touch the bead to his wrist. When they do, something comes out of the bead, wrapping around their wrists to hold it in place.

"If you touch them together, your beads will be linked--you will be able to contact each other and see each other's locations."

Thor and Rabbit immediately touch beads. Steve looks toward the Dora, mouth open to ask or object, but she's already pulling out more beads--one for him, one for Bruce, one for Rhodey, who's already made his gauntlets retract so he has a bare wrist available.

"What about Clint, Natasha," Steve asks, while he's touching wrists with each of the others. "How do we find them?"

"Your files are already linked to theirs," she says, "just as you are--"

She frowns then, looking around, and her face goes utterly blank and still for a second before she says, "The White Wolf?"

It hits Steve all over again. He opens his mouth but can't speak, his hands dropping to his sides. The bead on his wrist might as well be a hundred-pound weight. He raises his other hand with his fingers curled and opens it, shaking his head as he does, miming something slipping through his fingers. Dust flowing away, ash mixed into the dirt.

The Dora's face goes blank and hard again, and she inclines her head for a long moment, then says, "Are you willing to assist?"

There's no time for the dead now. The living come first. Steve nods, and sees Bruce and Rhodey nodding on either side of him. The Dora nods as well. "The most urgent need is finding all those left alone who are in need of care. Your bead will show you where to find the person or people you have been assigned. Touch your bead to theirs when you have them; you will then receive instructions about how to help them."

That means their beads aren't just the tracking-and-monitoring kind like the one bead Bucky had, the one Wakandans give even to babies. He frowns down at it, struggling to summon words when his throat is going tight at the thought of Bucky and the gaggle of kids who hung around him, who had all graduated to a second or third bead and teased him about his one bare wrist, the single bead he wore on a cord around his neck. "Where--how did--you were ready for us, how--"

"I belong to Shuri's detail," the Dora said. "She sent me. She made these long ago, to work for outsiders. The king never agreed to let her hand them out."

The past tense almost sends Steve to his knees; his head goes light for a second and he's dimly aware of Rhodey's hands steadying him. "The king--"

The Dora closes her eyes and raises her hand, echoing Steve's gesture for ash and dust and nothing left.

"Our queen commands," the Dora says when she opens her eyes. "I obey. Will you?"

They're wasting her time, Steve realizes. She's got more to do than worry about Shuri's pet colonizers. Steve gives a jerky nod and looks down at his bead, touching it gingerly; a holographic map appears, showing a route to a pulsing white dot.

"Okay," Steve says, looking to Rhodey and Bruce to see they've got their own maps, and Thor and Rabbit both have maps that end in blue dots to lead them to their own assignments. "Okay, I'll, uh--we'll--later."

The others give back similar vague nods, and there's a confusion of jostling touches and mutters before they all set out, eyes on their beads as they head into the city.

Steve strides faster and faster as the crush of people around him eases; he runs the last several blocks to a two-story building, down the stairs and down again to a subterranean hallway that seems as bright and pleasant as daylight with the vibranium lights overhead. The third door on the left. He hears crying, and presses his hand to the palm-reader, already bracing to step back and kick the door in when it slides open for him.

It's the baby who's crying; the toddler--barely more than a baby, probably only a year older than the baby--is quiet, struggling to lift the baby. They both freeze when Steve steps inside, and Steve freezes too.

Wakandan kids, once they're about five, mostly find him hilarious but occasionally terrifying. If they're younger than that the balance shifts. He's made a lot of babies cry just by making eye contact with them, when he and Bucky have ventured into the city in the last couple of years.

Bucky almost never makes them cry, though. Steve makes himself do what Bucky would do: he lowers himself into a crouch and puffs out his cheeks, sticking his finger between his lips and jerking it out with a loud pop.

The toddler is startled into falling down onto a well-padded bottom. The baby giggles and starts crawling toward him. Steve holds out both hands and says, low, "Hey, there, come here. Come on, I got you. You too," he adds gently, looking to the toddler. After a second the toddler stands and wobbles toward him, but stops just within arm's reach, still staring at him with wide, solemn eyes.

Steve holds out his left wrist, his hand curled away, offering his bead. The kid looks at it, then raises an impossibly tiny wrist bearing a bead that looks huge in comparison. Steve gently bumps their wrists together, and a holographic animation pops up between them, bubbles or fireworks or something.

The toddler smiles.

The baby shrieks, sounding a little more cheerful now, and Steve scoops the baby up and touches their beads together as well, setting off another little animation. That also brings the kid close enough for Steve to get a whiff of diaper.

He's an adult. He can handle this. He holds out his other arm to the toddler and manages to scoop that one up too without setting off any screaming or struggling, then looks around the apartment.

There's a door standing open to his right, and he can see a crib. He also sees, when he moves in that direction, dirt scattered across the threshold. He closes his eyes, sending up a vague but fervent prayer, and steps through, looking around for something recognizable as a fresh diaper.

The toddler starts wriggling in a determined way, so Steve lets the kid down, only for them to head straight over to a low trunk with neat tan objects stacked on its surface in two piles. The kid grabs a cloth of some kind and tries to spread it out on top of the trunk, so Steve moves over to help, smoothing it out. As soon as it's in place, he sees a blue glow appear around the edges of it. The toddler climbs up immediately and lays down there, looking at Steve expectantly, like, This is what you're here for, right?

Steve guesses it is. He sets the baby down and cautiously tugs the toddler's bright green... garment... out of the way, revealing a tan diaper with green chevrons printed around the waist. He grabs a matching one off the stack and sets it down, then fumbles open the fastenings of the diaper the kid--boy, as it turns out--is already wearing.

He's at a loss for what to do then, except the blue glow abruptly brightens and moves, and... okay, apparently the cleanup part is automatic. Steve waits until it seems to be done--the kid giggles the whole time, wriggling but apparently held in place by a blue field from the edges of the blanket--and then cautiously scoots the diaper out of the way. He wraps it up into a self-contained bundle, something he once saw Clint do, changing Little Nat on the floor in the middle of a party at Tony's.

Steve tries not to remember more of that night than the motions of Clint's hands. His chest feels heavier than ever, but he can't stop to think or react; he has to get the little boy's diaper securely in place. Once it's settled, he scoops the kid up. A glowing blue field covers the whole surface of the little blanket for a moment, then retreats to the edges again.

Steve sets the toddler down and picks up the baby, who shrieks, thwarted at being taken away from the fastening of Steve's boot which they were gumming at. The baby continues shrieking when laid down on the blanket, flails and struggles. Thankfully--she, Steve discovers when he manages to tug the diaper open--is held securely by the blue field.

This only seems to make her angrier, but her big brother leans against the trunk, pats her cheek and croons to her. Steve isn't sure if the boy is speaking to his sister or just making baby-noises, but the baby's screaming quiets. She looks back and forth from her brother to Steve while the blue cleaning-field does its job and while Steve wraps up her diaper into another neat bundle.

When he's gotten the baby diapered again he picks her up, holding her against his shoulder. She immediately grabs hold of his beard, and it's right about then that Steve realizes that, having solved the most pressing needs--the kids he was sent for are safe and clean--he doesn't know what to do with them next. The Dora had said the bead would tell him, hadn't she? But it hadn't said anything when he touched their beads together, just made that little animation.

Steve sits down on the floor and corrals the toddler between his legs. Thankfully, the kid comes over to join his sister in poking at Steve's face instead of trying to escape. That makes it just barely possible for Steve to rearrange his grip on the baby so he can poke the bead with a finger.

A new holographic display pops up, showing his image and name above pictures of the toddler--named Themba, evidently--and the baby, Oro. Beside that hover the words Wait in place and a map that shows a green dot moving toward them at what Steve guesses is a pretty healthy run. Below that is an image of a woman with close-cropped gray hair: Kagiso.

He's not sure if she's a relative or just someone more qualified than himself to look after the babies for the time being, but it's obvious that she's coming for them in a hurry.

"Okay," Steve says softly, and both kids stop a second to stare at him; he realizes he hasn't talked to them since he first crouched down in the door. He clears his throat and tries again. "Okay, kids, somebody who knows what she's doing is gonna be here real soon, so we'll just--"

Themba pats a hand against Steve's lips, then tries to push a finger between them. Steve puffs his cheeks out and then blows a raspberry, and Themba laughs and Oro shrieks in delight.

Steve glances toward the doorway, where someone who loved these kids is a scattering of ash on the floor, and his chest hurts and his eyes feel hot. But he takes another breath and blows a raspberry on Oro's cheek, and the babies laugh again, so he's doing what he's been sent to do.

He hears the door open a second before Kagiso lets out a wail. Steve grabs both kids up and takes a step toward the door--should've made sure to be in plain sight, should've been waiting at the door, or outside it. He hesitates then, not wanting to step on the ashes, and finds Kagiso standing on the other side. She's pressing a hand to her mouth and rocking a little on her heels, looking down.

She looks up and lets out another, different wail, and Themba and Oro both try to lunge for her. She leaps clear over the ashes and grabs both babies from him, rocking them and kissing them and talking in fast Wakandan all at once. Steve takes a careful step back, then another, and then he steps carefully over the ashes and lets himself out.

He's still hesitating in the hallway when a display pops up over his wrist: a new map, with a new pulsing white dot. It's a small map. His next person looks to be two buildings over.

Steve runs.

It's just one kid this time, older than Themba, maybe four or five. Her name is Naia; the beads tell him right away this time. She's sitting in the middle of the floor facing the door when he comes in, and there are tears running down her face. She just stares at him. He's not who she wants to see.

"Sorry," Steve says. He sits down next to her to touch their beads together and then stays, waiting to be told what to do with her. He gets another map this time, with a pulsing yellow light. Bring to assembly point.

"Okay," Steve says, holding the map up in front of Naia's face. "This is where we're gonna go, okay? Somebody's gonna be there for you."

Naia doesn't look at the map, or him, or anything but the door. She obviously plans on waiting for the person she wants to come through it, and she's not gonna listen to him tell her they're not coming.

"Okay," Steve repeats. He tries his handful of Wakandan phrases that are vaguely applicable--hello and where do I go? and come here--but Naia isn't having it.

He sighs and scoops her up.

She starts fighting immediately, letting out a shrill siren-wail of a scream. Steve winces but manages to keep his grip without hurting her, and heads out, alternately trying to hush her and trying to remember any bit of Wakandan that might be of use. They're nearly outside when he remembers the little song that Bucky sings to, or about, the goats when he's rounding them up for the night.

It's a counting song, Steve thinks. He doesn't really know the words, just the tune, and barely that. He mumbles his way through it, ducking his head close to Naia's as he follows the mapped route; halfway there she goes quiet and frowns at him. He keeps singing, mumbling worse than ever now that she's paying attention, and she shakes her head and starts singing along with him, over him, sniffling but enunciating.

She sounds nothing like Bucky--Steve's not sure Bucky knows, knew, all the words to the song either--but Steve's voice falters and fails as she sings, his throat tight with the familiarity of the tune and the rhythm.

It's not much further to the destination on the map, which is obvious mostly from the volume of people coming and going, all of them brisk and intent. Half are carrying kids, and he sees maps blooming above wrists; every available Wakandan is doing the same as he's doing, finding kids and making sure they're safe. Outsider though he is, he's just a cog, another soldier fighting the impossible, buried in the rank and file instead of being expected to lead. It shouldn't be such a relief.

A woman with a makeshift yellow sash spots Steve when he's still on the street and calls out, "Naia!"

Naia looks up and then shakes her head, clinging suddenly to Steve. The woman comes over, reaching for Naia, saying something quick and soft, and after a moment Naia lets go of Steve to launch herself at the woman, keening again while the woman rocks her and murmurs to her.

Steve turns away; he's barely reached the corner before he gets another map.

He's lost count of the number of people he's located and either sat with or taken somewhere by the time he gets to the woman who's just lying on her floor, staring at a scattering of dust beside her. When Steve touches his bead to hers, he gets a Wait in place message, so he sits down to wait. There's no medical alert like there were with the last few adults he was sent to; he thinks he's just here because she's frozen like this. Catatonic with shock.

He touches her hands and feet, and when they feel colder than he thinks they should, he finds a blanket to lay over her. She closes her eyes, but she keeps breathing.

Steve sits beside her, looking at her face--dry, tearless--and at the ashes. They show up pretty well on her floor. Not like...

Steve closes his eyes and pushes away the thought. Just a little longer. He must be nearly done now.

The logic of that occurs to him now that he's sitting still and quiet for a minute. He hadn't thought about it at the time, but there was a pretty clear triage ranking to who he was sent after, and given how organized the whole system is thanks to everyone having the beads, he assumes that everyone doing this same task was working through the triage groups at the same time.

It had been babies and very small kids left alone first, and then elders and those with health conditions or needing some relatively minor medical help. Now, clearly, they were down to those in another kind of distress, and the sun's only just setting. The people with medical expertise would have gone right away to anyone in urgent danger, and treated survivors from the battle; the beads have been used to match everyone else up with their remaining kin or whoever else in their tribe can care for them, while helpers like him filled the gaps and helped them reconnect.

It's an elegant system. Very Wakandan.

Only then does Steve think of how differently this must be happening in other places--at home, for instance. God, there must still be kids alone in apartments in New York--or on farms like Clint's. If only Little Nat had been left behind, how long would it have taken for a neighbor or someone official to think to check their house? Never mind people like this woman, stunned and helpless with grief.

He feels sick with guilt for a moment--he should be there, he should be going door to door--but where? The US sent him away in no uncertain terms; if they had their way he'd be sitting in a cell somewhere, with no idea what was going on. He's in Wakanda because Wakanda welcomed them in and tried to protect them--and the whole world. The least he can do is help the people around him.

Tomorrow no doubt Wakanda will be turning outward, offering help to its neighbors. Steve will go where he's assigned, he supposes, and help whoever he can. He failed at being one of Earth's special defenders, so now he'll just have to be an ordinary citizen, doing what he can. If he can't do much that way, at least he can't fail so spectacularly, either, and he can succeed a little, one person at a time.

He plays their names over in his mind while he watches the woman on the floor breathing under the blanket, circling through them over and over like a rosary. He touches the one bead at his wrist when that thought occurs to him, smiling a little bleakly.

The door opens and two people come in, one in a slightly grimy white coat, the other in ordinary clothes. They nod wearily to Steve as they come to the woman, kneeling down and speaking gently to her, briskly to each other, as holograms rise in the air between them. Steve gets out of the way.

He stands in the street outside, looking up at the deepening blue of the sky, trying to find a star. He hasn't spotted one yet when he looks down at a flash from his wrist: another map. Another task.

Steve takes a breath and sets out toward the flashing dot on the map; he's nearly there when he realizes it's blue, not white, and thinks to wonder what that means. Then he looks up and sees people who look the same kind of weary he feels, gravitating toward tables set up under an open pavilion: his destination.

Other people are bustling around with bowls and platters and stacks of plates, setting out bread and rice and bright vegetables and stews. It's all simple, hearty food, stuff that's easy to make in big quantities, and the scents of Wakandan spices and vegetables and bread are all vaguely familiar from his past visits.

Steve's mouth is watering as he heads toward the tables, looking for a place to sit. He freezes, lightning-struck, when he catches a glimpse of a white man--sun-kissed olive skin under dark hair--and he knows, he knows it's not Bucky, but--

He takes a breath and another step forward, and it's Bruce, of course. Rhodey is sitting beside him, and there are a few empty seats around them. They both spot him as he walks over--he's conspicuous, obviously, just like Bruce is. Everyone in the country seemed to know Bucky by sight, after two years.

Steve pushes that thought away--just a little longer, a little longer and then he can let himself. For now he sits down across from Rhodey, and a plate is set down in front of him, and platters of food appear. None of them say anything, just start dishing up food, and Steve's just finished piling stew and vegetables on top of his rice when Rabbit climbs onto the seat beside him. Steve pushes a few of the big platters and bowls closer, waiting to see if he needs more assistance, but Rabbit serves himself quickly and quietly and settles down to eat without a word.

When Steve has eaten enough to be more tired than hungry, he glances up from his plate just in time to see Bruce's fingers, deftly wrapping meat and vegetables up in soft flat bread. It takes Steve back years in a flash, sitting in that shawarma place in Manhattan after they'd fought off the Chitauri.

The food in his stomach turns to lead, the good smells around him suddenly sickening. They've lost so much since that first victory. He can't bear to be here again, like this.

"I have to--I'll--"

Steve doesn't bother trying to finish, just stands and walks away, striding fast through the eerily empty streets, quiet and so much darker than they should be. He doesn't look up now; he knows the stars will be brilliant overhead, unchanged by what happened today--and around how many of those stars are worlds that suffered today? How many...

Steve doesn't look up, just lets his feet carry him, his strides long and fast. He doesn't think about where he's going until he's out of the city, following the familiar faint path. He stops short then, staring down at his feet.

Bucky isn't waiting for him there. Bucky won't be anywhere for him to find, ever again. Sam will never turn up to another rendezvous with stories to tell--Wanda will never call with a ridiculously thin excuse and Vision's voice in the background--no one knows if Tony died out there among the stars somewhere, alone, and Steve never--

Steve whirls at the sound of footsteps, popping out the shields on his arms, though he'd forgotten until just now that he was still wearing them.

Rabbit stops short a few meters away, raising his hands. "Just me, pal."

"Why're you..." Steve can't muster up any anger to put behind the question, and gives it up as pointless and obvious halfway through. Rabbit followed him because Steve is maybe slightly less strange to him than the others; Steve met Tree, at least.

"Got used to following big sad blonds around," Rabbit says, lowering his hands with a shrug. "And you were acting like you had somewhere to go; I thought something interesting might happen when we get there."

Steve turns to look where he was going again, and faintly, far away, he hears the distinct sound of an outraged goat.

The triage list snaps back into place in his head. How far down it is feed White Wolf's goats ? Have they been utterly forgotten there?

Steve sets out again, faster this time, and Rabbit jogs along behind him, more or less keeping pace despite his short legs.

It doesn't take long to reach Bucky's place, and before Steve can even check the paddock or the shed, two or three goats come running up to him, making all their weird annoyed-goat noises.

"What the hell," Rabbit says behind him, and Steve glances back. The goats are about as tall at the shoulder as the top of Rabbit's head. As Steve watches, one of the goats peels off from him and takes a few steps toward Rabbit.

Rabbit takes one aggressive step forward, hissing like a cat, and the goat leaps into the air. It's headed in Steve's direction, and he catches it before it can ram its hooves or horns into his chest or try to climb him.

"All right, goat," Steve says, holding the startled creature in a firm grip. Bucky had insisted they didn't have names, but Steve had heard him baby-talking to one or another of them all the time. He's sure they did have names, or at least nicknames--and personalities and particular requirements, and now--

One of the goats is sniffing at Steve's thigh in the way that Steve is pretty sure means the goat is about to take a bite out of him.

"Okay, okay, yeah, come on," Steve says, keeping a grip on the goat he's already holding and heading for the shed. It's a round hut almost identical to the one Bucky lives--lived--in, from the outside, but it's where the feed and other sundry goat supplies are kept. It's where the goats themselves are penned up at night on the nights when Bucky deems it necessary.

Steve isn't sure how Bucky ever decided that. He isn't even sure how many goats there are supposed to be. But he's watched Bucky give them their evening feed, so once he sets down the nervous goat, he knows how to open the goat-proofed bin and fill the pail and lock the bin again and carry it out of the hut.

He hums a little as he scatters it around--did Bucky sing to them when he fed them? Was it the same as the rounding-up song, or different? Steve tries not to worry about it too much as he shakes out little piles of feed here and there in the grass. Goats appear out of the darkness, rushing over to get their share of the feed; by the time the pail is empty there are a dozen of them in a ragged line, eating without bothering each other more than they had ever seemed to when Bucky did this.

He looks around for Rabbit, and sees him standing well clear of the goats, looking back the way they'd come. A second later Steve spots the silhouettes of people walking toward them under the starlight, and he recognizes all three of them by the sets of their shoulders and rhythm of their strides. Thor found Rhodey and Bruce, then.

Steve had told Rhodey and Bruce--this morning, a lifetime ago--about visiting Bucky here, about the little farm just outside the city. Steve looks at the goats again, not at anyone else, and not at the hut he hasn't gone into yet.

Bruce comes up beside him, pressing his shoulder gently into Steve's. "Any more chores need doing?"

Steve shakes his head.

"You planning to spend the night here?"

Steve shrugs, looks down, nods a little. He can't just leave this place empty and go sleep in the comfort of the palace's guest quarters.

"Good, well, it's a nice night, plenty of room," Bruce says easily.

Steve looks over at him, and then sees Rhodey standing just a little way off, looking up at the sky with an expression Steve can't read, or maybe just doesn't want to.

Tony's out there somewhere, or at least he was.

"Rhodey? Have you heard..."

Rhodey keeps his gaze up, the starlight falling blue on his face. He shakes his head. "Talked to Pepper, but. No word."

Steve nods and looks away again. "I, uh... if you guys want to camp out, I'll... I can go get..." Steve waves toward Bucky's hut and trails off, starting toward it without bothering to explain. He'll drag out the big sleeping mat he and Bucky usually used; there should be a spare or two that Bucky used for sleeping outside. Blankets, too, probably.

His mind goes blank when he pushes through the flap. The hut recognizes him; the lights come on, and Bucky's workaday old jeans and a grubby white shirt and his midnight blue scarf are all tossed over the chest where he keeps his clothes. This must be what he wore to look after the goats this morning, before he got dressed for the fight. If he'd put them in the laundry bag they'd be perfectly clan already, sterile, but he left them out, so.

Steve is on his knees next to the clothes chest with no memory of moving across the room. His hands are shaking as he picks up Bucky's scarf and he closes his eyes and holds the cloth just in front of his face, breathing in the faint scent of Bucky's sweat, as if he put his face to the crook of Bucky's neck.

The first sob to escape him doesn't make a noise, but it hurts, like a hard punch square in the center of his chest. He presses the cloth to his face, against his mouth, trying to muffle any sounds, to hide the sudden streaming tears.

Bucky is gone again. Steve failed him again. Failed everyone, but Bucky first. It's Bucky that this pain in his chest is for, these awful sobs jerking silently out of his lungs, squeezing through his constricted throat. He can't get enough air through the scarf but he doesn't want it, doesn't want anything from this world that hasn't got Bucky in it, that's half lost all over again. He can't keep doing this, can't keep getting up after losing everything and going on again.

He can't stop crying. He wants to; it hurts, and it's not helping anything, and he can't bear the thought of anyone seeing him fall apart like this, not when they're all holding it together. But every time he thinks he's got his breathing under control he opens his eyes and sees the ragged hem on Bucky's shirt or the deep blue of the scarf or he remembers the sound of Bucky's voice, the last word ringing in his ears. Steve?

So he just kneels there and lets it happen, lets the pain shake his body and steal his breath. He knows he'll still be alive when it lets go of him, and then he'll have to do something else. Have to go on, again, as he already has for hours. He'll have to live in this world where he finds himself.

The momentum is finally dwindling, even the pain in his chest dulling to an ache, when he becomes aware that he's not alone. He stills, and the person in the room with him scoots closer, pressing against his side and tilting her head against his shoulder.

Steve takes one hand away from Bucky's scarf and puts that arm around Natasha's shoulders. He turns the scarf, mopping his wet face, and says, almost normally, "Are--are Clint and--"

"All fine," Natasha says. "Medically. So far, at least. I think Thor was about to put Lila on the back of a goat, but, hey, what could go wrong there?"

Steve lets out a watery breath and folds up the scarf to hide the wettest parts, then thinks better of that and turns away from Natasha, spreading out the tear-stained scarf over Bucky's shirt and jeans again. It'll dry that way, and he won't have to wash it so soon.

He looks around for blankets and sleeping mats, which is why he came in to begin with, and then registers again that Natasha and Clint and the kids are here. It's dark, and he's tired, and... "Are you... you got rooms, didn't you?"

"We did," Natasha says, and leans into him again. "But we also got these neat beads that told us where you guys were, which seemed like a resource not to waste. We did bring our own bedding, if you're fretting about where to put everyone."

Steve looks toward where he and Bucky usually slept: right now it's just a clean-swept stretch of the floor. The big mat is neatly rolled up in a bundle against one wall, a blanket folded on top of it. The thought of unrolling it in here alone is sickening, and the thought of never sleeping on that mat, under that blanket, ever again, is almost worse.

He gets up and picks up the mat and the blanket, and finds the other mat and blankets. Natasha helps him carry the whole lot out, and they're just in time to see Thor standing surrounded by all the goats, who seem mesmerized by him. He's holding Little Nat, and Little Nat is holding out a chubby fistful of grass to the nearest goat. Little Nat is giggling, but there's no expression at all on Thor's face. The goat sticks its head out to take the grass in delicate little bites, and every other one of the goats continues to stare adoringly at Thor.

"That's... not normal," Steve says, blinking at the scene.

"He said he used to have goats? He sang something to them and they've all just been... doing that," Natasha says. "You were honestly the less unnerving option at that point."

Steve nods, still staring, and then tears his gaze away to see Clint returning, holding Lila's hand, from the direction of the hut that housed the bathroom facilities. Bruce is headed in that direction. Rhodey is standing a little distance away, apparently chatting with Rabbit, who seems to be interested in the exoskeleton that allows Rhodey to walk.

Steve wonders if the Wakandans could do better for him, and that reminds him of the sleeping mats. Steve looks around for a good flat patch of ground and then unrolls the mat over the grass, waving his left hand over it and hoping the bead he's got is good enough to make it work. He couldn't before; Bucky always had to make the bed.

But the familiar blue glow appears on the surface of the mat, and Steve glances toward Natasha again--and Rabbit and Rhodey, whose attention has been drawn by the glow--and shakes out Bucky's blanket, spreading it over the mat. It hovers in the air about two feet above the mat, perfectly smooth like a well-made bed, except that a light-blue t-shirt is draped over one corner.

Steve grabs the shirt, clutching it absurdly to his chest like he can hide it. He had forgotten that Bucky kept it after his last visit.

It smells like Bucky's blanket, like Bucky sleeping warm on a cool night. Steve takes a shaky step backward, gesturing vaguely to the bed. "You can--I'm just going to--"

Steve hurries away, past Bucky's hut to the privy hut a little way off. Bruce is coming the other way, and Steve nods vaguely to him and doesn't break stride. Steve makes quick use of the facilities, then strips off the shields from his arms and the whole top of half of his uniform. The undershirt beneath it reeks of stale sweat, so Steve strips that off as well, revealing the last remnants of bruises he'd long since stopped feeling. He washes from the waist up before he steps back out of the hut to finally take his boots off, dumping his gear in the grass for now.

His bare feet are an unspeakable relief; he feels half-naked and practically weightless without his boots, the grass soft and ticklish underfoot. Natasha comes down the path holding Little Nat, and Steve nods to her and then looks down at his shields and boots and jacket. He could gather it all up and bring it back to Bucky's hut, but having shed it he can't bring himself to take up the weight again. He pulls on the light blue t-shirt instead, which isn't precisely clean but only smells like sleep and Bucky's bed, and then he heads back to the others.

More beds have been set up to either side of the one Steve used to share with Bucky, and Steve feels a sick pang at the thought that they're going to leave him that double-width space all to himself. But there's all sorts of to and fro as everyone strips down enough to sleep and attends to whatever hygiene they care about. The goats are still trailing everywhere after Thor, including to the privy and back, and Steve asks him, "You think they should be penned up for the night?"

Thor glances back at the herd of goats as though he'd forgotten they were there, and then shrugs. "They are not much less hardy than we, are they? If we can sleep under the stars, so can they."

Steve leaves it at that; Thor is obviously closer to being an expert on goats than he is, and Wakandan goats are probably more like Asgardian goats than anything else.

By then everyone is choosing places on the beds; Rhodey sits down carefully and takes the braces off his legs, then scoots back to stretch out. He has a baffled but pleased look on his face, so Steve guesses that the sleeping mat is easier on him than a regular bed.

Rabbit flops down beside Rhodey, nearer to Bucky's bed, and heaves a sigh of relief as well as he wriggles around. Thor settles beside him, taking easily half of Bucky's bed, and that makes it easy enough for Steve to claim the other half. Clint and Natasha are getting the kids settled between them on the mats on the other side, so Natasha is on Steve's other side, while Bruce takes the furthest spot, past Rhodey.

There's some shuffling and shifting as everyone gets used to the sleeping mats--even Steve has to reacclimate after weeks of hotel beds since his last visit. He thinks of what Sam would say if he were bedding down here, after the last two years of bitching about every hotel mattress in Europe; he can hear the tone of Sam's voice but can't quite settle on the words.

He looks over at Natasha to find her looking back, offering him a sad, understanding smile, and Steve reaches for her hand on impulse. She scoots a little closer, or he does, and on his other side Thor shifts over with a low laugh at Rabbit's grumbling. He can feel their warmth, the solidity of their familiar bodies on either side, and finally, with this impossible day done, Steve dares to look up at the dizzying profusion of stars.

Despite everything, they're still there, so beautiful they take his breath away. Far below them, with the people he loves most of all who are still in this world around him, he breathes in again, and out, and in, and he does not stop.