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Starborn

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Part I

The sudden absence of battle sounds hit Steve first. What happened to the alien army? How did it get so quiet? Like the very earth felt the loss, greater even than he did.

Thor stood nearby looking down at the large axe he held, also too stunned to do more than stand in shock. It had been a hopeful moment, when Thor appeared. Even with how things ended, Steve was grateful.

Steve couldn’t look at the spot where Bucky stood a moment ago. It was incomprehensible, and his mind simply skipped over it, but he felt a pressure building somewhere deep in his chest. Steve knelt beside Vision’s body, too stunned to do more than collapse onto the ground. Behind him Rhodes was asking for answers.

Natasha made a soft noise and he looked at her, filled with relief to see her alive and beside him, until their eyes met. From their years together, he didn’t have to ask the question she answered with only the horror-filled pain that glazed her eyes.

Sam?

No. Gone. Barnes?

He shook his head.

Gone.

Darkness crowded the edge of his world. Both Sam and Bucky gone. And Wanda. And who else? The loss was overwhelming, threatening to drown out even the silence. Then a keening started, from somewhere near the battleground, giving voice to his heart.

The beautiful voice joined with others, and Steve felt less alone. It was both a comfort and a horror because he realized, all of a sudden, as if they hadn’t kept saying it over and over again -- he can do it with just a snap of his fingers, half the universe, gone -- that his loss wasn’t a private pain. It wasn’t just his friends, his family. It wasn’t just those who died in battle. It wasn’t just the people of Wakanda. It was every city, every country across the globe, the entire planet. Every planet, every galaxy, the whole universe. It hadn’t hit him until that moment. The magnitude. “Oh, God.”

He struggled to breathe, his chest squeezing tight. He felt the serum rev into action, healing his many small wounds. It couldn’t heal this though, so what good was it?

The sun shone, faintly green through the leaves. Bucky had texted him constantly during the last year after they brought him out of cryo, about how beautiful Wakanda was, how lovely it was here. The trees, Steve. The light, you gotta come and see the light.

It certainly was beautiful, even on this day. Steve raised his eyes to the canopy of leaves. The keening continued.

He heard someone approach and looked up to see Thor. Steve couldn’t take his eyes off him. Thor set his axe down to kneel beside him. “Breathe,” he said to Steve.

Steve’s eyes smarted. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath, his chest both threatened to explode and threatened to cave in on itself. He breathed in, squeezed Thor’s forearm as hard as he could, his lungs inflating, sucking in air. Thor was unyielding and solid and reassuring. He hadn’t notice Thor’s mismatched eyes before.

“What happened to your eye?” he asked, without thinking.

“A long story,” said Thor, taking hold of Steve until they both stood. Steve didn’t want to let go. It was such a relief to have Thor there. “A story worthy of telling. But first, we have work to do.”

Leaves fell softly with the breeze, and Steve took another breath. He smelled life. All around. So much life, Steve. You can’t believe.

Thor was watching him, waiting.

“This isn’t over,” said Steve.

The axe snapped into Thor’s hand. “No it isn’t.” He gripped Steve’s shoulder hard enough to bruise. “Come, brother,” he said, and his voice cracked, his mismatched eyes shining.

Thor’s anger and pain mirrored Steve’s own, and it gave him strength. He didn’t know how. He didn’t much believe. But they had to try. You get killed, you walk it off.

With Thor by his side, he turned to Natasha, and then faced Rhodes and Bruce and the others that were filtering in through the trees.

*

Steve learned the talking raccoon’s name was Rocket, as he become increasingly agitated. “I have to find Quill,” he said over and over again, beginning to freak out. “I have to find the other Guard--” he abruptly stopped, frozen mid-sentence.

It was strange to see such pain and emotion in a raccoon’s eyes, the shock settling in. Steve understood enough of the situation to know that Rocket’s friends were another team, out there in space, and that they had been fighting Thanos, too.

Steve turned to Thor. “Do you think his friends are still…” He couldn’t finish his question. Is that how it would be? A series of un-finished questions, everyone too afraid to receive the answer. “Tony is… was--” He took a breath. “Tony is out there, too. He was taken, on one of those circular alien ships.”

They had gathered on the battlefield. The keening continued, now sung by all the Wakandan army. Those who remained of the king’s guard and the Dora Milaje stirred into action, gathering and subduing what remained of the alien army. Bruce exited the hulkbuster suit and began treating the wounded. They had won this battle, but lost so much more. Steve couldn’t see T’Challa anywhere, and he turned sharply to Natasha who sadly shook her head.

Thor gripped his shoulder, bringing Steve’s focus back to him. “I will take Rabbit, and discover the fate of the other Morons. And Stark, too, and anyone else…” he paused. “And I will return.”

“Thor, wait,” said Steve, pretending like that sentence made any sense, but when Thor turned to look at him he didn’t know what to say. Thor needed to leave. If there was even a chance that Tony lived, they had to find him, and the Parker kid as well. And they needed reinforcements. But Thor had only just returned, and he was leaving again. “Your people. Asgard, can they help?”

He saw the light leave Thor’s face. Steve couldn’t get used to Thor’s eyes. “Asgard is destroyed,” said Thor, flatly, but his jaw muscles clenched. “My people are…they cannot help. My father is dead. And Thanos killed Loki.”

“What?” said Steve, startled, horrified. But, he understood now why Thor looked so changed, and he didn’t just mean his hair and his eyes. In all the years Steve had known him, he’d seen Thor angry, happy or sad, but consistently robust and bursting with good health and godly immortality. He’d never seen him tired, not like this.

Thor stared into the distance. “I failed here,” he said. “I alone could have stopped Thanos, and I failed.”

Steve shook his head. “Thor, there’s no failure. This isn’t something you fail at. You have to… stand back up again. Even if you think you can’t. You get back up. You fight back. There’s no failure. There’s no time for that. And if we’re going to beat him, we do it together. No man can do it alone.”

Thor studied him and his face softened, losing some of the etched in pain and regret. “So says the captain,” he said, with a bow of his head and a small smile. “I’ll take your words with me, my friend.”

He pulled Steve into a hard bruising embrace that squeezed the air out of Steve’s lungs, before he gathered Rocket up and onto his shoulder. Thor raised his axe into the air, and locked eyes with Steve. “I will return,” he said before disappearing into a blaze of rainbow light.

~~

It was a series of shocks, one right after another.

The Wakandans not only lost their king but the Princess Shuri as well. Steve watched the queen mother, tall and regal even under the crushing weight of her loss. She stood before the warrior M’Baku, with General Okoye beside her, and went down to her knees. “You are king now.”

A breeze blew through the plaza courtyard where they stood, the surrounding buildings mostly undamaged by the battle. The sky was the same unyielding blue, slowly darkening into evening. “No,” said M’Baku, and he took both her hands in his, lifting her up.

The queen cupped his face and shook her head, taking hold of him. “You must take the crown,” she insisted. “For Wakanda.”

M’Baku struggled but then nodded and he stood straighter, turning to Okoye. “Will you assist these outsiders?” he asked, indicating where Steve stood with Natasha and Rhodes. Bruce was still helping the wounded. “I will see to the people.”

“Yes, my king,” she said, proudly but with tears.

They followed the General into the palace, through several corridors until they entered what Steve quickly understood to be the Wakandan version of a situation room. The technology was unfamiliar, to say the least, but Natasha was a quick study, and soon she and Okoye were pulling up data streams from across the globe.

Natasha tried contacting Nick Fury, and then tried to reach Maria Hill, but couldn’t get through to either, her green eyes locked on Steve’s as she tried calling Nick again. Ice-cold dread bit hard into Steve’s spine. He didn’t want to jump to the worst conclusion, but there was no avoiding the most likely reason they couldn’t reach either.

Rhodes also tried his contacts, getting intermittent success. No one knew what was going on. Most of the world had only just begun to realize there had been another alien attack at all let alone that half the population was gone. Steve began combing through the news reports.

Two planes had crashed mid-air, most others making emergency landings. All air flight was suspended. There were unconfirmed reports that the President of the United States was missing, and they couldn’t verify the location of the Vice President. A Chinese news program began listing each country with missing rulers, major accidents, rioting.

“We have to get back,” he said, watching news footage of a subway collision in New York City, everyone standing around dazed, while in Washington D.C. a fire burned through parts of Capitol Hill. “Get a team together. Start forming a plan.”

“Steve,” said Rhodes, frustrated. “What can possibly be done now? Thanos is gone. We don’t know where he is, or how to get there even if we did. Tony’s gone. Thor’s gone.”

“Thor said he’d return. We should be ready for him. And I don’t know,” said Steve, equally frustrated. “But I know we have to do something, and that’s not going to happen with us standing around in shock.”

He could see that Rhodes wanted to argue, but there was really nothing else for them to do. They could stay in Wakanda where at least they knew they’d be welcomed, but Steve was reluctant to put more demands on…he thought of T’Challa, and shut down that thinking. “I’m going back, even if I have to go alone.”

Rhodes sighed, and rolled his eyes. “All right, man. I’m with you.”

Natasha didn’t bother to answer Steve -- she hadn’t been speaking much at all -- but merely locked her weapons in place.

“When do we leave?” asked Okoye, who had been watching them closely.

Steve turned to her. “General, your people need you here.”

She raised her hand to politely cut him off. “When the king asked that I assist you, what he meant was I go with you and do whatever can be done to return our people whole, if that is possible, if there is any chance. So, if that means, if you plan to go after this Thanos, then, I go where you go.”

He studied her, then nodded. “Well, I have no doubt we could use you. Thank you.”

She nodded back.

“Wheels up in an hour,” he said. “Let’s get what we need.”

An hour later two separate jets rose into the air, the General and three more of the Dora Milaje opting to fly in their own jet separate from the Avengers. The jets moved in tandem, soaring higher.

The flight back seemed longer than before. No one spoke, Rhodes busying himself with flying the jet while Bruce and Natasha avoided each other awkwardly. Bruce sat in a corner, his head in his hands.

Steve approached Natasha, more than a little worried about her. “Hey,” he said, trying to smile when she looked up. Everything he normally would have said or asked in a moment like this seemed ludicrous now. How are you feeling? What’s going on? He knew what was going on. He knew what she was feeling. So he stood nearby, swaying closer to her with the too familiar jet turbulence. After a moment, she took his hand, and held on tight.

“I got a hold of Clint,” she said, speaking just loud enough to be heard over the quinjet engines. “He’s coming in.”

Hope surged, and he felt a real burst of relief and happiness that Barton was still alive. “Oh my God, that’s great.”

She gave him a tight smile and nodded, but her eyes were haunted and they just about killed him when he saw her pain. “Laura’s gone, though. And so are the kids.”

Another gut punch, leaving him breathless. Would they end? He knew she loved those kids, and gently pulled her closer until she pressed her forehead against his chest, her hands gripping into his uniform for support. He cupped the back of her head, carding his fingers through her hair. He didn’t notice her blonde hair anymore, although when she’d first changed it, it had taken him weeks to get used to it. He looked up and caught Bruce watching, but Bruce skidded his eyes away.

A few hours later, they landed at Avengers Headquarters, meeting up with Okoye and the other Dora Milaje who land their jet on the next pad over.

What staff remained on premises watched their procession through the building, no one speaking until one man Steve vaguely remembered from before ran up to Rhodes. “Sir. Secretary Ross...” he started. “He’s ordered us to…”

Rhodes glanced at Steve, but no one stopped walking until they got to the conference room. Ross’s hologram turned as they entered, eyeing each of them in turn. “So,” he started. “Here you all are.”

“Mr. Secretary, sir. What’s the status?” asked Rhodes.

“The status?” asked Ross, turning casually away and wandering around the room in his holographic form. “The status, colonel, is that the President, Vice President, and the Speaker of the House are all missing. I’m being sworn in, in an hour. That’s the status.”

Beside Steve, he heard Bruce say, “Oh God,” softly. Steve wasn’t surprised at this point, but it was a hard blow.

“I’m sorry,” said Rhodes.

“I’ll need a full report on whatever the hell you all did to get us into this mess,” said Ross. “But first,” and he made a gesture, looking beyond where they stood to the guards entering the floor. “In my capacity as President, I’m having Captain Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Bruce Banner arrested.”

The Dora Milaje stepped in front of Steve and Natasha, poised to start fighting. Despite their show of force, the security guards hesitated. There used to be several guards on staff, but there was only two now. Bruce looked aghast, shocked. Rhodes raised his voice, trying to speak to Ross, but Ross was yelling at the guards, ordering them to obey.

Steve turned to the image of Ross’s hologram. “You’re seriously going to arrest us? Now? There’s rioting in the streets, and you waste time and energy and resources going after us? These men could be in the city saving lives right now.”

“We wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for you,” said Ross, and Steve bit back his anger. “This is your fault, and you’re going to answer for it. Arrest them.”

The men hesitated again. They knew, even if Ross didn’t, that they couldn’t hope to detain Captain America or Black Widow, not to mention their fear of approaching Bruce.

In the beat of silence that followed, Okoye stepped forward. She hadn’t reacted when Ross gave his order for the arrest, letting her guards stand to protect Steve. “Excuse me,” she said, and for the first time since they had entered the room, Ross rested his eyes on her, looking her up and down. “I am General Okoye, and I am here as a representative of the Kingdom of Wakanda. This man,” she said, indicating Steve, “is a citizen of Wakanda, and a diplomat, and therefore protected under diplomatic immunity. And so is Miss Romanoff. I have the papers, should you need them.”

No one spoke. Steve, as shocked as everyone else, took in a breath, and watched Ross digest this new twist. He could see Ross thinking it through, weighing his options. Since T’Challa had opened Wakanda to the rest of the world, serious trade negotiations had begun between Wakanda and the United States. It would not look good for the Secretary, if he messed that up.

Ross’s hologram approached Steve. “You think you have it all figured out, don’t you?” he asked. “Arrest them anyway. We’ll sort it out later.”

The Dora Milaje, Natasha, and Rhodes all reacted, ready to fight, but before anyone on either side could make a move, lightning poured in, causing the security guards to be thrown backward. Rainbow-colored light filled the room from above, the Bifrost depositing Thor holding Tony, Rocket riding his shoulders, and someone new, a woman with multi-colored blue skin and jet-black eyes.

Thor let go of Tony, who barely managed to stand on his own. His eyes were white lightning, and lightning sparked in all directions, wrapped around him and around his axe.

“Have I returned at a bad time?” he asked, without humor. “You humans never cease to amaze me.” Most of the lightning subsided, but his eyes remained white fire. Thor squeezed Steve’s shoulder as he walked toward Ross’s hologram. “That you continue to treat your champions with disdain and distrust. If you don’t stop that, it will be your undoing.”

Ross, thrown off his game once again, tried to stand up straighter. “Are you threatening us?”

Thor paused, then said, “Yes.”

“You have no authority here,” said Ross. “You have no rights.”

Tony stumbled forward. “Um,” he said, “Hi. Hi there. Hello everyone. Mr. Secretary. If I can just have a moment, if you don’t mind? Let me put you--”

“Tony, no!” said Ross, forcibly, like he was scolding his dog.

“Put you on hold. Just for a sec,” said Tony, making a quick hand gesture. Ross, still loudly protesting, suddenly disappeared as a voice overhead said in a cool tone, “Call on Hold.”

Everyone stared at each other, too stunned to speak. Thor’s lightning show ended and he looked like himself again. Then Tony clutched his side and made a small noise of pain. Steve took hold of his arm, guiding him to a chair. “Tony, you’re hurt.”

“Hey Cap,” he said. “Good to see you.”

“What happened?” asked Steve, looking from Tony, to Thor, to the blue woman, then back around again, trying to get a look at Tony’s wound. “How bad is it?”

“Well,” said Tony, meeting Steve’s eyes. “Not sure where to start.”

Then, a noise came from behind and they all turned. As a final surprise, Clint Barton stood framed by the hallway. “I’m here,” he said. “Got here as soon as I could.”

Natasha rushed forward and into his arms, and then Steve and Thor, and finally Bruce helping Tony, went to him and the six original Avengers stood together for the first time in too many years.

*

Nebula, daughter of Thanos, told them where Thanos was most likely to be found, on a lonely planet in a distant galaxy. Rocket contacted everyone he knew, which was a lot of different people across the universe, and told them where to go, from the Ravagers to the Nova Corps to The Sovereign, and they each in turn told everyone they knew, and so on. Thor rallied the forces of the Nine Realms, even the Jotenheim, and with Stormbreaker brought the Avengers joined by the Dora Milaje, Carol Danvers, and anyone else brave enough to fight, right to Thanos’s doorstep. Only Rhodes remained on Earth, one Avenger to protect it.

They fought hard, but Thanos was impossible to beat. But, he didn’t use the full power of the Stones again, and Steve thought he must be afraid of it. Only Steve and Thor could get close enough, fighting through shifting reality, the ravages of pure power, through the changing landscape of time, until even Thanos needed a break.

“You think you can wear the gauntlet? You’re all fools. None of you have the strength. I have half a mind to let you try,” said Thanos, facing Thor. “Just for the pleasure of watching it drive you insane.”

His words were met with a heavy silence. A breeze whistled past, like a song. This planet had a fuchsia-tinged sky similar to an Earth sunrise, a jeweled landscape. Steve wanted to turn to Bucky and say, “Hey Buck, check it out. We’re on a different planet. We’re light years from Earth. Look at us.” But he couldn’t do that.

“Sanity is a small price to pay,” said Thor, gripping his axe.

Steve sensed his fellow Avengers nearby. Tony’s injury wouldn’t heal and Bruce couldn’t change, so they fought together, as did Natasha and Clint. All around, on this singular and strange world they found themselves on for the final battle, he saw warriors and fighters at the end of their strength, but they fought as one. Steve locked eyes with Thor, and then started to circle around Thanos.

“Maybe we’re stronger than you think, the whole of us together,” said Steve, speaking to Thanos but with his eyes on Thor. “None of us are afraid to die for our friends.”

“That’s very noble,” said Thanos. “And you’ve certainly proved that.”

“You still don’t understand,” said Steve walking with the last of his strength, timing his words, lifting his gaze to his fellow Avengers. All six surrounded Thanos. “The difference between taking, and giving.”

Without another word, Steve charged, leaping on Thanos from behind in a chokehold, taking hold of the gauntlet. He expected Thanos to use the Stones again, but managed to hold the gauntlet open. Tony, Natasha, Bruce and Clint rushed forward to help. Thanos tried to throw him off, but all Steve had to do was twist Thanos’s head to the side long enough. Thor yielded Stormbreaker, and he cleaved through Thanos from neck to chest, nearly severing his arm. A shock of power, like a sound wave, threw them back, and the gauntlet fell from Thanos with a clunk to the ground.

There was a hushed silence. Even the breeze grew still. Thor approached the gauntlet and picked it up. It was too large for him, and damaged, but as he put his fist inside, it shrank to fit. Steve held his breath. Natasha, Tony, Bruce and Clint all stood with him. Nothing happened.

A dry laughter started. Thanos, still alive somehow although his head and left shoulder hung awkwardly from his body. “The soul stone requires a sacrifice before you can use it. You must kill someone you love. Whom will you choose?” asked Thanos, his voice garbled, trying to stand up. He almost fell again but managed to find balance, his head askew.

“Whom will you choose?” he asked again, and this time his voice reverberated, echoing through the valley and across the battlefield. It carried the weight of the Infinity Stones behind it. It wasn’t Thanos speaking anymore, but something else, something greater.

Thor looked from the gauntlet on his hand, the metal smoking and charred. It didn’t look like it would hold together for long. They might only have one chance at this, one chance to reverse the snap and fix what Thanos had done.

The soul stone required a sacrifice. Of someone you loved.

Thor lifted his gaze, and his eyes met Steve’s. Steve let out a breath, and felt every inch of his body relax. He nodded. It felt right, and it felt true. This was it. Thor’s eyes glimmered, and then they shifted from Steve to where Natasha stood -- she who never left his side. And then, Thor looked to where Tony stood, and Bruce, and Clint.

Steve was ready, he would be the one. Tony would have done it. Neither Natasha nor Clint would have hesitated for a moment. But it was Bruce who stepped forward.

“Hey guys,” said Bruce, just above a whisper. “Do what you can to hold him back, all right? And I love you.” He looked first to Natasha, and then to each of them. “All of you. Remember that.”

At first, Steve didn’t understand. What did he mean, hold him back? Hold who back? But as Bruce walked forward, changing fluidly into the Hulk, he understood all too well.

“Bruce?” asked Tony, with fear and alarm. “What are you doing? No. No no, come back here.”

Tony’s helmet swiftly covered his face, his thrusters started, but Steve and Natasha and Clint grabbed him. “Tony,” said Steve. “He’s made his choice.”

“No,” yelled Tony, fighting to get free. Even with three of them holding Tony they barely managed. “Bruce,” he said, his mask disappearing, “You bastard.”

But Bruce was gone, and there was only Hulk. Steve looked down at Natasha. She turned away, hiding her face.

The Hulk stood in front of Thor who gazed at him. The others, Rocket and Okoye, Nebula, and everyone else, gathered around, each holding their breath. In the sky above them, ships hovered nearby. Everyone was watching. The light stung Steve’s eyes.

“Hulk go,” said Hulk to Thor, a big fist to his chest.

Thor shook his head, smiling and crying. “No, my friend. No. Thor go. Hulk stay.”

Hulk rested his big hand on Thor’s shoulder, shaking him, bring him in for a crushing hug. “Thor stay. Hulk go.” He held Thor in his large hands so he could look at him. “Do it,” he said.

Tony continued to yell, struggling against Steve and Natasha and Clint. Through tears, Thor kept shaking his head, holding on to Hulk’s enormous arms.

“I must go,” said Hulk, lifting Thor’s face up. “Big monster.”

Thor laughed, a pained laugh, and then he nodded and pushed Hulk away. It was the action that was needed.

Hulk turned once more to face the Avengers. “Friends,” he said, to each of them. Then, with a mighty roar, he charged at Thanos, reaching for Stormbreaker where it had fallen. In that moment, by the grace of his sacrifice, Hulk was able to lift the axe. He swung it hard, slicing through Thanos at the same time that Thanos cut through Hulk’s neck.

The two huge bodies fell, shaking the ground, and then were still. The fight went out of Tony, and he slumped in Steve’s arms, pulling away. Everyone else held their breath, all eyes on Thor. Thor closed his left fist. There was a blinding light, bursting through his body, cracking his skin open. The light grew and grew, until everything was white and still and gone.

When Steve opened his eyes again, the sky was clear of pink clouds, and the flower-scented breeze returned. Steve picked himself off the ground where he had fallen, and then turned to help Natasha stand. Clint was grunting beside him.

“Steve?”

Steve whipped his head around and saw Bucky standing there, looking really confused. “Oh my God, Bucky,” said Steve.

Nearby, Sam got up from the ground, brushing off dirt, looking around at their surroundings. “Anyone mind tell me what the hell is going on?” asked Sam.

They did it. He did it. Steve hugged Bucky, and then he clung to Sam. With a smile he stepped aside so that Natasha could hug Sam but she stood transfixed, staring at the spot where the Hulk had fallen. And then he saw Wanda, who was smiling but also looking around with searching eyes. “Where’s Vision?” she asked.

Steve’s relief and happiness stuttered to a grinding halt. Thor hadn’t moved from where he stood. Tony and Natasha walked to where the two bodies of Thanos and Hulk lay. But it wasn’t Hulk anymore. In death, he’d changed back to Bruce.

Everyone was silent as they watched Tony kneel beside Bruce’s body. He looked up at Thor and said, “Bring him back.”

Thor’s eyes were white with lightning again, and he glowed from the inside, pulsing with power as if he might turn entirely into a ball of lightning, and then that’s all he would be.

“Thor,” said Tony, insisting. “Bring him back. You have the gauntlet. You can do it. Bring him back.”

Thor looked from the damaged gauntlet to Tony, then back to the gauntlet. The metal was charred and smoking, broken in places and cracked.

“Thor,” yelled Tony, more desperate. “Look at me. You bring him back. Thor!”

Had Thor grown bigger? Taller? He seemed suddenly enormous, larger than before. A trick of the light, but Steve realized that within him, Thor contained the entire power of the cosmos. In that moment, he could do whatever he wanted, be whatever he wanted. Would he become like Thanos? Would he remake the universe as he saw fit? Everyone watched in fear, wondering what would happen next. Had they escaped Thanos, only to fall to another tyrant?

Steve stepped forward, gravel crunching under his feet. Thor turned his attention from Tony to him. It was difficult to know if their eyes met, but Steve knew Thor was looking at him, he could feel it like the sun on his face.

Perhaps using the mind stone, Thor spoke to him.

Are you afraid of me? The others are afraid.

Steve shook his head. No.

Thor sighed. The line of tension in his shoulders relaxed. I have to make a terrible choice. The stones require a sacrifice.

“Then you better make it,” he said, out loud.

Thor, more god than man, nodded.

“What are you doing?” asked Tony, looking from Steve to Thor. “Come on. Bring him back!” He stood, his suit closing around him, but then a tall man with piercing blue eyes and a fiery cape -- he could only be Dr. Strange -- stepped into his path. With one look from him, the fight went out of Tony. “Don’t do this,” he begged, but he turned away.

Thor didn’t answer. Instead, he seemed to lift into the air, raising his left arm with the gauntlet. He cried out in terrible pain and closed his fist. The gauntlet and the stones shattered in an explosion to rival the big bang.

There was one suspended moment when everything stopped, one entirely frozen second when the universe was put on hold. Then Steve breathed in with a gasp, as if he hadn’t been breathing before. Sound snapped back into existence with a loud POP.

Steve shook his head to clear it. Around him, everyone looked dazed, stumbling around trying to find their balance.

Thor was on the ground, heaving into the dirt. Steve crouched beside him. The skin of Thor’s left hand and arm was blackened. Then it changed from charred to an almost gold and then to a rainbow hue. He looked into Thor’s mismatched eyes as his hand changed once more into the lightly tanned skin that matched the rest of him.

“Where’s the gauntlet?” asked Tony.

With a sigh, Thor answered. “Destroyed,” he said, his voice rough. “The gauntlet was at its end. I had to choose. Use it to destroy the Infinity Stones, or…” he didn’t end his sentence. “The Infinity Stones would have consumed us. All of us. I had to put an end to it.”

“You could have brought him back,” said Tony, but there was no fight in him anymore.

“I’m sorry,” said Thor, and Steve could see he was entirely aware that those words were not enough, and they would never be enough.

Steve understood. The snap had been reversed, but everyone Thanos had killed before and after wouldn’t be coming back. Natasha held Wanda, who hid her face with her hair.

No one spoke. One by one the spaceships overhead vanished. Steve noticed that Rocket and Nebula were reunited with the other Guardians, but the tall human-looking man with them was crying, inconsolable. The Parker kid hovered near Tony, who wouldn’t leave Bruce’s side.

Nebula walked over, looking murderous and filled with fury. Steve braced for a fight, but she merely stared at Thanos’s body and then spit on it, before kneeling to tear a piece of his armor off for herself, apparently as a trophy. She looked at Tony, and then at everyone else. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said.

Tony covered his face, unable to answer, so Steve answered for him. “And we’re sorry for yours. You have our thanks.”

She nodded, her movements jerky, as if her mechanical parts weren’t working quite right. Beside him, Bucky stared at her with wonder. She returned to the Guardians, moving in their own family unit back to their waiting ship.

One by one everyone left until those from Earth were the last standing on the planet. Eventually, Tony stood up. The Dora Milaje, with a returned T’Challa, carried Bruce. Dr. Strange neatly disposed of Thanos. And then there was nothing left to do but return to Earth. The remaining Avengers assembled, but they would never be six together again.

~~

With a quiet word to Thor, Steve asked they be returned first to Wakanda. He felt it only right that T’Challa be reunited with his people, and with T’Challa’s assistance in diplomacy, maybe he and the others could approach the U.S. government in a way that didn’t end up with everyone arrested the moment they landed in Avenger’s headquarters.

The rush of the Bifrost left them huddled together in the center of the palace courtyard, a beautiful Wakandan morning blessing the land with the sun rising over the mountains. Steve watched the queen mother emerge from the palace, stately and serene but with her face full of surprised joy. She cried when T’Challa took her in his arms, the Princess Shuri squished between them and the warrior M’Baku beaming from the side, clapping T’Challa hard enough to send him reeling sideways.

They placed Bruce on a force field protected gurney, under a shroud, the gurney hovering over the ground. Tony sat on one side of him, and Thor sat on the other side, neither willing to leave.

Dr. Strange moved his hand in a circle, and a portal appeared. He disappeared through it without a word but returned a few minutes later with Laura Barton and Clint’s children. Clint had to sit down in the middle of the courtyard, tears streaming down his face, trying to hold all three of his kids at once. Natasha hugged Laura, and then took the girl, Lila, into her arms and held on tightly.

Dr. Strange disappeared for a second and third time, returning first with May Parker and a boy named Ned, and then again with Nick Fury and Maria Hill.

Even Bucky had his reunion, several Wakandan children running up to him yelling, “The White Wolf returns!” They hugged him and tried to climb all over him, chattering in a mixture of Xhosa and English. Bucky smiled bemusedly, still inherently cautious but letting them play.

Apparently finished with his tasks, Dr. Strange approached Steve. “I’ll be leaving now,” he said. “It’s time I returned to the Sanctum. God only knows what Wong’s been up to in my absence.” He paused, looking to where Tony and Thor sat with the body that lay between them. Dr. Strange struggled for a moment, his gaze lingering over Tony like he wanted to say something, but then changed his mind.

He nodded at Steve. “Goodbye. I’m sure our paths will cross again,” he said, then opened another portal and stepped through.

Steve turned to Sam and gave him a look. Sam lifted an eyebrow and shook his head, equally baffled. They shared that easy camaraderie they always had, and then it struck Steve, that he could do that. It was that simple. He could turn and find Sam right there, by his side the way he had been from pretty much the moment they’d met. He thought, God, what a privilege, to have Sam beside him like he always was. The reality of the last several weeks came crushing down on him.

“Oh, hey,” said Sam, taking hold of Steve. “Come on now, man. You gotta hold it together for me. We’re in Wakanda. We got royals and stuff looking at us.”

“Sam,” said Steve, taking a breath. He wiped at his eyes, and before he could stop himself, he looked over at Thor. “You have no idea what it was like.”

“I guess I don’t,” said Sam, solemn-eyed. “And I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said, and tried to smile.

They continued to watch the various reunions, but Steve couldn’t get rid of the tinge of sadness that dampened the air like a mist. Nick and Maria convened with Carol Danvers, Clint and Natasha, and Steve felt he should go to them, start planning what their next steps would be, but he couldn’t make himself move too far from where Thor and Tony kept their vigil.

Tony either hadn’t seen or chose to ignore Bucky’s presence, keeping his head down while he kept one hand on the gurney. Steve noticed Thor opening and closing his left fist.

Eventually, Princess Shuri approached Tony. “Mr. Stark. If you would come with me? We will make sure he is honored. And I can see to your wounds.”

Tony flicked his gaze at Steve and Thor, and then nodded to Shuri. In a solemn procession, he walked unaided next to the gurney that carried Bruce into the palace.

Thor didn’t go with them. He stood and gazed at the sky as if he intended to open the Bifrost and leave, but instead with shining eyes he smiled at Steve before turning to greet Maria and Nick.

“My people will be here in a day or two,” said Thor, looking again at the sky.

“Your people?” asked Steve. “They’re coming here?”

He nodded. “We are homeless now. When Thanos sought the Tesseract, he killed half my people, before he killed Loki, and Heimdall. The remaining Asgardians escaped. They’re under the care of someone I trust. I sent them here, but it takes time, to travel that distance. They should be here tomorrow, or maybe the day after.”

Steve digested this bit of information, wondering what Earth was going to do with a shipload of Asgardian refugees needing to be re-homed. For a moment, he entertained thoughts of hosting the Asgardians at Avengers headquarters, trying to remember how many guest quarters they had.

Thor read Steve’s thoughts easily, and he smiled but shook his head. “No. That was my original plan, to seek refuge for Asgard here on Earth. I think my father would have wanted that.” Thor gazed out to the Wakandan landscape that still bore marks from the recent battle. “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people. But,” and he turned back to Steve, shook his head again. “I’m not sure that’s a good plan anymore.”

Steve swallowed. “So what will you do?” he asked.

Thor shrugged. “Search for a new home. My people are resourceful. We’ll find a way. But we could use Earth’s help. We have nothing. We need raw materials -- food, even livestock, if it can be spared.”

Steve spoke to T’Challa. Arrangements were made, and a stockpile of goods began to collect in the courtyard. Thor explained that what Asgard really needed were genetic samples, for easier transport. “We are traveling in small ships, there isn’t a lot of space. And there’s no telling how long it’ll be before we find a home.”

With Shuri’s help, cryo pods filled with genetic material for flora and fauna -- land, sea, and air -- and anything else they could think of that could be of use were added to the stockpile, including technology, farming equipment, weapons, tools.

It began to dawn on Steve, what this meant, that Thor would be leaving, maybe even for good this time.

In the morning, three ships entered Earth’s orbit. With the world still recovering, there was a collective, “oh God, not again” that rippled through everyone, but it became quickly apparent that these were friendlies and not any threat. Only one of the ships landed, a multi-colored circular vessel, setting down neatly in the busy Wakandan courtyard, hissing with the hydraulic release of landing gear.

The remaining Avengers, except for Tony, gathered around Thor, as did T’Challa and a few of the Dora Milaje, and Nick and Maria.

A woman emerged from the ship, her dark hair flowing over light colored armor and a jeweled blue cape. “Your Majesty,” she said with a hint of a smirk at Thor when he walked up to greet her. But the smirk disappeared when she looked more closely at his face.

“Valkyrie,” he said, “These are my friends, the Avengers. Valkyrie is…” and he paused. “She is the fiercest warrior, and protector of Asgard.”

The woman rolled her eyes, but she accepted everyone’s introductions with a funny hand wave. A moment later, a large, blueish creature made from rocks emerged from the ship. Everyone sort of stared, until the rock man caught sight of Thor, and cried out happily, “Oh look, new Doug, you’re alive,” and then bent to hug Thor in what looked like a very painful embrace.

Thor said his rock friend’s name was Korg. He, and a few other Asgardians began loading up the ship with the stockpiled goods. Korg kept breaking off pieces of himself to give as presents to the Wakandan children, and to Barton’s kids. “There you go,” he said. “Take care of those for me. Stay out of trouble. Don’t do drugs.”

Soon, the ship was loaded, and Korg and the other Asgardians disappeared inside. Valkyrie waited by the ship at a respectful distance, as Thor stood in front of the Avengers.

“My friends,” said Thor. “It is time I said goodbye.”

“Why do I get the sense we’ll never see you again?” said Natasha, her arms folded across her chest.

In the morning sun, Thor seemed to shed some of his sorrow, and he smiled gently at her. “My people need me now, and you are all well able to defend and protect yourselves, far better than I can. Your troubles, from what I can see ahead, are those brought on by internal conflicts. I cannot help with those. But I promise, if any should threaten Earth, I will return and fight beside you. Always. You are under my protection, for whatever that’s worth. Come, let us part like family.”

Thor pulled Natasha in for a hug first, and then Clint. He paused then, because Tony hadn’t come down to say goodbye, so he looked up at the palace instead, nodding silently. He then shook hands with Sam and Bucky, Nick and Maria, and then the Wakandans who gathered. Finally, he turned to Steve.

Steve let himself be engulfed in Thor’s embrace, closing his eyes. He wasn’t prepared to say goodbye, but he knew Thor had to look after his own people. It would do Steve good, to think of Thor forging a new life for the Asgardians. He didn’t want to be selfish, wanting Thor to stay on Earth.

Thor cupped the back of Steve’s head, then turned his head so he could speak into his ear. “When you’re ready, brother,” he said, and this time his voice didn’t crack. “All you need do is say my name out loud. Remember.”

Then, he let Steve go, and turned to his ship and to the waiting Valkyrie. Steve wondered if he was the only one that noticed the tension Thor carried, the strain on his face, and the small crease of concern that appeared on Valkyrie’s face as she took his arm and they disappeared together into the ship.

A minute later, the ship rose gracefully into the air, rising to join the others, and then all three vanished into the morning sun.

~~

They called it the Thanos Generation.

All told, it had taken less than a month between the Snap and the Fall of Thanos, but the damage that month caused ran deep and wide and engulfing -- a cut so profound in humanity’s psyche that the psychological effects would not be fully understood for decades.

It was like an open fissure where, on one side stood all those that were left behind after the Snap, and on the other side stood those that were taken and then returned -- the left behind and the taken. For the taken, although weeks of relative time had passed between the Snap and the Fall of Thanos, to them it had been only mere moments of non-existence. Yet, the void of that non-existence crept into their lives: that they could be erased so easily, that life was this fragile layer of reality.

For the left behind, they had to live with the horror, with the unprocessed grief they couldn’t do anything with, because after all, those taken had come back -- it’s not like they were killed, it’s not like they had died and were gone forever. Get over it. Everything was fine now, wasn’t it?

Relationships suffered. Marriages collapsed. Friendships ended. Families combusted. Even business partnerships felt the effects. There was a noticeable uptick in substance abuse, mental illness, teenage pregnancies, petty violence. It affected the economy, Wall Street, international relations, the job market. Hollywood produced film after film, novels were written centered around the Snap with characters lost inside an existential crisis. Documentaries, non-fiction, news articles, conspiracy theories, religions, cults.

There were people who stood on bridges, on the rooftops of skyscrapers, staring into the void.

Steve noticed the ripple effect but was helpless to do anything about it, and he tried to stay removed from it even as he heard that Tony and Pepper called off their wedding, and that Clint and Laura had separated. The truth was he wasn’t immune either.

After the Fall of Thanos, T’Challa continued the process to provide sanctuary to Steve and Bucky, as well as to Sam and Natasha and Wanda as needed. Bucky Barnes became a citizen of Wakanda, protected by diplomatic immunity. He could travel, go on missions, do aid work. He could do anything he wanted. It opened the door for Rhodes to bring both Bucky and Sam onto the Avengers team. But Steve refused to take up the shield again.

“Are you sure about this?” he asked Bucky, trying to hide the panic he felt seeing Bucky settle into his own quarters at the Avengers compound in upstate New York.

“No,” said Bucky with an easy smile. “But it’s something to do, isn’t it?”

Steve turned away to stare out the window, his hands in his pockets. He hardly recognized headquarters anymore, with all the changes Tony kept making. Each time he’d left and come back, Tony had remodeled something else. It was constantly evolving.

“Hey Steve?” said Bucky, but Steve didn’t turn to look at him until Bucky touched his arm and he felt he had no choice. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m right here.”

Steve just stared at him, because that was a flat out lie. Bucky had been leaving him in one way or the another since 1943. But he kept coming back, Steve reminded himself. That’s what mattered, wasn’t it? Steve would always be there for Bucky, and he knew Bucky felt the same way, so Steve bottled up his panic and shoved it away.

It wasn’t any easier with Sam. If Steve wasn’t Captain America anymore, then someone had to be. It was with immeasurable pride that Steve bestowed the Captain America shield onto Sam, in a formal ceremony right there in the middle of the common room, lights flashing from the press photographers. “What is it you’re always saying?” he asked Sam.

“I do what you do, only slower,” answered Sam with a smile, reverently passing his fingers over the rim of the shield.

But as he observed Sam in his refitted new Captain America suit and wings speak with the press, Steve felt a pressure in his chest, a kind of quiet sorrow that had nothing to do with the fact that he would never hold that shield again. Because he knew now, the knowledge inescapable, what it felt like to live in a world without Sam or Bucky by his side. It left a thin, impenetrable, vibranium-like layer of sorrow between him and everyone he held dear.

The same thought returned -- the serum couldn’t heal this. So what good was it?

*

Five years after the fall of Thanos, Wanda’s powers began to change.

She developed startling abilities, able to affect reality and probability. She could take matter apart at the cellular level. She learned to teleport across great distances. But it didn’t end there, and as her powers grew they also became erratic, harder to control. They began to destabilize.

If Wanda touched a table, it combusted into dust. If she touched a lamp, it exploded and shattered. When she accidently touched one of the security guards trying to help, he yelled in pain as he completely disintegrated. Wanda screamed, and then couldn’t stop screaming. They put her in a specialized room to minimize damage.

“Wanda, you have to try,” begged Sam, the ground shaking beneath headquarters.

“I am,” Wanda yelled, energy shooting out of her. She was breathing hard, her powers beginning to overwhelm her entirely. “I can’t make it stop.”

In desperation, they called Steve in. “Why do you have her locked up?” he asked, approaching the glass wall of the cell they locked her in. Sam winced, so tired exhaustion had turned his skin gray, and Steve was immediately sorry for his tone. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Sam shook his head. “She’s the one who demanded we put her in here. It wasn’t her fault, but she accidently killed someone.”

In the room, Wanda was huddled in a corner with her back to the observation glass, her hands glowing red and bunched into fists, a haze of red energy pulsing in an uneven bubble around her. She was panting.

He went to the access panel, punching in his code -- they never changed it. Sam and Rhodes protested but he stopped them with a look, and then entered the room.

Wanda looked over her shoulder then made herself even smaller, pushing deeper into the corner. “Don’t come close,” she warned, her arms crossed in front of her.

“It’s all right,” said Steve, pitching his voice low, talking slowly, but he didn’t stop until he slide down to the floor next to her, his back against the white wall. “Do your worst. You can’t hurt me.”

They sat quietly together for maybe a minute before she sighed and he held out his arms. She leaned into him, resting her head onto his shoulder. He was her surrogate brother, the one she could trust entirely, and she held on tight. He ignored the pain her hands caused, closed his eyes to the red magic that sparked around her.

“Tell me,” he said.

“It was like this, in the beginning,” she said, her hair sweat-soaked and plastered to her head. “With Strücker. But it’s not getting better this time. It’s like…” she searched for words, pulling away so she could look at Steve. “It’s like it, these powers, it reaches for him. And it can’t find him.”

Steve didn’t have to ask which ‘him’ she meant. They had tried unsuccessfully to bring Vision back, but never succeeded.

He brushed her hair from her face. “It’s okay,” he said, when it was the farthest thing from okay.

Her eyes glowed red, and he braced himself for what would come. Burning energy poured out of her, and he yelled through gritted teeth. But the visions were of Wanda and Pietro as children, playing in the streets of Sokovia, perhaps in those stolen moments when they were happiest. In the end, she went gently, with her brother by her side.

Steve feared her body wouldn’t survive the devastating power, that it would consume her physically as well as mentally, but when it was over, he still held her in his arms and was able to carry her out of the room. They buried her beside her brother.

*

Publicly, Steve retired from the Avengers and worked for the Wakandan Embassy at their outreach center in Brooklyn. He traveled to other outreach centers around the world, and tried to stay out of the spotlight. Privately, he and Natasha and Clint continued much as they had in those two years after the signing of the Accords, but this time working closely with the Avengers on an ad hoc basis. Their off the books status allowed them more flexibility, more freedom. They went where they were needed, when they were needed. He still believed in what he was doing, that it was the right thing.

Their loose association with the Avengers meant they were often at headquarters. Sometimes it even seemed as if he were at the Avengers compound more than when he was Captain America. He didn’t mind. It meant fighting with Bucky at his side. It meant, this time, he was the one on Sam’s right, supporting him. There was no other place he would rather be. Although he kept reminding people not to, they still called him Cap. Sam, who was the worst offender, was the most stubborn about it.

They also were sometimes called in to assist the CIA. It was Sharon’s doing. One thing led to another, and he and Sharon were soon dating. They had a lot in common, an ease in each other’s company that he hadn’t found with too many individuals outside of his team. He could talk to her about his life, his past, and she understood.

Sharon had also survived the Snap, so in that way they were the same. He thought it would be enough. But she was called away on assignment for the Agency, and when she returned he had to leave for a mission that took several months. Between them they shared only pockets of time when they were physically in the same place together. They continued to try, however, on again off again, for a few years, until one day when they were both in England renting a house in the Yorkshire countryside, Sharon sat him down and gently broke it off.

“We can’t continue like this. Neither of us wants to change,” she said, but she was careful not to look at him when she said it. He could see tears in the corner of her eyes.

“We could, though,” he offered. “I could get out. We can live here,” he said, looking around at the little cottage that didn’t fit either of them. It was a beautiful house, pretty on a rare day of sunshine for the English countryside. He meant it, though, that they could really make a go of it, not necessarily in that particular house and location. It didn’t matter where, as long as they were together.

She smiled at him, eyebrows furrowed when she shook her head. It would never keep. He wasn’t ready to leave his life, to leave his work, and neither was she. She gave him a lingering kiss, and then left him alone in the kitchen of the cottage.

A few years later he heard she married a fellow agent, Cameron Klein, someone she had known for years going back to her SHIELD days. They had three children, two boys and a little girl she named Margaret. At Natasha’s urging, Steve reached out to Sharon, and they became good friends, better friends even than when they were dating. He was Uncle Steve to her kids, especially little Margaret. It was always bittersweet between them, but he cared for her and made sure she knew it.

He was deep into a mission tracking a Children of Thanos cult terrorist cell operating out of the north coast of Africa when he got word that Sharon Carter was killed in action apprehending an enhanced target fleeing from a sting operation. He had only a moment to absorb the news before he had to get his head in the game, shoving the sharp pain down, ignoring the knowledge that he had let her down.

*

Sometimes Steve thought he heard the rush, the orchestral chords, of the Bifrost, but when he went outside and looked up at the sky there was nothing. Then he spent most of the day expecting Thor to walk into the room, or come around a corner, bigger than life, beaming that absurdly golden smile.

He had strange dreams where he felt like he was standing beside Thor except Thor wasn’t there. In these dreams, he saw magnificent otherworldly landscapes, mountain ranges that couldn’t be found on Earth, an ocean of such a dark blue it was almost purple, the edges tinged with amber. Then he woke and had to go about his day like normal, absentminded to the point that Natasha teased him and Clint gave him weird looks. In the back of his mind, he felt a kind of distant rumbling laughter, a presence like he wasn’t entirely alone in his body.

During thunderstorms, he walked in the rain, holding out his hand to feel the raindrops, the tickle of static. A gentle question asked, a sighing answer given.

*

It took years but eventually Steve and Tony healed their friendship. They couldn’t return to how things were in those early years, the pre-Ultron days -- too much had passed between them, but time had a funny way of putting things in perspective.

Several times a year, Steve flew out to California to visit. Since the Fall of Thanos, although Iron Man would occasionally make a spectacular appearance, Tony hid from media attention. The break up with Pepper hit him hard.

“She’ll come around,” said Steve, trying to reassure Tony.

Tony shook his head. “It’s not that. I can’t keep doing this to her. She deserves better. And with this,” he said, pointing to his side, to the wound he got from Thanos that could never quite heal. Tony kept the injury stable with nano-technology, but Steve could see it was draining the life out of him.

“It’s her choice, if she chooses to be with you anyway,” said Steve. “You should let her back in, Tony. You shouldn’t be alone here.”

The rebuilt Malibu home was beautiful but isolated, with Tony spending most of his time tinkering in the basement. His only other visitors were Rhodes and Peter Parker, and he’d been told that Dr. Strange was also known to appear suddenly. But Rhodes passed away ten years after the Fall of Thanos, and after that Tony retreated even further. There was a new War Machine residing at headquarters.

Some topics they never discussed. If they spoke about the Avengers, they avoided talking about Bucky and his work on the team. It was sometimes difficult. Bucky was in the news a lot; it took careful editing on Steve’s part, and special arrangements for any visit Tony made to headquarters. Tony may have forgiven much of what happened, maybe even understood that it hadn’t been Bucky’s fault, but Bucky would always be the assassin who killed his mother, and it was unfair to expect more from him than what he was willing to give.

Tony never talked about his parents anymore with Steve, never brought up Howard Stark. Steve hoped Tony realized the version of Captain America Tony grew up with, the one Howard fixated on, was a work of fiction. That Captain America hadn’t been real.

Eventually, another wore the Iron Man suit. A young woman from MIT took up the mantle and joined the Avengers, Tony making one of his rare public appearances at the press conference. It wasn’t until that moment, with Steve on stage beside Tony, that Steve realized Tony had gotten old.

“Hey, come with me,” said Tony, when the fuss had died down and they were left alone. “I’ve got something to show you.” Tony took him down to the archives, and they went a winding route through several hallways before they came to a room at the end of a corridor.

It was a moderately sized room, the walls filled with shelving units stacked with labeled boxes, several articles of Captain America memorabilia from the 1940s placed on a table in the center of the room.

“What is this?” asked Steve, picking up a toy set featuring Captain America and the Howling Commandos and then setting it down before noticing several framed comic book covers. They were the old ones, written and printed during the tour, even before he’d gone overseas.

“Most of Dad’s collection,” said Tony, and Steve froze because Tony hadn’t mentioned Howard in decades. “I know you’re probably not really interested in any of this stuff. You can do what you want with it. Donate it. Trash it. It’s yours. But over here,” he pointed to a series of boxes tucked in a corner. “Those are his old SSR files that he kept. Off the record. And next to that, in those boxes, are his files from the time he worked with Margaret Carter. Before they founded SHIELD. I’m sorry I didn’t give them to you sooner. Didn’t even know this stuff existed until we moved headquarters here.”

Steve marveled at how much stuff Howard had collected. He didn’t particularly want to go through the SSR files. “Why now?”

“Well,” said Tony with a quick hand gesture. Then he winced, and placed a hand over his side. Steve went to him, leading Tony by his arm over to one of the chairs. Suddenly, Steve realized what Tony was doing, why they were in a forgotten room in the basement of the compound with Tony giving away his things.

“Tony,” he said, and his eyes stung, his throat hurt.

Tony gave him a twisted half-smile. “Ah Cap. The last few grains are clinging to the side of the glass. My time’s running out.”

Steve swallowed. Tony’s dark eyes were watching him, taking him in. “Can’t anything be done?”

“Everything’s been done that can be done,” said Tony. “I fought this for a long time, buddy. Let’s be honest. I probably should have died on Titan. I’m here on borrowed time. In some ways, I had a dry run at this dying business years ago. But look at you.” Steve shook his head, holding Tony’s hand, their fingers twisted together. “It used to drive me nuts, the way you looked, the perfection of you. You haven’t aged a day. I wasn’t jealous,” said Tony quickly and Steve snorted wetly. “But it gives me comfort now. To see you looking like you do. Knowing my dad did a good job. You’re this… god.”

“You’ve got me confused with Thor,” said Steve, letting the tears fall.

“Nah,” said Tony, with a smile. He patted Steve’s hand. “I’ve got one bone to pick with you, however. And honestly, I can’t believe I’ve held on to this for as long as I have. It’s been eating at me this entire time.”

“What?” asked Steve.

“A flip phone? You send me a flip phone, really? Did I teach you nothing?”

Steve barked a soggy laugh. They sat together for a minute, maybe two, until Tony began to rise. “I should get back,” said Tony. “Pepper’s waiting.”

Steve took in a breath with a sense of relief mixed with too much sorrow, knowing Tony wasn’t alone, that he still had Pepper. “Why don’t I fly back with you,” he said.

“That’s all right, Cap. I’ll be okay,” he said, pausing. “And so will you.”

Outside, on the dock next to Tony’s plane, they hugged and Steve held on for a moment longer. Two months later the world learned of the passing of Tony Stark. It was breaking news, the kind that left everyone reeling. They asked Steve to make the official Avengers announcement as one of the leaders of the original Avengers.

He gave his statement outside, on the steps of Avengers Headquarters. As he spoke, it began to rain.

“He was Earth’s best defender. Tony Stark was a hero, a friend, and an Avenger. To say he will be missed…” He trailed off, unable to finish, the rain continuing to fall. “Thank you,” he said, and walked away from the podium.

*

Months after the fact, Steve wondered if Natasha had known in some way, if she’d had some kind of premonition. He examined her actions, went over everything she’d said to him, tried to recall how she’d looked every moment they were together, tried to remember her facial expressions. He would never know for sure. And what if she had known before hand? Would that make it better or worse? Did it make a difference?

It was a months-long stakeout, watching a suspected cult leader’s movements. They didn’t even know if they had the right person. The Children of Thanos cult had proven to be elusive, adaptive, and persistent. They gave Hydra a run for their money, although Steve wasn’t certain the Children of Thanos cult wasn’t just another incarnation of Hydra, using the convenience of the world’s trauma to further their cause.

“Why here? Why Mexico?” he asked. They walked arm-in-arm strolling down the picturesque street along the canal front. The Xochimilco barrio had floating gardens in canals leading to flower-laden streets, away from the noisier bustle of Mexico City. The canals gave off a musty odor, mixed with car exhaust and blooming flowers.

In a sundress, Natasha stopped to buy several bouquets, placing them in a wicker basket she carried, her fringed shawl trailing, revealing the freckles on her shoulders. “Why not?” she countered, swinging her basket in one hand while taking his hand with the other. “No regulation. Large tracks of land, hidden from drones. Everyone looks the other way, no questions asked. What’s not to love? The weather’s great.”

The Mexican government had actually bent over backwards to assist them, however much they could, but the decades-long practice of outsiders building compounds in central Mexico meant the Children of Thanos already had a foothold.

Waiting didn’t sit well with Steve, and Natasha knew it. She smiled, and patted his cheek. “Come on. I want to hit the tiendas before they close.”

With a sigh and an answering smile he willingly followed. It had been weeks already, establishing their covers, and would likely be weeks more. They lived in a three-story building down one of the quieter narrow streets. It gave them a good view of their target’s apartment, directly onto his rooftop. They owned the whole building, but they mainly resided on the third floor.

The locals called them “el joven y la señora.” Natasha had something of a reputation -- the older woman corrupting her much younger boyfriend. It made Steve turn red whenever the ladies behind the tiendas cackled like a bunch of hens.

Natasha loved it, playing her part. “I’m just using you for your body.” She made him carry her groceries.

“Hilarious,” he said, herding her up the stairs to their rooms. “You just keep getting funnier.”

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been this domestic. Maybe for a short time with Sharon. Maybe in the 1940s, over a hundred years ago with Bucky. He cooked and Natasha cleaned. They ate on their rooftop balcony garden, behind a blind and away from prying eyes yet still decorated with fairy lights. Together they celebrated her fifty-seventh’s birthday, just the two of them. He baked a cake. Sometimes they sat and read quietly together. Sometimes he sketched and painted while she stretched, limbering up before doing simple ballet exercises. They took turns watching their target, communicating with Clint who was stationed with the other Avengers tracking the compound location. They compared notes, researched potential targets.

Sometimes he watched her, the dying daylight filtering in through their open windows. They kept out of reach of any sniper fire while she laid out each of her weapons, guns and knives and stun batons, and systematically cleaned each.

“What are you looking at?” she asked him with her secret smile, flicking her eyes up at him while she took apart her favorite handgun. In her late fifties, she seemed incandescently beautiful to him. She’d lost some of the softness she’d had when younger, trading it in for a spare beauty.

He shrugged. “I just like watching you,” he said.

She turned slightly coquettish, her secret smile lingering. They had been together, one way or another, for close to thirty years. They had no secrets between them. He knew her inside and out. And yet, she still intrigued him, would always be a mystery, and he never tired of watching her.

At night, they lay together. Unable to sleep, he watched the moonlight paint her skin, and leaned in to breathe in the scent of her hair, caressing the loose strands. She’d returned to her customary red not long after the Fall of Thanos, and in the moonlight it darkened to rusty black. She turned to face him, pressing close, and he tried to memorize the weight of her in his arms.

The next week, Clint joined them in their little apartment. The ladies of the tiendas did not know what to make of this new addition. Were la señora and the gray-haired gentleman married? Was el joven their boy toy? It was like their own telenovela. Natasha loved it and teased both of them mercilessly. Steve worried they were bringing too much attention. Clint, as unflappable as ever, pretended like he hadn’t noticed it. Then, with a gleam in his eye, he planted a kiss on Steve’s mouth in front of the entire marketplace, winking at Natasha who was frankly beaming. It made Steve turn purple and set the hens all cackling.

“Come on, lover,” said Clint, making an impatient gesture with his hand. “Can’t keep the missus waiting.”

Long-suffering, Steve sighed and followed his infuriating team back to their home, leaving the ladies of the tiendas to wonder what would happen next in this torrid love affair.

But the stakeout was a bust, their target either a totally innocent mild-mannered ex-pat bachelor or so deep into his performance they couldn’t uncover it. Steve got word that T’Challa’s health had taken a turn for the worse, and he needed to return to Wakanda. Natasha and Clint rendezvoused with Bucky and Sam, and they joined the other Avengers to continue the search for the Children of Thanos compound.

Before they parted, Natasha kissed Steve on his cheek, an echo of their goodbye from decades before. “What was that for?” he asked.

“No reason,” she said. “I just like looking at you.”

T’Challa’s health scare proved to be just a scare, and he was up and about with a new Wakandan version of a pacemaker installed in his chest, as good as a new heart. His son was the Black Panther now, but T’Challa still ruled the Kingdom of Wakanda with the same quiet strength he’d shown at the start of his reign.

Steve stood by the windows in his suite at the palace, gazing out at the lovely countryside. There were no leftover scars to mark where the Battle of Wakanda had taken place, and he thought, if only everyone else’s scars could be healed as easily. He turned when he heard a knock on his door, and T’Challa entered.

Someone somewhere had decided it should be T’Challa, to break the news to Steve. He knew, with just one look at T’Challa’s face, what he had come to say, and he put his hand against the glass of the window for support. He felt the heat of the day’s sun radiating through the glass as T’Challa told him about the raid on the compound in Mexico, the heavy fire the Avengers took, the number of hostages the Children of Thanos had taken.

“There were only two casualties, Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton. Through their actions, they saved the lives of the hostages, and the lives of their team members. I am so sorry, my friend,” said T’Challa.

T’Challa stayed with Steve until it was time for Steve to board a jet and fly back to headquarters. On the flight back, Steve read and reread and read again Bucky’s report of the raid, trying to understand what had happened. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. The Avengers did what they were trained to do, and they were trained to save lives. He took a small comfort in the fact that they died together.

He thought of Laura Barton, and Clint’s kids who were all adults now, the youngest Nathanial set to get married in a couple of months. Clint and Laura had reconciled in recent years. He had planned on retiring, wanting to be home and become a grumpy grandfather to Cooper and Lila’s children. Steve would need to visit Laura. He’d seen Clint’s kids grow from children to adults to having children of their own. It was the least he could do.

Over and over again during the flight, he thought he should have been there. I should have been there. But, he hadn’t been.

He couldn’t think of Natasha. Instead, his brain simply whited-out, and he returned to their weeks living in their rooftop apartment. He wasn’t ready, and had no idea when he ever would be ready. She didn’t leave a family behind, except for him. He was her family. Sam was her family, and Bucky, and other Avengers.

At headquarters, he found Sam looking haggard, stationed outside of Bucky’s office.

“He’s barricaded himself in there,” said Sam, his face drawn with grief.

“Stand back,” said Steve, and kicked hard. The door went off its hinge, and then he kicked again to knock over whatever Bucky had placed in front of it.

Bucky lifted his head when Steve entered. His eyes were red, barely holding back tears. When he saw Steve, he raised his arms over his head as if something was going to crash down on him, as if he expected Steve to kick him as hard as he’d kicked the door. Bucky met his gaze again, his face even redder, holding his breath too long.

Steve knelt beside him, and Bucky started crying in earnest. Steve buried his head into the crook of Bucky’s neck and they held each other, Bucky’s metal arm crushing him close.

“It was my fault, Steve,” said Bucky.

Steve tried to suck in air. He pushed away so he could look into Bucky’s face. “You know that’s not true,” he said. “If it’s your fault, it’s mine, too. I should have been there.”

But fault didn’t matter. It never did. Bucky and Natasha had gotten close over the years. Two ex-Russian assassins, they shared something indefinable between them, something no one else could understand or penetrate. It hadn’t been an entirely comfortable friendship, but a deep one nevertheless. Steve suspected they’d also become lovers, but neither ever told him about it. They were like that, his two Russian assassins, so secretive yet so loving. And Bucky had been in command of the operation. No matter how often it happened, losing someone under your command, it never got easier.

“She chose to be an Avenger. She knew what that meant. Hey, look at me. She and Clint both went out on their own terms, saving lives. You can’t ask for more than that.”

Bucky’s eyes searched Steve’s face, listening extra hard. After a moment, he nodded, and lowered his head to rest it against Steve’s chest.

At the funeral, it thundered and then rained. Steve stepped out from under his umbrella, and turned his face up the gray skies.

*

Sam had a good run as Captain America. He was very popular, and probably the best out of the three of them when it came to the media and public relations. He weathered the changing landscape following the Fall of Thanos, the inquiry and subsequent trial into Secretary Ross’s actions, and was instrumental in de-ratifying the Accords and putting in place new regulations. He worked well with Captain Marvel as co-leader of the Avengers. Their team started off with Bucky, call sign The White Wolf, Spider-man, War Machine, and Scarlet Witch until she couldn’t anymore. Later, Scott Lang joined the team, and they made a great pair together.

When he got into his fifties, he thought it was time to hang up his wings, and he convinced Bucky to take up the shield. Steve had never been prouder, presenting the world to the new Captain America. At the press conference, they stood in front of a small army of reporters, the three of them together with Bucky in his new uniform in the center, holding up the shield.

“You know, I’m still not convinced he’s the kind you save,” said Sam, speaking to Steve so only he could hear.

Steve smiled. Bucky held still for pictures, not exactly smiling but looking very official. “Yeah. You’re right. I guess he’s managing his own saving.”

“Well,” said Sam, his eyes soft as he watched Bucky ignore the rest of the reporters when he spotted a gaggle of kids too timid and fearful of the new Captain America to come close. Bucky practically went onto his back, like a dog wanting to appear non-threatening, until the kids grew brave enough to approach. Soon the children were laughing, asking Bucky question after question in their high lilting voices. “The shield’s in good hands I think. That’s what’s important.”

Although retired, Sam kept his hand in the game for years, working with Bucky mostly, but also with Steve and Natasha and Clint off the books, and then later with just Steve. He didn’t fly anymore, and Steve knew that weighed on him a lot. Sam missed his wings more than he missed the shield.

Eventually Sam bought a house on the top of a big hill not far from headquarters. The back porch had a view of the valley and gave the illusion of height, of being up in the clouds.

Steve, who had become something of a nomad by then, roaming from headquarters to Wakanda to his apartment in Brooklyn to wherever a mission called for, never calling any one place home for very long, settled with Sam in his little house, living there as much as he lived anywhere.

Over the years, he came sauntering up the lane, home from a mission, finding Sam in his back yard wearing a floppy sun hat, elbow-deep in his garden fretting over his begonias or his tomatoes, or over his overgrown zucchini patch. Steve got down on his knees beside Sam to pull weeds. Then, they went inside, shared a meal together. In the morning Steve cooked breakfast and they ate on the porch, with the morning fog creeping across the valley.

When Sam began to need daily assistance, Steve moved in full time into the spare bedroom.

“You don’t have to. I get plenty of help,” said Sam.

“I know. But you’re not getting rid of me yet,” he said.

It was true though, Sam had plenty of visitors. There was a constant parade of family and friends: each of the Avengers came to visit regularly almost every day. Bucky in particular missed Sam a great deal and would show up unannounced. Sam got visits from his grandnieces and nephews, from the grandchildren of veterans Sam knew back in the day, Sharon’s daughter Margaret, and Clint’s kids and their kids plus their friends, all those who had grown up with Sam as their Captain America.

But, when the visitors left, and it was just Steve and Sam alone, the tension that had crept into Sam’s shoulders left with them. Alone, Sam didn’t have to pretend, didn’t have to put on a show anymore.

Like the days that shortened as summer gave way to fall, Sam began slipping quietly away. On a lucid evening, with a fire burning in the fireplace, Sam teased him, his snowy hair catching red glints from the fire. “Why you looking so glum?” he asked.

“I’m not sure I’m ready,” said Steve, blinking past the sting of tears.

Sam looked on one side of where he sat and then looked to his other side, finding a napkin left over from dinner. He balled it up and threw it at Steve’s head. “Am I going to have to get up from this chair and go over there and beat your ass if I see you crying? Nothing to cry about. I’ve had my life. It’s been a good life.”

Steve laughed, but he also shook his head. “I’m selfish, Sam. What am I supposed to do without you?”

“Oh man,” said Sam. “Don’t give me that bullshit. Come over here, baby.” And instantly Steve went to him. Sam was still a big man, his body holding remnants of his past strength, and he had good reach, wrapping Steve up in his arms. “Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for that morning. Six a.m. and I have to deal with your punk ass lapping me on the National Mall. You changed my life, Steve, and I’m grateful for it.”

“I couldn’t have done any of it without you,” said Steve.

“I’m gonna let you keep thinking that, even though I know it’s not true. I guess, in this one thing, I’m a little faster than you are. You were meant for more than the mundane, Steve. You better accept that.”

In the morning, Steve prepared breakfast and then helped Sam out onto the porch, just like they did every morning. He got Sam settled into his chair, tucking a blanket around him.

“Wow, would you look at that,” said Sam, staring at the view. The sunrise shed a pinkish golden light across the morning fog, breaking up the clouds so the valley glistened with dew. It reminded Steve of that distant planet, the one he tried not to think about. There were birds flying in and out of the sunrays, the sun cresting over the hills. “Ain’t that a sight?”

“Special ordered golden sunrise, just for you,” said Steve. “Are you good? I’ll be right back in a jiffy.”

“Yeah, I’m good, man. I’ll be here.”

When he returned, carrying a tray with both their breakfasts, he knew instantly that Sam was gone. He dropped the tray. It crashed to the ground, but Steve didn’t notice, having fallen to his knees saying Sam’s name over and over again, taking his still warm hands in his. Steve never spoke of that moment to anyone, never described it, never talked about how Sam’s eyes were still watching the clouds and the sky and the flying birds. He never said that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Sam had seen that sunrise and couldn’t let it pass, so he got up from his chair and took flight.

Later, when he had a little perspective, Steve realized that final summer with Sam was one of the greatest gifts of his life.

He sat with Sam on the porch for a long time, until the sun had fully risen and crossed over to the other side, before he was ready to let go and carried Sam into the house.

*

Everyone but Steve seemed surprised how well Bucky did as Captain America. He wasn’t surprised at all. With Bucky Barnes, the world got the Winter Soldier, The White Wolf, and Captain America all rolled into one. He definitely had his detractors; those who thought the Winter Soldier did not deserve anything less than imprisonment. But, in a post-Snap world, more and more were saying, “Maybe he’s the superhero we need right now.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” said Barton, in those middling years after Sam retired but when he still went out in his wings for missions, still wore the star on his chest. “Just look at the three of you. You’re giving everyone apoplexy.”

The three Captain Americas, working together, Sam and Steve supporting Bucky, taking down terrorists and secret cults and enhanced opportunists, fighting the occasional robot army that seemed almost perennial. They were a sight to behold.

When Sam passed, Steve knew an era had ended.

After the funeral, he sent everyone home, and started the work of packing up Sam’s house. He wanted to do it alone, but on the morning after the funeral, he found he couldn’t get started, and instead sat on the back porch, staring at the sunrise. He lost track of time watching the little dramas of daybreak, until he sensed a presence beside him.

Bucky sat close enough for their shoulders to touch. “Should we get started?” he asked when the light changed.

“I guess so,” said Steve. They got up and entered the house, and started putting boxes together. “Thanks.”

Not bothering to answer, Bucky squeezed his shoulder, patted him on the back. They worked together, not speaking much beyond Bucky asking where the tape was and Steve offering him a beer. They worked into the evening and then took a break for dinner, choosing to eat outside on the porch.

“I’m going to retire from the Avengers,” said Bucky, breaking the long silence.

“What?” asked Steve, startled.

Bucky shrugged. “Uh, yeah. I think it’s time. Before…” he trailed off, eyes vacant, staring into the evening darkness, the crickets chorusing loudly in the underbush. “Before I overstay my welcome. You know, go out while people still like me.”

It was an odd thing to say. Out of the three of them, Bucky had carried the shield the longest. Steve as pretty sure Bucky could be Captain America indefinitely, if he wanted.

“If that’s what you want,” said Steve, neutrally.

Bucky started laughing, an almost wheezy laugh. “Steve, you punk. I’ve known you my whole life. You think you can play dumb with me? I know you don’t want to stick around anymore. Not now. Maybe not ever, but you did for me, and I’m grateful. So, now it’s my turn. I go where you go.”

Steve felt a warm glow spread, chasing away the sorrow. He suspected Bucky wasn’t telling him the whole truth, but he didn’t press. He smiled, and nodded. “All right.”

“Besides,” added Bucky. “I promised Sam.”

Steve didn’t expect the wave of emotion that crashed over him, blinding his vision. Bucky gently took his dinner plate from his hands, and then gathered him into his arms. “Big sap,” he said, fondly, but he was crying too.

They returned to Wakanda. T’Challa had passed only a few short months before Sam, and Steve knew the young king, T’Challa’s eldest, could use the support. But truthfully, Wakanda had always been a place of sanctuary.

In Wakanda they could avoid the brunt of the media fervor over Bucky’s retirement, the non-stop news coverage filled with reporters analyzing Bucky’s actions over the past year, runaway theories that Bucky’s health was failing. A few were critical of the decision, stating that Bucky was abandoning the nation. Some were relieved. Most were grateful for his years of service.

Bucky never responded to any of it. Steve was also willing to ignore it. The hardest to bear was the quiet resentment from his fellow Avengers, but they came around, following Carol Danvers’ lead. There was a respect that passed between Carol and Bucky, having worked together for so many years.

Steve and Bucky lived first with the Border Tribe, learning both animal husbandry and the defense of Wakanda. Then, they lived with the River Tribe, exploring the waterways. They lived in turn with the Merchant Tribe and the Mining tribe.

It was nothing like the life Steve thought he would have, nothing matching the dreams he had growing up in Brooklyn. But, unconventional though it was, it was a good life. Sometimes he dared to believe that he and Bucky could continue like this, living in such a beautiful country, learning something new every day. He should have known better.

They went into the mountains, to the land of the Jabari, the Mountain Tribe. As they hiked up the mountain path, Steve stopped and then Bucky turned just as a swarm of warriors surrounded them. They held their breath until M’Baku pushed through the crowd to the front, and started laughing. He was an old man by then but undiminished in height and strength, and his laugh rang deep, echoing across the mountains. “So you have come at last,” he said. “What took you so long? I have been watching you bounce around all of Wakanda.” Then he laughed again, and hugged both Steve and Bucky hard enough to crack their backs.

Steve thought he knew what strength was, but the Jabari showed him a whole new meaning of the word. Strength to the Jabari meant the power of the land, of the mountain, of Hanuman. They stayed with the Jabari the longest. Steve thought he could easily live there forever.

“If I stare at you too long,” teased M’Baku. “You blend in with snow.”

“I guess that’s my one advantage,” answered Steve, and they both laughed. He sat beside M’Baku in the Jabari ceremonial hall, watching the customary ritual combat to celebrate Hanuman. Bucky stood waiting in the center for his opponent, holding his mask. “Thank you, for letting Bucky and me stay here.”

M’Baku waved a hand. “For the sacrifices you endured, for Wakanda, you and the White Wolf are welcome with the Jabari. Although,” he added, calling loudly to Bucky waiting in the arena. “I might change my mind if you continue to bore me like this. What are you waiting for?”

“Ha ha,” said Bucky, saluting M’Baku with his right hand. He had removed his arm for the fight, in tradition with the customs of the Jabari that shunned most technology. His opponent entered the arena, sliding on his mask, waiting only long enough for Bucky to put on his wolf mask, and the fight began. They fought with short staffs, the sharp crack of wood ringing through the hall. This was the third time Bucky fought that day for the ceremony, and Steve wondered if he was beginning to tire.

The opponent struck Bucky hard, coming down with his full strength. Bucky raised his staff to block, but it cracked. A shard of wood snapped off, flying through the air. It would have ripped through the audience where the children gathered to watch. Bucky leapt and caught the shard in his only hand. It sliced through flesh and bone and he yelled, crashing to the ground.

Steve was the first one by Bucky’s side. The Jabari healers applied painkillers, and removed the shard, piece by piece.

“You’re going to be okay,” said Steve. It was a bad wound, but they’d both survived worse with no scars to show for it.

Clammy and pale, Bucky closed his eyes.

“Steve,” said M’Baku, gaining his attention, his dark eyes serious. It was strange to hear M’Baku say his name like that, without teasing. “We will arrange transport for you and The White Wolf to go to the city. He will need their technology. Go at once to Shuri.”

“He’s going to be fine,” said Steve, but then paused as he took at the concern in M’Baku’s and the healer’s face. “Yeah, it looks bad, but he’s had worse. Believe me.”

“Steve,” said Bucky, and Steve looked down at him. He saw then what he had been studiously avoiding for months, maybe for years. It wasn’t that Bucky was aging, but that the thrum of the serum within him, the same thrum that was within Steve, was slowly fading. There had been other signs -- scars on Bucky’s body from other minor wounds that Steve overlooked, a grayer cast to his skin, his hair no longer as brown as before.

“Okay,” said Steve. “I understand. Let’s go, let’s go to the city.”

An hour later, he was walking briskly beside the floating gurney as they guided Bucky into Shuri’s hands. “I thought I had seen the last of you,” she quipped. “Come now, Sergeant Barnes. Why are you undoing my work?”

“Sorry,” he said, smiling at her. It took only another hour before Shuri had Bucky’s hand fully healed and as good as new, but by then it was evening, and the sky filled with stars.

A guard escorted Steve and Bucky back to the same set of rooms they’d shared ever since he had first showed up in Wakanda, carrying a wounded Bucky. “You may return to the Jabari in the morning, if you wish,” said the guard. “But the King would like to share breakfast with you, if you are willing.”

“Of course,” answered Steve. “We’ll see him in the morning.”

The guard nodded, and then left, plunging Steve and Bucky into an icy silence. Bucky wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“When were you going to tell me?” he asked, but immediately regretted his tone.

Bucky sighed. “Tell you what, Steve? What was I supposed to say?”

Steve shook his head. He went to stand by the window but the lights in the room cast too much reflection. He couldn’t see the rolling fields, or the distant mountains. “Tell me now. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” said Bucky, and he shrugged. “Started several years ago. Probably from the beginning, just too slow to notice. I still heal, just slowly, more like everyone else. I’m still strong, but I get tired. It’s not like I have a clue, about any of it. What was done to me, all those years ago? What was done to you? I don’t know, Steve.”

“Is this the reason you retired?”

Bucky’s smile had an edge to it, and his laugh was short. “Do you believe that?”

Shame flooded over Steve, and he deflated. He sat down on the low couch, and put his head in his hands. “God, I’m sorry,” he said. “Of course I don’t.”

“S’okay,” said Bucky. “I know you didn’t mean it.” They fell into silence again, until Bucky sat on the couch with him. “I’d be lying if it hadn’t been a factor. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t good enough,” said Steve, but he said it as softly as he could. “Maybe something can be done? Have you spoken to Shuri? We’re in Wakanda. If there’s anything that can be done, I’m sure she can figure it out.”

“I…” started Bucky, and then stopped as he studied Steve. Then he nodded. “All right,” he said. “I’ll talk to her, first thing. Okay? Am I forgiven now?”

Steve felt a rush of relief. He’d never encountered anything in this world that Shuri couldn’t make better. “Hm. Not sure. Probably.”

In answer, Bucky threw a pillow at him.

It soon proved it wouldn’t be an easy fix. They took blood samples from him, for comparison, and then Bucky and Shuri went behind closed doors. Not wanting to put too much pressure on Bucky, knowing he had a tendency to hover, he left Bucky in Shuri’s capable hands and embarked on a three-month tour of the Wakandan Outreach Centers with the king. It was strange, stepping back out into the world, once again being photographed and questioned, having to do interviews and press conferences, but the attention was mostly on the king while Steve concentrated on his work with the Centers. It was somewhere mid-flight between Detroit and San Francisco when his kimoyo beads chirped.

“Princess Shuri,” he said, when Shuri’s image appeared like she was standing right in front of him. “I hope you’re well.”

“As well as can be expected,” she said, and he knew he wasn’t going to like this conversation at all. “Bucky asked me to speak with you.”

“Okay,” he said, wary.

“I have developed a treatment for him. It should work,” she said.

“But…” he added. He knew there was a ‘but.’

“But, it would necessitate Bucky going through the serum injection again. I would create a new serum, from your blood. I can do it. But Bucky has declined. He says he does not want it, and he hopes you understand. He’s returned to the Jabari. You can find him there, when you return.”

She looked like she wanted to say more, but then remained silent.

Steve stared at her for probably an uncomfortably long minute, but he eventually cleared his throat. “Thank you.” Shuri pinched her lips together, then nodded. “Can you… The samples you took, my blood,” he started.

“Already destroyed,” she answered.

They ended the call. The king gave quiet orders that Steve should not be disturbed, and the flight continued. It was good, thought Steve, that he had a month longer for the tour, traveling with the Wakandan entourage, before returning. It gave him time to think, and to process, to make plans.

When he returned, he didn’t linger long in the city but headed straight for the mountains. Wakanda didn’t have a dramatic change from season to season, so close to the equator, but he swore the hike up to the Jabari had gotten colder and windier since he had last made the same hike.

He found Bucky ensconced in the Jabari nursery with the children, playing some kind of complicated game of tag. Of course. Whenever Steve went looking for Bucky, he always found him surrounded by children.

“Keeping busy, I see,” he said.

The children all gasped in surprise, and Bucky turned to look at him. “Steve,” he said, with a beatific smile. How was Steve supposed to be mad at him when he smiled like that? Bucky looked the picture of good health though, beaming at him. He had removed his arm, and without it he looked less pinched, less weighed too much to one side. “You’re back. Go get him, kids.”

The children rushed at Steve, and he went down as they piled on top of him, jabbering so quickly that he couldn’t understand what they were saying. Steve set his bag down, and settled in to play until it was time for the children’s dinner.

Left alone, their silence said volumes. Bucky stood up and started putting order to the nursery. Steve was the first to speak. “Walk with me?”

“All right,” said Bucky.

They wrapped themselves up in cloaks and furs and went out onto the mountainside. The sun was just starting to set, casting a golden glow over the snow. Steve didn’t have a destination, and so they walked aimlessly until he found a ledge where they could sit.

“I don’t blame you,” said Steve. “For not going through with the treatment. If our positions were reversed, I’d have passed on it, too.”

“Yeah,” said Bucky. “And I’m sure I would have been pissed as hell at you for it.” Steve snorted. “So what now?”

Steve sighed. “Did Shuri give you any kind of time frame? What to expect?” Steve hadn’t wanted to ask Shuri before, but he decided it was best to know as much as he could beforehand.

Bucky shrugged. “Years probably. Could be a lot of years. It’s not exact.”

There were words Bucky wasn’t saying, describing what it would feel like for him, and whether there would be other side effects. This wasn’t normal aging. The sky had darkened while they were speaking but most of the stars weren’t out yet except for one twinkling low on the horizon. Steve wondered if it were a planet. He knew from experience that, in Wakanda, all he had to do was wait another minute and the night sky would suddenly become jeweled.

“Do you like it here, Bucky?”

“Yeah, of course, I love it here. What’s not to love?”

Steve would look back at this moment and wonder what might have happened if he’d chosen differently. Was it his fault? Should they have stayed in Wakanda? But if they had, would that have been better? He would never know.

“The Brooklyn Outreach Center needs a new director. They’ve been searching for months, but there haven’t been any strong candidates. The king suggested you might be interested. I said I’d ask. Job’s yours if you want it.”

Bucky was silent for a long time, almost as if he’d frozen into the mountainside, and then a slow smile spread across his lips. “Brooklyn, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Steve. “Who’d a thunk it, right?”

“Maybe it’s time for Brooklyn again,” said Bucky, conversationally. “You know, traffic, pollution, street violence, smelly docks. Would you be up for that?”

Steve pursed his lips, and gave Bucky a half smile and a shrug. “I go where you go.”

Less than a month later, they moved back into Steve’s almost completely abandoned Brooklyn apartment, and Bucky started his new job as director for the Wakandan Outreach Center. Bucky threw himself entirely into the job. Steve had never seen him so energized and enthusiastic. Not even when Bucky had first joined the Avengers, not even when they were kids and it was first day of summer. He was excited very day to go to work, full of ideas for new programs and different ways to do outreach, creating partnerships with local and national businesses, always searching for new ways to help those who were most vulnerable.

Although in Wakanda he would typically go about without his left arm, in Brooklyn Bucky only took it off at home. When asked, he shrugged. “It’s just better, having two hands. I can help out more.”

Six months into their return, Steve got a call from Avengers Headquarters. They had a new Captain America, none other than Margaret Klein, Sharon’s daughter. She asked if he would come up for the press conference, to present the shield, and then afterward, if he might stay and do some training.

Steve packed a bag. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?” asked Bucky, helping gather some of Steve’s toiletries.

“No longer than a couple of weeks, I should think,” he said, taking the supplies from Bucky and stuffing them into his bag. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in plenty of time for the softball game, I promise.”

“All right,” said Bucky, suspicious. “Just don’t go haring off on some mission. I have half a mind to go with you, but then they’d get their greedy hands on both of us.”

Steve laughed. “Come on. It’s Margaret. I can’t say no. She still calls me Uncle Steve.”

“Of course you have to go. Just come back.”

“Don’t be dumb.”

It was strange to be back at headquarters, with its sleek modern angles, its floor-to-ceiling windows and beautifully manicured lawns. It made him miss the beautiful Wakandan landscape, but he’d be lying if it didn’t also feel good, like he was back on a team again. The press conference went smoothly. This was the third time he’d presented the shield to someone he cared about, and each time he was awed by the entire process.

He settled into the rhythm of headquarters, with early morning training sessions and mission briefings. Margaret was a strong, confident fighter and leader, hardly needing any training from him. She reminded him so strongly of Peggy sometimes, much more than Sharon had, that he occasionally had to go away for a bit. At night, he called Bucky, checking in to see how thing were going, listening to Bucky’s enthusiastic description of the kids he worked with. “This one kid, Steve. He’s incredible. His name is Miles.”

It was later in their morning training session on the start of his second week when the klaxon alarm started, and the lights flashed. Steve felt the immediate surge of adrenaline, instantly on alert. He and Margaret and the others rushed to the situation room.

Margaret took charge, pulling up the first reports. “It’s some kind of attack… oh, no.” She turned to Steve. “It’s the Wakandan Outreach center, in Brooklyn. A hostage situation, Children of Thanos copy cats.”

The Children of Thanos cult had all but disappeared in recent years, since the raid on their compound in Mexico. But zealots still lingered, festering in the quiet, dark places of the world.

Cold dread flooded Steve. He took out his cell phone and called Bucky. No answer. He called again as he followed Margaret and others to the quinjet. Called repeatedly through the short flight, while he tried to take in intel. There were reports of gunfire, of a small explosion, of some kind of energy weapon that blasted holes in the walls. He called again and again, but there was no answer.

Just as the jet swiveled before landing, they got one more report: the hostages were safe, the hostiles either killed or taken into custody. There was only one casualty.

Steve’s blood turned to ice. All he could hear was a sharp, high sound of feedback, a piercing whine as he moved with speed, exiting the jet. Margaret was calling his name, but he couldn’t hear her, charging until he saw one of the first responders, decked out in riot gear.

“Take me to him,” he said, although he couldn’t hear his own voice.

The man took one look at Steve, and then shifted his gaze to Margaret beside him in her Captain America uniform, and then to the rest of the Avengers, and said, “This way.”

There was rubble everywhere, concrete walls crumbled around destroyed offices, furniture upturned. Steve wasn’t sure how much of it he actually noticed. His hearing still seemed off, like it used to be when he was a kid, when he got knocked in the head in an alley fight and Bucky would get him back on his feet again.

The man led him through the wasteland of a lobby to where a small crowd gathered around a body lying on the floor.

Bucky wasn’t dead. Two medics were working on him, trying to treat him. He writhed with pain from a gut wound that was bleeding out. Glass was everywhere, the bodies of two of the hostiles bloodied and broken a couple of feet away. Bucky wouldn’t hold still.

Steve went down on his knees and took hold of Bucky’s head, saying his name over and over again until Bucky stopped struggling, shifting his eyes to meet Steve’s.

Sound returned with a snap. “Steve?” asked Bucky, with wonder and a relieved smile.

“Hey, pal. You’re going to be okay. I’ve got you,” said Steve.

“You’re here,” said Bucky, with a sigh. He gripped at Steve, at his face, smearing blood. “You came back.”

“Yeah, ya dummy. I said I would, didn’t I? You think I’d ever leave your dumb ass, think again.”

With Bucky lying more still, one of the medics was able to inject a painkiller into his neck, and some of the strain left Bucky’s face.

“The kids, Steve?” asked Bucky, swallowing. “Is everyone okay? Did they get out?”

“They’re safe. Every last one of them. You saved them, Bucky. You saved them all.” Steve knew that, on any given day, the Outreach Center usually had somewhere between 200 to 400 people walking through its doors. It was one of the larger of the Centers.

“That’s good,” said Bucky, closing his eyes.

Steve shook him, pinched him hard. “Stay with me, Bucky. You stay with me.”

Bucky opened his eyes again, and then he looked down at the gory mess on his chest. A medic had cut away Bucky’s clothing, and sponged the blood, revealing the extent of the wound. It was a jagged line. “Oh, God,” he said, growing pale.

“Hey, keep your eyes on me, come on, look at me,” said Steve. “You’re always telling me, aren’t you, how great the health clinic is here, right? Best in the world. They’re gonna patch you up, right away.”

But Bucky wasn’t listening. “Steve,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you.”

“No,” said Steve, shaking his head. “No, it’s all right. We’re going to take you to the clinic. They’ll fix you up.” But the lead medic gave him a look. “What is it?” asked Steve, turning to them.

The medic, a woman in her mid-thirties, very pretty with a mess of freckles over her brown skin, shook her head. “We need to stabilize him first, sir.”

“Okay,” said Steve, shifting to make room. “Do you have everything you need?”

She didn’t bother answering, returning to treating the wound. Steve kept one eye on Bucky, and one eye on the medics, watching what they were doing. He recognized a nanite device, seeing the white foam cover the wound.

“You’re going to be all right, Bucky.”

“Steve,” said Bucky, and he touched Steve’s face, tracing it with a finger. “It’s better this way,” he said.

“What?” asked Steve, watching the nanites. He could see that they were failing to close the wound. “What’s wrong?” he asked the medics. “Why aren’t they working?”

The medic injected more nanites. “I think it’s the weapon they used,” and Steve looked around for it, found it lying a few feet away. It was a cobbled together piece, mostly alien tech bound to a metal handle, and topped with a gleaming coppery spearhead, one of the weapons from the Battle of Wakanda. “It has some kind of toxin. It’s preventing the nanites from latching on.”

More blood leaked out of Bucky. The two medics resumed their work, trying to clamp shut the hemorrhage with conventional tools. But as soon as they seemed to get a handle on it, another bleed started.

“Come on, Bucky,” said Steve. Bucky had grown alarmingly pale. “You’ve gotta fight this.”

“Steve,” said Bucky. “The kids are safe. It’s better this way.”

Steve shook his head. In desperation, he thought of tearing his own skin with his teeth to open a vein, and pouring his blood into Bucky. He had plenty of it, full of serum that wasn’t doing him any good. What good was it, if it couldn’t heal this?

“Steve,” said Bucky, and he touched Steve’s face again, raising both hands, one metal and one flesh, to take hold of him. “I have loved you my whole life. Even when I didn’t know you.”

“Oh, God, Bucky,” said Steve, choking on his words. “I love you, too.”

Bucky nodded, swallowing again, working his tongue to moisten it. “This isn’t the end of the line. I’m not leaving you. I go where you go.”

No longer able to speak, Steve nodded. He pressed his forehead against Bucky’s, holding tight to his slippery hands. They breathed the same air, until Bucky’s chest failed to rise. No one was speaking but they were not alone, surrounded by those that Bucky had saved.

Steve hung on for hours, until Margaret gently pulled him away so they could take Bucky’s body. He hung on through the days and weeks it took to arrange the funeral. He came alive long enough to ensure Bucky was remembered properly in the memorial service, and in the press. Bucky wouldn’t have cared about being called a hero, but Steve made sure they showed both the good and the bad, both Captain America and The Winter Soldier. All of it was part of who Bucky was, and he deserved no less than the truth. He earned that right.

The events at the Outreach Center were reported ad nauseam, and wherever he went Steve couldn’t escape it. Someone, one of the hostage survivors, had recorded him with Bucky, every word they had spoken to each other, everything said and done, analyzed and examined and watched over and over again. It was like acid poured over an open wound each time he couldn’t avoid a clip, or saw a transcript or a quote.

He spoke to his attorney, a woman from Wakanda, and arranged to put his estate in order. If in six months he didn’t return, the attorney had instructions on what to do. His property had grown to include everything Sam had left him as well as everything Bucky owned. All of his physical possessions, Sam’s house and his Brooklyn apartment, and especially the stuff Tony had left him, would go to Margaret Klein. His money, he divided evenly between Sharon’s children and Barton’s children.

He buried Bucky next to his mom, in Brooklyn. Thousands attended the funeral. After, Margaret insisted she stay with him, and arranged for guards stationed 24/7 outside his building.

“I’m just going to go to my room,” Steve told her, grateful to her but also at his limit. Alone at last, he wrote final letters to King T’Chema, to M’Baku, and Shuri, and one more for Margaret. Then, Steve Rogers shrugged on a backpack that held a fake I.D., a few articles of clothing, and a wad of cash, slipped out of his window and climbed onto the roof, vanishing into the night.

*

He started out on foot. Steve had a particular destination in mind, and didn’t care how he got there. Walking was as good a way as any. In fact, it helped settle his mind, and he worked through some of his grief. He wasn’t in a hurry.

But walking for thousands of miles eventually got rather tedious, so he hitched rides or paid a ticket for the bus. He even took the train from Indianapolis to Kansas City.

Sometimes, someone got a whiff of Captain America and he would have to do a hasty departure, but for the most part no one recognized him. He’d grown back the beard, although it was more of a scraggly mess, not really fit to be called a beard. More like days-old bad grooming. His sense of decorum got the better of him, and he spent an hour in his motel bathroom cutting his hair and cleaning up his face. Not a full beard, but not clean-shaven either.

As he walked, he wondered if sleeping through seventy years and then waking up to find almost everyone he’d ever known or loved gone was preferable to living through each loss. They both sucked, he decided, but he knew he wouldn’t have traded the last few decades for anything in the world.

It took him over ten weeks to get there. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard Sam teasing him. “What, you decided to be lazy? Didn’t want to run all two thousand miles? I thought you could do that in an hour.”

In the middle of December, the Grand Canyon was past season, and the trails on the south rim were almost vacant. Steve paid his fee, and meandered around, up and down different trails. He climbed a ridge he was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to be on, and then waited. He thought he would wait until morning. Not sure why, just that morning felt like a better time. He wanted to see the sunrise over the ridge. It was a chilly night, but he hardly felt the cold, dozing for a few minutes here and there.

In the morning, he stood on the ridge, and watched the sun break across the wide ragged crack in the earth’s crust, casting pink and yellow and rust-colored light. He could see hang gliders on the opposite ridge. It made him think of Sam, and he took that as a good sign.

“Thor,” he said, finally. He cleared his throat, rough with disuse. “Thor. I’m ready.”

At first, nothing happened. He thought maybe he had it wrong. Or he hadn’t spoken loud enough. He licked his lips, inhaling to try again when he heard the rush of the Bifrost. A blinding white light tinted with the color of the rainbow landed on the ridge. Steve shielded his eyes until the light vanished, and in its place stood Thor.

Thor smiled when he saw him. Not quite believing that he was really there, Steve could only stare.

“My friend,” said Thor, walking toward him with his long stride, grinning from ear to ear. He took hold of Steve by his arms, getting a good look at him. “It’s so good to see you.”

Steve took him in, unable to stop staring, not sure what to say. It was like a dream. Thor looked almost exactly as he had all those decades ago. His hair was a little longer, but not nearly as long as it had been before. His eyes were still mismatched. He gripped at Thor’s armor.

Thor studied his face, concern creasing his eyebrows together. He placed his left hand over Steve’s chest, over his heart. At once, Steve felt a lessening of pressure, lifting his gaze to meet Thor’s.

“It’s been a long time,” Steve managed to say.

“It has,” said Thor. “Some things are worth the wait. Come with me? It’s time I took you home.”

Thor brought his arm around Steve, holding him close. Steve dug his fingers into Thor’s side, and closed his eyes as the Bifrost opened up and carried both of them away.