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Losing the Battle (to Win the War)

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Neon lights blinked brightly into the inky night as water dripped off the rooftops onto the sidewalks. Nakia did not much care for this section of the city, but while she was hiding out in Tokyo with the runaway, Enhanced niece of an old friend, it would do. Omera sat curled in on herself, in the far-left corner. She looked so much like her aunt, Iera, that Nakia would have needed no introductions.

“When will she be here?”

Nakia looked at the clock in the far-right corner of the room. The girl had the patience of a gnat. Granted, she was in a strange country, guarded over by a stranger who was set to return her to Wakanda, where her parents awaited her. And likely meant to have some harsh words for the wayward girl.

“Five minutes less than the last time you asked, Omera.”, she said. Turning her head to look back at the frightened girl, Nakia relented some of the strict tone from her voice. The girl was 15 and scared. Just before she could turn her body into something as hard as Vibranium and power through stone walls, did not make the girl any more mature or sure of herself.

“She said she would be here before midnight, but after eleven. We have twenty more minutes till eleven. She will be here soon. Rest. I will wake you when she arrives.”

The girl nodded, then tucked impossibly further into herself and closed her eyes. Nakia let out a breath. Babysitting was not her favorite thing to do on an undercover assignment. It was not her least either.

Nearly half an hour later, it seemed as though the street Nakia had been watching, was growing darker. More menacing. Despite knowing this friend of Wakanda had powers that seemed like a spirit from some horror film that might be a hit over in America, Nakia was not comfortable watching the darkness swallow the light from the neon and street lamps. Tokyo was so full of visual noise. Full of light and bright colors. A darkness like a black hole, was deeply unsettling.

Nakia stepped out, knowing that it would be likely her last move if this darkness was a foe rather than Bronach Quinn. Then, barely discernable coming out of the edge of the darkness, was a woman with a scarf wrapped carefully around her head and neck, a baggy jacket with long sleeves, slacks, boots, and gloved hands seeming to direct the darkness around her to keep her from anyone’s view but Nakia’s.

“Nakia?”

“Yes.”

The stranger smiled, looking far too friendly to be the tall, ghostly figure emerging from an engulfing darkness. Then Nakia remembered this was Captain America’s girlfriend. Such a woman with these unsettling powers being romantically linked with the sweet, modest Captain seemed odd. Yet, her own relationship with T’Challa made her aware how different two people could be, and yet have things work between them. Despite this, she was aware that part of what held she and T’Challa together was their shared love of Wakanda and the people, so there must have been something similar holding the kind, gentle-hearted Captain together with this frightening woman whom T’Challa had described as a former assassin.

“Get your girl, and lets hit the road. I’ve got a transport waiting for us.”

Nakia did not need to be told twice, moving to where the young Omera was still napping. Gently waking the girl, she explained their next step.

“Omera? Omera, we must go. Quinn is here. We are going to follow her out of here and to a safe place, then we are going to go home.”

Omera smiled, looking like the weight of the world had just rolled off of her young shoulders. Too young to bear such a weight. Nakia wrapped a protective arm around the young child and guided her to Quinn. Quinn smiled kindly at the girl.

“Let’s get you home, kiddo.”

Omera smiled shyly at the taller woman. Nakia considered that to be quite the achievement. Quinn checked the street once more, then waved for them to follow her out.

By this time tomorrow, they would be among friends, Nakia thought to herself. They would be back in Wakanda, where T’Challa waited and Omera’s grandmother was ready to take Omera home with her, to finish raising her in the safety found behind Wakanda’s borders. And Quinn could go back to Ireland, where Natasha, Captain Rogers, and the pilot- Sam, were all hiding out, waiting for the world to need them again.

However, a few hours later, they found their plan was not so easily accomplished. They could not get into Wakanda. The shields were up and Nakia could not contact anyone. From what they had caught on the radios before everyone went silent, someone named Thanos was heading for Wakanda because he wanted the gem within Vision’s head in order to complete his collection, thusly allowing him to take over the universe. Captain Rogers, Natasha, Sam, and others had gathered, ready to fight him when he arrived.

That had been almost an hour ago that they got this info, only for everything to go eerily silent. The radio stopped. Nakia knew it was because their tenuous connection to Wakanda had been cut when the walls went to 100%. Yet this knowledge gave her no comfort. Those walls had not been pulled to more than 80% in her lifetime.

“What about other channels? A secret Email account, phone number you can call?”

Nakia shook her head. Thankfully, Omera had gone to sleep in the jet’s back end and was yet blissfully unaware of the danger they were flying towards.

“I already tried. Everyone is either scrambling for info themselves or silent.”

Quinn began to pace. Nakia wanted to do the same but her training prevented it.

“We will wait. Soon, there will have to be something. Those shield walls can hold for weeks. Months even, probably over a year with Shuri’s latest updates. I cannot imagine this Thanos keeping up his onslaught for that long. We will wait him out.”

“You hate that as much as I do, don’t you?”

She nodded, feeling no need to lie to Quinn.

“Everyone I care about is behind that shield. I do not like being helpless while they fight for their lives.”

A sigh was Quinn’s only response.

“We will wait. Thanos will limp away, without his prize, and our friends will be there to welcome up when we land.”

“And until then?”

“We pray.”

Quinn’s lips quirked in a ghost of a smile, before she reached into her pocket and seemed to grasp something tightly. Nakia moved to the front again, hoping that there would be useful chatter somewhere. She pretended she did not see Quinn pull out an antique rosary and an old, Celtic pendent that had been hanging around her neck.

Nakia pulled her own necklace to her lips, a medallion at the end that bore the symbol for hope on it’s front and the Wakandian royal seal on the back. She said a quick prayer to her preferred god, then kissed the medallion once, before returning her hands to the radios. She needed information and she needed it Now.

For twenty minutes, there was nothing but panic and questions from the rest of the world. Which was almost as unsettling as the silence from Wakanda. She wanted to scream. Nothing was helping. There was no useful information.

Then she heard something worse. Screaming. People on the different channels were screaming. Even in the channels from Wakanda, that lit up for only a minute before there was screaming about aliens and the walls being brought down.

Quinn was at her side in a blink, pulling a second headset in order to listen. From the look on her face and the way the lights of the dash were dimming, Nakia could guess the former assassin was taking this no better than she had and was making no more sense of it than Nakia had.

“Can you get us in there?”

Nakia nodded, already working on the controls. She was not as smooth as Okoye in piloting, yet she was no novice either. She had been born in one of these jets, she could make it do her bidding.

“Already on it.”

They continued to listen to the radio, steeling themselves to the screams and confused shouting. They were all yelling at each other, at reports they were reading, and at the scenes in Wakanda. Then, it went silent again. Not just in Wakanda, in about half the channels. Totally silent on one half, incoherent screams and ramblings in the other half.

Nakia turned to see if Omera was still sleeping in the back, only to find what looked like ashes floating into a breeze Nakia did not feel. The blanket that had been over Omera collapsed without a body beneath it and even Omera’s rings and hair clips, were gone. It was as if she had never been on the shuttle.

“Quinn?”

The other woman turned, facing the same direction as Nakia. Her eyes locked on the same terrible sight and then the room went black for a couple seconds before Nakia felt the light return, the hint of warmth returning to her skin that was covered in goose flesh.

“Get us to Wakanda. Now.”

Moving back to the controls, Nakia pulled everything out of the jet, making it go as swiftly as possible and far beyond what was safe within the shields of Wakanda. She moved towards the royal palace and docked the jet. Neither woman bothered to wait until the full sequence was finished, the jet still floating into place as they disembarked at top speed, hastening towards Shuri’s lab. Vision, Wanda, and Shuri should be there, at least. Possibly Bruce as well.

They had heard enough to know who had made appearances, though not enough to know who was where, aside from knowing everyone was worried about Shuri having time to work on Vision and something about Wanda being with them. Nakia and Quinn had filled in the rest with best guesses.

They raced down corridors and various tunnels, arriving in Shuri’s lab to find it in ruins. Tables were broken, glass lay in shards all over the place, two guards were dead in a doorway, and there was a large crater where something had blown up. They ran further down, Nakia leading the way.

“SHURI! SHURI!”

Nakia felt fear gripping at her heart, the cold fingers cutting into it as the fist tightened with every breath. She had lost T’Challa once, she could not bear it again. Nor could she bear to see him knowing that she would have to tell him of Shuri’s demise in her own lab. That would surely kill the King, to lose his baby sister.

They ran and ran. Finally, Nakia heard it. Shuri cursing out a doorway. Then banging. Then a blast.

“SHURI!”, she called.

The cursing and banging stopped, then Shuri appeared around a corner, one of her panther blasters locked onto her left hand, her beads projecting an image in the palm of her right. The Princess’s shoulders sagged at seeing Nakia.

“I cannot get the doors open, the aliens came in and attacked. They wanted Vision and they took him while Wanda was out trying to help Natasha and Okoye down there, and”, Nakia stopped her with a tight hug.

“I had thought you were dead when I saw the lab.”

“No. I am not dead. Two of the Dora,”, Nakia cut in, “I know. We saw.”

“Come, let me go and help me with this door.”

Nakia and Quinn stepped forward, with Nakia taking out her own weapon and Quinn pulling out a multi-tool from her pocket. They all three worked on the door for a minute, before finally popping it free enough for Shuri to work on some wiring in the walls, as best Quinn could follow, and suddenly the power was restored to the area they were in, the doors all opened, and some of the lights came back on in the darkened corners.

They all ran out into the field, finding dead bodies littering the way. Both alien and human, Wakanda fighters laid out next to the alien invaders, some of the Jubari tribe and others wearing the armor of the Dora. All the tribes were represented among the dead and injured. What really struck the three women, however, was the look of shock.

“There are not enough bodies.”

“What?”, Quinn turned to the spy.

“I know how many people were here, and for the numbers I heard on the radio, and the number of people left standing, there are not enough bodies. Either a large group of people are sitting somewhere we can’t see them or there are a lot more bodies somewhere.”

“Or,” Quinn added what they all dreaded, “some had happen to them what happened to Omera?”

Nakia nodded. Shuri looked back and forth between the two older women.

“What happened to Omera? You were supposed to bring her back and protect her.”

“She disappeared.”

“What?”

Looking at the girl who would soon be her sister-in-law, Nakia tried to help her understand what Nakia did not quite understand herself.

“We looked back, when we started to hear people going silent, and she was… ash. Floating away. As if she had never existed.”

“One of the Dora who was with me, she went around a corner to check something and did not come back. When I went to look, I found only a loose pile of dirt on the floor. I did not… Oh gods, that was her.”

Nakia nodded.

“Come. We must find Okoye and T’Challa.”

“And Steve, and the others.”

_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_

Natasha recalled coming to Steve’s bedside, after they brought down HYDRA-controlled SHIELD. After learning Bucky was alive, brainwashed into the villain code-named Winter Soldier. The ghost who had put a nasty scar in Nat’s side.

Despite learning the organization he had worked within, started by his dear Peggy, and host to his friends, was now a nest for HYDRA. Despite learning what had become of Bucky and his own near-death, Steve had not been broken. A little cracked around the edges, yet still strong. Sturdy. Steadfast.

When Bucky was implicated in the bombing at the Accords, Wanda had her accident in Africa, and the team started tearing apart, Steve was still Steve. He was still trying to save every puppy in the pound. He and Clint were so much alike in that way, just as Phil had been. Always believing they could, with enough patience and perseverance, change things for the better. They knew they couldn’t save everyone, it just never stopped them from trying.

Now, sitting here in a field, Natasha could see it without knowing the details. Captain America, one of Earth’s mightiest heroes, the First Avenger, symbol of a nation, super-soldier… was broken. Steve Rogers, her friend, was lost. She had seen enough people on that battle field as they disappeared in a wind no one felt, scattering as ashes. She needn’t have seen exactly what happened to know. Bucky was gone.

Looking around, she counted out. Vision- gone. Wanda too. T’Challa- gone. Thor’s tree-friend, also gone. Thor still stood, looking as if this were all somehow his fault. The raccoon creature knelt beside another pile of ash, his posture suggesting he was in mourning. Bruce, still wearing the broken Hulk-buster suit, stood still in shock. General Okoye wandered around as if in a daze.

Steve just knelt on the ground, one hand laid out over the spot where she guessed Bucky to have been when he disappeared. Long, dirty-blond hair fell into his face, nearly obscuring the broken look in his eyes. Natasha sank back against the tree behind her, feeling numb. Cold. Like she had not felt since the day she graduated from the Red Room.

Just then, she heard it. Someone shouting Steve’s name. And another voice. This one shouting for T’Challa, before being joined by a second, higher pitched voice, calling the same name. Natasha recognized the first voice well, the other two less-so. Quinn, Nakia, and Shuri.

Looking up, she spotted them as the entered the small clearing. Nakia still in her garb from her mission, Shuri bloodied and bruised with her panther blaster on her left fist, and Quinn in her usual black tactical gear. It seemed they, at least, had survived. Natasha was grateful for that.

Quinn moved forward, seeing Steve. He was on his knees and he was… broken. Without anyone telling her, she knew it. He had lost Bucky. Suddenly awkward, shaky legs brought her to crouch in front of Steve. She reached out, her hands finding his shoulders.

“Bucky he… he’s gone.”

He looked up at her, unshed tears drowning his eyes.

She nodded dumbly.

“Wanda, Vision, T’Challa.”

His seemed to lose what little had been holding him up, Quinn guiding him to fall into her arms, before looking to Natasha. She seemed to have faired somewhat better, looking less lost than Steve, yet still haunted.

“Nat?”

The spy looked up at her, green eyes meeting green.

“Where’s Clint?”

Natasha’s face showed her sudden, clawing fear. Without needing the command, she ran. Quinn knew where she would go, somewhere with a radio or phone so she could call Clint. He must have stayed on the farm, rather than joining the fight that had come so suddenly.

“T’CHALLA!”, Shuri cried out.

Okoye walked towards Nakia and Shuri, her training as a Dora keeping her standing and proud, yet even Quinn could see it in her eyes. Inside, she was no better than Natasha, Thor, or Steve. She had lost her king, her friend. And now she had to inform his little sister and his fiancé.

_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_^_

Natasha returned to the room where everyone was being tended by the remaining medical staff at the palace. Most were ambulatory, only a few needing more urgent care downstairs. Some had returned to their corners of Wakanda, rather than staying in the palace. Natasha suspected they wished to check on their loved ones, to see who was left standing.

As she passed, she took stock of those who remained. Shuri had not stopped crying since she learned of T’Challa disappearing. She sat in Okoye’s arms, the warrior doing her best to comfort the young princess while looking shell shocked. She sat ramrod straight, staring directly ahead at nothing, her arms full of a weeping girl.

Ramonda sat nearby, looking like the proud queen in every way but her eyes, full of the sorrow of a mother in mourning. Beside her sat Nakia, quietly crying as she ran through lists with the Queen, of things that needed to be tended to with repairing the defenses of Wakanda. They were doing what they knew best, taking care of everyone else around them while trying to ignore their pain.

These women Natasha could understand. Okoye, feeling the agony and rage of a soldier who failed to protect what she most-cared about. Nakia, having lost her mate yet again, while still feeling the driving need trained into her almost from birth to protect and serve. Ramonda, doing her best to forefill her duties while also breaking inside. Even Shuri, devastated beyond the ability to act her part, taking solace in the only place she was able.

Natasha left the small room at the end of the hall, passing through the doors usually manned by two of the royal guard. Natasha was a bit jarred to see not the two women in their brightly colored armor, but a pair of battered men. To the right, a tall man in a mostly-blue outfit that marked his tribal affiliation, with a bloody lip that looked to still be swelling. On the right, a taller man stood in brown armor that looked like leather. Natasha recognized him as M’Baku, a former challenger for the throne of Wakanda and more recently the one to help save it from a man named Killmonger.

Both men stood proud and stared straight ahead, until Natasha waited too long. Staring for a fraction of a second before taking a step forward to continue down the hall. The Jabari tribe’s leader addressed Natasha in a booming voice, made quieter than she had ever heard it.

“Romanoff, are you lost?”

She shook her head.

“No, surprised. Though I should not have been.”

“I will protect the Queen and the Princess, as T’Challa is not here to do so.”

“I am glad of it. I am merely accustomed to seeing the Royal Guard at this post.”

That seemed to calm him a bit. He nodded.

“There are so few left, who are uninjured. I suffered no serious wound.”

He did not have to add the rest, that he was one of the few still here AND mostly uninjured. So many had disappeared, roughly half of those who had survived the battle. Nodding, Natasha continued to walk forward, leaving the royal family and their loyal supporters behind her.

Moving further, Natasha found Thor, pulling pieces of the palace away from where they had fallen in the attack. He was more than strong enough to clear wreckage one might normally use a crane or bobcat to handle. The God of Thunder looked decidedly ungodly with his scarred eye, sloppily shorn hair, dust-covered armor, and haunted expression. He also ducked every attempt to look him in the eye. Upon catching his glance, Natasha moved to his side.

“Thor?”

His response was a weary sigh and the sinking of his shoulders, as he averted his eyes.

“What happened to you? I thought you went home for a while.”

“My father died and… my home… was destroyed, by my sister and a monster of old. We fled. Loki arrived, just in the nick of time, and we were able to escape with a few hundred of my people. We had… set a course for Midgard when… Thanos attacked us. Loki made to trick him and died for his efforts. Thanos trapped me, left me helpless to watch as he killed Heimdall and stran….”, Thor faltered, his voice hoarse and watery.

“Strangled the life out of Loki.”, he finished. Natasha reached out to him, giving his forearm a squeeze. Thor placed his beefy hand atop hers, trying to offer her a weak, shaky smile. For all the ill she had wished on Loki, for what he did to Clint and for killing Phil, she would never have wished him dead because she knew how that would hurt Thor. No matter what Loki did, he would still be Thor’s twin. The other half of the coin, the dark side of the moon, the negative image of the photo.

“How is Clint and his family? Do they survive?”

It was now Natasha’s turn to push the words from her lips.

“Clint and the children are fine, physically. Laura disappeared. When everyone else winked out of existence, she… just disappeared. She was leading the kids to the basement, meaning to go to the panic apartment Clint built a couple years ago, after New York, and… she started down the stairs with the kids, and when Clint came down a minute later, bringing a radio and some toys, the kids were alone and crying. They said Laura just…disappeared. So he scooped them all up and got into a jet he had hidden, and he’s coming here. He wanted to see if I was… if I had survived, and the rest of the team.”

Thor nodded, his movement slow and unsteady. He swallowed thickly before turning to look out of a broken window.

“We have to get them back.”

“Loki and the others?”

“Loki did not disappear with the snap. Even when we have brought them all back, I will be the last of Asgard.”

That broke Natasha all over again. She had not thought it possible, yet it was.

“Maybe that Doctor Strange character can help? He might know of something.”

“If I could not stop it and Loki’s magic could not save him… your mortal conjurer will not be able to reverse time and bring Loki back, nor Heimdall, or any of the others. No, we must focus on finding a way to return our friends, and everyone else. We cannot let Thanos have his victory. He took everyone… and we will take them back.”

Natasha turned it over in her mind a couple times before it sank in.

“You’re saying they aren’t dead?”

“I believe not. I think Thanos has them, somehow, somewhere we cannot see or reach, and he needs them. I have not yet surmised what he needs them for or how their disappearing empowers him. I know it. They are not dead.”

That much, at least, was a comfort. To know that Thor believed they could be brought back. Hopefully he was right. Hopefully they could get Laura back, and Bucky, and everyone else they had lost today. Or at least those who had disappeared. There would be no miraculous return for the dead.

Meanwhile, Steve and Bronach sat in a darkened corner. Steve had wordlessly helped carry a few people in to receive medical attention, almost as if in auto-pilot. He was like a machine set to a task, without thought or feeling. Bronach had stuck close and helped out, always keeping an eye on Steve.

Now they were both silent. Bronach had never been good at grief counselling and now she would have given every dollar she had ever possessed, to be good enough at it to offer even the slightest comfort to Steve. The strong, seemingly fearless kid from Brooklyn, now looked as if someone had reached inside of him and hollowed him out. A gargoyle left to guard over a ruined cathedral.

“Steve?”

He didn’t move. She didn’t try speaking again. Instead, Bronach threaded her fingers through his, giving his hand a small squeeze. It was nothing, but it was all she could offer him.

“Nock?”

Natasha’s voice echoed in the too-quiet corridor, drawing Bronach’s attention. The former red head hurried up to them, a mad look in her eyes. Bronach could feel the change in the air before Natasha spoke.

“Thor has an idea.”

Bronach felt Steve stir beside her, his attention focusing solely on their friend.

“He thinks Thanos needed these people for something, that they are not dead. Thanos has them somewhere. Interdimensional holding sell, parallel dimension, a pocket dimension, whatever. Which means he has to be able to reach them, somehow, because he needs them to repopulate some world, to draw energy from, whatever. If we can figure out why he needed the particular people he needed, and where he took them when he snapped them away, we can get them back, and stop him, in one fell swoop.”

Steve stood, Bronach rising with him.

“Where do we start?”

Natasha sunk a little.

“I have no idea.”

“I might have one.”

They all turned to look at Shuri. Her eyes were puffy and red from her tears, yet she stood tall. Defiant even.

“I asked Doctor Banner a few questions as we were helping clean up the labs. I believe I might have an idea of something I can use to trace them. They did not, I think, just disappear. I think they had to have been… sucked from here to there.  Wherever ‘there’ is. That would mean energy.”

“Are you going to take an energy reading, or scan?”, Bronach asked the genius princess.

“I am trying. He is an alien and I do not understand which stone, or if it was a combo, that made it possible for him to move so much, all at once. I am going to find out, and I am going to trace the path he dragged them through, and then I’m going to figure out how to get them back.”

Bruce stepped forward, looking as wrung out as the rest of them.

“And then we’re going to try to figure out how to block him from being able to do it again. Only this time, we’ll be ready for him and we’ll understand how his power works so we can counter it.”

Steve nodded, some of the grit and determination coming back in to fill in where the hope and passion used to dwell.

“Then let’s get started.”

Thor stepped up from another part of the hall, looking around the room much the way he had in a hellicarrier, some years ago. Addressing his team, he voiced their plan.

“Let’s bring them home.”