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Dismantle The Sun

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What hits the hardest, drives the knife too far, all the deeper: what hurts most in a cosmos made now more of fucking hurt than even he thinks he could have imagined between blood and ice and all the in between—

What hurts the most is that, before that moment, before an echoing click of inhuman fingers and the wave of light so bright it blinded, became darkness in its endless fucking irony: before that moment?

Bucky thought he and Steve were reading the same story, living on the same goddamn page.

He lies on the ground, hands cracked and yellowed with the soil that isn’t soil, the dirt that isn’t dirt but the remains of blood and bone, Bucky imagines, save that it was a blink and the pump of a heart before it broke and no more: but if they’re anywhere, if Steve is anywhere, it’s here.

He drags his fingers, flesh for aching and metal for the sheer desperation, the unholy rage that vibrates through him shakes free the tears. The color on his palms is ancient, cracked against skin and vibranium plates; the color is how he imagined the book, always, aged and brittle, prone to dust at the edges and crinkly, fragile in ways that rasp on contact like stubborn, perfect, shivering lungs in the winter under Bucky’s hands in the cold. Water-stained as Bucky blinks in the now, melted ice or unstoppable agony, impossible tears soaked into hallowed, hollow ground through time and loss and the unimaginable, twice over and again: bound tight. Against all odds.

But he’s unraveling. The glue that kept him together, that held him fast, that bonded only for the breath of Steven Grant Rogers and god, god

He breathes in and the words slip. The slice of the pages in his mind—unshared, now, unfinished, unbearable—against his heart seeps slow and endless, because that heart is sluggish, now. Purposeless in a way he can’t imagine it’s ever known, he’s ever known; at least the fucking soldier had a mission, but this. This.

That heart’s gonna beat a slow torment for ages to come for how wrong Bucky was. For how much he couldn’t stop it. For all the failure to see and to grasp and to save. For nothing to dive after or reach for or fight heaven, hell, and his goddamn mind to find and have a chance, a hope in a million shreds of hope to maybe, someday, possibly call something close to his

That heart’s going to beat so slow, and bleed out longer than any heart before it, from the slip of that page against the flesh. From the sliver of Bucky being too slow, being too blind, being too hopeful, stupid fucking hope, when the world didn’t deal in miracles anymore, if it ever did at all.

It was chance. Soulless, mindless, willess chance. Blind grasping and indifferent loss. They died and lived and held fast again to one another because sometimes the world turned one way, melted or mounded or bent in another.

There was no destiny, and the twist in Bucky’s chest wasn’t a sign, or a warning, or a curse. It just was.

Bucky just was.

But Steve—

How could Steve just be? Steve was more, Steve was the sunrise, Steve was—

Fuck. Fuck.

Was.

And Bucky thought they were reading a book, see. Sharing a page, and maybe they’d hold closer, through to the ending.

But Bucky pounds the ground with both fists, and screams terror and loss and hate at the universe for chance that always seemed to skip him, always seemed to take and leave him boneless, breathless and perfect balance was nothing, made it so that Bucky couldn’t see straight, couldn’t stand steady or breathe without a gasp.

It was a blink of an eye, a beat of a heart, and the obsession of a madman and a hateful universe that doesn’t give a shit and never did. There was no one listening. There was no sound in the vacuum, and it was a blink of an eye. So much light it turned black and that was fitting, really, wasn’t it? Because Steve was the light, and when Bucky’s eyes cleared he was gone. And maybe the dark had never ceased. Maybe he has never surfaced. Maybe he’s shaking because it’s pitch black and you can’t read anything in the night.

But Bucky knows better, when his heart pumps out his blood through that tiny cut that’ll kill him too slow. He’s alone, and he knows.

There was no book. They never had a chance in hell.

_____________________

Bucky registers the footsteps behind him, recognizes them, and so doesn’t do much at all to hurry getting up from the hallowed ground he spends part of every day splayed upon.

“Dinner’s ready,” Sam says casually as he eyes the alcove, the untouched trees that didn’t suffer for the losses here; he eyes this place with mourning.

“Coming, mom,” Bucky groans as he stands, and Sam just rolls his eyes as Bucky steps forward—never coming quite too close himself, never treading too near the space where everything changed and left and died; Sam never comes too close—but he steps forward just to the edge as Bucky strides to meet him and offers a fierce elbow to Bucky’s ribs in return.

“Asshole.”

Bucky stares at him, blank-faced; that shit ain’t news. Sam just shakes his head.

Because they’d got close in a very short time, to be honest. In the past days that felt like a lifetime—a horrible, terrifying lifetime, like Bucky imagines it might have been like if they’d never froze him, if he’d had to live like the Soldier every day, eyes-open, fully aware of what he was and what he did and who he did it to and what he took; all that he took

But they’d moved past apologies for Sam’s wings, in no small part with Shuri’s promise of better ones, in the course of the many visits Steve had made to Wakanda in the years after Bucky’d gone there, healed there, made a home there that made sense, because Steve was home just as much as any place could ever be and he was there, for more breaths than he wasn’t, and Sam there with him every now and then. They’d grown at least toward a mutual trust in that time, to Steve’s delight and Bucky’s relief—he could make things right, he could be well enough, could be enough at all, to merit regaining what he’d lost, and rebuilding what he’d broken, at least somethings, somewhere. They’d been almost friendly the last time—

The last time.

But in the past days, it’d been a crash course. If they’d cried, it was for themselves. If they broke walls or sculptures or their own bones, there was no mention (thank fuck that Bucky’s healed so quick); but Sam always found Bucky when he made his daily pilgrimage to where his heart had broken harder, into more and sharper pieces than ever before. They’d been silent, the first time. The second, Sam had spoke first; he’d breathed in deep and said things like He wouldn’t stop looking for you, even when he wasn’t there to do the legwork. He was always sending me new intel when he was stuck with the more traditional avenging and shit. And he didn’t even feel guilty, resenting the hell out of that work because what he wanted was to be looking for you. Well, Sam had stopped then, and waited until Bucky stopped too, and turned to him before he finished—

He wanted to be there, when we found you. He couldn’t imagine not being there. He wouldn’t imagine not finding you.

Bucky’d swallowed hard, and it’d changed something. Bucky doesn’t know what to call it, exactly.

He doesn’t know what to call it, but he sure as shit knows what it did. It made the rest of their walks, every day, into strange banter centered around their military years—I flew in deserts versus I fought Nazis, countered by We’re still fighting Nazis and they never brought up what came after, and Sam sometimes bumped the metal arm like it was normal, and that was fine. That was good.

Then it’d become time to talk about Steve, the things Bucky didn’t know, hadn’t heard yet about the years Sam had lived out with him when Bucky couldn’t, and the times after they found him even before Sam, that he’d heard through the grapevine. It stays one-sided, at first, and Bucky just listens, soaks it in and in those moments they’re sometimes, somehow able to pretend the stories are things they’ll be able to rag Steve on later, laugh about between the three of them.

They can’t, and when those moments pass it’s silent, again. It’s no worse, though, than the rest of the silence, and that’s nice.

It takes a little time before Bucky starts sharing what he remembers of them, from before. Fights Steve started. Hard nights in the winter. Steve in Europe, in the war, being a fucking dumbass. Stories even without Steve, before he made it over the Atlantic, before he saved Bucky from that table, the beginning of all that came after, all that led him here.

Here. He thought he could learn to be grateful where it landed him in the end, with Steve, and with a chance to make those few things right, to do something to make his entire being more than a total loss.

Now, he’s pretty sure he’ll never learn that. He thinks he doesn’t even want to try, anymore.

But it’s in those moments, those walks from the graveyard where their friends, their comrades in arms, their colleagues and souls and other-halves dissolved in a blink, in a flash of light absorbed into the earth or scattered in the air, so close that each of them had felt the tug, the disintegration themselves before they blinked against the unbearable gleam and then: nothing.

Nothing, made of everything, and Bucky can’t breathe when he thinks about it too much, because thinking leads to feeling and feeling isn’t something he’ll survive.

Those walks, though. That’s how Sam knows for sure that Bucky’s an asshole. So Bucky really doesn’t know why Sam bothers to call him one when it’s kind of a key component of his personality.

Eventually, Sam sighs, and brings Bucky fully back into the moment.

“Any updates?” Bucky asks; he personally lets the major developments trickle through to him as a friend, or as a warrior, but Sam likes to keep up to date.

“Global markets are fucked,” Sam ticks off on his fingers as they climb the hill before them toward the city on the horizon. “Governments, also fucked,” he tilts his head at that; “though sounds like some up and comers are filling in for the majority of Congress that got,” Sam pauses; there’s no saying it. There’s no word for it.

There’s no need for a word for it.

“Well, new blood ‘n all that,” Sam settles on. They both lapse back into silence for a moment before Sam starts again.

“Presidency’s a mess.”

Bucky snorts. “That new?”

“Point,” Sam concedes with a sad smirk. “But apparently they’ve got a few veterans of the job. They’ve got Biden and Clinton,” Sam bites his lower lip in thought; “Carter and W. All singing kumbaya and trying to keep shit from blowing the fuck up.”

Bucky rolls his eyes; that’s a crack team, for sure. God bless the US-fucking-A.

“T’Challa’s spent most of the day wading through all the diplomatic bullshit,” Sam tells him; that’s not new. T’Challa usually has a drink with them at the end of these days full of diplomatic bullshit involving a lot of sighing and a lot of refilling his glass. Bucky does most of the latter, given that he drinks for the company, because the buzz is lost on his fucked-with metabolism. Joy of joys.

He remembers when he first realized that, upon waking up to his own mind. That was a fucking let down he was not expecting to remember with such a blow.

“Lots of messages about whether Wakandan tech had anything to do with,” Bucky realizes his response to that is a growl, or close enough to one, only after the sound echoes in the air and he realizes how tense his muscles have gone.

“Or else, if anything here can help figure things out,” Sam tries to mitigate the first point, and Bucky uncoils. A little.

He loves this place, and these people. He owes them more than he’ll ever be able to repay. And he’ll give them all he has nonetheless, as long as he can; his loyalty being the easiest, the least he can offer.

Bucky Barnes has never let anyone talk shit about the people he loves without consequences to be had. That is something he remembers very clearly.

“How’d they take it when he told them we don’t know shit?” Bucky asks, hoping to segue away from the tension.

“Presumably, really well.” Sam says with a note of surprise, or maybe many notes of surprise, eyebrows raised. “No death threats as yet, so apparently it went over fine enough.”

Bucky feels something prickle down his spine, set him straight back on edge and then some, and he’s touching his wrist on what’s turned into instinct—Shuri had made him the tech early, to observe his medical progress, and modified them beautifully when he’d taken up the cause, synced it to his arm as soon as he took it, when he’d agreed to fight.

Fuck, but Bucky misses her; can’t quite believe she’s gone, too.

But he’s running a fingertip along the beads and letting them communicate with the left arm, seeking coordinates, sweeping perimeters.

“Or not,” Bucky says, eyes focused far beyond even his vision but where he knows it needs to be locked. “There’s an aircraft inbound.”

Sam straightens in an instant, face set hard as he shifts into a defensive stance and prepares for battle against the unknown, should it come.

“Hostile?” He asks, but it’s in a tone that speaks of how much he’s pretty fucking sure he doesn’t need to ask—because why else would there be an incoming aircraft?

Bucky watches the beads themselves start to light in careful patterns, follows the dancing figures that emerge from them at his wrist, studying them more than once before he answers, because he doesn’t quite understand the answer—

“Unarmed.”

But then: he doesn’t understand much of anything, anymore.

“Can you tell where it’s from?” Sam asks, and Bucky blinks as the readings come through, immediately referencing all available intel and databases as they’re processed, before they even reach him to read.

“Bucky,” Sam prompts, but Bucky shakes his head as he taps the beads in sequences and waits for all of the projections in the air to disappear and a barely-notable shiver through his arm confirm the secure channel.

“Fort Hahn, this is White Wolf.”

The shiver repeats; message received, awaiting further contact.

“Incoming aircraft,” Bucky relays, his tone low. “Unidentified, looks American.” Bucky pauses, because again: this part doesn’t make any sense.

“Does not appear hostile.”

“Copy White Wolf,” a voice comes across immediately, this time; no visual, and only straight into Bucky’s ear, a vibration instead of a sound through the tech in his arm, the vibranium facilitating the connection. Not to mention that protocols have tightened since—

Well. Since.

“Hold position.”

“Copy, General,” Bucky answers immediately. He tries not to process—not now, at least; tries not to wallow in the fact that the General had been lost. Bucky’d grown attached to Okoye, and Okoye had almost grown to tolerate him in recent months, Bucky’s damn near sure of it, but—

But now, they have General Ayo at the helm, and Bucky’s going to be damn grateful they have her talent and skill leading them, rather than dwell on things that can’t be changed.

At least, for now: for now, that’s what he’s going to do.

“White Wolf, return to base at the King’s request.”

Bucky nods, because he knows he’s being watched. It’s strange, when he tries to process it in his head, how much it doesn’t bother him when he trusts the watchmen.

He thinks it might be all that super-speed therapy in cryo that helped it along, the conversations in his head. Think of it more as traditional session based therapy, that’s happening at incredibly rapid speeds by our external measures, Shuri had explained, after, when he’d woken from his second sleep following his consent to any and all means necessary of making him as safe as humanly, inhumanly, universally possible. Hours, even years of recovery via conversation and hard work, she’d told him with a small smile, tapping her temple. The only difference is that it is played out up here. Like dreams that you carry over, but that exist outside of time. And fuck, but they had.

He was still a crazy son of a bitch, and his memory wasn’t what he imagines it could be, or should be, but he is better. And he’s better because of her; because of all of them.

So yeah. Probably helps that he trusted them with his brain and body first, before he trusted them to watch his every move as their operative; their soldier.

Which was so different from The Soldier it still escaped comprehension.

“Copy that,” he says, louder this time so Sam hears him, because he’s starting to look antsy for the conversations taking place without words, exactly, or else with the words used coming far below his register to make out.

And Bucky’s learned that, much to Sam’s detriment, he’s shit at reading lips.

“Dinner’s cancelled, then?” Sam infers, and hell if he doesn't look far too disappointed when the reason for any such cancellation is going to be unidentified incoming fucking aircraft.

“Delayed,” Bucky puts him out of his misery. “If hospitality wasn’t already the law of the land in its own right,” Bucky smirks; “T’Challa’s appetite would require it to be written in.”

Because Sam loves to eat more than the average person, but the King?

Fuck, but T’Challa may well be the world’s most composed, regal example of the word “hangry” when there’s a missed meal that doesn’t involve a scenario that’s unquestionably life or death.

_____________________

“You rang?” Bucky says, ducking into the throne room with Sam on his heels.

T’Challa nods at him, and gestures toward the man in front of him: familiar, and Bucky thinks for a moment before he places the face—middle-aged, dirty blonde, military bearing, intelligence community, mid-level threat analysis—

“Sergeant Barnes,” Everett Ross raises a hand to his forehead, cutting his fingers downward through the air in respect.

“We’ve met,” Bucky waves him off; “haven’t we.”

It’s not a question. They’d met after the UN. They’d met when Zemo had—

Well. Bucky remembers him from more than just profiles and images, basically.

“Not properly,” Ross says, with no hint of malice or resentment but still with a note of genuine esteem, and Bucky doesn’t deserve that, he knows, at least not for what Ross is drawing from, and even after he doesn’t deserve it for making amends, for trying to make the red on his hand more red than so deep, so layered and hateful that it looks burnt to the bone when Bucky closes his eyes.

He doesn’t deserve it, but it seems he’s going to keep getting it here and there, and so: the more pressing matter is that he doesn’t know how to accept it, how to handle when it comes.

“I mean,” Ross adds ruefully into the quiet that had settled, just a touch awkward; “if I met a war hero and didn’t salute, it doesn’t really count.”

Bucky snorts, and shakes his head as he reaches out a hand.

“Pleasure,” he says, and salutes in kind with no small amount of feeling entirely foreign and entirely right at the exact same time; as Ross takes his grip with just the right amount of strength.

“Call me Bucky.”

He steps back, and nods toward Sam to make his introduction.

“Sam Wilson.”

“The Falcon,” Ross nods, and salutes again; Sam returns it far more naturally. “I remember.”

“You bring news?” T’Challa asks from his chair, and the other men sit next to him in turn.

“Well,” Ross sighs as he settles in. “Mostly it’s been nearly two weeks and your communications are down, and I...”

He trails off with three pairs of eyes on him; two of which are mostly amused and one—Sam’s—which is leaning that way as Ross coughs and gets just a little color in his cheeks before he pushes it down and straighten his back, regaining composure.

Just like Steve had never been capable of.

Bucky’s heart thuds painfully, predictably.

Goddamnit.

“I was concerned,” Ross admits without inflection, but T’Challa grins wide at him nonetheless.

“Worried for us, Everett?”

“Seems I had every right to be,” Ross counters, and the regret he has for ruining the tiny blip of lightness in the conversation is clear on his features, but it’s true. They all know it, feel it. It’s more than clear, in all the empty spaces, in all the people Ross should have already seen, and haven’t.

Won’t ever see again.

“Chance,” T’Challa finally says, clearing his throat from the tightness that clenches there; that Bucky knows too well; “is a cruel master. Never would I have guessed we would come to this by any means so random.” He blinks, and his bearing is so still; so still.

“So heartless.”

“You said ‘mostly’.”

Eyes turns to Bucky as soon as he speaks; Bucky speaks because there’s truth in the words, but also because someone has to, someone has to stop them from sliding down this slippery fucking slope because in every moment where no one is looking, Bucky lives there—either falling perpetually or straight at the bottom and they can’t go there, not here.

Not now.

Because this man is here for other reasons. And worry is just ‘mostly’.

“Hmm?” Ross says, climbing back into the present.

“Mostly because you were concerned,” T’Challa nods at Bucky, picking up his implications effortlessly. “What else brings you here?”

“Well,” Ross draws the word out, looks like he already regrets the words that are coming before he says them: “government business.”

“Do you mean to say I don’t spend enough of my day with leaders of this country and that?” T’Challa answers goodnaturedly, but not entirely without truth.

“You probably spend too much,” Ross tells him; “and I’m not asking you because I want to, but because it’s my job. Sure as hell not asking you to say yes.”

“Ominous,” T’Challa raises a brow, at that. “I think we’ve all had enough of uncertainty,” he adds, almost gravely: “so ask.”

“It’s all hush-hush, but enough of the world leadership survived intact to start the ball rolling,” Ross starts, leaning in as he speaks, hands steepled with his elbows on his knees. “Germany, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, all of Scandinavia and Iceland, Ireland,” he lists off; “they reached out to the US once they saw the presidency barren,” and that’s one word for it—and speaks volumes given that most of those countries, so far as Bucky’s aware, weren’t too keen to reach out to the US when said presidency was filled, of late.

“And I know they’re leading contact in South America and elsewhere on the Continent here,” Ross continues; “but the deep desire was to speak with you.”

“And everyone knows who best to send to Wakanda for tea with the King,” Bucky adds with a smirk.

“Barnes, be reasonable,” T’Challa sighs, almost chiding, eyeing Bucky with disappointment. “You know I don’t like my tea in the middle of the day. Too hot.”

Bucky doesn’t bother stifling the snort that makes to escape him at that degree of sarcasm, in the face of everything.

“Whatever was I thinking,” Bucky puts on exaggerated airs; “apologies, your grace. I beg your forgiveness.”

And T’Challa laughs, tight and short; but he does laugh.

“They want you on board, or at least open to talks,” Ross finally gets to the main point. “We’re looking at the possibility of a global coalition government.”

T’Challa exhales slowly. “You said you weren’t asking me to say yes.”

“I’m not,” Ross assures.

“Should I?” T’Challa asks him. He’s visibly taken aback, and while Bucky’s not surprised by it—he was himself for the longest of times—he’s not sure it’s warranted. Bucky knows a lot about Everett Ross, and would expect T’Challa to value his input on such a proposal.

T’Challa’s a smart statesman; he knows where to look for expertise, and where to trust when it comes.

“It’s not my place—”

“Agent Ross,” T’Challa raises a hand to stop him. “You helped save this country.”

“You damn well saved my life,” Ross points out; “like it was child’s play.”

T’Challa waves him off, predictably. “Point being, I trust your judgment.”

Ross seems to swallow more arguments, but ultimately gives up with a deep sigh.

Smart man.

“I don’t know if it will work,” Ross confesses openly. “It may be too bold, and it’s definitely too soon, too reactionary,” he leans back and takes a long glance out the window at the city sprawling around them, and the green lands beyond that, far beyond the limits of view.

“You may do better work on your own for now, without the distraction.”

They both know, however—hell, they all know—that Ross isn’t incapable of lying, and could have easily come here to check on T’Challa and then simply have communicated his polite decline without bothering to pose the offer. He thinks it has merit enough for consideration.

“I pledged our resources to the world,” T’Challa starts, heaving a sigh. “To say no—”

“Keep the outreach centers as functional as you can, then,” Bucky cuts in; he’d been hesitant to do it even after T’Challa had invited it months ago, but without the council—they’d all been lost, taken, stolen—there’s no hesitation anymore. He may not trust himself entirely, but he trusts his care for the best of this man and this nation, and he trusts that he can do this, to be here and show the fuck up to help his friend.

“But this?” Bucky gestures widely toward Ross. “Don’t respond either way. Not yet.”

“I agree,” Ross says, when T’Challa doesn’t respond in the negative or the affirmative to Bucky’s input, simply takes it in. “At least until I know more.”

“Or we see where the momentum starts heading with everyone else,” Bucky nods. Steve wasn’t the only tactician, after all. Even the great Captain had to learn from someone.

Steve. Steve.

Goddamnit. Again.

Or else: not again.

Always.

“I will think on it,” T’Challa finally says, nodding to both Ross and Bucky in turn. “I thank you for your input.” He puts his hands on the arms of his chair but doesn’t lift himself to stand immediately.

“It’s nearly nightfall,” Bucky notes idly, recognizing the need for someone to nudge the moment, to aim the King toward a place and time to let the weight of everything, the loss of everything, ease into the background, if only for fleeting moments between breaths.

Bucky knows those moments are all that is keeping him standing, so he figures they’re likely what’s keeping T’Challa going, too.

“Meaning?” Ross asks, eyeing them all for a hint.

“Meaning that it is time for me to play host and invite you to dinner as a matter of course,” T’Challa says, his tone exhausted but with a smile in it, reflected better in the sound than on his lips. Even as he adds, just a little wryly:

“And for drinks as a matter of friendship, after.”

_____________________

Bucky lies on his bed in the dark after Ross has drank enough to get giggly, Sam enough to be brazen, and T’Challa, enough to calm his mind quiet enough for some hours of sleep. He doesn’t shower, never at night, because he’d lose it.

And he can’t lose it.

Because he goes to the grove and lays on the ground, presses his body to the dirt that maybe held a part of Steve, some imprint or echo or tiny trace of the man Bucky had loved for as long as he can remember—and there’s a deep place in his heart that knows that’d be true even if he could remember with the best of them, because he’s not sure he’d deemed remembering worthwhile, really, if the memories didn’t include Steve.

But he goes there and breathes and aches and closes his eyes and imagines that some whisper of Steve seeps into him, or else some parts of him seep into wherever Steve is, whatever does come next that he’s not worthy of, but that he prays to a god he doesn’t hold to he might see anyway, just because he’s weak and he’s selfish and he hurts: Bucky goes there, and he doesn’t have hope left for much of anything, but he hopes for that.

For something.

But every time he goes, he leans on his left arm. He leans, and he brushes the dust from it when he’s done, but there’s a groove at the very center of his palm that creases just so, at just the right angle that it takes effort to clean out. And it washes away just fine under the endless spray of the shower, here, every day like clockwork as it’s replaced again and again, but in the dark. By himself.

In the dark, by himself, Bucky’s eyes burn and sometimes draw salt on his cheeks, and his breath catches sharp. In the dark, by himself, Bucky crumbles, and he lifts his hands to his face as he shakes.

In the dark, by himself, Bucky brings his left hand to his mouth, and presses his lips to that one groove, and the dust caught inside it, and kisses the only possible piece of Steve left for him to hold and he keeps it close there as long as he can stand it.

And when he can’t stand it any longer, he lets it fall to his chest, just above his pain-swelled heart and presses it close.

It’s still pressed there every morning when he wakes.

Chapter Text

Steve is going to break everything in this goddamn room. He is. He’s about halfway there. He’s fairly certain the things he’s broken are priceless, irreplaceable, but then there have been things that are more of both that evaporated, disintegrated before his eyes and there’s nothing left of them, so—

Maybe there’s something in the destruction he’s been reduced to, maybe it’s because he can see what’s left, what lingers.

Or maybe Steve’s just livid, and broken himself in ways he can’t see either, and goddamnit, he has to do something.

“I’m coming in,” the voice behind the door announces even as the entrance to his rooms starts to slide open. “Don’t aim at me.”

Steve sighs, and actually withdraws his hand from where he’d been ready to punch the wall—again—and lets it hang aimless, lifeless at his side.

He tries to catch his breath, but that part's beyond him.

Natasha doesn’t comment on that, though. Of course.

“Wow,” she says, deadpan; “I was expecting more of a warzone, if I’m honest.” She turns eyes on him; “I’m disappointed.”

She doesn't even try to make it land with any weight, and Steve would feel bad, would feel sympathy and the need to reach and help, for the way the eyes she pins him with don’t show anything at all because they’re dead, they hold nothing—Steve would feel bad.

If Steve weren’t hollow. But he is hollow. He’s empty.

He can’t feel anything but the ache that bounces endlessly in that void that is his body, his heart and soul, because nothing is there to dull the echo, and so it cannot die.

Only multiply, and scream on impact with every breath.

Steve is going to come apart, and so he figures he might as well take everything in arm’s reach there first, as if maybe that’ll let him shatter quicker. Like the pattern will hold and when there’s nothing else to break, he’ll go.

Because this can’t last. This can’t stay.

He can’t stay. Not like this. Useless. Bereft.

Nothing.

“Any news from Nebula?” Natasha settles in the tiny space of the bed not littered with pieces of...things. Or else, pieces of former things that were things, and are now pieces.

“I wouldn’t know.”

And Steve wouldn’t. Because Steve isn’t entirely over the fact that he can’t do shit, at all, in response to his heart being ripped out of his chest with the snap of fingers and no one noticing, no one knowing it’d happened because he’d never said it, then having it shoved back in just for the sole purpose of rotting; of holding all the rage and hollowness and the taunting promise of breaking over, and over, and over into nothing.

Because there’s nothing.

But when they’d agreed—or else, when Steve had demanded and brooked no argument—to go after Thanos and find those goddamn stones and try to do something, to reverse it or change it or end everything or save everyone or not merely avenge, or revenge, but annihilate, torment, torture in response before the kill; when they’d agreed, Steve was at the helm. When he insisted beyond rebuke, he was going to lead this charge.

And no, Nat, he’d never been outside Earth’s atmosphere, let alone to another planet.

And no, Rhodey, he had not grown up with the Mad Titan’s tells and tendencies and therefore did not have appropriate knowledge of the target or the task at hand.

And okay, fucking fine, Bruce: maybe he did have a tendency to throw caution far beyond the wind on rescue missions, and sense to the fucking moon when it came to revenge. But if anyone’s allowed to lecture him on how to handle his rage or his anguish with moderation, should it really be Bruce

And that’s probably where Steve had paused, because that was mean. That was cruel, and thank god it hadn’t passed his lips because it soured enough inside his mind. And so he’d taken a breath to calm himself and make a better case for his own leadership in where they were going, what they were doing, and—

And they’d already agreed that Steve was going to stay exactly where he was while they sent someone who was far better suited to this particular task into the cosmos to track down the only being who could help, who could do anything to explain, who would serve any purpose to destroy.

They decided to send the cyborg.

And Steve felt bad about thinking that, too. Thinking, reducing this woman who had come to them with news of Tony Stark—who was stubborn, and broken, and willful and angry and had refused, point blank, to leave Titan until he was certain no one was going to come back from nothing, but Steve thinks he understands what’s at the heart of that in truth, because he and Tony are more alike than either prefers to admit.

He needs the quiet. He needs to be alone to process, and even begin to find a point from which to grieve.

Steve envies him, for that.

And Steve does not feel bad about it. Not about this.

But Nebula had found her way to Earth and had told them the losses to their team, new and old, had been even greater there than here—by the numbers.

Steve would argue to the death on any other point.

But when they’d agreed that the only real path forward—or else, the only move that had potential at all to move them forward—was to try to find someone who knew the ins and outs of what the hell had happened, how the hell those stones had worked and what the fuck that monster had wanted to achieve and had managed, in the end. And the only person who knew anything about any of it, still standing?

Was this Nebula character.

And so sent back into space she was, or else: back into space she stalked entirely of her own accord and on her own journey of vengeance, because Steve was pretty sure she didn’t give a shit about teams or chains of command or, probably, any of them, really. Steve thinks he maybe could have respected her, for that.

If he wasn’t so goddamn livid that she’s taken his chance to act away from him as soon as she grabbed that lack of shits to give and ran after Thanos herself.

So Steve does not, in fact, know if there’s any news of Nebula. Or else, he knows that there is no relevant news of Nebula, because the only relevant news would bring Bucky back, or bring Thanos to Steve’s hands to destroy, to extract as much pain and suffering as possible from him, to find if there was any possible thing in the universe such a creature could love and bleed it from him slowly, so he couldn’t do a goddamn thing save to watch.

Natasha sighs, on Steve’s bed, but doesn’t move; doesn’t leave. She’s the only one who ever stays, and Steve is both grateful for it, and resents it like nothing else in the world.

Again: he envies Tony his solitude. And maybe that’s another reason, small as it is, that he’d wanted, needed to go. Because maybe there’s more of him than he can admit, can consciously own to, that has no hope. And he can’t accept that, maybe ever.

But certainly not here.

Natasha stares at him, while he stares at the wall, and tries to measure the best place to land his fist once she leaves.

And he doesn’t know how long it takes, but she does leave. And he does imprint another fist into the wall, and he’s sorry. He’s sorry and he’s broken and when he comes back to himself he’ll be ashamed; there’s a part of him that knows that much.

But that part of him is broken, too; and he’ll never come back to anything. And Natasha is gone and Steve is grateful, because he can strike whatever he can find and make it break where his heart can’t, because it’s hollow, because it’s already broken, because it only exists to keep breaking but never enough, and he’s afraid it’s going to rattle in his chest and sound too much like a name he moaned in a cold showbox apartment a century ago when he was closer to death than he fears he might ever be, and if this goes on forever, if this never ends?

Fuck, but Steve’s afraid he’ll deserve it.

_____________________

She tries planet after planet, everywhere she’d known him to favor, or to pause and smile that horrible smile in surveying before destroying. She tries, and she tries, and she tries.

She knows when she finds the right place. She can feel it.

She also knows because there is a ghost waiting for her, and fuck all, but she could have lived a hundred lifetimes without ever seeing Loki of Asgard again.

“Why, hello.”

“What in the hell are you doing here?” Nebula grits out through clenched teeth.

“Is that any way to greet your kin?” he mocks, letting some of his skin fade its natural blue—it’s not the first time he’s needled her this way. She wishes it was, though—it’s old and tired, now, but it’d be the same if she’d never have had to deal with this fucking weasel before, as well.

But that would probably be worth it.

“Hilarious.” She frowns. “I thought you died.”

“The rumors of my demise,” he quips loftily, then frowns. “How would you know that?”

“I have my ways.”

He frowns harder, and she smirks.

“I ran into your brother.”

He blinks, and the eyes that blink are just a little wide, and Nebula takes a twisted sort of pleasure in taking this dickface by surprise.

“I will want to hear that story, sometime.”

“Want away,” Nebula shoot back as she starts to walk away, because she has a reason to be here, and it’s not trading barbs with this moron.

“I have my own business with him, you know.”

She sighs, and turns with a glare.

“He ruined me. Everything he promised, after I did everything he asked—”

“You are weak, and a disappointment, but you are also a fool.” Nebula stalks closer to him and hisses right into his pointed little face.

“Only a fool trusts the Mad Titan,” she spits that moniker with all the mockery and disdain she can muster, and only half of what it deserves. Loki flinches.

She huffs, and turns away again.

“Two skilled revenge seekers are better than one.”

Nebula rolls her eyes, not bothering to turn around.

“If you see someone else with skill around, feel free to send them after me,” she says dryly; “though I doubt there’ll be anything left.”

Footsteps follow her, though. Determined and with no hint of turning around.

Damn it all.

_____________________

Steve does three things every day, without fail.

He stops by Shuri’s lab, and watches her do things he doesn’t understand with technology he still doesn’t fully comprehend, despite his constant visits to Wakanda while Bucky had been recovering. He sulks and he hurts and he mourns in silence behind her as she works, because all of the things he knows and doesn’t know bring back those visits, bring Bucky not to the fore of his mind—because Bucky’s there, Bucky’s always there—but makes him more vivid, more solid, more to lose of him than that last breath of Steve’s name and then nothing.

He stops by, sometimes for seconds and others for hours, and Shuri only speaks to him when there’s something worth saying, and she’s very good at discerning the difference, by Steve’s measures.

He always stops by the lab.

He always walks past the place where it happened, never lingering and never treading over the ground where—

He always walks past the place. And he takes stock of everyone who’s left, that he knows and some who he doesn’t, on the way there and back. He doesn’t usually speak to them, because there’s nothing much to say. He knows some of them are reaching out for response efforts, helping to shore up power vacuums that have spiralled in the midst of everything, but that’s never been Steve’s place, not his talent. Steve was made of two things: the fight in his bones, and the love in his blood.

So he usually doesn’t say anything. But he knows they’re okay enough, given the givens, because he’d helped lead them for so long and that’s the least he can do as the shell of a leader he is, now. And if there’s anything to know about them beyond these facts, well.

That’s why he stops by the lab.

And the last thing’s changed a little, in the past few days, but it had consisted of wandering. Aimlessly, if he’s honest, and mostly lost in his own endlessly spinning thoughts, but he’d justified it to himself as scouting his terrain, investigating the royal compound in all its immensity and learning the layout, the rooms and their functions, the empty spaces where people once breathed and lived and gave to the world simply by existing, until they didn’t.

But in the process, he stumbles upon it. And in doing so, he’s not wandering aimlessly anymore. He’s wandering in a specific direction, with a definitive destination.

It’s a strangely organic chamber, and a dizzying spiral of stairs and foot bridges, but still a cave, of sorts. No light at all; Steve can only navigate it because of his enhanced vision. It smells vaguely of smoke, but he thinks that’s also something a normal human wouldn’t notice, it’s so faint; so distant from the now. Steve sit on the ground with his eyes open for long stretches of time, until his breathing gets too loud and his heartbeat too fast, and then he only stays until he’s sure that no one would notice in the light how many tears he may have shed in the blackness.

Steve goes there, every day, whatever else happens, whatever else calls upon him. He makes sure of it.

Sometimes he even stretches out into the dip of grainy dirt, too coarse for sand but so much more smooth, more soft. He sinks into it, and it covers him, envelopes him, and it’s almost soothing, the weight and the way he can’t breathe. The pounding of his pulse is deafening, and his shaking, his trembling is just absorbed by the sand without evidence, as much as the sobs that can’t escape his mouth and so pour from his eyes all the more forceful, all the more unforgiving and honest and wrenched from him like glass, like they could each draw blood that would be taken into the sand, too, without a trace.

It’s much like the ice, he thinks, if he could properly remember the ice. It doesn’t kill him. It’s worse when he emerges.

He wishes neither were true.

He keeps doing it anyway.

_____________________

 

Truth is, if this goatfucker (I do not deny that, and would never desire to. As the Midgardians say, don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Seriously, then he’d paused to add: Which isn’t to endorse it exactly, but judge not lest ye be judged, right?—as if she’d still been listening at all past basic innate recon)—but if she thought throwing him off one of these hills would kill him, or even gutting him: if she thought either would work?

She’d have done it days ago, now.

Because Loki always liked to talk too much, she remembers that from his meetings with her—

With Thanos.

She remembers that from their meetings and how she’d been surprised Thanos hadn’t ripped out his tongue then. She’s even more surprised now. She’s not sure if Loki likes the sound of his own voice that much, or if he’s afraid of the silence.

She’d been leaning toward the former, at first.

“Have you ever forgotten,” he muses idly; “that you could feel?”

 

Now, given the turn of his thoughts to the more nostalgic, toward too many concessions of himself and his personal thoughts, she’s pretty sure it’s the latter, instead.

I wish, she thinks to herself, alongside every memory of separate pieces of herself being carved away, being replaced with weaponry—her soul shaved down slowly every time.

“That you even had a heart that could break?”

She wants to laugh, harsh and thin: the only part of her he wouldn’t take, because he couldn’t understand how to replace it and make her work, make her enough of a viable asset to keep.

“It’s uncanny, what a palmful of short years can mean across thousands in a lifetime,” Loki says in such a voice that it carries, no intention of hiding things with a softness, a privacy to his tone.

Bombastic motherfucker.

“I loved him,” he states plainly. Nebula wonders for a second–self-indulgent for the need of levity in her own mind—if he might mean the goat.

“Worshipped him. Admired him,” Loki scuffs a boot against the ground as they climb. “Wanted to be everything he was so that I could be his equal, worthy of him. And it wasn’t until many years,” he snorts a bit; “many years later that I realized he loved me in any case, outside of worth, and saw me as equal all along,” he sighs then; “only knew the bitter rivalry when I instigated it.”

Nebula rolls her eyes and simply keeps climbing ahead of him.

“Not to call him blameless,” he adds on swiftly, lest the great God of Mischief be misunderstood. “Anything but, at that. My brother was arrogant, proud. And when I learned of my origins,” his voice dips a little, then, and Nebula’s attention snags upon it.

“With that knowledge I became all the more jaded, saw him as my opposite rather than my model, my aspiration, carved him from my heart,” and Nebula isn’t even trying to listen, really, not to the extent she has the capacity to, but she can hear the swallow that precedes what comes: “only to learn later that I never had. Never could.”

I only wanted a sister rings in her ears, unbidden, and she shakes her head against the sound.

“He was my closest confidant, a touchstone,” Loki carries on; “before we were two poles repelling each other.”

Nebula feels the not-entirely foreign—not now, at least—draw toward something; the opposite of being repelled. Attraction to a need, magnetic. One that is gone, and yet still tugs like a phantom limb.

And Nebula, of all beings in the universe, knows about phantom limbs with deep, unflagging intimacy.

“I was,” Loki trips for a moment; revises: “I am bitter, violent, hateful, even. I’d never pretend otherwise. What would be the point?” At least the asshole’s honest, Nebula thinks.

Sometimes.

“But when I watched him there, when I watched him,” and again, the sound of his swallowing is almost enough to echo itself, and his footfalls pause, and only now does his tone falter, grow quiet: “When his life really hung in the balance before me?”

Nebula thinks twice on it, thrice in fact, before she takes a deep breath and turns to him. She knows that’s what he’s waiting for, an audience—or maybe a confessor whose attention is better guaranteed—but she’s tired. And she wants to get this over with sooner, rather than later, and when he looks into her eyes he has her, he’s gripped her focus. And somehow, also, her belief in his sincerity when he says, without guile:

That was when I remembered the heart.”

She doesn't expect it, when her own heart squeezes too tight, then rams masochistic against the metal off her ribs. She should have expected it.

She’s growing soft. Weak.

“It was far later, so many centuries later, that I learned what I was,” Loki begins to wax, and fuck, but giving him attention was the wrong move: weakness, again, such weakness. “Where I came from.” His eyes grow distant for a moment, reminiscent.

“The Jötunar are frost giants and yet,” he chuckles emptily, hollow, and ducks his head just a hair. “Whenever I was hurt, or lost, or scared, my brother,” his voice catches on that, and it’s honest, too.

Interesting.

“When we were young, my brother would hold me and tell me not curse my pain because it meant my heart was cast wide and open, to feel,” Loki’s voice grows tight, syllables clipped; “he told me once my heart was bright, to see and be found,” he shakes his head and breathes in deep before he goes any further, the grand finale:

“He told me my heart was that of a giant,” Loki marvels, each word choked; “brimming with courage, and so there was no need to fear.”

And Nebula doesn’t, she absolutely doesn’t get lost in memory herself, doesn’t recall a a blue figure shivering in green arms in the dark, small—so small, as the shaking one moaned for the first lost limb, a cheekbone replaced by a plate of silver, with two eyes real enough to shed tears across the metal and the flesh toward her gasping mouth, and a tiny voice in her ear soothing her, whispering apologies, I was too scared, I’m sorry, and I’m afraid of what he’ll do if we both lose, what happens when we lose?.

Nebula doesn’t let herself recall those words, that voice, because it complicated things for so many years; because it hurts, now, to think of all the water under a bridge that was never a bridge at all, and in truth, they’d only ever been drowning.

“Only my brother ever believed such things of me, such impossible things,” Loki’s voice cuts in again. “It was ages ago, and we are both different men and yet,” he sniffs, and breathes in heavy:

“Only my brother.”

Nebula finds they’ve both taken seats on outcroppings of rock. She doesn’t remember that happening.

Soft. Weakness.

“And when I saw him, on the brink of being unmade at that,” Loki recalls it; “that thing’s hands,” and yes, yes, Thanos is a thing at the very best: “none of it was true, what he said, about this giant’s heart of mine,” Nebula watches as his palm goes to his own breast.

“But its existence was clear, because there was no question in it, despite all the fear, all the hurt,” there’s a smile on his lips, the barest ghost, and it’s not happy, or joyful, or even fond. Nebula isn’t sure what it is at all. “There was not a single doubt that I would sacrifice the universe to save him, that there was no future where I would watch the life fade from his eyes, no matter what we’d ever done to one another, no matter what we may have tried to…”

Loki trails off into the ether, and he’s biting his lip in Nebula’s peripheral vision, and Nebula doesn’t remember the way a child bit her lip when she was frightened, when she won the battle and sought to draw blood from her own mouth for what victory would mean for another in defeat as Nebula was dragged away to be unmade herself.

She’s not sure what she wished for in exchange, exactly. She’s not sure she’d trade what she is, what was done to her to be done to another, or else, not that other, who she hated least. She does wonder, however, whether there was doubt in that heart.

She wonders where the doubt lives in her own.

“I knew I would hand over the cosmos,” Loki says, as broad as that very cosmos itself. “And lo and behold,” he declare sardonically with arms spread wide.

“The universe spared me half on the offer.”

Nebula has nothing to say to that. Nebula suspects there is nothing to say to that.

Gamora may have found something. Gamora would have at least known what to do, where all Nebula can do is stand, brush herself off and start to climb once more.

“What kind of fucking planet has this many hills?” Loki complains, eyes full of mourning where they land on the summit ahead. “Not even proper mountains, just endless,” he grouses with clear distaste, gesturing toward what aren’t pointed or tall enough to be mountains but endless enough to be purgatory, perhaps: “why bother?”

Nebula’s back to the eye-rolling again.

“You’re sure he’s at the top?”

“He’ll have wanted the best view,” Nebula answers with absolute certainty, because knowing her enemy was the first and best lesson she’d ever been taught. “Of the sunrise.”

“Get up,” she commands of him when she turns and stares down at him where he still sits, smirking from above as she baits him: “Giant heart.”

Loki blinks, looking genuinely wounded for only a moment before the facade clicks into proper place. “I confided in you,”

“Your mistake,” Nebula says as she turns; “foolish, as usual.”

His footsteps take a moment, but they follow in the climb, just as she knew that they would.

Chapter Text

Sam doesn’t have to find him every time, and Bucky doesn’t always stay for very long anyway.

Today it hurts sharper than usual, and so he gets up quick, because while the hurt is something he knows, intimately, it also keeps him from doing anything productive, anything that might help them understand, and if they understand, if they can figure out what happened and how then maybe, just maybe

Well. Point being, Bucky makes his way back to the city all on his own this time.

He doesn’t have anything to do for the moment, not specifically: he's already checked in with the border guards, and with the General; no imminent threats, no notable developments.

No sign of Wanda, though he understood what loss did to people, closer to the chest than most. He understood the fact that they probably wouldn't find her, at least not until she decided she wanted to be found. If she ever decided she wanted to be found.

Apparently the alien tree—who they had indeed started to call Groot since he was so insistent that it was his name—had grown exponentially over a stupidly short period of time and was now helping to restore the vast patches of land that had been razed in the battle. Some places, of course, were sacred burial grounds with or without demarcation. Still: Bucky would never mind walking through the promise of new growth, hints of green here and there as he made his way every day to mourn.

Not that he ever leaves his mourning within the confines of that grove, of course; not that the budding earth gives him any tangible solace beyond the transitory, the superficial.

But sometimes it does help to pretend. Yet the more he remembers about his life, the whole of it; the more he realizes that his very existence is defined by mourning: preparing for it, dreading it, fearing it, being consumed by it. Maybe this is always where his world was headed, was always going to be and would always continue to be. Maybe everything before his training as a soldier, during, after.

That's some morbid fucking thinking, though. Even for him.

Hence the search to find where he can be useful, where he can add some good, some stability where he feels anything but in himself but can maybe create something that offers it to others. It wasn't good for him to be left alone with his thoughts, in any case, but it never had been.

Certainly not now, though. Not anymore.

He’d spent hours—days, probably, over time—wandering around the palace complex. He thought he probably knew enough of it, not that it was possible to know all of it; it was a veritable labyrinth, and Bucky figured it was probably intended that way. Shuri had shown him all the basics, and far more besides—and thinking about her still hurt, still pulled in the pit of his stomach and puts pressure on his sternum. She’d been friend and ally, advocate, and something like a sister, if he could be so bold about the person who helped save his fucking life. He thinks probably he can—could; he thinks of T’Challa like a brother, and he’d been as instrumental just in letting Bucky be here, live here, thrive here even with a hole left in his heart for what was too far; a hole that had ripped into a gaping wound with a snap of fingers, now, for what was too lost, too late.

He meanders through the common areas, though, to see if Sam was looking for food, because it’s almost lunchtime and Sam’s usually looking for food if there’s nothing else to do, but there's no sign of him. He seeks familiar faces—more of those now than there’d ever been, but unfortunately not just because he’d gotten to know more people. He finds himself taking staircases almost mindlessly, upwards and downwards, back and forth in the lack of anyone stopping him, in the lack of anyone, really, with the corridors largely abandoned save for a guard here and there, but eventually even they’re nowhere to be found. Nothing’s ever been off-limits to him per se, so he doesn’t think all that much of just walking, just meandering with no clear sense of where he was or where he’d end up—but still, he values deeply that trust placed in him, and he would never seek to betray it.

So it's pure, innocent curiosity and chance, really, that he finds the room he does. He’s not sure what draws him toward it, given there’s nothing truly unique about it, nothing to catch the eye over other unmarked openings he’s passed: it’s dark, looking almost abandoned once he lingers in the doorway enough to see anything at all, but before he can make much out anything further, a deep, resonant feeling overwhelms him; something not entirely expressible, at least not with words that Bucky knows. He’s not sure which turns led him here, how many floors he’s gone down or climbed, how many long bridges in dimness and the light alike, but he knows he’s never passed this place before. He would have known it, felt it, he’s certain—if for no other reason than the way it shivers in his bones.

He steps lightly, not in the way he’d been trained to use for missions but more in a way he remembers, through fog and haze, when he snuck into his father’s liquor cabinet for some spirits to smuggle out for Steve’s fifteenth birthday; he’d heard alcohol could help with a cough sometimes, and it’d serve to celebrate well enough. It’s the soft footfalls of a child, not a weapon, that lead him into the dark, and it's the serum in his veins that reveals any light, at first, only soft and vague against odd angles. He had to blink, and breathe, and wait: patience that is born of his mission days, in every war he’s fought because he’d never had much patience before he’d learned to shoot a rifle: but it’s that patience that lets him stand, breathe in a sweet, stringent scent that burns in his nostrils but warms his lungs, something that grows stronger as the deep cavern fills with a subtle glow, growing and growing to permeate until Bucky can make out their source: flowers.

Dozens upon dozens of flowers opening from buds in tandem as he passes, like his presence alone invites them to bloom, unabashedly violet in their gleam as they consume the senses with the overwhelmingly sweet touch of growing things, unadulterated by destruction on its heels for the first time in longer than Bucky can recall, sheer and honest on the inhale as they spread outward, casting every surface clear and unveiled in their light.

He feels the weight of gravity on him, suddenly, and realizes he must be very far down into the compound, further than he would have guessed, enveloped closer in the ground but it’s not oppressive: Bucky knows what it means to be trapped, suspended, and there’s none of that, here; no. There’s promise and freedom like a secret to be found hiding in this cave, only Bucky can’t say whose it is to find, just knows it’s almost certainly not him. There's too strong of a shiver of the forbidden, something hidden, that dances along his spine.

It doesn't stop him, though, from walking further into the room. It might be the glow that entices him, the beautiful ever-more-unfurling amethyst that seems to grow everywhere, nearly obscuring any path for him to walk along save that it also seems to guide his way: mystical in a way he wasn’t sure he believed in, until Shuri showed him the wonders of Vibranium, until T’Challa explained about Bast and the power of the Panther. Whatever he understands, or really, what little he understands is enough to know, at least, that he stand amidst something profound, breathtaking: something to honor and revere.

He bends, crouches to take in the blooms closer, doesn’t dare to be so presumptuous as too reach out and touch but does reach out, watches as the fronds seem to reach toward him in kind, like a greeting. And it’s proximity, or pure chance, or maybe it’s anything but, that the way the pervasive gleam catches on the arm he wears now as a rule, the reflection—it’s inexplicable why it grabs his attention in that moment over all the others since he walked into the cave, but his gaze cuts violently toward the purple light between lines of gold like glitter, like sunset sometimes, lying on his back and watching in the fields here, on roofs when the air was clear and Steve could breath, it looks—

Wrong.

It’s wrong. He blinks, he rubs his eyes, and still: wrong.

Bucky can’t say for sure what it means, or even how it’s wrong, but he can say what’s wrong, he knows that, and fuck, fuck

What it could mean is a stone in Bucky’s stomach and sends him running from the room because Bucky’s lived on instincts for as many years as he’s lived of his own free will. And he can’t prove shit.

But he knows what his instincts are screaming at him, and if they’re right?

If they’re right, it’ll change everything.

_____________________

They’re in the lab trying to figure out what the energy signatures mean, and what those mean regarding Scott—who they haven’t lost, he’s not lost, goddamnit—not to mention how the hell they’ll manage to open the quantum realm, because they have to be able to, there’s no alternative, they can’t not be able to get there, to get him—when she comes to them.

“I’m stable.” And that’s how Ava Starr announces her presence; fully tangible, and seeming to stay that way: a ghost no longer.

“And that’s not right.”

They listen to her recall watching the world around her flash, Dr. Foster in front of her gone between blinks, and all the tech they’d been working with at the moment everything went bright gone like it’d never been there. She’d felt nauseated, and went for the wall to walk through it given the lead in her stomach and the dizziness in her head that signalled the start of a phase, and see if she could find someone, anyone to tell, or else to explain to her what the fuck was going on, but she’d ran straight into the very solid wall.

She shows them the bruises to prove it; Hope notices both her parents—and that was still weird, but a good weird, mostly: both her parents—frowning ever more severely.

They’re quiet for a few beats, and then Hank sighs.

“We have to.”

“I know,” her mom answers, leaning against the counter behind her. “Where do we even start?”

Dad eyes her carefully. “You know.”

“Goddamnit.”

Hope feels her eyes widen; she’s not a child anymore, but it’s still so new, having her mother around, that those words out of Janet’s mouth with so much vitriol surprises her. Shouldn’t, probably, but does.

“Does somebody want to explain, maybe?” Hope ventures, impatient, because she isn’t following. At all.

“Something’s wrong,” Hank tells her simply, and she rolls her eyes.

“Obviously,” Hope says, then turns to Ava. “I mean, no offense. Like, bigger.” Hope gestures broadly around the lab before underscoring numbers on the screen in front of her with the point of her fingernail. “The signatures on every level, quantum up are nowhere near any predicted models, or any of the data collected up to the point we lost contact.”

“And we might just know more about it than most people,” Hank tacks on.

“Nothing I experienced accounts for this, either,” Janet walks closer. “Even the stability shifts, they were consistent time-wise, but now,” she shakes her head; “even accounting for all potential discrepancies we have data for, or even can predict the data for, the calculations don't add up.”

“Plus resources,” Hank points out; well, points out to Ava. Reminds Hope and her mother, because he likes to bring it up every five seconds. “The best of what we had isn’t here.”

“Which is a whole other issue to consider,” Hope notes, as she usually does, but maybe Ava has an idea. “Why did equipment disappear with people?”

“Some people,” Janet emphasizes; “and some equipment…”

“Lang was in it, yeah? The equipment, shrunk down?” Ava asks. “And he—“

“Scott’s not gone.”

Hope didn’t mean for it to come out so defensively. That doesn’t mean that’s not how it comes out.

Ava considers her quietly before turning her attention back to Hope’s parents.

“So who does?” Avas asks. “Have resources and equipment?”

Which is a question Hope thinks they’ve all been dancing around but none of them wanted to admit, to vocalize that much defeat, that they needed more than the three of them to make sense of things, and then fix them.

But they probably did need the kick in the ass to get there, and Ava’s as capable, it seems, as anyone.

Hank sighs. “S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“But there is no S.H.I.E.L.D,” Hope says, angry and despairing with it all at once. “Not anymore.”

But when she looks up, her parents are looking at each other in that way Hope’s learned that they have: conversing without words, even after so many years.

Leaving her in the dark. Again.

“And so who’s the next worst thing?” Hank says, rhetorical and directed less to Hope and more to Janet, as usual, drained as he is with whatever conclusion they’ve silently come to.

“Is he anything like his father?” Janet asks, just as resigned as she pulls her hair back with a sigh.

“Worse,” Hank answers; “So much worse.”

Janet quirks a brow, skeptical.

“He flies around in a red and gold suit.”

Ah. So that’s who they’re talking about.

“Christ almighty,” Janet blows a slow, impressed breath through her lips. “Right. Worse.”

“Ava,” Hank turns, his voice gentle; he knows she doesn’t have particularly good reasons to trust him, to help, but then: she did come to them.

“Bill kept in touch with the old circle closer than I did,” he says carefully. “Any chance you might be able to dig up private numbers for Stark Industries?”

_____________________

“So.”

Everyone in the throne room looks up at Bucky’s unannounced entrance. T’Challa gets to his feet, taking in Bucky’s appearance—he can only imagine what he looks like, Jesus—and crossing the room, reaching to brace Bucky’s forearms.

That’s the only way that Buck even realizes that he’s shaking.

“What is it?” T’Challa asks, voice pitched low and weighted with concern.

“We’ve been thinking all wrong,” Bucky shakes his head, tries to put what he’s seen into words he doesn’t know, tries to make sense enough of what it could possibly mean in order to spit it out and let quicker brains make something of it, but hell if he can manage it.

Looks like it’s him and his still-a-little-swiss-cheesy brain up for the challenge. Awesome.

The words don’t come, because that’s not how this shit works, so he tries for the next best thing.

“Can we kill the lights?”

T’Challa nods to his kingsguard, one of whom taps her wrist and slowly, the lights dim.

Demonstration. Right.

Bucky breathes in deep.

“So I used to be kind of a science nerd, when I was a kid,” Bucky says, talking too fast because he can see it already, the reflections in the low light from the vast panes of glass across the room. “And one thing I remember was hating how much math I had to learn in order to really get some of the science, right? But I did it, I learned it so that I could have the science, probably would have ran with that if things had been different, if there’d been money and there hadn’t been a war and—”

Bucky heaves another breath: rambling.

Goddamnit.

Right. Regroup.

“Light refracts predictably,” Bucky says, purposefully slow. “Reflections and shit, you can generally guess where they’re going to go, right? Based on the source of the light.”

He looks around, and most of the faces are blank at best, confused at worst. T’Challa, though: T’Challa nods, and encourages him to continue.

“This grade of vibranium doesn’t reflect light, for one, when I,” he taps at the inside of his left wrist, because the mechanism is self-determined as needed. Essential for stealth. Nifty as hell. But then Bucky moves his arm to catch the scant beams streaming in and it’s not just a reflection that shouldn’t be there, but a whole prism of color that shoots against the dark wall of the room, almost parallel to where he holds his limb.

“And that’s not the right goddamn angle, either way.”

There’s silence, then. Absolute silence. Can’t even hear anyone take a breath and Bucky thinks that might be because no one does.

“What does it mean?” Ross clears his throat; speaks up first.

“Means something’s real fucked up,” Bucky answers; “here. Here, where we are.”

Ross frowns, and he’s not alone. Bucky breathes in deep, one last time.

It’s a leap, he knows. But it’s the only thing he can think of, the only thing that makes sense of any kind, which is no sense at all but more sense than all the alternatives he can come up with.

“Whatever happened?” Bucky says softly, rotating his arm so that the colors flicker but don’t change direction, not once.

“I think maybe we disappeared.”

He blinks, and looks around to those gathered near.

“To here.”

Silence, again. Bucky hears his own breath heavy, and figures it would drown out anyone else’s anyway.

“If you’re right,” Sam breaks the quiet carefully. “If that’s, if we,” he swallows visibly.

“Then where the fuck is here?”

And that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

Bucky huffs, hollow as anything’s ever been:

“Hell if I know.”

Chapter Text

Every morning, before the day even starts—every morning in the dark as he stares at the ceiling and breathes against the silence, Steve relives it all by heartbeats; hell, not even.

Steve relives it by their halves.

Clench: he meets Bucky’s eyes and he can tell there’s something wrong before Bucky’s lips part to shape his name, he can tell because he feels sick inside already, that sense of otherworldly dread that he’s recognized, learned to see and name as the losing of his soul, or else, all the parts of a soul that mean and goddamn thing.

Release: the word on Bucky’s tongue, never more precious—echoed in the first time he spoke it after the Triskelion, echoed on a table in a factory in Europe, echoed in Steve’s ear like a fever dream and the only thing keeping him tethered to his body as illness clawed at him, ravenous; echoed in a boy’s call from the bottom of the steps of his tenement, gap-toothed and smiling and willing to take a punch for Steve while throwing five in return, every day for the rest of their lives, even then.

Clench: every goodbye. Every one of them. The feeling of Bucky’s arms, the scent of his aftershave for a moment, just a slip of a second over the din of people, sweat and sticky-sweet foods, oil and heat: it’s the soft smell of spice and menthol and Bucky.

An outreached hand and a heart that was falling, grower smaller and waiting for the shatter on impact as the shape of the muscle in Steve’s chest grows smaller, flailing against pure white as the hole where it was ripped from under Steve’s ribs grows larger, empty like all that white on the hills.

Watching the possibility of him, that face, the awkward-aching gasp of air for the first time, the first time in decades for the sight, even fleeting, even as it dies and chokes off for all that Steve can imagine what seeing that face means, all the failure and all the hurt required to explain it as more than a fever dream, and Steve’s known more than his share of those in another lifetime, but he remembers. He knows what those are—and this? This isn’t failing.

It’s failure

Tasting blood and only keeping his eyes open in the fall beneath the water until he’s at risk of losing sight of Bucky, so that whatever comes, he’s the last thing that Steve ever sees. He doesn’t remember being left on the riverbank, doesn’t remember the touch of a hand on his wrist, the grip to drag his dead weight. He wishes he did remember, sometimes, but that means he’d just have to remember the leaving again. But for a very long time, Steve needed that desperately, imagined it in his mind long enough that it feels like the same punch straight through him, left to bleed, and it was around that point Steve started to realize that there were only so many holes he’d be able to stand against.

Or want to.

Finding him; losing him; dodging copter blades and desperation with the need to not leave, to not lose. Holding onto the lies, clear fucking lies told in that apartment, because even now, even after everything Steve knows what’s a mask and what isn’t. He might not be able to read the masks anymore but fucking hell, he knows what’s real and what isn’t, and even if he couldn’t, the heart he lost in the Alps is slamming against his broken ribs threatening to fall out of one of the holes in him, and Steve thinks that’s what he’s really grasping at, breaking himself to hold onto when he clenches hands against an aircraft and an apartment building and tries to close the gap: it’s himself.

He’s trying to close himself. So that the heart can’t escape again.

But then he’s watching Bucky tear through people who were his friends, his teammates, but never his whole soul the way Bucky’d proven himself to be in his absence, in the way that Steve only half-lived, at best, when Bucky wasn’t there: but watching him tear through people like paper, like his heart because Steve hadn’t managed to close the hole, try as he might. But then he doesn’t have to, because there’s a clamp, a mechanism for trapping and closing that’s holding that heart and the hole does close, when the words ring—your mother’s name was Sarah—and the paper that’s not torn is newspaper, in his boots, and Steve knew Bucky was everything, but it’s the first time since Brooklyn that he lets himself wholly admit that the heart Bucky has, the heart Bucky is, is blood-soaked with all the life Steve has unthawed in him, but all that’d stayed frozen, too. That he’s not just in love with Bucky, but he breathes and lives and dies with him and goddamnit, they’ve lived and lost and suffered, and Steve’s still full of holes from all the losing and leaving and he’s not going to be able to keep it to himself this time. He won’t be able to hold all the holes closed before it spills out, because it’s all he is.

All he knows.

Then there are clear eyes telling Steve they’ve got to go away, and Steve hurts, just hurts. There’s nothing he can say, and before anything can spill out the heart gets frozen. And in the time it stays frozen, scabs fill in. Dried blood, or frozen. Jagged and infected with all the things unsaid because maybe he lost his shot. Maybe he’d never had a shot—

No. No, he’d been a fucking coward, and he’d lost his shot.

Save for that one time, almost the last time, just before they broke ranks to charge the enemy. Bucky’d taken him close, grasped his forearm and pulled him in and Steve is eight, is twelve, is seventeen and twenty-five all at once and it’s Bucky’s scent—always was, fuck aftershave or sweat or dirt in foxholes or metal in limbs, it was Bucky—that fills his senses as Bucky speaks straight into his ear:

Don’t win the war before I get there, punk.

With a look in Bucky’s eyes Steve wouldn’t name but that reminded Steve that the hole where his heart lived, barely contained, was still hardly healed over to stand, to stay, and his pulse is already racing when they storm the ranks, and then—

And then.

And that’s all in the clench, without promise of release for how it stretches, and tries to break him, except breaking would be kinder. The clench of that heart, measured in out in all its halves, holds harder, tighter, longer: always. But the release follows: protracted pain, before the emptiness consumes. The hollow reality of nothing, nothing.

Nothing.

They’ve questioned whether or not he can die, the way he is. Whether he’d live forever, if the world might leave him in peace, but Steve knows better. The serum didn’t make him immortal. It’s not fanciful in that way.

It just lets him die, and die, and die again. Brings him back to feel it, and know it, and fail and fail again. Because it’s not fanciful.

At first, it was vengeful. Then it realized he was unworthy, useless, fearful, a coward.

Then it became cruel.

People wonder if he’ll never die, but in truth he’s died more than most men deserve. Most men.

Not him, though.

_____________________

Steve finds himself on a less routine outing that morning, almost without thinking on it, just letting his feet meander of their own accord. He’s not entirely surprised, though, where he ends up.

The wonders of Wakandan technology, and the near-magical effects of the Vibranium seemingly everywhere are beyond impressive—hell, beyond words half the time—but that doesn’t mean real blood and sweat doesn’t go into the rebuilding efforts.

Tears, though. Tears are held back, for the most part, because people don’t come here, to the borderlands that took the brunt of the damage in the battle—people don’t come here to mourn, not that way.

People come here to forget, for as many fleeting moments as they can grasp.

And there are always plenty of people looking for those momentary slivers of solace, at least when Steve is there. Lines upon lines replanting, repairing what stands, and chopping what wood lies salvageable among the fallen, forging metal frames for what doesn’t stand anymore at all.

Consistently, though, it’s where Steve can find Thor, mostly. It’s where Thor always is.

And today is no different, the hulking body swinging his axe around and slicing easily through wood in swift, precise blows, chopping perfect planks every time, no matter that his mind is obviously elsewhere.

Steve tried coming here to lose himself once, only once, and it did nothing to touch his grief. He decided, as best he could decide much of anything these days, that he’d leave the work to those that found some reprieve in it. Some salve to their souls that he didn’t think he’d ever know.

“Captain.”

Thor’s voice of mere acknowledgement shakes him from his thoughts.

“Looks like you’ve made progress,” Steve observes, though Thor’s face tells a different story, and Steve backtracks immediately, clarifying; “on the reconstruction.”

“Ah, yes.” Thor surveys the evidence of the slow task before him. “I don’t think it’s about that kind of progress.”

Of course it’s not, and Steve should have kept his damned mouth shut because the look in Thor’s eyes is sad, so fucking sad, and Steve might know that feeling was in him, is in him all the deeper, but Steve’s the one who brought it to the surface.

Steve’s trying to figure out whether there’s something to say, or less shame in retreat, when Thor stops hacking at wood and starts speaking in a tone Steve’s never heard from him before.

“I’ve never before experienced the absence of the Bifrost like this,” he says, voice far away, wistful and devastated all at once. “The fault is not with Stormbreaker but with the Realms, something is amiss,” he sighs, and his eyes grow more pained, even from Steve’s peripheral vantage point.

“Not Heimdall either,” Thor whispers, and while Steve knows of the man only in pieces, in those pieces Steve had still grasped his worth.

“It is folly, I am well aware,” Thor says softly, eyes focused on the horizon, or else somewhere beyond it. “He has betrayed and deceived and killed and tried,” and it’s then that Steve realizes they aren’t talking about the realms anymore.

“There is loss everywhere, now. I have no claim to it, not that I ever did,” Thor huffs, the sound hollow. “But to have lost,” and he trails, and Steve tries to imagine: an entire people. Gods above men that Steve never believed in until they stood before him and he couldn’t deny the flesh, and even they could fall. Had fallen. Thor has no idea what’s become of them, whatever was left to begin with.

Save, Steve thinks, for the one who matters most.

“I miss my brother.”

Yeah, that. That, Thor knows too well, too undeniably.

“I miss my comrade, my co-conspirator,” his lips quirk, but it looks painful. “I miss the only being in all the realms, over all the years, who could still surprise me. I miss my equal, I miss my—” his voice cuts off, Steve thinks, maybe before it chokes off just the same as Thor heaves a sigh deep enough to sway mountains, maybe, in a realm he can’t reach and a home he’s now lost.

There’s silence between them, and the emptiness of it is a fullness in itself, for how visceral the hollowness, the loss in it sits and lingers, festers, gathers gravity and weight.

“Ah.” Thor speaks, and Steve starts at the sound: present. The moments prior walled in as they have to be, now, lest they all come apart at the seams. “It appears there is progress to be made indeed, Captain.” And so Thor takes his leave toward a mostly-finished building project in the distance that doesn’t seem to need any help—but again.

It’s not about that kind of progress.

_____________________

 

“Any news on Stark?”

Steve doesn’t even have to be in the lab yet to know that Shuri’s rolling her eyes at Natasha’s question; it’s obvious in her tone as Steve walks through the door.

“I am many things, but an interstellar traveler is not one of them.” Steve enters just in time to catch the hint of a wry smile on Shuri’s lips, though her eyes never leave the holo-screen in front of her. “Yet.”

“You don’t have to be interstellar to get to Titan. It’s a moon of, what,” Natasha gestures in the air; “Saturn, right?”

“It’s not that Titan.” Steve answers, drawing attention to his presence, though given the women in the room, neither needed it. They don’t miss much.

“It’s a planet,” Shuri picks up from his interruption; “and I honestly have no idea where it even is, just that it’s not in our solar system.”

 

Natasha hums, and Steve knows he hasn’t seen or spoken to her much since, well. Since. But he can’t read what the sound means, what lies underneath her expression, and Steve’s not full enough of himself to think he could ever read Natasha with full clarity, that he ever had or ever would, but this mystery hits him hard for some reason. He swallows around it and it’s sharp.

“And as for Stark,” Shuri continues; “I do not know much of him beyond reputation, but I suspect he can fend for himself in the meantime.”

“Assuming this Nebula person actually goes back to get him,” Natasha tacks on, skeptical.

“It’s not like we have much choice but to trust that she will,” Steve says, not even close to neutral about it; bitter in the way he seems to be about most things, now, that tastes harsh on his tongue because it’s just another thing they can’t control, that he can’t control and has no power over, no say, no...nothing.

It’s just another thing where Steve has nothing.

“Not much choice,” he settles on saying. “Or leverage.”

“And no luck in tracing her transmission channels,” Shuri sighs. “And the, raccoon? He’s not very,” her expression shifts through a number of emotions that move too quickly for Steve to name, but it all settles on resignation. Understanding, and resignation.

Rocket isn’t very, just like the rest of them. He spends most of his time at the borders with Thor.

“Well,” Shuri nods, ending the stream of thought.

“Plus our quinjets weren’t designed for that sort of excursion,” Steve says, for the sake of saying, doing anything. “Space travel is on hold.”

“And the bifrost is closed for business?” Natasha asks.

Steve nods. “Seems so.”

“Or maybe that new hammer’s just already half shot to hell,” Natasha notes idly, leaning back against the ledge next to her. “Only good for chopping shit, by the looks of things these days.” She considers her nails as she tacks on, dry as hell:

“He really needs to learn to take it easier on the hardware. You’d think he’s the God of Tree Stumps.”

Steve feels himself harden, stiffen, his posture somehow growing more tense when Steve didn’t think he could get more tense, could feel more like a breath the wrong way would snap him irreversibly in two.

“Seriously?”

Because how could she be so flippant, how could she be so brash when they’d seen death and lost friends and the universe was collapsing and Thor was chopping goddamned lumber and Steve didn’t even know why he was still standing and what the fuck, what the fuck, and hell but at least Bruce was here, with whatever he and Nat were or weren’t, and at least she has that and she hasn’t lost

“Regarding which part?” Natasha meets his eyes with a challenge that’s harder, angrier than Steve expected, but if he’s honest?

He should have expected it.

“Goddamnit, Nat,” Steve damn near growls, without even his own consent. “Could you show a little more respect?”

 

Her eyes flash, and she pushes almost hatefully against the counter and closer into his space, and Steve should have expected it, yes; just as he should have expected the rise of bile and rage in his own chest, his own throat in response. They’ve been dancing on a precipice, and they’re lucky there’s been little violence, little conflict among them as a whole in the wake of everything but goddamn if Steve hasn’t been spoiling, deep down, for a fight that’s more than broken glass against a wall in his room.

Seems he’s not the only one.

“Respect?” Natasha snaps incredulously. “No, Steve, you show some respect. You’re the only person I’ve ever known who can so single-mindedly isolate himself for a cause, but this time you’re doing it so that it alienates everyone else. At everyone’s expense,” she pauses, and it’s heavy as hell as her eyes narrow, sharp as knives.

“But this is the first time I’ve realized that it’s not infuriatingly stubborn, or even just maybe a little noble, no,” and it looks like her lips want to sneer, but all that happens is worse, in that her voice goes flat and her eyes go blank and she says with something worse than disdain:

“What it is?” she eyes him shrewdly. “Is selfish.”

It’s worse because Steve’s gut-punched by it, closer to the core than he’s comfortable admitting to, and hard enough to throw him off for just the second that’s required for Natasha to crowd his space: still blank, but still accusing somehow.

“We all lost someone. Lots of someones. Everyone on the fucking planet did.” And then her eyes narrow, and there’s the venom, so intentional after the nothingness that it “You’re not special.”

And Steve feels it clearly, so fucking clear: the way that his world gets defined by the halves of him, heart and soul between heartbeats that are pounding now, fucking livid but deadly for it in the way they’ve grown into shards, into knives and they’re happy to flay Steve alive with every clench (hold him close, hold him close, you’ll lose him, you deserve to lose him, it’ll hurt more but goddamnit you will hold him close and it will kill you and you deserve it, you deserve it because you couldn’t hold him close so you feel every gash and every gush of blood and you never let it keep you from this one place where you can hold him close); every give (and you lose him, you fail him, you fall fucking short and you lose him)—only now they’re more singular, a vibration, and Steve’s bleeding out, Steve’s losing control and he’s only allowed for it to get to him, to hurt this bad and this open and this much of a gaping wound on his own, by himself, but now it’s pouring, now the pressure is off and he can’t stop it, can he?

He was a fool to think any sort of binding could keep this inside.

But Steve lives in the halves of his heartbeats, and good god he could let both of those halves rip Natasha to shreds only a fraction of what it does to him—maybe he should, maybe it’s time for it, to shatter the illusions of what he is but also that what he’s feeling is anything he can articulate with words like loss and someone, like they’re simple, or like Bucky isn’t so much more. He could.

Clench

But he’s tired.

Steve’s tired, and Natasha isn’t entirely wrong, and the fact that he doesn’t give a shit about that fact—selfish, is irrelevant and fuck, fuck.

Release:

“Fuck You, Natasha.”

 

And maybe Natasha’s surprised, and maybe they both shouldn’t have expected it, and Steve’s chest is tight when he turns and walks away, but that’s not new.

He’s known how he lives in the clenches.

And he knows, just the same, that there’s no relief to come.

_____________________

Steve used to think he was at least kind of brave. Or else, that he could stand up to danger, or power through fear, at least to some degree.

Steve’s honestly not sure where the hell he ever got that idea, given the evidence to the contrary in the now. Because what he’s doing now, no matter how he squares his shoulders and lets his feet land hard, look purposeful: no matter what he tries to hide it?

What he’s doing right now is running.

“Steve, hey, hey.”

A hand darts out and clasps his forearm and Steve spins, and he knows his eyes are wild when he turns, lost enough in his own self to be readying for a fight even as he knows the touch is friendly, ready to strike when he makes eye contact and he should be terrified of that feeling, that sense in him: he should be.

Maybe he is, even. But there are so many other things he so much more afraid of.

And Steve in the end, really: like this, in the now, after everything—

Steve’s not a brave man at all.

“Steve.”

And he focuses on the voice, deep, and the grip, firm, and the tone, concerned. He lets his eyes focus and if his heart speeds, his mind slows just enough to recognize what’s happening, who’s before him: a bit rumpled, likely because he’s just come from a Council meeting, where he’s now representing the whole goddamn United States in the pseudo-alliance of Wakanda’s-technological-supremacy-that-might-have-answers-in-these-trying-time-plus-everybody-who-is-also-here-and-knows-something-about-diplomacy, where M’Baku, who sits as the political left hand to Shuri’s royal-genius right, has taken a quick liking to the Colonel, Steve knows that: Rhodey.

It’s Rhodey who’s stopped him, who’s eyeing him narrowly with growing worry. “Where’s the fire, man?”

And Steve stumbles for the momentum coiled in him with nowhere to sprint, shattered against the wall of the obstacle that is a teammate, a friend, good God, and Steve feels lightheaded, can’t focus his gaze for more than a few seconds, and his feet want to run.

Need to run.

“You okay?” Rhodey asks it, but it’s a courtesy. They’re under no illusions, between them, that anything about Steve is okay.

“Fine,” Steve says, and doesn’t bother with niceties in extracting himself from Rhodey’s grasp and brushing passed him, and maybe there’s a voice that follows, his name called after him but lost in the wake that he leave because he’s not brave, he’s not brave and the day had started as hellish as any day did, the same as always, but then there’d been Nat, and her face and her voice and the words and their tone: intentional or not, she’d cut him open and left him bleeding and he’d been learning over the last few years how to cope with those moments, and while they hadn’t been in the embrace of the person he desperately wanted, they were at his side, and now, now

Steve is not a brave man. And he can’t do this. He just can’t.

And so he lets his body, his muscle memory serve him as well as it can, lets himself run and run and run and fall and sink into the darkness of the cave, into the pit of sand and nothingness that he’s found without permission and clasped tight like a talisman, a refuge; like a breathing body at his side he’ll never feel again—and it’s wrong for it, this place, this world, it is wrong and so he collapses, and doesn’t breathe, and doesn’t think he even hopes to surface again.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry.”

Bucky’s not normally one to need to break a silence, nor is he the type to jump quick to apologies, but as they move into the cavern, the lush gardens lit in amethyst from within, there’s a look on T’Challa’s face that’s entirely inscrutable, and Bucky’s struck by the need to do something.

“I mean, I didn’t mean to come here, and like, you know, do anything that I wasn’t—”

“Peace,” T’Challa says softly, a little strangled even, as his gaze travels back and forth, back and forth along the lines of vegetation, and the subtle glow.

“I didn’t mean to disrespect it.” Bucky murmurs, because he knows what this is. Shuri had told him about it, only in passing, but since everything that’s happened, he’s been devouring histories and reports on everything from vibranium excavation to cultural ritual, looking for something, anything that might point him in the right direction, might make something add up to anything close to sense.

Which, admittedly, this place did. Sort of. If not quite sense, really, and definitely not in the way Bucky would have expected.

“You did nothing of the sort,” T’Challa dismisses his concern in low tones but full intent as he bends, crouches down to draw light fingertips against the tight-clasped petals of an herb. “This is proof.”

“Proof?”

And Ross is the brave one, or the brash one, to ask it, to push. Something deep in Bucky appreciates the hell out of it.

“We are not where we were,” T’Challa says, gentle, almost so as not to disturb the space of palpable reverence. “Killmonger, he, these—”

“These are the flowers?” Ross says, marvelling now where he’d been only confused before.

“Herbs,” Bucky corrects rotely, eyes still on T’Challa’s wondering expression. Bucky’s heard the stories of the destruction, and in a split second of sharp pain in his veins, he can’t bear the thought of this beauty reduced to ash. He can’t believe it, certainly, but he’s had so very much, far too much: he doesn’t wish to imagine more where there’s already so much.

But if imagining is too little, if this is key difference between the here and the there: if going back to destruction is the answer?

Bucky will do anything.

But he’s getting ahead of himself.

“But what does it mean?” Sam, this time, drawing in closer, face illuminating in the tiny sparks of light.

“I don’t know,” T’Challa admits, but he looks out of the corner of his eye at Bucky, and fuck.

Somehow, Bucky understands what isn’t said.

“I’m not trained—”

“We do not have the luxury of being picky,” T’Challa says, determined. “Or particular.”

“I can’t risk you,” Bucky says, harder now, more forceful. “We can’t risk you.”

“What else is there left, but to risk?”

Goddamnit, but the man’s got a point.

“I don’t know how.”

“You’ve read enough,” T’Challa returns knowingly.

Maybe, Bucky thinks. Maybe.

“This is blasphemy,” Bucky tries, one last bid: he has no idea if it is, even if it definitely sounds like it, but he knows he’s no Zuri, he’s not even one of them—

“You are by devotion, and by choice.” T’Challa eyes him straight on, now, reads his mind in that impossible way he has, and Bucky swallows through the tightness in his throat at the words, but hell.

No way he can try to get out of this now.

“Do you have to take the,” Bucky’s eyes dart to the blossoms—he’s never seen it, but he knows that the records indicate great pain. “The herb? Can’t you just, can we just submerge—”

“We have to know where we are, what this is,” T’Challa cuts him off with a shake of his head. “If there’s a connection to the Ancestral Plane, it may provide answers.”

Bucky breathes in deep, tries to steady himself. Doesn’t exactly hide the curse under his breath all that much as he sighs: “Goddamnit.”

T’Challa’s eyes on him are unwavering however. And really. Goddamnit.

Bucky straightens, and lets out a long exhale.

“Tell me what to do.”

_____________________

It’s not that she’s unmoved, or that her heart isn’t broken by any of this. Because that would be a bald-faced lie.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Pepper Potts is perhaps the most adept person at taking catastrophe in stride that the world presently knows—she’s had her share of practice, after all—and so in stride is how she takes it. She refuses to dwell on the fact that Tony is nowhere to be found, not necessarily lost like so many but missing, one way or another. She refuses to give in to what it could mean, and how it could break her, until there is incontrovertible proof. And even then, she’ll be skeptical.

There was ‘proof’ in Afghanistan, after all.

But that doesn’t mean it fails to effect her, to weigh her steps and plague her mind, and she’s keeping the company just above water;t three-fourths manpower—what’s left, all threats left, but more than most—but her own self, her wellbeing.

It takes a toll, and she’s not as young as she once was, and she’s either more tired, or more wise, but she can’t handle this one on her own, even if she were in top form. She doesn’t know this part of the equation.

It’s only logic, and good leadership, and canny business practice and yes, just a hint of desperation that leaves her dialing the number: one she was never allowed to have in her phone, only her mind.

But she’s kept it there. She’s always known there’d come a day when she’d need it.

“Hello.” The line connects, distorted and unclear, full of static. Pepper frowns—that’s not the voice she’s looking for.

“I’m so sorry,” Pepper says automatically, though not with any real remorse; more frustration: this was one of the last cards she had to play. “I think I might have the wrong number.”

“Who was it you were expecting to answer?” The distorted voice through the crinkling of the line asks, accusatory, and it’s the edge, oddly, that gives Pepper both the hope and the courage to say it, to risk it.

“Maria?”

The line clears, just a little. “Who is this?”

And yes, yes: that’s the right voice.

“Maria, oh, thank god,” she sighs and falls into her chair for the relief of it. “It’s Pepper.”

“Jesus,” Maria’s voice is crystal clear now, the connection solid as she too sighs deeply. “Pepper. Is Stark—”

“No.” Pepper answers swiftly—just because she isn’t hopeless doesn’t mean she wants to dwell. But likewise, it doesn’t mean she can help but to ask:

“Is Nick?”

 

“Yes,” and Pepper breathes out some of the weight in her—that’s who she’d been calling, after all. “We’re in a secure location, let me put you on speaker.”

“Miss Potts,” Nick Fury’s voice travels unmistakably across the line; Pepper doesn’t even bother considering correcting him, even as she twists the ring on her finger—her marital status is the least of their concerns just now. “Thank fuck, a sane person. And just the one I wanted to talk to.”

“Nick?” Maria asks, layers of askance in her voice.

“We need to get her to D.C.,” Nick says, telling Maria while very clearly not asking Pepper’s opinion on the matter. “You’ll want her in on this meeting.”

“What meeting?” Pepper asks, seeing as no one else seems to remember she’s on the line.

“How much have you been following the news?”

“Before everything went to hell?” Pepper asks, and hopes the arch of her eyebrow comes across in her tone.

“Depends on when you date that event,” Nick volleys, dry as hell. “How familiar are you with Wakanda?”

“Fairly familiar,” Pepper says, not quite following; “vibranium’s big in the Stark archives.”

“We had a contact reach out,” Nick says, cryptic as ever, and finally Pepper is in a position to match it.

She takes some small pleasure in that fact, even as the sky’s still falling.

“Funny,” Pepper looks through the glass at the ragtag insect-scientists waiting in a boardroom, of all places—the three of them being the reason Pepper had finally dared to make this very call.

“I’ve had some contacts reach out, too.”

_____________________

Two military pilots, a warrior-king, and a fucked-up former-sniper-longtime-brainwashed-assassin-sometimes-farmer-still-a-soldier, all sit down in a cave.

Bucky feels like there’s a punchline that comes with this sort of situation, but given the givens, he’s not holding his breath.

“So.”

Of course it’s fucking Wilson who breaks the silence.

“So?” Ross scoffs, disbelieving, leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed; he doesn’t say anything else, though, because while so doesn’t cut it?

It’s probably about the best they’ve got, just now.

“Nothing, then.”

Which does not mean Bucky—who’s started to press back in the long-worn grooves of being a leader, of having a constant kind of voice—well, it does not mean that Bucky doesn’t give more, if equally repetitive, words a go. Just in case.

They’re not any better, as it happens, if the goal is to shake T’Challa out of his dead-eyed stare into oblivion, wrapped in a hastily-procured blanket that may or may not be some priceless royal artefact, and may or may not actually be serving a physical purpose of providing warmth because it isn’t cold, not by a longshot, but hell if T’Challa isn’t shivering.

But Bucky knows the story that few people do in the world, and certainly no one else among them now: and Bucky isn’t entirely sure the shivering's not psychosomatic.

Bucky has some experience with that sort of thing, after all.

But in any case, the words don’t faze T’Challa, not even a little, and while the shaking’s subsided mostly into barely perceptible tremors, Bucky’s closest to him, and Bucky can see the lines near his eyes for the proximity and the pulse in his throat for the strain, the fear, and Bucky doesn’t think about it, doesn’t hesitate even though maybe he still should: he reaches. Lays a hand on T’Challa’s shoulder.

When Bucky’s hand makes contact, T’Challa stills, and Bucky regrets it for just a half-moment before T’Challa relaxes, just a bit, and Bucky realizes that the stillness wasn’t a bad thing.

And it’s only then that he realizes it was his left hand that’d offered the comfort, rather than the affront, and hell.

T’Challa sighs, finally, and speaks.

“It was dark,” he says, soft and hollow; “the Ancestral Plane was closed to me.”

“Hey, maybe I did it wrong, you know,” Bucky days, because the sound, the tone of that voice is gut-wrenching, heartbreaking; “it’s not like I have a clue what I was—”

“You didn’t do it wrong.” T’Challa’s voice is still as blank, but harder. Certain. “Your preparation was flawless.”

“Textbook,” Ross adds, subconsciously almost, though it was true. Bucky’d read every tome he could get his hands on, even ones that he’d already damn well memorized, to be sure that T’Challa was at the least possible risk as the three of them went about suffocating his ass with sand, fuck all.

“Then it’s something else,” and this time, Everett looks up and is intentional about the words. “It’s just something else, because we’re, we’re here, and,” he swallows, and Bucky feels something warm in his chest: trademark American optimism in the face of absolute shit odds, if there are any odds at all. He remembers that, now.

“It’s something else, and we just haven’t tapped it yet.”

“And what exactly might that else be, Ross?” Sam says, less angry than simply worn. “And how the fuck do you think we might go about tapping that shit?”

“One of you.”

And it may has well have been a goddamn comic book, because the three of them turn toward T’Challa at the words so fast there’s nearly an audible snap at the displacement of air.

“Before we can give up on this, and start fresh,” T’Challa measures his words, eyes trained on one of the small fires lining the crags, the outcroppings in the cave. “You know my sister’s technology.”

He doesn’t have to look at Bucky for Bucky to snort in acknowledgement.

Barely.”

“And you have used it,” and this time, T’Challa turns ever so slightly—gradual, like the effort of settling himself here, resigning himself to what he didn’t see, what he couldn’t find—and Bucky’s not stupid, nor is T’Challa unknown to him, and Bucky knows he wanted answers for them all but also reassurance of his sister, his mother, his lover, and Bucky knows it; Bucky knows that ache in his chest and he’s sorry, he’s so fucking sorry—but T’Challa turns slow, and fixes Ross with his gaze, because yeah. Ross has used the technology before.

And under any other circumstances? The way he damn well blanches at the implication would be fucking hilarious.

“Now, wait a—”

“And I have listened at great length, with,” T’Challa breathes in deep, then sighs: “relatively consistent attention, to the general overture of her programming structure. There are some options before us to explore.”

He looks up, and makes eye contact with each of them in turn: heavy.

“But it is not time to give up on this,” he says solemnly. Resolutely. “Not yet.”

And Bucky can feel the way the unspoken question of well then what the fuck are we gonna do next? echo through the cavern as if it’d been screamed. But it’s not as loud as the answer, which Bucky doesn’t know exactly, until he hears it and realizes that yeah.

“One of you needs to go in.”

He knew exactly what T’Challa’s answer was going to be.

“Not me.”

Bucky turns to glare at Sam.

“You are such a fucking child.”

“I’m not kidding, dude,” Sam says, eyes wide and head shaking fast enough to fall off his neck. “Not me.”

“I have literally nothing to offer in this,” Ross adds, but at least he has the dignity and consideration to sound sorry for it. “I’m a pilot and a federal agent. I’m adrenaline and precision and paperpushing,” he shrugs and rolls his eyes. “Come on.”

“Oh, wow, thank you so much,” Bucky tries for a snarl, and unfortunately, lands closer to a whine. “Fucking assholes.”

He turns to T’Challa immediately, a million protests on his tongue less for a lack of wanting to help, but really, of all people—

“T’Challa, I don’t have—”

“Don’t finish that sentence.”

Surprisingly, it’s Sam that says it. Bucky turns back to him and raises a brow in question.

“Whatever any of this is?” Sam gestures expansively. “You figured it out. And you? You brought yourself back from the dead here, Barnes. Hell, you brought yourself back from worse than dead, look at you.”

Bucky’s mouth is suddenly dry. Because hell, he’s grown close to Sam, but to hear that

“I didn’t do anything,” Bucky says, a little strained; “they were the ones—”

“Untrue,” and now it’s T’Challa, deep gaze fixed on Bucky and Bucky alone. “We have given people tools before. Not many, but enough to know. Not everyone uses them.” And fuck, but his lips almost turn up at the corners. Almost. “And I do not think we have ever seen anyone from elsewhere use them, and thrive, as you have.”

Bucky doesn’t even know what to say to that, what to do with that: and so Bucky does what he didn’t always do, it seems, because he remembers being a goddamn peacock back in the day, but more recently, he recognizes his M.O.

He takes all those things people are saying and implying about him that are somehow nice and good, and sets them to the side in favor of the mission at hand.

“There’s nothing about me that makes me better suited to a mission like this than any one of you,” Bucky says plainly, pointing toward Sam and Everett, because while it’s not entirely true, it’s true enough given the givens. Then he nods to T’Challa; “And you’ve already done it, so I’m not entirely clear as to how we aren’t beating a dead horse.”

“I tried to access the Ancestors,” T’Challa shakes his head meaningfully. “I had hoped to—”

And yeah, Bucky knows that break in a voice. Knows that cut of emotion. He’d hoped to know where Nakia was. If there was ever a way, a hope—

Bucky knows that in every goddamn beat of his heart, every goddamn day.

“I had hoped,” T’Challa composes himself, and continues; “and there was nothing.”

“It’s not like you missed something I’ll see,” Bucky argues. “I’ve got enhanced sight, but so do you.”

“I do not think this is the issue,” T’Challa counters earnestly. “I do not think it is something to be seen,” he pauses, his expression growing ever more somber. “If there is anything at all, something tells me it is not to be seen.”

And Bucky’s grown tired of all the things that can’t be seen, save that it’s most of his world, now, and he’s grown to love his world: most of it, at least.

Fucking hell.

“I don’t have a choice here, do I?” Bucky sighs wearily.

“You always have a choice,” T’Challa is quick to remind him, genuine, because they all of them know what choice means to a man like Bucky, after everything.

“Well then I don’t have an honorable choice,” Bucky amends, grateful for the concern but more than that, resigned but not above being bitter about it. “Do I?”

And there’s no answer to that, because of course there’s not, and no one wants to meet his eyes when he looks around, just shy of accusatory.

“Fuck all,” Bucky sighs, and slumps bodily toward the ground. “You guys are the worst.”

Seriously, though.

The worst.

_____________________

Bucky’s long since lost his sense of shame, so the whole submerged-in-sand-basically-in-the-buff thing does absolutely nothing for him, and Sam looks genuinely disappointed that he can’t coax a flush out of him with any degree of absurd comments that aren’t even lewd after a while, because they’re so steeped in Sam’s desperation.

Bucky would probably feel sympathy for him if it weren’t so fucking amusing. And Bucky’s pulse is a little heavy—a luxury, god, a luxury now that’s not even a luxury because it’s allowed, and he’s able to think about it, and even know he can’t quite get over it—but his heart’s pounding and his breath would be scarce if he wasn’t so good at controlling it, and that he bothers to do, because the rest of them don’t need to see his nerves.

The pounding of his blood, though: no one’s gonna notice, and he can let that slide, so long as he keeps his neck tilted and his hair in the way of the line of his neck that’ll betray him.

But then T’Challa’s at his side as he’s settling into the sand, a palm open on the front of Bucky’s shoulder, and he’ll be able to feel it, he’ll be able to know it.

Bucky only realizes, when T’Challa goes to grab for them—slowly, carefully, thoughtful to a fault—that close enough to his body, the dogtags he wears, the totem he carries, they shake above his heart for the force of the beat and he’s lucky that T’Challa’s the one to see it, and to block the way he flushes at that from Sam’s view, because Bucky’d like to not wring Sam’s neck for the crowing, though maybe Sam would be understanding, be respectful.

Though it’s Sam, so. Toss-up at best.

Bucky tenses when T’Challa rests a single fingertip on the chain around Bucky’s neck.

“You are not entering the Ancestral Plane, but wherever you go now,” he frowns; “you must not be weighed down when you make the transition.”

Bucky nods, but it’s not until T’Challa works the tags over his head that he processes just how much the absence of that weight does to him. How much more deep the loss cuts than he lets himself acknowledge in the sight of any living soul.

Bucky swallows, and he tastes his pulse, and T’Challa eases him back into the sand. Bucky tries to remind himself of what he’s read, to not panic: he doesn’t need the herb, neither for access nor for oxygen thanks to the serum in his veins; he’d calculated that himself once it’d become clear he’d have to go under but T’Challa had insisted anyway, just to be safe—I will not lose you, Barnes, because of such a simple oversight—so the taste is still bitter on his tongue and his body still shaking with whatever the herb does, and hell if there’s not some gut reaction in him to resist what’s to come.

“Do not try to breathe,” T’Challa reads the tension in him, beyond the physical tremors. “I swear you will not need to, no matter what comes. Or doesn’t.”

And Bucky hadn’t consciously processed where T’Challa placed his tags, but something in him noticed, something in him knows, and as Sam, and Everett, and T’Challa each take turns covering his body, burying him in whole, his hand sneaks out and grabs, and the ovals are cool already after having left their home against his chest but he pulls them into his fist and down through the sand and traces fingers through the ridges until they too are filled with sand, until he can’t move his limbs for the sudden rush of lethargy, of release and yet his hand tightens, best as it still can, in the last moments he has before there’s no more light, no more air, no more anything.

Just the dark.

Chapter Text

Steve should have known there was a limit, there’d be a catch. He should have known that this couldn’t last, that he couldn’t last, that he hadn’t earned it in the first place, was treading sacred ground and throwing himself against it—and if his shame for some of the things he’s done, the ways he’s acted, the things he’d ignored or suppressed or pushed aside that led him here to do those things and be that way: if his shame had been at the periphery? It’s in full force now, perfect view, and he wishes he had control, here, the ability to move his body before whatever magnetism keeps him still beneath the grains of sand until they deem fit to let him go; and god. Good god, he’s wishing away the thing he’s been immersing himself in, drinking like a glutton here in this cave—the illusion of release.

Steve should have known there’d be an end, and that it would hurt.

It always does; they always do.

But the strange thing—strange, because Steve’s not stupid, and Peggy was always right: always so dramatic—but the strange thing is, he hadn’t been dramatic about how tight his chest felt, more than ever before, when Bucky disappeared before his eyes, or how much like a knife to the heart every moment since has existed on a spectrum from the sharp cut, the breathless pierce, to the dull ache of an open wound before the salt’s poured in and it sears. The weight in Steve’s chest, in his body, in his being, isn’t something he’s exaggerated.

And yet.

Besides the quiet, both a relief and a punishment, the uninterrupted time to steep in his loss and his heartbreak and his cowardice and his shame: besides the quiet, Steve had come to crave, come to need the stillness, the way that once he was covered in the dust of this place, this simple pit in the ground, he was made of motionless respite, save for his mind, and his heart, and the lungs that he could feel moving but that didn’t quite need air somehow, maybe for the sake of the serum or maybe for something deeper, primal, more rooted in here: but wherever he went or however his being shifted in this place, beneath the sand, he was left with the stillness, and only the base components of his self.

Only the most dangerous parts.

But the sensation of it is a touchstone, something to come to that’s his alone, here: like his grief and his soul and all the things he’d let slip by. He is surrounded, enveloped but not crushed and it’s like gravity is suspended, and he needs that. He needs that because it feels like he’s drowning everywhere but here, where he’s suffocated under the sand as a rule and yet.

And yet here, it’s almost like he can breathe.

Almost.

But Steve should have known there’d be a catch. It couldn’t last.

And this is where the solace ends.

Because as soon as he’s under, as soon as he’s covered by the darkness it hits him: it’s different. It’s not mere envelopment but pressure, squeezing, denseness all around him closing in and Steve tries to gasp, but he can’t.

He can’t, and his heart starts pounding, and that’s when he feels it. It’s like it used to be. It’s like his pulse is fighting a different current and it can’t get ahead, pumping at all angles and strange breaks and flagging for it, and his lungs are spasming with no sense of rhythm and no air to fill them, and he’s not choking because this is something otherworldly and the sand doesn’t fill his mouth but he is choking, and his lungs are working against him, and he knows this.

He remembers this.

He remembers this in a drafty bedroom, in a worn out apartment in Brooklyn, and he remembers making his peace with it until a voice would breathe close to his ear just before a body would curl around his wracking, wheezing frame and a palm would settle on his chest and brace him—you breathe, Steve, you just breathe with me and we’re gonna see this through, we’re gonna wait this out and come out the other side, just breathe, just feel how I breathe and you breathe that way, too—and Steve would feel his own heartbeat against Bucky’s hand on one side and against Bucky’s rising-falling chest on the other, where Steve’s lungs were coaxed between an embrace and Bucky’s own heartbeat hammering clear and scared but sure at Steve’s crooked spine and every time; every time, they did see the other side.

Steve wonders, when he thinks of those days, whether he loved Bucky even then—was in love with him, could even tell the difference for all that he felt for Bucky across the board.

But here, the pressure on his ribs and the trembling of his pulse threaten to consume without Bucky to hold him, to give him a tether to follow. Steve has nothing, and maybe it should be a blessing, but it feels like hell; it feels like agony and longing and a finality that’s always been a lie and the pressure on his chest and the motion of his body, it feels, it feels

Wait.

Wait.

_____________________

The sound is immediate, and it’s familiar in a way that tightens in every cell of his body, sets the whole of his being on edge. He’s heard the sound in his ears, against skin, in a vacuum, in contained space, through liquid and depressurization and suspension gel before his consciousness slipped away.

A heartbeat. It’s a simple sound, but this one.

This one.

Bucky’s not sure how the hell it happens, or how the hell he could possibly make the connection save that his soul sunk deep into a small body lifetimes ago, and when that body grew big, Bucky’s own soul never left, and maybe Bucky recognizes it, maybe he knows it because he knows that sound and maybe, just maybe all the science and miracles and impossibilities in the world can’t change that simple, human fact; and they a say a heartbeat’s more singular than a fingerprint, Bucky thinks he’s heard that and he thinks it’s probably true, because there’s a heartbeat that’s shaking against a body Bucky’s not even sure he has, here, but feels with absolute clarity: railing, and racing, and ready to give out. Here, in every cell of Bucky’s being, however it’s constituted or scattered to the void, there is a riotous pulse that feels like the brink of life against death—there is a goddamn heartbeat in everything, in every piece of whatever Bucky is, wherever Bucky lies, whatever Bucky knows. There’s a heartbeat, and a heartbeat is as singular as a fingerprint, as unique to a person as their face and their name and their soul.

There is a heartbeat.

And this one belongs to Steven Grant Rogers. Bucky knows it in his bones.

It’s impossible, and Bucky’s own blood rebels because it can only be a lie, a trick, it has to be except for the way it rises, stirs up panic and desperation in Bucky’s own blood, wakens a purpose he’d thought he’d never feel so strongly and so beyond his own thoughts ever again, wouldn’t need to—so ingrained in his soul as to be innate, immediate: to steel himself and know that his only reason for being was to slow that beat and steady those lungs and make it okay, make Steve okay, make Bucky’s own soul where it spirals around Steve’s whether Steve wants it or not: to make it all okay and to make Bucky’s world okay because Bucky’s world was only worth shit, Bucky was only worth a goddamn thing if he could keep Steve Rogers breathing.

So Bucky centers himself, best as he can, and focuses on finding where his heart pounds differently from Steve’s, because it took to matching him without Bucky’s permission: a given. He charts it carefully, a well-learned practice that he thanks the universe for keeping in his bones while it stripped away everything else. But Bucky can’t move; he’s weightless even as he’s stock-still, and he doesn't see anything, and his lungs don’t breathe anything despite how he can feel them fill and lift, the echo of it or a ghost; feel them fill and lift against another pair, another set somehow impossible like they’re in a soft space, a thin window between their bodies and their worlds and Bucky’d grasp the least absurd of the possible explanations and say it’s the afterlife glazed over the living but no. No, because Bucky’s never going to know the kind of after, if there’s an after at all, that people like T’Challa or Sam would see, and Bucky’s no expert, but he’s got some very extensive personal experience with death and he hasn’t felt it, save the sick place in his chest for losing—

Losing this.

So no, this isn’t death. And what the fuck it is, Bucky couldn’t say for sure.

But he can hope like hell.

_____________________

It can’t be. It can’t be.

Goddamnit. Goddamnit, but it feels like Bucky.

Steve doesn’t even try to ignore it, or to admit the impossibility of it, or the sheer horror of just how far gone he is, how consumed by his grief he must be to imagine it: because he’s not. He’s not imagining it, even if it’s impossible, because only Bucky could be that shape, that pressure, that soft inhale-exhale with the too-heavy-but-so-steady heart against Steve’s untethered one, pulling him away from the sun and cooling him, soothing him, grounding him and Steve’s missed it, he’s not too proud to admit as much. Steve’s missed the physical need that couldn’t be ignored, like all the other need in him so easily can—but more than anything he’s missed Bucky, before he had to mourn him yet again.

He's missed Bucky’s touch on him, Bucky’s care, Bucky’s singular focus on him to keep him present, living, breathing, to make him well.

Steve is selfish, and he’s missed it.

And Steve cannot move a muscle but he somehow feels every motion, every stretch of a hand that’s nowhere to be found, that’s ephemeral at best but so very tangible, so very much a weight against Steve’s own miscible form, here, not quite solid but still true: Steve can count the pace of the circles being drawn on his chest, the same as they’d ever been, willing his pulse to follow its lead.

And Steve follows. Of course he goddamn follows.

He wonders if he wants it, wishes it, demands it of the cosmos hard enough, with all of him and then some, if he can pull this echo, this sob-drawn whisper of Bucky all around him and inside him and made of him and making him in kind: Steve wonders if he’s desperate enough—and god knows he is—if he can pull these motions, the stirring in his soul into the world of the living again.

Please.

_____________________

Breathe.

Bucky can’t know for sure what he’s feeling is real. He can’t know if it’s fear or it’s want; there was a time he’d known it would be anything but the latter because there’s no way he could want to feel the chest that held the man he loved together to shake, to heave like that; there’s no way he could want those lungs to shake like that and that heart to trip like that, like it is where the feeling is settled against Bucky’s like an overlay, like the ghost of a self on top of him, sunk beneath his skin in a way Bucky’s always wished could happen, so he could keep Steve close

Bucky used to know that he couldn’t want even that, if it meant Steve so tempted by the Reaper that followed him every fucking day, but Bucky’s been unmade and the pieces still aren’t slotted together like they were, like maybe they should be and they probably never will settle just right ever again, and so he can’t know. He can’t know if it’s a wish or a fact that the presence that’s Steve, that is definitely Steve, hovering and vibrating and panicking around his entire being—like the holograms Shuri used to operate, projected light; but tangible, because Bucky feels every trembling gasp, every stumbling pulse.

And whether it’s real or it’s all in Bucky’s head, he only knows how to do one thing:

Steve, you gotta breathe.

It doesn’t do any good, and that doesn’t tell him much in return: Steve would respond to him, always, and thank god for it, but rarely at first, rarely without cajoling and persistence and a hand on Steve’s chest like Bucky’s own other palm, like a prayer to the God that isn’t there, except maybe only there for Steve Rogers, and the Bucky Barnes that can’t face a world without him: maybe, and Bucky can’t help but pray like that, just like that, only ever like that.

Breathe, feel me breathe and breathe with me, you gotta breathe with me Steve, you’ve gotta give your heart the room between those lungs to find its feet again.

He can’t move his body, whatever a body means here, or moving means for that matter: he can’t place the hand on Steve’s chest where Bucky fills it rising through him, against the heart he can feel the wisp of ravaging through the chambers of his own—he can’t place his own hand to his sternum and beg but he can imagine it, and maybe that can be enough, thinking it, feeling it as strong as he does and begging Steve, because as the moments drag on Bucky’s ever-more certain that beyond all reason or logic or sense this is Steve, he can’t imagine something like this, in a Steve this size, this shape that he can chart along his bones and veins: neither Bucky’s dream nor nightmares make Steve so big and yet so fragile, not fragile like this, and Bucky feels it, feels want and love and hope in all its bittersweet glory, and maybe Steve can, could, will—

Feel it, feel the way it moves and let me set the pace, just let me do this for you, please let me give this to you.

Bucky begs it, and focuses inward on a touch he can’t give save to will it out from his soul: an open hand rubbing circles, nadir to pinnacle around the shape of Steve’s riotous heart, reaching the top when he wants, needs the heart to clench and the bottom when it can give, over and again: he wills it like he’s never willed a thing before.

You can feel it, can’t you, you could never calm your own heart down, not by yourself, not quick as this, so you’ve got to feel it, and if you feel it—

Bucky’s throat gets tight, whatever that means in a space that’s nowhere and everywhere at once, because Steve’s heart gives strange shivers, stops and starts at sharp angles, and Bucky’s fearful with it, save that when it settles it’s into something steady and Bucky doesn’t have to breathe here, to know that he could again, where a moment before it was beyond him. And thing is: Steve never responded to the prayers of anyone else quite like he did for Bucky, and Bucky’s already lost on the subject of hope, goddamnit.

Can you feel me, too? Can you feel it and know?

Already lost.

Is it really you? Please, please, oh god—

Steve’s heartbeat is a mallet, but so so steady, and Bucky feels lost in it as it takes over, as it starts coaxing Bucky’s being and not the other way around, as Steve’s lungs show their strength but move too fast, fill too full but Bucky’s panting with that want again, that need and he thinks there’s something in him that makes it real, makes it a word and a name and a prayer and the world on his tongue without ever parting his lips:

Steve. Steve. Steve.

And Bucky gasps no gasp save in the phantom sensation of it, more than enough: because deep in his chest he feels it, familiar and necessary and the only thing that ever knew how to pull him from the brink and save him from the cold. Bucky feels it, spreading everywhere, and his heart starts to pound with it, just as the one overlain about his own starts to ease.

It’s not a lie, it cannot be a lie. This is you. Only you could ever feel like this, even my memories aren’t good enough to fake it, to be so much of you.

Bucky’s ecstatic, Bucky’s off-balanced, Bucky can’t process or hold a goddamn thing save for the feeling of Steve against his heart and soul and what it could mean: so far beyond his knowledge but so deep within his knowing because the love he thought he lost might be beyond his reach but it isn’t dead. It can’t be, because this is not a lie.

This is not a lie, and his love isn’t dead, and that is everything.

And I don’t care if you love me. I don’t care if you did or ever could, just please, please have known how much I cared for you, just enough to be feeling me, too, and to feel it and know that it’s me, that I’m here.

Bucky pleads with his entire self, every inch of his motionless frame and every cell drawn still that holds him together: he pleads to be enough in this and only this, ever again—if only Steve could feel him the way he knows he’s feeling Steve, then maybe, maybe...

Please, Steve. Feel me too, and know.

Bucky holds, tight as he can, and tries to make it so that whatever featherlight form his body’s taken aligns as close to Steve’s as it’s possible to be, and he thinks and feels and calls out from the center of him, best and strong as he can:

Fuck, I love you. I love you and I need this to be real. I need you to be there, alive and well somewhere, breathing, heart beating, just. I need you. I love you and I need you.

There’s a flutter, a shiver, and Bucky needs it to mean that it’s a reply, and he’s delirious with the promise of it, beyond all reason, that he can believe that’s exactly what it is, and he knows he’s slipping before the slipping itself occurs, knows he’ll surface soon and lose this, this taste of eternity and all things in one space and self, but his soul’s singing because he thinks maybe he’s not alone, and maybe there’s a promise to be held to, to be sought, to be saved, and the last thought he had with the last pump of his heart here is in time with Steve’s and Steve’s alone, perfect synchronicity:

I love you and I need you to know it. I need you to feel it.

_____________________

Steve surges upward, gasping, hand on his chest as his heart skips, and goes from strong and soothed to bereft, again, and pounding. He’s dizzy, nauseated; he can’t catch his breath and his pulse feels trapped by the collar of his shirt but his jaw’s loose, disbelieving, and there’s something light and warm whispering soft in the open gashes clawed permanently open in his chest because he felt something, he felt the only thing that could ever hope to heal those wounds, he felt the impossible, except he felt it, he felt it, he knew

Fucking hell.

Steve’s hand is jumping against the wild thrash of his heart past his ribs, though the skin and it’s a raucous, irrepressible thing because Steve’s trembling on his own, inwards and outwards and he can’t explain it, it can’t be real but goddamnit, neither can he, and neither can anything he’s ever known or loved and this thing, this thing is all that he’s loved and he wants, maybe enough to imagine it but he doesn’t think he could feel this on his own, and—

Fucking hell.

Chapter Text

In his own head, even, he starts calling himself Quill—that’s how he knows that it’s gotten bad.

He’s not entirely sure how long they’ve been here, now; like, he’s pretty sure someone here does, but he tries actively not to pay attention. Partially because it’s depressing, and he’s depressed enough with all this bullshit, whatever this bullshit is, but also partially because counting days is easier when you sleep in between them, and Peter (Quill) doesn’t sleep all that much anymore.

Drax sleeps the least, next to Peter. Sharpens knives that Quill’s finally realized, full-on, is Drax’s version of distraction, contemplation. Penance, maybe.

But Peter thinks a lot about Mr. Gold Glove, which is how he thinks about him because it’s a nicer name that doesn’t weigh him down with a kind of existential dread he doesn’t know how to keep coming out of. He thinks about pulling off a gauntlet and being stronger, or cutting off an arm and being smarter, and acting out, angry, like he’s always done and—

He thinks a lot about Mr. Gold Glove.

He thinks more, though, about Gamora.

Of course he does.

He’s not stupid. He knows what’s implied. He knows what Thano—

He knows what Mr. Gold Glove did. Does. Was. Is?

He knows.

And he can guess, but that’s another path toward existential dread that Quill can’t manage to swim through, so he mostly makes plans. Plans for how to find her. How to reach her. How to save her if she needs it, or fight beside her if that’s what matters. Mostly, he thinks about how to make sure she’s safe, and to bring her home. To him.

He thinks about how to make her know how much he loves her. Because he doesn’t think she could possibly have known just how much. He’s not sure how he knows, it’s so big. Bigger than any bounty he’s gone after, or distance the Milano ever traveled. Brighter than anything he shaped or touched in a game of catch with his asshole father.

Mostly, always, he’s thinking about Gamora at least somewhere in his head. But there are others with him, not just himself. There are others, and somehow he’s still a leader. A Captain. And he’s gotta step up.

So they eat. They fight, sometimes, out of sheer boredom. Sometimes, they fight because they mean it. Sometimes there are weapons, but it’s more for show—they’ve seen enough bloodshed, and loss even without it; there’s an unspoken agreement that they won’t add to it.

Plus, they’re family. Even the kid, now. Circumstantially.

They play games with alcohol mostly because they like watching the other-Peter gets tipsy as fuck on shit he’s not legal for, not that intergalactic substances usually deal too stringently with legality.

Or Peter, him, the Quill-Peter.

He doesn’t deal too stringently with legality, either.

Point being, though: it’s a damn good thing the ship stayed with them, this ship, that is; wherever, whenever, whatever they are. They’d be dead, otherwise.

Then again, maybe not such a good thing.

“Hey.”

Parker. This is Parker. Because Peter is Peter. Even if they all call him Quill, and only sometimes call Parker, Parker.

“Drax tenderized that wild boar jerky you brought out, tastes good.” Not boar. Not even close to boar. Not even something he likes eating, but they’re rationing and so they can’t always have decent food, can they, because fuck knows how long they’re going to be stuck here, stuck like this.

Quill’s not so much of a jackass that he’s going to tell the kid that, though.

“But it’s like, kinda gamey?” Parker’s still talking. “So I thought, maybe dessert would be nice.” Quill hears him edge closer, because everyone thinks everywhere on the Benatar is just fair fucking game, now, don’t they?

Well, like, it kinda is, but still.

“Got any more of that strawberry stuff, from, which moon of where was it you said?” Parker looks over his shoulder. “That stuff was awesome.”

Quill sighs (again, in his own goddamn head, now, he’s Quill), and hangs his head, even as his hand goes to where he knows that “strawberry stuff” still is, because he may or may not love that shit too and has long stockpiled way more of it than anyone probably should. Ever.

This really is a clusterfuck.

Chapter Text

As it happens, Tony has a lot of spare time on a planet by himself.

And strangely, in the absence of a workshop to distract himself, spare time leads to an unfortunate amount of unintentional self reflection. Which normally—while he’s improved over the years in terms of feelings and relationships and all that shit—Tony doesn’t take well to. Avoids like the goddamn plague.

But then, normally, Tony doesn’t find himself on another fucking planet all by his little lonesome. So there’s that.

Tony kicks the dust; leans against the busted shell of the Circle Ship—not his best naming venture, but there’s no one here to impress, so. He’s been working on retrofitting a small section into a pod of some kind, mostly—if he’s honest, and why not, here, by himself, probably for whatever eternity is left to him—out of boredom, and the weight in his chest that hints too strongly to ignore of a void that would be waiting the minute he set foot back on earth, and the feeling of sheer powerlessness that makes his limbs heavy and burns his skin too often with the lasers he dissects off the suit.

And the suit is the only reason he’s still kicking, of course. Always has been, from a pure physical-necessity standpoint. Healed his stab wound, if painfully done, with some of the graft technology he’d cobbled together after Ultron. Provided him with intravenous sustenance. Filtered urine into water into urine again, which Tony’s not above cringing at but also not proud enough to be ungrateful for.

F.R.I.D.A.Y. is company, of a sort. She tries to maintain a sense of humor, but Tony doesn’t allow any of it to hit: she’s persistent, though, in a way none of his other interfaces had ever been. Sometimes she channels others, but learns quickly that the only one that matters is the one that’s seen him through the worst of times, and this is so much worse, and Tony’s going to bet money that the person—because he’s a person goddamnit—that voice belongs to now is gone.

Because what isn’t gone?

“You’re going to slice off your finger,” a voice from behind him comes, and Tony thinks it’s a hallucination—infrequent at this point, but not unheard of, no pun intended (he doesn’t do humor anymore, after all)—but it’s strange. He’s never imagined that voice before.

Ha ha. Strange.

Maybe he’s not entirely beyond humor.

“No, seriously,” the voice follows up; “you won’t be of any use if you maim yourself.”

And suddenly, the piece of the suit’s propulsion system that’s in his hand rips quick from his reach and flies away, somewhere behind him and he turns, of course he does—and that’s when he sees it. Him.

The hallucination. Not real.

But it’s holding the laser. Very real.

“Jesus Christ.”

“‘Doctor’ is an adequate enough title, I think,” Strange says flippantly, landing from where he’s floating cross-legged above the ground. “Though there was a time when people thought my skills were that of a god—”

“The fuck, Strange.” Tony leaps to his feet, and doesn’t pretend not to gape. “What, I mean, how? You?” He blinks, several times. More than is probably necessary or natural, but fuck that shit, at this point. “ What?”

“You know how I said this was the only possibility we had?”

Tony continues with the whole gaping thing. He’s not ashamed to admit it.

“Yeah, well,” Strange strides towards him; “staying here to try and fix things, there really is no other way.”

“Well, aren’t we fucking humble.”

“I think there’s a saying,” Strange glances at Tony meaningfully, taking this way too calmly, the asshole. “Pot, kettle, something?”

“Fuck you,” Tony says, more of a reflex than anything; “So, you were having a vacation, where again?”

“The Realm of the Agamotto.”

“That sounds fake.”

“It’s not,” Strange says, matter-of-fact. “But it is where this came from, kind of,” he toys with the pendant settled back against his chest, tapping its center: “Though without the stone, it’s not much.” He looks up at Tony, then; “We were discussing that.”

We?”

“The Vishanti, they’re how I—” Strange cuts himself off, shaking his head. “Not important. They exist in all dimensions and none, you might say, but the ability to move through time with any clarity is no longer within their capacity to bestow upon a human,” Strange finishes, quietr now; “not even a Sorcerer Supreme, without the Stone.”

Tony, though, is impatient. “And you said you being here was the only possibility—”

“I said this was the only possible scenario where we have a chance in hell of winning,” Strange clarifies with narrowed eyes. “I told you this was the endgame,” he reminds carefully; “but this isn’t the end, not yet.”

Tony feels his chest seize. He’s not sure what causes it. He’s not stupid enough to name it hope.

“But it’s not just me,” Strange admits; “probably not even mostly me.” he shrugs, but moves his hands through the air, drawing those shiny circles of his rapidly. “Though I can help us be a little more comfortable.”

“Comfortable?” Tony asks, even as he feels the edge of a seat nudge at the backs of his knees and something like a bubble encompass himself and Strange in something like a temperate climate, shielded without the aid of the suit.

“While we wait,” Strange answers simply, providing absolutely no answer at all.

“You mean while you wait,” Tony shoots back; “because you’re fuck all of no help at all when it comes to engineering, I can tell you that much. I could operate on myself but can you fix a spaceship? Fuck no, you can’t…”

“No,” Strange cuts him off with a roll of his eyes; “while we wait for our pickup.” He smiles wanly as Tony eyes him with suspicious curiosity, because what the fuck does that even mean?

“Moving through time is off the table for the moment, but seeing, that’s another story.”

Holy fuck, this man’s a prick.

“You’re a prick.”

No sense in keeping it to himself. And Strange just shrugs, so, whatever.

Except—

“Wait,” Tony turns to him slowly, because fucking hell.

“It took you how long to come back and tell me this shit?”

_____________________

Steve doesn’t know what to do, what to say.

How to breathe.

He doesn’t know what happened, what the hell it means, save that it feels like his goddamn heart is beating again, and he’s had so many dreams, and nightmares, but it’s never felt like this, like his pulse was real and that must mean, that has to mean that it’s different, this was different, this was—

Real. Impossible, but real.

And that now-heaving-heart won’t stop pounding, and his feet are carrying him without thought or sense toward the only place he can think of, the only person who might know anything, could possibly make sense

“Steve,” Shuri’s voice rings out, largely dispassionate but Steve knows her better than that: “What a surprise.”

She is surprised, for a given definition of the word. She’s a bit irked by what Steve suspects is an interruption on his part, and she’s wondering a little bit regarding what he’s thinking by interrupting, just now, because oh.

Oh, this is the time Steve avoids. This is part of why Steve visits Shuri, normally, when he does, when no one else is there, because Shuri, standing as half of the nation’s leadership, holds a briefing daily regarding the state of her research into the phenomenon that broke all of their lives, that decimated the world. Because she is relentless, and has redirected all her resources and strength and fortitude to figuring out something, to understanding some degree of what’s happened, and where M’Baku and Okoye keep the country running, Shuri keeps its hearts and minds from stopping from sheer despair.

All eyes are on Steve, though, and his pounding heart trips, because while the audience is made entirely of people who are ostensibly his friends, and either the royal guard or household besides, he feels cornered. Vulnerable.

Natasha’s eyes are the sharpest, and Steve’s going to have to deal with that eventually—that, which happened just hours ago, didn’t it, just this morning, Jesus

He’s going to have to deal with a lot of things. Just not now.

Shuri, thankfully, clears her throat and saves Steve the scrutiny; for the moment.

“As I was saying,” she carries on what he thinks must have already been a lengthy and detailed explanation of the state of things, and which she’s only summarizing for Steve’s benefit. “I’ve been researching the gems themselves and have come to a few logical stances, given that we predicate logic itself on the evidence we have, which is both limited and counterintuitive, and well, it’s absurd, really, but so we move on.”

She flicks a hand and the holograms floating in the air, all graphs and charts and figures, dissolve immediately and reconstitute anew as novel information.

“There’s a third hypothesis, being that they’ve simply disintegrated, as witnessed, but I don’t put much stock in this one, because the composition of the surrounding soil has absolutely no differentiating markers, and nothing resembling the human genome,” she narrates as the images move and the numbers scroll.

“Then there’s the ‘rapture-esque’ tack, but in that case conservation of mass indicates a destination. I was able to access the data, limited though it is, in the original German, and then the annotations in Russian, regarding the tesseract-powered weapons from your time, Captain,” she nods to Steve; “and frankly, they indicate immediacy of disintegration, total matter destruction, instantaneous. This is not what we witnessed, based on your descriptions,” she gestures to the room at large, then, and gets dispassionate nods from an audience transfixed by the holo-display.

“There is, however, then a sub-hypothesis of sorts to this,” Shuri says carefully, and the shift in her tone is significant, felt clearly by everyone present. “One that I personally find much more intriguing, which supposes a destination for the transposed, transported, transmuted matter. Now,” she pauses, passing a palm through the air to display a colorful, soul-shuddering chart of the gems that crushed them each in kind; “whether this matter is living or even in a state we could recognize or study is an entirely separate issue, but I am intrigued by this specifically because of what we can determine about the Stone themselves, and their attributes.”

She zooms in, then, on the blue stone, gesturing for the image to spin.

“The tesseract, which housed what I’ve seen referred to as the Space Stone, was likely imbued with realm-sensitive properties on Asgaard, but likewise had contact with humanity, specifically on Earth, even if used destructively. Similarly,” she zooms on the green stone;

“The Time Stone, which the Sorcerer kept, would be attenuated by temporal and dimensional influences, but also, with Terran and human interaction and suffusion. If these were then combined with the Reality Stone,” now focused on the red gem: “hosted by a human female physically, and then we also have the Mind Stone,” she gestures painfully toward the yellow stone that once resided in Vision’s head; “ tempered by humanity, its emotion, feeling, compassion, commitment. Its love.”

Steve holds his breath to slow his pulse so he can hear her every word, because it sounds like, it could; it almost sounds like—

“And what if the Power Stone, what if that provided the necessary…” she purses her lips, looking for the right term while they all watch the turning violet jewel; “nudge toward each of them to act simultaneously and in concert, playing off of these individual properties to enact the,” she flips her hand dismissively; disgustedly: “whatever they’re calling it. Not to mention the records that Rocket was able to complete for me from memory, regarding the deep, sacrificial camaraderie that surrounded the last use of that Stone specifically.”

She moves finally to the amber gem, tilting her head.

“We don’t know much about the Soul Stone, but the name itself can perhaps give us context. Same as before. Feeling, emotion, sacrifice. It may be what ultimately makes the proposition theoretically feasible;” she takes a deep breath before diving in.

“Half of the energy being directly focused, more than half being composed together, if the Power Stone is viewed as a conductor rather than an actor in itself, and all of them in some way being touched by human affect, then the emphasis of the action when the Titan snapped his fingers would have been fundamentally humane.” She turns to everyone watching her and settles her gaze quietly, powerfully upon them. “And the humane does not discard matter into nothing. It preserves.”

She pauses, consideringly.

“Maybe even protects?”

She collapses the display with a pinch of her fingertips and looks at the collected group around her.

“Thor searched for her,” she says; Steve only notes then that Thor himself isn’t present; the world had fallen away in Shuri’s words, in their possibilities, long before. “Jane Foster is gone. And I firmly believe that matter protects matter, and that matter was part of her, and she a part of it, near-living, experiential entities as these Stones seem to be,” Shuri tells them emphatically, and something starts to build in Steve’s chest around that still-pounding heart, so alive for the first time in what feels like his whole life, somehow.

“I believe that matter with any level of awareness, as these gems to seem to have, I believe that it seeks its own sustenance, first and foremost, with or without a why. It would preserve itself. In her.” Shuri blinks, and Steve doesn’t know if he imagines the way her eyes skirt toward him, almost knowingly, or not.

“And so, if she is gone, then gone would have to be relative,” Shuri says decisively, but Steve can see it in her that she’s explaining it to herself as much as them at this point, working through it aloud so that it’s just that little bit closer to being true—or else, Steve wants that to be the case. Needs it.

“And if the other Stones were sensitive to alternate realms, dimensions, realities, then what if—”

She stops herself, and surveys the room again before straightening her shoulders.

Steve holds his breath, again, but it does absolutely nothing to calm his pulse, because that, that...

“Well. We’re still just at the ‘what if’, but that’s where the research stands as of today.”

No, it’s not. It’s not, because he, he’d felt, he knows

She nods, and everyone seems to know that’s a dismissal; Steve certainly does, but he can’t move. He hasn’t even started back with the breathing thing.

“Captain.”

He startles, and oh, well: shit. She never refers to him by rank in that tone lightly.

He bites his tongue to center himself in the present, in the now, as more than just a soul that’s flayed but soothed somehow too and a heart that goddamn hopes; he makes himself turn toward her slowly.

“A moment?”

He couldn’t say no if he tried.
_____________________

In the end, it’s relatively anticlimactic.

She can see him, his shadow, before they reach the summit. She expects the fight to suffuse her entire body but it’s more a sense of the inevitable.

That doesn’t mean she’s not as methodical, as strategic as she ever is, as she’s learned to be. As she had to learn how to be, in order to retain any flesh in her, to be enough against the others where she’d never been able to surpass—

No. Distractions are dangerous, here.

Her footsteps precede her into his hut—more of a tent, something temporary as if he knew it wouldn’t need to last. And he’s diminished, his eyes glassy as they focus on the horizon, never bothering to blink, to follow her strides slowly, circling him silently, save for the way that her blade draws down into the grass, the sound of the edge against the flora, against living, growing things only to die.

Fitting.

“You’ve come to see me, daughter.”

His gaze doesn’t falter, trained on the setting sun.

“Don’t call me that.”

“I suppose that can only mean one thing.”

His tone is barren; not resigned so much as fulfilled, drained of the need to fight more than the desire.

She seethes for it, but she’ll be damned if she lets him know it.

“Are you satisfied, then?” her lips curl in a sneer. “All that you sacrificed, all that you manipulated and pulled apart, all the death and destruction, all the lies and deception and broken promises and false loves,” her tongue gets away from her, and she frowns.

“Are you pleased, then? With your half world and your half life,” her boot kicks the gauntlet at his side; “And all for a nice view and a withered glove?”

He laughs, neither humorous nor hollow: something other.

“I completed my task,” he says simply. “Answered my calling.”

As if that’s enough.

She nearly trembles with how he does it, how he’s always done it and has crescendoed to this: taking everything he did to unmake, to break and batter and cut and debase and once more, frame it selflessly.

While still making it about him.

“Then you’ll excuse me,” her voice comes rough, and he starts at the sound, because he doesn’t expect it. He wouldn’t expect it.

He looks up, finally, and see how it doesn’t come from the mouth that stands before him.

“For completing mine.”

And the figure that has circled him, taunted him, spoke more of Nebula’s own truths than she could ever voice herself while spitting his own vitriol with another’s face: the figure of her before him shifts into limp black hair and pale lithe limbs, nothing like her save for the flash of fire in his eyes and the venom, the hatred.

Loki appears before him, unmasked—her diversion—just as Nebula steps behind him and drives her weapon through him, angled upward from the base of his spine.

“Perfectly balanced,” she hisses as she draws him toward her on the length of the blade, relishing the small sounds of pain that come endlessly as she makes it last, moves him slowly so that every breath is agony until the last.

But she’s greedy, and angry, and violent, and has dreamt of this moment for most of her life. And so she balances the scales. She draws the line in the sand.

She whips her weapon upward and she slices straight through him, split at the midline from the gut to the skull.

And when the pieces of him fall, lifeless, she oversees her handiwork and notes the flaw: stabs where the wound began and draws down. Two halves; equal in the monstrosities they unleashed upon the universe. Upon her. Unbalanced; yet still.

“As all things should be.”

She wipes her blade on the flanks of his chin, mercilessly, and waits until even the slightest twitch of death leaves him still before she spits on his corpse and makes her way silently back down the hill.

_____________________

“What did you find?”

Steve swallows, hard. No easing in to whatever Shuri’s read all over his face, and good god, but he’s a soldier, a tactician, he has a poker face and it’s not his fault he’s only ever been surrounded by people who can read him like a book, now, is it, at least the enemy doesn’t know—

“I don’t know—”

Goddamnit.

“Steve,” Shuri cuts him off, almost sharp with it. “Seal laboratory antechamber.”

A lilting voice—South African, if Steve’s figured it out right by now—answers smoothly: Antechamber locked, privacy protocols activated.

“Something is different.”

Steve swallows. Again.

“Shuri, I,” and he’s not trying to hide anything, not really, not from her of all people, it’s mostly that he just doesn’t know how to say it, doesn’t know how to describe the feeling of whatever they used to talk about in church on Sundays, what it meant and what kind of warmth came with the fleeting glimpse of a miracle but in your veins, pumping in your blood and that sort of thing is impossible, it can’t be something visited upon Steve of all people but that’s all he knows and there aren’t words. There aren’t words, and even if there were, he’d be terrified of them.

He’d be terrified how wrong they’d be, and how jagged they’d fall in breaking whatever this was, this is.

And Steve? He can’t fucking risk it. Not this.

“You left here this morning, breaking,” Shuri tells him, eyes trained on him unflatteringly. “I’d have gone after you myself, if I thought it would have come to any good.” And Steve knows it, Steve knows she would have.

“Then,” she strides just a little closer to him; “you come back to me, this afternoon, “closer to whole than I’ve seen you since,” she pauses, like she’s trying to decide whether to say what they both know.

But Shuri’s braver than Steve. And she doesn’t know what’s at stake in his chest.

“Not since he was by your side.”

Steve’s breath is harsh on the inhale, painful; it’s goddamn true.

“If a heart knows how to unbreak itself, you look as if you found the instructions, but are too scared to trust them.”

He stills; like it’s another sacred thing, like she did find the words and they’re out there and they’re real and if he moves he’ll smash it into tiny pieces he’ll never get back; if he’s found the instructions he’ll lose them, if he moves.

He can’t move.

“So I will ask you again,” Shuri enunciates carefully, and approaches him slowly, painstakingly, until she is at his side, until she is standing before him with a hand slowly extending to rest on his shoulder, neck craning down to find his eyes straight on:

“What happened?” she asks, very soft with eyes wide. “What did you find?”

Steve takes a breath, again. Clears his throat. His voice is still a rasp, though, when it comes:

“I’d say you’d think it was crazy, but,” he shakes his head, and keeps shaking it for momentum or comfort in the repetition, he’s not sure.

“But now I think you’ll say that it’s real, or that it could be,” he sucks in air like it’s disappearing, like he’ll never see it again and he knows what air’s taking the place of in his chest for that feeling, that aching, that need; he knows. “I think you’ll say it could be real, and I need…”

He trails off, and his throat feels so goddamn tight, and he can’t swallow, can’t stall for time, can’t hide or run and his eyes are burning and he gasps it out when it comes:

“Shuri, you don’t understand, I, he—”

“Steve,” Shuri is so near to him, her voice an open whisper, hands on his arms bracing him steady and strong. “Has anyone ever told you that you wear your soul on your sleeve?”

“I,” he pauses, screws his eyes shut because they’re burning, they’re burning; “I don’t think so.” He tries swallowing, just to test it: fails.

“My heart, maybe.”

Shuri huffs a little laugh.

“I mean literally,” she says with a warmth he didn’t know he needed to hear, or feel. Her touch dances from his shoulder to his collarbone, where she touches the chain he wears his tags on—his own and Bucky’s, one of each like always—and he flinches at the contact but she doesn’t shy away, just dances her fingertips down to where Steve flips the tags themselves over the back of to his shoulder blade, so that they stay put: stay safe. Can’t come off or get lost.

“You tuck it here.” She lays a palm on the cloth-covered metal: under his sleeve.

Huh.

“Together,” she says meaningfully, powerfully, never moving her hand from the two tags on the chain; and Steve knows clearly that she knows all the things he’s never dared to say, but has felt with more of himself than he thought he had to feel.

“I’m afraid it was a dream,” Steve whispers, half a moan. “A wish, a, a hallucination—”

“Maybe it was,” Shuri cuts him off; not unkindly, but without too much mercy. “But tell me, what did you find?”

Her eyes implore him more than even her words, and so he tries to breathe in deep, and this time it works, and maybe that’s a sign.

He thinks that could be a sign.

“Okay,” he murmurs, more to himself than to her: okay, you can do this, okay there are words but they can’t touch what you felt, no matter how hard you try because there have never been words for him and what he means, what he does to you and how he fits between your ribs and there will never be enough in mere words to even skim the surface of him, him, him and so nothing you say can break it, because what you felt was him.

He breathes again. In and out before he nods.

“Okay.”

_____________________

He looks to the sky: still just stars, nothing falling, no incoming.

He sighs, stretching out just that little bit longer on the hood of the truck he’d hot-wired to get out here. Fuck, but this is gonna take forever.

Which means Clint is going to get lost in his mind. Again.

It’s a recurring thing.

So long as you keep it to yourself in the field, Barton, he hears Nat’s voice in his head; Leave anything more for after.

But it was always with a promise in her voice, that she’d be there after for whatever was plaguing his mind, and he the same for her, and Phil—

Clint breathes in deep, finds a piece of longrass in the the nameless, deserted field the coordinates had led him to, strong enough to chew at the end because it’s still a comfort for him, even from when his life was far from safe.

Most of his life has been so very, very far from “safe”.

After staring Tony and the gang down on the tarmac, life for Clint hadn’t changed dramatically. He cut a deal with the government to uphold the accords and traded prison, or house arrest, for overly-regular parole check-ins, so long as he gave them any and all information on Captain America and his “rogue associates”. Luckily, twice over: Clint didn’t know much, and also wasn’t a fucking snitch. So that part was pretty easy, and ultimately convincing.

Lucky three times: he technically worked for an organization that technically didn’t exist anymore, so that helped.

Okay, well, four times lucky: the government was also kind of stupid? So that helped.

He hadn’t seen Nat in months, and that stings: the kids in longer, which had been aching in him deep. Laura had kept Nick updated, he’s fairly sure, and Clint’s been at this long enough to know that no news is good news, so when he did check in with Fury he figured anything big would come up. He hoped as much, at least.

And god, the kids. Clint had never thought of himself as a dad, to be honest, not in a million years, but then there’d been Phil, and Natasha, and they’d—

Well, he guesses a lot of things in his life he never would have thought of. Including that one mission, just the three of them, that had started the best thing in Clint’s whole goddamn world. Clint had pushed it, mindless with need to feel something after a day of loss so great and pervasive around them, all for the fucking job, and Phil hadn’t stopped him, had needed in return, and if Natasha had walked in on them, it was with wide eyes with red rims and if Phil had paused, reached to her and said, so soft but so firm in his way Come here, it looked like Natasha had been waiting her whole life to hear those words said to her, and not the Widow.

And she came.

And they were fucking amazing, there’s not even a question. And that’s probably the only reason they thought of kids, because they were that amazing, the three of them, through triumph and tribulation, all kinds of marriage vow-ish stuff without the long ceremony and a white dress Nat would never wear (but Clint might, could be fun)—it came up innocent enough, and even if Nat could have carried a kid, there was always going to be the job, which was why it was never much more than idle dreaming, something they were laid bare enough between them to simply spill souls like a bunch of sappy motherfuckers without judgement, the only time Clint had ever known so much freedom, so much peace: in their arms, in their bed.

So it’d been a pipe dream, really, until Laura.

That had been innocent, too: Laura was a few years under Phil at the Academy, and she’d been on her way to legendary in just about every kind of bladed combat you could think of—Clint was still in awe of her knifework, even if it was mostly put to use in the kitchen these days. She was in her element when she’d taken a bullet at just the right angle to the leg, and nearly bled out: she was still a badass, and still had all of the skills and personality that made her fierce as fuck, but the millisecond of lost reaction time the long-term effects left her with put her on permanent desk duty in the Triskelion. She’d been getting lunch with Phil, and apparently they’d both had a few glasses of wine, and were both notorious lightweights, and Laura had mentioned how much she wished she’d got hurt earlier in her career, really; she’d given up the prospect of a partner without any real regret, but dreams of motherhood had always been a heartbreaking thing to concede to the work. Now, it seemed too late to start, she said, and Phil, as usual, wanted to help fix it, researched her IVF options and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s med tech to make it easier.

It had been Natasha’s idea to ask her how she felt about knowing her donors, and while not have partners in that kind of love, then maybe having partners in living, and raising the children she’d always wanted to have. And then of course it had been Laura, beautiful hilarious charming Laura, who’d agreed. None of them knew for sure who the biological father of any of the kids were, but the reality was they all either hit the jackpot or were terribly unfortunate: they have four parents, who love them more than life.

Losing Phil had been a bomb, had tore them to shreds, and Laura had been a champ: she’d lost a dear friend and a co-parent, but not a part of her soul, and the kids were young enough not to remember on their own (and that was horrifying all on it’s own, not remember him—), but she’d stepped up and been mom and grief counselor and kick-in-the-ass to get back up after enough time for them to learn how to mourn in motion, and they wouldn’t have made it without her. Not Natasha, for how closed off she became and how Laura wore her down to break in Clint’s arms, and not Clint, to have the arms to catch Nat when she crumbled and to not have crumbled himself forever and irreparably for his part in Phil’s death, and the guilt they all know will plague him for the rest of their lives: but finding Nat again, finding them again was a way of remembering, of honoring Phil and the love they all shared—Laura’s words, smart woman—had been what kept him alive in the immediate aftermath, and it’s her, and their kids, and Laura’s warmth too that keeps him going now.

But he’d been operating dark, codename and everything, really pretty badass even by his terms, if he’s honest. And when it had happened, he’d watched his adversary disappear before his eyes in a flaky-cloud of fuck-knows-what, and as soon as he learned it was everyone, and everywhere?

His heart had goddamn stopped.

Fury had been off the grid, or so Clint had thought, and he’d done his best to get any information on his family, all of them, without breaking cover, as cover would be precisely what they were going to need just now, if everything was falling apart and going to shit. When he learned that Laura and the kids were gone, or else, learned it as far and as truthful as he was able from a world away in the shadows, he’d gone a little crazy, a little deadly, and he’d still be doing it if not for two things: one, hearing enough chatter about Wakanda to know that Nat was alright (thank god for small mercies, for huge fucking mercies), and then: the pager.

The fucking pager that Clint carried with him everywhere, at Fury’s insistence, after giving it to him the moment he made Level 7, that was so conspicuous that Clint thought whatever its purpose was had to be less important than how much of not-low-profile the goddamn thing was; but yeah. The other thing was the pager, and how after close on two decades, it’d gone the fuck off.

The message it sent were coordinates and a number Clint figures was a date—not long from when the message was sent, but long enough to get where he needed to go in the most circuitous way he could, he needed to stay off the grid; and so he’d made his way there quick-like, best he could, and he waited.

So here he is.

He blinks back at the sky, and that’s when he sees it: subtle at first, but brighter than a shooting star, and coming closer, like he imagines a meteor would look, like when the dinosaurs kicked it or whatever.

Before he can think of much else, there’s an impact about 50 feet from him, and a shuddering of the ground that feels a little like the ending of the world, even for Clint. Who knows what he’s talking about in that regard.

“Shit!” he hears as the dust starts to clear and someone—tall woman, green suit, blonde, oh, Clint knows what the pager was for now, and why, because Nick hadn’t always been a mysterious tight-lipped motherfucker.

Makes sense, now, anachronism-wise, why it was a pager.

“Still a bitch, coming in,” the woman stands, deactivating the helmet on her really very impressive-looking space suit. NASA should have taken notes.

“Lower, shorter, slower,” she grouses, kicking a little at the ground, like she’s making sure it’s what it looks like, rooting herself in the space and place. She looks up, suddenly, and squints at him.

“And you are?”

“Clint Barton,” he slides off the hood slowly, dusting off his clothes from the impact. “Your escort,” he tries, and he thinks that sounds right, but doesn’t know that she really needs one, so maybe—

“Or welcoming committee.”

Her lips quirk at that.

“Fury?”

“Poofed in a cloud of dust,” Clint tries to make light of it, of how lost he felt without anyone, and how much he didn’t realize he depended on the simple existence of his boss. “Very dramatic.”

“Global cataclysm,” she quirks a brow. “That was the agreement.”

“Not entirely dramatic,” he hedges, and smirks back, because he thinks she speaks his language; “but only by a hair.”

She sighs. “Right. Imminent threat?”

“Not exactly.”

“Base of operations?”

“We can get there, without that,” he gestures at her person and her apparent ability to fly, you know, through space; “by sunrise.”

“I’ll want a sitrep first,” she says seriously, looking at her wrist where there’s probably an interstellar Apple Watch telling her lots of shit that Clint either doesn’t know or learned a lot slower, likely with more bloodshed involved. “That is, if we’re not on too tight a schedule.”

“Whatever you say.”

Whatever I say?” she asks him skeptically, almost playfully, and yeah, she speaks his language.

“I try to be polite on the job.”

She snorts at that, and he can’t help it, in spite of all the shit they’re wading through: he smirks, and gestures grandly, just shy of offering his hand to help, for her to get in the truck.

She starts to walk toward the passenger side before she spots his bow propped near the wheel well. “Archery?”

He cocks his head as he opens the driver-side door. “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”

“I have tried it.”

“Not like this, you haven’t,” he grabs the bow and sets it behind the seats, where all the rest of his gear is stowed. “You may be a super-space hero,” she raises an eyebrow at him; “because Fury can’t keep his mouth shut, ma’am,” she rolls her eyes, at that; “but you’ve never shot with me.”

She half-snorts, half-giggles at that. He’s not sure if that’s something he should be offended by, but it’s mostly a moot point.

She travels through space.

“You’re kind of a dick, aren’t you?” she asks, like it would be the best thing if he was (is), in fact, kind of dicky. “I’m charmed, seriously.”

He grins cheekily. “Shall we, then?”

“We shall,” she closes her door, but pauses before he turns the ignition.

“And cut the ma’am bullshit,” she tells him firmly. “I like you. So you can call me Carol.”

Chapter Text

“It’s him,” Bucky says, tone low; all conviction and certainty, full heart and soul. “it’s definitely him.”

They’re gathered in one of the large conference spaces in the Palace, sequestered because much as Bucky likes to give them all shit, the men around him are good people, and they respect the fact that even Bucky, for all that he’s known, is still shaken as fuck.

T’Challa had lifted him from the sands, and he’s choked and sobbed for fuck knows how long as Sam and Ross came around with a blanket that Bucky couldn’t grab, and so was draped around him, and water he couldn’t drink without it being poured down his throat for all the shaking. After making sure the gasping and shaking were incurable for the moment but nothing more dire, T’Challa had ushered the others away, ascending the steps and giving him solitude in the cave, promising to wait just at the top until he was ready, no matter how long it took.

Bucky had been, was, is, really fucking grateful for that.

Because he’d nearly broken for it all, for the heaviness in his chest alongside the emptiness of what had been there, he knows it was there, that he was there, Steve was there; he’d nearly lost himself as he collapsed back into the sand, hands combing through for purchase as he wracked with sobs he couldn’t control, hope he couldn’t deny, and despair at ever leaving that sense of presence for fear he’d never know it, or anything more, ever again.

It had taken him minutes, hours; he doesn’t know. But he’d pressed himself to the ground beneath the grains until he could keep his body steady, and he’d let his eyes stream until there was nothing left and he breathed, and remembered how many moments in his life he’d been denied the air to do it, and he pulled himself up and climbed.

And they’d been waiting, with a plan for what came next, and Bucky’s really, really, really fucking grateful.

“You are certain,” T’Challa affirms, appraising him thoughtfully. “Then what gives you pause?”

Bucky breathes in deep, crossing arms over his chest like a defense and a bolster all at once, steadying his lower lip against his thumb as he tries to find the words.

“It’s not,” Bucky finally shakes his head; “it’s not what you think, what it seems like. I know it’s him,” his hand comes to his chest unbidden, and massages circles there idly.

“But I’m thinking, what if, I mean,” he looks up and meets everyone’s eyes, and tries to ground himself.

He knows this. He knows how to do this.

Except he doesn’t. He doesn’t know this.

“When,” he sucks in a deep breath, and lets his hand still against his sternum; “when here became ours, rather than there, I lost my gun.”

“Yeah?” Sam asks, leans in; attentive, but not understanding.

“This was not a vital concern, given more pressing matters,” T’Challa says with a nod and a shrug that somehow slides into a single, graceful motion. That suave bastard; it’s that thought that lightens something in Bucky—like yes. Yes, he can do this. There are words.

He can find them, for this.

“And the fact that you have a fuckton of other guns here,” Ross chimes in. Not incorrectly.

But T’Challa’s silence is deeper, somehow, and Bucky clocks it. And T’Challa steeples his hands below his chin, thinking really fucking loudly for all the quiet, and Bucky maybe doesn’t need the words. Maybe these people, in this room—maybe these are the people he trusts to know the things before they’re said.

“But you did not lose your wings,” T’Challa finally says, pointing toward Sam without looking his way, still pensive.

“What?”

“We calibrated the technology, if only just, and rudimentarily at that, to your neural network. An aid in response time,” T’Challa says, putting the pieces together the same way Bucky’s done, and that’s it, that’s what he needs to see, to know it’s not just him trying, begging the universe to let this make sense, be as real as it feels, as real as he knows, as he feels, beyond any words at all.

“And I kept my arm,” Bucky nods, and Sam’s leaning in, his gaze narrowing as he starts making sense of the train of thought as well. Bucky glances over to Ross, who’s leaning back in his chair but is frowning, the thoughtful kind, and okay. Okay.

“Yes.”

“But I lost my dogtags.” And that’s the point, that’s what’s stuck with him; that’s where his hand stopped, where his palm gaped open and empty above his chest.

That’s where it stays.

“You what?” Ross asks, and Bucky makes himself glance at T’Challa, who’s the only one already understanding it, the only one who could.

 

“You took them off me, before, but I,” Bucky’s breath stutters on the exhale. “I grabbed them before I went under and then when I came back,” he shakes his head; “they’re nowhere. When you left me, too,” Bucky glances around, meaningful, because he can’t name what they did for him, keeping watch while he gathered himself, and while he goddamn looked for a touchstone he didn’t realize he was so dependent upon until he needed it beyond T’Challa’s reassurance; until he realized it was gone, and then realized maybe, maybe there was a future on the horizon where he wouldn’t need a stopgap, a symbol anymore, but could touch the real thing. Maybe.

Just not yet; and in the meantime, he does need.

“I checked.”

“Then it does work,” Ross says, a little awestruck. “He can take something, and it,” he laughs, covering his mouth around a the wonder. “It’ll go there, and—”

“We should write a letter,” Sam jumps in; “something explaining, you know, whatever this, well...” he makes a wide-ranging gesture before he lands on:

“Y’know, trying to explain, stuff.”

Bucky snorts. “Stuff?”

Sam glares. “Got a better word?”

Bucky shrugs. No, he does not.

Words aren’t his forte right now, as it were.

“It’s a non-issue, anyway,” Ross chimes in. “We can’t send a letter. Where’s your head at,” he turns to Sam; “been a civilian too long?”

“You never know who’s listening,” Bucky nods, much as it kills a little piece of him to admit it as he catches the strand Ross’s throwing out quickly, having known it deep in his bones already, much as he wishes he didn’t.

But he’d have been writing a much different letter to carry, anyway.

“Man, this isn’t war,” Sam rolls his eyes, but Ross doesn’t waver.

“Isn’t it?”

“No,” T’Challa interrupts them with a raised hand. “Not exactly. But it is prudent to err on the side of caution. It is well-founded, for the trust I place in you,” he turns to Bucky significantly, and Bucky doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to that level of confidence, ever; “to assume that the soul you feel resonance with is indeed that belonging to Steve Rogers. However, what is a less grounded assumption, should these things arrive any more tangibly than your consciousness, then if lost in the interim, where they may end up.”

Sam quiets, but waits; wants more.

Bucky wants, needs it, too. Probably the same way Sam does. Needs someone else to say what they know, because they can’t.

He can’t.

“What if the monster who did this is still watching, waiting?” T’Challa says, low and almost wrathful with it. “What if he knows what he intended did not go to plan? What if a letter is the means through which he learns this, and he comes to finish the job, separating us again, one way or another?”

“And that’s a chance we don’t want to take,” Ross agrees; “at least not yet. Not with anything so explicit, at least, that gives too much away without us having more intel.”

Right. Not intel. Not anything that gives away too much.

Or something that gives away everything, but only to the right person. Only to someone who knows the right things already.

“A flower.”

Ross is the one who asks first: “What?”

“If I,” Bucky lets the idea unfurl as he speaks; “one of the herbs, if I carry it in, he’ll take it to someone who knows, and if Shuri is there, if she sees it—”

“She will begin to ask the right questions,” T’Challa picks up the train of thought, brightening at the thought, and undoubtedly at the mention, the hope of his sister; Bucky feels it too, on top of everything.

“And might figure out how to meet us halfway,” Sam adds, and Ross nods, and oh, god.

Bucky’s not the only one who’s stupid enough to fucking believe.

“Well then,” Bucky clears his throat, and moves to stand, heart pounding with all that fucking stupidity right at its core: “Give me a little while to get my bearings, yeah? Then we’ll get to it.” He gives a tight smile around the table before he leaves.

“See you soon, gentlemen.”

_____________________

The tension, the standoff is straight out of a movie, overcharged with testosterone and all kinds of pent-up aggression and unresolved bitterness. Theatrical.

Pepper has absolutely no tolerance for any of it.

“Fury,” Hank finally gives, nodding in Nick’s direction while only staring at a spot above his shoulder.

“Pym.” Fury, on the other hand, stares Hank straight on, unblinking. Pepper rolls her eyes.

“Stark, Hill, Van Dynes, and Starr, did you say?” Starting with herself, she goes around the room, completely out of patience. “Honestly, boys, tuck them back in and let’s get to work.”

It takes a minute, but Nick and Hank look suitably chastised, and if there’s a snort that comes from Maria’s direction. Pepper swallows her own smirk in response in order to keep glaring at the two men before her.

“I sent out a signal,” Nick says after a long beat. “Before I thought that I’d be going anywhere but nowhere.” He looks significantly at Maria, who doesn’t looks surprised. Pepper’s going to have to ask after that one, because secrets aren’t a luxury they can afford.

“If the intended recipient got it, either side of this,” he pauses, and glances between Hank and Janet significantly, still suspicious of their hypotheses on the matter; “quantum divide? Once she gets there, as I’m pretty sure she’d be here already otherwise, she’ll have the power to do whatever needs to be done. If we can figure out what needs to be done.”

“But power isn’t the only thing involved in these sorts of things,” Janet shakes her head. “Stability, precision, connection,” she ticks off the necessities on her fingers. “And at that level, that perfect combination? It can’t be one-sided,” she sighs.

“The call has to have a response.”

Nick grimaces—Pepper knows him well enough now to distinguish that from his normal expression—and Hank furrows his brows, and it’s all very unhelpful, frankly.

“There’s one person, if she’s here, who could help,” Maria speaks up, turns the room in her direction.

“And who would that be?” Hank asks, tired and terse with it, and Maria eyes narrow in his direction, because if anyone doesn’t take that tone? It’s Maria Hill.

Pepper could honestly stand to see her take him apart, because she too is tired, and it’s entertaining, watching Maria pull rank. Pepper could use the breather, and she suspects Maria could use the outlet.

“And where might she be?” Janet pulls them back with a carefully cultivated tone, and a glance in her husband’s direction, making it very clear that time away hasn’t dampened her ability to read the room and accommodate accordingly, particularly where Hank is involved.

But Pepper knows instinctively what Maria is saying—or else implying. There is only one person Pepper knows of, and only that by reputation, who she doesn’t also know has disappeared.

“Wakanda,” Pepper says, and Maria nods, leaning back into the wall where she’s standing. Pepper’s never met the woman, but she’s heard the stories. “She’d be in Wakanda, but unfortunately I don’t have a royal invitation.”

And that’s when she notices Maria’s smile, alongside the nod; a little self-satisfied, and matched to the same on Nick’s face when he knocks on the wall behind him.

“Helpfully,” he says; “we do.”

“Well,” and it’s then that a woman enters the room; “I’m not a royal,” and Pepper doubts that, because her bearing is nothing less.

“Not yet—” Maria tries to needle, but the woman doesn’t heed her one bit, poised as anything.

“But I can secure an invitation, I am very sure of that.”

“And you are?”

It’s Miss Starr, this time, who asks and Pepper notes that she seems as skeptical of everything around her as Hank does, and just as exhausted by it.

There’s a story there, for another time.

“My name is Nakia,” the woman says carefully, evaluating them each in a glance that pierces, Pepper can feel it; seeing everything. “I direct the Wakandan Social Outreach Services,” and when that doesn’t seem to convince them all in one fell swoop she sighs, and tacks on:

“I also operate within the Global Intelligence Services.” She flips down her lower lip to reveal a glowing line of figures, and well.

That does the trick.

“So I am very sure we have the technology to meet your requirements,” she says definitively, with a glance toward Janet; “to find any possible response to whatever call we may send out.”

_____________________

“Hey Terminator.”

Bucky turns, just a little, and scoots over to make room.

“Still not funny,” he sighs as Sam takes a seat.

“Thought I’d come and keep you company.”

Bucky hums; he’s appreciative of it, honestly, and he doesn’t have to say anything for Sam to know it.

“I believe you,” Sam says without preamble, with a quick squeeze to Bucky’s shoulder. “No question.”

“Thank you.” Somehow, it means something particularly heavy, powerful to hear it from Sam, to know it from someone who’s seen him through all of this, who’s walked with Steve through all of this, who doesn’t owe Bucky a goddamn thing except what they’ve built, slow but sure around a single tether that didn’t have to hold, strong as Steve is—Sam didn’t have to hold to Bucky, too.

“And I get it, you know.”

A short, dry sort of chuckle escapes Bucky’s lips.

“It’s easy to love Steve Rogers,” he answers with a shrug and the closest thing he can manage to a smile, just now. It’s a self explanatory concept, anyway.

“That’s not what I meant.”

Bucky stills.

“I get why he let the world burn, to save you,” Sam says, almost dispassionately, or else, whatever it is when something’s plain as fucking day and doesn’t require any affect for it to be absolutely clear.

“He didn’t have to tell me stories for me to know about you, ‘course. I got good grades in History, man,” Sam makes sure that’s known first. “But he told me anyway. And I got why he loved who you were, both of you.”

And Bucky aches, because they did, he did; he loved Steve more than he loved anyone, and it took him far too long to realize what that meant, and longer still than he’s often ready to forgive to let it bring him back, to remember that he’s nothing without it, no matter what Steve feels or doesn’t, couldn’t ever feel the same: he forgot, and maybe it wasn’t his fault, but for every breath he’d taken without that truth at his core he’d been nothing of himself, he knows that now, and it’s made it easier to breathe through what his hands did, if not his soul, but it’s harder, too, to remember and to know again.

But it’s so much sweeter that way, and Bucky wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“What I mean, though, is that I get why he loves you.”

And Sam makes it known in his tone that he means now, as he is, baggage and nightmares and blood on his hands; his tone makes it known and it fucking hurts, because Steve loves him, Bucky knows that, he felt that much, but to be loved like that, like Bucky loves—

“Because you’re a good man, James Barnes,” Sam tells him, and Bucky can’t meet his eyes, and it takes everything he’s got not to show it, but he feels like he can almost believe it from Sam’s mouth. “Better than most, and you kept that whole, and real, in spite of everything, anything. You’re a strong man.”

Bucky has to clear his throat before speaks, and even then it’s weak as hell: “Got a crush, Sammy-boy?”

“Fuck off,” Sam volleys easily, without any heat. “I was trying to be nice.”

“I’m glad he found you,” Bucky returns the favor, still a little rough but he’s not sorry for it. “I’m grateful to any god who might exist that he found someone like you.” Because Steve needed someone, and goddamnit, Bucky hasn’t met a whole lot of people better than Sam Wilson.

“Aww, shucks,” Sam says, but there’s no real jibe to it, and the way he bumps Bucky’s shoulder speaks volumes. “Gonna make me blush.”

“Don’t get used to it.”

“We’re gonna get him back,” Sam says, and it’s got a certainty to it that’s hard to force, hard to fake. “We’re gonna get all of them back.”

“I know,” and Bucky does. Something deep inside him knows it, but it’s more because there’s no other option, there’s no other way. “I know, I just...”

He breathes in deep, and out slow, and admits what churns in his stomach and chokes him and is making it sore in his chest.

“I don’t know how.”

Admitting it doesn’t make it sweeter, but it also doesn’t make it any harder to sit with; Bucky doesn’t know if that makes any difference at all.

“You don’t have to do it all alone, you know.”

Bucky turns at that, and Sam’s watching him honestly, openly.

“We’re going to figure this shit out. It might take longer than we like,” Sam says it, even and more like a promise than anything else. “But we will.”

And goddamn Sam Wilson, but his resolve’s contagious.

“Yeah, we will.”

Chapter Text

It’s a wave, and Steve’s drowning in it the very moment he walks back into the cave, past the burnt remains of the gardens; sees the sand dug deep into the ground and feels sensation course through his entire body: longing, desperation, cold and hot and wanting, the promise of maybe

“Steve, you,” she’s crouched down, hand sifting through the very sands that are consuming Steve’s very being as her eyes sweep over him, calculating before her jaw drops, just a little, and Steve’s not sure if he wants to know what surprises Shuri enough for her to show it quite like that.

“Steve.”

Her hand lifts, and something long is threaded through her fingers, shining as the granules fall from it, and they’re as familiar as the pulse in his chest, even as it stills for just a second, because his heart’s pounding against his own tags: precious, the closest he has of the man he loves in the flesh, except they’re matched in Shuri’s hands and—

“These are not yours.”

Those are not his.

“Oh my god,” Steve breathes out, almost a whimper and he won’t deny it, as his stomach drops and his heart pounds and all the space inside him shivers with the questions that teeter always on the knife’s-edge of hope.

“Was he ever…” Steve gestures around him, and begs for the answer to be no, because if it’s no then, then

“Not that I know,” Shuri answers with shake of her head. “It was never off limits to him, but there would have been no reason for him to come here,” she sighs, then, sadly; “no reason for any of us to come here. Not anymore.”

Steve aches for a second to go to her, to try and ease the loss on top of all the loss, but she rallies quickly on her own.

“Not yet, anyway,” she says, a little brighter, mostly with resolve. “My work on recultivating the herb was sidelined unexpectedly. Many times.” Her grin is weak, but it’s wry, and honest, and Steve admires the hell out of her.

“Steve,” she starts, pausing as she surveys the space before her. “If he...”

“They were his, are his,” Steve jumps straight in, takes the tags from her hands and lifts his own from under his shirt and weighs them against each other, perfect complements, just, perfect. “And it was on him when he,” Steve’s voice grows low, strained; “so for it to be here, then, when we, it must have…”

He looks up, needing to find something giving in Shuri’s gaze and it’s there, if muted, but Steve will take it anyway and make it big inside his own blood, just like he needs, because this is true, goddamnit.

This has to be true.

“Steve,” Shuri says, a little bit guarded, but there’s emotion clear in her tone. “Bucky became a brother to me, and to think that he,” she shakes her head, disbelieving, trying to piece together the scraps of the impossible.

“And what if,” she starts thinking out loud, voice a little bit faint; “what if—”

“T’Challa,” Steve says, wondering. “Sam.”

“Nakia, Ross,” Shuri nods fervently, adding to the list, meeting Steve’s eyes for the first time.

“Shuri,” Steve says softly, begging and encouraging somehow all at once: he needs her, he needs someone here with him, asking the universe for a miracle right at his side.

“We should not get our hopes up,” she squares her shoulders and stands up. “I did not know his every move, he may have lost it here long ago.”

“He touched it,” Steve counters, desperate. “He touched it under his suit just like I did, but he didn’t hide it,” Steve’s throat is tightening, eyes prickling as he whispers, mostly to himself: “he didn’t have anything to hide in it,” but what if that’s not true, what if what he felt was more, was what it lived even now as an echo in his chest, what if it’s that big and it’s not just what Steve wants it to be, what if that’s what it is

“But he was wearing it.”

Beyond every what-if, that much Steve knows.

“It could have been a,” Shuri half-shakes her head again, like she’s unsure which side of the absurd, the untenable she’s willing to land on. “He may have been touching where it was meant to be, feeling the empty space and the wrongness...”

“Don’t talk us out of hope, Shuri.” And it’s as simple as that, and this time Steve isn’t between begging and anything else; it’s flat out begging, and he’s not ashamed to admit it. “Please.”

She looks at him, really looks, and inhales deeply.

“Okay,” she finally breathes out in a rush, and Steve can damn well feel himself come to life, just a little, when she says it.

“Okay. We can hope.”

_____________________

“What, no Lord and Savior speech?”

The craft isn’t large by any means, but Nebula figures that Loki has different standards. Small still includes a dramatically-slow ramp-unveiling.

Typical.

But it’s a silent process, as they prepare to disembark, which isn’t typical.

“Well,” Loki answers with a frown, just this side of petulant; “I feel it’s a bit wasted on them.”

Point.

 

“Oh, look,” and huh. Guess who apparently managed to keep himself breathing since she left him here. That’s interesting.

“Party on Titan. Did we mess with the bull and get the horns?”

“Shut up, Stark.”

“That was actually a dig on him,” Stark points to Loki; “so I apologize for involving you.”

“Oh, I’m touched.” She strides over to him and the...oh. The Sorcerer. She hadn’t seen that coming. Loki’s going to have a blast.

“Take this,” she tosses the abomination she’d been holding toward Stark, letting it clang across the ground in all its shriveled glory; “and do something with it.”

“Is that,” the Sorcerer asks, as Stark instinctively jumps back from what’s left of the Gauntlet.

“Holy fuck,” Stark hisses, “why are you throwing that thing around?”

“Do I seem affected by it?” Nebula rolls her eyes. “Burned, decimated, turned to ash before your eyes?” She sneers down at the hunk of deformed gold, studded with dull jewels. “They’re near to useless, now, look at them.”

They’re both still eyeing it wearily, and Nebula sighs, because honestly.

Why she bothers is beyond her.

“Not to mention what would have to be true if I have it in the first place,” she tries to lead them to water, so to speak, and it kills her a little because her patience is worn just that thin. “I was told you had brains, both of you. Use them.”

She kicks the Gauntlet closer, not because she’s intimidated by its ghosts, but because touching it at all is too close to him, too much of him. She won’t have it.

“I thought you might have a project to,” she eyes them meaningfully: “resurrect with them.”

But they’re still looking at her blankly. Sweet dear fuck.

“Figure it out, gentleman.” She turns on her heel and makes to walk away. She’s wasted enough of her time and energy here.

“There are only five. Gems.”

“Greedy on top of asshole, I shouldn’t be surprised,” she wheels back around and glares at Stark for a long moment before glancing toward Loki. “Get these idiots back to Earth,”

“I could very easily devise—” the Sorcerer starts, indignant.

“I was nearly done with—” Stark speaks over him, even more indignant.

“Stop.” She growls. “Talking.”

“You’re not coming?” Loki asks, and that’s a nice change. A question. But she doesn’t meet it with anything less than a sneer.

“You followed him all the way there, tracked him down,” she shakes her head, neither disappointed nor surprised; “but you didn’t notice where he went to die.”

Loki looks at her, not comprehending, and good. She’ll leave the jaw-waggers together to limp back to Earth.

“I have other plans.” She doesn’t ask about disengaging the ship’s pod and commandeering it at will; whatever the answer might be, it wouldn’t change what she does. “Don’t fuck this up.”

“I don’t intend to.”

It’s not assurance, but it’s the best he can give; tracing the amber stone clenched in her palm, she knows that intimately.

The command, after all, wasn’t just for him.

_____________________

Clint’s learned to not be surprised by much in this life.

This does not mean things never arrive in his world with an element of surprise.

A man in a bug suit popping into existence from nowhere is one of those things.

“Lang,” Clint splutters, just a little, and feels not so bad about it because even the Captain—Carol, she wants to be called Carol—looks a bit shocked. “The fuck?”

“Was kind of hoping you’d be able to answer that, I lost contact eons ago, and now...” he looks around, a little lost. “Thanks though, for getting me,” he gestures toward the big cylindrical...thing. Near the switches and shit. “Y’know.”

Clint does not, in fact, know, but he gets it.

“Thank her,” he points toward Carol; “she stabilized whatever the hell this is.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Carol cuts in. “I can blast shit to holy hell, but I’ve only got one set of hands. Someone had to figure out the controls.”

Clint looks guilelessly toward Scott.

“I literally pressed all the buttons until you popped out.”

“That was…” Scott looks momentarily horrified, but Clint watches the very familiar element of I’d have done the same damn thing dawn on his face before he concedes: “Well, it worked, so still. Thanks.”

Clint nods. There are honestly fewer instances in his experience where pressing all the buttons did harm, rather than good. He stands by it as a good call, generally.

“What happened?” Scott goes back to glancing around, apprehension clear on his features and growing. “Where’s Hope?”

Oh, wow.

“Oh, wow,” Clint says, because his brain-to-mouth filter isn’t great. “There’s, umm, a lot to catch you up on.”

“Can we do that on the way?” Carol pointedly redirects.

“Read my mind,” Clint answers, snapping his fingers. “Get your shit, Lang, we’ve got a plane to catch.”

Scott does as he’s asked as Carol leans toward Clint.

We’re piloting said plane.”

Clint shrugs. “He’s easily sidetracked,”

Carol nods slowly, watching Scott rush around trying to figure out how to carry all the contraptions set up on the rooftop. In his defense, he doesn’t know they’re going to the technological mecca of the world, but still.

Carol lets out a soundless whistle.

“Right. Understood.”

_____________________

Steve shivers as he slips into the sand. It’s not cold.

His fucking bones are shaking.

“I’ll be here,” Shuri’s voice roots him in the now, at his side; a hand on his bare shoulder. “If that’s okay?”

“Of course,” Steve says, a hand coming up automatically to cover her own because there’s something in him that’s terrified. That’s so fucking scared the first time was a fluke, or all in his head. But the tags, and the certainty that courses in his blood, it’s, he—

“You can,” Steve starts, voice cracking; “you’ll be able to tell? If he’s, if we...”

“Well, of course we cannot know until—” Shuri starts, but she stops abruptly. Steve only realizes he’s clutching her hand likely to the point of discomfort after she squeezes back: solid.

“I,” she starts slowly. “I hope. I will monitor, and I will take readings, and with readings we’ll be able to see.” She strokes his wrist where his pulse jumps, trying to ease him as she takes the leap.

“I hope I will, yes.”

He takes a deep breath and lets go, and he’s not ready.

He’s not ready to be wrong. He won’t survive it.

“Then let’s do this.”

He won’t survive it, so goddamnit: he won’t be wrong.

Chapter Text

Bucky goes in, ready for it to be just like the last time and nothing like it at all; he’s ready for the tumult of Steve’s emotions, all pounding heartbeat and half-lost, unfettered feeling that Bucky can’t help but react to, want to soothe, need to calm because that’s the first, the oldest instinct in Bucky’s body; to steady, to hold, to protect. He’s ready to make himself a safe haven however it’s needed, so long as it’s met, so long as it’s needed and not left to wither alone—Bucky is ready for anything but that.

Thing is: he shouldn’t have worried.

He shouldn’t have worried at all.

_____________________

Steve feels him, as soon as he loses normal consciousness and comes to in whatever this space is, this world where he exists in Bucky Barnes and Bucky Barnes exists in him and somehow it’s perfect.

Somehow, it could never be enough.

Steve feels his emotions surge, feels Bucky—because it is Bucky, it is Bucky and Steve needs to encapsulate this moment of knowing because he shouldn't have questioned, there was no need for it, because nothing has ever felt right, ever felt warm, ever felt right like this and there’s only one place, one person who’s ever made Steve feel those things, like this.

But he feels Bucky, and his heart trips, and there’s something that reaches out, like it doesn’t know how not to, and Steve could sob for it, but just tries his best to draw that feeling closer, tries to draw that sensation into him and hold it close with everything in him so that he can suffuse it, and whatever it leads to, where it’s attached and whatever part of Bucky might be able to know in turn from Steve, whatever shred of his whole self and his entire heart Bucky might, possibly, somehow be able to feel even the fraction of an echo of: Steve goes all in. Steve begs for that something, that gets across from his everything—so he just lets loose.

I love you.

And he feels it, lets it suffuse him as much as he knows, thinks of everything Bucky is and has ever been, everything he knows Bucky will be, can be, and all the fantasties, all the what-ifs and god, if only’s Steve’s lived with in his chest when it was small, and they pushed out, and now that it’s big, and feels just the same.

I love you more than I needed the fight, and by god I needed the fight, but I needed to follow you, and the fight followed you too, and it wasn’t something I pulled apart, I’m not that introspective of a man, you know that, but I know this, I know this deeper than my bones before, or after, then or now, but if there’s anything I’ve ever known, it’s my heart, you know that, you know that. And if there’s anything I’ve ever known in my heart, it’s you.

There’s a shudder, infinitesimal and cosmic all at once, and Steve wants to believe it comes from beyond him, from something around him or receiving him in some small, wordless way that encompasses some small degree of all things, some small sliver of forever; Steve wants to believe the shudder comes from beyond him. But he knows it’s all so big, and to say it in his mind, into the void, into whatever may or may not be waiting to know it, too: he knows whatever piece of him is real here is trembling like a leaf, is so sure but so scared because this is all so big, he gets lost in it.

He’s scared, because he’s afraid of what happens if it’s for nothing. If it falls flat into the ether.

I don’t know if you can hear me, or tell me that you do, Steve admits it, because he can’t hide from it, he doesn't want to hide anything; I don’t know if you can feel it through here and respond to me somehow, so that I know, so that I know you know, but I’d give my whole soul to have you believe this one truth, Buck. I’d give you my whole soul if it wasn’t already yours.

There’s nothing said, and Steve didn’t expect there to be; he’s pretty sure that’s not how this works. But where Steve knows he’s shaking, wavering, the feelings don’t follow him. And he’s not sure what that means.

It feels good, though. It feels better than anything in the world. It feels better than the first breath he took with healthy lungs, it feels…

There’s no word for it. There’s no word for the way it simmers from his blood into the marrow of his bones and settles, makes a home and meets his trembling and keeps him, and he wants to believe that’s more than coincidence.

He wants to believe it’s the exact opposite. He wants to believe it’s Bucky feeling something even vaguely on the same wavelength, meeting him and smoothing the sharp edges so that if Steve gives everything, then Bucky will know.

Steve has to trust in a reality where Bucky knows.

I love you, James Buchanan Barnes, and I’d destroy this world and every other because I’m not a good man, I’m not, but if it meant a moment where your heart was beating somewhere near mine again, just for a second, and if Steve’s voice could break, if his breath could leave him entirely in this place, this space then it would, in that moment: because it’s true.

It’s so goddamn true.

I’m not proud of what I’d do, but I do anything, I’d give anything, just to hear your voice outside my own head, and Steve’s shaking, Steve’s sobbing somewhere deep in the core of him, into the shell of him, and where it should reverberate painfully it doesn’t. There’s cushion there, comfort.

Something’s reaching for him, he knows it. Something’s meeting him in the middle and maybe, just maybe, cradling him with something like comfort. Affection.

Maybe—

I love you more than anything in the universe, more than any living being is supposed to be able to love, somehow you make the impossible real, and it planted its seeds in my chest and they never died. For as many times as we’ve died, it never died.

That’s part of what Steve is clinging to, what gives him the strength to keep going, to keep running on blind, desperate hope: the fact that he’s the proof of the impossible, that Bucky’s the proof of the impossible—that they’re impossible, but they’ve always been.

Steve’s clinging to the possibility that they always will be.

And I’ve always known you loved me, because you can’t live through what we’ve lived through, what we’ve known, and I can’t have had someone like you at my side for all of this, you couldn’t, wouldn’t have done what you did all those years without loving me, you wouldn’t have let me back into the world you clawed your way back into if you didn’t love me, and it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change anything for your love to just be that, to be that beautiful thing and nothing else, and Steve means it. He means it with as much of his heart as he has.

That doesn’t mean that same whole-heart dreams of more, and can’t keep it in any longer. Maybe it’s the coward’s way, to say it without saying it, but there’s still that blanket, that ultraviolet glow of every feeling he has reflected around him like the summer sun too bright but perfect for it, life-giving in a way that Steve’s never known, and the impossible is him, the impossible is this and Steve is real.

There’s got to be something in this that’s real, even if it is only him, but one man can’t make this feeling happen. One love can’t grasp this on its own because Steve knows. He’s loved with all he is for so long and it’s never felt like this, and god, god

I need you to know, I need you to know that I love you, I’m in love with you, I’ve been in love with you for so long I can’t remember how my chest feels without it. I remember what it feels like to struggle to breathe but I don’t know what it means to breathe without you in there making it just a little bit better, making that struggle somehow worthwhile, and that warmth, that heart, that feeling of completeness and unfettered lightness and unthinkable joy, it just intensifies, and Steve can’t fathom it, Steve can’t hold it and doesn't want to, he wants to share it, he wants to live inside it and he knows, deep down, that it isn’t just him, because living with this for so fucking long has never been like this. Not ever.

I need you to know that I love you, he feels it as deep as he can, and adds whatever he is to that feeling that’s encompassing him, gives whatever he can to make it ever, increasingly more: if you can hear me, if you can feel me, if you can know it at all

Steve feels his heart hammering, and yet not: it’s fluttering. He’s fucking abuzz and his heart is trembling for it all and it still feels safe, like it’s held close as he is in the warmth, and fucking hell, he, it, he—

I need you to know.

_____________________

I love you.

Bucky doesn’t need to think it, doesn’t need to direct it or focus all his energy into conveying that singular feeling in waves upon waves into the abyss. It just happened. He thinks maybe it’s always been happening. Or like he was never truly alive when it didn’t, before it could, when it was stolen from him, when for one reason or another he didn’t breathe inside his own love for Steven Grant Rogers.

It’s just a given.

But there’s something about the way it feels, now, here, this: it’s not like before, where it was all blind and beautiful sensation, no. Here and now it’s like currents upon currents, washing over him to the point where he should be drowning, annihilated, crushed under the weight save that it’s not heavy, it’s a light that doesn’t blind and a fire that doesn’t burn: it’s elation and unrepentant, unmistakable joy, and it’s a joy that revels unthinkably, unfathomably, around Bucky.

Whatever passes for breathing, here: it’s beyond him.

I love you, something feather-light and more than real than his own self and skin and thrumming heart, it just lifts all the tendrils of this one, undying, all-encompassing feeling, this singular truth to the fore and makes it radiate out beyond Bucky’s being and into whatever surrounds him, whatever this is and wherever he is and none of it matters. None of it matters because he loves Steve Rogers and if there's a chance in hell that being here, and just feeling it can make a difference, can count at all, can bring him back

I have loved you every way a person can love, for as long as I’ve known what love was, and even before that, before I knew it had a word and I don’t need your love back but I, I need you to know and I don’t know if this works that way but I felt you, I felt you like you were a part of me, and you’re always a part of me but something more than that, I felt

Suddenly, if there were currents before, there’s an avalanche, a supernova, explosive and it should erase Bucky’s whole self in the process but it’s almost as if, whatever it is, whatever it means, it’s meant to preserve Bucky, to keep him solid and safe and hale and whole, like it has no other purpose and Bucky only knows that feeling to be one thing, in his own chest, and he only knows the tone, the tenor of the emotion that envelopes him to feel like that like that from a single person. He doesn’t have to have ever felt precisely this feeling from him to know it, to know

Steve?

And it’s not possible, is it? Or maybe, just maybe: it’s the only possible thing left.

Steve, if, Bucky feels his chest constrict, but the sense of something like pleading, something like cherishing, something like cradling and determination to assuage and make right, and Bucky’s only known one set of hands, on beating heart that’s as determined as this feels, as single-minded toward a goal, and if Bucky had any doubts left about this connection, about it being Steve in his veins like this, that’s the end of those doubts, full-stop.

If you feel me like I feel you, is this, are you, and Bucky can’t put quite the right emotion to it, the unthinkable; there’s a wariness that exists in him too deep to think that his heart could be wanted upon being offered, that it can be anything but loved from a distance, just in parts, just enough to make it through this life with some modicum of light, more than he’s ever deserved; but this.

What he feels is so far beyond that; not just his own deep seated, unshakable love for Steve but something equally unmoveable, encompassing him in every curve and angle, seeping through his pores and making him glow, making him feel alive in ways he never knew were possible.

Oh god, oh god, please, he begs that feeling, he begs it to be real, and to mean things for which he can’t help but hope.

Steve, Bucky pushes the feeling, the needing, the knowing of one Steve Rogers to the bone into whatever awaits him beyond: Steve, I feel it, and I don’t know if I can trust it, if I could ever possibly believe somehow I get to hold it, to know it but I, I

And Bucky would be crying, if crying were something that existed in the here; maybe he is, and he simply doesn’t know it, but the emotion is infinite and he can’t stand it, except that he never wants it to lessen, never wants it to go away.

It’s magnified, everything I feel, and that’s unthinkable, that’s unimaginable, that’s everything that Bucky’s ever dreamed. It’s the same thing, and if you, if it’s you and you feel the same

And Steve can’t, he can’t feel the same, can he? How could he love Bucky, flawed as he is and broken as he’s been, but how can what Bucky’s feeling rise up to meet his own longing and soul-searing need be anything else? How can two things mingle to make something bigger than themselves if they’re not, on some quintessential level, the same?

My god, Steve, Bucky starts to tremble, heart in his throat; I’d give the world, this one and every other, for you, for this, for

My god, he shudders for possibility, for promise; he goddamn prays:

Please, and the hum around him doesn’t falter, doesn’t end, and Bucky feels himself give in to it, fully and wholly and a part of himself as much as anything is, within and without and beyond and just, just—

Everything.

_____________________

Steve is gasping, eyes streaming without his permission as he surfaces; Shuri drops her tablet and rushes to his side as soon as he comes to.

“Shuri,” he wrenches out, throat tight and body shaking.

“Steve,” she eases him up, slowly, gently. “Steve, what is it?” she asks softly, eyes roving him for any obvious cause of his distress. “Are you alright?”

“Shuri, I, he was,” Steve’s crumbling, he’s falling just a little bit more apart with every breath and he doesn’t know what he’ll do when it all comes down but he has to tell her, she has to know before he crashes. “It, I...”

“Steve, please, what can I do?” she asks him plaintively and reaches quickly to slip beads over his wrist to activate closer monitoring of his vitals, but his hand grasps for hers on instinct as soon as she gets close enough.

“Love,” he whispers, and she stills, like she understands, or at the very least, like she wants to.

“Shuri,” he breathes out, cheeks wet as he trembles, as the cool shivers along his skin but the traces of warmth still swirl in his soul:

“Shuri, all I felt was love.”

Chapter Text

"She cannot be the dealer."

Parker frowns at him. Of course he does.

"Why not?" he asks Quill.

"She can sense the emotions,” Drax agrees with Quill, who nods emphatically.

"She’ll call the bluff."

"Only when I am touching!" Parker fights a grin. God, he’s so obvious.

"Then Parker apparently doesn't want to win, does he?" Quill is not so mature that he lets that opportunity slide.

And Peter—the other, tiny Peter, who gets to be known by Peter here because Star Lord is way cooler than Spider-Man, for fuck’s sake, and being known by your last name is a grown up badass thing, and Parker is anything but that, yep, that’s what Peter Quill has decided, exactly that—but Peter, the little pubescent boy-hero one, blushes, and scoots away from Mantis none-too-subtlely.

"So, comms,” Peter stands awkwardly, still holding his cards. “I'm gonna try to get ahold of our friends again, right? Right, Probably that, yep. Off I go."

"Don't let those iron claw things get stuck in my ship again, dipweed," Quill warns, more a taunt about his retreat than anything to do with his spider-tentacles, and the quick-shuffle of feet toward the ship betray the fact that Parker knows exactly what he’s aiming at.

Quill fights a fucking snort, because damn. In his more introspective moments, Quill laments just how young Parker is, but in his less introspective moments, he relishes just how young Parker is.

"What kind of animal are you now, anyway?” Drax asks loudly, truly curious. “Iron scorpion?"

"Naw,” Quill shakes his head; “what about those scurrying things from Axillion 7?"

"I'm leaving!" Peter announces, but not before making a turn behind Quill and pausing for just a second.

"Oh," Parker adds. "Quill's bluffing."

Quill’s eyes narrow.

"You little shit."

Quill throws his cards down and only just stops himself from chasing after the boy, because come on.

But he catches Mantis smiling at Parker, just a little, and aww. That’s kind of cute.

But more than that and Quill’s gonna start gagging, mark his words.

Chapter Text

Bucky’s still reeling from from his encounter, with Steve—with Steve, it has to have been Steve or else, Bucky’s heart has to believe it was Steve if it’s going to keep beating, and soaring, and floating the way that it is; but Bucky’s still reeling from all the feeling mirrored back to him in the purest, most unreserved and unfettered form he can imagine, the most clear and undeniable reciprocation he’s ever known or dreamed to know, and Christ Almighty.

He can barely help but vibrate with the possibility of it, let alone the potential for it all to be true.

To be returned, and returned to him...

He’s called to meet the incoming craft, which is strange because the military corps has plenty of personnel to serve the purpose, and the General knows he’s indisposed, but he knows his duty, and so he goes.

And because he knows that no one’s there to see, he doesn’t stop his eyes from widening when he recognizes the aircraft: Stark Industries model. That’s unexpected.

It’s nothing, however, compared to the revelation that awaits when the hatch opens and the occupants begin to climb out.

“Do you realize,” the voice precedes her, commanding; “how lost I’ve been without my fresh produce from the great stores of the White Wolf himself,” and then she emerges, descending from the cockpit, because of course.

“And now that I return I fly over where his crops grew so very beautifully only to find the fields fallow, no longer seeing fit to trouble himself with tending his harvest any longer? Can you imagine my disappointment?”

“Nakia,” Bucky greets her, and giddy as fuck with it because they’d assumed…

Well, she’d been on classified ops, deep cover, but they’d assumed the worst.

“Where did you, I mean, are you okay?” he asks in a jumble, and her laughter is a balm as she reaches him and braces hands on his shoulders.

“I am fine, James,” she assures him, and kisses his cheek for good measure; she’d started it as a way to playfully ruffle T’Challa’s feathers—which had worked like a goddamn charm because the two of them are the most married unmarried couple Bucky’s ever seen—but as they’d grown closer when Nakia came to Wakanda, started growing the outreach programs between missions and had taken a liking to Bucky—and it was pity, at first, he knows that—but she’d let him help, share opinions, design workshops. Made him feel like a person again, and between her and Shuri and T’Challa, Okoye and Ayo and even M’Baku: they’d tethered him back to the earth again.

Though returning to the present, and speaking of T’Challa:

“Does he—” Bucky starts to ask, but doesn’t have to. Nakia grows instantly sober.

“Not yet.”

“We hoped, god,” Bucky tells her; “you were the only one we could hope for, you know?” He pauses before he goes ahead and jumps in, asks the bigger question.

“Where have you been? What did you have to do?”

“Make contacts,” Nakia says, and that’s when Bucky eyes the rest of the entourage exiting the jet. “I bring a great deal of news, and a great number of people, who may be able to help us comprehend this,” she gestures to people Bucky mostly doesn’t recognize, save for the inimitable Pepper Potts, who he knows only by magazine covers and reputation—though what a reputation it is.

“We could use comprehension,” Bucky surveys the group; “because we’ve got some really, really big things we don’t quite understand.”

“Do you think my considerable charms may be sufficient in persuading the King to allow my guests and I an audience?” Nakia asks, posturing coyness, but it can’t cover the apprehension in her eyes when she glances toward the palace.

“Well, I think your judgement is fairly unimpeachable, and your charms unmatched, so,” Bucky smiles at her, even if it’s a tight sort of smile, and even if the retinue behind her eye him warily—he suspects he has a reputation of his own, but this is his territory, far more than theirs. His say carries weight, here.

So he extends a theatrical arm—coincidentally, his left—to Nakia, which she takes with a grateful smile, reaching to pat his hand.

“I suppose it will be easier,” she admits; “with a friend.”

_____________________

“Tell me again.”

Bucky’d escorted the group for vetting by the Dora Milaje—he trusts Nakia implicitly, but he was asked to meet her for a reason, and with that reason in mind, he knows his duty—and with their okay, he’d let Nakia lead the way to the palace, though he’d matched her step for step, steadfastly at her side. Ross had been the one to meet them—told Nakia to meet the King privately in the Royal Antechamber—and then turned to Bucky with a quick word to gather in one of the reception suites. Which: Bucky had realized quickly that basically everything that wasn’t a lab or a residence, from banquet halls to conference rooms, were “reception suites” decorated like a Ritz Carlton wished it could be—because yeah, Bucky’d stayed in a couple of those on stolen cash in the early days of being not-a-brainwashed-assassin, before he clocked to the fact that luxury was the last thing he needed to acclimate back to some sense of self—but being a self-sustaining nation for so long? There were no rooms designated specifically for conferences with, say, business partners. Foreign dignitaries. Teleconferences.

So the fact is that they find themselves lounging on plush sofas and chaises as they wait for T’Challa and Nakia to join them—and Bucky suspects they’ll be waiting for a while, and rightly so; and while Ross is making friends with the Shrink Squad—shrink as in tiny things, not psychologists; Bucky’s more familiar with one than the other, though that Giant Man moment on the tarmac is one of the few things in the course of those last days on the run that Bucky remembers fondly, because that shit was amazing—Bucky is here. On the couch.

With Sam fucking harassing his ass.

“C’mon, just one more time, tell me.”

“You’re like a child.”

“Come on.” Sam’s lucky he has such a nice smile. Because Bucky’d be far more inclined to punch him, otherwise.

“No, not a child. You’re a fuckin’ voyeur, aren’t you?”

 

“Screw you, asshole,” Sam rolls his eyes and leans back, making himself comfortable and, unfortunately, very well situated to wait Bucky out. “I’m a romantic.”

Bucky sighs. And he’s not too hard to convince, really, because he doesn’t want to stop bringing it to the front of his mind, stepping back into that space

“I’ve never felt it before,” Bucky says, and maybe he feels himself flush a little at the distant, wondering blur at the edge of his voice as he recalls it, summons it up in his chest without trying because it was, is so big and something that big and that strong and that willing to latch on and hold has to mean something. Something real.

“I’ve never felt anything like that,” Bucky exhales slowly; “ever.”

“So…” Sam snaps Bucky back to the moment with his needling and his raised eyebrows and his cajoling grin, and Bucky thinks maybe said grin isn’t enough to convince Bucky not to punch him.

But hell if the warmth in Bucky’s chest is anything but searing, the light anything but blinding, and Bucky just checks Sam at the shoulder where they sit next to each other and grins himself down at his lap.

“I think he,” Bucky starts, because maybe Sam wants to hear it, but maybe Bucky does, too; “I think he feels...”

But it’s hard. It’s hard to be that open, that vulnerable here, where the memory is so strong and persistent and beautifully heavy and full, but the presence is gone, and what if it never comes back, what if they fail, what if—

“Goddamnit Barnes,” Sam sighs, but it’s an oddly patient sort of sigh. Only Sam could make that kind of thing possible. “Say the words.”

And Bucky breathes in deep, and it’s one of the biggest leaps he’s ever taken, even now after everything else:

“I think, maybe, he loves me.”

“And hell’s frozen over, folks,” Sam spreads out his arms and announces to no one, because it’s not loud enough to draw any real attention, even if Bucky grabs said arms immediately and forces them back down, because Jesus: Sam is a child.

“Literally the last person in the world to realize that Steve Rogers loves Bucky Barnes more than fuckin’ life came to his senses,” Sam says with the biggest, happiest, but no-less-shit-eating grin Bucky thinks he’s ever seen. “Praise the lord.”

“You’re such a dick.”

“But look at you,” and Bucky can’t stop smiling, so the insult probably doesn’t land, and Sam’s smiling back now with real fondness in it, and Bucky just kind of sits there, having not forgotten what it felt like to be this warm and damn-near giddy before, but just having never felt it at all, and relishing it for the very first time. Bucky’s been in love with Steve for most of his lifetime.

And maybe, maybe Steve loves him back.

It’s a momentous realization.

“Shut up,” Bucky says, in the most pathetic comeback ever, because he really is grinning too hard, and he laughs when Sam laughs, and it’s...yeah.

He’s in love, goddamnit. And this is what it looks like.

And he only tones it down, on the outside, when he hears a pair of heels approaching.

“Miss Potts,” he looks up, standing quickly as she stops in front of him, reaching out a hand on instinct because he’s a gentleman, sometimes; tries to be.

Yep.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Pepper Potts-maybe-Stark, Bucky doesn’t know, shakes his hand. “A long-overdue introduction.”

“Yes,” Bucky agrees because he doesn’t know what else to say; he kind of figured any introduction between himself and anyone even remotely connected to Tony Stark was a very far off possibility, if it was ever going to be a possibility at all.

But hey; extreme measures, mitigating circumstances, global catastrophes. The playingfield’s changed.

“Thank you,” Bucky says, with a wide gesture to the room around them; “for getting everyone.”

“It wasn’t just me,” Pepper waves him off; “but if we’re in the business of thanks,” her lips quirk, just a little. “Thank you for getting us this far.”

Which Bucky doesn’t deserve—either thanks, or more than that, thanks from her—but if it kind of shakes out to be a thank you for loving Steve Rogers more than he loves life, or air, or just, the universe being in existence at all, so if that’s what he’s being thanked for?

He’ll take it and won’t dare complain.

“Your,” Bucky swallows, because he doesn’t want to ask, but it’s a road that they’ll need to cross and if they’re going to work together, it should happen sooner rather than later. “I mean, Tony? He—”

“Husband,” Pepper reads the between the lines like the pro that she is. “As far as we know.” Her eyes go from just a little glimpse of heartbreak to steely determination between blinking. “So I’m just as invested as you are.”

Bucky nods: good.

“Can I ask a question,” she starts; “If it’s not impertinent.”

Bucky almost laughs; like he’s going to think something’s ‘impertinent’. “Ask away.”

“Wanda,” Pepper says carefully; and Bucky sobers straight up. “Was she?”

“She’s here,” Bucky says quickly; he doesn’t like wasting seconds when it comes to this shit, when it comes to who they lost, whether they…

Bucky doesn’t like to leave anyone wondering any longer than they already have to.

“Well, not here,” Bucky says, frowning slightly. “But I keep an eye on her. She hates it, I know,” and he does know, because when he calls she never picks up, but she’ll dial back within a day, before it rings through but long enough to show a missed call; when he texts, he never gets a response but she doesn’t disable the read receipts.

“She hasn’t stopped me, though, and she keeps the phone, so I figure it’s okay.”

“Right,” Pepper nods, pauses, and then ventures: “because, Vision?”

Bucky swallows hard, because god he feels for Wanda, so much. “Yeah.”

Pepper’s expression shifts again on the quick; sympathy to something pensive.

“I wonder,” she says softly, almost to herself before she turns back to Bucky.

“We have all of the original databases from his core personality implants at Stark Industries, and Tony monitored him consistently for changes, because he was always paranoid about it after, well, Sokovia,” she flinches a little, at that.

“Not to make it sound so, sterile,” Pepper adds, apologetically. “But if we’re trying to merge universes—”

“Maybe,” Bucky picks up, because he’s pretty good at reading between the lines, either. If they have something of him, Bucky of all people knows that if the something is big enough, if it holds enough, if it comes to want enough so much that it’s a goddamn need, then fuck it: anything can happen.

“Can’t afford not to hope, right?” Pepper adds, hopeful in its own right as she smiles, small but too wishful to be anything else.

And Bucky smiles at her back at her, a little warmer than he might have on any other day, following any lesser realization and admission than the one he’d made to Sam just minutes before; but he smiles, because damn straight, they’re going to hope.

Bucky refuses to do anything less.

_____________________

Even Bucky can admit: this is getting ridiculous.

“I have a master’s degree. From MIT.”

Sam snorts in Ross’s direction at that. “In aeronautics, dude.”

And astronautics,” Ross adds, defensively but entirely devoid of petulance.

“Does this look like flying bullshit to you?” Sam points at the complex mathematics—probably? It looks like math, and Bucky was fucking amazing at math way back when, but even this looks mostly like hieroglyphics. “Because if so, I know my way around that better than you do.”

“I beg to differ,” Ross tosses back; Bucky can only speak to one of their skill sets so he tries not to judge, but. “And it is cosmic bullshit, thank you, and therefore the very definition of astronautics.”

“Gentlemen,” T’Challa tries to cut in, but in the end, it’s Janet that manages.

“Agent Ross,” she says clearly, compassionately, and decisively. “I hate to break it to you, but your specialties are not really of use at this juncture,” and Ross wilts a little, and Sam smirks a little, but Janet leans in, both hands on the table they’re gathered around.

“But the way your mind works is.”

Ross perks up a bit at that, and Sam’s too slow to hide a scowl—but it doesn’t matter, because Janet turns to him next.

“You too, Airman.” And Sam beams a little, and Bucky smirks a little as the charm takes over the delight in Sam’s grin.

“Just Sam, ma’am,” he says, predictably suave, and Janet doesn’t just grin, but goddamn winks.

“I doubt it’s just Sam.”

“Are you flirting with a man half my age, in front of me?” Hank pipes up, brows raised.

“Absolutely not,” Janet tells him. “And I did spend decades trying to get back to you, so you can drop the jealousy act.”

Hank leans back in his chair, suitably chastised and appeased in turns.

“Not to mention, they’re interested in Miss Starr,” Janet adds, a little bit sly, and Bucky does not take more pleasure than he needs to in the flush that colors both their cheeks.

He takes just the right about of pleasure in it.

“Nick’s shared everything he knows about the stones,” Hank takes pity on them and redirects the attention back to the holoscreens above them.

“Which isn’t exactly a comprehensive dossier,” Maria says, regretfully.

“But it’s something,” Hank counters, begrudgingly, like it actually pains him to admit good things associated with S.H.I.E.L.D.

“And we’ve been able to cobble together a few ideas of how they might work,” Janet nods, flicking at the images and zooming in between different clusters of equations—definitely math, Bucky can see that for sure. “A handful of them suggest alternate realities, but more like, flipped dimensions of a sort. Sides of a coin.”

That gets nods from Bucky’s side of the table.

“That sounds correct,” T’Challa confirms.

“Based on your recollections of the experiences in the Cave, yes,” she looks at Bucky directly, and Bucky sits up straighter. “There’s a naturally liminal space there, that’s why you use it for rituals?” With that, she’s turned back to T’Challa.

“It is.”

“So if we figure out what’s happening when you,” she points to Bucky; “let’s say, meld, with Captain Rogers—”

“Like a mind-meld,” Ross says, and Sam snickers before adding:

“Like a soul-meld,” and Bucky wants to punch them both, just a little, but his chest is warm and tight and it distracts the fuck out of him, and drains all the fight.

If, we can get more information about what’s happening at the quantum level, then maybe,” and Hank stand sup at that, visibly ready to protest, but Janet’s ready for it.

“I won’t get lost this time,” she cuts him off before he can start; “I know my way around now, and I know what to avoid.”

“You can’t ask me to—” Hank pushes forth, and Janet looks ready to argue, but it’s Hope who speaks before she can:

“She’s not.”

“Exactly—” Janet starts, but it’s all she gets before Hope finished:

“Because she’s not going.” Janet turns toward her on a dime, gaping a little as the information processes. “I am.”

“And me,” Ava stands up, and Hope looks like she wasn’t expecting that one, but isn’t opposed to it when Ava adds: “There should be two, so we stay on track. Don’t get lost,”

“Right,” Hope nods. “Dad, will her suit work?”

“Hope, you’re not—”

Hope glares, and crosses her arms with authority, and stares Hank down for a long couple of seconds before Hank sighs, rubs a hand across his face, conceding.

“With a few adjustments,” he speculates, resigned. “Bill wouldn’t have made her anything but the best.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Hope nods approvingly. “You’ll meld,” she looks to Bucky; “we’ll poke around, see what data we can collect.”

“And we have the technology to dissect it quickly, and completely,” T’Challa says confidently, before he tempers a bit. “I don’t know it perfectly, but any means—”

“But between the five of us,” Nakia speaks up for Bucky, T’’Challa, Sam and Everett as one. “We know enough to show you around, so you can do what you need to.”

They all spend a few long moments just mulling over what they’re about to try and do, what it could mean, what it could bring, and how it can’t fail.

It’s heavy. Dear god, but it’s heavy, and Bucky can barely breathe.

“Sounds like a plan,” Fury breaks the silence and stands up. “So let’s get to work.”

The room seems to take a single, overwhelming exhale and yeah.

That’s what they’ll do.

Chapter Text

Even she shudders when she first sets foot on Vormir.

Because Nebula? Nebula knows why Thanos went to Zen-Whoberi to die, to watch the beauty that came after not half, but all its people perished. He would delude himself, and think on his beloved sacrifice, and his noble cause, and he’d stroke his ego a little longer before the end came for him. He would die, in his own mind, a tortured hero. A man made villain only because people didn’t see.

But Nebula saw. She always had. The reasons why Thanos went to her sister’s homeworld were the same as why Nebula never stood a chance against Gamora her entire life.

Perfect balance. There could never be two of the same.

She doesn’t have to summit the mountains or traverse the terrain. The Keeper comes to her.

“You return with it,” he rasps, his face obscured. “It is never returned.” His head tilts, his hood shifting with a hint of crimson against the black.

“It retrieves itself. And comes here to rest.”

“I bring it back to bargain,” Nebula says, though the steel in her voice doesn’t need to be betrayed by shaking on her end; the wind shivers it for her as it bellows. “It was bought with a price. I am returning it, and I want the price repaid.”

There is something like a growl that comes from beneath the hood, though he reaches out—Nebula is no fool, and only shows her bounty at a distance for inspection, glowing amber in her grasp: never letting go.

“It is badly damaged,” the Keeper passes judgement; “it will never demand a living soul as payment again.”

“Good,” Nebula retorts, and it is. “But this is new, this has never happened before, you’ve said it yourself,” she pushes him. “I bring it back, and the power it would give a mortal, able to wield it at a whim,” she twirls it in her hand, between her fingers, and she can feel it: that power.

“I surrender that, and I ask for the price it was paid for in return.”

“The price paid was for an Infinity Stone,” the Keeper nearly sneers down at her hand; she can’t see it, but she can feel it. “Rarest of them all.”

“The price paid was rare, too.”

And Nebula’s tired of qualifying it; that is also true.

“As is fitting,” the Keeper concedes, and goes quiet.

“The planet will decide, as the Stone’s chosen home,” he finally decrees. “You may wait, but be warned,” he hisses softly:

“You have brought a broken token with which to barter,” he warns; “if the powers here see fit to repay you, you will undoubtedly be paid in kind,” his hood slips, and the red jaw juts out as he finishes, sinister: “with something broken.”

“As is only fitting,” Nebula nods. “Like for like.”

The Keeper considers her carefully before he gestures to the lake below them, dug deep into the planet and sprawled wide into the horizon.

“Go,” he tells her. “And when you wake, you will know.”

And frankly, Nebula’s done more dangerous things for far less, and so she turns, places the Stone back in her belt, and makes her way down.

_____________________

“Tony.”

It’s nice, because aside from a particularly firm clasp of a hand on Tony’s shoulder? Bruce recognizes that Tony has and always will depend on one thing to keep moving in the world, despite everything: ignoring emotions in the favor of work.

And Bruce is kind enough to indulge.

Shuri had lent, Mr. Stark, it is a loan, do not forget that—well, she’d let him take over a lab for the time being to work through numerical data, the purpose of which hadn’t yet been explained to him and he doesn’t try to figure it out, because the work is what matters, and if he can drown himself, he doesn’t want to diminish that; he doesn't want to see Steve in person and come to some kind of spoken resolution to whatever exists between them. He doesn’t want to talk to Natasha, because talking to Natasha is an exhausting process of figuring out her angle, always, and talking to Natasha makes him think of Pepper, and—

He can’t talk to Thor because talking to Thor would mean seeing his insufferable brother for a second longer than necessary, and Tony’d had more than his share of time with Cape Horn on the way back to Earth, and Thor barely leaves his brother’s side.

And Rhodey—

Rhodey will see right through him and make him face what’s there.

Bruce knows about things that can’t be dealt with, even if they’re plain as day, just to keep on breathing. And that’s why Tony isn’t entirely upset by the way his work is interrupted by Bruce, and only by Bruce, when he enters the lab and calls his name.

He doesn’t look up, but he’s listening.

“I’ve been thinking,” Bruce starts, and the tone he uses is suspect.

“I’m stunned,” Tony deadpans, though it’s hollow as fuck, even he can hear that.

“So,” Bruce forges on; and that’s another thing Tony appreciates about Bruce—he has no issue with forging onward through Tony’s apparent dismissals. “Shuri, she made the comment, before, when you were...”

Bruce trails off, but that’s when Tony pushes back from the desktop and spins around in his chair.

“On another planet.” Because if he doesn’t make light of it, what’s the point? “Say it, it sounds cool.”

Bruce rolls his eyes and gives Tony absolutely no bandwidth on that one. Asshole; Tony thought they were bros.

“She made a comment about Vision,” Bruce says, a little delicately, but then also a little bit firm at the edges. “When we brought him here, when he—”

Bruce cuts himself off, this time, rather than trailing. And Tony gets that, he does.

He wasn’t even there.

“Well, she made a comment, and she was right,” Bruce collects himself. “Suggested programming the synapses to work collectively, rather than going polymorphic.”

Tony pauses. “We should have thought of that.”

“We really should have.” Tony knows Bruce sees the deflection, but again: he lets it go.

“But what she was working on was right, in trying to reprogram the structure,” Bruce continues; “she just didn’t have the time. But we do, and Vision wasn’t just the stone,” and Tony’s picking up the thread, now. “Most of what he was to begin with—”

“Is in the Cloud,” Tony finishes for him, sitting up straighter. “J.A.R.V.I.S..”

“And if we did design a interface this time, instead—”

“But we used the Stone, that was the spark,” Tony shakes his head, leaning back with arms crossed. “What the hell would we use instead? Did she have any ideas on that front?”

“Well, I mean, technically, she was working to remove it, and keep him intact, so the point was not needing it.”

“While he was still functioning, but to rebuild…”

“So maybe that’s the point,” Bruce says, and there’s an earnestness in him that’s unexpected; or else, it’s a desire to convince both of them at once, and to do it well: “Maybe that’s the point, in having brought it back.”

Tony is very rarely rendered speechless, but this is a rare moment.

But thank god those moments never last very long.

“Not gonna lie,” Tony says slowly; “just a little surprised that the man who’s vilified my ass about the Ultron debacle is suggesting we fuck around with Infinity Stones. Again.”

“They’re not going to be as dangerous as they were, the first time,” Bruce shakes his head, bracing palms on the desk across from Tony and leaning in. “Hell, we can fucking touch them, they’re not even half their power, but they might be enough, because we know more now. We know better now, Tony.”

Tony raises an eyebrow at him, and Bruce’s smile is strained as fuck, but it’s cute that he tried.

“In fact, maybe after everything, they can do something good,” Bruce ventures, and thin as it sounds, Tony can tell he kind of believes it. Tony can’t tell if he kind of believes it because he actually does, or because he’s desperate. “And I think we could all use something good, right now.”

Tony watches him for a long few moments, and still can’t figure it out. So he sighs, and asks the obvious question:

“I assume you drew up specs?”

_____________________

He feels weird when he enters Wakandan airspace. Off. Like anticipation and nerves and—something.

“Something’s feels off,” Lang says from behind him, and well, cool, okay.

At least it’s not just him.

It’s helpful that Carol has military experience, because she’s probably way better at meeting the regiment of badass-looking women in badass-looking uniforms that greet them than Clint would have been. He’s a spy, not a dignitary, but Carol seems to speak their language and gets the crew of them shuffled off to something Clint’s definitely sure is a throne room, possibly because despite the many chairs gathered around, one of them is all set up nice-like.

“And they come from where?” Clint hears the words echo through the halls behind him. He cocks his head and listens closer.

“My work is Wakandan,” is the response to a quieter answer that Clint can’t make out. “The Princess should be called to greet them.”

More words Clint can’t make out happen, unless there is silence, but Clint knows silence and that’s not what this is, plus silence doesn’t really make sense, here.

“Well if she’s busy, maybe one of their compatriots?” the original voice starts again, and yep, it wasn’t silence, because that’s in reply to something like She’s really busy!, whoever she-the-princess is.

“Move them to the laboratory antechambers,” the deep voice says, a little dismissively if Clint may say so. “I have to oversee the mischievous god’s integration in the recovery efforts at the border. If we intend to keep the God of Thunder,” Thor, oh hey, Thor’s here!—“whose efficiency is unparalleled, we have to endure the brother.” Clint tenses: Loki, oh no, fucking Loki

“I do not expect him to be very helpful.” Understatement. “He was not terrified by my vegetarian joke. I don’t trust him.”

Clint wishes he weren't just eavesdropping, because Clint wants to assure the guy who’s speaking that Loki is definitely not trustworthy at all. It’s a fucking public service to make sure that everyone knows that.

The rest, though: Clint’s gonna make sense of that shit one day, as a whole, given that some of it he gets, but on the whole it’s really confusing. He even files it away specifically in the “Shit I’m Gonna Make Sense of One Day” folder in his brain.

The military sweeps them back up and deposits them in what Clint, quite astutely, determines to be a “laboratory antechamber”, solely on the merit of it overlooking a laboratory, the entrance to which seems to be down the hall.

No other context clues needed. Good job, Clint. Sharp as a fucking tack.

And they wait, silently—that’s silence—for a good string of minutes before footsteps come toward them this time, but they’re familiar. They’re familiar footsteps but they’re impossible footsteps, they can’t belong to—

“Lang, are you in here?” the voice precedes the owner, and that voice can’t be here, that voice is impossible

And something’s wrong with Clint’s brain again, or maybe just his eyes, or his heart taking over both and lying to them so fucking harshly, so fucking cruelly because Lang stands up and says hi, like the vision in front of Clint who’s looking at him now, Lang looks at her like she’s there, like she’s not lost and not gone and she’s, she’s...

“Tasha?”

Aww, mouth. Don’t make it hurt any worse.

“Clint.”

He’s never heard real-Natasha’s voice sound that small. He’s never seen real-Natasha’s eyes go that big.

“Tash?” Goddamnit, mouth, making this worse, so much worse—“You, you’re...”

Clint.”

And she’s moving, she’s walking toward him like he’s the only thing in the world, like everything else fell away and it did, for him, but he’s real and she’s, she’s—

She’s close enough to touch. Close enough to reach out and dispel the illusion of her as Clint’s heart thumps really fucking hard, to the point of actual fucking pain.

“You’re here,” Clint says, mostly to himself, mostly as what comes out when he tries to add the not in between those words that his soul doesn't want there, so it doesn’t come out. But then he sees it, the necklace she bought after New York, and wore as a touchstone for him after Loki, after Phil, after everything so that when he wasn’t sure, when he couldn’t check, when it all became too much, he could just look to her, and she’d be there, and he’d be there on her heart and you’re so fucking emotional, Barton and but you’re the one wearing it, Roma-nasty and eyerolls and playful shoving and maybe foreplay in the right places and, and—

“You’re here?”

And she’s always been the brave one. Always.

She reaches out to touch.

“You’re real,” she whispers, touching Clint’s cheek and driving shivers down his spine, down every goddamn bone in his body. “God, you’re real, aren’t you?”

“I’m real,” he swallows hard, and reaches in turn to trace gently at the golden bar of her necklace, hands trembling. “Oh god, yes, I’m real, and you’re real, and you’re here, you’re okay.” He covers her hand on his face with his own hand and leans into the touch, and they’re the same shape as Natasha’s, the same size as Natasha’s, and it’s, she’s, they’re—

“You’re okay?”

That’s the important part. She nods, and looks up at him, and if he wasn’t sure then the way her hand slides up his chest like she needs a place to steady, her gaze so plaintive in the way she’s only ever shown to him, to him and Phil and now, and now

If he wasn’t sure, he’s sure now, and the world starts spinning again without anyone’s permission and with all of his disbelieving joy.

“The kids,” Clint says softly, because for all his joy in her, she’s the only one who can know the pain, too; “and Laura—”

“We’re going to fix it,” and there’s her ferocity; her jaw clenched and her eyes narrowed and both her palms on the sides of his face this time, forcing his gaze to meet hers. “We’re going to, we’ve—” and she’s scowling, but her eyes are shining, and Clint’s heart is breaking all over again, bit by bit.

“Nat, what is it?” She shakes her head slowly, and then so fucking fast.

“You’re here,” she chokes, sobbing without a single tear. “I was,” she swallow hard and mouths out, barely a sound: “I was so sca—”

Whether her voice cracks or she cracks it of her own resolve, Clint will never know, but it doesn’t matter, because she drops her hands and throws arms around him, standing on her toes and drawing him toward her with force and authority, so close he feels her breath shaking when she murmurs against his neck:

“I didn’t lose you,” she breathes; “I didn’t lose you, too.”

“Oh, Nat,” Clint says, reading everything in those words she’ll never say.

“Oh, milaya,” he whispers into the shell of her ear, and she shivers under his touch as he returns her embrace, maybe even more fiercely; “liubimaja,” and her weight falls against him, but he knows how to catch her so no one could ever know, and they’re going to fix this.

Because if he believes in anything, he believes in her.
_____________________

Shuri had nearly cried when she’d seen it.

After he’d caught his breath, and settled in the beautiful, enveloping sensation of feeling that he knew, he knew was Bucky, was Bucky loving him—after he’d stopped actively shaking and had tried to stand, they’d both noticed it at the very same time: the violet glow.

“I gave up on trying to synthesize the herb when, well,” she said wonderingly, eyes shining as Steve opened his hand to find the purple blossom, “other things took precedent.”

She touched the petals with reverence. “They’re all gone here.”

“So it’s real.” Steve had been breathless, heart in his mouth stamping the words out in a single breath. “He’s real, they’re—”

“Steve,” Shuri looked at him, and had looked as shaken as he felt, and almost half as filled with hope; “this is impossible, but…”

“But it’s real,” Steve said, even though it was a question in his chest, but she’d just looked up at him and nodded, over and over again before she said:

“It’s real.”

And while Shuri had gone about running tests on the herb, and preserving it carefully in the process, in order to cultivate it second, but learn what she could about the connection with wherever Bucky was, really and truly was; while she’d been conferring with all of the new arrivals and piecing together hypotheses and evidence and making progress and plans, Steve had been holed largely in his quarters, just mulling over all the emotions, all the strength and unmistakable devotion in that real, oh so real connection with the man he loved, and goddamnit, there was a time when Steve would likely have died for how often he feels like he can’t breathe, because Bucky.

Bucky.

So Steve’s still fresh in all that emotion, all that love when Shuri finds him, and tells him to follow her back to the cave.

“Scott is running through simulations from the data I collected in your last jump, and I’ve pawned the calculations on Captain Danvers’ energy output on Stark and Banner to look for correlations we can exploit,” she catches him up; “but I think I’ve already identified what we need.”

She extends her hand, which Steve only just now realizes is emitting a certain violet glow, and as her grasp unravels, it’s there.

His jaw drops.

“Shuri...”

“Seems fitting, no?” she smiles, looking down at the Infinity Stone, a little bit mangled, but still there, still shining, still real.

“Kree technology leaves a very specific trace,” she explains, never taking her gaze off the Stone; “and this, based on preliminary examination, extracted and assimilated those specific markers when in Kree possession.”

Steve’s watching the Stone now, too, and running all the meanings of what she’s implying through his head—each and every one of them skipping ahead to a single end: Bucky.

Bucky.

“It’s not ideal, and I can’t say for absolute certain—”

“Shuri,” Steve stops her with a small smile; “your preliminary examination is everyone else’s whole life’s work.”

She smiles back, visibly pleased.

“You think it’ll work?” Because Steve is aching, he hurts with the promise and the possibility it’s hollow, and goddamnit, he needs to hear it.

“If we adhere to the idea of everyone we lost being where Bucky is,” Shuri nods, connecting the dots for him as plainly as she can because she can see it in him. The desperation and the way his heart dangles off a ledge and is trying so hard to balance, so hard not to shatter on impact when it falls.

“And if we can depend on them coming together of their own accord, then we can depend on Scott’s colleagues connecting on the quantum level, Strange and Maximoff connecting through harnessing the energy of the singularities, and someone figuring out how to harness this to match Carol,” she leaves it there, and Steve brightens a little, because he trusts everyone that has to be there, with Bucky, who has to be there; he trusts them and this makes sense, this sounds like it could work.

This sounds like it has to works.

“I don’t know what plane you’re accessing that allows you to connect with Bucky,” Shuri tells him softly, reaching for his forearm comfortingly. “But whatever it is, it’s strong, here, and it is tangible. We’ve proven that.”

And Steve shudders at the memory, the beautiful recollection seeped into his bones of the warmth, and the joy; the want and the surprise and the feeling of completion, the absolute undeniable love.

“I know,” Steve answers her. Because if he knows anything anymore, he knows that.

“Let’s give him something, this time, for all the things he’s been giving you,” she hands over the Power Stone, and folds it into Steve's palm. Steve’s quiet, apparently for a very long time, because she asks:

“What is it?”

He breathes in deep.

“There’s so much he’s given me,” Steve tells her, like a confession. “I just, I want to believe I’ll have a chance to really give him everything, if that’s what he wants,” Steve gasps in a breath before he barely whispers:

“I want to believe that so bad.”

Shuri smiles sadly at him, but it’s a smile nonetheless. “I cannot speak for him, but Steve?” She leans to meet his downcast eyes.

“I think he wants that. Very, very much.”

And once Steve’s looked up, her smile strengthens.

“And I also think you have reason to believe,” she tells him, slowly like she’s weighing it before she confirms it, before she gives Steve’s heart a solid reason to hope beyond its own self. “And you know I wouldn’t say that lightly.”

His pulse falters, and then starts to pound.

“Really?” His voice trembles on it, and her smile broadens.

Really.”

And she turns toward the sands and takes Steve’s hand, leading him down.

“Go to him,” she tells him, only that he doesn’t need to be told.

And so it’s absolutely suffused with feeling, so much fucking feeling, that he lets himself go before they even finish submerging him:

I’ve got you.

We’re going to fix this.

I love you, god, I love you, I love you, I love you, I think I’ve always loved you.

This is the last piece.

Chapter Text

Steve.

Bucky sinks into the ether and exists in that name, in all that it holds and all that he places inside of it: his whole self. His whole heart and soul. That name is everything Bucky lives and breathes. Here, and everywhere else—now, and maybe always—everything important inside Bucky Barnes has been made of what he feels for Steven Grant Rogers.

I know, now, and breathlessness is relative, here, but it’s dizzying nonetheless. I know it’s you, and I know you, and he catches on the thought, snags on the possibility of it even though he knows that it’s a certainty; even though he does feel it, beyond a shadow of a doubt—he knows it as truth, beyond all that it shouldn’t be one but it is; there’s some beauty, some miracle left in this world against all likelihood and reason but that’s all they’ve ever been and the only thing that lets Bucky believe is this feeling that Steve, Steve gives through this unutterable connection, emits seemingly without even trying: pure love.

Pure goddamn love.

Even Bucky’s not hardheaded, not self-deprecating enough to contest that.

You love me, and it’s the end and beginning of the world, right there. The first and last of all goddamn meaning and being and light. You love me like I love you, and he never thought he’d say it, admit it for himself let alone that Steve could, that Steve did

Can’t get over that, punk, can’t hardly believe it but it’s the only explanation, much as I’ve tried to find other ones, but he’s quick to follow up that resistance, that doubt: not because I want them, but because you, you’re

Bucky has to think, and then has to give up and just stop thinking, and let everything else in him find the right words:

I want you to know you’re my whole fuckin’ heart, Steve, and if you can feel this, and I need to believe that you can because I feel it. I feel it and I thought love, the whole of love, was what I feel for you and I still believe that’s true, but then something bigger came along, whatever this is, and it’s something more than my heart can hold by itself and I can’t explain it any other way, wouldn’t even dare then if I didn’t fuckin’ know, and Bucky trips, heart pounding because it’s trying to keep up with something: the weight of it, the significance, he thinks. That’s all it can be, and he feels the rhythm matched like they’re both trying to run toward each other, and like maybe they’re close.

Maybe they’re getting close to running into each other, to grabbing and holding and never letting go.

And I’m not brave like you, the confession rises, blossoms forth like he has to make sure Steve knows everything, everything in his heart and his mind in this space just in case, just in case it’s all they get even if it can’t be: they can’t be left with only this again.

They won’t.

I might be brave in other ways but not in this, not like this and I never said anything, I never risked it because there’s no being if it’s not with you. Living doesn't mean a goddamn thing without you and I couldn’t risk it, couldn’t bear to lose

And he couldn’t. He can’t. He prays Steve can feel it, the choking in the back of his throat and the fire behind his eyes and that he knows it, he knows everything Bucky wanted but wouldn’t say in case it lost him the only thing that mattered; the only man that caused the Earth to turn.

I can’t lose you. My entire life’s been built around how much I couldn’t lose you. I don’t even know who I am without you, and I never want to learn, and I won’t believe there’s anything but you at the end of this, Steve, I won’t. I won’t because I’m still here and that means you’ve gotta be, you’ve gotta still be there, too, because there’s never been a me without you, and there won’t be. There will never be a me, without you.

And ain’t that the fucking truth, maybe that’s the foundation of all of this, of what it means to love and be alive. There’s no Bucky Barnes without a Steve Rogers, only shells and lies and abominations to being: there is nothing of him that’s not so tied up in Steve that can afford it any real worth, or want, or place. Bucky’s his own man, but the heart of him hasn’t been his since he was too young to remember it, his soul hasn’t been his since he knew what a soul was or meant: he exists without Steve Rogers, but only just, and not to any end. Not with any value, or reason, or sense.

No kind of existence he’d ever want, or willingly allow to stand.

When I see you, Bucky muses, beyond his stopping, as if he could ever want to stop: god, when I see you, I won’t be able to hold anything back. And it’s a when, it is. When Bucky sees him, no question left.

I won’t be able to let this pass us by one more time, I can’t. I won’t. Not if you love me this hard. Not if all the miracles we’ve had and known and been still left room for this one, the most important one. Not if you feel

_____________________

I can feel you, Steve exhales something cosmic into the voice that’s still so goddamn full and warm and waiting, looking to envelope him, soft like an embrace; like a lover, and Steve gives in so willingly he thinks he could cry.

Every breath and heartbeat if I go in deep, if I make everything narrow down to just that one, most important thing in the whole universe, I can feel it, and he can, so he does: the most beautiful thing he’s ever known.

You, alive, and there to bring back, to be next to me, to hold—

Steve’s sense of self cracks down the center at the prospect, all of his longing and aching and fears of never, never, never: laid bare before him as only just outside his reach and coming slowly, slowly closer beyond all hope.

And I know, I know it’s you because I know that no one has ever loved me like you, in any way it’s possible to love but then this, this is so much more than I’d dreamed but I know it, I know it’s real, and I know you’re here, with me, being everything I’ve ever dared to want, and feeling everything I’ve ever held too close for anyone to see, kept so close to my chest that I, that it—

His heart thumps hard, so fucking hard that it should hurt but it doesn’t, like there’s softness and light and gentle hands cradling every part of him and that means his pounding heart, too: keeping it so safe and so warm and so fucking loved—he doesn’t deserve it.

He will die, he will kill, he will destroy the goddamn world to hold it close and give in kind.

But you’re here, you’re right there where I put it and it’s everywhere, now, it’s everything because it’s you and you’re everything and I won’t accept a world where you aren’t here, I won’t do it again, Buck, I won’t have it again, I won’t. And that’s true. That’s true to his bones but it’s deeper, too: in the marrow, and he confesses like a sinner:

I won’t survive it again. I won’t be able to keep breathing, not again. So we’re gonna make this work. We’re gonna make it work and when I see you, I am going to hold you so goddamn close I won’t be able to breathe in anything but you, and maybe I’ll be able to show you that everything we’re feeling here is so real, so goddamn real it’s terrifying, and it’s life changing, and it’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful and it’s all I’ve ever wanted, you’re all I’ve ever wanted and
_____________________

Breathe, Steve, Bucky feels humor, feel joys suffuse everything he is; can’t come back to you if you’re not there, and I won’t survive it either.

He won’t. Good god, but he won’t.

Used to think it was the sweetest sound, you breathing easy and clear, and oh, but it was. It was, he didn’t have to just think it. Bucky’s whole world lightened, softed with that sound. The best feeling in the world when you were in my arms and the fever broke and you could get air in those lungs again, and that heart was beating soft and sure with just that little fuzziness, that little gallop right where it always was, where it was supposed to be instead of every which way, and if Bucky focuses, just like Steve did and felt him—because he could feel it, being the sole focus of something so perfect, so intense and full of relishing in Bucky, Bucky, Bucky and Bucky alone: when Bucky returns the sentiment with all of him, he can feel it. Give and take. In and out. Whatever breath exists here, and whatever heartbeats shiver through the golden-liquid glow and make it shine, like a flare of light in the dark even though nothing at all is dark, here, not even close—but that strand of pure fire is what ebbs and flows and ebbs again; the beat, the beat, the beat.

The everything, as it’s always been.

Used to mark the course of my life by that sound, that beat, that feeling, Bucky just barely breathes himself into the warmth; I never stopped, is the thing. Never stopped.

And he never will. He doesn’t think he ever could, even if he tried.

And now, it’s like my chest feels too fucking small, so fucking small that it can’t hold all this and it’s perfect, it’s just how it should be because it’s so warm and so strong and it’s shared half with the only person I’ve ever held there to keep, to have and to hold and to—

Bucky’s thoughts break off abruptly, pulse pounding, lights dizzying; because those words have things that follow, and things that come before, and thing they mean beyond what they mean and they, they, they

They’re perfect too, goddamnit. All of it.

It’s perfect, too.

Steve, Steve, he breathes, like it matters, like it could ever hold or say what he’s feeling, what’s going through his head and how he’s realized in an instant what he wants when he lets himself want without boundaries or limits or constraints: I love you like, like—
_____________________

Me too, god, and Steve feels it, the shock and the anxious rush and the pounding heart and the sudden rush of apprehension that only gives way to pleasure, to adulation, to relishing, revelling bliss, and: god, me too, so much—

So fucking much. All of it. The whole thing. Everything it could ever mean, for anyone: all for them. That’s all Steve thinks he’s ever wanted, deep down in his soul.

And I’m going to show you. I’m going to prove it to you beyond any doubts still there to have and I’m going to hold you so fucking tight that we feel like the same person, and I'll take care of you, I’m going to take care of you the way you’ve always taken care of me, the way you deserve, I swear, I swear, I

_____________________

“Bucky.”

He’s jostled from pure fucking bliss, honestly, and it’s a harsh break, but the hands easing him upward and brushing off his chest are insistent.

“We got it,” Sam’s is telling him excitedly—eyes tinged with apology for pulling him back but mostly shining with whatever they’ve discovered. “With this, we can—”

“Guys.” He tries to say, to stop him, but then other people are talking louder.

“If Scott’s there,” Hope chimes in.

“Let’s just hope Scott’s there,” Hank says, definitive about it.

“And you said the strange one,” Ava adds, which merits a snort from Pepper and a fucking smirk from Maria; and maybe a hint, but only a hint of one from Nick.

“That’s technically his name, actually,” Pepper composes herself to correct.

“No, strange one works just fine,” Sam offers, and if it were any other time, Bucky’d be the one to snort, just then.

But it’s not. Any other time.

“Guys—”

“We’d need to get—” Ross starts, then, sure but not totally sure, hesitant in a way that’s obviously mostly foreign to him.

“She’s been influenced by an Infinity Stone, her power came from—” Shuri speaks over them, her authority clear as they turn to her.

“So it can align to the energy frequency—” Ross nods, finding his footing, but Bucky can’t care about that because—

Guys.”

They finally shut up and fix their eyes on him. Good.

“So, umm. Look, he,” and Bucky shakes his head. This is going to be a show-and-tell thing, obviously.

So he reaches his hand out and opens his grip.

The gasp, so far as he can tell, is collective on the whole.

And rightly so.

“Is that,” Shuri’s eyes grow the widest Bucky’s ever seen them, and while everyone else has guesses, they know enough to probably guess right, because Bucky’s got the glowing violet of the fucking Power Stone in his hand when it wasn’t there before, and good goddamn.

That’s something, isn’t it.

“Well shit.” Of course it’s Nick who has the way with words.

That said, he’s not wrong.

Chapter Text

Quill doesn’t know what possessed him to let her ransack his ship. Maybe curiosity. Probably lack of giving two-shits at this point because while he tries to be optimistic, to a fault most of the time, they’re stuck on a foreign planet with limited resources and no current hope of retrieval.

How much damage could Mantis really do?

She emerges after hours of Quill winning goddamn spectacularly at Rexlas Mind-Fuck (a real game he learned around the age of fifteen when he’d gotten so shitfaced he ended up losing the whole of his take for the mission; he’d learned his lesson, though. For a while); but emerge she does with a shivering, uneven tower of layered bran nuggets and barely-legal analgesic chews and slathers of that goddamn strawberry goop that they still have in copious amounts (Quill may or may not have a problem with that shit, that he hadn’t really had reason to consider until now). He’s almost on his feet to make sure it doesn’t fall over by the time Mantis sets it in front to Parker, who lays down his cards (what a losing fucking hand, Quill didn’t think it was possible to be losing that bad) and looks at Mantis half questioningly, half adoringly, and Quill said he was going to gag if this got any worse, and he’s on his way, he really is.

“You were feeling sad,” Mantis tells him, holding out a plate and fork. “You have said how much you liked the,” she pauses, and then points to gesture at the...cake? The cake-thing at large. “How much you liked the strawberry stuff.”

“And it was my understanding that this is a,” she looks down, almost shy, and so she misses the exact moment that Parker’s eyes get a little wide and his mouth drops a little open and his cheeks flush a little bit. “An earth custom? From Ego’s memories.”

Peter looks like he’s about to speak, but Mantis takes his speechlessness for hesitance, or maybe worse: disapproval. So she stumbles onward:

“I was not sure how to make it, but I could feel,” she squints, try to find the right word before she settles on: “craving.”

And oh, Quill could manage more of this sappy bullshit without gagging, he thinks, if the hilarity of Parker turning bright fucking red came along with it every time.

He wonders how long it’ll take Mantis to realize what Parker’s really craving. For an empath, she is a little slow on the uptake; not her fault, but it might make for good entertainment in the time they have left before all the strawberry shit runs out and they starve.

It’d be nice for Parker, Quill figures, if he gets laid before they all die.

Chapter Text

They’re like a fucking well-oiled machine.

Bucky’s mostly huddled with T’Challa, Nakia, Ross, and Sam at the main command terminals in the lab, with Janet passing through to offer well-informed and often-helpful insights based on her own encounters with semi-analogous tech, that they’re together smart enough to transpose onto the systems in front of them.

Mostly.

Hank’s got Ava stood up on a lighted platform, on display in her suit, with Hope assisting in making modifications on the suit itself as well as the tech calibration—there are some disturbing sparks that come from the chamber he’s created to house the Stone and integrate into the suit, which he apparently has to revamp to phase at will, given that Ava’s mostly lost the randomness of her instability in this new reality; Bucky can imagine what that must feel like, to an extent: to lose the thing that defines and ruins all at once and then consent to it being given back. It’s gotta be like taking back the arm, much as it was different, nothing like before, but it was still a step, a concession, a weight.

He doesn't envy her, is the main thing, and he thinks she’s brave as shit for standing here, eyes forward and standing rooted like a soldier, and she is one whether she holds a rank or not—she’s all eyes-straight-ahead and do-what-needs-to-be-done, and Bucky thinks of Steve, at that, and for the first time, it’s a void and a longing and loss that’s tinged ever-so-brightly with hope.

“You guys are doing amazing work,” Janet says on her next walk by; “particularly considering you don’t have the energy signature in front of you, in the flesh.”

She doesn’t bring up that without said signature’s owner in the flesh, they’ve got all of nothing to make this come together, to make this work and bring everyone back to them, bring them back to everything else, just—

Janet speaks like the work they’re doing is perfectly reasonable, just lying in wait, preparing for it all to come together.

Bucky’s not entirely sure it’s warranted, but his heart beats harder when he thinks of it, the same cadence it does when he’s in the presence that is Steve, Steve, Steve, and that’s something.

That’s something.

“Well,” Ross says, “Shuri’s surveillance system was extensive, and she had permission to scan Wanda when she entered the lab with Vision, so.” He spins away from the monitors to meet her eyes. “We’re not working with nothing.”

“Still,” Janet shrugs, smiling softly at them; “if you’re not exaggerating this Shuri’s intellect, and I don’t believe you are, then you’re doing something deeply impressive nonetheless, all of you.”

She continues on, overlooking all of the work being done and making comments as she needs, currently hovering over her husband's shoulder and pointing to things on his screen; she’s barely more than a stranger, but her belief in them: something in the way she speaks and carries herself maybe—it means more than Bucky can say, and he knows they all feel the same.

Maria approaches with Pepper, Nick still in his corner poring over holoscreens made jumbo-sized with the set-up in front of him, emanating originally from his handy little cube-of-knowledge.

“Nick’s got all the original documentation on Danvers, assuming his distress call was answered.”

“She wouldn’t ignore it,” Nick calls confidently from across the room, without ever looking up from the streams of data. “If nothing else, I’ve got something she wants.”

Maria rolls her eyes as Pepper holds out one of the transparent cards that hold seemingly-endless amounts of data for Sam to take and insert in his own terminal.

“We’re thinking there’s a cross-analogue between Maximoff and Danvers,” she tells him; “Strange and Wanda will connect on the level of an energy signature, from the Stones,” she slides in another disc; “but Danvers and Maximoff share a degree of power no one else can touch, and we think they’ll both solidify and stabilize the connection you share with Steve, the connection that binds the two realities.”

“Right,” Sam nods, half in comprehension and half in skepticism, but they’re all kind of there at this point so it’s no difference.

“Nick also thinks that part of why they sent the Power Stone,” Maria adds, cocking her head in the Director’s direction. “It was in Kree possession when it was last used, before…” she trails off and clears her throat. “Danvers’ powers comes from the Kree, so it creates a triangulation. Power to power, Stone to Stone,” she starts, but Nakia finishes for her:

“Kree to Stone to Kree, to quantum realm match, then one connection there plus the Stone, realities to projections, if Maximoff is indeed known for that,” she eyes Bucky, who may not have had the firsthand experience but knows well enough the consequences by proxy.

“And realms of liminality,” T’Challa sums up, eyeing Bucky significantly. “It does make sense.”

“As much as any of this can,” Sam murmurs under his breath, but keeps tapping at the keys in front of him.

“If there is anything I’ve learned,” Pepper answers the unposed question; “it’s that the less it makes sense, the more likely it is to be true.”

“Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth,” Bucky huffs.

Someone else is about to chime in—T’Challa, maybe, though Bucky can't tell—but Bucky feels the telltale swirl of energy at his wrist: uncommon, these days, as he’s worked solely and completely on this, but the kind of thing he could never forget.

Nakia notices, and then T’Challa, which makes Sam straighten up and catch the way Bucky’s right hand glances over the implant in his left arm; watches as he stills and listens to the augmentation of the neural interface of the arm vibrate through his ear:

“White Wolf, we have incoming.”

Bucky stills, and turns away from his compatriots out of training more than any belief that what he says needs to be kept private from these people.

“Copy Fort Hahn, receiving.”

“A foreign entity has infiltrated our borders.”

Something cold runs straight through Bucky’s body, unforgiving.

“Location?”

“Palace Residences,” the General’s voice rings through; “in the quarters you requested be kept ready.”

There’s something in her tone that’s less than steely, though not entirely pleased; Bucky knows how to subvert Wakandan security, and that’s how they’ve shored up most of the very, very few holes left. That someone managed to exploit something Bucky’s not yet had a chance to find—

Well, there are only so many people still alive, at least here, who have that capacity. And only one who Bucky was foolishly hoping might take that room in the Palace, someday.

“Request for GPS tracking,” Bucky flips the phone always kept in his suit and holds it out, watches his wrist scan the device and transmit the information to Fort Hahn.

It only takes seconds: “Transmitting from within Wakandan borders,” the answer comes, and Bucky feels warmth replace the cold a the specifics are repeated: “Palace Residences.”

Bucky brightens as he thanks the General and disconnects.

“Buck?” Sam asks, eyeing him warily along with everyone else.

“I’ll be right back,” Bucky says, and something in his tone must convince them that wherever he’s going is imperative, impossible to delay, because they don’t try to stop him.

As soon as he’s out of the lab, out of view, he runs.

_____________________

 

The door’s unlocked when he reaches it, cracked open even. He still knocks; though he presumes the lack of response means permission.

She doesn’t turn, but she doesn’t use her power to physically remove him, so that’s something.

“Hey,” he ventures, and it’s quiet as he approaches her carefully, slowly, leaving her every opportunity to tell him to stop: no further.

He’s at the bedside when she finally says to the opposite wall:

“Hey.”

He breathes out a little unsteadily, and sizes her up: she looks healthy enough, if her eyes are hollowed out, skin pale. Bare minimum in terms of wellbeing, he suspects, wherever she’s been. He knows what that’s like.

“Can I sit?”

Again, she doesn’t stop him, so he gives her plenty of room from where he settles on the bed and where she’s already sitting.

“So,” he says plainly, because there’s no time to waste, but also because there’s no sense in wasting words on things that only cause pain, that state the obvious and create more hurt. “I take it you’ve heard about,” he clears his throat, unsure what to call it: a hail mary, a pipe dream, a fool’s errand, saving the word? Fuck.

“You’ve heard what we’re doing?”

That’ll do.

“Hard not to,” she says softly, the edge of sarcasm limp, frail: “even for me.”

Bucky nods, doesn’t laugh. It’s not built for that response. She’s quiet again before she speaks any more:

“You need my help.”

Bucky nods; he won’t beat around the bush, not with her.

“We do.”

She shakes her head, more to herself, Bucky thinks, than to him.

“I don’t do that anymore.”

“I know.” Bucky knows what that means, how that feels. What violating that commitment costs. The memories it unleashes.

“He won’t be there.”

Her voice is less than a rasp, and so full of heartache that it shudders in his chest.

“No,” Bucky can’t lie to her; he can’t. “No I don’t think he will be.”

The tears that steam down her cheeks as the rest of her body remains still, face stoic, is more devating than a sob.

He scoots closer, and reaches out, hand hovering above her own.

“Can I?”

She doesn’t answer, but doesn’t move her hand, so Bucky’s slow in taking ti, holding it and squeezing gently.

“I know I can’t imagine,” he says slowly. “But I promise that in some small way, I know,” and he does, he knows what loss means, knows that his heart had nearly stopped beating every time Steve’s threatened to, and maybe he’d never lost Steve the same way but: “I know, I know. I know.”

His grip tightens with every word, and she turns her hand over and holds back, even tighter.

“And while I won’t lie to you,” he murmurs, at her side until she falls against him, buried in his side and shaking where her hand rests at his shoulder, arms coming around her like he remembers being with his sisters: mostly muscle memory but not without context, not without the shape of their faces or the sounds of their voice.

“This whole game plan is built on hope, Wanda,” he whispers, and kisses her hair softly, hoping he can offer some comfort, some relief: anything.

“So no, I don’t think he’ll be there,” he says, and she gasps through a sob, then, and maybe that does hurt just as deep to hear.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Bucky breathes, and strokes her hair. “I don’t think I can justify doubting the impossible anymore.”

And she cries, and she cries, and he holds her. And it doesn’t matter, in those moment, whether she’ll help them in the end or not. She needs someone, and he’s there.

That’s all.
_____________________

It’s Janet who fits the glowing-purple orb-like contraption into the newly-fabricated armoring on Ava’s suit.

“You’re strung tight as a garrotte,” she comments as she tightens the side straps, which earns her a raised eyebrow for the comparison.

“I’ve lived a life, dear,” she waves it off; she’s not the point of concern here. “Anything you want to talk about?”

Ava is stone-faced and tight lipped for the rest of her equipment check, but Janet’s a patient woman; has had to be, had to learn how to be, and she waits just in case.

“I,” Ava finally sighs, second-guesses; clenches her jaw and then sighs again. “What if I don’t,” she makes a false start again, and frowns, frustrated with herself, Janet can read it, but she can also guess what Ava’s trying to say and knows that she has to let Ava say it.

Patience.

“What if I fuck it up, basically,” Ava finally says in a rush, brows furrowed with more anger at the prospect of failure than the fear that underlies almost all the anger in the world.

“You won’t.”

Janet says it plainly, which transforms Ava’s expression as she looks up: eyes wide, unsure if she’s heard correctly.

Doubt in the face of pure, unwavering courage is, as it happens, one of the few things that Janet doesn’t have any patience for.

“You’re saving the world,” Janet tells her plainly; Ava averts her gaze at that, but Janet waits until she’s drawn back to look askance at Janet’s silence—only then does she continue.

“You are one of only a handful of people who are capable of saving the universe, do you understand? Without you, there’s no chance for any of us to fix things. You’re the only one who can be this, who can do this.” She gestures to the room at large, trying to encompass the improbable scope, the impossible gravity of what they’re trying to achieve.

You could—” Ava starts, but Janet cuts her off with a fervent shake of her head.

“I know the quantum realm,” she acknowledges; “but there had to be more,” and she takes a moment to read Ava’s face before she grasps the woman’s forearms and squeezes reassuringly.

“There had to be someone who knew the difference between stability and instability, transience and permanence,” Janet says, emphasizing every word.

You are the only one who can do this. You are a singular woman, a powerful woman.”

And she may not say a word in reply, but there’s something in Ava’s eyes that wasn’t there before, a spark of something, a flash of fire. Janet nods.

“Don’t forget that.”

_____________________

He’s reading over the final details of what they’re planning, making sense of most of it save for some of the quantum stuff from Pym and Co., when he hears two sets of footsteps: one familiar, coming toward him where he sits on the stairs, and one less familiar, that he has to look up to be sure of: she strides in slowly, hesitant in her entrance but so certain in her stride that she magnetizes the room.

She seeks out Bucky, who gives her the smallest smile he can find because he knows she wouldn’t want more, and she nods at him: this is a sacrifice, and he knows that he’s no small part of why she’s making it. And to say he’s grateful does none of it justice in the slightest.

“You good?”

Bucky snorts. “In a manner of speaking,”

“You ready to see him?”

“What am I,” Bucky turns to him, brow raised; “a blushing fuckin’ bride?”

“No,” Sam settles next to him, crouch on the stair at his side; “but you might as well be a scared-as-shit groom.”

And, well. It’s crossed his mind, maybe, in the deepest recesses of his soul, but—

“I’m not stupid, Barnes,” Sam reads it off his face. “I know what this kind of love looks like when I see it. What the two of you have.” He huffs a little laugh. “Saw that shit from the moment he stole that goddamn uniform from the museum.”

Bucky ducks his head; can’t fight a smile before nerves take over as a more recent memory rises.

“What’s up?” Sam asks, clocking the shift immediately.

“I felt something,” Bucky says reluctantly; vague. “I mean, like, I said it in my head? So I guess I felt it, at him, in the cave?”

“Go on.”

“Something, you know,” Bucky dodges, until Sam’s intent stare makes him squirm, if only on the inside—Sam’s eerily effective that way.

“Something like, that. Or else, something that he seemed to take that way.”

“Like what, exactly. And what way?”

“Like a, umm,” Bucky fumbles, trying to find the courage to face what it could mean, less than trying to find the words. Thought those are pretty hard, too. “A thing you say, if you were, umm,” he swallows hard. “If you were reciting like a, umm, a vow?”

To have and to hold, good god, that was the foremost thing in his heart of hearts, just like that, what the hell else could it mean?

“And I felt it get all, tight and I,” Bucky works his jaw around the recollection, and the reverberation of joy that’d come in response. “I froze up but he,” Bucky feels himself grin a little, just a twitch of the lips, without any permission at all.

“He just gave and shone, however you can, however it works, he was just,” he shakes his head, that rogue smile growing: “like he was happy. He just glowed.”

“Did he now,” Sam says without so much as a hint of surprise, the bastard.

“And it was just,” Bucky stares into the distance, seeing nothing. “Goodness. It was just that came from it. All the good feelings and shit.”

There’s a quiet that settles for a few long seconds; a quiet that Bucky needs, and Sam knows it, because Sam’s an asshole but he’s a damn good man.

“You can have that, you know,” Sam breaks the still, voice quiet and hand on Bucky’s shoulder landing gentle. “The glow, but the other part, too,” he squeezes his grip, just so. “If that’s what you want.”

And Bucky knew that, logically, but it’s the very first time it sinks in.

And outside of the connection he’s shared with Steve? Bucky doesn’t think he’s felt so warm, so much light in his chest, through his whole goddamn body, ever in his whole life.

“We can, can’t we?” he says, a little dumbstruck; a little awed. And Sam smiles, nods, and pats Bucky’s shoulder encouragement.

“Fuck,” Bucky exhales, but it’s pure elation. And anything he’d been reading, any nerves he has for what’s to come: they’re distant. New nerves take their place, because he realizes in that instant that there’s nothing in the world that could stop him from proposing to Steve goddamn Rogers the first moment that presents itself, but he felt it. He felt so much, and so unfiltered, unabashed, undeniable: he knows.

He knows, and he doesn’t need to fear a goddamn thing.

_____________________

They’re ready.

Or else: as ready as they’re going to get.

Everyone but Bucky has to man the comms in the main lab, and Bucky’s okay with that, he is. He’s a trained soldier, and more than that, he’s spent most of his life working alone. A sniper lives and breathes solitude, the rhythms of their own body and theirs alone. He can do this.

“I can oversee things here,” Nakia says suddenly, as Bucky moves to leave. “You should be with him, in this.”

Bucky turns to look at her; her hands on T’Challa’s arm, and T’Challa’s eyes are on Bucky.

“You don’t have to,” Bucky cuts in quick, because they don’t: neither of them. Their place is here, and his is in the sand.

With Steve.

“No,” T’Challa agrees, and Bucky figures that’s the end of it, but a hand on his shoulder stops him.

“But I do want to.”

And Bucky doesn’t know what to do with that exactly, and also didn’t realize how very much he didn’t want to be alone in this, not now, not with the heavy thump of his pulse threatening to choke him for fear and hope all at once; so he just hopes his eyes speak volumes when he nods, slowly, and leads the way in these last few steps left.

The making or the breaking of them all.

He strips to the waist, and T’Challa settles him back with great care, covering him from the hips up, slowly.

“Are you alright?” T’Challa asks him, and Bucky finds himself strangely unable to speak, so he nods, and T’Challa seems to comprehend it fully, as he always has. Whatever comes, Bucky’s grateful for him; fuck, but he’s grateful.

He’ll be a hell of a lot more than grateful, though, if this works.

When, he tries to tell himself, tries to channel Steve’s voice and the feeling of Steve in his blood and bones. When.

“We are ready,” T’Challa transmits to the rest of the team, and Bucky breathes in slow as he hears the reply.

“On three.”

And it’s a series of questions that follows in Bucky’s head, Bucky’s heart:

How hard will you fight?

Until there’s nothing left of whatever remains when I’m gone, when that’s gone too.

How deep will you cherish?

With everything I am, and everything in the world I can possibly give and hold and offer, whatever I can contain or draw in or earn for him, for him

How long will you hold?

Until the end of the world, the end of the universe, the end of whatever comes next, goddamnit, until the end of fucking line

“Three.”

And that’s the last thing he knows.

Chapter Text

Nebula knew to leave her, when she woke.

It took her time, when first she endured it, to come to terms with what it looked like, felt like, how she felt only part of herself and was foreign to her own being. And that was just the first time, with the first augmentation, the first trial to make her enough. Though this doesn’t even dare to touch what she is now, nowhere close, it’s far more than that first time. And it will take its toll, demand its...adjustments.

Its reweighing of the gouged out places of the soul.

“How do you feel?” Nebula asks, as soon as the footsteps stop behind her. The answer, too, comes after a long stretch of silence.

“I don’t know.”

“It’ll take time.” Nebula knew as soon as she woke in the waters, having never remembered reaching them, or falling asleep, to see the body next to her, motionless, and feeling the heart in her throat leap as she reached for a pulse at the neck and found it barely fluttering: she knew what would need to be done, and knew all the deeper that it was meant to be like this, if anything in the universe is meant to be anything. If she was going to be saved, against all odds, it was Nebula who had to do it.

Because Nebula was the only one who would know where to take her, who could fix what was broken. Who could find the parts to replace what couldn’t be fixed.

Nebula knew better than most.

“You did this,” Gamora says slowly, and Nebula hears the slight whir of her new shoulder blade.“For me.”

“I did,” Nebula says, still not turning toward the question asked as a statement. So like Gamora.

Nebula won’t admit to whether or not she’d missed it

“Why?”

Nebula knows the answer, but waits to see if she’s willing to speak it; if she even can.

“You are my sister.”

Apparently, yes. She can indeed.

“Thank you,” Gamora says softly, her steps growing closer and Nebula’s spine growing tenser.

“God,” Gamora breathes, just at Nebula’s back. “Thank you.”

Nebula doesn’t respond, but when Gamora’s hand settles on her shoulder, she doesn’t move away.

Which may have been a mistake, because she seems to take it as an invitation, some permission to come closer, to slide her arms around Nebula’s neck and rest her head on her shoulder and bury her face there gently, speaking just a little muffled but clear enough:

“I love you.”

And Nebula doesn’t say it back, but she reaches up and grasps her sister’s forearms wrapped around her, and squeezes, both the flesh one and the half-augmented one alike; she thinks that speaks greater volumes, if the hitch in Gamora’s breath, in her new-mechanized lungs, means anything.

If the closer she pulls Nebula against her chest, close to the beat of her cybernetic heart, means that she understands what Nebula never learned how to say.

_____________________

After having been jarred from his connection with Bucky, despite Shuri’s assurances it was nothing to be concerned about, Steve’s on edge. They’re close, they’re really fucking close and they can do this, as long as everything gets through, and Steve doesn’t know if he’s supposed to act as a gatekeeper, holding open a bridge or a conduit, something that might be destroyed in the process and just in case it’s the latter he doesn’t ask.

He sets his jaw, and tells himself no. He doesn’t ask because he doesn’t need to know, because he already knows: he will see Bucky again. And he’ll hold him in his arms and he’ll taste him on his lips and he’ll—

He will.

But for all that he’s on edge, and for all that he can’t control—Shuri’s overseeing the coordination of all the pieces, Carol’s energy to one target and her focus to another, matched with Strange’s control of the Time Stone, withered as it is, and his parallel presence between the quantum realm, where Scott’s hard at work with Tony and Bruce to build the last of the specific equipment required for his journey, and their combined relative proximity to the unknown plane Bucky and Steve meet within—and Steve can’t let himself think too much on it all, because the nerves are too much, all the possible things that could go wrong or could be unmet, unmatched between their realities: he can’t.

So: for all that he’s teetering on full-on panic, the anxiety high and tight in his pulse: there’s something he needs to do before they set this thing into action; he can’t afford to fret or wallow and miss trying to fix this.

“Natasha.”

She’s sitting, reading over the viewscreen hovering in front of her, all the details of what she’ll have to be overseeing, running in support of Shuri as the eye in the sky while the others dive in to execute their plan. She looks up, but her gaze is entirely blank. It’s the gaze she uses on strangers, on the people she hasn’t let past her barriers yet, not even a little.

Steve’s throat gets tight just at the sight.

“I’m,” he breathes in as deep as he can; exhales: “I’m sorry.”

Her expression doesn’t change, but her eyes also don’t falter from him, still staring straight at him, pinning him down. So he breathes deep again, and does what she says she can’t do, says you shouldn’t do, being someone new to every person in the world—except she’s wrong, she’s wrong because he thinks he does know her, and she’d let him in, and he’d damaged that horribly, though hopefully not irreparably.

Steve goes against what Natasha pretends is best, and maybe often has been; Steve ignores her, and speaks straight from the soul.

“I’ve never been what they make me out to be,” he tells her, and it should be an obvious thing by now, at least to her: “I am selfish, about a lot of things. But of everything, I’m most selfish about,” his voice catches, because if anything he's speaking outward from the soul, this is the most honest show of that he could ever imagine, ever offer to anyone:

“I am most selfish about him.”

Natasha doesn’t shift. Steve’s not entirely sure she even blinks.

“You’ve seen so much of me that has aligned what’s good, with what’s good for him,” Steve says out loud what he’s long known in his heart, when he stops lying and starts trusting the more complex parts of himself, the darker parts that are also the lightest, the brightest. “And I can tell you, I can promise that if he’s not in the equation, I would still do the right thing, what I believe is the right thing, but when it’s about him,” Steve shakes his head and bites his lip as he looks down: because when it’s about Bucky, there’s no question.

“And in a way, everything is. About him,” Steve looks back up, chest feeling far too small as he says the words: “Because I love him, and to think about the world without thinking about him, when I had to, when that was…”

He can’t swallow, not around that, and might never be able to, even when—when—Bucky’s back with him; so he waits. Just waits for his voice to come back and grow as strong as it can to speak again.

“I wasn’t myself,” or maybe he was entirely himself, the rawest parts, and the problem is he’s not sorry for what those parts mean about his heart.

He does, however, feel terribly for what they can mean for the other people he holds dear.

“And I’m sorry for what I said, and for what I did, and for not living up to the man you thought I was, and I—”

“Steve.”

Natasha’s voice now, low and thin almost but firm as she demands his focus: she’s still motionless, evaluating him, but her eyes are a little more open.

“I get it.”

Steve blinks, even as she still doesn’t, and her lips quirk a little in response.

“You were an asshole,” she nods emphatically, and Steve feels himself wilt a little, given that she’s absolutely right. “But I think that’s just...you are an asshole. Not necessarily in an entirely bad way, but, in a selfish, pigheaded, loyal, stubborn kind of way. And that makes for a damn good soldier. And maybe an annoying lover.” She smirks to herself, looking contemplative before she snorts:

“A middling kisser, at the least.”

He huffs half-a-laugh himself at that; he’s going to prove her so wrong on both those last accounts as soon as they, as soon as he, as soon as Buck—

He’s going to prove all of that so fucking wrong.

“What you did, and what you’ve been doing, isn’t okay,” Natasha sobers, looks at him less blankly and more meaningfully, more stern and focused now. “Because we are your friends, and alienating us, or demeaning our hurting? That’s not okay for your to do to anyone. No matter what the reason.”

Steve nods, chastised and then some.

“But if we fix this, if we really fix this, and all of this works, and you get him back and we get—” Natasha stops, Steve thinks, before her voices breaks. And what he says next is as much to himself as it is to her.

“We’re going to. We’re going to get them all back.”

Natasha nods, and collects herself behind the mask she’d mostly stopped wearing around him—this will take time. But Steve’s dedicated to earning back her trust.

“Then when we do?” Natasha looks at him, gaze careful, and a little soft around the edges. “How about you let me make my own decisions about the Steve Rogers you’ve always been wanting to be, yeah?” She tilts her head, considering.

“Because I am right, Steve, we’re all of us who we need to be, to everyone, at any given moment, but I think maybe we’ll both figure out a new way to work, when we’re both a little bit more us, with the people who help make us, us.”

And Natasha is touching the golden arrow at her clavicle, playing with the chain unconsciously, and Steve thinks maybe, yes, they both need to learn one another, meet one another as they are, as they really are, with all the parts of them intact.

“I want you to meet my family.”

Steve’s head snaps to meet her eyes full-on when he hears that, and Natasha is smiling small, only just, giving when she doesn’t need to, when it’s not on her to have to give and Steve is a little weak with it: relief and gratitude in equal measures.

“I want you to meet mine,” Steve replies, voice tight, and it’s true. Natasha’s fought alongside Bucky, but to know him—it’s as much a difference as what Steve needs to learn about Clint as a partner to Natasha, and Natasha a partner to Clint, and their kids, Steve hadn’t even realized

“I really am,” Steve says, when the quiet stretches too long. “Sorry.”

Natasha twirls a bit of hair that’s escaped her braid around her finger as she finally blinks, and lets down a few of those walls again.

“I know.”

And that’s enough, for now.

They’ll work from there.

_____________________

“Tony,” Bruce says, entering the main lab. Tony doesn’t respond until he finishes the line of code and tests the mechanical arm he's meant to program for Scott’s quantum-ma-bobber. And by “respond”, he means turns and looks at Bruce expectantly.

“Why don’t you go in and see?”

Tony sighs, but gets up, and does as he’s told.

He eases the door to the antechamber open slowly. He’s not sure he wants to do this, but he needs to.

Fuck this newfound feeling of genuine responsibility right to hell.

“Hey,” he tests the waters. The eyes that meet his are blue, now, and it’s a bit strange, to be honest. But they’re oddly warm, wholly human, and god that’s weird. That’s so weird

“Hello, Tony,” he greets, and Tony can’t quite call this...this person Vision—had trouble calling what came before that, too. The voice is too near to him, too much of his history and self to put a name to it in the flesh other than a name that doesn’t belong, that could never be imposed on a sentient being by someone else.

Even Tony knows those boundaries.

“How are you feeling?”

“Well enough,” Vision—weird, so weird, that’s not a name, what did Wanda call him, Vis? Still weird—shrugs. Goddamn shrugs. “I think I have a headache, but I suspect that’s unavoidable, given the givens.”

“I’m not even sure how a painkiller would work on you,” Tony admits, taking a seat. “But after, we...” He trails, struggling to find the word for the massive undertaking they’re going to attempt.

“Merge universes across spacetime, or something to that effect?”

“Something to that effect, yeah,” Tony smiles tightly. “But after, we could look into synthesizing something for you, for the pain, or at least giving it a go.”

“Much appreciated.”

There’s a quiet that falls over them, and Tony doesn’t know how to break it.

Vis, however, does.

“You’re here to see if I’m enough of myself to have been worth the effort.”

“No,” Tony says, but he drags it out, because it’s kind of a...conditional sort of ‘no’. “I’m here for the overly sentimental purpose of seeing if you’re enough of yourself for Wanda, if we’re able to make this thing happen. Because if not—”

“You wouldn’t subject her to a version of me who doesn’t properly remember her, doesn’t remember what she means,” Vis nods, and his expression telegraphs absolute agreement. “How she smells like coffee and wildflowers, the latter beyond all reason,” he muses, his eyes focusing on something far away and his mouth turning upward, a hint of wistfulness in it. “The former, she takes with more sugar than you’d expect,” he adds fondly. “She sleeps in when there’s no reason to be awake sooner, wakes up with the sun and she’s…” his eyes grow wide and they shine bright when he near whispers:

“She’s radiant.”

He says it in the same tone as Tony talks about Pepper, mostly to himself—and to F.R.I.D.A.Y. by necessity. Tony’s getting pretty goddamned convinced already.

“She talks to her brother, sometimes, in her sleep,” Vis muses softly. “I sing to her in Sokovian, until she calms.”

Tony considers him, trying to remain objective; weighing posture and body language and variance in tone.

“We moved to Edinburgh because she’d seen it in a movie about drug abuse, of all things,” Vis huffs a tiny laugh. “Said she thought it was a romantic sort of city, nevertheless, and I had no preference but to make her happy, though all indications named Paris the city of love, and I…”

He trails, and meets Tony’s eyes straight on.

“Well, I wanted to make her happy,” he says simply. “So Edinburgh it was.”

His smile loses some of the wistfulness, replaced by longing, sadness in its wake.

“She jumped when the guns went off in the afternoon from the Castle, no matter how predictable they were, and we laughed every time. I offered to warn her, but she told me that it was nice,” he closes his eyes: “to be enough at ease that something could surprise her so thoroughly.”

His smile, still sad, grows just a little.

“And so we laughed instead.”

He’s quiet, and Tony should be more wary, should ask questions, but there’s something in him that knows, that believes truly that he doesn’t need to.

They’d managed what they set out to do, and they exceeded their goal.

“It was true, in the end,” Vision says as Tony leans back, turning to him with a tone that drips suddenly with sorrow, brow furrowed in a way it couldn’t before with the embedding of the Stone.

“It was more the light that blinded, that caused pain,” he confesses; “not her. Never her.”

And Tony believes him. Tony believes he knows.

_____________________

They’ve managed to avoid one another by not going and coming in the same places at the same times, or if forced to do so, Tony at least always moves with another person at his side for convenient distraction.

Maybe it’s been childish. Steve’s not really all that invested in deciding one way or another.

Here, though, they’ve finally reached the pivotal moment; no place to hide.

“Tony,” Steve says, voice tightly controlled. Tony’s quiet for a second, staring at him blankly before he says, equally unyielding.

“Cap.”

Steve clears his throat, because he’s never been the best with awkward silences. “Heard you’ve made some progress with...rehabilitating Vision.”

“Heard you’ve been having some psychic sexual healing with your one and only across planes of reality.” He crosses his arms and leans back on his heels a bit, eyes brightening just a hair. “Brain-to-brain banging isn’t one I’ve personally tried, so kudos. And here I thought you were all pure and virginal Mr. Missionary.”

Steve fights not to roll his eyes—they’re not there yet—but feels something shift between them: if Tony can mock him, then there’s hope yet.

“I also hear you’re a nice chunk of the reason we’ve been able to get everything together so quickly,” Steve adds, and maybe it’s a little desperate, because he’s sick of the tension, and there’s something pulling him to make amends; he tries not to put much stock into that persistent itch in the back of his brain, like he won’t have the chance again. “Shuri’s spoken very highly of how much help you’ve been.”

Tony shrugs. “Well, much as I love the limelight, Bruce has been unstoppable. Single-minded like a goddamn machine, never seen him work like this before.”

Steve nods, and the silence settles again; just as awkward as before. Goddamnit.

“Though we wouldn’t be doing any of it without you, so.”

That’s unexpected, as it comes out of Tony’s mouth. Even Tony’s own expression seems to betray the fact that he didn’t quiet mean to say that out loud.

It’s Steve turn to shrug. “I’m sure someone would have figured it out eventually.”

Tony scoffs. “Of all the times you’ve sold yourself short? Don’t do it now.” His face sobers, then, and his tone goes low.

“If this works, we’re gonna bring my wife back,” he says quietly, heartfelt; “and it’s down to you.”

Steve exhales, long and slow. “If this works, I’m gonna have a reason for living beyond a fight I’m not sure I’ve believed in since the ice, so,” Steve didn’t expect to bare his soul that quickly, that casually, and to Tony fucking Stark of all people, particularly not now, but it’s so close to the surface that maybe he shouldn’t be surprised.

“Well, we’ve both got a vested interest.”

Tony considers him for a second, before he nods and reaches out a hand.

“See you on the flipside?”

The corners of Steve’s mouth quirk ever so slightly, and he takes the hand offered, grip strong between them.

“Here’s hoping.”

_____________________

“How do you,” Bruce says as they linger by the doorway, because there’s one more piece to wrangle before they kick this thing into motion; “umm, like—”

“How do you wake a sorcerer from his fucking beauty rest?” Tony ventures, staring at the back of Stephen Strange where he hovers in midair, and has been for ages.

“No need,” the deep voice trails toward them as Strange levitates back to the floor and turns to them. “My awareness is multitudinous when connected to the higher dimensions.”

“That’s bullshit.” And Tony calls it truly, too; he’d tried to get Strange out of his trance more than once. “What the hell have you been doing, anyway?”

“Parsing my visions.”

“Which,” Bruce ventures; “prepares you to channel your powers to help connect the realities?”

“Allow me to repeat myself in calling bullshit, yet again,” Tony interrupts before an answer can come, because it’ll be lies if it does. “You’ve never prepared basic laser-circle drawing, and I’m pretty sure that’s all you need to do now.”

“What I need to do is sustain that across dimensions,” Strange counters, eyes narrowed. Oh no, Tony’s poked the magician. He’s so scared.

“Which isn’t what you said you were spending your time on just now,” Tony counters. “What kind of ‘visions’,” he even makes the literal air quotes to emphasize how little he believes in Strange’s hand-wavey excuses; “are you so engrossed in, exactly?”

“I’m shoring up my skills of accuracy, which will be absolutely necessary for the plan we intend to enact,” Strange notes pointedly; “by attempting to seek out where my visions failed me, or what weakness allowed me to fail them.” He pauses, but pushes onward, though Tony’s already clocked his use of timey-whimey vocabulary to try and throw them off the scent.

“To have seen one future in which we succeeded riddled with sorrow and bloodshed and heartbreak and loss, but having missed this potential coalescence, seemingly devoid of all that, should it succeed.”

Tony runs that through his head about five more times, just to be absolutely sure, before he speaks.

“Strange,” he says slowly; “are you telling me you’ve been sitting here, for days on end, pouting like a fucking child because your little visions didn’t tell you that true love whatever and an astral plane thingy were the answer to a universal catastrophe?”

Strange goes absolutely still, his expression stony. Finally, when he speaks, it’s as good as an admissions, and it's a fucking petulant response.

“They’re not little visions.”

Tony doesn’t know whether to laugh or scream.

“I hope they were enlightening,” he tosses back, deadpan. “Because it’s time to get this show on the road.”

_____________________

Steve had entered the cave, submerged himself in silence, all alone. Pure necessity: everyone was needed elsewhere, and he had his part to play as much as anyone.

He’s glad for it though, if he’s honest with himself. He needs to be by himself for this, whatever comes.

He closes his eyes, and there’s the heat of Bucky there, and he waits for it to settle into his veins and feels all of the tension in him melt away, course through his body with powerful, unfailing truth, and Steve’s whole being seems to exhale, seems to loosen in light of it, and Steve loses track of time, here, like this, save to know that it’s never enough, but this time.

This time, it seems to only last a heartbeat, shared and swift and so very close, before it ends, before they cling somewhere metaphysical and cosmic and almost connect as Steve’s body feels torn apart at the seams, blinding white light surrounding him as the thing he knows best in the whole world is pain.

And Steve’s well acquainted with pain, but even the serum doesn’t compare to this.

He feels the pain intensify from angles—if his brain didn’t seem to be boiling, to be shot through with acid just to burn alive, he’d likely put together that it’s each component, the Kree energy and the Stone resonance and the quantum dimension’s activation—but he can’t process that, all he can do is writhe, and reach, and there are moments he thinks he feels Bucky in just as much agony and its hurts so fucking deep in his already searing, racing-to-come-apart heart, his soul where it’s starting to shatter under incomparable pressure; he reaches in all of his torment nonetheless but comes just short every time, like the arcs of pain assaulting him are trying to break whatever hold he’d had, are trying to steal whatever light he knows.

But as much as he knows that, feels that intimately and without relent, Steve doesn’t feel, simply knows that he can’t stop reaching. Whatever he’s holding to, he cannot let go.

The onslaught lasts for decades or maybe moments, but Steve’s raw enough with it to feel like he couldn’t have managed a moment longer when finally, it stops: the blinding white light disappears like it was never there at all, and Steve opens his eyes, fucking frantic, gasping for air—and there are so many people.

So many people, standing around him. Alive.

As he turns to them all in succession, though, gathered around him with concerned eyes trained on him and him alone; the breath he’d been struggling for catches in his lungs when he sees them, when he starts to look around and—

His heart crashes in his chest, shatters into pieces so much more painful than whatever he’s just endured, when Steve doesn’t see him.

“Steve,” a voice comes, familiar, but it sounds so far away; “you took your goddamn time, scared the shit out of—”

“Sam,” Steve identifies it, and his own response echoes in his ears at a distance, his heart pounding out a dirge that’s louder, too loud, that takes over everything.

“He was here,” and that’s T’Challa, who picks up on Steve’s distress in an instant, and knows its source. “I swear to you, Captain, he was just here, but when we,” Steve finds T’Challa among the group, closest to him with Shuri and Nakia at his side, next to Sam and a man with a military bearing Steve’s never seen before. “We phased in, almost, bodies immaterial, coming together in pieces, disintegrating in reverse—”

“No, it was light,” Tony’s voice breaks through, but Steve doesn’t process it save for the periphery, still stuck on the important parts, the essential revelations; “fucking bright white light—”

He was here.

“Opposites,” Shuri says almost dismissively, her eyes on Steve without faltering. “When we merged realities, you experienced what we did when they split, and vice versa.” She finally turns, shifting her attention to T’Challa. “But where is Bucky, Brother?”

And he hears T’Challa start to reply, he does, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t.

Because there’s a pull in his chest that he’s never felt while he was fully conscious before, a warmth that feels so real and so pure, and Steve knows, suddenly, the answer to the question.

Or else: if it’s not the answer, then he’s done for, and listening any further is only delaying the inevitable.

“I—” T’Challa starts, but Steve’s already running before he’s fully on his feet.

His heart’s pounding so goddamn hard he doesn't even hear them call after him.

Chapter Text

She can feel the tension in every line of Gamora’s body from across the vehicle, where she paces behind Nebula as they pilot down to the surface of Titan.

She sees figures, knows they’re the people she intends them to be, and doesn’t pretend not to breathe just a small sigh of relief that they’ve done it; they’ve righted all the wrongs and put the universe back together again.

Landing is soft, simple, but Gamora braces like it’s the end of days. Nebula knows the feeling.

“Do you want me to go first?” She’s not used to offering so freely of herself but she thinks that was a different person, a different version of her, then. She thinks she’s grown, changed, and she’s not sure what to make of it.

She’ll deal with that later.

Gamora’s features are drawn, and she looks like she might be shaking, and Nebula doesn’t think before crossing the distance from the cockpit and placing a hand on her shoulder, steadying, and yes.

She has changed.

“Follow when you’re ready.”

And she disembarks; she doesn’t know how long it will take, but she does know Gamora will follow.

As soon as Quill speaks, and she hears him, it will start to place her into motion.

Nebula thinks she’s beginning to understand that that’s what love does.
_____________________

She looks at their motley crew from a distance before she approaches, though they’re all staring at her with dropped jaws and shocked eyes: she rolls her eyes: there are far more shocking things they’ve faced than her return, though their expressions would suggest otherwise.

“Nebula?” It’s Quill who speaks first: shocking. Idiot can’t ever keep his mouth shut.

“Wait, you disappeared,” and that’s the spider-boy, with his hand resting on the the shoulder of the other insect, the empath; huh. That’s a surprise.

“The light,” the insect woman—Mantis, she thinks she remembers, and the look matches, so she thinks she’s correct; “did it, change things?”

“Your new friends from Earth seem to have set things to rights again,” Nebula says simply. “Merged the realities between those who stayed and those we lost.”

“Lost?” Quill says, and his hope is almost offensively saccharine. How Gamora can put up with him is beyond Nebula, and maybe that’s for the best.

“The explanations are beyond standing here,” Nebula dismisses him; “all you need to know is the work the floating magician tried to manage was beyond him alone, and the damage of the Mad Titan was more vast and intricate than any of us could have imagined.” She smirks just a little. “You’re lucky you ran into some powerful geniuses.”

Quill looks proud until Nebula continues:

“And they’re probably lucky you morons stayed out of the way while they saved the universe.”

“Rude,” Quill says, though the way Drax eyes him makes Nebula think that, regarding Quill personally, he’s in agreement.

“You come to get us out of here?” Spider-boy asks, and Nebula glares at him. His childlike innocence is grating.

“We have.”

“We?”

Quill picks up on it immediately—that god-forsaken hope—and his eyes turn to the craft Nebula had emerged from, where a green figure, augmented anew in metal and wires from the face to the feet, stands apart: watching.

Peter watches back, and Nebula can read the pulse in his throat as he stands still, speechless: disgusting.

“Gamora?” his word is barely a breath, but the way Gamora’s body moves, stiffens and then releases, then approaches one foot in front of the other, makes it clear that she hears it, reads it off of him well enough.

He nearly runs to meet her, like his own body knows what it wants before any sense in him—minimal though it may be—can stop him.

“You’re here,” he whispers, and Nebula thinks of turning away but then thinks twice: this is her sister, and this matters.

She will bear witness.

“I’m not,” Gamora starts, voice thin and wavering. “I’m not the same, and if you—”

He cuts her off with a kiss, the kind that tilts her back and steals her breath away, and it’s then that Nebula turns away, because she can only bear witness to so much, but it’s for the best.

She’s done what she set out to do.

Chapter Text

There’s no one there.

Steve’s thought he’s known heartbreak, know sorrow and loss and utter ruin, but he was so sure, he was so sure he’d find Bucky here, the last place their gazes met, if only barely: this place Steve had mourned in and called sacred for the most hateful, sickening of reasons—he’s been so sure Bucky would be waiting for him in the clearing.

He falls to his knees without meaning to, but instead because his legs fail him, and he crumples forward on the ground, the same ground he’d spent so much time avoiding, and then lying atop of and shaking without a single tear, hands tracing through the loose dirt in hopes of touching something, whatever was left, just—

“I knew you’d come here.”

Steve is motionless, through and through; his heart goddamn stops at that voice from the other end of the grove.

“Everything started to fade, and when I stopped feeling you so, so close,” the voice; he can’t call it by a name yet, he can’t bear to be wrong. “No one was solid, nothing seemed completely real, and I couldn’t wait only to not find you, not see you,” the voice chokes, and Steve’s chest lurches for it, casts out for it to ease the pain in that single note, that single syllable—more precious than anything else they’ve worked so hard to save.

“But I knew, you’d look here,” and Steve can hear it, that infinite, impossible, singular heart in that throat, in those words; he can heart it, good god: he can feel it, like the warm resonance in his bones and maybe this is real, maybe they are, they managed, they, they—

“I knew,” the voice, the voice; and Steve would know for sure if he turned, if he stood and looked but he doesn’t need to, not really—he does need to for the sake of his mind but his heart: it only starts beating again because it recognizes that wavelength of feeling, of being, and it can’t belong to anyone else. “I knew—”

“I love you,” Steve says, and only then does he look, and he’s overcome; his eyes burn and he doesn’t fight the way they start to stream, his limbs tremble as he tries to stand, as Bucky walks toward him, slowly like he needs just as much for his eyes to catch up with his soul, arms held out to steady if they’re needed, even as everything about him steadies everything else in Steve's body, all at once.

“I love you.” Steve repeats it, and it’s more of a cosmic, metaphysical exhale that shivers through his pounding blood than a look on a face or a change in posture, nothing so simple telegraphed in real time: but Steve knows that it’s there.

“Everything I felt, everything I tried to give you—”

“Me too,” Bucky tells him, suspended in space just out of reach. “Me too, everything.” He swallows hard, and Steve wants to know, in a small little corner of his mind, why they’re not touching, why they’re still at arm’s length because of all they shared, if it’s true

“I couldn’t breathe without you,” Steve says, the words tumbling from him; eyes impossibly wide. “I’ve never been able to, to be, not really, without you.”

Bucky stares at him, drinks him in; Steve does the same in turn, and wills his body to catch up with everything else, everything that matters infinitely more and speaks volumes beyond, so that he can touch and fucking find that something solid, something warm and real with a pulse that’s bounding, rejoicing like his: he wants to reach so that the insistent gild of trepidation, of bone-breaking fear that it’s all a lie and that everything he thinks he knows is wrong, everything he feels is mistaken: he needs that gone.

He needs to move.

“You hold so much of me in you,” Bucky says softly, eyes still as fixed on Steve as Steve’s are on him. “You’re the only one who could remind me who I was, the only one who could reach me and bring me back no matter where from. Torture, brainwashing, my own mind, another fucking reality, Steve,” he shakes his head ruefully, but his eyes still look scared, hesitant to break whatever this is, even as those eyes damn well emanate love, love, love. “So much of me is yours that we can find each other anywhere, through anything.”

And that’s all it takes. Through anything.

They move in goddamned concert, coming together in a clash of limbs and mouths and hands that take in everything, lips that map everything: space of teeth and flesh, the contours and the edges, all the things that they shared between them, whatever happened to entangle their hearts couldn’t reveal: the body.

They’re ravenous to learn this last piece, and to learn it just as close, just as sure.

Bucky’s lifting Steve at the thighs and pinning him to a tree before Steve can process it happening, and Bucky’s voice is close at his ear.

“Think anyone’s coming?”

Steve exhales shakily, so wound in the promise of what Bucky’s body against his is doing, is meaning; the firm press of his bare torso against Steve’s growing need where his legs are spread to wrap around Bucky and draw him close. “Doubtful.”

Bucky responds immediately, biting at the crook of Steve’s neck and soothing it with his tongue just as quick, taking his left hand and reaching down, playing fingers at the band of his trousers below his equally-naked chest, venturing in and palming around Steve’s cock without hesitation, only with the deepest of knowing, a familiarity and assuredness not even decades of loving in the physical world could grant, Steve’s sure of it.

Buck,” and his heart’s thrumming, fit to burst, and he won’t last, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is this unbearable, indescribable need to feel Bucky, to touch him, and by god, to let him know that Steve wants every inch of him, every piece of him in kind, and always has; he doesn’t think he could hold it in if he tried, and even he’s experienced enough to know he should, with anyone else. For anything else.

But they’re something...something other. What they have is something beyond what Steve even understands, but he wants to spend every second until his dying breath figuring out.

They fucking transcend reality; what they have is bigger than the goddamn universe.

“You,” Steve pants, clenching his teeth to hold off from coming undone at the touch of Bucky’s deft fingers and the sinful little motions of his wrist. “You’ve seen my soul, or the inside of my heart, just, everything I, that I feel about you,” and Bucky moans, kisses wet and desperate against Steve’s neck.

“Yes,” Bucky mouths into his skin; “Everything, Steve, fucking everything,” and Steve gasps at that, at the friction of Bucky’s touch, so fucking close and he’s clumsy with it, but there’s still a shine in his chest, a heat there that’s not his own and it’s bright as ever and he fumbles because he knows it’ll fall careful, and wanted, no matter what.

“Wanna show you, just how much you mean,” Steve says as his head throws back, throat bared as he nearly chokes on the words, but the promise of Bucky feeling each one pressed against his pulse as he grazes his teeth to Steve’s clavicle, up to his jawline and back again, half the rhythm of his hand on Steve’s length, and he’s hard as fuck and he’s nearly blind with it, every heartbeat closer to release at Bucky’s touch.

“How much I’m yours, how much I love you in ways I can’t put into words,” and he barely gets those words out, before he’s coming, hard and long and clutching Bucky to him so that he can feel the other man’s heartbeat, skin to skin in the moments that splay into infinitude between them: the first time of more time than either of them can imagine, and yet an intimacy they’ve already known, and relished, and brought to life here in a way that Steve knows he hasn’t earned, but couldn’t imagine leaving behind ever again and surviving the fall.

“Then show me now,” Bucky exhales, shattered against Steve’s cheek; understanding completely, Steve knows. “And let me show you.”

Steve’s still gasping, but when Bucky eases him to the ground and tugs off his pants, enveloping Steve with his body from head to toe, Steve knows: he will.

He will show him everything. He will give him everything.

_____________________

“He was here,” T’Challa repeats to himself, increasingly anxious, but Shuri’s hand on his, holding tighter than strictly necessary but so welcome it could not be anything but perfect—his beloved sister back at his side, his brilliant family restored, save for one missing piece who was right here

“Brother,” she says softly, brow slightly furrowed as she studies the projection from the beads at her wrist.

“He is well.”

T’Challa turns, and everyone still gathered—and it’s most of them, T’Challa thinks Bucky would benefit from knowing as much; because after they’d all reunited with their loved ones no-longer-lost, they’d congregated to figure out why Bucky seemed to have gone missing in the process, all of the dire possibilities and implications shivering between them, but Shuri’s expression is becoming lighter by the moment, and T’Challa narrows his gaze at her.

“How do you know?”

“Where is he?” Nakia adds, fervent still leaning toward curiosity as she, too, takes in Shuri’s growing ease.

“Where it started, or ended,” and it’s then that she smiles, first to herself and then to everyone else; “and Steve is with him.”

“You’re certain?” T’Challa presses her; Steve hadn’t been offered Kimoyo beads or any similar technology, but then he looks closer; sees almost everyone who’d merged with Shuri to their healed reality seems to be wearing them. She’d want to keep a weather eye on every possible change, every hint of what she was dealing with; he shouldn’t be surprised.

“If I were to guess at these readings, I would say all is well with them both,” Shuri says, her smile having grown a little bit sly, brow arched as she dismisses the display with a pinch of her fingers and give T’Challa a pointed look. “Very well indeed.”

And oh. Oh.

Get it, Barnes,” Wilson whistles low, dispelling any tension, and the room seems to exhale as one because maybe, just maybe they’ve all really made it through this alive, and yes: very well.

“General,” and Okoye—goodness, how he’d missed her, as well—stands at his side with what looks like a gratefulness for his very presence that might make him uncomfortable, were it anyone but she, his closest confidant to the Throne; “might we organize a security sweep that excludes North-West Section Sixteen for the time being?”

“My King,” she salutes with a smile she does not bother to contain, while Stark makes a snide comment about that being a smart move, because no one wanted to see ‘Capsicle losing his v-card’, and if the way that his wife smacks his arm while still holding him tight to her side means anything, it seems that yes.

They’ve made it through.

_____________________

Pepper hasn’t let go of his hand since he’d ran to her—fucking ran like his life depended on it and it goddamn did, because he’s not stupid enough anymore to believe that his life is much of anything without her—but he gets her alone, sits her next to him with a view of the Wakandan skyline in full sunlight splayed behind them but hell if he can see anything but her.

“I love you,” and her eyes don’t widen anymore, she’s not surprised when he tells her anymore, thank god for that, but there’s a question in the way she looks at him and he just… he just needs. Her.

He just needs her.

“I love you and I don’t say it enough, I have never said it enough but you are my world and I love you and the thought of being without you was—”

“Unbearable.” She smiles when she says it, and cups his face with a smooth hand and he nuzzles into it shamelessly because hell, they finish each other’s sentences, and he wonders more than he should, probably, when exactly he’d have crashed and burned for the last time, for real if it hadn’t been for her. He wonders how long its been, the two of them. Finishing sentences. How many of them he’d missed.

How long someone like him gets to have, to make up for all of it and more.

“Tony?” she whispers, and he didn’t notice exactly that both her hands were on his face, framing it; he was lost, a little, in just how warm her touch was, how real and solid and here. She waits until he meets her eyes, and even after that she’s quiet—he looks, and tries to read her eyes: she’s always been open, but there are parts of her that make him work, make him try, and he never unravels everything, and that’s part of what he loves in her: he’s up against one of those pieces now, and he’s not sure whether he’s supposed to dissect that look in her, or wait for her to reveal it or not—he’s not sure.

He gets lost in just looking at her, and studying her, and making sure there’s nothing about her he could ever, ever lose.

“You know sometimes, when you have a dream and it’s so real, and then you wake up and it’s true?”

And the heart he’d hid from for so goddamn long, the one he gave her as best he knew but nothing like she deserved but maybe enough, maybe enough and god, god, what if it was enough, what if he was enough and she could give him this, could want this with him, to be this with him, if she’s saying what he thinks, what he hopes, what he prays

He breathes out slow, and takes her hands in his, and holds them so fucking tight.

So tight.

“As a matter of fact, I do.”
_____________________

Steve had been wanting, aching to show Bucky how much he wanted, needed him like nothing else. But it turns out Bucky’d had other plans. Plans that were apparently closer to figuring how far the serum’s stamina could stretch, and contract, and stretch again before breaking as he eased Steve up toward the edge and back down so many times that Steve thinks he blacked out when he finally came, and his chest hurts with exertion like it hasn’t since he was small and it’s gorgeous, it’s perfect; he feels so fucking alive.

He’s still panting, and he laughs as he runs hands through Bucky’s hair where Bucky’s collapsed himself on Steve’s chest—the balm for every ache there, every ache it’s every felt—and can’t help himself:

“Where the hell did you learn that?”

Bucky laughs against him, and Steve thinks that for all the amazing, impossible things that Bucky’s just made his body feel, things Steve didn’t know were fucking possible—of all those things, Bucky’s laughter against his own beating heart might be the best thing that he’s ever known, or ever will. And he’s never going to let it go. And fuck, fuck—he may never have to.

What does a man do with the gift he’s always dreamed of, beyond all reason and measure, when it comes to him after the end of the world and lives and centuries, after all the doubt and pain and loss? Steve feels his heart skip just a little at the thought, and Bucky seems to gather him closer on instinct for it; and he holds Bucky just a little closer, and Bucky goes with it like they’re both made to their cores to fit just so—and Bucky kisses the line of his sternum before settling back against him like he’d never belonged anywhere else before, only here, and if Steve’s opinion counts for anything, that’s absolutely true. Steve’s certainly never belonged anywhere more than here, in one version of it or another, one holding the other, never far enough to wonder where the other is, if they’re safe, if they’re home.

That’s where Steve belongs.

“You didn’t really believe our rent money came from just one part of working the docks, did you?”

As Steve’s jarred back to the question he’d asked, more rhetorical than otherwise, he stills. He guesses he...didn’t think about it.

Thinking about it now isn’t actually all that nice, either; the thought of Bucky with women was always uncomfortable, to phrase it nicely, but somehow the idea of him with men down where no one spoke of it but everyone knew about it, the idea of Bucky with other men when he could have been with him

“Ooo,” Bucky props himself up and dances tantalizing fingertips between Steve’s nipples, eliciting a shudder that wracks Steve’s whole fucking body. “Jealous, Steven Grant?”

He flushes—he’s sure of it, that’s a reaction he’s never going to be rid of—and he bites his tongue at the tip so as not to say anything, but Bucky reads him like a book, like always, and he laughs, touching nose-to-nose with Steve for the angle as he leans to kiss his mouth.

“You never have to be,” he leads Steve’s lips around the words with his own, never pulling far enough away as he says it; “it’s only ever been you.”

Steve reaches, and cups his face, and brings him in deeper, kisses him full and long and breathless until it burns in his lungs again, because the hurt was starting to ebb and Steve doesn’t want it to, doesn't want anything that Bucky makes him feel to go away, not a single part of it, and Bucky gives and gives and doesn’t stop until Steve breaks apart, panting and resting his forehead against Bucky, heart pounding out another question he doesn't know if he wants to ask, but needs to know:

“How long?”

Bucky looks up at him from under long lashes, and Steve exhales slow, trying to figure out the words.

“I could feel it, stretching back,” he tries to explain, tries to point to the infinite well of feeling and emotion and wanting and sheer desiring need with words when there are no words, but there’s a sense of resonance in his blood that makes it feel right, makes him certain that Bucky gets it too and knows the unsayable as close as Steve does to his bones, so he presses on:-

“I could feel it, but like, when you first knew,” he breathes; “do you remember?”

Bucky processes it between blinks and smirks at him, the joy in it blinding.

“Shut it, punk.”

It’s not a response he was expecting, so Steve doesn’t know exactly what his face does, but it makes Bucky’s eyes widen and sparkle, and Christ, he is gorgeous.

“No,” Bucky shakes his head, and kisses the corner of Steve’s mouth. “No, not now. That was when.”

Steve raises a brow at him, but Bucky’s grin just grows.

“I’d damn well ordered you up on the kitchen table, your mom at work,” he says softly, running his fingers through Steve’s hair seemingly without even thinking, like his hands want to be touching Steve just as much as Steve wants them there, touching. “You’d bitten off more than you could chew, again, and were so much worse for wear than my poor teenaged heart was able to take by the time I got there, because you didn’t listen, you never listened when I told you to wait.”

And Bucky’s voice gets a little thin, then, like he’s remembering too close, and Steve catches his hand and kisses the palm like it’s the only possible thing he could do in the face of that old-scabbed heartbreak, something Steve knew and willingly perpetuated but didn’t know, and needs to make amends for, for the scars left behind even now. Bucky seems to feel on the same wavelength, kissing his forehead lightly before he continues.

“And it hurt so goddamn much to see you like that, to even think of you in pain, and I knew, as soon as I told you to shut your trap, to stop trying to make excuses that didn’t hold a drop of water,” he’s back to running fingers through Steve’s hair, and he’s tucking it behind his ear as he says:

“I knew that I was going to live my entire life with a little, precious grain of agony in my chest for all the hurt you’d throw yourself into, that I’d have to watch. And that sense of,” he swallows hard, and Steve feels it in the beat of his blood; “that sense of always, and how deep it went,” he shakes his head and catches Steve’s eyes:

“There wasn’t anything else that could feel like that. I was sure of it.”

And if there’s anything he could do but to kiss Bucky with everything he is, Steve sure as hell doesn’t know it.

_____________________

If Natasha cared enough to notice, she might be afraid she was going to break the tablet. As it happens, Clint knows that she doesn’t care at all.

“Baby,” she says, her voice almost cracking;and that’s as close as it’s going to get—she’s in a room alone with him, but even that, here, is too public for her to show anything more. “Oh my god, you’re okay?”

“Fine, Auntie Nat,” Clint hears Lila’s voice huff impatiently; Nat may have asked more than once. “Mom said you were on a mission? With Daddy?”

“Yeah, I was, yes,” Nat tells her quickly; “but we’re going to be home soon, okay? And I am going to smother you all with hugs and kisses before Daddy even gets his chance. They’re all for me, do you understand? Don’t save a single one for anyone else, this time.”

Clint watches from the corner as she waits for Lila to nod; watches as Nat’s eyes narrow and Lila sighs, turning the frame to Cooper—god, when did he get so fucking big?—who nods dutifully in kind before she’s satisfied.

“Good,” Natasha says with finality. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” Lila and Cooper both respond out of sync, but it’s so good to hear their voices, to know they’re safe, Clint just basks in it: he was selfish, really, in encouraging Nat talk to them first—he wanted to get all the feelings of hearing and seeing them out of the way off-camera before he talked to them one-on-one, working the bulk of his emotions out vicariously through her conversation so he could be a little more composed when he got his turn.

“Dad wants to talk to you now, okay?” That’s his cue.

“Dad gets phone time, too?” Cooper asks, brightening, and it tugs at Clint’s heartstring so goddamn hard.

“Tell him I was so angry about him leaving in the middle of shooting lessons that I started teaching myself and I’m really good, so there,” Lila groues. “But tell him first before we talk so he already knows, okay?”

Nat smiles softly. “I’ll tell him, baby. And I’ll see you all soon.”

“Wait!” Lila says suddenly, gesturing off-screen; there’s a hint of a scuffle to be heard across the connection, and then footsteps approaching. “Natalie said a new word!”

Natasha grins the special grin she saves for anything and everything involving little Natalie; that beautiful baby girl hadn’t been a traitor, after all.

“Oh my god, really?” Natasha crowds into the screen when Cooper sits down next to Lila, propping Natalie up.

“She finally got it down just right, watch.”

“Alie,” and it’s really good they went with that for a nickname, else the time they all did spend at home could have gotten confusing with more than one ‘Nat; running around; “who’s that?” Cooper points at the screen, and Natalie squints carefully before smiling big and declaring happily:

“Momma!”

Clint freezes, but his eyes are on Natasha’s when he does: he watches the way her whole body seizes up, and her eyes widen, and she blinks and blinks and blinks.

“We taught her with a picture,” Lila explains, too proud of Natalie to notice Natasha’s reaction; Cooper, on the other hand, is watching Nat across the screen very carefully, with budding concern. “And she babbles ‘mom’ a lot so it sounds like ‘momma’ but this time she totally knows she’s saying it. You can tell.”

Lila nods, and grins up at Natasha, who’s still frozen, but is a spy at heart, and knows a few seconds later than she would anywhere else, with anyone else—and those few seconds say the world about how much of her heart these three little humans hold—and when she finally does react, it’s with a bit of a wobbly smile and bright eyes and a rough voice:

“That’s perfect, you guys. Perfect.”

And Nat’s never wanted for the love of a child, as much love as those kids gave any of them they gave to Nat; maybe more. But to be called that, for the others to teach Natalie that

Clint can’t tell what’s going on in Nat’s head, not fully, but her throat is working hard and there’s a tear that escapes her eye just before the kids can catch it, Clint rescuing the tablet from her hands in time, and he kisses the side of her head firmly as he sits by her side and declares:

“My time now, Nat can’t have all of you!”

And the kids are glad to see him, though not near as glad as he is to see them, and he’s cried his tears and swallowed his gasps already so he can laugh over something Lila said to her teacher and wince at something Cooper said to a girl at school (which Lila narrates, of course, and again: when did they both grow up?), but all the while, there’s never a moment when Natasha’s hand isn’t clasped in his own; and there’s never a moment where the fine tremors in that hand ebb away.

But there’s also never a moment where she stops holding onto him like he’s the last real thing in the world, or a moment when her eyes drift from watching their kids giggling on the screen. So he thinks in all, it’s going to be okay.

More than.
_____________________

“I don’t know that I’ve told you.”

He’d been staring at the waning sunlight on the water to the south, getting lost in memories of gilded halls and light that emanated more than shone in a home now lost to them both; it takes him a moment to surface from his thoughts—odd, if not for the presence of his brother, in which he’s always felt safest in being vulnerable; in being seen.

“What haven’t you told me?” Loki asks, sighing as he turns to Thor, who moves to stand beside him.

“How grateful I am that you’re here.” Thor looks at him, unwavering, and Loki’s never known what to do under that gaze, and he wonders just how much of his life may have been lived differently, how much of the universe may have moved differently, if he’d been less afraid of not knowing.

“You’ve shown me,” Loki says evenly, meeting Thor’s eyes and matching the unflinching way Thor drinks in the sight of him. “I’m not certain I deserve it, but you’ve more than made it known.”

Thor nods, his eyes suddenly lowered to the ground. He studies his hands for a long string of moments before he clears his throat and catches Loki’s gaze once more.

“When you fell, something in me perished,” his voice is rough, when he says it; it’s not something that Loki hasn’t guessed at, given the way Thor has been with him—needy and heartfelt and nearly exuberant: too ready to forgive all of Loki’s sins, even for him. Hearing it aloud, however, does something intricate and delightfully painful in his chest that he’s not entirely prepared for.

“That’s what made me despair, that this time it was true,” Thor rasps, and he reaches for Loki’s hand, clasps it in his own. “That this giant’s heart had beat its last.”

Loki huffs a laugh, but there’s no humor in it. Affection, however, it holds in spades, and Loki is done trying to hide it, or even deny that it lives.

It’s always lived.

“We are lucky, then,” Loki finally finds words unsentimental enough to say what they mean and what they imply, all at once: “that I can be counted on for every manner of mischief and deception.”

Thor smiles, but only softly, and turns his brother’s hand over in his, tracing the lines of his palm carefully as he murmurs:

“Not every manner.”

And Loki catches Thor’s fingertips and claps his hand in kind, turning back to the soon-streaming sunset.

“No,” he agrees; “not anymore.” And his mind is not lost in the halls of old, isn’t caught up in a home he cannot claim; it’s here, he is here, and he thinks only on the home stood beside him.

_____________________

Steve’s not sure what makes him say it, with Bucky tucked up behind him, soft inside him but both of them unwilling to move away. Steve closes his eyes and just breathes, letting the feeling suffuse him straight through, every cell in him made of the feeling of James Barnes there, a part of him, as he was always meant to be. As he always had been.

Maybe that’s what makes him say it.

“Timothy McNamara.”

Bucky’s breathing stills, stops and then he huffs a little.

“Gap-tooth?” It’s incredulous, and Steve laughs too, because that’s probably the only thing Bucky would remember about the asshole who made Steve’s life a living hell in the earlier years of their friendship. It’s not Steve’s fault Timothy had a hard-on for throwing stones at strays; Steve couldn’t just let him.

“Yeah,” Steve smiles, and turns his face against Bucky’s neck, waits for Bucky to bend to meet him so he can reach, can tongue the pulse at his throat. “He was coming at me, like usual, and,” Steve stops himself, hesitates: “This is gonna sound soft as hell.”

“I’ve been in your brain and seen the deepest, most intimate parts of who you are, Steve Rogers,” Bucky rumbles against Steve’s spine, plastered to his chest as it moves with a low rumble of amusement, as he leans back and nips the shell of Steve’s ear. “I already know you’re a fucking sap.”

Steve laughs, because apparently, that’s what happens when you’re this happy, this complete and at ease and content: you can’t help it. It just bubbles out.

So do the words:

“The sun was behind you and the way your shadow stretched so fucking big, and I felt so fucking safe,” Steve says, quiet like a confession, and maybe it is. “It was the first time my heart did a fluttery thing that didn’t hurt, that didn’t feel wrong, and I knew it was you.” He reaches for Bucky’s hand wrapped around his chest and slides his fingers between Bucky’s own, lets Bucky’s chest lift his and just feels them breathing for a few long moments.

“I just grew up with it, grew into it from there,” Steve tells him, because it really is that simple. “It just grew from there.”

Bucky’s breath stutters, and his exhale’s shaky against Steve’s hair behind him, breath hot and wet against the skin as he holds Steve a little bit tighter, and then decides that’s not enough, because he’s pulling out despite the whine Steve gives, and flips Steve onto his back with Bucky propped over him, lifted up only to dive down and catch Steve’s lips with his own, licking into Steve’s mouth and letting Steve give as good as he gets, desperate and joyful: exultant.

“And we’re gonna grow from here,” Bucky gasps against his cheek, and Steve moans for the promise of it, and grinds his hips upward for the effect that promise has full-stop, and Steve eyes Bucky with every part of his self on display before he flips them, hands already digging beneath Bucky’s ass and lifting him upward even as he leans in to bite at Bucky’s kiss-bruised lips.

“To the end of the goddamned line, Buck,” he whispers, ripped out straight from his soul; “I swear it.”

Bucky uses his tongue to take control of the kiss as Steve takes control of his body, positioning him just so, and it’s a vow they make together.

_____________________

He’s mostly just watching everybody settle in and going through the data he’s going to have to archive after this particular shitshow, because not everybody gets to be a big goddamn hero and walk away from the cleanup, when someone sticks a plate under his nose.

“Didn’t even bother cutting it, just in case.”

He looks up, and the cheeky grin he finds belonging to the hand holding the sandwich is, honestly, a welcome sight.

“Smartass.” He still can’t believe she got him to admit that embarrassing bullshit. He still takes a bite, though, because he’s starving, and it tastes like ham, though hell if NIck knows what kind of boar-like animal they hunt in Wakanda. It’s good though, and that’s what counts.

Well, edible counts. Good’s a bonus.

“Oh, hey,” Nick says between bites, getting to his feet and walking to the back of the desk he’d co-opted to see if it’s where he left it; smiles when his hand meets the right object on the first try.

He couldn’t be too careful, expecting it to stay where he put it.

“Got someone who wants to see you,” Nick says before bringing the surprisingly-occupied pet-carrier to the top of the desk and letting the cat inside unlatch it himself to greet his long long friend.

“Oh my god,” Carol beams wide, reaching out her hands for Goose to lick at before she scoops him up. “Look at you!” She turns to Nick with a look of at least mild surprise.

“You kept him?”

Nick raises a brow at her. “Do you honestly believe anyone keeps this crazy motherfucker?”

“Well, big tough director,” she needles him, which is hard to take seriously while she’s making faces and cooing-noises at an intergalactic threat to civilized well-being. “I thought maybe you’d managed a few new tricks or something.”

“Still out one eye, so I’ve always let him do as he pleases, sometimes to my detriment,” Nick admits, and Goose turns his attention then, eyeing Nick with something Nick swears is skepticism—which would be accurate. Because Nick’s doted on that bastard every moment he wasn’t on a mission for the past two-and-a-half decades. “But he always comes back, so I figure that means he likes the food I put out for him.”

Which he damn well should; Nick bought him the fancy-ass cat food and everything. Not that he’d admit it. He was always careful to dispose of the can-based evidence carefully so no one knew how much this fucking cat overran his free time. Only Maria—both of them, because if Goose wasn’t with him he was with Hill or the Rambeaus—knew his weakness.

“No, it means he likes you,” Carol scolds him fondly; like no time had passed at all. “I mean, do you really think these tentacles can’t feed themselves?”

Nick tilts his head, considering. “Point.”

“It’s good luck to have a Flerken on your side, Fury,” Carol tells him, but he’s not sure he trusts the saying. “You should feel honored.”

“I”ll try to remember that,” Nick deadpans; “next time he pisses on my hydrangeas.”

Carol laughs out loud, high and full. “Hydrangeas?”

“Gotta have interests outside of work, Danvers,” Nick tells her, stone-faced. “If you haven’t learned that yet?” he sits back down and grabs his sandwich; it really is pretty good.

“Get learning.”
_____________________

She’s by herself, and so she can justify the idling of her mind, the wandering, the wanting for the sound of the footsteps she hears approaching, carefully measured, as well-known to her as her own heartbeat.

“Wanda?”

She doesn’t count on being so hateful that she gives the dream a voice, here in the waking world.

“You’re not real.” Her mind is a formidable thing, more than even she’s figured out yet, and she’s been working hard to learn. This isn’t the least of the tricks it plays on her sometimes, when her emotions nudge it out of her control.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.

“I wouldn’t say that,” the dream—it sears, it is agony, but she could never call even the imagining of him a nightmare. “I feel very real.”

He quirks his head, just like he always did, just like she’d always loved, quizzical and attentive all at once, asking and waiting patiently for an answer to come—she can’t look at him, but she sees it out of the corner of her eye anyway, because her mind, her mind—it can be so very hateful.

It’s being very hateful now.

“Come closer, so I can show you?”

He’s standing closer to her, now; she can watch him extend a hand in her periphery—she wants to shun it, she wants to make it end, because her heart is pounding and her mind is screaming and it’s all just wrong, it’s cruel, and where her arms had been crossed where she’d stood at the window she’s hugging herself against the pain of it all, huddled in the corner and she can almost feel the want of the man she needs too badly, she can almost imagine his want to help, to feel her and soothe her, but she can’t, because he’s gone, and her mind knows that even as it torments her.

The hand is still there; the question still asked.

Come closer.

She’s weakened by it; she’s a fool.

She turns, and she sees him; her breath catches.

She doesn’t give her own hand permission to take his, and tries not to hope for anything in this world that seems so often just to take, tries not to hope at all when the hand she meets is solid; is warm.

He handles her delicately, like she’ll break; and she may, she can feel it: a brittleness to her very consciousness that must come from keeping him in it, from making him this much of a fantasy, this tangible of a lie. He turns her hand so that his arm is clear to her view; she watches gooseflesh covering skin—it had always been a joy of hers, when she herself felt so far from human, to see his humanity beyond any programming, the reality in a synthetic body grown so far beyond its origins—all laid bare in such a reaction, and to know it was for her.

It’s a deep knife dragged against her ribs, for him to show her that; it’s worse, when he leads her hand upwards.

“It started when I saw you, as it always does,” he tells her softly, resting her palm on his chest to feel his rapid heartbeat; “always has.”

“Physiology,” she bites out, and it’s too much, it’s too much—she rips her hand away and gasps wetly at her own weakness, her own self-loathing to put herself through this, to think him up this raw and true and etched in the details that made her love in particular little ways just for them, and she, she can’t. She can’t, so she turns away and closes her eyes and tries her best to center herself, to protect herself and get away

“Wait.”

She breathes, caught out. Real or not, dead or alive, she can deny him nothing.

The end taught her that well enough.

“You asked me to stay,” his voice; it’s so true to form, the spaces where he breathes, the cadence: “I should never have faltered in my words, but I need you to know that I never faltered in my heart,” he doesn’t wait for her to give when he takes her hand this time; impulsive. Her mind trying to assert itself beyond her reach and so she tries to fight it, tries to gain composure but he doesn’t waver: she doesn’t know what to do.

“I was only ever meant to be with you,” he says earnestly, all the intent he’d meant for on the roadside in Edinburgh mustered forth into certitude. “I truly believe that. You are everything I could ever conceive of wanting. My forever cherished.”

She bristles at that, clamping down on her mind, seeing red swim at the fingertips he holds because he called her that, in their bed, between them alone, and no. no.

“Do not use his words.”

She wills him to let go, to vanish. He doesn’t.

“I use only my own words,” he says softly, caressing her palm. “What can I do to prove it to you?”

“You died,” she hisses; “you were murdered—”

“It was never that simple for someone like me,” he interrupts her carefully. “I was always a matrix of entities. An AI butler and a formidable enemy, two geniuses and everything that came of them, but what they didn’t count upon was the fact that I was also made up of you,” he turns her wrist in his fingertips, brushing her riotous pulse before letting her feel his own again beneath the thumb, just as wild. “What I learned with you, what I felt for you, what I’d do for you, what I’d give to you.”

She shakes her head, and grits her teeth, and uses every ounce of her power—diminished considerably, by what she’d had to do, and what havok that had allowed her emotions to wreak—but she takes everything she has and tries to banish her own mind just to be rid of this torment. She tries.

She trembles for it, and goddamnit, he only holds her tighter, closer.

“I was made of the way I’d learned how to love.”

He dares a touch to her chin to meet his eyes. There’s no flash of gold behind them. They’re such a clear blue; she’s never seen that before.

She’s only ever dreamt him up as himself.

This is wrong.

“The work they’d started to unembed the stone was realigned, given changed circumstances,” he tells her, tries to convince her; “but the end result was what we intended all along. I am myself, in all the ways that idea manifests and means,” and he breathes in softly, swallowing hard and then he looks at her; really looks at her, and she can’t help but reach with her mind to feel him, to see—to give into madness, if that’s what this means.

“And I am deeply in love with you, Wanda Maximoff.”

And when she reaches, she feels it. Feels it honestly and truly and so intimately, just as she always had, because it was a thing she could never muster for herself, to feel about herself—love. But he could. In droves, to almost drown in and live a perfect life and die a perfect death inside. He could.

He does.

“This can’t be real,” she whispers, and he’s so close. So close.

“Except that it can,” he breathes as he fingers her hair lightly, and watches her eyes while he leans in, gauging any hesitance; he didn’t need to, because she has no strength left for it, not when he touches her, not when he feels so real.

When he kisses her, the way it warms her instantly and moves straight to cradle the heart in her chest at the first brush of lips, she thinks maybe, maybe, impossible things can happen for her, too.

_____________________

Steve’s collapsed on top of Bucky, only his right hand braced heavy atop Bucky’s chest which is heaving, all pounding blood and gasping breath and that rhythm, however it plays, is the only thing by which Steve keeps time.

“Okay, my turn,” Bucky pants, his hand caught between their chests atop Steve’s hand, only pressing Steve’s touch closer to the pump of his heart and that’s perfectly fine by Steve, something primal and unspeakably intimate in it, kindling the same golden light they shared in the space beyond both their reckoning, save for that still-soft, blinding glow that Steve holds in his chest.

“Where did you,” Bucky asks, heaving steadying breaths and only half succeeding; “learn that?”

Steve grins wide.

“Google.” and Bucky laughs, loud and full, and Steve kisses it from his mouth so he can catch what that sound, that heartfelt bliss tastes like form Bucky’s tongue; sweet as anything he’s ever known.

“I happened to have a lot of,” Steve bites his lip; “fantasties. About a certain guy. One thing led to another in trying to keep that need in check.” He shrugs, and Bucky pulls him back down flush, shifting gently against where he’s still raw and open from Steve’s very devoted attentions to his ass for the past...long, long period of time. Again, Steve’s only concept of it—time—seemed to be the sounds, the scents, the very living of Bucky Barnes.

As if the universe was finally set to rights.

“Never,” Bucky says, kissing hard at Steve’s cheek; “ever,” and then the opposite cheek; “ever,” and then square on the mouth, bruising and demanding and full: “keep that need in check again, you hear me?” Bucky traces the shape of Steve’s mouth with his tongue and frees his hand from Steve’s to cup Steve’s ass and lift him closer. “I want that need in its full-fledged glory, all for me to help you slake,” he licks a stripe from Steve’ throat to his bottom lip, catching at the pout and kissing him full-on again.

“Got it, Rogers?”

Steve swallows hard, blissful, anticipatory around the fire in Bucky’s eyes; the sheer unbridled want. “Yes sir,” and it’s not even teasing; it’s pure honesty.

Steve won’t think of anything else.

Bucky nods approvingly, and settles Steve back on his chest, wrapping arms around him and Steve moves into the embrace, folding himself to fit just so, to feel enveloped by Bucky’s warmth on the outside just like on the inside.

“I can still feel it,” Steve whispers before he thinks it through. He doesn’t have to elaborate; Bucky sits them up and places a hand just on Steve’s sternum, exactly where it feels the strongest: like he knows.

“Me too.”

“I know,” Steve whispers, marvelling. “And I can’t even question it, I can’t even doubt,” Steve shakes his head, still awestruck by it all. “You love me, and where I’d never have believed it, not all through, I can’t deny it. I can’t fight it. I’d never want to but, the idea that you could, that you would—”

“How you can say that is beyond me,” Bucky tells him, cradling Steve’s face and holding him close and holding his gaze and lining his jaw with the lengths of his thumbs, rubbing soft circles at the angles. “You’ve always been the reason I knew what love was, Steve. You’re my heart.”

“I know,” Steve speaks it from that heart, too, because that’s the only place it can come from, because his mind’s still working it through. “Like you know you’re mine.”

“I do,” Bucky tells him, like a solemn promise. “And don’t think that I’m any less floored by it, by how much you, by the fact all that you,” he swallows, and Steve leans into the palm of his hand like reassurance; it seems to work when Bucky exhales soft: “That you could feel for me, exactly what I feel for you.”

And then some, Steve wants to say, but it’s not true. They’re evenly matched. Perfect.

“I don’t want it to go away,” Steve admits, so fucking small.

“I kind of feel like it won’t, not all the way,” Bucky tells him, tilting his head and considering Steve like he’s the most precious thing in the whole of existence. “But if it does? I won’t.” He brings both hands to cups Steve’s chin, to keeps Steve’s eyes on him when he says, all full with soul.

“Can that be enough?”

“More than,” Steve says without hesitation. “You’re the love of my life,” he says, covering Bucky’s hands on him and closing his eyes, savouring the sensation of being held, but also the sensation that really is still warm and strong in his chest, like a tether and a lifeline, a source of all that he is and wants to be.

“I want you forever,” Steve breathes, and it’s the purest truth he knows.

“Then you’ll have me,” Bucky promises, and in that warm, shining space, Steve knows it. Knows, somehow, that they’re done with the fighting for this, for keeping this. They’ll fight for each other, as long as they’re breathing, but somehow Steve knows that this is forever, and he may be able to bask in that rather than fear for it, now that they’ve claimed it as their own, somewhere beyond the confines of space and time.

“So long as I can have you just as much, for just as long.”

And Steve kisses him soundly, all the love in him inside the touch, and he feels it, returned in full, made more for the meeting of them both in unison, made unbreakable, unfathomable. Steve thinks there’s a blessing in it; a benediction. It feels sacred, somehow, more than anything he’s ever known. This is his purpose, this is his meaning. This is the reason he’s here.

He tastes Bucky, and he’s made real; made human. His soul comes to life.

He tastes Bucky, heart and soul, and for the first time in as long as he clearly remembers, he is home.