In the end, it's Nebula.
Thanos has Tony pinned and Steve can barely see anything through the haze of blood and dust in his eyes; the lightning in his brain radiating up from where his right hand is coiled up the weapon of a god. He knows it's bad, even half blinded and half deafened. He knows this could very well be their last stand.
Thanos says: "I am inevitable," and Nebula roars "Not anymore."
The stones are in her cybernetic fist before Steve can blink, leaving Tony staggering, too. He'd been so ready--too ready, to make the sacrifice play, he had been going to-- but Nebula is there, blue blood leaking from her nose and her mouth, the power of the stones searing away the circuits and wires as she grits her teeth and then--
It's not like the first time, when he'd watched his team (Bucky) crumble to dust. It's not silent. There's a blinding flash followed by a howl -- the sound of rushing air like roaring water -- like an explosion. Like a void being filled.
The scars take some getting used to. It's not that he has no experience with them--before the serum he bruised and bled easy as anything and his nimble artist’s fingers were just as good at picking away scabs as they were smearing graphite. He'd gone into the vita ray chamber covered in pockmarks and blemishes and came out scrubbed totally clean. He'd been a blank slate now for longer than he'd ever been a damaged one. The serum took care of everything in an instant from wrinkles to cuts. It bothered him at first, like somehow he'd lost the ability to wear his history on his skin, but it had stopped a while back. He'd gotten used to being timeless.
But now his right arm is covered in branching lines, like tree roots that start at his fingers and climb all the way up to his shoulder, raised and pink and unmistakable.
Tony called them "lichtenberg figures."
"When you put lightning through organic matter, it leaves a mark--even magical hammer lightning, apparently. Sorry, Steve, as much as you might like to think you're more than human," he prods Steve's elbow and swivels away, toward the illuminated model of Steve's skeleton floating in the middle of the makeshift lab. "Turns out you're just as meat-based as the rest of us. Grade-A American beef -- ha -- but meat nonetheless."
They'd been worried at first that maybe the scars might be a sign of some bigger problem. Apparently, even on humans, they don't appear quite like this -- they're just broken capillaries, and they fade away. But these weren't caused by normal lightning and Steve, no matter what Tony says, isn't a normal human.
After the battle, Steve had collapsed -- a lot of people had collapsed -- but Steve had gone down hard and he'd been unconscious for three entire days, his arm sizzling as those who could do damage control gathered up the walking wounded in the wreckage. He understood why they were so concerned. If he were being honest, he was kind of concerned, too. Seventy years later and he still isn't quite sure what the serum can and can't do.
Tony had been just as bad -- half dead, beaten to a pulp, burned even through the armor from his brief contact with the Stones -- but Nebula had been worse off than all of them. The force of the Stones had almost incinerated her robotic arm and flayed what little skin she'd had left right off most of her right side. If she'd been anyone else -- anyone less thoroughly augmented -- she'd have been dead in seconds, but thankfully some quick maneuvering by her sister (Gamora? Steve had been told after the fact by Rocket who clarified, like it explained anything, "but not our Gamora.") had saved her life.
Who could have guessed that with all that work "perfecting" his daughter, Thanos had only built the one weapon capable of stopping him once and for all.
Stopping him and then some, apparently. People filtered in and out of Steve's room in their makeshift med bay after he'd regained consciousness to fill in the details. Clint had said "Bruce did it -- he brought back everyone who was taken on that first day, but. There was more to it than that, you know? None of us thought about -- we were spread so fucking thin, how could we have thought about all the other shit we needed to do? Thanos killed more people than just the ones that turned to dust, man."
This was true, Steve knew. In the first weeks after the snap, it seemed like there were bodies around every corner -- people dead in the passenger seats of cars that had careened off the road when their drivers had disappeared and planes that had crashed when their pilots were gone, people who had died in surgical theaters when their doctors had vanished mid-procedure, babies who couldn't feed themselves, people who couldn't stand being two steps behind the Rapture and had taken matters into their own hands. All that blood was on Thanos' hands, too. The universe had been decimated in an instant, but the wound had never actually closed.
And none of them had been thinking about it. Five years later and the infection was still present, sure, but the immediate hope -- a chance; their first real chance in so long -- had been such a rush and Bruce had done it. Bruce was a goddamn hero, he'd done it, but he was a scientist too and he'd done it the way a scientist would. The logical way. Clinically, almost. He'd brought back everyone who had turned to ash and none of them had time to think about what came after that.
But Nebula had known better. Nebula knew her father better than any of them. She'd known just how much devastation he could rain down, and just how long it lasted and where the sticking points were. She'd seen him in action longer and more intimately and she knew -- she knew -- what needed to be done.
When Nebula snapped her fingers, the universe rang like a bell.
"Clint's still mad at me," Natasha whispered to him from his bedside in that tone of hers, the one that had taken him years to understand was as close to vulnerable as she ever let herself get. The one he cherished so deeply every time he heard it. "You understand why I did it, right? Out of everyone, you have to understand."
"Yeah, he is." He took her hand in his and squeezed, "But yeah, I do."
Using the lightning had felt good, is the thing, except for how it hurt like hell. In a strange way, it felt almost like being in the vita ray chamber again; every dial in the world cranked up to maximum all at once. He didn't even smell his flesh burning -- a scent he'd, very unfortunately, grown to recognize through a few too many run ins with the wrong side of a flamethrower or a poorly timed grenade blast -- but he wouldn't have stopped if he could.
Tony and Dr. Strange (Steve still can't believe that's his real name) gave him a clean bill of health after a few hours of testing, both medical and mystical. Harnessing Mjolnir had taken a lot of out him, and the scars -- the lichtenberg figures -- would probably never go away, serum be damned, but he was otherwise fine.
Strange had leveled a look at him and said, "maybe don't go doing that too often, if you can help it." And before Steve could answer, Tony cut in with a scoff, rolling his eyes.
"Yeah, good luck with that, pal."
And then they'd left, leaving he and Bucky alone in the room and caught in a strange sort of silence -- the kind Steve, uncharacteristically, didn't want to be the one to break first.
Apparently Bucky didn't either, because he'd closed the gap between them and stood there for a second, scrutinizing Steve in a way that felt more thorough and more revealing than any of Tony or Strange's tests. Then he'd reached out and plucked Steve's right hand from where it rested palm down on his thigh.
Bucky traced his fingers up the spider-web lines, gentle and reverent, making Steve's skin buzz and prickle with goose bumps where the scars hadn't brunt away the nerves. When he swallowed his throat clicked.
Finally, Bucky exhaled and Steve did too, both of their mouths half quirking up into smiles that were probably angling for playful but only managed to hit somewhere around tender.
Bucky said "We kinda match now, huh?" right as Steve started to say "Buck, I'm sor--" but Bucky kept right on going, shaking his head to make Steve shut up. He flexed the fingers on his metal left hand a little harder and then pressed their palms together, lining up their edges. "Christ, Steve, are you always going to try and copy everything I do?"
And of course, that was it. Of course it was. Five years gone and here they were -- matching sets in the most unlikely ways. Of course. He gave a watery laugh, eyes suddenly burning even as he tried to fire back a quip about how Bucky only wishes, how that ego on him is outta control -- but the feeling of Bucky's fingers lacing with his -- flesh against metal, the hard lines of the Vibranium plating against the soft lines of his lightning bolt scars -- stopped him dead. Instead, he said, "I love you," as softly as he could.
And then Bucky laughed, too, leaning close and keeping their hands together. He said "you idiot," but Steve doesn't mind because that's when Bucky's lips met his, gentle and easy as anything.
Thor had trimmed his beard around the ornate braids the first time Steve sees him after the fight, and washed his hair into the bright honey blonde Steve is used to seeing on him. He stands up straighter than he has in years, too, and when he beams at Steve as he rounds the corner, his smile finally touches his eyes.
"The people of New Asgard are ready and willing to help wherever they are needed, Captain. They will listen to your command as they would mine." He claps Steve on the shoulder with one square-fingered hand and shakes him. "You're already something of a celebrity to them, I admit. A mortal harnessing the power of Mjolnir is not something our histories have ever recorded."
Steve smiles, too, if only because Thor's joy is and always has been infectious, especially now that it feels earnest and new all over again. "I think I'll leave the Asgardians to you, as long as you can keep an eye on your brother while you act as king."
Nebula couldn't have known that the Avengers had history with Thor's brother when she returned Thanos' missing and murdered, so Steve wasn't angry that he'd been among the resurrected, but the idea still made him nervous. It made them all nervous.
But Thor only laughed again, louder and brighter than before. "Heimdall wouldn't dream of letting either of us out of his sight, do not fear. And besides, I plan on dedicating my full time to that particular mission. Long have I neglected my duties as ruler of my people. Perhaps it is time to pass the mantle to someone a bit more qualified in the matter while I -- what was the phrase Banner had used? Practice some mindfulness and self care in the wake of a battle well fought? Perhaps some advice you might make use of yourself sometime soon."
Steve has some doubts about all of that coming from Bruce, but he smiles and nods. And anyway, for the first time in a long time, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea.
Rebuilding the world is harder than any of them could have anticipated -- and none of them ever thought it would be easy. Even with Nebula's thorough work, even with Thanos and his armies gone for good, the list of things to put back together seems endless. Insurmountable.
Tony and Bruce started by repairing the grid with Princess Shuri and that scrappy kid from Queens ("Peter --- Peter Parker. Sir. Mr. Captain Rogers.") running point on the projects far more than either of the adults would have ever cared to admit. Shuri and Tony's new design -- a sustainable clean energy system that would be able to cover the globe, rather than select cities -- needed a lot of manpower behind it, and that's where Steve had stepped in. He may not have Bucky's brain for math, but he can lift thousands of pounds at a time and is pretty decent at hitting things, or so he'd been told, and it turned out swinging his fists wasn't all that different from swinging a sledge hammer.
Bucky, Sam and Rhodey stood beside him with all their civilian volunteers, an eclectic mix of humans and Asgardians and aliens with sorcerers peppered in here and there. They take things day by day, making progress when and where they can. It's back breaking work, but it leaves Steve feeling pleasantly sore in a way that he hasn't felt in years.
It had taken a long while to catch everyone up to speed on what, exactly, had happened. The people returning from the dust were one issue, the people returning from other things were another all together. Natasha used her network to coordinate those logistical efforts on a global scale with the help of Fury, Hill, and Okoye, and within days, they had updates and information broadcast to every corner of the globe in fifty-seven languages with more added every day.
Three weeks after the battle and the world was starting to look something like itself again.
"I didn't realize how quiet it was," Steve says one night, apropos of nothing and quiet as a confession, to the ceiling of their room. Bucky is curled on his side facing away from him. "Or maybe I did and then I just forgot. He took the animals, too. There were half as many birds -- half as many bugs. There just wasn't enough noise. It felt like my ears were ringing all the time."
He feels the bed move, Bucky shifting over to watch him, but doesn't turn his head. "I thought -- for a second, I thought -- maybe this is just it, you know? Maybe this is what happens when you miss your stop and hang on for too long and overstay your welcome."
He's not saying what he wants to say, but Bucky doesn't press, just puts his cool metal hand against the curve of Steve's shoulder like an anchor.
"I kept thinking about Peggy, what she'd have done through all of this, how grateful I was that she didn't have to see it and how selfish I felt that I sometimes wished she were here to help, or even just to be a shoulder for me to cry on, someone who would understand. I can't believe that I --" he exhales, hard, "I can't believe I wished that on someone."
The silence stretches thin between them before Steve realizes he still has more to say. The dam has broken inside him without fanfare or warning. Suddenly, he can't get it out fast enough.
"I talked to you a lot, and to Sam. I talked to Wanda, sometimes, too. But it was mostly you. That first year -- those first few months, after Thanos died for the first time, I didn't know what else to do. I thought maybe if I could just convince myself hard enough that," it's ridiculous, it's stupid, it's absurd, his breath keeps hitching in his throat and he doesn't know why. "After everything I've seen -- after everything we've seen -- I couldn't accept it. I couldn't accept that you were just gone again. I thought if I just convinced myself it wasn't true, it wouldn't be."
At some point he'd sat up in bed, though he doesn't remember moving. Apparently Bucky had joined him, because there's a cool and heavy arm around his shoulders and warm skin under his cheek.
"I was so tired. I don't think I slept a day in the last five years. It just wasn't -- it wasn't fair, Buck. None of it was fair." Even as he says it, he feels something ugly inside him curl up and snap, popping like a firecracker. "I kept trying to help people but I knew that I had given up -- I didn't -- I kept thinking that you both would be so ashamed of me, of where I landed. Of how I couldn't keep going."
Both of Bucky's arms are around him now and he's shaking like a leaf. He's shaking harder than he can ever remember, not from the ice, not from any fever. He thinks he'll shake apart. Bucky's hand is in his hair and they're rocking, slowly, but Steve can't tell if it's because of the tremors tearing at his bones or--
"She'd be so fucking proud of you, Steve." Bucky finally says. "And you know what? I am, too."
He spots Wanda from afar, and knows she's talking to Vision.
Vis a special case, Tony had tried to explain. He hadn't technically been brought back in the snap -- something to do with his neural systems, his connection to the mind stone that no longer existed here in this time -- Steve understands, if only the baseline stuff. He's learned not to worry too much about it for the sake of his own sanity.
It took Shuri, Tony, and Bruce three entire days to fish up enough of their schematics and programs, the code that Shuri had managed to harvest and perfect during the battle of Wakanda five years ago, to recover him.
So he's still a disembodied voice for the time being, a consciousness living deep within Tony and Shuri's networks just like he'd been back when he was only Tony's AI -- a different form, but still him.
"We'll build him a new body," Shuri had assured, and Steve has no doubt of that. But neither he nor Wanda seem to mind. No one presses the issue. She'll take him in whatever form he comes.
Steve knows the feeling.
He isn't easily intimidated, but Steve will be the first to admit that Nebula intimidates him. Her sister does, too. It's not just that they're both aliens who were raised by a genocidal maniac or that he's seen them both in combat, for however briefly, to know how terrifying they both could be -- it's that, really, he doesn't know how to thank them properly, for all they've done -- Nebula, for saving the galaxy, for sending the stones back, for seeing the details they'd all missed, Gamora for saving their savior. He doesn't know what to say, which, for him, is rare.
Also there were two Gamoras now, according to Strange, which is something Steve still can't quite wrap his head around. One from the present and one from the past, who had run away. Who was out there somewhere, a loose end that would need to be confronted sooner or later.
"We will find her," Nebula had said, before anyone even had a chance to ask if she was doing okay. Tony and Shuri had repaired most of her cybernetics ("and upgraded them, too" Shuri had said, trying not to smirk) but her organic pieces were slow going. She was the last of them to be taken off bed rest -- but the first to jump back into action.
Or, at least, to try to. Gamora had put a hand on her shoulder and eased her back down onto the gurney while Steve, Nat, Carol Danvers (who Steve also needed to thank, for playing intermediary between aliens and Earthlings, and for sticking around to help out the home team) and Nebula's crew -- Rocket, Thor's friend the tree named Groot and a few new faces Steve hadn't caught the names of yet -- looked on.
"Take all the time you need," Nat had offered easily, a more official welcome than Strange's glowing orange portals had been as Steve nodded Nebula's way.
"And thank you. For everything. We may be new to the things that happen outside of our atmosphere but -- you have friends on Earth, now. All of you do."
It takes a while for Steve and Tony to be alone in a room together after the fight. Tony had plenty of recovery to do on his own -- and a family on top of it all. Steve didn't think Tony was actively avoiding him, at least not until he cornered him in the portable Wakandan "tent" (T'Challa called it a tent, it looked more like a full blown house to Steve) they had turned into their war room.
Tony's back had stiffened and his face had gone tight the second he realized Nat was no longer there. It was just the two of them.
Technically, they'd already gone through this -- what was it that Tony had said? Resentment is corrosive? That was true. And then when the plan had gone south and they'd traveled back to the 70s, on what could have very well been a suicide mission -- they'd trusted each other. It had paid off. But Steve knew better than anyone that sometimes there was more to be said than the words that were shared at the end of the world -- and now, with Bucky back -- well.
Tony breaks the stillness in the room by theatrically squinting his eyes and rubbing his temples. "Please don't think I forgot that your boytoy assassinated my parents --" and before Steve can interrupt (though god help him, he tries) Tony holds up a hand and keeps going, "but I think we can both agree that we are so, so far away from that particular issue it may as well be on another planet, yeah? Or in another timeline, if I want to be topical with my turns of phrase. If this whole experience has taught me anything it's that I need to be more focused on the now -- not the then, not the soon, not the some day -- the now. Which, if I'm being honest, is some pretty stellar advice I think could apply to both of us."
Steve thinks about seeing Tony and Howard hug, awkward as it was in the moment. Thinks about Tony's family, about his daughter, and Pepper who has been putting all her executive know-how to work for the relief efforts in ways that impress Steve every single day. Pepper reminds him so much of Peggy sometimes it makes something bright and happy ache in his chest. He's so happy that Tony found her -- or, more likely, that she found Tony.
"I think you're right," Steve finally allows, trying to school his face into something serious rather than allowing himself to smile like he wants. He knows Tony loves his big moments, and it's best to just let them play out the way Tony's staged them in his head rather than trying to step on his lines.
"Yeah, I usually am, huh? Still not letting that one go, either, Cap. This whole thing? The fight and the Back to the Future and the," he waves his hands around his head and then shrugs, "It was all just for me to say 'I told you so' and now I have so, there. It's done. It's out there. I'm always right, you're pretty much always only kind of right. Definitely not as right as me. But listen. The point is: all the shit that's happened between us? We're square, Rogers. Consider that bridge crossed. We're good. I forgive Barnes and I forgive you and I…" Abruptly Tony slows, breathes in deep, and meets Steve's eyes. "I hope you forgive me, too."
Tony offers his hand -- a mirror of that moment back in 2012 or yesterday or a month ago.
Steve hugs him instead.
Tony only protests for a second before he hugs him back.
"So, people call you Captain around here, huh?" Danvers asks, grinning.
"Hopefully not for too much longer," Steve laughs, surprised at how easy those words come out. It's the first time he's said anything like that out loud.
Danvers keeps smiling. "Oh, I don't know -- something tells me a title like that isn't something people are gonna give up easily." She's kidding, but she's also right, and she knows it, so Steve doesn't argue. "But they should, since it might get a little confusing with me around. I'm not big on sharing."
"You'll have to take that up with the next guy to pick up the shield, sorry to say."
"Oh yeah? Got someone in mind?"
"You know, I think I do."
For some reason, he expects an argument when two weeks later he says, "Bucky, I think I want to give the shield to Sam."
He'd been rehearsing it in his head all day, hashing out the logic, drawing up his plans; always, as ever, ready for a fight. Instead, Bucky nods and says "Wilson's a good choice."
Steve blinks at that, feeling tripped, like he'd just accidentally skipped the step at the bottom of the stairs. God, that was a feeling he hadn't known he could even miss; he hadn't realized he could long for--the casual vertigo that comes from someone knowing you better than you know yourself, who has your head mapped out better than you do. He's been experiencing that a lot lately, but he doesn't think he'll ever get tired of it. His list of missing pieces had never been short but there are so many things he hadn't realized were gone at all until he'd found them again. And he wants to keep finding them. He wants to keep going, but down a different road this time -- like Bucky had said all those lifetimes ago: to the future.
Bucky catches the wheels turning his his head and laughs. "Steve, you think you're the only one who's tired? You ran out of gas five years ago but, pal, I've been running on fumes for the last seventy. Retire. Give Wilson the shield. He'll do right by it. By you." And that makes Steve laugh, too.
"I don't know if he'll take it," he says, looking abruptly down at his hands--his pristine left, his scarred right--and heaves out a breath. "I don't know if I can ask him to take it."
And then Bucky's hands are on his chin, tilting his head back up. "You can. And he will. Christ, Rogers, the guy's a pain in my ass but he's still a good man. He knows what it means to you to do this, and he's strong enough to carry that weight. Give him that at least and make the offer, yeah? We've finally got our lives ahead of us. Let's try and live them instead of being stuck in the past for once. He's perfect for this. He'll do better than you can imagine."
Steve nods into Bucky's palms, takes another breath, and squares his shoulders. "Yeah. Yeah, Buck, you're right."
He usually is.
They don't really talk about it. Or, rather, they don't really plan it. The next morning, Bucky shepherds him towards a car -- one of Tony's, something sleek and fast and mean looking that Bucky loves but Steve wishes he could redesign with better lines -- and they drive.
The wreckage of the world is harder to see now -- the garbage in the streets has mostly been picked up, dead cars towed or reclaimed -- they're making progress, even though some spots are still rough. Steve leans his head on the window and watches, and listens, and breathes. They don't talk, even as they pull up to the cemetery and roll to a stop.
Peggy Carter's grave is more than seven years old, but it's been kept immaculately clean, even through the chaos. It's been well tended. Steve is so grateful and before he can feel a stab of guilt at not being the one tending it, Bucky takes his scarred hand and squeezes, hard, before letting go and nodding. Go on.
It takes Steve a moment to collect himself, to take the last couple of steps forward with Bucky lingering behind. At first he doesn't know what to say, and then he does. He knows.
He rests his hands atop the stone -- one immaculate and smooth, one webbed over with lightning bolt scars, a history finally written on his skin again, a finale and a new beginning -- and smiles.
"We did it, Peg. We won."
And in that moment, it's more than enough. It's everything.