A remote barren planet at the very center of celestial existence within the Universe.
Nebula stands still, guarded and cautious, surveying the open space around her. Even on a planet that is supposedly abandoned, it's not worth it to take risks – better to play it safe. After a moment, though, Nebula relaxes her stance. It truly is empty. Apparently, the only thing on the gods-forsaken orb really is the Soul Stone. A hidden treasure, accessible only after meeting the Stone's guardian and paying for an artifact that is anything but priceless.
The state of the planet is almost enough to make Nebula return to her jet and abandon this foolhardy idea. Almost.
To someone less attuned, the planet appears dreary and wintry. Likely due to its location in the galaxy and the lack of other orbiting planets or moons. There are volcanoes and mountains, and profound cloud coverage. There's a chill in the air and it's impossible to tell whether the particles floating around are dust, soot, or snow.
Nebula takes in a deep breath, steadying herself. And she can sense it. Everything that this planet truly holds and represents. All the nuances that others likely take for granted or miss entirely. Nebula knows that the weight in the atmosphere is from despair, and the wind whipping around her is thick with loss and melancholy. The particles are neither from the weather nor the environment, but the remnants of everyone and everything that has been left behind.
Images arise of friends—are they friends? Nebula supposes so—on the battlefield, disintegrating into dust and billowing away on the breeze, as if they never were there at all, lingering only in the memories of those who were left behind. Except here, in the barren space of Vormir, there's nowhere for those remnants to go. So they remain, and the planet remembers them.
Nebula kneels, placing a hand flat against the ground beneath her. The dirt is clearly worn in some areas, where it has been trod over and over. A path.
"So, this is where you walked," she whispers.
This is the path that Thanos used, when he came to retrieve the Stone over five years ago. Where he surprised everyone with the fact that he, the Mad Titan, actually cared about something—someone—other than himself.
As she raises her head and looks down the path before her, Nebula would swear she can make out two silhouettes walking ahead of her: Thanos and, reluctantly at his side, Gamora. The Zehoberei must take three or four steps for every one of the Titan's. While Thanos walks with purpose and zeal, Gamora trudges along begrudgingly, as a condemned woman on her way to the executioner. It seems, then, as though the Gamora walking with Thanos is not a woman at all, but a girl. A small, green-skinned child, being stolen away from everything she knows and holds dear—
Something catches in Nebula's throat at the thought, and she blinks the image away. The processing center in her brain is setting off alarm after alarm, reminding her about the subjectivity of perception and the dangers of sentimentality. She knows, assuredly knows, that her mind is playing tricks on her. Or perhaps it is this place.
With a scoff that feels entirely too forced, Nebula blinks again, staring at the space ahead of her, seeing how empty it is. Then she reminds herself that it has been empty the whole time she's been here. She did not see Thanos or Gamora. Because she is alone here. As this thought crosses her mind, the Luphomoid gathers up some dirt and then lets it fall, sifting through her fingers and blown from her palm by a sudden gust, until there is nothing left. How very fitting.
Nebula hates how sentimental she's become, missing her sister.
There's also a small part of her, though, that doesn't miss Gamora, not really. That small part that feels. . . she wouldn't go so far as to call it hate, for it isn't that strong. Indifference? Nothing at all, perhaps. Because there's still that part, however irrational it may be, that is glad to no longer be in competition with Gamora.
And yet, that same part is left to be eternally in a competition that cannot possibly be won, because Thanos chose her.
Of his two daughters, Thanos loved Gamora so much that she was a worthy sacrifice. He loved her so much that giving her up earned him the Soul Stone. And he loved her so much that giving her up truly pained him.
Why hadn't he brought Nebula with him to Vormir? It can't only be because Gamora knew of its location. He could have brought them both. What would have happened if he had? Did he fear being overpowered by the sisters? Or did he simply not want to have to look in Nebula's face when he picked Gamora over her?
Maybe that was also a kind of love – caring enough to not want her to see, to want to shield her in some way.
That was the difference: Thanos loved Gamora so much. And he cared enough about Nebula.
But was it really enough? Was just caring ever really enough? Nebula closes her eyes, realizing that it's not Thanos she's thinking of, or chastising, anymore; rather, it is herself. If caring always means losing, having to choose, to break, to show weakness. . . if it means not being able to stop something, or save someone, would that ever truly be enough?
With a frustrated grunt, she slaps her hand against the dirt, disturbing some dust. Standing up, Nebula straightens her jacket. She starts to look back at the small jet, then stops herself. The door is slightly ajar, for whomever needs it next. So, Nebula starts up the path in solidarity, leaving the ship behind without a glance.
As she walks, she thinks about how it was just barely a year ago that two Avengers walked this path.
What was the planet like when they arrived? Did it change according to its visitors? The Avengers came in the pursuit of justice. To right a wrong. They came with such hope. Did Vormir's winds settle down in anticipation of their arrival? Is it possible that the planet hoped with them? Or was it just as dark and dismal, with the sky dashed red like blood and with the blackness of shattered optimism? Knowing full well that only one of the two would be going home.
The pathway arches with a steep incline, leading up a hill. Nebula climbs without complaint or hesitation. When she reaches the top of the hill, she faces an outcropping of rocks. The path makes a sharp curve, disappearing amongst the rocks and climbing ever upward. Nebula raises her head, to where the path assuredly leads: A plateau looming high above the floor of the planet, partially shrouded by clouds.
Nebula leans against one of the large rocks in anticipation. This is where the guide should meet her. Waiting to ask if she knows what she's getting into, to warn her of the price of this journey, and then to take her the rest of the way.
A minute passes. Then five. And no one comes.
Another five minutes.
Nebula is still alone on Vormir.
She takes a few steps forward, then lets out a quiet, angry growl.
After Agent Barton relayed his tale about what happened on Vormir, Captain Rogers had a story of his own to tell – about the ghostly figure that resides here. Red Skull, the super-soldier had called it (him?). Rogers had known him, or an iteration of him, in another life. A Terran life. When he had been an enemy who, like her father, tried to bend the Infinity Stones to his will. As penance for his avarice and pride, he was sentenced to eternity as a guardian of the Soul Stone. To protect a Stone that represented something he never had, and to guide others to a treasure he could never hope to obtain. But not without first warning them of the cost.
"Red Skull!" Nebula shouts into the vastness of the planet. "You have a duty to uphold," she implores. Nebula hates to be played the fool. Did this guardian, too, deem Nebula so unworthy? She drops to her knees.
"Nebula," a voice breaks through the air, surprisingly smooth and velvety. "Daughter of Thanos."
Lifting her head, Nebula rises to her feet. She stands face-to-face with the guide. He floats before her, cloaked in black. Formless, save for bony arms that hang at his sides and a skull, the deepest shade of crimson, tucked within a black hood. Nebula couldn't help but equate this to the visage of Death.
"Why have you come?" Red Skull asks, looking genuinely puzzled.
She smirks slightly, because she can speak in riddles, too. "For what purpose do any come here?" Nebula questions in return.
Red Skull seems to smile at that. "You seek something."
Nebula doesn't answer. She waits for him to continue.
"What you seek," the figure finally says, slowly, as if choosing his words carefully, "comes at a cost."
"I know the cost," Nebula tells him in a quiet voice.
"And yet, you have come penniless," Red Skull tells her. Then, he starts to turn away. "Come back when you can afford what waits here."
Fury rages in Nebula's eyes. She charges forward, positioning herself to stand in front of the Skull. She knows it is likely an empty threat, as he could pass through her if he chose to. But he doesn't. He stops, and he allows her to block his path. That seems like a good thing. At least, for the purpose Nebula needs. Red Skull's gaze bores into Nebula's.
"I can pay, the same as anyone else," she says.
The guide cocks his head to the side, curiosity piqued. Without another word, he maneuvers around Nebula, raises a bony hand, and crooks a finger. Beckoning her to follow him. She abides, marching behind him up the path, and making sure to keep her head high.
At the end of the path, Red Skull slithers off to the side, leaving Nebula to stand in the center of the plateau. She takes a few more steps and leans forward to peer over the edge of the cliff. It's a long drop with a sudden stop.
Nebula turns to look at Red Skull, cautious preparedness rising again. She waits for him to speak, but he doesn't say a word. He just stares at her with those soulless eyes, floating with his cloak wavering around him like smoke.
"Give me the warning," Nebula commands, standing perfectly straight in front of the figure.
His lip curls in what could be interpreted as a smile. "This is. . ." he pauses, again searching for the right thing to say, ". . . out of the ordinary."
"What do you want?" Nebula huffs, glancing around at the open space.
Red Skull laughs – a harsh, crackly sound. "The question is, what do you want? You are the one who has come here, claiming to know the price and yet bringing nothing to exchange."
"I'm not here for the Stone," Nebula tells him, spitting the last word like venom.
"Then what are you here for, Daughter of Thanos?"
"Don't call me that," she hisses.
Another inquisitive look. As if she is such an anomaly – something to be studied. "What would you have me call you, then?"
She thinks for a moment. "Nebula," she tells him. Then, she adds, "Sister of Gamora."
A look of recognition flashes through Red Skull's eyes and he nods slowly. "Ah, so that's it, then." His voice is harsh and cool like Vormir's winds.
"What?" Nebula narrows her eyes. "You presume to know me? Please, do tell."
"Gamora was lost to the Stone by Thanos, the Mad Titan," Red Skull explains. "Have you come to rescue her?"
"She has never been one to need rescuing," Nebula admits. "But I have come to send her home."
Red Skull gives her another once-over. He floats forward, hovering closer to her. "The exchange is ever-lasting. It cannot be undone."
Somewhat mockingly, Nebula dips forward into a low bow. "You are a master of omission, Herr Schmidt." She tilts her head up to look at the figure.
Red Skull narrows his gaze. Nebula's lip quirks up with the slightest hint of a smile, proud of herself for being able to unnerve the Stone's guardian. Although, he manages to keep his voice smooth as he speaks, "Now it is you who presumes to know me, Sister of Gamora?"
"I have come to know many things," Nebula tells him. She rises from her bow and steps back, projecting a purposeful air of indifference as she inspects her fingernails.
Red Skull drifts backward, putting distance between them. The look on his face is unmistakably inquisitive. Let it never be said that Nebula doesn't know how best to get to her opponents.
Foregoing prompting, Nebula decides to explain herself. "I have learned of the existence of a vast multiverse. And other worlds." She locks her gaze with Red Skull. "These bargains you make certainly adhere to the laws of the multiverse, do they not?"
The guardian doesn't seem to need to hear anything more. Riddles fade away and he asks, "What offer could you hope to make?"
Nebula offers a single curt nod of acknowledgement. "I would make a new exchange."
Red Skull tilts backward, assessing the Luphomoid. "How so?"
"The price is a soul for a soul." Nebula pauses, glancing looking out over the edge of the cliff with only the slightest hesitation. "Tell me where it is written that one of those souls must be the Soul Stone."
"But what other transaction would there be?" Red Skull asks, haughtily.
"Me," Nebula begins, slowly and with purpose, "for what was lost."
Red Skull laughs that hard, cackling laugh again. Then, in an instant, he rushes toward Nebula, stopping mere inches from her face. "You dare try to trick me?!"
"No tricks," Nebula insists, calmly taking a step back to regain distance between them. Restoring balance between them.
"You are wise, choosing your words with care, Sister of Gamora," Red Skull tells her. The words sound complimentary, but Nebula knows they are anything but. "For you were also a Friend, or Teammate at least, of Natasha, were you not?"
Feeling somewhat like a scolded child, Nebula only gives a terse nod. Red Skull eyes her carefully, the red and black of his visage a stark contrast to the cool blue and silver hue of Nebula's skin. Clicking his tongue in a thoughtful tsk sound, Red Skull cocks his head to the side. "How, pray tell, would you measure the worth of your soul?"
Nebula holds her arms out at her sides. "I am the sum of many parts. Hand-crafted by Thanos himself, and he accepted only the best. I am not human, not cyborg, not even full Luphomoid. . ."
"Then you are nothing," the figure's voice interrupts.
"I am all things!" Nebula shouts back, taking a step forward and raising a fist as her temper flares. She stops short, collecting herself and lowering her first. Then, quietly, she says: "Surely, I must be worth something?"
Red Skull circles around Nebula, inspecting her like a prize pony. Finally, he stops, once again facing her. His scarlet face has softened some, if that's possible. "Yes, Nebula, you are the sum of many parts." Then in a quieter, perhaps even gentle voice, he adds: "But does that make you whole?"
The question hangs in the air between them – this ghastly, ghostly figure and the Luphomoid amalgamation of things.
Nebula drops her head down and gazes to the side, avoiding Red Skull's eyes. "No," she whispers.
Red Skull makes a knowing "mmmm" sound and nods before turning and floating away.
"But," Nebula starts, and her voice makes Red Skull stop halfway back to his original location at the edge of the plateau. He hovers, waiting for her to continue. "Can I not be. . . enough?"
Red Skull remains still, his back to Nebula, as he mulls over her words. Finally, he turns back to face her. His expression is difficult to read, but it almost looks sympathetic.
"I suppose," Red Skull says, "we could discuss a new arrangement."
Nebula lifts her chin and stands up straighter. "What are the terms?"
The Skull turns slightly, snaking his way to look over the edge of the cliff. In a calculated move, Nebula steps forward, joining Red Skull at the edge. She stands next to him, shoulder to shoulder.
"It would still be ever-lasting. Irrevocable."
"I understand," Nebula tells him.
"As you know, the usual purchase price is a soul for a soul." Red Skull turns slightly to look at Nebula. "If you are not asking for the Stone, that which you seek instead could be made available." He angles his head down, looking serious. "You know you would not leave?"
Nebula takes in a shallow, shaky breath. She bends her knees slightly so they don't lock and cause her to fall. "I understand," she answers after a moment, when she is sure her voice will not waver.
"I want you to consider what you're asking for," Red Skull continues. "Your desire is to get your sister back?" He asks, to which Nebula nods. He nods in return, slowly and thoughtfully. "Yet, this will mean you are still separated. You would merely be bringing her back here. That does not equate to you getting her back."
Standing at the edge of the cliff, the wind is even harsher. It whips and whistles, and Nebula can feel a shiver run through her. She sighs and turns to face the figure at her side. "Gamora has things, and people, to live for, to return to. She deserves that."
"Perhaps," Red Skull states. He stares forward, looking out over the edge of the cliff, to the horizon of Vormir.
Nebula raises an eyebrow. The guardian is speaking in riddles again, but it feels different. He does not seem to be challenging her or trying to vex her. Instead, it feels. . . helpful.
"What would you suggest?" The Luphomoid queries, folding her hands together behind her back. She feels like she waits a lifetime before Red Skull finally turns toward her to answer.
"The terms will be the same – your soul for another's." He pauses briefly, allowing Nebula to appreciate the fact that he confirmed she has, or at least might have, a soul. "But you may choose which soul will take your place."
Nebula watches him, blinking and processing his words. She waits, expecting him to say something else – to give an ultimatum, to clarify – anything. But he provides nothing else. Instead, he moves away, resting on a large boulder and just watching. He is giving her time to think, to decide what she will do.
With a somewhat frustrated sigh, Nebula looks from Red Skull to the cliff, peering over it and down to the bottom. It looks lonely down there. She tries to imagine what is waiting at the end of that fall. She considers eternity and how long it must be.
Nebula can picture Quill – the sentimental fool that he is – and how destroyed he has been since the loss of Gamora. He returned from the Snap and realized that Gamora did not, and that the one who helped them in the Battle was from a different time and either couldn't stay at all or simply wouldn't stay with him. Why does she care if Quill got Gamora back? Why does she worry about whether Gamora, wherever she is, wants to get back to Quill?
Then she thinks of Gamora, having been there on her own for the last five or so years. Through the spider-boy, Nebula has come to understand basic aspects of the multiverse. Is time different in the Soul World, where Gamora is most likely trapped? Perhaps it is shorter, like when Lang said five Terran years were only five hours in the Quantum Realm. Or maybe it is much, much longer and Gamora has been alone all that time.
As much as she tries to deny it, Nebula does miss her sister. They had finally learned to actually be sisters, and friends, and then they were separated. She wants her back, to make up for lost time and everything else that was stolen from them. But Red Skull was right – if Nebula does this, it would be a trade. Gamora would return and Nebula would not. She would still be missing her sister.
Then Red Skull's words echo from earlier, and she thinks of Natasha. Indeed, Nebula had tried to trick the Skull through word-play. She had thought—hoped—that there was some system at work here and if she made a vague request of trading herself for that which had been lost to the Stone, perhaps that system could be played and she could have gotten them both back.
Nebula whirls around, looking at the empty space of the plateau. She knows this is where it happened – where Gamora had been sacrificed for Thanos, and where Barton and Romanoff had battled each other for the sacrificial rite. She had heard Barton tell the story a couple times – the first time, broken and full of emotion, was when it first happened after returning home after the Time Heist. The second time was a less detailed version, after the Battle for Earth, as he explained to his newly-unsnapped family why their "Aunt Nat" wouldn't be around anymore.
She keeps her eyes locked on the center of the landing. "This choice?" Nebula queries. "How would I make it?"
Red Skull gestures toward the cliff. "The choice will present itself to you."
Nebula turns to the cloaked being and gives him a slow, singular nod. He nods in return. Confirmation. Agreement.
Then, before she can rethink anything, she turns and runs to the edge. And she jumps.
Rather than hitting the ground, Nebula finds herself standing waist-deep in an endless sea. The water is clear as glass, reflecting the sky above it and making it hard to tell up from down. The orange hue of Vormir is amplified ten-fold, giving the feeling of being inside a Midgardian sunset. Nebula puts her hands down, running them through the water around her. It doesn't even make a sound. The winds have stopped. Everything is completely silent. And still. It's all static.
Nebula glances around, feeling like there's static in her brain, too. Things are fuzzy and she has to focus to make everything out.
A voice finally cuts through the deafening silence, and it's a familiar one: "Nebula?"
The Luphomoid turns around to find the green-skinned woman standing across from her. Barely more than an arm's length away. Without a word, and without really even thinking, Nebula throws herself forward, closing the distance between her and her sister. She wraps her arms around Gamora and squeezes her tight.
The sudden display of affection surprises Gamora, causing her to stumble slightly. But she quickly rights herself and wraps her arms, tentatively, around Nebula to return the embrace. When the two finally pull apart, Nebula keeps her hands firmly on Gamora's shoulders, staring her straight in the face.
"Sister, I've missed you," she confesses.
"I've missed you, too." Gamora replies with a small smile. It is radiant, but lasts for only a moment, replaced by slight frown and furrowed brow. "What are you doing here? How did you get here?"
Nebula shakes her head and looks down, allowing a smile to spread across her face. "It doesn't matter." She looks back up, locking eyes with the only family she's ever truly known. "I've come to fix what Thanos sought to destroy."
Gamora tilts her head in confusion and takes a step back so she can get a better look at the other woman, but she remains close enough for Nebula's hands to stay on her shoulders. "What are you talking about?"
"Thanos sacrificed you, Sister," Nebula says solemnly. "He exchanged you for the Soul Stone in his quest for power."
Gamora nods. "I know."
Now it is Nebula's turn to back up, surprised. She drops her arms to her sides. "You know?"
"Yes," Gamora tells her with another nod. "I remember."
"You've been trapped here, in the Soul World, all this time," Nebula explains.
Gamora shrugs and stares expectantly. Nebula only lets out a breath of incredulity, amazed by the other's glibness. Her sister sighs. "Why have you come here, Nebula?"
Nebula's temper flares. "I came to free you – to send you home!"
"I don't need to be saved," Gamora retorts, clearly offended.
"But you had no way out. I am giving you that way out."
Gamora's eyes narrow. "What have you done?"
"I made a bargain," Nebula tells her with a shrug.
Her sister growls in frustration. But before she can speak, another voice cuts in. "She sacrificed herself for you to have a second chance."
Both women turn to the side, to see Natasha Romanoff standing a few paces away. She looks exactly how Nebula remembers her, even wearing her quantum suit. Her hip is cocked to the side and her arms are folded across her chest, a knowing grin on her face.
Gamora looks back to Nebula fury in her dark eyes. "Why? Why would you do that?"
"You have a life to get back to," Nebula replies. The statement is intended for her sister, but she can't tear her eyes away from Natasha. Then, she remembers.
'The choice will present itself to you,' a voice echoes in her head. She gasps sharply and closes her eyes.
"Nebula? Are you okay?" Gamora asks, grabbing her sister by the forearm.
"Yes, I'm fine," Nebula tells her with a sad smile. She looks back and forth between Gamora and Natasha. "I have to choose."
"Choose?" Natasha asks, stepping forward so she's directly in front of the blue and green women.
Feeling a sudden sense of urgency, Nebula turns to Gamora. "Do you want to go back? Do you have something to live for or return to or. . . anything?" She can't help but feel a little panicky and she's sure her voice gives it away but she doesn't care. "Because if you do," Nebula continues, "then you should go back."
Gamora stares at her, blinking a few times as she processes and thinks. Finally, she asks: "Without you?"
Nebula feels her throat constrict, so she only nods in response.
"And the alternative?" Gamora questions, although it's likely that she already knows the answer. She just wants to hear it confirmed out loud. And maybe Nebula needs to say it out loud, too.
"You stay. And I stay with you," Nebula tells her. Then, she looks to Romanoff. "And you go home."
Natasha's cocky, strong stance goes slack. Her jaw and eyes are wide, and then she chuckles softly, shaking her head. "You're not serious?"
"It's a soul for a soul," Nebula tells her. "Me, for one of you," she emphasizes.
"So, save your sister!" Natasha exclaims, waving a hand in Gamora's direction.
Again, Gamora says, "I don't need to be saved."
Nebula puts her head in her hands. She senses movement near her, rather than feels it or hears it. When she looks up again, Gamora is standing right in front of Natasha. "You had built a life for yourself and you have people to go back to. If I can stay here with my sister, that's enough for me."
"What about Quill?" Nebula asks, causing Gamora to turn toward her.
"He'll find his way," is Gamora's answer. Then she elaborates: "I could never be the person he wants, or needs. The person he deserves. I can't do that. Not really." She sighs and nods to Nebula, crossing back over to stand by her side, taking her hand.
Nebula looks in her sister's eyes and sees all the love and respect she had ever hoped for reflected back at her. And she nods back at her, squeezing Gamora's hand. Then she releases it to step up to Natasha. In a rare display, Nebula hugs the Black Widow. When she pulls away, she looks her straight in the eyes. "Go home, Romanoff."
Natasha opens her mouth to speak but Nebula cuts her off. "I've made my choice." She places her hand on her own chest. "A soul," she says before placing her hand over Natasha's heart, "for a soul."
Then, in a blinding flash of light, everything disappears.
When Natasha comes to, she's laying on a dirt path. She pulls herself up into a seated position and looks around, trying to gain her bearings. With a sigh, she slowly pushes herself until she is standing. She grabs a large boulder nearby, waiting for her equilibrium to balance and for things to stop spinning.
The sky above her is dark, with clouds swirling and a strong gale blowing, making strands of her reddish hair cover her eyes. Nat pushes her hair back from her face and looks down. There are footprints on the path below her, but they are fading quickly as the wind moves the dust along the ground. Blinking and shaking off a roaring headache, Natasha forces herself to think clearly. Memories—facts—come in flashes.
The Soul Stone.
Sacrifice, and a fall.
A long wait in the Soul World, where time moves slowly – if it moves at all.
And then. . . Nebula. Gamora. The choice.
She looks to her left and sees a ship, with the door open. It appears to be waiting for her. Of course, Nebula thought of everything. Natasha puts a hand over her mouth and laughs, stifling a sob.
"Thank you," she whispers, looking back toward the cliff and the heart of Vormir.
Then, straightening up and collecting herself with a deep breath, she marches over to the ship. She climbs inside and fires up the small pod. On the screen, a flight plan is already set up, showing a carefully plotted path through a couple wormholes, resulting in her returning to Earth in a few short hours. As the door closes and the ship lifts off the ground, Natasha faces straight ahead, looking into space ahead of her and smiling as she tries to picture the look on Barton's face, and those of her fellow Avengers, when she returns from the dead.
Just before Vormir disappears from view, Nat spares one last glance out the window, looking at the planet beneath her. She thinks two thoughts. First, she vows that she will never return. Then, she swears to carry the memory of the sacrifices made, to always remember and appreciate the last souls that had been there.