When Steve came to, there was a long, breathless silence throughout the forest.
He grunted, trying to dispel the headache ripping through his head, and rolled over as he struggled to stand up. What had just happened? He’d fought Thanos, been hit in the head… he must’ve been knocked out for the rest of the battle, because now there was silence.
A hand went to his side, which ached from getting hit, but other than that Steve was able to stand up and take some unsteady steps, gaining strength as went. He caught sight of Thor through the undergrowth (when had he arrived? And why was he staring into nothing?), and pushed through it to reach him. The Asguardian stood in a small clearing, breathing heavily as he stared at where his axe lay at his feet, discarded on the grass. Thanos was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d he go?” Steve asked, unsure if they had won or not. He couldn’t have been out for longer than a few minutes; had Wanda succeeded in destroying the Mind Stone? He looked around, and saw Vision's body only a few meters away, gray and sans the Mind Stone… but it looked as if it had been forcibly removed not destroyed. Wanda was collapsed at the base of a nearby tree—Steve couldn’t tell if she was still alive from the distance. “Thor.” His old friend finally looked up at him, and his scarred gaze was all the answer Steve needed. “ Where’d he go ?”
“I didn’t go for the head,” Thor said quietly. He said nothing more, just held Steve’s gaze in a sort of tragic dissociation. As Steve watch, Thor’s legs dissolved into dust, soon followed by his torso and then the rest of his body. The dust fell where the Asguardian had stood as Steve watched on in horror, unable to do anything to help.
Bucky’s voice seemed far away as Steve stumbled forwards to where Thor had stood just seconds earlier, reaching down to touch the now dusty grass. Bucky caught up to him a moment later, standing behind him, no doubt watching his six as he always had. The action was intimate and familiar, and Steve latched on to it, trying to compose himself and be the leader the Avengers needed.
“Steve,” he repeated. “What happened?”
We lost, Steve thought, but he couldn’t find the words to actually say the words out loud. He stood back up numbly, turning towards Bucky. His friends’ face fell, seeming to understand what had just happened.
“We need to find Sam,” he said urgently, but so quietly that Steve could hardly hear him. This whole situation seemed to demand reverence. “And Nat.”
Steve nodded softly, but couldn’t find the energy to move. Bucky simply laid a hand on his shoulder, letting it linger there for a moment. Then he rushed off back into the undergrowth, calling out Sam’s name as he went.
Wanda’s body shifted, drawing Steve’s eyes towards her as he waited with bated breath for her too to dissolve into dust. But she remained corporeal and there, pulling herself into a kneel and staying there, shaking. It took him a moment, but Steve realized that she was crying.
Something broke inside of him, replacing shock with adrenaline. Steve finally found the motivation to move again, hurrying towards her. Wanda looked up as he approached, tears marking clear tracks down her cheeks. Steve said nothing, simply holding out a hand. She took it, standing shakily as he pulled her into an embrace.
“I did it,” she whispered into his uniform. “I killed him. Thanos just brought him back and took the stone anyways.”
Her voice broke Steve’s heart. He thought of standing in Camp Lehigh’s bunker and learning of not only HYDRA’s survival, but the pointlessness of his own sacrifice. They had given it their all, but in the end they had never stood a chance.
“I know,” was all he could say. What else was there to say? How could he comfort her, when half of the universe was falling away around them?
The Avengers had lost.
And they hadn’t even lost together.
Steve wasn’t sure how long they’d stayed like that—only a few moments, most likely—with Wanda just crying into his shirt, but footsteps indicated an approach. Steve looked up to see Natasha, unharmed any more than he’d last seen walking towards him, Banner—now out of the Hulkbuster armor—at her heels. Unlike her, he was notably favoring his left leg. But he let out a sigh of relief with their confirmed survival. Injured or no, they had won the coin flip.
“Who else?” He asked, and Wanda sobbed harder.
“None I saw,” she said. “But Rhodey can’t find Sam. Bucky’s helping him look.”
Steve just sighed, guiding Wanda to a fallen tree, where she could sit.
“Thor and Vision are gone,” he reported. Wanda finally let him go and sat down, putting her head in her hands as she struggled to breathe. Unsure of what else to do, he kept a hand on her shoulder.
“Captain Rogers!” Steve turned, knowing from the accent alone that the newcomer approaching was T’Challa. The king had taken off his helmet, but the alarmed expression on his face was almost the exact opposite of his usual confidence and sereness. “General Okoye…” He trailed off, running a hand through his stubbled hair.
Steve nodded as the king trailed off. Another casualty, added to the list.
They sat there in silence for a time, the only sounds coming from Wanda as she tried to compose herself. Natasha sat next to her, rubbing her back, as Banner shifted nervously.
“I must find my sister,” T’Challa broke the tension, beginning to compose herself. “As well as my mother and M’Baku. I can give you all shelter as we try to figure out our next steps.”
As he spoke, Steve looked up to see Rhodey and Bucky returning. Sam wasn’t with them, and Rhodey was delicately holding his left arm. Bucky shook his head at them, and Natasha sucked in a long breath and held it.
“Yes,” Steve announced, looking around. They were in no condition to be going out into the wider world at that moment. “I think we’ll take you up on that.”
They had lost, and now they had to pay the price. The world would be in chaos now, and someone would have to stand up to make sure no more people than necessary died.
Broken and defeated they may be, the world still needed the Avengers.
Titan rumbled unsteadily as Peter tried to stand up. Mantis held out a helping hand before his face, and Peter took it gratefully. He hauled himself to his feet, and for a moment swayed dangerously before regaining his balance. Mantis looked over at him, silent questioning his health, and Peter nodded an affirmation. He could stand on his own.
Stark grunted in pain a few meters away as Strange helped him to his feet. Nearby Nebula strode over to meet them, Drax next to her. Parker, on the other hand, seemed the least hurt out of all of them, and was hurrying to Stark’s side. The aftermath of the fight hadn’t been pretty, but at least, besides Stark, none of them were seriously injured.
Then Mantis stiffened, drawing Peter’s attention back to her.
“Something is happening,” she announced, horror crossing he features. Then she was gone, disintegrating into dust in a matter of seconds.
Peter stared at the place where his friend had just been standing in shock as he heard Parker whimper in the background, asking what had just happened. He looked over at Drax, who only stared back with a look of utmost surprise as he, too, turned into dust on the wind. A cold realization seeped into his bones as Peter looked back to the group in disbelief, already knowing what had happened.
Stark seemed to have the same idea. “Steady, Quill,” he said, raising a hand to try and calm him. But he had quite the opposite effect, as just a moment later, the same hand also began to turn to dust. His eyes widened in fear, then acceptance, and he turned to Parker. “Peter, keep Pep—” But whatever he said was cut off as the rest of his body faded into dust. Only broken segments of his armor were left behind, and without its master it collapsed into a pile of nanobots.
Parker audibly whimpered, clutching onto Strange as the man put a hand on his shoulder. He looked to be on the precipice of a panic attack, and looked up at the elder man in terror.
“Peter,” Strange said softly, and his eyes flickered to Quill, who realized with a start that he was speaking to both of them. “It was the only way. Trust me.”
And then Strange was gone as well.
Some of the dust settled on Parker, who stumbled back and fell down, gasping for air. He looked up at Peter and Nebula as dust began to fleck off of his own body, joining Stark’s and Strange’s in the wind. He seemed to realize what was happening when they did, clutching his hands to his chest.
“I don’t wanna go I don’t wanna go I need to take care of Pepper and May Tony asked me—” He dissolved into mumbled ramblings as more and more of his body fell apart. Peter Quill found himself frozen in horror, unable to move, as Peter Parker, much more slowly and painfully than anyone else, curled in on himself, then faded away.
Then there was silence.
Peter looked down at his shaking hands, then over at Nebula. Would either of them be next? Catching his gaze, the assassin seemed to sense his question, and shook her head.
“It is finished," she said, defeated and toneless. "Thanos has won.”
It was almost four hours before Steve finally had a moment to rest after those traumatic moments in the forest.
As he expected, Wakanda was in chaos after losing half their population. T’Challa’s presence had calmed the situation somewhat, but Shuri had been killed by Thanos, as had been his mother, the Queen, and more than half of the Wakandan army, leaving his kingship fragile. The Outriders, though now leaderless and their numbers halved, still caused havoc in the battlefield, and their ships, still swarming with them, had had to be bombed into oblivion. Steve, Bucky, and Natasha had gone out to help with the cleanup, while Banner and Rhodey went to try and salvage Shuri’s lab and Wanda was whisked away to the infirmary.
It was cathartic, almost, to go out with the army and scout out the battlefield. He, Bucky, and Natasha spilt up, dispatching Outrider after Outrider first on foot and then on a hoverbike, until their numbers dwindled to nearly nothing. The fighting allowed him to keep his mind off of Vision’s body and Thor’s dissolution, how the rest of the world would be faring and what had happened to Tony and that Queens kid. This he knew. This he could in.
But even his body couldn’t last forever.
As the sun began to set, Steve’s exhaustion finally caught up to him. After dispatching of two more Outriders sulking near the energy barrier, he had to take a moment and sit down on his bike, taking deep breaths as he fought to dispel the aching of his legs.
The hum of another hoverbike caught his attention as Steve looked up to see Natasha riding over to meet him. She looked terrible, with her hair frizzy, dirty, and tangled, but then again, Steve probably did, too. He sat up once she reached him, the setting sun sending golden rays across the plains.
Natasha got off her bike without a greeting, simply looking up at him with her signature “Black Widow” expression. Steve sighed.
“Who else?” he asked, rubbing a hand over his face.
“Nick Fury and Pepper Potts.” She replied, voice shaky. She sounded as if she was on the verge of tears, and that immediately set off alarm bells in Steve’s head. Even after their defeat and learning of Sam and Thor’s deaths, she hadn’t been this emotional. “Clint didn’t make it, either.”
Oh, no … And the grief was back again. Fury and Pepper were hard blows, but Clint was an Avenger , a close friend with a wife and three kids who hadn’t wanted to be in any part of this. Steve had to close his eyes then and try to center himself.
“His family?” He finally asked.
“They’re shaken, but fine.” Natasha said, and a weight lifted off of Steve’s shoulders. At least the children were safe.
“Have you heard from Scott yet?”
Natasha shook her head. “He’s missing; his tracker was taken off at some point and his house empty. At first we thought he was a casualty, but then Bruce found some footage of him and some other people driving to a parking garage fifteen minutes before we lost. So as of right now, we don’t know.” She paused for a moment, then looked up at him, eyes softening. “We need to call it in for the night. Get some sleep and figure things out in the morning.”
Steve sighed. He seemed to be doing that a lot recently.
“You’re going to have to face the team eventually,” Natasha added, just a hint of sternness in her voice. Steve made as if to protest, but it died in his throat. She was right. But how could he face Wanda and the rest of the team, having lead them into a massacre? “And I’m going to be honest, they need a leader right now; not the mess both of us are. So how about we get debriefed, take a shower, and sleep on this for an hour or two?”
He wanted to protest, but in all honesty Steve’s legs felt like jelly and at this point he wasn’t even sure if he could make it back to the palace.
“Did Bucky already call it in?” He asked.
“Rhodey had to drag him back,” Natasha answered dryly. “I got sent to do the same to you if your don’t cooperate, and you know I’ll do it.”
“You both are terrible.”
“Steve, I’m the one on the team that makes good life decisions. It’s the one thing that makes me stand out; let me have this.”
Steve chuckled hoarsely. “Fine. I’ll need to meet with T’Challa soon, anyways.”
“Sleep first. Avenge later.” Natasha turned back to her bike and mounted it, looking back at him once we did so, fire in her eyes. “Whether you’re ready for it or not, Steve, I’m going to find Thanos, and the Avengers are going to live up to their name.”
“We will,” Steve agreed, getting back on his bike. He looked towards the horizon, where the sun cast rays of red across the sky. The very Earth seemed to be weeping for what she had lost. “Whatever it takes.”