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Beginning Of The Endgame

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Steve Rogers had seen soldiers die before. He'd seen civilians, men, women, and children, die before. Far too many times, for that matter.

He'd once even thought he'd seen Bucky die before.

But what had just happened…the confusion, the shock, then a human being simply dissolving into ash before Steve's eyes…it was too strange, too sudden for his mind to comprehend, and he'd seen some pretty damn strange things in his lifetime.

Next to Vision's colorless body lay another patch of ash, just like the one Bucky had become.

Thanos wanted to destroy half the lives in the universe… that's it? Just a snap of the fingers?

No, no, it couldn't possibly be that vast, that total. The purple bastard must have just gone after the men and women who'd challenged him. That had to be it.

Someone was shouting nearby, a familiar voice, desperate. Steve didn't know much Wakandan, though he'd tried to learn a little in the free time he had. Bucky was almost fluent.

Bucky was almost fluent? Or had been?

He recognized General Okoye's voice, even though she sounded as horrified and desperate as Steve felt, and the he recognized what she shouted because he'd heard it spoken enough in the palace on his visits: "Wam kumkani!"

My king…

The leader of the T'Challa's bodyguards, charged with protecting him above everything else, cried out for her king once more, bewildered, desperate…then she fell silent.

Out on the battlefield, there were no more roars of slavering monsters or the rumbles of ships, but there were shouts and calls – the Wakandans calling and calling to each other, confused, unable to understand.

Bruce breathed, "I saw…Wanda, she just…disappeared, dissolved. And there were people back on the field, they were turning to dust!"

And Steve knew. This is everywhere. It's just…done. Half of the lives in…the world? The galaxy, the universe? Just…reduced to ash?

"Oh God."

Thor was the one who knelt beside Vision and gently lifted his torso to free his now-gray cloak, and draped it over him. Somehow, that reminded Steve how to move.

He pulled himself up onto his knees. Think, Rogers. Think. What now?

Bruce was here, Thor, Nat, Rhodey…who else was missing…?

Sam…

He tapped his com. "Sam, come in?"

Silence.

"Sam?"

Rhodey murmured, "I couldn't find him."

Energy that'd drained away from shock burst back into Steve's body, and he scrambled upright, sucked dry air into his lungs and bellowed, "SAM! SAM, WHERE ARE YOU?!"

"Steve…" Nat murmured, but Steve didn't look at her. He knew what she wanted to say, but he couldn't hear it. He just started walking.

"Sam, come in?" Rhodey tried his com. No answer.

"Might've been an EMP," Steve muttered. "Maybe the coms are down."

"He got thrown that way." Rhodey pointed, and Steve trudged with him, past the…patch, where a gun and ash-dusted ground were all that remained of Bucky. Steve stared at it as they passed, but he didn't stop.

Bucky was…gone. Sam had to still be here somewhere in these woods, he had to be. He was probably hurt. He probably needed medical – Okoye came out of the undergrowth, walking stiffly, mechanical as if she'd forgotten how to move and was having to concentrate on it.

Steve knew the feeling. "Where's T'Challa?" he asked.

She didn't say a word, just stared at Steve with horror and disbelief in her eyes that was all the answer Steve needed. T'Challa too. T'Challa, and God knows how many of his people.

Okoye turned slowly back towards the field. She'd have to go tell them their king was dead. Did she know what lay ahead of her? Did she have any idea of the scale of it?

Steve wanted to tell her, even held out a hand to stop her, but the sound that came out of his throat was just a weak croak, and she didn't look at him again. She just walked, slow and methodical, towards whatever came next.

Steve and Rhodey turned back to the woods and kept on looking. Even as slow as she was moving, it would only take Okoye a moment or two to clear the trees and see what was left – or not left – of her people on that battlefield.

She didn't make another sound. They could hear shouts and calls, also wails and screams of anguish in the distance, but nothing close by.

They kept looking, digging through the undergrowth, peering through the trees. They spun around with a surge of hope when they heard footsteps approaching – but it was only Thor, with a dazed Bruce out of armor a few paces behind him. "My friends." His voice sounded like he was dragging the words out with the last air in his lungs. "I fear our friend Sam is gone too."

Steve shook his head immediately. "No. No, we'll find him."

As they turned back to their search, that…walking, talking, gun-slinging raccoon came up behind Thor, holding Bucky's gun. Steve looked away. "This belong to someone?" he heard the raccoon say.

Steve wished he couldn't hear Bruce answering. "It – it was Bucky's. Steve's friend, his best friend."

"Oh." Steve flinched when the raccoon caught up with them and held the gun out. "You want this?" Steve backed up. He couldn't answer.

The raccoon shrugged and wandered away, and Steve figured he'd take the gun, but instead, the raccoon put it carefully back on the ground, right where it had fallen. Steve turned away faster and stumbled. Rhodey caught his elbow to steady him.

Bucky was… but Sam wasn't. Steve had seen Bucky…go. Not Sam. So Sam must still be here somewhere.

They skimmed the edge of the forest and unconsciously started assuming a more methodical search pattern, covering the ground, but in the process, they had to see the battlefield.

There were civilians out there now, people calling out names, crying out to each other. M'Baku and a few Dora Milaje were trudging in the midst of it, giving orders. A warrior from the Border Tribe brought a civilian woman to what looked like just a bare patch of ground amid the fallen invaders, but then she threw herself down with a howl. Rocking back, she had a cloak in her arms. It would've been vivid blues and colors; Steve had admired their craftsmanship when he saw them up close. But it was gray with ash. The warrior stood with his hand on her back as she wailed.

Wife? Daughter? Sister?

Steve and Rhodey turned away and continued searching.

Sam had to be here. There had to be a sign of him. Something, if he'd disappeared, something would be left. Bucky's gun had fallen to the ground. Cloaks and weapons littered the battlefield.

There's no sign of Wanda or T'Challa, the half-dead rational side of Steve reminded him, but he shoved it out of his mind. It was too much, too many good people, too many innocent people who'd only tried to defend their homes and defend their world and do the right thing. Not Sam too. Sam had to be somewhere.


They were working their way back towards the Avengers as the sun set. Bright floodlights now illuminated the battlefield as the Wakandans carried out the same search. The cries and screams and roars of rage went on as more people joined in searches for their friends or their families. Some found bodies of men or women who'd died fighting before Thanos had struck. They quieted and calmed faster, gently arranging their loved ones and calling for stretchers to carry them.

There were some wounded and still alive. That gave Steve the first pang of something like hope in hours. There were shouts and rushes of movement when a living person was found; everyone around him or her dropped their search to help. Wakandan medics appeared and soon one of those amazing hover shuttles flew down to whisk the injured away.

As full darkness descended, Rhodey stopped. He made a noise in his throat, a little like Steve had when they'd met Okoye, like he'd forgotten how to use his voice. Steve looked where he was looking and saw it:

In the shadows of leaves, something glinted red, but like glass, not like the armor the Dora Milaje wore.

Like the shiny red accents of Sam's suit and goggles.

Steve tried to run, but it was more like a stagger, and they fell into the same area they'd been searching before, where Rhodey thought he'd seen Sam thrown by Thanos.

They'd seen nothing in the daylight, but the lights illuminating the battlefield reflected off something half-buried in the dirt.

They clawed at it, pulled it up between them…

…it was Redwing.

Rhodey pulled the leaves aside and shined a light on the ground. The bushes were broken as if someone had fallen into them, but there was nothing there. Steve half-crawled toward them, and picked a leaf, pulling it into the full light.

He could barely see it, but he could feel it, the same fine softness of ash that'd been under his hands where Bucky had fallen. Rhodey touched more leaves, and his hand too came away gray.

Bucky's armor, even his arm had vanished with him, but his gun had fallen to the ground.

There was no sign of Sam's wings, his headset, or anything…just ash and Redwing, its jets half-extended as if it'd been launching and then suddenly lost its connection and plummeted into the dirt.

If Sam hadn't been able to fly, if he'd been conscious, he'd have looked for any weapon left to throw into the fray. If nothing else, maybe Redwing might have distracted Thanos for a few seconds. Sam was a fast thinker.

Sam…had been…a fast thinker?

Oh God…

Rhodey clutched Redwing in one hand and put his free arm around Steve. Steve felt him shaking even through the War Machine armor.

"Steve? Rhodey?" It was Nat. Thor and Bruce were with her. Steve and Rhodey looked up, and she made only the smallest flinch when she saw Redwing in their hands. She didn't say another word, just came up to them and put her hand on Redwing too. Her hand was amazingly steady, but light glinted off the trails that formed on her face. She leaned into Steve.

"I'm sorry," Thor whispered. "My friends, I'm so sorry."

Some flicker of awareness struck Steve then, and he looked up at Thor. His voice was as hoarse as if he'd been screaming for hours. "Br-Bruce…told us…about Asgard. Your brother. I…'m sorry, Thor."

Thor didn't flinch. He joined them and put a hand on Steve and Rhodey's shoulders. "I…thought I'd seen the greatest evil any being could commit on that ship." He looked miserably at Bruce. "But I was able to see. I was able to know what had happen. The Titan still went past what I believed to be the limit of all evil today."

Rhodey relinquished Redwing, and Steve pulled it to his chest, wrapping it tight in his arms like a pillow or a baby. It was several more minutes and several failed attempts before he could get back to his feet.

By some unspoken, mutual choice, they all went back to the clearing where it'd happened, where Vision's body still lay covered in his cloak. No stretcher bearers had made it here yet. Steve didn't want to just leave him.

Rhodey paused again as they passed Bucky's gun. "Hey." His voice broke too, raspy and dull. "You want it?"

Steve shook his head. Rhodey blinked, looking confused as he looked from the gun on the ground to Redwing, clutched so tight to Steve's chest. Yeah, maybe that was confusing, especially to Rhodey, the colonel, the life-long soldier.

So Steve explained in a murmur. "That's not Bucky. It never was. He…he never wanted to be a soldier. He never wanted to go to war. He went…he had no choice. He…" He stayed because of me. He fell because of me. Then he had no choice at all of what he became. "He was good at it, even before…Hydra. Great shot." He took good care of his guns. The Howlies used to tease him, the sniper in love with his guns, but we all knew better. We all took care of our equipment, but Bucky didn't love them, not like some of the guys. He didn't love any of it. He wanted to go home. "He'd never have chosen it, given the choice."

He looked up and saw in Rhodey's eyes that he understood.

Redwing was different. Sam had loved his wings and his tech, but he'd made Redwing. Redwing was his pride and joy. Redwing was Sam's, a part of him. During those brief months – how many had it been? Two years, barely? – between Sokovia and Lagos, Sam had used Redwing as often for pranks and party tricks as he had for mission practice.

Thor gently gathered Vision's body in his arms. Steve kept Redwing against his chest. They left the gun on the ground. "At least somebody'll get a decent burial," Rhodey murmured.


The battlefield was full of activity as they walked into the light. The Wakandans were still clearing the bodies of their fellows who'd died before Thanos had struck. Some were removing dead monsters and debris.

Most were still searching. Especially the civilians, they were scouring the ground for some sign of their loved ones. Now and then someone found something, usually a weapon with particular markings or calibrated in some special way, and fell to the ground to cry into the ash, wail at the heavens, or roar into the distance. Others didn't make a sound after they found what they were searching for.

How many more people would find nothing? How many more would keep searching and searching, holding onto that thread of hope that would grow thinner and thinner as the hours, days, weeks went by and never quite be able to cut it?

Had finding Redwing been a tiny fragment of mercy in a world where everything good had dissolved into ash and tears?

As they moved closer to the city, Steve spotted a vaguely-familiar face: a woman who'd often been at the palace with T'Challa. Steve had seen her on TV when T'Challa visited Vienna again. Some sort of assistant, she'd carried a tablet everywhere, taking notes on the king and his staff's orders. She'd spoken perfect English – and perfect Russian to Nat, and seemed to have a smile for everybody, even the foreign strangers in Wakanda's midst.

She wasn't smiling now. Her face was the same dull, empty, numb shock that everyone else displayed. Wakandans were gathered around her as she stood with her trusty tablet, speaking in low voices as rough and dull as Steve and his friends had when they managed to speak.

He couldn't seem to catch many words at all…then he realized it was because the Wakandans were giving her names.

It wasn't right that Steve had fought beside so many Wakandans, men and women with such spectacular courage and brilliance, and he knew barely a dozen of their names. He wondered if more than half a dozen of those whose names he'd known were alive now.

Steve just stood there until someone murmured, "Avengers," and she looked up.

"Avengers." Her voice only shook a little. "My king…is dead."

Steve's throat tightened suddenly with all the sobs that he should've been crying for hours, for T'Challa, for Bucky, for Sam, for Vision, for Wakanda, for all of them. He half-wished for the numbness to come back, because he should say something, make his deep condolences, his…apologies?

Is this our fault? Are we to blame?

Nat spoke up for them all. "We are so deeply sorry. King T'Challa was a truly great man, and he deserved better than what Thanos did today. Your entire nation deserved better."

Now the woman trembled. It wasn't right that Steve had never thought to ask her name. "It is…the whole world." Breaths caught around them, but Steve felt only a dull churning in his guts as she confirmed what he'd already suspected for hours. "People…disappeared. Wakanda is in chaos. Every city, every nation is in chaos. Lord M'Baku and Princess Shuri are…trying to learn… they ask for names, of any person who was seen…disappear."

Yes, that made sense. Steve was dully relieved to hear Shuri had made it. Well, maybe being alive was less of a good thing now, but wherever T'Challa had gone, Steve would like to think he'd be glad his little sister had lived.

Bruce spoke up in a trembling voice. "You want…there was just the Avengers around me."

She nodded. "Please tell me all their names. My princess wishes to know."

"Okay. Vision – he didn't disappear, he's…his body's…here. Wanda Maximoff, I saw her…go. Buck…" Steve flinched and felt someone's hands on his shoulders from both directions. "Bucky Barnes."

Someone said a phrase in Wakandan, the very first phrase Steve had learned after Bucky recovered: "Ingcuka."

White Wolf. It made Steve think of that little river village where Bucky had lived, full of curious kids and rather violent goats and locals who were surprisingly cheerful about the strange white man T'Challa brought there and the white visitor who came to see him. Bucky'd been happier than Steve had seen him since Brooklyn.

What'd happened to those kids and their families? Were they alive? Who had they lost?

"I'm sorry, Captain," said the woman, her voice snapping him back to the present. "Did White Wo- I mean, Sergeant Barnes, did he have any relatives who should be notified?"

Steve shook his head. Only one of his sisters had had a child, and the nephew had died before Steve ever came out of the ice. After D.C., Steve had pondered whether to be sorry or not that there was nobody else left who remembered Bucky Barnes and should be told what'd really happened to him. Not that it would've been safe. He hadn't even dared to tell Peggy. "No living relatives."

She nodded, making notes on her tablet, then looked curiously at Redwing in Steve's arms, and that brought a new rush of agony and memories. Steve's voice failed on the first try, but he managed to say it: "Sam Wilson."

"Falcon. American," Rhodey added. "He has family."

God. Sam's mother, his sister, her family, his nephew... if half the world's population was gone, were they even alive?

She dutifully wrote it down, then looked up. "Do you wish our ambassador in America to notify his family who are left?"

Steve didn't have to think about that. There was so much that needed thinking about, figuring out, but not that. So many priorities, but he'd just have to make time for this one. "No. I'll tell them myself."

~Fin~

Chapter Text

Succession

A walk across the battlefield confirmed what Okoye already suspected: it was not only Wakanda's king who'd been struck down by Thanos. Nearly a hundred Wakandan warriors had vanished from the field, not from the blow of an enemy's weapon or a monster's teeth, but in a cloud of dust where they stood.

More astonishing, Thanos hadn't even spared his own followers. "Half of them vanished along with half of ours!" M'Baku shouted, torn between rage and bewilderment. "What's happened – what is this?!"

Okoye felt herself already passing from grief and rage into numbness. "It's what the Avengers warned Thanos intended: the destruction of half of all the peoples in the universe."

M'Baku shuddered, now more outrage than shock or fear. "He will pay for this. Where's the k - "

Then he saw the look on Okoye's face and realized what it meant.

"...Okoye...no..." Okoye had come to know M'Baku of the Jabari very well in the past two years and spent considerable time watching him along with T'Challa. Never once had she seen him show fear - until now. "No..." He feared no threat, but the news she was bringing.

She didn't want to speak of this, but it was her duty. If the evidence around them was any sign, Wakanda had been struck the most brutal blow in her history along with all human beings and every being who lived and breathed. How many worlds were populated, the children and scientists and curious of Wakanda had always wondered. How many civilizations inhabited planets like Earth - or perhaps not like it but somehow still capable of sustaining life, in a manner different from humanoid? Those were theories people loved to debate...her mind was wandering, fleeing from the immediate horror.

She should answer M'Baku; he was one of T'Challa's council. Perhaps one of the few survivors. But she hesitated. "I must find the Queen Mother and Princess Shuri first." They should know first. It's not only my duty, it's their right. These things matter more than ever now. The world would descend into chaos along with Wakanda, judging by the wails of grief and horror and cries to friends and loved ones who'd vanished into dust.

Okoye and her fellow protectors of Wakanda would have to struggle to hold to their duty now, to be guides for their anguished people. Especially without...

When a shuttle came down to collect some of the surviving wounded, she went aboard. After it delivered the wounded to the hospital, she disembarked and went to the palace to deliver the news. M'Baku took a stuttering step after her, then changed his mind and returned his attention to the battlefield, rallying the surviving warriors to dispatch the remaining monsters and tend the wounded.


In the city, the chaos was worse. Men, women, and children never trained for battle or the horrors of war couldn't comprehend what had happened, and ran screaming, crying, and shouting through the streets for their friends, for their loved ones, or for the gods. Okoye pushed past the guards and security who'd stayed in the city, but ordered them, "Call out everyone who can be mustered to restore order. Send out officials to identify the dead and missing, and have the technicians restore full power to the shields as soon as possible."

Stunned themselves, they obeyed, even though some barely seemed to recognize her.

In the palace, the king's court was diminished by half. Those who hadn't collapsed in tears and terror were in a daze of shock, and Okoye had to ask several of T'Challa's councilors where to find the Queen Mother. Finally, Cangza, chieftain of the river tribe, answered with haunted eyes. "She's...gone."

...what? "What did you say?"

Cangza pointed to the dusty floor near the wall in the room where T'Challa's council had been watching the video feed of the battle and coordinating support for the warriors. "She was...there. Then she...and others, they...disappeared."

No...no... Okoye stared at that space on the floor. It wasn't near a chair; Ramonda paced when she was tense. She would have been pacing along the walls, watching the screen or giving orders to the medical staff and the city guards, preparing for casualties to be brought in and supplies to go out.

Okoye could see nothing to distinguish the Queen Mother from any other man, woman, or child who'd turned to dust. If there hadn't been eyewitnesses, she couldn't have known Ramonda had ever been in this room.

Okoye backed out of the room and went for the palace lab. After only a few paces, she began to run.

She threw herself at the first technician she saw. "Where is the princess?!"

"Medical," the dazed woman answered. "She was struck in the head when we were attacked."

"But does she live? Does she live?!" Okoye demanded.

"Y-yes..."

Okoye ran again.

In the palace infirmary, at last, she found a sign that the monster hadn't taken the entire royal family. Shuri, eighteen-year-old daughter of T'Chaka and Ramonda, sister of T'Challa, was still alive.

She was shaking as the medics treated the bloody gash on her scalp, tears on her face. "My mother...Okoye, my mother..."

So someone had already told her about Ramonda. And now Okoye had to shatter what remained of this beloved girl's heart.

"What happened?! Why, why did he do this? Why take such power and use it only for destruction?" Shuri cried, halfway between rage and terror. In a strange way, it reminded Okoye of M'Baku. Then she looked wildly at Okoye and asked the question Okoye had been dreading: "Where's my brother? Does he know?"

Okoye froze. She'd never frozen in her life.

The palace staff and medics knew it. They too froze. And Shuri, quick-witted even struck by a blow to the head and the heart, realized what it meant. "No..."

Okoye schooled her face to as close a facsimile of calm as she could manage. But there were tears spilling from her eyes and she couldn't stop it. Her voice only shook a little. "My princess...I'm so sorry..."

"No..."

"Your brother, my King T'Challa...he is dead."

The infirmary was silent but for a few desperately-stifled sobs. Shuri shook violently, staring in horror at Okoye, then she shoved herself free of her bed. The medics made a half-hearted effort to restrain her, but she only went towards the window, looking out as if she might find an answer.

Okoye saw her legs give way, and caught her as she dropped and screamed out a wordless sob that seemed to come from the marrow of her bones. Okoye knelt and gripped her as hard as possible, and Shuri clung back with fierce strength, and sobbed in groans and snarls of agony and rage and disbelief. The medical staff retreated a few steps, clinging to their duties, but some wept harder than others, unable to hide the horror of this day.

Okoye was fully prepared for Shuri grieve herself to collapse, and didn't blame her princess in the slightest. Bast knew, Shuri wouldn't be the only one to scream and cry for relief, and find none until her body gave in to exhaustion.

But to Okoye's surprise, the storm only lasted a few minutes. As suddenly and wildly as it had come on, Shuri suddenly fell silent, rocking in Okoye's arms.

"What happens now?" Shuri's voice was low and rough.

Okoye rubbed her shoulders, eyeing the bloody smear on her sleeve. There was no other blood now that the wound on her Shuri's head had been healed. At least that wound had been easily treated. "M'Baku survived. Some of the council survived, and, we must hope, some of the tribal chieftains. Some of the Avengers survived. We'll call our people together and find answers." She patted the girl's back and tugged her to her feet, thinking to put her to bed. "You should rest."

"No." And Shuri turned her eyes, still red and wet, but clear, to meet Okoye's. "I have work to do."

Okoye blinked. One of the technicians who'd been assisting said hesitantly, "My princess, if Thanos accomplished this...act, it means he took the mind stone from Vision."

Okoye nodded grimly. "I saw. Vision is dead." Shuri shuddered, but Okoye tightened her grip. "You did all you could. There is no man or woman in this battle today who didn't." Perhaps the rest of Wakanda hadn't understood the stakes of that battle, but T'Challa had been determined that every warrior who fought it should know. Captain Rogers hadn't argued.

We don't fight for one life. We fight for all of them.

And still, they'd failed.

She had no doubt those same thoughts were in Shuri's mind and heart, but the princess said grimly, "There's still work to do. Now we need answers." She turned and stalked towards the infirmary door. The medics and staff made way for her.


The surviving Dora Milaje made their way back to the palace to join Okoye and assume guard over Princess Shuri. Two had been killed in the fighting; a third, M'Yra was wounded but alive. Aneka was gone, vanished along with T'Challa, Ramonda, and countless other Wakandans. Ayo still lived. Her eyes were as red and puffy as everyone else, but she stalked to Shuri's side, spear in hand, and stayed there with the rest.

Shuri compiled data from the cameras, seismographs, radiation monitors, the city's shield, and every other monitoring device capable of picking up any signal or vibration or field. By the time M'Baku returned to the palace, she was stalking the floor, staring at nothing as she thought.

When M'Baku knelt to her, Shuri blinked, then shook her head. "No. I'm not queen."

Kisani, head priestess would oversee the challenges for the throne, spoke up. "Not yet, my princess, but any tribal chieftain may declare themselves in support of your rights."

Shuri turned away and resumed pacing. "Why must I be queen?"

The other three surviving high priests exchanged baffled glances. "You are...the last of the royal family. The last of T'Chaka's line."

"There're descendants of Bashenga in every tribe - maybe not his," Shuri said absently, gesturing to M'Baku. "That's the point of the challenge: to ensure the throne goes to the person most worthy and capable of defending it." She stopped and folded her arms. "Now of all times, Wakanda needs a ruler who actually wants the throne."

Nakia had arrived shortly before M'Baku, rushing home when she grasped the worldwide scale of the disaster. She stepped towards Shuri. "My princess, don't act hastily. All of Wakanda is grieving, and this isn't the moment to make such a decision. Even after...such losses, it will take a few days to prepare the challenge."

Shuri met her eyes, and for a few moments, Okoye suspected they forgot anyone else was in the room. As deeply as Okoye grieved, she doubted anyone understood Shuri's anguish better than Nakia.

But Shuri said, "We talked about it before the battle, T'Challa and...and my mother and I." Nakia stiffened, and several of the councilors sucked in their breath. "They both said if I truly didn't wish to be queen, I shouldn't be. My mother said Wakanda would choose who would take the throne. The throne isn't for me. I'm an engineer, a tool of the throne; I'm not meant to sit on it."

"You've always been far more than a tool," Okoye said sharply.

Shuri shrugged. "Call me what you like, but not queen. I can't rule; I don't want to." She eyed M'Baku. "Who's left of the chieftains?"

"Only me and Abeni from the merchant tribe could take on the challenge," said M'Baku. "She's overseeing the identification of those who...disappeared. We've spoken; she said she would not challenge you."

"I would stand as champion for the river tribe, and I would not challenge you," added Nakia, nodding to her father. She frowned to herself. "What about Hodari and W'Kabi?"

"Hodari's alive, but he's trying to tally the losses of the border tribe. W'Kabi's dead; he was killed in the battle, before...it happened," said Ayo. She shot Okoye a dismayed look.

It stabbed Okoye, this death on top of all the others, but not as deep as it might have done two years earlier. Her love for him had died with the Wakandans who perished in Killmonger's battle, along with all the esteem most Wakandans had for W'Kabi. He'd come with the border tribe to fight, and fought bravely, which she supposed was as close to redemption as W'Kabi could get.

In a way, W'Kabi was one of the lucky ones, to never see Wakanda's darkest hour. Okoye hadn't imagined an hour darker than that battle against her own people two years ago.

Shuri was staring at her. Okoye pushed those thoughts from her mind. "I don't want to be queen," Shuri said softly, appealing to Okoye.

Cangza looked from M'Baku to Nakia. "Then the tribes must each put forward their champion to contend for the throne. My princess, this is a dangerous time for such a contest. There are foreigners in our midst, and the world will approach our borders for answers – or worse."

Shuri frowned, but Nakia scoffed, "Those foreigners were the king's trusted friends, who trusted him with the most desperate threat in the universe, and fought beside him."

"They're still foreigners."

Okoye broke in. "In any case, until the challenge, my princess, it is you whom Wakanda will look to for leadership. If the challenge comes and you're still certain, it can proceed as Cangza says." Some would judge Shuri very harshly for it, with no mind to her age or her losses. Whether Shuri assumed the throne or not, Okoye would defend her with her last breath.

Shuri took a deep breath, mustering herself, and said, "All right. Prepare the challenge. Find out who else we've lost, and have each tribe select their chieftain and their champion if - if they need new ones. We'll hold an emergency council here as soon as they're ready. I'll tell them my decision then."

"What about the Avengers?" asked Cangza. Nakia shot her father an exasperated look; no doubt Cangza wanted the Avengers gone as soon as possible.

"I want to see them - especially Banner, if he's alive."

"He is," Okoye confirmed. "Also Thor. He may know more about Thanos."

Shuri nodded. "Bring them all here."

Okoye was prepared to go search them out when a page came in with a tablet, but instead of Shuri, he brought it to M'Baku. "The report from the mountains, Lord M'Baku."

M'Baku visibly steeled himself, then looked down at it. He trembled as he scanned it, and at last, made the slightest flinch and turned away, handing it back to the page without looking again. Shuri waited several beats, then finally asked, "M'Baku?"

It was several more long heartbeats before he answered. Perhaps it was that long before he was able to. "Half of the Jabari are gone, like everywhere. That's without counting the warriors we lost in battle today."

"And..." Nakia took a deep breath. "What of your family?"

He flinched again and didn't turn around. His voice was almost steady, but he sounded...older. "When the sun rose today, I had a mother, a brother and sister, a wife, and five children. Now I have no mother, no sister, no wife, and two children."

Until now, Cangza had been wary of M'Baku, always distrustful of strangers. But he walked to the other chieftain's side and put a hand on his shoulder. The two men, both fathers, stared out at the Wakandan sunset and said nothing more.


A few of the dazed Avengers protested when Okoye and the palace guards ordered them to the palace. "My king is dead, along with hundreds of my people even before Thanos struck," Okoye hissed. "The Queen Mother is also dead. My princess is his heir and now forced to take the throne at only eighteen!" This was unfair to even imply the Avengers were responsible, but Okoye didn't care. Fairness wasn't an operating principle of the universe, as recent events had proven. "Have the decency to pay your respects and hear her out before you rush off to your own countries!"

Captain Rogers closed his eyes, then looked at the others. Thor and Romanoff nodded, though the rest seemed too distracted to decide. "Okay."

Shuri had reluctantly left her lab for the throne room, but flatly refused to sit on the throne. Instead, she paced in front of the windows. She glanced up when Okoye led the Avengers in and asked without thinking, "Where's Ingcuka?"

Five of the group blinked in confusion, but Rogers' already-pallid face went even whiter than Okoye thought possible. He knew what the Wakandans called Bucky Barnes when there was any chance of being overheard, and he'd picked up enough Wakandan in his visits to know it: White Wolf.

Shuri's face fell as the explanation dawned on her: Barnes too was dead. "How?" she asked.

Rogers moved his lips, but nothing came out, and in the end it was Thor who answered quietly, "He...disappeared, with the others after Thanos...snapped his fingers." He nodded to the drone clutched in Rogers' arms. "Sam Wilson, Wanda Maximoff, and our friend Groot were also taken. Vision was murdered by Thanos for the mind stone. We've laid his body among the other noble fallen."

Shuri briefly closed her eyes, mustering herself, then said, "I'm sorry for all your losses, and that I was unable to...remove the stone in time."

Several of the watching councilors winced, not liking her to suggest weakness or failure in front of these foreigners, but Shuri's humility snapped Captain America out of his paralysis, and he straightened. "Your highness, there's no apologies necessary. It wouldn't have made any difference; Thanos got his hands on the time stone. Wanda destroyed the mind stone in time, then Thanos just went back in time and changed it so he could get to it before she did. There's no reason to think he wouldn't have done the same if you'd removed it first."

The rest of the Avengers nodded. "For what miserable comfort it is, better Thanos stayed outside the city," Rhodes agreed. "God knows how many people he'd have killed here to get what he wanted before he snapped his fingers."

Rhodes was right, of course, but Shuri was distracted again, her lips vibrating as she pondered this information, as if she were talking to herself.

Rogers was too distracted to notice, and went on, "I'm so deeply sorry about your brother. He was...one of the best men I ever met, and that's really saying something."

"Amen to that," said Banner.

Shuri looked sharply at Banner. "I need your help. I want you to stay in Wakanda."

Banner took a step back, eyes going wide. "Uh...your highness, I...I mean, sure, if I can help you some way, I'm happy to stay, but the others, they..."

His fingers tightening on the drone in his arms, Rogers murmured, "Sam's family...whoever's left, I need to...tell them."

"I need to go with him, your highness, as soon as possible," said Rhodes. "The U.S. government's going to be looking for people to blame, and the Avengers and/or Wakanda are gonna be easy targets."

"They will find nothing easy about targeting Wakanda!" M'Baku spat, and some of the councilors muttered in agreement.

Rhodes hastily raised his hands. "I completely agree, and better that they not try, but God knows who's...anyone even know if we've got a President?"

"Ronald Bunt's alive," said Romanoff. "The Vice President's dead. Thaddeus Ross is alive."

"Shit. Oh, 'scuse me, your highness, but...yeah," Rhodey cast a grim look at the other Avengers. "I need to get on this fast. If Ross is still kicking and the VP's dead, that's one less restraint on that moron in the White House, and he's going to go batshit now. The whole world is."

"Colonel Rhodes, you may go. Anyone can go who doesn't have any knowledge of how Thanos and his powers worked. Anyone who does, I wish to stay," said Shuri. They all looked at her in confusion. "We have work to do." Shuri's eyes flashed, and suddenly Okoye could see T'Challa, T'Chaka, and Ramonda in her face. Praise the ancestors. "That time stone can change time without creating a paradox. So that means it's possible."

Okoye and the others realized her point, and the ramifications of it made her tighten her grip on her spear to steady herself. It could be undone, what Thanos did.

"Those six stones," murmured M'Baku, no longer looking at them. "Time...also reality. Power, soul, mind, and space...if they could take half of all life in the universe..." He straightened, eyes brightened as if already preparing for another battle. "They could give it back, if they were in our hands."

Shuri looked at Banner, who gave her something like a smile, like he could see hope again where it had all seemed lost. "Your highness, I'm all yours."

Rogers and the other Avengers began to breathe harder as all comprehended what Shuri and M'Baku were proposing: that this abomination might be undone. Thor turned to Rogers. "You should go and inform Sam's family. We can't say how long this work will take."

"Yeah." Rogers swallowed hard and looked at Shuri. "I can't say I'd be much help with understanding those Infinity stones, but after I've...done this, if I can help you, say the word. I'll come back."

"Honestly, I think I can be more help in the U.S.," said Rhodes. "But I'll make sure Steve gets back here, and anybody else you think you could use."

Shuri sighed. "It doesn't help that we've lost Vision and Wanda Maximoff. They might have been helpful, knowing so much about the mind stone - formed by it, or at least affected by it."

Romanoff stepped forward eagerly. "But there are - at least - there were other people affected by the mind stone back when it was in Loki's scepter. Especially Erik Selvig - and he worked with the Tesseract under Loki's supervision." She saw the way Thor flinched and said, "Sorry."

"Don't concern yourself," said Thor, though he looked down. "Loki is dead at Thanos' hands. I know Earth has every reason to hate him, but he died defending me and the survivors of Asgard." He let out a deeply bitter chuckle, and his eyes grew wet. "Thanos already took half of my remaining people, and I don't dare to suppose he spared them from his blow with the gauntlet, which means a quarter of the Aesir who survived Ragnarok live at most." He shook his head and turned to Shuri. "My lady, I'll gladly tell you all I know, but my people may be stranded. I have the power of the Bifrost. I'll return as soon as I can and join your work."

"Thank you," said Shuri. "If you know anyone...outside Earth, who knows anything about those stones and how they worked, I want to see them."

Thor tilted his head. "...actually, there may be someone else here on Earth. If nothing else, if she's alive, these events have killed all awkwardness between us," he added wryly.

"Jane Foster? When did she have access to an Infinity stone?" Romanoff asked.

"It's a long story, but she had more than access. Do you know where she and Erik were at the time this started? I'll find them and ask them to come here if...if they're alive."

"And Infinity stones or not, they're astrophysicists, studying interstellar forces for years," said Banner. "They could be a lot of help."

"Bring them," said Shuri, She caught the disgruntled look on Cangza's face and folded her arms. "I don't care where they were born. We're trying to undo the slaughter of half the universe."

Thor inclined his head to her with a deference that surprised Okoye. "You rule here, my lady. None of us nor anyone we bring will dare contest that."

The Avengers departed with purpose back in their eyes. Only Banner remained to see the uncomfortable expression in Shuri's eyes.


Okoye persuaded Banner to rest when he started to sway around dawn. "When did you last sleep?"

"Like...three days ago? Before Thanos attacked the Asgardian refugee ship, really."

"Go. You will need your brain," Shuri told him. She caught the way Okoye eyed her once she'd gone. "I know. So do I."

"There will be a challenge in a few days. You need to decide soon and inform the council."

Shuri rubbed her eyes and leaned heavily on her desk. She was silent for so long, Okoye thought she wouldn't say anything, but eventually she murmured, "I shouldn't be queen, Okoye. I need to do this." She gestured vaguely at her screens and the data she was examining. "To undo...it, that will take all my time. I can't do this and rule the country."

Okoye sighed. There was wisdom in Shuri's decision, but some of the surviving Wakandans wouldn't see it that way. Some would be outraged that the last child of T'Chaka would abdicate her claim to the throne without fighting for it, concerned more with bloodlines and tribal loyalties than the billions upon billions of lives that might be saved by Shuri's work. They'd have plenty to say about her choice, and it would be cruel for such a young girl to hear after losing what remained of her family.

Shuri was obviously thinking the same thing. "I know. Some of our people will hate me for it."

"Some of our people hated T'Challa. They were fools, as are any who ignore the importance of this work," said Okoye. "Some will hate whoever takes the throne, but many others will support your choice - and anyone you support," she added pointedly.

Shuri pondered that. "Even M'Baku, you think?"

Somehow, Okoye had suspected she'd say that. "Even him. Your support for him could make a great difference. He reunited the Jabari with the other tribes and saved T'Challa's life, and possibly the whole kingdom. He's a deeply admired man, a proven strong leader with great wisdom and courage." She made a show of looking around for listeners even though they were alone in the lab. To her amazed gratification, Shuri giggled. Okoye had lost hope of ever hearing that lovely sound again. "He's who I'd choose after you."

"Cangza will put Nakia forward as champion of the river tribe and possible queen," Shuri mused. "But she has the right to refuse to make a challenge. If she supported M'Baku..."

"We'd have the river tribe." What's left of them. It went without saying, all they had were what was left of all the tribes. Half of Wakanda. It staggered Okoye every time she tried to think about it too long. "The mining and merchant tribes would probably - at least, Abeni and the merchant tribe would support your choice of M'Baku. She and the merchant tribe elders approve of him. I don't know yet who will succeed to lead the mining tribe. The chieftain and her champion are gone, and her daughter's only nine. They'll have to name someone new to lead them." Okoye stepped a little further from the role of general of the Dora Milaje to beckon imperiously to her princess. "You'll be able to consider all this better when you've slept. Go."

Shuri relented and returned to the palace to sleep.


A few days later, a council of newly-selected tribal chieftains and their champions had assembled. Shuri and Banner were immersed in their examination of the various electromagnetic fields and spectrographic readings her instruments had detected during the fight with Thanos and when he snapped his fingers.

"God, I hope Tony's alive," Banner said once. "It's not often we run into people we have trouble keeping up with." Okoye could have kissed Banner for the way Shuri grinned.

By the time the council gathered, Banner had earned Shuri's trust, and she left him in the lab to continue working and ordered her technicians and staff to give him any assistance he needed.

The council rose and saluted when she entered, but those who hadn't been privy to the discussions of the past few days exchanged startled looks when she ignored the throne and took the chair Ramonda had once occupied as Queen Mother. "All of Wakanda's tribes and people have suffered horrific losses in the attack by Thanos. Our surviving war dogs tell us this is the case throughout the world - and our visitors from outside Earth tell us this has affected all beings in the universe. Dr. Bruce Banner and I, along with all of our scientists, are studying all the data we can obtain on Thanos and the Infinity stones, to learn how he can be destroyed and this...action can be undone."

Nearly everyone sucked in their breath. It seemed such a forlorn, distant hope, but impossible to turn away from.

Shuri went on, "However, this project will require all of my attention, with stakes so far beyond Wakanda's borders, it's hard to comprehend. I have decided I must decline the position of queen."

"What?!" Shikona, the new mining tribe chieftain blurted. Hodari of the border tribe looked stunned. Cangza of the river tribe looked resigned. M'Baku and Abeni of the merchant tribe simply nodded.

Abeni, despite being chieftain and champion of the merchant tribe for less than a year, raised herself in Okoye's esteem by speaking up. "Though Wakanda's people mourn the loss of King T'Challa desperately and this crime against his family, my princess is right. There should be no priority higher than destroying the monster who took our people from us, and learning if it is possible to reverse it. If it cannot be reversed, at least we must see those Infinity stones and Thanos destroyed, to ensure no slaughter like this can ever occur again."

"Then who will be king or queen?" demanded Hodari. If W'Kabi were still alive, Hodari might have put his nephew's name forward. But whoever Hodari had chosen as the border tribe's champion now, they were unknown to the other tribes and unlikely to be capable of challenging M'Baku or Nakia in combat.

"That is what we must decide," said Shuri. "Of course, any of you may put your champions forward, but better that we not see the throne bitterly contested at such a dangerous time for Wakanda."

Abeni looked from the others back to Shuri. "I would know who our princess would choose."

Cangza sighed heavily and admitted, "My daughter Nakia says she must know who our princess would choose, and she will support that choice without challenge as champion of the river tribe."

Shuri gave a small smile, and it surprised only a few when she turned to M'Baku, who met her gaze steadily. "M'Baku, two years ago you challenged my brother for the throne and accepted an honorable defeat. Then you returned that honor and saved his life, as well as Wakanda from a madman. Since then, you've been a steadfast friend and brother, and Wakanda's five tribes were reunited for the first time in millennia. Would you accept my request to seek the throne, as I believe my brother would have wished?"

"I will," said M'Baku.

Predictably, Hodari protested. "The Jabari wanted nothing to do with any of our people for nearly five thousand years, now after only two years, they rule all?!"

"Many great changes can occur in two years - like betrayal of a king and friend in a matter of days," Abeni shot back. "M'Baku brought his army in defense of our country twice now, when we needed them most. W'Kabi and the border tribe brought on a civil war. My princess, I will support M'Baku as king. The merchant tribe will not challenge."

Everyone looked at Cangza. "My daughter will not challenge M'Baku," he said. Okoye noted that he didn't say "the river tribe," but unless he wanted to admit a schism between himself and Nakia at this deadly hour, he would accept her position.

Hodari refused to commit, and neither did Shikona. "I must discuss this with my people."

Shuri nodded. "That's your right. The priests will prepare the challenge for seventy-two hours from now."

Okoye felt a pang of regret. She would make a fine queen, like all her family before her.


Okoye watched while Shuri explained to Dr. Banner in brief what was happening. "I've abdicated the throne in favor of M'Baku. But he must still face challenges from the champions of any of the other four tribes."

"Wow."

"An outsider can't be present; this is one of Wakanda's most sacred rites."

Banner raised his hands. "I understand completely, your highness. I'll just keep working - unless there's a rule against it."

Shuri shrugged. "It is tradition that all work stops on challenge day, but I think we'll let it slide. Some things are more important than any one nation's traditions."

Despite his reputation for having a giant green "rage monster" (as Banner wryly put it) emerge when he was angry, Shuri's staff seemed to have grown to like him. "If my princess wishes, we will stay here to assist Dr. Banner," said one of the technicians. The others quickly chimed in.

With a tired smile, Shuri nodded. "Then continue with my blessing. Our people will understand - or they should, anyway."

"We heard from Thor," Banner added. "Jane Foster and Erik Selvig are both alive. They've arranged for a flight here tomorrow morning, if that's okay."

"The contest will be settled by then. I at least have agreement from all five tribes that whoever wins the throne, none will try to disrupt our work or bar assistance from a foreigner vouched for by the Avengers. We agreed, it's what my brother would've wanted." Shuri suddenly looked away. Okoye, Banner, and her staff pretended not to notice. Still gazing down at the vibranium trains, stopped in their tracks, Shuri said, "I suppose there's still no word from Tony Stark?"

"I'm afraid not. Thor and Rocket are going off-planet now; they promised to look for him." Now Banner trailed off and looked away. Everyone heard his unspoken thought. There may be nothing to find if Thanos took him too.

The Wakandan staff all hurried to watch Shuri and Okoye leave for the ceremony, murmuring their blessings and condolences. Banner stood back, but when Shuri glanced at him, he surprised Okoye by whispering, "Good luck" - in Wakandan, and even pronouncing it correctly.


The flotilla down the river to the falls did not have the celebratory atmosphere of two years before. The drums beat and people chanted and sang, but no one danced except in observance of ritual, so it sounded and felt more like a funeral procession. All too applicable, since the ranks of the rafts' occupants were diminished by exactly half.

Yet there were new rafts that hadn't been there two years before: they carried the Jabari delegation, led by M'Baku.

With Zuri dead, the priestess Kisani now led the protectors of the heart-shaped herb and presided over all major rites. She was tense at Okoye and Shuri's side - unsurprising, given T'Challa's last "successor" had burned the garden of the heart-shaped herb and choked her when she tried to protest!

If M'Baku succeeds today, she will have nothing to fear. If M'Baku falls to R'Shumba or Tanso, it's less certain. Shikona of the mining tribe had chosen R'Shumba, a strong, courageous guard and last survivor from one of the tribe's most prominent families, as his champion. Hodari had picked Tanso, a second cousin of W'Kabi, now the only capable fighter of W'Kabi's family line who remained alive in the border tribe.

Okoye doubted R'Shumba would be unjust or tyrannical on the throne; she had been fiercely loyal to T'Challa and expressed admiration for the Jabari's actions against Killmonger.

Tanso...was another matter. He'd challenged W'Kabi for leadership of the border tribe twice (and failed), but he'd eagerly supported Killmonger's "new mission" outside Wakanda and killed several Jabari in the fighting, and wounded a Dora Milaje. Okoye feared Hodari's choice of Tanso was a sign of more than desperation - it might suggest Hodari was growing more radical himself, blaming T'Challa and his new allies for the border tribe's losses.

Their people sang the same songs as Shuri left the shuttle that they'd sung for T'Challa, but there was a mourning sound to it.

Bearing the spear of Bashenga, Kisani announced, "I, Kisani, daughter of Zawadi, give you Princess Shuri, daughter of Ramonda!"

The reception for Shuri was lukewarm, to Okoye's utter disgust (and to Nakia's as well, judging by the way she whirled and snarled at her fellow river tribesmen). Word had spread after the council meeting that Shuri was abdicating.

Shuri held her head high and made no reaction to either the ovations or the silences from her people. "I, Shuri, daughter of Ramonda and T'Chaka, will not seek the throne of Wakanda. So that our work to defeat Thanos and avenge the deaths of our people may continue uninterrupted, I renounce my claim!" This was met with shouts of approval. "I, Shuri, daughter of Ramonda and T'Chaka, give you M'Baku, son of N'Gamo!"

The Jabari chanted their approval as M'Baku came forward, and Nakia led the chants of the river tribe in support. Abeni led the merchant tribe, while the mining and border tribes stood silent. Kisani announced, "Victory in ritual combat comes by yield or death! If any tribe wishes to put forth a warrior, I now offer a path to the throne!"

Abeni's elderly mother came forward first. "The merchant tribe will not challenge today."

Changza managed not to sound too cross when he announced, "The river tribe will not challenge today."

Several mining tribesmen were muttering in Shikona's ear, but he looked only at his champion, R'Shumba. She gave him a small nod, and he stepped forward. "The mining tribe...will not challenge today."

That caused a rush of murmurs through the others, and Shuri and Nakia smiled. But from the way Tanso was puffing up, everyone knew what would come next. "The border tribe," Hodari announced, "will challenge M'Baku of the Jabari for the throne of Wakanda!"

Tanso stalked down into the water and promptly took a page from M'Baku's book of challenges. "The border tribe will not have this stranger on the throne! For centuries, you 'watched from the mountains' as the border tribe fought and died in defense of our country and our kings! He only lives because King T'Challa was too merciful to finish him." Some of the Jabari roared in anger, but M'Baku raised a quelling hand to them while staring Tanso down. "To ride into a fight in the final battle is not the act of courageous warriors, it's only cowardice! To hide for centuries is cowardice. The Jabari are not fit to rule Wakanda - "

M'Baku yawned loudly, getting a burst of laughter from the Jabari and quite a few from other tribes, including Shuri. "Are you done?" Tanso blinked, and M'Baku said, "Good. I accept your challenge!"

So again, the Dora Milaje were forced to stand idle. The Jabari and border tribe warriors surrounded the two men. Tanso was a good deal taller and had the reach of M'Baku, but he was not allowed the border tribe's traditional shield.

Only a few blows into the fight, it was all Okoye could do not to smirk. Tanso had been no match for W'Kabi, and it was very clear he was no match for M'Baku. M'Baku was faster, stronger, and cleverer, and it was a far shorter fight than the one between M'Baku and T'Challa.

In the end, however, M'Baku had Tanso pinned, and announced to the border tribe, "I will not kill another Wakandan after so many have lost their lives! Yield!"

Tanso spat at him first, but M'Baku simply threw him down again and told Shuri, "Get comfortable; we're not wrapping this up for awhile!"

It took several more pins and increasing frustrated shouting and admonishments from the onlookers until Tanso finally gave in and yielded.

M'Baku accepted the kingship and announced to their people, "T'Challa's sister has chosen to devote all her skills and our technology to finding and destroying Thanos, the monster who took more than half of our friends, families, and countrymen from us! Even if we find that his evil act cannot be undone, they will hunt him down and make him PAY for this!" The people roared in agreement, even many of the border tribe. M'Baku raised a hand for silence. "But if Princess Shuri should succeed...maybe it is possible we'll have our people back. If the gods will it, and return them to us, I pledge to you...will not contest the throne!" There was a murmur of shock, hisses of protest from the Jabari, and even Okoye found herself exchanging stunned looks with the other Dora Milaje. "King T'Challa was our king when Thanos took him from us! Two years are not a long time, as some have pointed out," he shot a snide look at Tanso and Hodari. "But in those two years, I have seen his wisdom, and his courage. He became my brother and my friend...and my king. If King T'Challa returns, then I am King Regent only, and I will return the throne to him with a glad heart!"

"WAKANDA FOREVER!" Shuri shouted, and at last, their people roared in agreement. The singing began again, but this time with joy and hope.

Okoye couldn't keep the smile off her face as she echoed it. Wherever you are, my king, we won't forget you. Your sister, your friend, and your people will always honor you. I hope we'll see you again. But even if we don't, if you've gone to join our ancestors, look back on us and be proud.

~Fin~

Chapter Text

Reprieve

Bruce was nervous about getting introduced to King M'Baku and would've rather stayed in Shuri's lab, but he figured it was only polite to accept the invitation to the palace and pay his respects.

M'Baku eyed Bruce when he came in and demanded, "No bow from this foreigner!?" Bruce froze, and M'Baku burst out laughing.

Note to self: DON'T introduce Rhodey to this guy. Bruce sketched a sort of deferential bow/nod and said, "I'm honored, King M'Baku. Congratulations."

"It's hard to accept congratulations in the wake of disaster," M'Baku sighed, but waved Bruce off when he tried to stammer an apology. "Forget it. Shuri says she trusts you and you can help her work; that's good enough for me. What do you know so far?"

Bruce and Shuri took turns explaining what they'd worked out about the properties of the stones and Thanos' teleporting capabilities. "I know this isn't much, but it's not nothing either: those six stones together do let whoever holds them all have pretty much unfettered power over the universe," said Bruce. "In a way we're lucky Thanos only went after the people. He could have erased half the planets or half the stars or galaxies."

M'Baku took a deep breath, all humor gone. "So if someone other than Thanos were to gain possession of those stones..."

Bruce and Shuri looked at each other, then nodded. "We could undo what he did," Shuri confirmed. "We could undo...almost anything. We'll have to be careful who takes possession. That is the true absolute power. Who wouldn't be tempted to use it to settle old quarrels or pay old debts, or simply to try to make worlds better whether those worlds like it or not?"

"Give me the gauntlet; I promise I'll only erase white pop singers," M'Baku muttered. Bruce couldn't hold back a grin. "Yes, I see what you mean."

"If it makes you feel any better, your highness, if I got my hand in that thing, I'd have a lot of trouble not cleaning up American politics," said Bruce. He felt stupidly proud by the bellow of laughter he got from M'Baku and the grins of some of the watchers. "There's a plane coming in with two astrophysicists who've both been exposed to the Infinity stones: Erik Selvig and Jane Foster. Thor vouches for them both, and I can vouch for Selvig at least. He's a good man, and he mentored Dr. Foster. I'd say they're among the most trustworthy people in the world right now who'd help us with this project without being tempted."

"Everyone is tempted by unlimited power," said one of the other Wakandans. "Especially white people."

Someone hissed something in Wakandan, but Bruce shrugged. He'd seen too much of the world not to agree. "You're not wrong. I'm hoping we'll have news of Tony Stark soon - I know," he said, seeing the alarmed expressions on some of the council's faces. "He's...got a well-deserved reputation. But I've worked with him, and as...volatile as he can be, he's brilliant and...he really does mean well. He went after Thanos' thugs into space, and...he'll have lost loved ones too. He'll be looking for a way to reverse it. I realize you may have reservations, but I'd trust him with this."

M'Baku rubbed his chin thoughtfully and looked at Shuri. "Do you?"

Shuri shrugged. "I've read Stark's research on the mind stone and the Tesseract, also on the properties of vibranium. He is very good.

"Not as good as you," said a councilwoman.

"I never said he was as good as me," said Shuri with a smirk. Nearly all the participants grinned, including Bruce - he didn't disagree. "But I can't say whether he's trustworthy from my own eyes; I haven't met him. If he returns to Earth, I wish to meet him - with my king's permission," she added, giving M'Baku a mock-deferential nod that fooled nobody. "Dr. Banner will want to go see him if he comes back. We'll continue working, and I'll talk to him from here. If I decide Stark is trustworthy, I'll bring him back with Dr. Banner. Or it may be more sensible for Stark to work from his headquarters, but we could share information."

M'Baku nodded. "Judge him wisely along with any foreigner you want to bring onto our soil. T'Challa wanted to open Wakanda to the outside world, and I won't go back on that, but we should still be careful. The world is in chaos now, and the opportunists will be searching for prey."

"Understood, your highness," said Bruce.


Even as a shaken Jane Foster and Erik Selvig landed on the outskirts of Wakanda, a signal came in from New York. "Bruce, it's Rhodey. There's a ship coming in. Thor's confirmed: it's Tony. He's alive!"

Bruce spun towards Shuri, who waved a hand at him. "Go, go. But call me with Stark as soon as he's able, and return as soon as you can."

"I will," Bruce promised.

He made rushed introductions between Erik, Jane, and Shuri, and the pair were all too eager to join Shuri's project. "I brought all my readings," Jane told Shuri, holding up a file and a collection of thumb drives. "I – I was mostly scanning for portals and signs of more ships making entry, but I picked up some weird fields right before…it happened."

"Did you lose anybody?" Bruce asked gravely.

Jane looked down, and Erik put a hand on her shoulder. "Her mother. Her best friend – Darcy Lewis, and Darcy's boyfriend Ian, another of our assistants, they just…dissolved in front of us. I got on the phone to every university I've ever worked, looking for people to help on this project. About half of them are missing."

"It's the same all over the world," Shuri confirmed.

"I've gotta go," said Bruce. "The Avengers say Tony Stark made it and he's inbound. Dunno what he'll have seen out there, but if he's okay, I'm bringing him in."

"I've ordered a shuttle for you," said Shuri. "It will have you to the Avengers compound within three hours."

"Thanks."

The Wakandan shuttle actually got Bruce to the compound before Tony's ship arrived. "Any news?" he asked the surviving Avengers.

"I barely managed to convince Ross and President Bunt not to shoot that ship down," sighed Rhodey. "We lost most of the Joint Chiefs, and as sorry as I am about that, it's at least preventing Bunt from launching missiles in every direction. Russia, China, and North Korea have been radio silent, which means they've probably lost their presidents and prime ministers. We know we lost more than half the British Parliament along with the Prime Minister and the Queen, and Germany and France are setting up emergency elections."

Steve paced in front of the various televisions, all running different reports. "So far nobody's fired off any nukes…yet."

It was another hour before the ship was visible, coming down in shaky, lurching movements over the widest part of the Compound's grounds. "Is Tony flying that thing?" muttered Nat.

"Not sure. He said he had one of Rocket's friends with him," said Rhodey. "He didn't sound too good."

The ship finally touched down and tilted to one side until one wing was in the dirt, but Rhodey was already rushing out the door. Bruce sucked in his breath when he saw two more figures running out of the compound's ground floor doors after Rhodey. "Oh my God."

It was Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan. Next to Bruce, Steve murmured, "Yeah, they made it. It's bad everywhere; Pepper's parents are gone, Happy's brother's gone, but they made it."

Tony Stark came stiffly down the ship's ramp – until he saw the three people coming towards him, and he froze. When he glanced up towards the windows, Steve quickly slipped to the side. "Hey, what're you - " Bruce began.

Steve shook his head, smiling but with wet eyes. "It's okay. Let him have this."

Bruce went downstairs and out the door too, but stayed up on the steps. Tony broke into a staggering run and grabbed Rhodey into the most frantic hug Bruce had ever seen him give, only to let go to seize Pepper as she reached him and smashed kiss after kiss all over his face. Her sobs were audible even fifty yards away. Tony buried his face in her neck, but released her with one arm as Happy arrived to pull his friend in, and Rhodey put his arms around all of them until they were in a huddle so tight, Bruce was surprised they didn't just fall over.

He could just hear Tony's broken voice, chanting, "You're here? You're here! You're here!"

Natasha had followed Bruce. "Pepper was doing a commencement speech for CUNY when it happened. There were almost twenty thousand people in that arena, and the kids just…their parents, their siblings, their friends, their families, the faculty…she's struggling. All hell broke loose. On top of disappearing, people are dead from car accidents, plane crashes, you name it. Some Christians are saying it was the rapture. A lot of other religious are saying this is the end of days."

A blue woman who looked…at least partly robotic came slowly down the ramp after Tony. She spoke too quietly for Bruce to make it out, but judging by the pantomime that followed, Tony was vouching for her. She looked angry.

The group started to shift themselves so they could walk back towards the buildings, but neither Pepper, Rhodey, nor Happy seemed willing or able to completely let Tony go. Pepper was under his arm, tears still streaming down her face, Rhodey on his other side, and Happy had a hand on Tony and Pepper's backs.

Then Tony saw Bruce waiting and his legs buckled, nearly pulling the whole group to the ground. Bruce had to grin and jogged out to meet them. Tony released Pepper and Rhodey to throw his arms around Bruce. "Hey…hey, it's okay," Bruce murmured, patting his back. He reached past Tony to hold out a hand to Pepper. "It's so good to see you."

"Thought I'd…lost everyone…" Tony murmured.

"Nah, some of us made it. We're gonna fix this," Bruce vowed. Funny how he'd somehow turned into the team cheerleader. He gazed past Tony at the blue woman. "Hi. I'm Bruce Banner."

"Nebula," she said. "I've heard of you. You're the man Stark thinks could help undo this. I hope you're as brilliant as he says." She didn't sound terribly impressed or encouraged. Bruce wondered who she'd lost to Thanos. Tony stumbled as he released Bruce, and she added, "Your friend's wounded."

"Dammit." Rhodey pushed everyone aside, and Natasha came jogging up to help examine Tony's injuries. "Lemme see," Rhodey insisted. "Jesus, who were you fighting?"

"Thanos," Tony muttered.

"You too, huh?" Bruce sighed and looked around. "What happened to Strange?" He saw Tony's expression and grimaced. "Damn. So I guess that's how Thanos got the time stone."

"I…yeah, I'll…tell you later." Tony went listless, leaning heavily against Pepper. "Happy…?"

"Yeah, boss?"

"I need…is May Parker alive?"

Happy nodded. "Yeah, I told her to stay at her home and we'd…" He saw the look on Tony's face and swayed on his feet. "No…Tony…no…" Tony gave a full-body shudder and squeezed his eyes shut. Pepper sobbed and brushed the tears from Tony's face. "How?"

Tony couldn't answer. In the end, Nebula said, "After Thanos left us on Titan, everyone who still lived began to disappear. The Guardians of the Galaxy, the time wizard, the spider boy. Stark and I are the only ones left."

"I lost him," Tony murmured, staring at nothing. "I lost him…I told him to go home…"

"Tony…man, if what we saw here is any indication, it wouldn't have mattered," Rhodey said gently. "People disappeared wherever they were. Him being at home wouldn't've saved him. Even if he'd never met you, it wouldn't have saved him."

"I have to tell May…" But Tony's legs gave way altogether, and they all had to scramble to catch him.

Bruce and Happy lifted him between them. He was awake, but only just. "Infirmary first, boss," Happy insisted.

Tony argued at first, but made less and less sense as they went, mumbling, "why'd he do it - he said he wouldn...the time stone...he said..."

Nebula trailed after them, and Nat slipped around the group towards her. "Are you hurt? Do you need medical attention?"

"I'll heal well enough. I treated him as best I could."

Tony's head dropped back, and Steve came running down the steps. "Let me." Bruce and Happy shifted so Steve could get one arm under Tony's back and the other beneath his knees, and lifted him more easily than the two of them had managed together.

Luckily, Tony didn't come around during the trip to the infirmary. Bruce wondered if he was the only one who noticed how intensely Steve was staring at Tony's face even after laying him on the bed.

"Who've we got left on the medical staff?" he asked as a few nurses and interns came in.

"No doctors, as you can tell," sighed Rhodey. "I called Helen Cho; she's alive, but a lot of her staff aren't, and those who survived have gone to be with their families. She said she'd come if we needed her, but at the time nobody was that bad."

"Civilian air traffic's a mess," said Nat, and headed for the door. "I'll go get her."

As shell-shocked as the few remaining Avengers medical staff were, Tony's stab wounds and broken ribs weren't anything they couldn't handle with Bruce's help, and in a few hours, they had him stable to Bruce, Rhodey, and Friday's satisfaction. Steve hovered until he realized Tony was watching him through squinted eyes, then nearly jumped away from the table.

Tony made a noise like a moan, or he might've been trying to say Steve's name, but he slipped under again. "We've got him on the good painkillers," the most senior intern explained. "And he's exhausted."

Tony said they weren't speaking. Bruce jerked his head at Steve, who caught his aim and followed him from the room. "So, there wasn't really time to catch up before all hell broke loose - again. Tony said there'd been a falling-out. What'd I miss?"

Steve sighed and scrubbed his face. "What do you know about the Sokovia Accords?"

"That part, Rhodey filled me in on. At least that Ross was involved, that was enough for me to have a few choice words. He's lucky Hulk's feeling shy these days," Bruce muttered. "But that alone wouldn't explain why Tony couldn't bring himself to call you." Steve flinched and looked away. "I asked Rhodey; he wouldn't say, just that it was for you or Tony to tell." Steve chuckled softly, sounding completely miserable. "C'mon, Cap, whatever it is, half the world is dead."

Steve let out a hiss of what sounded suspiciously like "Fuck," and turned his back. His shoulders shook. Bruce doubted he was laughing. After a few long moments and several deep breaths, Steve choked out, "Bucky. Tony's parents. It was - the Winter Soldier - "

"Oh, holy shit," Bruce breathed. "I didn't know that."

"Neither did," Steve gestured vaguely back toward Tony's room. "I found out - before DC, but I didn't say..." He bent forward and finished, "Gave Zemo the ammo he needed. There was a tape."

Jesus H. Christ. "So...Siberia..." Bruce mused, putting together the tidbits he'd gotten from Rhodey, Natasha, and Sam. "Tony followed you there, and he found out?"

"Yeah."

"And...damn, he went after Bucky." No way would Steve have let Tony hurt his friend. And hell, even Rhodey and Sam agreed Barnes had been brainwashed out of his mind to become the Winter Soldier. But what difference would that make to Tony if he saw...something on a tape? Bruce managed not to shudder. As messed-up as his own upbringing had been, he couldn't be sure the Hulk wouldn't have busted out if someone had managed to spring a videotape of a murder on him. Tony might not have an inner Hulk, but he was volatile at the best of times. Damn.

"'f I'd told him...might not've come to this...it was my fault..."

"Hey." Bruce went cautiously closer and put a hand on Steve's arm. "Come on, don't do that. This...what just happened goes so far beyond anything anybody could've predicted...it's nobody's fault except Thanos. You remember what Tony used to say? If we can't protect the Earth, we'll avenge it. Princess Shuri and I have a team trying to figure out how to reverse this. But if we can't...we'll make Thanos pay for it, one way or another."

Steve barely made a sound, but Bruce felt another sob shudder through him. "Sam..."

Bruce awkwardly patted his shoulder. "Did you find his family?"

"Just...his sister...his nephew. His mother, brother-in-law...uncle...they're all..." Another shudder took him, and Bruce pretended not to notice. "She doesn't...his nephew does."

It took Bruce a second to fill the words in: oh. Blame us. He sighed. "How old's his nephew?"

"Thirteen."

"Aw, Steve, you know a kid that age isn't gonna get it. Hell, the rest of us can barely get it." Steve nodded, then swayed, and Bruce caught his arm a little harder. It dawned on him then: the tremors he was feeling from the normally rock-solid supersoldier weren't just from emotion. "Hey. How long since you slept?"

Steve laughed bitterly, but Bruce didn't let go, and he finally admitted, "I...dunno?"

"Let me guess: before I called?"

"Yeah, probably."

Bruce released him but gave him a gentle shove. "First time I've pulled rank as a doctor in almost twenty years, but to hell with it - bed, Cap. Seriously. Back in Wakanda, they told me I needed my brain working, and I needed sleep for my brain to work. They were right."

Steve finally looked at Bruce; God, from this close he really did look terrible. How much sleep deprivation and grief did it take for Captain America's eyes to look burned into his head and the rest of his skin pulled too tight? He gave a weak, shaky smile. "'m not a scientist, Bruce."

"You still need your brain working," Bruce said, and when he nudged Steve again, Steve started shuffling for the door. "Friday, lock Captain Rogers in his room and don't let anybody in unless the world gets worse than it already is."

"Understood, Dr. Banner. That's a high bar to set."

Steve let out a half-laugh, half-sob, but waved in what Bruce thought was concession and left for the residential floor.

"If it wouldn't make things even more awkward than they already are, I'd kiss you for that," said Nat from the opposite doorway. Bruce jumped, and she smirked. "Do I need to say, 'physician, heal thyself'? How long since you slept?"

"Eighteen hours, give or take. Don't worry, they made me sleep in Wakanda, and I'll take a nap, just trying to catch up on what I missed."

Nat shrugged. "Nothing all that unexpected under the circumstances. Rhodey got in Ross's face and almost tackled President Bunt to the ground; they were threatening to send a 'peacekeeping force' to Wakanda. Don't worry!" she exclaimed, as Bruce stiffened. "Half the surviving American armed forces are AWOL, searching for their families. And Tony designed an emergency fail safe after Ultron that'd change and recrypt all the nuke codes on the planet, along with most other major armaments. Rhodey released it after the first conversation with Ross; they haven't realized it was us yet, but Rhodey doesn't care if it's treason. The entire planet's armed forces are grounded."

"Thank God. So nobody can seize the opportunity to take out older grudges."

"Exactly."

"I know I'll regret asking, but did I hear right? Ronald Bunt, the racist talk show host, is President?"

"'fraid so."

"Dear God. What does he have to say about all this?"

"It changes by the hour: it's ISS, it's Israel, it's aliens, it's the deep state, it's the Democrats, it's immigrants, it's mutants."

"Figures. Did you get Helen?"

"Yeah, she's looking Tony over now. Nebula says he didn't sleep on the trip back from Titan either, so Helen sedated him. He'll need it."

Bruce leaned against the wall. "So what's her story? Nebula?"

"She's another of the 'children of Thanos,' to use the term loosely. Apparently, the purple bastard likes to collect kids he orphans. Sometimes his brainwashing sticks, sometimes it doesn't. We killed most of the true believers today before he snapped his fingers. He had a favorite, though: Gamora. Nebula's pretty sure he murdered her to get his hands on the soul stone."

"My God." Every time I think it's as ugly as it can get. "So Nebula wants him dead...I hope?"

Nat shrugged. "That's what she says. Until Thor and his walking raccoon buddy get back, we've got no way to know for sure. She could be a spy. Where's Wanda when we need her?"

Bruce frowned to himself. "Hey, did you see...or hear, what Thanos said to her after...he killed Vision?"

Nat frowned. "I didn't hear, but I saw...he was kind of paternal, wasn't he?" She wrinkled her nose. "Gross. But consistent with Nebula's story. He'd pick up kids whose families he'd just slaughtered. He needs to meet the other guy, Bruce."

Bruce sighed. "He did. Hulk lost to him, Nat." She stared. "Hulk lost so bad he's scared to come out again. The one time he and I were completely on board with each other, we lost; Thanos'd already slaughtered half a ship full of Asgardian refugees. Hulk didn't need any persuading to smash, but it wasn't enough. And Thanos only had two Infinity stones at the time."

"What happened to the other half?" Nat demanded. "Hell - what happened to Asgard?"

"Oh, Ragnarok. Thor and Loki's psychotic sister showed up after Odin died - I'm serious, she made Loki look like the very essence of mental stability. She was drawing her power straight from Asgard, slaughtering everyone who opposed her - and that's literally everyone in Asgard. So Thor and Loki evacuated the survivors and caused Ragnarok, some giant fire demon thing to eat the whole planet. Finished her off, but then we flew right into Thanos' fleet. He let half the refugees go, killed the rest." Bruce scoffed bitterly at the window. "That's his thing. Always half."

"Yeah, Nebula said something similar. She says his cover story about overpopulation is bullshit, though, that he just likes having power over life and death."

"She has no reason to lie to you." Bruce jumped, but Nat didn't. Nebula was standing in the infirmary doorway. "Of course, you've no reason to believe me." She cocked her head at Nat. "I like you. You've the most wits I've seen in any Terran so far." Eyeing Bruce, she mused, "They say you're the most brilliant in this world; I hope they're right."

"I dunno, the guy you flew over with might give me a run for the money," said Bruce.

Nebula shrugged. "Hard to say; he was delirious for most of the trip. But I've told you the truth about my self-proclaimed father; he doesn't kill because he believes it makes life better. He kills because he enjoys it. He used to wipe out entire populations, but that didn't satisfy him because there was nobody left to scream and cry over the carnage and witness what he'd done. So he came up with his new line, murdering half a world's people at random for the pleasure of the survivors' agony. Every one of his 'children,' including me, we came from those ruined worlds. Once he gets bored, I suppose he'll go hunting again for new toys and invent some new justification."

"So...I guess it's too much to hope he'll leave the universe alone now that he's got what he wanted," Bruce sighed.

"You can gamble on that if you like." Nebula fixed him with an intense stare. "I wouldn't."


A few hours later, Tony actually woke up first. "Wha' happen...Pepper...Happy?!"

Bruce hurried forward, but Rhodey stopped Tony from falling out of bed. "Easy, Tones, easy. They're here; you weren't dreaming. I made 'em both take a nap; everyone's exhausted."

Tony let out a gasp that was more like a sob and wrapped an arm around Rhodey's neck. Rhodey helped him into a sitting position. Helen Cho came in, looking only slightly less wrung out than the rest of them felt and took Tony's vitals without really looking at him.

Tony watched her. "How bad?"

Not meeting his eyes, she murmured, "Bad. You're healing well, though. Have something to eat, and you'll be in good shape." She hurried out of the room still avoiding eye contact with everyone.

Tony looked from Rhodey to Bruce. "Her family's dead," Bruce said quietly. "All of 'em. She came because there's nothing left for her in Seoul."

"Dammit." Tony rubbed his eyes. "Did I...do I remember seeing..." Uh-oh... "Was Rogers here?" Bruce and Rhodey exchanged a long look, and Tony looked up and caught it. "So that's a yes."

"Tony..." Rhodey began. "This is so incredibly not the time to go back to - "

"Aw, for Chrissakes, Rhodey, I know that!" Tony snapped. "You really think I'm stupid enough to just pick up where we left off? Fuck. So, go on: is Barnes with him? I don't care, I'll call a truce!"

But Bruce winced, and Rhodey held up a hand. "No, Barnes isn't here. Barnes is dead." Tony stiffened. "He...disappeared, like all the others."

Tony's lips moved, but nothing came out, and Bruce confirmed, "I saw it. He was right in front of Steve. He was the first one either of us saw go. We didn't know what was going on, or why...at first."

Tony shut his eyes. "Is it...Nebula said...half? Half everywhere?"

"Yeah," Rhodey muttered.

Tony opened his eyes and saw Rhodey unable to meet them and asked quietly, "Who else?"

"Wanda," said Bruce. Tony flinched. "Vision - he didn't disappear, Thanos killed him for the mind stone, in front of Wanda. Then when he...snapped his fingers, she disappeared."

"Sam Wilson," said Rhodey, staring at the wall. "Cap and I looked for hours. All we found was Redwing and dust. T'Challa too. Nick Fury, Maria Hill. Nat found their car in the street. Phones, tablets, even the car keys just dropped in with all the other car wrecks. Half the planet thinks the rapture happened. The other half knows we should all be so lucky."

"Shit." Tony pulled his knees up to his chest and dropped his forehead onto them. "Flying in...it looked like half the state was on fire."

"That's 'cause half the state's on fire," Rhodey said, but he sounded too tired to carry the joke off. "Bruce had to play the doctor card to get Cap to go to sleep - hey, Friday, how long's he been napping?"

"Well, Colonel, he went to his room four hours ago as Dr. Banner instructed, but he's only been asleep for twenty minutes."

Bruce and Rhodey groaned in unison. "Figures. Does he seem okay?" Rhodey asked.

"He, ah, was in some emotional distress earlier."

Tony sighed and shut his eyes. "Don't worry about it, guys, even I know where the priorities are now. Let him sleep. Hey, Fry, do that white noise, do-not-disturb protocol you do for me when I'm up too long."

"Yes, boss."

"What about the others - the ones we've still got?"

"Pepper was on the phone until a couple hours ago," said Rhodey. "Lines are jammed or down completely in a lot of places; half the Internet's crashed. She heard from her brother; he and the niece are okay, but her sister-in-law's gone and that cousin she was really close to. She had a bit of a meltdown then; Happy sent her to bed."

"Good boy. 's he asleep now too?"

"I think so, I told him to take a break awhile ago," said Bruce. "All hell's breaking loose no matter what we do; we may as well get some sleep before dealing with it."

Tony smiled weakly. "When'd you get so assertive, big man?"

"It's a long story. I'll tell you when you're not gonna nap through it."

"Hey, it is my turn."

But Tony was asleep again in ten minutes.


When Bruce woke a few hours later, Steve was peeking into the infirmary. Tony wasn't in his bed anymore. "How is he?"

"Healing up good, from the pounding Thanos gave him, anyway. Friday, status on Tony?"

"He's taking a shower, Dr. Banner. Colonel Rhodes walked him back to his room. His vitals are good."

"How long've you been up?"

Steve looked at the clock. "About...ten minutes? I guess a shower wouldn't hurt me either." With a wan smile, he left again.

Bruce had Friday update him on current events, not that he expected any good news. Rioting and coup d'etats were breaking out in pretty much every country on Earth, and where there wasn't violence, civilization had still come to a screeching halt as half the population searched for loved ones and collapsed when they didn't find them.

The Wakandans had finished tallying their losses: almost exactly half their population. "Some nations lost more, others less, some families lost everyone, others lost no one, but when you average it out, Earth is now down three and a half billion people," Shuri told him. "How is Stark?"

"Recovering. I'm gonna talk to him shortly. I think he'll be very on board." Then Bruce heard Tony shout something in another room. "Oh shit, gotta go!"

He bolted down the hall to the common room, only to find...Tony doubled over laughing at a bemused Steve Rogers as a rather-befuddled Rhodey looked on. "What the fuck did you grow on your face, Rogers?!" Tony wheezed, pointing at Steve.

"A...uh..." Steve rallied himself and started to grin as he finally answered, "A diabolical disguise, what does it look like?"

"I told him that thing made him look like a back woodsman," Nat sang out from the kitchen. "It worked, though. Nobody ever recognized him!"

"Damn right, I was about to ask who the mountain man was in the compound!" Tony shifted - and caught that Rhodey shifted in sync with him, as if to make sure Tony didn't step out of arm's reach. "For fuck's sake, I'm not gonna go Jerry Springer. Shoo. The world just ended; we can talk like grown-ups."

"All evidence to the contrary," Rhodey retorted, but at Steve's nod, he went to the kitchen (not before casting a very pointed look at both of them). Bruce did the same as he went - then he, Nat, and Rhodey all surreptitiously crowded around a camera feed.

Oddly enough, Friday didn't snitch on them.

Steve and Tony both stood with their arms folded, shuffling around the perimeter of the lounge and staring at the floor. "You're looking suspiciously well-groomed these days," said Steve. "Being engaged seems to agree with you. Congratulations. And...I was really glad, to see Pepper was okay."

"Yeah," Tony scrubbed his face. "I couldn't get through on that space ship until we were on the ground, so the whole flight back, I didn't know...who'd made it." He lowered his hands but kept his eyes shut. "Peter's dead."

Steve blinked. "Peter?"

"Spider-man. The kid. He stowed away on Thanos' ship after it came for Strange. Not that it mattered, I guess. He'd have dissolved no matter where he was. He was seventeen."

Steve sucked in his breath. "Oh my God. I'm so sorry, Tony. Strange, too?"

"Yeah. He said something...something about it being the only way. I don't have a clue what he meant. Nebula says it has to've meant something."

Slowly Steve mused, "I don't know a lot about Steven Strange, but Thor seemed to think he knew a lot about the universe."

"Any word from Thor?" Steve shook his head. Tony still didn't look at him, but finally said, "I'm sorry about Sam." Steve full-body flinched, and Bruce felt Natasha hold her breath as Tony finished carefully, "And...Barnes. 'm sorry about your friend."

Steve couldn't answer, just hunched his shoulders like when he and Bruce had talked and didn't turn around. Tony didn't approach him.

"Tony, I..." He broke off, his breath hitching, and Tony turned away - but inadvertently faced the camera so Bruce could see the wetness on his face. Finally, Steve managed to get out, "I...know...we need to...do something. We can't - we can't just let what Thanos's done go."

"Hell, no," Tony whispered.

"The - the thing is..." Steve finally turned around, giving up on trying to hide his own tears. After a few shaky breaths, Tony gave up too and faced Steve. They stared at each other, completely disarmed and lost, and Bruce felt his own throat tighten and his eyes burning for them. "I don't know what to do," Steve visibly forced himself to finish. "I don't know where to start. I don't know anything about astrophysics or magic or whatever the hell those stones do. Let alone how to counteract them."

Tony heaved out a ragged breath and scrubbed furiously at his face. "Well, you got a couple of geniuses in this building, and I doubt Bruce or I've got any rock-solid battle plans for you. There's Nebula, I guess. First time in my life I've ever felt completely out of my league, so join the club."

Steve laughed wetly. "Have you seen what's going on outside the compound?"

"A little. Civilization's fallen apart, anarchy, y'know, what we'd expect when half the human population dissolves." Tony huffed and grabbed a handful of Kleenex from a box on the side table, trying to dry his face off. "Rhodey tells me there's a lot of fingers pointed at us. Possibly a few missiles. Lucky I had a contingency plan for the missiles."

"They told me. It's something. At least you've stopped the rest of the human race from killing each other in the aftermath," Steve sighed and went for his own box of tissues. "Half of us are dead, and we're still fighting each other. We never learn, do we?"

Tony shrugged. "Maybe that's human nature - or sentient being nature, or whoever inhabits the universe that Thanos decided in his wisdom there were too many of. What's the answer? His?" Steve snorted. "Yeah. Thor and Nebula and the Guardians talked like there're whole interstellar civilizations we've never seen or heard of, and they've all got their problems - and their share of genocidal maniacs. But Thanos...he's a different league altogether."

Both of them were starting to breathe a little steadier and stand a little straighter. Steve studied Tony. "I've been remembering, what you said to Loki years ago."

"That you were…what was it…a living legend who kinda lives of to the legend?" Tony asked. He had that smirk like he was giving somebody a hard time...but something in his voice wasn't his usual wisecracking tone. More like dead-earnest.

Steve blinked. "Uh...I didn't know that part." He looked down, blushing, and Tony's smirk got a little softer. Bruce heard Nat's breath catch, but politely pretended not to notice. "I meant... you said then, if we can't protect the Earth, you can be sure we'll avenge it." He sighed. "I don't want to settle for just avenging all those lives, but if that's all we ever get...if we can kill Thanos and get that gauntlet from him and destroy it..."

"We'll have done our jobs," Tony finished. "It won't feel like enough. Not for anybody, least of all us. But it won't be nothing. It's like you told Wanda after Lagos. We try to save lives, sometimes we can't save everyone. But if we don't try, we save no one."

Steve held out a hand, and Tony took it, some hybrid of a handshake and just anchoring themselves to each other for dear life, judging by how hard Tony was squeezing.

Bruce let himself grin. "Thank God," murmured Rhodey. Nat, to Bruce's surprise, didn't say anything. Bruce got the feeling she couldn't.

"Well, I hate to go break up the reconciliation meeting, but I do need to talk to Tony," Bruce said. "Princess Shuri's team may have something closer to an actual plan than he or Steve realize." Bruce straightened and headed down the hall.

Tony and Steve heard him coming and pulled themselves together, and Tony was lounging in one of the chairs when Bruce came in, while Steve was gazing out the window. "Sorry to barge in, but I promised Princess Shuri I'd talk to you."

That got both their minds off losses and the past two years, and Steve turned around while Tony perked up. "Yeah?"

Bruce grinned at Tony. "That sixteen-year-old kid made me feel slow, Tony. It might not be as hopeless as either of you think."

Tony stared at Bruce, then sidestepped slowly towards Steve. "...he's being optimistic."

Steve grinned. "Thank God, I thought I was hallucinating. So either the world has ended and this is just you and me going insane, or we actually do have a prayer of fixing this."

"Very funny," Bruce retorted, but he couldn't keep the grin off his face either. "C'mon. Let's get to work."

~Fin~

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Uptown

All Tony really knew about Shuri of Wakanda came from Peter Parker's very excited chatter when the girl started publishing STEM papers after her big brother took the throne. Tony'd been intrigued and made a note to read some of the stuff, but never got around to it.

Not before Peter Parker turned to ash on another planet, anyway.

He stopped Bruce only an hour into the conversation of the work in Wakanda. "Before we go any further, there's something I've got to do. It can't wait." He sighed and pulled up the report Happy'd sent. May Parker was alive and accounted for. Which meant... "I need to go to Queens. Doubt I'll be very long."

To his surprise, Steve winced and shut his eyes. Tony hadn't realized Steve had known where the kid came from. "His parents survived?"

"Not his parents, they've been gone since he was little. His aunt's raised him. She's alive. I owe it to her...to...y'know..." Tell her face-to-face her child died in my arms.

Bruce put a hand on his shoulder as he sent Happy a note to pull a car around. "You want me to go with you?" Steve offered quietly.

Tony shook his head. Another time, another place, maybe Captain America could take the heat off, but nah, this one's on me. "Probably better...no extra people." He made himself look at Happy's notes and tried to focus on practicalities. May had designated a "family friend" named Gloria Leeds as Peter's guardian in the event of her death - but Gloria Leeds was among the confirmed dead. "Damn. I don't see...she doesn't have..." She doesn't have anyone now.

"Why not bring her here?" Bruce suggested. "Nat's trying to get a hold of Clint and Scott, and she already made the offer to Sam's sister and nephew. It's chaos out there; at least the compound's still reasonably secure."

"Good idea...what'd Sam's sister say, is she coming?"

"Not now," said Steve. "The National Guard station near her deployed, so her area's quieted down. I told her to call me - or Rhodey - if she changes her mind. We'd go get her."

Happy knocked on the open door. "Car's ready, boss."

"Thanks. I'll drive, you stay here."

But Happy followed Tony to the garage. "No way, boss. I'm going." At Tony's startled look, he lifted his chin. "I spent a lot of time with that kid, these past few years. I'm coming with you."

Tony caught the way his eyes glitter, and relented. "It's not gonna be pleasant. She was never happy about me...being involved with Peter."

"Yeah, I know. All the more reason for me to go with you."


Anarchy had mostly ended on the streets of New York. With all major weaponry locked down (and the surviving members of President Bunt's cabinet too dim to suspect Tony's involvement), all the surviving U.S. military could find to do was get out onto the streets and try to calm their communities down – like they should've been doing to begin with.

Tony watched people through the heavily-tinted windows of the car as Happy drove. The whole population had the same shell-shocked look on their faces, from the utility workers trying to restore traffic lights to the cops patrolling the corners to the dazed civilians who seemed to just be wandering.

There was a woman sitting on the sidewalk outside a daycare center, her nice suit torn, missing one shoe, her hair in disarray as if she'd run there from an office. She had a stuffed animal in her arms and rocked back and forth with her face in it. Two girls - young women, dressed like they probably worked for the place - were sitting next to her, as disheveled and dirty as she was with visible tear tracks on their faces. Whatever had gone on at that daycare two days ago, those three women looked like they'd just sat down on the ground when it was over and hadn't moved since.

Cops and National Guardsmen stopped Happy seven times, but once they saw his ID and Tony in the passenger seat, they let him go. There weren't a lot of civilian cars on the roads; Happy had to maneuver around some abandoned ones. They all had ribbons or tape tied to the wipers, probably to indicate they'd been searched for survivors.

I've seen plenty of death and destruction. Never anything like this.

It was worse when they parked in Queens and had to get out of the car. Then Tony could hear. Haunted kids, maybe just a year or so younger than Peter, mingled in a cluster on the sidewalk, mumbling to each other. "Did you find your mama?"

"Uh-uh. My dad's still looking for her. He says she probably had to stay at the hospital for all the accidents."

"My sister saw our dad go. She was freaking out 'til this morning."

"Ain't nobody with you? You're supposed to call that hotline if you're underage by yourselves."

"Can't get through."

Tony faltered, and the kids saw him and recognized him, but none of them said anything. No request for help, or money, let alone an autograph. They just stared, and he kept walking like a zombie to Peter's building.

A girl came tearing out the main doors before Tony and Happy even got in, and Happy stiffened. "Michelle?"

She stared at Tony, then her eyes welled up. Happy obviously knew her. Friend of Peter's. So now she knows. "You live here?" Tony asked her.

She shook her head. "I came...looking for Peter." Shit. "My mom's...gone. His aunt told me to stay." She visibly braced herself, and Tony took a deep breath - but couldn't say it.

May deserved to hear it first. So Michelle just turned around and led them up to Peter's apartment. She let Tony be the one to knock.

A sunken-eyed, ashen-faced May Parker opened the door just a little, and for a second, Tony thought she'd shut it in his face. She looked from Tony, to Happy, to Michelle...and when she looked back at Tony, he knew she knew.

Someone opened their door down the hall, caught sight of Tony and Happy, burst into tears, and shut their door again.

"Can we come in?" Happy asked May hoarsely.

Like she couldn't come up with anything to say, May opened the door and turned away. She probably wouldn't have turned back at all if Michelle hadn't been trying so hard to not cry out loud; May slipped past them to put her arms around the girl, who finally gave up and buried her face in May's shoulder. "Well?"

"I'm sorry," Tony whispered. His voice was gone. "He...like the others...it...was fast." That was a lie, but nobody other than Nebula would know.

Michelle looked at him, exhausted and too weighed down to bother trying to hide her emotions anymore. Tony did think he recognized her; he recalled her as being one of Peter's spunkier buddies. Now she was just another shattered kid who'd lost everything and was still losing more. "Did..." she gulped and asked, "Was he...scared?"

Tony took a deep breath, mustered all his willpower...and lied. He shook his head. "We - didn't know - he didn't know - what was happening. Not 'till he was..." Gone. Liar.

But May looked like there might be a few shreds of relief as she shut her eyes. Or maybe she was hugging Michelle and just pretending it was Peter. "Good," she whispered. "Good."

"I'm..." gonna fix this. I'm gonna make it right, gonna get him back, gonna kill that fucking monster as slowly and painfully as I can, gonna take care of you... "Come to the compound with us. You'll be safe there. Both of you."

But they wouldn't know what the Avengers were trying to do. They'd assume it was to avenge Peter that the other billions, and they'd be right, but they couldn't know the rest.

But May turned away again with a noise like a scoff. "What for?"

Tony couldn't come up with an answer. Happy began, "He'd..." then trailed off.

To their surprise, Michelle dared to speak up. "This...thing, it was completely random, wasn't it? Just half the whole world?" Tony nodded. She looked at May. "So...it wouldn't have mattered whether he was Spider-man or not, or where he was when it happened. It wasn't their fault."

She cringed when May turned back to look at her, but that softened May more than anything Tony could've said. "I know. That doesn't change how I've felt these last few years." She wiped her eyes and stared Tony down. "I put up with you for his sake, because he was too old and too far gone to stop him. Now I'd rather never see you again."

Happy shifted to Tony's left, but Tony focused all his willpower to keep her gaze. He'd known this was coming. She'd made her feelings about Spider-man and Tony's role in his origin story very clear. Sometimes in private, a few times in front of Peter, with both of them struggling to restrain themselves from having a screaming match in front of the kid. Tony suspected Peter's feelings were the only thing that had saved him from one hell of a lawsuit.

He'd believed in his choice and in Peter's, those past two years. He'd defended himself and the kid without any doubt.

"I don't want to go, please..." Would he have been any less scared if he hadn't been Spider-man, just another random kid on the street watching people dissolve around him? No way to really know. But Tony would take Peter's terror to his own grave before he let May or Happy or Michelle or anyone else know. It was the only thing he could give them.

He'd been quiet for too long. May told Michelle, "You can go if you want; I can't stop you. But...MJ, no matter what, you can come back here if you want to, or if you need to. I'll make you a key."

The girl considered that, scrubbing absently at her own face. Finally, she murmured, "I don't...thanks, but I don't want to go...there. Not now."

Fair enough. There were people gathering around the compound, begging for help, searching for hope. Before Thanos, kids had crowded around the fences, adults had driven by to take pictures and hoped for a glimpse of the Quinjet or a superhero or two. But nobody really thought of it as a point of interest anymore.

Tony asked her, "You have a working phone?"

She pulled her phone out and eyed it. "Sometimes?"

"Here." Tony took it and deftly uplinked it to his own signal. "You've got my number, and a link separate from the lines and Wifi signal. If you need help, if you're in trouble, or you change your mind, call. I'll be here." He looked at May and didn't repeat it. She had the same link on her phone, had accepted it bitterly after discovering Peter's little pastime. She hadn't tried to call it until two days ago.

She'd probably realized the worst back when Tony didn't answer right away.

There wasn't anything else to say. So he just told them, "We've gotta go."

Neither of them thanked him; he'd have been shocked if they'd tried. He and Happy left the building and drove back to the compound in silence.


When they got there, there were two new arrivals: Scott Lang and a woman Tony had never seen. He must have arrived just a few minutes before Tony.

Tony and Happy knew what was coming the minute they got out of the car and saw the look on Lang and the woman's faces. Lang has a kid. A girl, age seven - nine now, I guess. Tony and Rhodey had hired a lawyer to help Lang and Barton cut deals to come home and get back to their families.

The rest of the team came hurrying out of the compound to join them. Lang just stared at the group; so did the woman. There was catastrophe in their eyes, that same empty, helpless expression as May Parker, as the woman outside the day care.

"Scott?" asked Steve.

Scott blinked and seemed to have to concentrate for a second to remember how to talk. "This..." he gestured weakly to his companion. "This is Maggie, my w - my ex-wife. Our...our..."

"Cassie," Maggie mumbled, her eyes sliding away from them all. "She's gone. And my husband."

"Dammit," Rhodey muttered. But he stepped past the others and put on a calm face. "C'mon in. You can both stay here. We're working on a, uh, a counter-attack - it's up to you," he told Scott quickly. "If you're not up to it, we totally understand that. But you'll both be safe here. Any other family you need to shelter?" The pair shook their heads.

Scott looked from Rhodey to Steve to Tony, then back to Steve. "Are we - you - going after - whoever did it?"

Steve looked at Tony and made the smallest flick of his head towards Maggie. Yeah. Careful what we say in front of the civilians. It was the same as with May Parker and Michelle. Better not to make promises. "We're...working on something, yeah. I'm sorry I can't promise what the result'll be."

"I'm in," said Scott immediately, his jaw tightening. "I dunno who, I don't care, I want 'em," he took a step forward and nearly pitched over; Steve and Happy had to catch him.

Bruce slipped last Tony to take Scott's pulse, and eyed Maggie. "Have either of you slept since it happened?" She shook her head and sobbed softly. "Okay. I'm Dr. Banner, by the way. First order of business: both of you need to rest. Nothing's gonna happen overnight. We're still regrouping, and everyone's gonna need their heads."

"C'mon." Happy and Steve helped Scott upright, while Rhodey and Bruce gently coaxed Maggie along with him. The pair didn't resist much; they were both too numb and exhausted.

Pepper and Nat came down the steps as the group passed, pausing to murmur greetings and reassurances before coming down to see Tony. "How'd it go?" Pepper asked, pulling Tony into her arms. He just shook his head. "She didn't want to come here?" He shook his head again. She sighed and kissed the top of his head. "Peter's aunt didn't have much love lost for Tony," she explained, probably to Nat. "I think she assumed Tony led him astray."

"We saw him, these past couple of years after Berlin. He was a little young at first, but he was quite a kid. Mutant?"

"Not exactly," Tony said with a weak chuckle. "Genetically-altered spider bite." He looked up, saw Nat's expression, and had to laugh. It would've been funnier if only Peter were still alive. "I swear to God, Romanoff, I'm not joking."

He got an equally weak smile out of her. "I heard from Clint. He should be here any minute."

Tony straightened, but Pepper tightened her grip on him. "So he's alive. Any word on..." he raised his eyebrows.

No wonder Nat looked like she'd aged twenty years in a few hours. "He didn't say. Which probably means at least..."

Wife and three kids. Those aren't good odds. Jesus, fuck. Can't one family get a reprieve?! Some people were showing up on social media whose families had been spared, caterwauling that there was a God and God had protected their families because of their faith...what the fuck ever. People have screamed to God for help for years without any answer. Any god who'd been involved picking and choosing who lived or who died was an asshole.

Friday let another car into the compound within twenty minutes, and most of the team came rushing back out. The car hit the wall as it parked. Tony thought with a rush of hope that maybe Clint wasn't the one driving... but then the door opened and Clint got out, and his heart dropped to his feet.

There was another father who obviously hadn't slept since Thanos stole half the lives in the universe. He looked worse than after getting brainwashed by Loki.

Nat got to him first, seizing his elbows, and he swayed against her. Steve and Bruce followed to steady him, and Tony and Rhodey trailed after.

Nat actually let Clint go and started opening the car doors, like she needed to check each one. There was a half-crazed look on her face. Clint didn't turn around, just slumped against Steve.

Nat opened every door, even the trunk, then stood staring at the car, helpless.

There was no one else in it.

"Oh my God," Rhodey murmured.

God, you are such a fucking asshole, Tony thought.

Clint couldn't even talk. Steve and Bruce gently tried to question him, but he just looked at nothing and swayed in their grasp. Nat stood paralyzed, looking at the car like somehow Laura or one of the kids might still appear. When Clint pushed Bruce away, she came back to herself and came around the car, catching him and murmuring in his ear. Then he let Bruce check his vitals.

Tony and Rhodey reached them, and Tony held back, wondering if Clint would lash out. Clint did stare at him, but there was no resentment, no blame. No...nothing. Just empty numbness from someone whose world had already ended, so who the hell cared about old grievances?

This wasn't like Scott Lang and his ex-wife. Clint wasn't a civilian. "We're going after Thanos," Tony told him.

Clint tried to focus, but his eyes started fluttering. Nat slid his arm over her shoulder. "Wait," he mumbled. "C'n it...be undone?"

Tony looked cautiously at Bruce. How much worse would it be to give false hope?

Steve had the answer. "We're going to try. Every scientist we know is on it. Thor's on it. If..."

Tony let himself voice the worst possibility. "If we can't...we're still gonna kill that bastard and destroy that gauntlet."

Clint seemed to be trying to consider that...but he just didn't seem to be able to focus. "Let's get you inside," said Bruce. "Are you hurt?"

"Nuh..." Clint sagged more heavily on Nat, and Steve slipped in to catch him. Whatever he mumbled at Bruce made no sense at all, and he went dead limp in their arms.

Tony heard Nat stifle a sob. "I've got him," Steve told her, putting his hand on her shoulder as she eased Clint to the ground, then he knelt and gathered Clint into his arms. Nat stopped and looked back at the car again. Bruce and Rhodey put their arms around her shoulders to steer her along after Steve and Clint.

In the infirmary, Helen Cho reassured them, "He's not hurt. He's sleep deprived and in shock, that's all. We can take care of the sleep deprivation, at least."

Nat kept a hand on his chest as he mumbled incoherently at her, but at her nod, Dr. Cho injected him. As soon as Clint had fallen into a deeper sleep, she murmured, "'scuse me," and left the room.

Steve hesitated only a beat before following her. Tony went into the nearest office and shameless spied on them with the internal cameras. Steve kept his distance at first once she was in the gym and let her kick a punching bag to pieces, then finally went to join her.

"What're you doing?" she muttered, not breaking the rhythm of her blows.

Steve answered, "I didn't want you to be alone."

Natasha's blows suddenly became sloppy, and she slid to the floor. Steve went to her, and to Tony's astonishment, she didn't take a swing at him, just clung to him and let out a snarling growl as if she was holding back a scream just by clenching her jaw shut. It broke down into sobs, and she slumped there on the floor in a heap.

Steve held her. Tony's vision blurred, but he didn't stop watching. At one point, she mumbled something about Clint, and tried to get up, but Steve soothed, "He's gonna sleep for hours. It's okay."

She gave in and collapsed in his arms again. It seemed like a long time until she stopped shaking.

Someone came into the office; Tony jumped guiltily. It was Nebula. "When Thanos came to my world, he seemed to prefer orphaning children. Now he seems to prefer destroying parents."

"I've seen plenty of both since we got here," Tony said, thinking of Michelle and the kids outside Peter's place. He leaned back in his chair. "What do you know about those Infinity stones?"

"They're remnants of the forces that created the universe. Alone, each of them endowed the bearer with tremendous power. Their power is compounded the closer one stone is to another. Thanos forced the dwarves of Nidavellir to forge the Infinity gauntlet to bind all six for him to wear. Now he has absolute power over the universe, to wield at his whims." Nebula fixed him with a hard look. "I already warned your friends of this: don't think you're out of danger from Thanos. He'll grow bored and look for new ways of wielding them eventually, and he'll be no less sadistic or self-deceiving about the justification than he was with this."

Tony considered her, recalling the conversations on that planet. "Who was Gamora?"

She looked away. "My sister. The luckiest of the unlucky who Thanos chose as his children from the worlds he ruined. Possibly the only one he actually loved. He killed her for the soul stone." She folded her arms and stared out the window. Happy and a couple of the staff were removing Clint's gear from his car. Happy was crying. Between talking to May Parker today and finding out who Scott Lang and Clint Barton hadn't brought with them...yeah. "Beware, Stark," Nebula murmured. Steve walked in then, but though she looked at him, she didn't stop talking. "Love is a weakness. Most of Thanos' children had it beaten out of us, but it destroyed both Gamora and me. She gave up the stone's location to stop his torture of me, and it cost her her life. Your wizard friend gave up the time stone to save you, and why should you thank him for it? It cost your friends their children."

Steve was the one who answered. "But one of us actually tried to give his life to protect the mind stone, and have someone who lived him destroy the stone - and him along with it. All that did was break her heart before Thanos undid it and took the stone anyway. We told him when all this started we didn't trade lives."

Tony stiffened as memory slammed into him. Strange, warning that if it came down to Tony's life or even Peter's, he wouldn't surrender the stone.

In the end, he had. After he'd seen millions of futures where Thanos won and a single future where the universe did.

He said it had to be this way...shit. "Strange," he murmured. "Dr. Strange. He said it had to be - giving up the stone so Thanos wouldn't kill me. After he used it to see the future."

Steve's eyes widened, but Nebula nodded. "Clearly, he thought you were important. He better be right."

Steve smiled. "Wouldn't surprise me. But you're wrong about love." Nebula snorted, but Steve held his ground. "Whatever it is he's fighting for, he'll never have the conviction we do." He put his fingers on the window, looking out at Clint's empty car. "If we can't undo this, we'll make damn sure he can't do it again."

She raised her eyebrows. "Vengeance would be enough for you?"

"Nobody said that," Tony replied. "But we're the Avengers. It's what we do. Are you in?"

He got a toothy, positively bloodthirsty smile in response. Oh, yeah, blue cyber-chick is definitely growing on me.

"If there's any chance at all we can reverse this, we have to take it," Steve said. "What Thanos did was too big for us to let it stay if there's any possibility it can be undone."

Nebula shrugged. "I may want my 'father' dead, but I won't do anything stupidly impulsive." She looked back out at Clint's car. "It would avenge me to know the rest of the universe won't suffer a fate like mine. Or my family's."

~Fin~

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Endgame

It turned out there were other ways to travel through time, and it was quite a trip. But in the end, they all ended up in nearly the exact same places.

The survivors of Thanos' slaughter knew what was coming and fought that much harder. Master Wong had warned them that small efforts on the part of small, individual people wouldn't be powerful enough to change the timeline. They needed a team. A team more powerful, more unified than ever before. Even then, the odds of success against Thanos were only one out of 14,000,000.

But the teams all chose to unite, combine their powers and their knowledge, and returned to reenact the final confrontation with Thanos – together.

So when Thor, Rocket, and Groot arrived from Nidavellir, after taking out the ships and monsters in defense of the Wakandans, Thor detoured back to Titan.

He returned with Iron Man and Nebula, then for Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and he was waiting when Thanos came for Vision and Wanda.

The Titan laughed at them and brandished the time stone. "Do you think I don't know we've done this before?"

Thanos threw them all off as easily as the first time and even managed to rip the mind stone from Vision.

But this time, when he raised Stormbreaker, Thor aimed for the Titan's head.

Thor missed.

Or rather, Thanos ducked, and Stormbreaker came down through his shoulder, severing the arm that held the gauntlet.

Bellowing in pain, Thanos staggered away while Nebula lunged for the gauntlet, but it made a fist in her hands. Thanos laughed triumphantly and snapped his fingers.

While Nebula was still struggling to pry the gauntlet free, dust and ash filled the air and the screaming started.

"Steve?"

"Wam kumkani!"

"Groot? NO, Groot! No, no, no!"

"Peter - oh God, no - "

"I don't wanna go, please, sir, please - "

Thanos lunged for Nebula and his arm, but Thor rallied and swung Stormbreaker again, roaring vengeance - and caught Thanos in the face.

The fingers of the gauntlet went slack, and Stark, choked with tears and pain, aimed one of his weapons into it, firing and firing until the flesh of Thanos fell out as charcoal and cinders - not all that dissimilar from the ashes of the billions of people Thanos had just slaughtered, again.

Thor went flying as Thanos rallied with his good arm, blinded but still powerful enough to throw an Asgardian into the air. The Titan blundered toward them, and Nebula shoved her flesh arm into the gauntlet.

Blinded or not, Thanos must have sensed it and rasped, "It's too large for you, Nebula!" She snarled at him and scrambled away, feeling the gauntlet eerily twitching in her grasp. "Even your own sister's shoes were too large for you to fill. You can't hope to fill my gauntlet, poor inadequate child."

She shoved her hand defiantly inside... and the Gauntlet shrank on Nebula's hand to fit her, and the universe came with it. Life, thought, power, reality, time, and space, all were visible to her in their myriad incarnations and variations.

She grinned as Thanos staggered to a stop, with Thor charging behind him wielding Stormbreaker again. "I'm not your child."

She snapped her fingers. Restore them.

The Infinity stones obeyed. Ash swirled and matter re-formed and flesh and hearts and minds solidified in the places where they'd fallen only moments ago.

Thanos grunted and staggered towards her, but took Stormbreaker in the back of his head, cleaving his skull in two. It was a gruesome sight, but Stark was oblivious to it as he rushed towards the boy who lay coughing and stunned on the ground.

"Peter! Pete!"

"Miss'r Stark? What happen..."

Stark crushed the boy into his arms as if the boy were his own child. Thanos had never embraced any of his so-called children with such passion, let alone spoke to them as Stark did to the boy: "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right..."

She could see farther than ever before. In worlds that had descended into chaos and despair as half of their people vanished, the survivors screamed first in shock, then joy as their loved ones reappeared.

Here on Earth, a continent away, an archer had fallen to the ground in agony from seeing his wife and children dissolved again. Now he gasped as they returned, trying to clutch all four of them in his arms.

A wife rushed to her husband, and her daughter flew into the arms of her father.

The boy's aunt saw the people reappearing on the street and screamed with joy. Even though her child was on the other side of the world, she knew this meant he would be coming home.

A spear-bearing warrior saw her king fall stunned among the brush and cried out in triumph to her com: "The Black Panther lives! The Black Panther lives!" In the palace, a young princess raced through the corridors to find her mother. On the battlefield, a tribal chieftain who had been king bellowed a renewed challenge to the surviving invaders and led the charge to destroy them.

Only yards away, Steve Rogers threw his arms around his friend with a sob of relief.

Rocket dropped his gun as a confused tree asked, "We are Groot?"

Over Bucky Barnes' shoulder, Rogers looked up and shouted, "SAM?! SAM!"

"I - " In the dense undergrowth where he'd been thrown, a winged man coughed and called out, "I'm here!"

Rhodes shoved through the bushes as a red drone flew up and went in search of Thanos - only to find Thor still hacking him to pieces. The Hulk grunted and began to shrink back into Bruce Banner.

Even closer, Wanda Maximoff huddled over Vision's body and wept. Nebula looked down at her and said, "I understand." Then she grimaced; she hadn't meant to sound like Thanos.

The girl, the only one whose hope hadn't been restored, looked up. "Who're you?"

"Bucky!" Rogers' dark-haired friend struggled to his feet, prepared to charge back into a battle with no knowledge of what had happened since. "It's okay...uh..." he trailed off at the sight of Stark, still clutching the boy to his chest. Rogers caught his friend and started to pull him back, ready to put his own body in Stark's way.

But Stark waved them off. "Relax, Cap, I'm good."

"Huh?" The winged man appeared, assisted by Rhodes, and Rogers rushed to embrace him, only adding to his confusion. "Why do I get the feeling I missed something big here?"

"Good, it's not just me," muttered Bucky, shooting a half-nervous, half-confused look at Stark.

"We'll fill you in later," said Rogers. "Thor, how're we doing?"

Standing over the thoroughly-dismembered body of Thanos, Thor admitted, "I might've become carried away." The others started to laugh - but something in that mess of flesh and bone and armor twitched, and half of them leaped away with shouts of alarm.

"Holy shit, he's still ALIVE?!" the boy squeaked.

Nebula sighed. "He can't die - why do you think he likes death so much?" She considered him through the stones and mused, "I could give him the fate he tried to give us - but then there's the chance someone could do what I've just done and reverse it."

Thor grinned. "Or we could continue reducing him to small pieces and then scatter them throughout the cosmos, into stars, into black holes, into countless worlds and galaxies, across a span of time and space so vast that no being of any world would ever live long enough to find them all."

"Son of Odin, I like the way you think," Nebula said. "Are you up for a little more chopping, then?"

Hefting Stormbreaker, Thor sketched a mock-bow and announced, "I assure you, my lady, no manual labor has ever given me greater PLEASURE!" He resumed hacking while Stark pointedly made the boy turn away, but many of the Avengers nodded as Thor bellowed, "This is for my brother! For Heimdall and my people!"


Strange and Thor were distributing pieces of what had once been the Mad Titan via portals and the Bifrost to the farthest reaches of the universe when Nebula opened a portal with the space stone to bring the recovered Guardians back to Earth.

Quill eyed her and the gauntlet, while Mantis went immediately to Wanda's side. "I don't suppose you can save Gamora?"

Nebula tilted her head, and knew the answer immediately. "Not yet."

"Not yet?"

"No. But soon." She didn't even have to snap her fingers. Yet...the cost would be great, if she looked at it from her erstwhile stepfather's perspective.

"Maybe do something about Thanos's space dogs," Rocket suggested.

Relatively-speaking, there weren't many left, but why force the Wakandan warriors to keep dealing with them? Nebula reduced the ships and what remained of Thanos' forces, including his surviving children with the exception of Gamora and herself to ash. The Wakandans' roars of triumph echoed from the field.

"Wakanda forever!"

Wanda Maximoff sobbed quietly in Mantis' arms. Nebula looked down at her.

The Wakandan princess had warned, "Whoever takes that gauntlet will want to keep it. Who wouldn't want absolute power over life, death, and the whole universe?"

Nebula could do anything. She could undo every death Thanos had ever caused, destroy every creature he'd ever made. With a flick of her fingers, the Aesir refugee ship was whole, and the murdered half of the Asgardians found themselves sitting bewildered on its decks. Thor would see his brother and his friends alive when the ships reached Earth in a few days.

The dwarves of Nidavellir lived again. Eitri had earned that.

Do I stop? If so, where do I stop?

How angry Thanos would be to see her undoing so much of his work.

How long would it be wearing this gauntlet before she found herself playing with life and death the way he had?

No.

She knelt next to Vision and the grieving girl. With a little more time, Wakanda's brilliant princess could have freed the stone and saved his life. With all six stones, Nebula accelerated Shuri's work, weaving and reorienting Vision's brain to function without the stone, finding new ways in the vibranium of his cells and the flesh of his partly-human brain and body for his life and his awareness to survive.

The mind stone couldn't stay with him. But with Nebula’s help, Vision could live without it.

The onlookers gasped and Wanda cried harder as color returned to his body. Banner hurried past the others, wrapped in a blanket, and knelt next to her, gently holding her back while Nebula worked.

When Vision opened his eyes, the first thing he whispered was, "Wanda?"

Nebula stood as the girl threw herself on him, sobbing. "I think that's enough. He doesn't need the mind stone anymore. Now we need to get rid of it."

Quill looked skeptical, then shocked as Nebula plucked the yellow stone from the gauntlet and tossed it to the ground. "Hate to break up the reunion, kids, but Wanda, can you handle that?" Stark asked.

Startled, Wanda looked up, then at the stone, then at Vision. He felt his forehead. "It's gone. I no longer need it..." He smiled at her. "I think I agree with Tony. We should get rid of it quickly."

Nebula handed the time stone to Strange. "You can't keep it. No one can keep any of them. They all have to go."

"I know." Strange said reluctantly. "With this, anyone could go back and undo what we've done. I'll take care of it."

Seeing the Guardians having told hold Quill back, Nebula returned her attention to them. "Now… Now, I can…" It was such a relatively small act, to restore one life on the rocks of Vormir, to open a portal for the bewildered Gamora to step through. Yet in a way it was the most drastic. One light from the beginning of the universe flickered out so that one woman would breath again and rise to find a portal awaiting her and step through.

"What...Nebula...?!"

Gamora watched, stunned, as Nebula pulled the remaining stones from the gauntlet and gave them away. "Destroy them. All of them." The gauntlet, she gave to Thor. "Return it to Nidavellir and tell them to destroy it and destroy the mold."

"I think they'll be all too glad of the task."

Steve Rogers was either unwilling or simply unable to let go of his friends. Barnes and Wilson stared from him to each other in confusion. "Steve, hey," Wilson tugged in vain at him. "What the hell happened?"

"I...you..." Rogers looked a little crazed as he clutched both of them, afraid they'd dissolve if he let go.

It was Rhodes who interceded, coming in to give Rogers and Wilson a clap on the shoulders. "Long story, guys. Longer than you realize. Damn." He released them to scrub sweat – among other things – from his face and shot a weary smile at the baffled Wakandan king, returning with a group of celebrating Wakandans surrounding him. "Welcome back, your highness. Good to see you."

Staring around the group, T'Challa said slowly, "Thank you. I take it someone used the gauntlet to finish off the invaders…now where exactly did I go?"

A shuttle landed not far away, and with a cry of "Brother!", young Shuri sprinted down its ramp and threw herself at T'Challa. He caught her in alarm and looked over her shoulders at the full eyes of Rogers and the other survivors.

"It worked, my king," said one of his bodyguards grimly. "For nearly a year, Thanos had succeeded. Half of all living people in the universe were gone."

Shuri mumbled confirmation, and T'Challa stared at M'Baku and the other Wakandans and Avengers who nodded. He tightened his grip on his sister. "How bad was it?"

"Bad," said Rogers. Suddenly he and everyone else Nebula had come to know over the past year looked completely exhausted and drained. Bucky put a hand on his back in concern, while the winged man stared at each of his friends.

"May…" Stark still hadn't let go of the boy, but he started to pull away. "I've gotta go home – I've gotta find May!"

"She's safe, kid, she's all right. Hang on, let me call Happy." Stark tapped a device on his own metal arm. "Hey, man, it's me. Yep, he's right next to me. Listen, can you track down May Parker and get her to the compound? She'll want to be waiting when we get back." Stark looked around. "So…damn, I still haven't wrapped my head around it. Does this mean we're done?"

"I think so," said Shuri, though she hadn't let go of T'Challa. "Once the stones are destroyed and Thanos is gone…it's over." She looked over her shoulder at Nebula. "Are they gone?"

"Mostly. The mind stone's gone. The time stone too; Strange and Master Wong have destroyed it. They'll adapt to life and defending the world without it. Together, the power stone and the reality stone destroyed the space stone. The Terran who once carried the reality stone in her own body unlocked the key to destroying it in this past year; Thor took it to her. The power stone…I'll deal with that. The soul stone's dealt with."

"What do you mean 'dealt with'?" Gamora demanded. "You're talking about disposing of elemental forces in the universe like it's dumping a little space trash! That stone…I felt it, when he traded my life for it. It's…different."

"Of course it is, they're all different. He traded you for the stone. I traded the stone for you." Nebula found it difficult to look at Gamora. "Funny, I could wipe out the Black Order and the Outriders as easily as he wiped out half of all beings. I could bring back all the beings he wiped out with the Gauntlet without breaking a sweat. I could even undo physical slaughters he carried out before. I could've gone on and on."

"But you didn't. You saved as many lives as you could safely, without the power going to your head. Then you stopped," said Rogers. It was gratifying, to hear such admiration in the voice of a man venerated throughout this world as their pinnacle of virtue.

"So what'd you mean about Gamora?" demanded Star Lord, standing close to her as the rest of the Guardians joined him. "Why was it so hard to bring her back when you could undo all the rest?"

"He sacrificed her to the soul stone," Nebula said. "The soul stone wouldn't return her. That's how I destroyed it. The soul stone's not just a powerful rock any more than the rest of them…even less, really."

Returned from his errand with his sorcerer friend at his side, Doctor Strange nodded. "It's the most powerful, the most dangerous, and the most beautiful. It's the power of life itself. I saw it used many ways in different timelines. Thanos even tried to bring his daughter back after his work was done, only to discover that with all the power in the universe, she was the one thing he couldn't have again. Not without giving up the completeness of the Gauntlet."

M'Baku spat an obscenity in Wakandan that Nebula knew. It seemed wearing the Gauntlet even for an hour surpassed even the Allspeak for understanding of languages. "Even if he did resemble either of you, I could tell you he was no father. A real father would've thrown all six stones into the void to bring back even one of his children. Speaking of which," he nodded to T'Challa. "My king, there's not much left to do with our enemies turned to dust, and I'd like to get back to my people – and my children."

"You saw this year that I missed?" T'Challa asked. M'Baku just nodded. T'Challa looked like he wanted to ask more, but stopped himself. "Go, then, my brother, with my blessing and gratitude. Take the shuttle. Get your warriors home to their families if they wish, but there will be celebrations soon in the city soon, and you'll all be invited."

"I never turn down a party. Until then." M'Baku marched off bellowing the Jabari rallying cry, soon joined by his fellows.

Nebula realized Gamora was still staring at her. "You gave up all the power in the universe. You had it, you could've used it for any 'greater good' you imagined, and instead, you gave it all up."

"The universe can find its own way," Nebula replied curtly.

She'd never seen that expression on Gamora's face before. "I could never have done that." She smiled. "You're amazing. You're the exact opposite of him. You're greater now than he ever was."

"And…who exactly is she, pardon the interruption?" asked Sam.

"Yeah, for those of us who fell asleep during the lecture," added Bucky.

"The blue girl who saved the world, what more do you need to know?" said Peter.

"All of you in the same place is stretching the fabric of reality with your sarcasm," said Romanoff. She had her phone in her hand and smiled broadly. "Clint just texted. Laura and the kids are fine. He's heard from Scott too. Cassie's safe at home."

"Everybody, meet us at Avengers Compound this weekend," Stark ordered. "For the biggest fucking party in the history of the universe."

"Mr. Stark, please!" T'Challa protested, covering his sister's ears (and getting a shriek of outrage and a shove). "Besides, you only have a compound; I have a country. I'll host the party."

Nebula and Gamora stood side-by-side as Avengers and Wakandans and Guardians made their way back towards the city. Peter Quill slipped up next to Gamora's other side and took her hand.

"He tore apart so many families, so many worlds. Now you've brought them back together."

"Not all of them. Just his most recent works, the ones he used the Infinity stones to carry out. I wanted to go on, but it wouldn't have been safe." Nebula mused, distracted. Somehow, she could still see far beyond Earth. In particular, Thor found his people's ship intact and rushed aboard, not daring to hope what he might find, then let out a howl of sheer joy and threw his arms around his very alive but very confused younger brother. Deaf to the demands for explanations from the Valkyrie and the other Aesir and the other aliens they'd picked up, Thor clutched Loki to his chest and refused to let go.

Heimdall, the far-seeing guardian of the Aesir, stared out across time and space – and met Nebula's eyes. It took some willpower not to blink and step back. "Thanos is defeated. By the strength and devotion of Thor, his Avengers, and many others, the Titan is fallen, his stones taken from him and destroyed, the Infinity Gauntlet torn asunder. All who perished under it now live. The universe is granted a second chance to find peace."

Someone caught Nebula's attention closer by. "So all of us who lived through it – we still remember it even though time went backward," Bruce Banner mused.

Nebula nodded. "We have to remember it. Otherwise we risk forgetting what we learned."

"Couldn't've said it better." He looked over his shoulder at Stark, who seemed physically in capable of letting the boy go more than arm's length away from him. It was the same with Rogers and his two friends, with Maximoff and Vision. Romanoff walked over and somehow managed to squeeze herself into Rogers' group between the three men. "It was…we were all sure some of us were gonna have to end up dead to reverse death on that scale."

"I would've thought so too," Gamora agreed. "It seems all that was necessary to restore life was to give up power." She smiled, a softness in her eyes Nebula had never seen. "Something I could never have done, or even imagined."

"Most of us probably wouldn't have managed that," said Stark, releasing the boy with one hand to put an arm around Rhodes.

Rhodes' phone buzzed. He chuckled. "That's Fury. Alarm's, over, Director, tell everyone to stand down?"

"Why have I got Thaddeus Ross and Ronald Bunt raving about time-travel?!"

"Er…they've both finally lost it?"

"Motherf-" The line went dead.

"Can I go back into retirement now?" Rogers' friend asked him.

"Only if I can join you," Rogers replied.

The boy under Stark's arm piped up, "Then who'll be Captain America?!"

Rhodes wrinkled his nose. "He's got a point, Cap. I don't blame you for wanting some rest in your old age - " Stark let out a snort of laughter, " – but you don't want Thaddeus Ross or President Bunt or one of their flunkies picking some new guy to carry your shield.

"Yeah," Rogers admitted. Barnes nudged him and whispered something in his ear, and Rogers grinned again.

Wilson looked up in surprise to see both supersoldiers grinning at him. "What?" He gaped when Rogers held out the shield.

"Nice, very nice," murmured Banner. "The Hulk approves," he called, while Wilson's mouth was still moving with no sound coming out.

"But – but – you can't - "

"I'm getting to old for this, Sam," said Steve. He smiled. "I want some beauty rest. What do you say?"

"I think I'm hanging up the armor for good this time too," said Stark. "Short of another apocalypse, I just want to get married and learn how to live like a human being again."

"What'll the world do without Iron Man?" the boy asked in dismay.

Stark tweaked his chin. "They'll still have Spider-Man."

"They'll still have War Machine," Rhodey added.

"They'll have Scarlet Witch and Vision," said Wanda, her arm around Vision.

"They'll have Black Widow," said Natasha.

"And the Black Panther," King T'Challa added.

As Wilson reverently took the shield from his friend, Rogers concluded, "They'll even still have Captain America."

"They'll have the Guardians of the Galaxy," said Quill. Nebula managed not to smirk at the dubious looks thrown their way."

"What if…I mean, god forbid, but what if something really bad happens?" the boy asked. "Like Thanos again."

Stark looked at Rogers and shrugged. "You need us, we'll be there. Just like always."

~Fin~