Steve did not scream, or he screamed endlessly. He didn't know for sure. Because a second later, his body was lifted by a golden light, a cyclone of yellow ropes binding him, twisting him away from the lonely cliff, from the angry and defeated eyes of the Red Skull, as Steve's hand closed around something smooth and jagged all at once.
Steve Rogers burned alive. Fire. Everywhere. In his hand, his eyes, his brain, and in his mutilated heart as his knees hit the grassy hill on the Wakandan field, the noise of the raging battle blowing though the silence of his mind in a blast that threatened to deafen him.
"Tony?" he whispered.
Six sentinels landed with great thuds in a protective circle around Steve.
"Where did you...doesn't matter. Gotta get up, Steve," Tony shouted. "We need you right away. Both of you. Where's Barnes?"
Steve swallowed around words that didn't exist, a truth he couldn't accept, as he again saw Bucky's spread arms, closed eyes, peaceful smile as he disappeared over that cliff.
Tony breathed heavily into his earpiece. "Steve? Where's Barnes?"
There was no answer.
Across the field, fighting the great army of hounds back-to-back with her prince, Jane Foster's head snapped toward Steve, and the color drained from her face. "No," she breathed.
In a spacecraft a universe away, Heimdall raised his great head to the ceiling. His eyebrows pulled together. "No," he said to himself as the stars flew past his eyes.
Natasha listened to the silence on the comm feed. "No," she breathed and pushed away from the panel, left the protection of the room, headed down a hallway she hoped the hounds hadn't yet reached. She ran and ran, ignoring Strange's cutting remarks about orders and favorites, blinded by the heartache of just what Steve's silence meant.
"No," Tony whispered and then cursed. "Cap. I don't…we…you gotta get up."
Steve knew Tony well, so he recognized his tone of comfort mixed with the urgency of the moment. Pain, grief, comfort...that would come later, after the battle was won. When they could all get a break. When they could have the luxury of taking things on their own terms.
Tears stung his eyes as he remembered Bucky's words.
But not now, he thought. Now, there was no rest. There was only the fight. And Steve Rogers stood tall, his body healed and energized and glowing with a vigor he didn't understand until his fist squeezed around the painful edges of what he knew he held. What he knew to his core he now possessed as its master.
"Tony, get these bots off the ground," he demanded into the comm.
Silence. Then, "Steve?"
The six sentinels burned outlines of great boots into the grass in their hasty exit, leaving a flood of bloodthirsty hounds rampaging toward Steve's feet.
He lifted the Soul Stone to his heart, and a fan of shimmering gold circled him before pulsing outward in a solid ring of power, slicing through the army of mindless beasts. Mindless and instantly soulless as the essence was stolen from each one. The light blinked from every eye, movement stunted as their limbs froze, and they fell, one after another. An army of nothing bowing to its new master. Their bodies dissolved with only a hint of sulfur lacing though the air, leaving trampled and bloody earth behind as a gruesome reminder of the day's losses.
Steve found the Soul Stone a comfort as he held back his tears, as he forced his wobbling legs to hold fast. The Stone sent warmth rushing through his limbs with a strength not unlike the feeling of his first transformation.
Through the comm, he heard Tony shout, "Wanda, NOW," But Steve stared ahead at nothing. He pulled the device from his ear, and with a thought, it disappeared in a small puff of golden smoke. The green fields dimmed. The blue sky paled. The setting sun glared.
Steve Rogers closed his eyes and simply tried to breathe.
Rocket jumped off the sentinel's back into the cushy grass. He squished it between his toes and nodded. "I could get used to this," he mumbled.
Groot hit the ground less elegantly and bounded to Rocket with a laughing smile. "I am Groot."
"Yeah, I kinda want one too," Rocket answered, looking up at the sentinel. "Hey, you! Can you understand me?"
"I certainly can," the sentinel buzzed from its chest plate.
Eyebrows raised all around. "You're a chick?!" Rocket said as Groot said "I am Groot?!"
"My name is Friday, and I'm an Artificial Intelligence program created by Tony Stark. Not to skip the pleasantries, but am I to assume that the bundle I am holding is alive?"
Rocket looked to the blanket-wrapped King of the Nine Realms. "Funny story there. That's Thor. He's-"
"This is Thor?" Friday asked. "I'll inform the boss."
"Ummmmm, you do that. We'll go…" he looked toward the complex doors where dogs were running in and out as someone belted one of Quill's favorite songs. Badly. "We'll go in there, I guess."
"Sure thing," Friday said. "I will protect Thor."
With that, the sentinel's chest panel swung open, and Thor was delicately tucked into a kind of egg-shaped pod that closed up almost as quickly. The sentinel stomped to the edge of the complex, touched the side of the building, and Rocket made a sound half impressed and half greedy as the bot transformed into a triangular cocoon against the nearest wall, wrapping layers of metal around and around the chest pod, planting jagged rods into the grass, and unveiling armed and ready gun after laser after missile launcher after electrical prod.
"Oh, now I DEFINITELY want one of those!" Rocket yelled, pumping his fist and pulling the guns from his back. "But later. Come on, Groot. Let's help no-brains in there."
The pair ran toward the door, guns and limbs clearing the path of dogs as they entered a maze of hallways.
Nebula jerked her arms toward her chest, the webbing holding firm against her enhanced strength. She looked up at the tip of her sword, gleaming, unhindered, and she changed her focus. She used her momentum to twist her wrists as she swung underneath the child insect. On her fifth attempt, the sword's edge sliced through the webbing, and she fell, allowing herself to land painfully on her back to make sure she didn't impale herself on Gamora's sword.
That was an embarrassment she would not suffer this day.
She popped out the plate holding her left eye and used its sharp edge to cut the web binding her hands. Once free, she pushed the plate back into place and untangled her sword. She started to march the long distance to Thanos, noticing her father clutching his wrist in pain as sparks shot from it.
She was halfway to her destination when a groan drew her attention. A dark figure crawled out of a crater the size of a small spacecraft, her skin badly burned and blood dripping from every visible area of flesh. The smell of burning hair would have turned Nebula's stomach if she had not been raised on such aromas.
"Traitor!" the woman yelled when she saw Nebula. "You held the favor of Thanos and threw it away."
"Oh, it's you," Nebula said with a sigh, recognizing the voice of Proxima Midnight from far too many encounters. "Stop speaking. You embarrass yourself with your ignorance. As you always have."
Proxima limped forward and bent at the waste with a curse in a forgotten language. She raised up with half of her staff, speared on one end and jagged and bent on the other. "You did not deserve the attentions of the great Thanos. Not you. And certainly not your pathetic, unworthy sister."
Nebula bristled and raised her sword. "I said to stop."
"Your sister was weak, and now she is dead so my master can wield the Soul Stone."
"Do not talk about my sister!" Nebula screamed and charged forward. What was left of Proxima's mouth lifted in a sickening smile.
Nebula's sword rang against the burned staff. Over and over. She was furious, careless, swinging and missing, taking a hit to the chest, to the knee, to the head. But all she heard was she is dead she is dead she is dead. Her sister was dead. It was true. It was real. And Nebula was broken, unhinged.
Another hit. This time to her chest, and she fell, scrambled back up. A blow to her wrist, and her sword flew from her hand. Proxima Midnight twirled her staff, catching it with the spear head pointed at Nebula. "And now you will join Gamora."
She struck forward, and the tip of her spear crashed into a shield of pure ice, snapping completely off and blowing Proxima back and off her feet.
Nebula looked at the boots approaching her and raised her eyes to Prince Loki of Asgard. His face gave nothing away as he held her sword in one hand and offered the other hand out to her.
"I made a promise to your sister to protect you. I intend to keep it."
She studied him, this man, this god, who had watched her father kill his brother. Who still fought the unbeatable. Who had the audacity to think he could win. And Nebula understood why Gamora made a deal with him. Why she trusted him. She grasped his wrist, and he pulled her to her feet, handing her the sword.
"My sister is dead," she said, watching Proxima rise and pick up her ruined staff.
Loki smirked. "We shall see."
Her chin snapped his direction, and she watched a sword of glistening ice grow from his palm. He perfectly executed a few practice swipes, then nodded toward the charging enemy. "Let us dispose of this useless wretch of a creature."
Nebula nodded. "Well said."
Two swords clashed against Proxima Midnight's broken staff, and the sword wielders danced in perfect harmony. More alike than different. More alive than dead. More hopeful than either would ever admit.
"Hi, other Cap'n! I'm here!" Kraglin yelled, climbing over a heap of dead hounds to get to Rocket and Groot. "So, there are some nice folks up ahead. The door's open, because…well," he gestured to the dead dogs piled high in the entryway.
Rocket looked at the carnage and threw a fist on his hip. "You did all this?"
Kraglin bounced on his heels. "Yep."
"And you're pretty proud of yourself, huh?"
His ruined teeth made an appearance as he opened his mouth in a smile. "Uh huh!"
Rocket nodded. "Yondu would be real proud too."
Kraglin's smile froze. He closed his mouth as his bottom lip began to tremble. He nodded once at Rocket, then several more times as his eyes started to glisten. He turned toward the wall, still nodding, and made a fist. He pounded it to his chest once, then again, and his spine straightened. He lifted his chin a bit higher.
Yondu would be real proud too.
Kraglin nodded once more and swiped at his eyes. "Yeah, I think he would," he whispered to himself as new voices and rushing footsteps reached them from further up the hall.
She staggered as something landed in the grass beside her.
Let this be the end, Wanda thought, never opening her eyes.
But nothing happened. She cracked one eye open, then the other as a sentinel stood by her side, the huge eyes of a small alien woman peering curiously at Wanda from over its shoulder.
"Wanda. NOW!" Stark yelled through her earpiece.
"I cannot," she whispered, thinking of Vision standing frustrated behind the barrier. Hoping he was alive. Hoping he was protected.
A quiet presence ghosted near her clothed elbow, and Wanda's chin jerked to the side. "You doubt yourself," the small woman said, her voice musical and stunted at the same time.
"I do," Wanda said, trusting this woman without knowing why. "Who are you?"
The woman smiled, a radiant thing that danced with the playfulness of a child. "A friend," she answered and held out her dainty hand.
Wanda took it, and her mind immediately cleared. "Magic," she gasped.
Healing magic rushed through her mind, her body, and she wanted to run, to leap, to dance, to shout. She wanted to embrace this mysterious woman and ask her a thousand questions.
"WANDA! Now, Wanda. This is it!" Tony yelled through the comm.
The strange woman sent a final pulse of healing through their joined hands before releasing Wanda and climbing back up the sentinel.
"I am Mantis," she said with a friendly wave.
Again, Mantis smiled. "I am envious of your lovely hair." And with a second wave, the sentinel took off flying toward the complex.
Wanda lifted an eyebrow at the departing woman before turning toward Thanos. To her right, Loki and another stranger battled the horned woman, alive once more. To her left, Thanos raged toward Tony Stark and Peter Parker as they attacked from the air, the titan holding the gauntlet close to his heaving chest. The mad dogs were gone in all directions. A miracle, somehow, but she did not allow herself to dwell. She set her sights on Thanos and focused on her mission.
She walked forward, one slow step after another, as she thought of the grief this creature, this monster, had caused her. How he had sent a brainwashed Loki to Earth with the Mind Stone and started a chain of events that would thrust the Avengers onto the scene, create Ultron, destroy her home, steal her brother's life, and now, after the Mind Stone created Vision - her love, her life - she would be forced to say goodbye either by his murder for the stone or by her love's heroic sacrifice to keep another Thanos from ever again bringing pain like hers on anyone else.
The hate inside her for Thanos, fueling her magic, feeding her power, threatened to destroy the entire universe.
A calm, silent part of her brain processed the sight of a sword of ice and a sword of gleaming steel piercing the horned woman's chest from two directions, the owners gritting their teeth around vicious smiles as they ripped their weapons back and watched the woman crumple to the ground, unmoving. A pyre of turquoise flames reached from her body to the heavens with a wave of Loki's hand, and the two sheathed their swords and clasped wrists in the flickering light.
She walked on. "Stark," she said into her comm. "Leave him to me."
She did not hear his response, tugging the earpiece out and flinging it away.
His arm… she thought as she neared Thanos, watching Tony snag Spiderman from the air and blast away, back to the complex.
Great bolts of electricity sizzled from the gauntlet, raising blisters and boils from the ruined skin of Thanos' arm and chest.
"Good," she spoke to herself and smiled.
Thanos searched the skies for his enemies and upon finding none, lowered his wild eyes and found her. He snarled and foamed like an animal, only slightly more in control of his mind than his dead pets.
"I will destroy every last one of you to get my stones!" he screamed, and a blast of purple energy as wide as his chest shot from his ruined hand toward her.
Wanda summoned her magic, fingers dancing over the air, feet lifting off the grass, arms opening like an archangel's wings as the beam slammed into her.
And she caught it.
"You and your borrowed power," her husky voice sang to Thanos. "What a grand titan you think yourself to be. But strip away your toys, and what do you have left?"
Thanos roared through grinding teeth, pushing more and more force, more power, more heat, more rage, behind his attack, the purple energy from the Power Stone growing and expanding. But he did not answer her question.
Wanda Maximoff's smile summoned Death herself. "I will tell you."
She held the beam of light between her shaking hands, marveled at it, then pulled more of it, all of it, from Thanos and to her, holding a sun in her palms and thrilling in the ecstasy of so much power. She blinked, and in less than a second, she arrived inches from his face. He jerked back, eyes wide, mouth opening and closing with words he no longer knew how to utter.
Wanda laid one hand lovingly over the Power Stone on his gauntlet while the other wrapped unbreakable around his throat, waves of power lengthening her delicate fingers to cover the distance and cut off his air flow, to lift his great boots from the ground.
"You have nothing," she whispered. "Just like me."
Tony had dropped Peter off beside the sentinel housing Thor…he had to give Friday a pay raise for that…and circled back to help Wanda. Help she did not need. From the sky, he was the sole witness to the death of the legendary Thanos.
In the final light of the sunset, streaks of orange and gold and red rushing over the horizon in a truly spectacular fan of majesty, Tony couldn't take his eyes off the swirling crimson and plum tempest heaving like lava from the volcano that was Wanda Maximoff.
He would never be able to tell the story. Never be able to accurately describe how she tore the titan's head from his neck, snapping tendons and ripping sinews, while he continued to scream in an agony Tony hoped no one, ever, not anywhere, would ever again experience.
Tony would never admit that Wanda smiled, blood flecking over her cheeks, staining her teeth, tangling in clumps through her wild hair.
He would never forget the way she laughed, a hysteria that rattled his teeth and crawled up his spine and made him swear off horror movies for the rest of his life, as she tore the Power Stone from the gauntlet along with a sizable chunk of the titan's hand and at least two giant fingers.
He would never admit to gagging almost to the point, not for the first time, of being sick in his suit as the rank stench of burning flesh rose to the stars, slowly opening their eyes to start the night, as Wanda burned his enormous body to ash that drifted away on a quiet breeze.
Tony would tell a story, maybe, quietly, and only to Pepper, of how Wanda then fell to her knees, her power evaporating as though it never existed, and she cried. She poured her broken heart into sobs that shook the trees and silenced the evening birds. Wailing her agony for a brother and a home and a love lost to her forever. And for all of the innocent men and woman and children and beings of different races and species on Earth and across all of the galaxies that were lost because of Thanos, because of the stones.
Tony would tell how he landed beside her, cautious, several steps away, his back to her, to simply stand guard at her side, watching for any enemies, any interruptions to her grief, determined to protect this girl. Because behind her rage and her power and her stoic face, she was just that. A girl. Drowning in a sea of loss, some caused by his family, and he determined in that moment to earn her forgiveness. Then he gave a thought to Bucky Barnes and to Steve Rogers and to forgiveness and to being too late, and Tony Stark swallowed emotion that surprised him.
He stood tall as the night fell. As she gasped for air around her sobs. As light steps touched down on the bloodied grass. Tony turned his head and nodded to Vision, cape swaying slightly as he knelt before his love.
Then Tony was flying once more, searching the battlefield for enemies and finding none, watching the Avengers step cautiously from the complex, seeing shaking hands reach to those in need, losing count of the tears that rolled down faces in happiness, joy, wonder, grief, and pain.
He would tell only pieces of what he witnessed, but he would never forget it.
And it would haunt him for the rest of his life.