Chapter 1 [Spaceâ€”Battle World]
The universe unfolded in all directions and seemingly without end. Planets revolved around their suns. Stars came into being, shone brightly and then burned out in accordance with Destinyâ€™s dance. Creatures great and small crossed paths. For some, peace motivated cooperation. For others, ambition sparked conflict.
And on a particularly craggy rock floating in between several galaxies, one battle had just run its course. Bodies lay scattered across its jagged and nondescript surface. Pain burned in the defeated heroesâ€™ limbs. Indignation chafed at egos. Doubt clouded remaining resolve to regroup and try again.
Most that is except for oneâ€¦that isâ€¦.
Steve ground his teeth. He blinked while trying to shake the battle haze. He couldnâ€™t move his arms or legs. Hell, he couldnâ€™t even feel them. His eyes drifted to his surroundings on that craggy rock whereâ€™d the tidal wave had just smashed through his best not to mention that of his alliesâ€™.
The tidal waveâ€¦oh yeahâ€¦it had a nameâ€”Thanosâ€¦..
And this creep had all of those power stones. No not power stonesâ€¦infinity stonesâ€¦.
All around, the Avengers and their allies lay strewn about like so much flotsam. The wounded moaned and grimaced. Some tended their own wounds. Others helped their comrades to bandage an arm or splint a leg. In some cases, the deceased and dying lay coldly on the unfeeling stone; their life force crushed from it much as a child would ruthlessly crush a mosquito.
Then his eyes stared in shock. Through the blur, he swore he saw his shieldâ€¦or ratherâ€¦.the shards of what had been his shieldâ€¦lying several feet to his left. He blinked again still trying to clear his vision. He wanted to clear the nightmare. He just wanted to wake up and find something else.
His shield thoughâ€¦Howardâ€™s indestructible creation. It had served him well. It had shrugged off Nazi bullets. It withstood the Red Skullâ€™s tesseract-fueled blasts. It vibrated against Thorâ€™s hammer and the Hulkâ€™s fists but stood up every timeâ€¦.
â€¦every time but that oneâ€¦. Now, like him, it lay broken on that battlefieldâ€¦.
And we thought we knew. We thought we understood. What was it Phillips told us? Get the facts. Be ready. Donâ€™t take the enemy for granted. If we do, theyâ€™ll bite us in the ass, he recalled almost feeling the â€śI told you soâ€ť coming from across the ages heâ€™d spent on ice. He rolled his eyes wishing that their intel had been better before this particular mission. Hubris and Duty had dominated the groupâ€™s collective rationale. He didnâ€™t question their intent to defend the universe and their respective home worlds from the hulking purple marauder. Heâ€™d even tried to relay his experiences in dealing with the Red Skull decades before.
So had Thor and those aliens. No, not just aliensâ€¦.Guardiansâ€¦.
His mouth twisted into a smile. Much as he had for his fellow soldiers in World War II, heâ€™d embraced the allies. Granted they all needed to prove themselves on the battlefield but heâ€™d give them a fair shake. He marveled at the coalition of all beings, abilities and mindsets.
Well maybe it could be salvaged. No it would be salvagedâ€¦.
â€śCanâ€™t quit,â€ť he whispered. He marshaled his will. He strained. He pushed himself. He pulled at his elbows willing them to rise. Hell even to moveâ€¦.
He shivered. His skin dimpled for the first time since the Valkyrieâ€™s crashâ€¦.
â€¦since heâ€™d looked Death in the eye. Heâ€™d withstood his scytheâ€™s stroke with his shield. His belief and duty to others and Uncle Sam had pulled him back. His bond and love to a certain impetuous yet capable brunette with fiery eyes and a purpose to match his own not letting him quit eitherâ€¦.
â€¦that brunette. No. Peggy. His Peggyâ€¦.
For a few weak heartbeats, warmth surged through him. He marveled in how her belief in him had lifted him. Even if they never moved in unison across the parquet, sheâ€™d moved with him through life. Sheâ€™d taught him self-respect. Sheâ€™d imparted confidence. Sheâ€™d admired his heart and inner strength. Much as Leonardo could visualize the statue within a block of marble before the first chisel strike, sheâ€™d seen her Captain in him before Erskineâ€™s procedureâ€¦.
â€¦even if he was always lateâ€¦.
He rolled his eyes at their shared joke usually uttered by one or the other in the midst of a Hydra-provoked firefight. His fists and shield were meeting enemy chins or causing other kinds of damage. She stood in the stormâ€™s midst. The weapon in her hand blasted away clearing the way without hesitation. Then, after the onslaught had ceased, she turn and arch that eyebrow of hers.
â€śYouâ€™re late,â€ť sheâ€™d point out.
â€śI couldnâ€™t call my ride,â€ť heâ€™d rebut with a playful shrug. â€śKind of had something to deal with.â€ť
Sheâ€™d roll her eyes. For a second, those eyes would meet his. Sheâ€™d relent a spark of something be it warmth or caring. Then sheâ€™d turn and run off toward another skirmish.
Heâ€™d sigh and rush off after her againâ€¦.
I wonâ€™t give up. You wouldnâ€™t want me to give up, Peggy! Again he willed himself to move. Again he couldnâ€™t. â€śGreat.â€ť
â€śWell look whoâ€™s awake. Itâ€™s about time, Flag Boy.â€ť
Steve sucked another pained breath into his straining lungs. His eyes drifted in the unfocused haze. They alighted on an animal sitting on the rock next to him. Through the dark mask-like coloring in the fur around his eyes, the raccoon watched him curiously. More unlikely, said raccoon was using a device resembling one of those new-fangled smartphones heâ€™d seen his friends and teammates using.
â€śRocket, right?â€ť Steve queried weakly.
â€śAnd his brain isnâ€™t completely scrambled. Quill will be so glad to hear that,â€ť Rocket tersely assessed. He held the small handheld device out. His paw pushed a button on its left side.
From it, a bright pink light washed across Steve. It coaxed and soothed him allowing him a bit of Blissâ€™ peace. He could see the other hero looking at the device. Much as Howard had with a failed experiment, he saw Rocketâ€™s face grimace. â€śThatâ€¦bad?â€ť
â€śUnless youâ€™re planning on a new spine or maybe a body, Dude, yeah. Youâ€™re toast,â€ť Rocket declared tersely. â€śYou should be getting the chills. Right?â€ť
â€śYeah so? Iâ€™m going to get up. Thanosâ€¦.â€ť Steve insisted. For a third time, he tried to rise. For a third time, he failed to do so.
â€śBig Purple and Uglyâ€™s gonna get his. I owe him a big can of whoop ass for this crap! You though are done,â€ť Rocket added. Despite his own queasiness over Star Lordâ€™s going on and on and on about this guy, heâ€™d formed a bond with the Star Spangled Avenger. Heâ€™d learned how theyâ€™d both been rejected by their respective packs and experimented on by whatever SOBs were in power at their respective times. He established a respect for this human. â€śJust a sec!â€ť He pressed something against his small tufted ear. â€śHey, Quill! Your heroâ€™s awake but heâ€™s fading fast. If you wanna say something to him, move it! Just donâ€™t make me sick. Okay? I just ate before this fight.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re all heart, Rocket. Yeah weâ€™ll be right there. Out,â€ť Star Lord replied tersely.
â€śWhatever.â€ť Rocket snapped off his comm device. He jumped down from the rock and ambled over to the Captainâ€™s side. â€śSome folks want a word. Just donâ€™t get all emotional and crap. Iâ€™m not in this for the damn space opera.â€ť
While he didnâ€™t know what a space opera was, he imagined it to be like the soaps the women of his era listened toâ€¦.well the women except for Peggyâ€¦.Sheâ€™d never listen to or watch those thingsâ€¦.. He smiled. â€śI wonâ€™t. Promise.â€ť
â€śWell good.â€ť Rocket picked up one of the shieldâ€™s fragments. He considered it and winced. â€śDamn! That creep busted good vibranium. What the Hell?â€ť
â€śTell me aboutâ€¦.it.â€ť Steve gasped. He wouldâ€™ve shivered if he couldâ€™ve managed it. His heart strained against the choking chill. He strained to keep his eyes open. â€śJustâ€¦promiseâ€¦â€ť
â€śAw! Donâ€™t get all mushy! You promised! STOP!â€ť Rocket hissed impatiently not wanting to deal with this particular deal right now.
â€śNo. Just want you to make sure itâ€™s done. You and othersâ€¦finish this. Open that can of whatever you said. Take that monster out. You do that?â€ť Steve pressed.
Rocket snickered. He nodded with grudging admiration. â€śOh yeah.â€ť His eyes narrowed. â€śCount on that.â€ť He whistled shrilly. â€śHEY, QUILL! YOU AND THOSE GUYS BETTER MOVE YOUR TAILS! HEâ€™S NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!â€ť
On cue, three figures dropped out of the sky alighting not so gently on the stony surface beside the duo. Star Lord landed without much fuss; his boot jets allowing his soles to whisper to the stone with a bit of dust. Thor, on the other hand, shook the ground as he stomped down. Cuts and bruises riddled his face and torso. Tears scored his armor. His long blonde mane clung to his neck dampened by sweat and blood. He clenched Mjonir tightly in his right hand. He released his left arm from around the Winter Soldierâ€™s waist.
â€śKeep your fur on, Rocket. I said we were coming,â€ť Star Lord groused. He pressed the button on the maskâ€™s side allowing it to retract. He ran his hands through his hair. â€śGot the readings?â€ť
â€śYeah I said I did, didnâ€™t I? You humans!â€ť Rocket snapped indignantly. He handed Quill the device. â€śFigured you all wanted to do the mushy-mushy human thing and say good bye. Okay. So I got you. Have fun.â€ť He fired up his own jet pack. â€śIâ€™m going to check on everyone else especially Iron Ass.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m not human, Rodent. Be clear on that. And tis not wise to insult Anthony Stark especially not now,â€ť Thor insisted.
â€śDid he justâ€¦?â€ť Rocket growled. â€śIâ€™m not a rodent!â€ť
â€śSTOP! OKAY?â€ť Bucky insisted. â€śJust deal with it later.â€ť Anger flared in his eyes.
â€śVerily. Tis true,â€ť Thor relented. â€śBucky Barnes, I am sorry.â€ť
â€śIt isnâ€™t me you have to worry about. Iâ€™m just dealing with the Big Jerk here,â€ť Bucky told him. He took off the metallic plate concealing the lower part of his face.
â€śBucky, youâ€™re here.â€ť Steveâ€™s eyes shone brightly. He smiled.
â€śAs if I wouldnâ€™t be? You know better than that. Who was the one who pulled your scrawny butt out of the alleys every time you stood up to the bullies? Huh? Who was the one whoâ€™d have to explain to your Mom and Dad why you wouldnâ€™t wait for me to help you? Yeah thatâ€™s right! Me! Well now youâ€™ve done it. Steve, Iâ€¦.â€ť Buckyâ€™s head hung heavily on his shoulders. He collapsed to his knees. He shuddered.
â€śI donâ€™t give up on my friends. Nobody leftâ€¦behind. You know that,â€ť Steve insisted. Even if his strength was failing, he wouldnâ€™t surrender his dignity or strength. He would crawl toward Duty if he had to. His eyes motioned toward Rocket. â€śThanos wouldâ€™veâ€¦.â€ť
Rocket grimaced feeling pretty much like Steve had ripped his pants down in public. â€śYeah well it was a fight. I did my best. Ainâ€™t my fault that Big Purpleâ€™s an ass!â€ť He narrowed his eyes even further. â€śBut still, youâ€™re okay, Flag Boy. Thanks.â€ť With that, he flew off toward the other wounded.
â€śWhat a troubled creature,â€ť Thor assessed. He sighed. His feet hustled over to Steveâ€™s side.
â€śComing from Rocket, thatâ€™s a big time thank you,â€ť Quill pointed out. He considered the paralyzed man lying in their midst. He smiled wistfully. â€śYou sure live up to the legend, Cap. Got to hand it to you, Man.â€ť
â€śNo legendâ€¦just duty,â€ť Steve insisted. His eyes sparked into Quillâ€™s. â€śJustâ€¦as I told your friend, Peter. Finish this. Iâ€™llâ€¦take that.â€ť
â€śYou got it,â€ť Quill vowed. He grabbed onto Steveâ€™s unfeeling hand. â€śWeâ€™ve got this now.â€ť He glanced at the broken shield. â€śMind if we build a new one? Gotta have that shield with us.â€ť
â€śI got dibs on that,â€ť Bucky cut in. â€śIâ€™ve hauled you out of enough scraps. I get some of the glory.â€ť He smirked at Steve. â€śCanâ€™t believe youâ€™re doing this, you Jerk.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m just resting. Iâ€™ll be back up,â€ť Steve insisted still not surrendering to the inevitable.
â€śNay, Captain. Youâ€™ve fought well,â€ť Thor disagreed. â€śYouâ€™ve served unto godly status. Certainly All Father Odin will grant you a seat at his table in Valhalla. Youâ€™ve earned as much.â€ť He frowned. Not often did his eyes water over a comradeâ€™s impending death on the battlefield.
In this case, they did.
â€śThanks but Iâ€™ve got another place. Hope the Big Guyâ€™s in a good mood,â€ť Steve declined. â€śThor, youâ€™veâ€¦youâ€™ve been the best. Donâ€™t stop trying. Look after Jane. All right?â€ť
â€śAye. Tis certain. She will be sad to hear. You will be honored, Steve Rogers. You are my brother,â€ť Thor told him frankly.
â€śAndâ€¦youâ€™re mine,â€ť Steve affirmed without hesitation. Then he turned back to his oldest friend. â€śBucky, Iâ€¦.â€ť He grimaced again. The chill pressed against his heart.
Bucky savagely wiped the tears away from his face. He looked his friend in the eye with all of the strength he could muster. â€śItâ€™s okay, Steve. We know.â€ť
Steve grinned. â€śCanâ€™t believe that showing the new kid on the block to his classroom would mean that much. Remember?â€ť
Bucky smiled. â€śYeah. Brooklyn was the never the same again. You die on me and Iâ€™ll make sure you end up on that stinking Cyclone at Coney Island forever. Got it?â€ť
Steve laughed; the effort burning at his bruised and broken ribs. â€śStâ€¦op. Hurts when I laugh.â€ť
â€śWell good. Iâ€™ll make damn sure you get that VIP treatment,â€ť Bucky vowed seriously. He recoiled at how cold Steveâ€™s hand seemed.
â€śThat bad huh? Wow,â€ť Steve presumed half-seriously.
â€śJust like Ms. Ruthersâ€™ Math class. Remember that ice queen? Geez!â€ť Bucky cracked while trying to maintain levity.
â€śYeah that too.â€ť Steve gasped out. He could barely breathe at this point. His steely blue eyes gazed upon the stars above.
The stars and toward Heaven aboveâ€¦.
â€śBucky, tis time, I fear,â€ť Thor assessed knowing Steveâ€™s expression well from other battles and such scenes.
â€śItâ€™sâ€¦okay,â€ť Steve assured Bucky in a weak whisper. â€śIâ€™llâ€¦save you a place. Finish it.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™d better. Give your Mom and Dad a hug. And yeah, make sure you hang onto that Agent this time. Got it?â€ť Bucky insisted.
â€śGotâ€¦it. Bucky, thanksâ€¦for everything,â€ť Steve gasped. He wished he could embrace the other man but his unfeeling limbs wouldnâ€™t allow it.
â€śNo. Thank you,â€ť Bucky assured Steve. He embraced his oldest friend.
â€śServeâ€¦wellâ€¦.â€ť And with that, Steve breathed his last. His eyes sagged shut. His head dropped to the side.
Bucky trembled. His eyes filled with tears. â€śI canâ€™t believe this! He did it! He just couldnâ€™t stop!â€ť
â€śIt was his way. You know that as well as I,â€ť Thor noted grimly. He placed his hand on the otherâ€™s shoulder. â€śNow the Captain passes to the next realm. He should be accorded the highest respect and regard. I know not what your God does. I know in Asgard, he would be treated with the highest of honors for his service and sacrifice.â€ť
â€śAnd we can live up to what he stood for,â€ť Star Lord added. â€śHe inspired a lot of people. So did you, Bucky.â€ť
â€śSteve wouldnâ€™t care about that. Heâ€™d go on about serving and all of that. Letâ€™s get him back to the Milano. Weâ€™ll get him and the others to Earth. About time I saw the place again,â€ť Star Lord concurred. â€śThor, sorry butâ€¦.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s my honor to help you, Peter Quill,â€ť Thor concurred. He picked up Steveâ€™s shoulders while Quill took his legs.
Bucky shook his head. Heâ€™d admired his long time playmate and friend for most of the last century. Theyâ€™d grown together into brothers and more. Theyâ€™d overcome great odds and charged into danger for each other with never a moment of hesitation in either of their minds. Now he wouldnâ€™t get the chance. Now I know how you felt when I fell into the gorge. He picked up the pieces of the shield and considered them for a moment.
The mantle was his now.
Iâ€™ve got this, Steve. You just do what you need to do. Bucky looked up at the stars. He inhaled deeply. Then he walked off in pursuit of the others.
Such was the way of battle side transition or so it seemedâ€¦..