"Loki's down."

Natasha held a trembling hand over the comm as the oxygen was sucked from the room.

"Shit," Strange hissed behind his protective barrier, the rings of magic circling his wrists winking out of existence. "I didn't love the guy, but what's the backup plan for the Space Stone?"

"We did not have one," King T'Challa said as he watched the monitor to see one division of the alien dogs slam themselves against the door his sister stood behind while another wound through the corridors of the complex heading for their room. The hounds were relentless, climbing and clawing over and under each other, pouring down the hallways like a flood of murky water.

Strange swirled his wrists together and the two golden circles reappeared. "I need to go out there," he said.

"No!" the three shouted as one.

Okoye crossed through the protective barrier and held her spear at Stephen's chest. "You are in our country, and you will follow the orders agreed to by our king."

T'Challa ran a hand over his forehead. "You do not have to threaten the man. Try to ask nicely."

The tip of the spear tapped twice against Strange's chest as Okoye raised an eyebrow. "That was nice."

.

.

.

"Steve, those things are in the complex!" Bucky shouted over the sounds of barking, slobbering, biting. He'd never hated dogs until this moment. His smashed earpiece sent a jolt of feedback through his brain, and he threw it to the ground with a wince.

Steve was slicing through a dog with his small Wakandan shield, blood and sweat pouring down his forehead. He looked up at Bucky, then over his head. He kicked out at another hound while pushing at his earpiece. "Tony, what is that?"

Tony's voice crackled over the comm. "Loki's down."

"Down?"

"He's gone, Cap."

Steve sucked in a breath. He hadn't heard right. Surely. But if it were true, that would mean…that black cloud growing and blocking out the blue sky. "You mean…that's Jane!?"

Bucky whipped around, eyes widening. "What? Steve, what's going on?!"

"It's Loki."

He didn't need to elaborate. Not with Jane's screaming sobs reaching him. He took off at a sprint in her direction.

"Bucky, don't!" Steve yelled, but his friend ignored him.

One dog, then another rushed him, and he punched and fired and pivoted. He ran out of ammunition and reloaded at a run.

Get to Jane. Get to Jane. Get to Jane.

He watched the sky as Thanos' lieutenant cast spell after spell at the blossoming midnight that was Jane Foster, and every attack bounced off.

"JANE!" he screamed, but she could not hear him. She had drawn every eye, the attention of even the Mad Titan was stuck on the bleeding heart on violent display. Not a single soul on that battlefield could look away. Even the crazed hounds had begun to shy back, to whimper and bleat as Jane's furious storm spread like a hurricane over the beautiful green fields.

Bucky saw Tony racing toward her. Wanda stood beside a dark warrior woman, both struck mute and unmoving by the pain they could taste in the very air around them. Thanos watched the display.

And he laughed.

And laughed.

And choked, bright red blood spitting from his lips as he watched Jane Foster turn her eyes toward him.

Without a glance, she sent a fist of power cleanly through his magical minion, slicing his chest in half and letting the pieces of his lifeless body fall from the sky. Then she smiled.

Thanos spat more blood and looked down. A pointed shard, thick with razor ridges, poked through his chest, glassy and gleaming.

"Ice?" he said around another mouthful of blood.

"Yes," said a satisfied voice behind him. "Ice."

Thanos squeezed his fist, but the dead man in his grip was gone. He held nothing but air, faint green wisps of the illusion drifting into the wind. "Impossible." Thanos turned his neck, pain from his wound lancing through his brain. "You."

Loki, very much alive and wearing pale skin and shining green eyes, smiled viciously and pulled his icy dagger from Thanos' back. Blood gushed from the wound, and Thanos fell to one knee. Loki bent to Thanos' ear. "Nothing is inevitable," he whispered.

He slapped his palm over the blue stone in Thanos' gauntlet, and a jolt of fire shot through his entire body. The Space Stone purred at his return, as he knew it would. Loki easily plucked the stone from its casing, and with a dangerous grin of triumph, he disappeared in a whirlwind of blue and black.

Thanos gasped as his wound began to stitch itself back together, his anger growing as he pushed back to his feet. He screamed to the heavens, only vengeance on his mind. He would make them pay. ALL of them. He would break every one of Loki's bones. He would strip the skin, piece by bloody piece, from the mortal girl's body. He would-

An explosion ripped through the air. Then another. And another.

Thanos whirled to face his ship, but it was nothing but a fiery mess of black smoke and shooting flames. He squinted as something flew toward him out of the thick smoke. A goliath of metal. Then another. And a third.

Those were not his troops.

"What?"

A shrill war cry pierced his brain as a blue missile, sword drawn, leapt from the back of one of the metal sentinels and flew toward him. He dodged by inches, and the figure rolled across the field. It stood tall and turned, swishing the sword low than holding it high.

"Hello, father," Nebula said, and she charged once more.

.

.

.

"False alarm! False alarm!" Tony shouted through the comm. "Steve, Loki's alive! It was a projection. Jesus. A really convincing one. Jane was a distraction. I think. I have no idea what's happening. But we've got the Space Stone, Spidey blew up the ship, and the cavalry just arrived. Not to jinx us, but I think we're winning!"

Steve heaved a sigh of relief, watching the dogs shake off their fear as the skies brightened once more. Only the thick smoke from the falling spaceship marred the blue above. It was a beautiful sky. The last one he would ever see.

He breathed heavy and pushed himself forward.

"Buck, Tony. Clear my path, would you?"

But it wasn't Tony or Bucky who swept the dogs away.

"Uh, Cap. What am I hearing?" Tony said through the comm. "Is that static?"

Steve ran on, leaping over one dead hound after another. Then he saw it, a darting line of red zinging around the battlefield.

"No. I think- Is that a whistle?" Steve said. Then he saw one of Tony's sentinels race across the sky with a gangly man hanging from its neck. A red fin stuck up from his head, and Steve recognized the man from the white room. He was…whistling, and that whistle was, what, controlling that dart? No, an arrow! He was taking out a path of dogs across the battlefield without even touching the ground.

"Hey!" Steve yelled, waving his arms and grabbing his attention. "Into the complex. Into the COMPLEX! Those things breached the complex!"

The sentinel came closer, and Steve stepped back at the crazed smile on the man's face.

"Hi there. Nice beard! Uh, sorry, couldn't hear you."

A dog raced toward them, and the man gave a sharp whistle. The red arrow sliced behind him. The dog halted, twitched once, and fell over dead.

Steve pointed to the building to their right. "They breached the complex. Go and make sure everyone inside is safe. But don't try to pass through the barriers."

The man looked puzzled. Or perhaps that was his normal expression. "Sooooo, go inside?"

"Yes," Steve said, watching as Thanos stood tall once more.

"And take out the dogs?"

"Yes! Go!"

"And there are barriers?"

"YES! Don't cross into them!"

And with that, Steve ran toward Thanos, dodging the dead hounds in his path. From behind him, he heard, "Sure thing, new Cap'n!"

Bucky caught up to Steve at a sprint. "I got your back!"

Overhead, another sentinel sailed toward the complex with what looked like a tree and a raccoon on its back. Both men stared over their shoulders as they ran, but there were no words. They raced forward, more dogs settling around them as the sounds of feminine grunts drifted to them on the wind.

"Bucky, help Wanda!"

He nodded and cut a diagonal through the crowd of teeth and fighting Wakandans toward Wanda Maximoff as she held her own against the horned woman. Bucky let loose a string of shots that bounced off the woman's skin. She snarled at him as she brought her staff down on Wanda twice, the first blocked by Wanda's magic but the second swiping across her face and sending her sprawling onto the ground.

"You will pay for what you did to me," the woman said to Wanda as she stalked forward. Wanda crab-stepped backward and raised her hands against the attack. Bucky yelled. He was too far away.

.

.

.

Bruce threw his hands in the air. "Two down! Loki's alive and took the Space Stone."

The door was crumbling beneath the weight and force of the battering ram of dogs.

Wong shifted again and allowed Shuri to take first position. "How many times has that guy pretended to die?" he asked Bruce.

Bruce shrugged, then scurried back into the protective area when the door burst open and the first wave of alien hounds rushed in. Shuri fired six rounds, killing seven, eight, ten dogs. The doorway thankfully acted as a bottleneck, and the dogs clawed and bit each other as they tried to scale the doorframe to reach the group.

Vision sent a bolt of energy toward the dogs, but the barrier absorbed it and distributed it through the grid with a pulse of light. He sighed. He was safe, but he could not help his colleagues. He looked to Bruce and watched the man turn back to the panel and begin typing furiously.

.

.

.

Steve ignored the yells behind him. It was his turn. He had a mission. Bigger than one life. Bigger than the Avengers. He ran toward Thanos as the Titan slowly turned. He saw Steve approach, even as he dodged a sword that came down recklessly, over and over again. Steve raised his shield and pushed off the ground in a flying leap. Thanos batted the sword away and swung a glowing purple fist in Steve's direction. The impact was like nothing Steve had ever felt in his life. He sailed through the air, trying to turn, trying to stay loose as he awaited impact. A pair of metal fists caught him, knocking the wind from his lungs. He looked up to see a petite creature with bright eyes and shining antennae.

"You caught him, Drax!" she said, smiling toward her companion.

"Of course. I am an expert pilot," a large man said as he leaned over the sentinel's shoulder, looking down at Steve with the palest blue eyes he had ever seen.

She smiled. "I did not know that."

"That is because you are simple and unintelligent."

The woman frowned, then nodded, then smiled.

"Take…me back…to Thanos," Steve groaned.

"Yes," the man yelled. "To Thanos. To kill him!"

Steve winced as he wiped the blood from under his nose. His eye was almost swollen shut. Now he understood what Bruce meant about that Power Stone. "No," he said. "Can't kill him until we get the stones."

"Oh," both the man and woman said together. The sentinel turned around and soared toward Thanos as he fought the sword wielder.

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.

Strange bit at the inside of his cheek, watching the video feed as the dogs poured into Vision's room.

"They'll be overrun without backup," he said to himself.

Natasha was at his side in five quick steps. "We stay here, secured, just as Steve ordered. How many times do you need to hear this?"

"Look, I get it. He says jump, and you say how high. But I'm just moonlighting on this team, so I can break the order if I think I'm needed elsewhere."

She shook her head. "You really are just like Tony."

"Gross," Stephen said and turned back to the video feed. "Or I could go somewhere and hide the Time Stone. I know your precious Steve Rogers vetoed that plan, but it makes sense. If Thanos gets to Vision, he can control Jane and Loki with the Mind Stone. Make them give him the stones. Make them kill each other. Make them do anything. The Time Stone needs to be very far away if that happens."

Natasha watched the feed from over his shoulder. It did make sense. But…

"We stay here until we get orders from Steve."

Strange groaned. "My god. It's a bad romance novel around here."

They watched Shuri fire round after round at the incoming dogs while Wong lured them into portals to who-knows-where. Bruce worked at the computer, and slowly, the protective field around he and Vision began to push out toward Shuri and Wong.

Suddenly, the dogs paused, perked up, and turned one after another away from Vision and toward the hallway they had used to trap the four heroes. Then they snapped back toward Vision and swarmed into the room, no longer organized in their intent but running from something. Shuri and Wong backpedaled into the protective barrier, and they watched the beasts slam themselves against it in their mad rush to get away from…

"What is that?" Strange asked as he flipped from one camera to another, trying to find the end of the long line of hounds. He flipped one, two, three screens, then immediately switched backward to see a gangly man skipping…no, dancing…down the massive hallway.

Okoye pushed Strange out of the way. "What riffraff have we let into our country now?" She glared at T'Challa as he joined her.

"Ah," T'Challa hummed. "I believe that is one of the strangers from the white void."

Strange and Okoye leaned toward the video feed to watch the stranger clap his hands twice, then spin once and execute a perfect pas de bourree. Then he dance-marched down the hallway, shooting finger guns at each stray dog that came toward him. A chirp here. A whistle there. He commanded some kind of arrow weapon that Strange watched in both confusion and awe. In between the deadly whistles, his mouth opened wide, and his head bounced from side to side.

"And now he's singing?" Natasha asked.

King T'Challa nodded. "I Want You Back. Jackson Five."

"Number one in 1970," Okoye said. When Strange and Natasha looked at her, then to the king, then back to Okoye with eyebrows in their hair, she glared hard. "What? It is a classic."

.

.

.

Wanda raised her arms, her magic almost exhausted, and waited for the woman's blow. It was poetic, almost, to lose her life before Vision lost his mind. There would be no grief for either of them. She closed her eyes and cleared her head.

But the staff did not fall. Wanda blinked twice and watched the woman struggling against whatever had stopped her swing. Some kind of webbing. A whine rang through the air, and two missiles landed at the woman's feet. Bucky scooped Wanda up mid-stride and kept running as Tony's missiles exploded with deadly heat. A dozen more missiles rained down, a mushroom cloud rising slowly from the impact site. When it cleared, Bucky and Wanda looked back from a great distance to see a smoking crater where the woman had stood. Tony zoomed across the sky above them, crossing paths with a swinging Spiderman, then circled and headed back toward an incoming sentinel, Steve held loosely in its metal fists.

Bucky stood Wanda on her feet and ran toward Thanos as Tony streaked that direction. Steve and a burly knife-wielder leapt from the sentinel and hit the ground running. Steve more limping than running by what Bucky could see.

Wanda sunk to the ground. She had a role. She had to get up. But her body was exhausted. Her mind was distracted. Her magic was impotent. She looked at the green grass at her feet, away from the battle, as the sound of approaching hounds drifted away, and she closed her eyes.

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.

A flurry of energy beams from Iron Man pushed Thanos into Nebula's precarious strike. He blocked her, threw her to the ground over and over, but she returned every time, hobbling often and twisting a hand back into place or jerking a shoulder around with a shout. She was not perfect with the sword. She never had been. That skill belonged to her sister. But she was ferocious in her anger.

Iron Man distracted Thanos for only a second, and Nebula struck true. The sword sliced neatly along the thick skin of his wrist, and a single drop of blood oozed from the wound. He stared at it and looked into Nebula's furious, black eyes.

"Where is Gamora?!" she roared in his face.

He groaned, not from his arm but from the hollow organ buried deep in his chest.

"Where?!" Nebula shouted, holding her sword at his throat.

He tilted his chin up, remembering the green skin of his favored daughter in the rolling grass of the field. Seeing her lifeless body at the bottom of that rocky cliff. Only for a moment. And then blinking away, the Soul Stone his prize. His throat was tight, and he could not answer.

Nebula's arms shook as she waited, as she watched the pain cross her father's face, as she refused to accept the truth she saw in his eyes. "WHERE IS MY SISTER?!" she screamed and pressed the sword into Thanos' neck with murderous intent.

A filmy substance coated her arms and hands and sword, and she was yanked into the air and away from Thanos by a flying insect. "NO!" she said, watching as she flew further and further from her father, her legs jerking against the air as his form became smaller and smaller. "Take me back! Take me BACK!"

"Sorry, I can't," the bug…no, the boy…said as he carried her toward the complex using tree and stone and even a passing sentinel to stay airborne.

"I could have killed him!"

He nodded. "Sorry, but Mr. Stark says we need the stones first," he yelled as she struggled in the webbing. Her screams of anger echoed across the field.

Drax landed in Nebula's vacant space in front of Thanos, knives blurring as he struck once, twice, a dozen times. Thanos blocked each with an exhausted bat of his gauntlet, then kicked Drax away with a well-placed boot.

Steve watched the large alien sail over his head and winced. He spoke into his earpiece.

"Tony, give me a lift." He held up a hand as Stark raced toward him, grasping his wrist and lifting him high into the air. "Bucky!" he yelled and saw his friend's head snap toward him. He pointed to Thanos.

Bucky nodded and raced toward the Titan, flinging one gun away and pulling out his last.

Twenty steps.

One bullet after another, he emptied the clip at the Titan's face, and one bullet after another was swatted away as Thanos turned fully to Bucky. He raised his staff, the knife edge gleaming in the Wakandan sun.

Ten steps.

Still, Bucky ran forward. Clear the way for Steve. Watch Steve's back.

He heard the screech of Tony's approach as he pulled a knife from his thigh holster and reared back with his metal arm.

Two steps.

Steve Rogers dropped from the sky directly between Bucky and Thanos, and rammed his shield into the Titan's gauntleted wrist, pinning it to the ground. In the heartbeat it took Thanos to realize what had happened, Steve slammed his fist into the shining gold stone in the center of Thanos' hand. He barely registered the metal hand grabbing his elbow as the world was ripped away before his eyes.

The fields, the sky, the sweet smell of earth and life disappeared, replaced by barren rock and the stink of ozone. A fine mist shadowed his view. Stones cut into his back as he looked into an eclipsing sun, and his vision swam. One eye had swelled completely shut, and his head pounded. He wanted to vomit, but his body refused to cooperate in that or any other way. Finally, he sat up and leaned against the rock, twinges of pain flickering to life along his left side where ribs might have been bruised or shattered. There was too much pain to isolate any particular thing. Two enormous pillars of stone greeted his eyes, and in the distance beyond them, he saw the familiar dark hair and shining arm of his best friend lying on his stomach.

"Bucky?"

Bucky stirred as a shadow passed over him. Then a hooded figure materialized out of the gloom, head tilted toward his friend.

"Get away from him!" Steve yelled and teetered to his feet, dizziness making white spots burst in front of his eyes as he took cautious steps toward the giant specter. Slowly, the hooded head turned to him, and Steve gasped as his steps faltered.

The hood fell open, and the sickening crimson face, the hollow bones, the dark eyes of Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, were revealed to him. Those eyes widened, and a sneer crawled across his gaunt face.

"Even here, in this cursed place, I am never rid of you!" Red Skull bit out and hovered higher, spreading his cloak wide and looking to Steve like the Grim Reaper made flesh. His black cloak swirled around him and transformed into feet that touched the rocky ground encased in combat boots, a solid body clothed in the venomous black of a military uniform with belt and decorations shining.

"You're alive?" Steve choked, disbelief and terror and concern for Bucky as the man pulled himself onto all fours. "How?! I watched you disintegrate!"

Red Skull laughed, bitter and broken. "Death would be a welcome respite. No, I did not die. I was transported here to act as guard and guide in this," he eyed the tall pillars behind him with disgust, "prison. Punishment for my sins against the Infinity Stones."

Steve held no shield, no weapon, as Red Skull approached him. He dug his feet into the rocky soil and held up both fists.

"What do you guard?" Steve asked, screaming at Bucky in his mind to get up, Get Up, GET UP!

"Put down your fists, boy. I hold the power here."

Schmidt lashed out with a fist so fast that Steve could not block it. His jaw wrenched to the side as the Red Skull clutched his hand, screaming as though his body was alight with flames. Steve watched him shrink away, his clothing, his very form, fading back into a billowing cloak of twisting black.

"And vengeance is taken from me again!" he cried, roaring at the violet sky above them.

Steve stood tall. "You're not...you have no power anymore."

Red Skull shook his head. "I have power, but no strength, no body. The Tesseract and its siblings saw to that."

"Then what is your purpose?" Steve asked, discreetly watching Bucky raise his face to the sky, shake his head as if to orient himself, and look all around him.

"I guard that which you seek," Red Skull said and gestured to the pillars where Bucky staggered to his feet, his back to Steve, and his head looking downward into…Steve didn't know.

Steve shook his head. "How do you know what I seek?"

The Red Skull approached Steve again, no feet showing under his cloak, the cloth billowing around him.

"I know much more than I did the last time we met. None visit this place but for one reason. I see it reflected in your eyes. You seek the Soul Stone." He looked toward Bucky. When his eyes returned to Steve, they glinted with malicious intent. "And you brought a gift." He barked a laugh. "You! In all your humility, in your loathsome self-righteousness. You do not have the stomach to pay the required price!"

Steve swallowed and pressed his eyes shut to steady himself.

"Or do you?!" Red Skull screamed, laughing in hysteria and shaking the jagged rocks at Steve's feet with his dark mirth. "Then, please Captain, throw your best friend, your brother, from this cliff face. I see your pain already. You are weak. There is only one way to retrieve the stone. Sacrifice he who you hold most dear for the delights of the Soul Stone. Pay the price, and earn your just reward!"

His bellowing laugh rang through Steve's skull as he raised his chin.

"Not him," he whispered.

Schmidt's laughter faded as Steve stumbled toward the pillars, toward Bucky as his friend turned fully toward him. His face was white. He had heard every word.

"Steve?"

"Buck, move," Steve said as he picked up speed, his legs heavy as though he were tugging them through quicksand. Each step forward was excruciating, but he had a purpose. A mission.

His friend saw the determination, the resolve, the intent in Steve's uneven steps, in the hard set of his jaw.

"Steve, no!"

"It will be all right," Steve whispered, pain pinching his face as tears bubbled in his eyes. He had so much still to do. See Bucky live the life stolen from him. Watch Sam grow as a man and an Avenger. Reconcile with Tony. Clear his friends' names. And Nat…

Natasha.

She would play the role of Peggy Carter all these years later. Another love he never had and would never know. Another strong woman, the strongest he had ever met in his long but so short life, who would grow old remembering the best pieces of Steve Rogers while building a life that had nothing to do with him.

"It will be all right!" he yelled, trying to convince his very best friend. Trying to convince himself.

He pushed it all aside and pumped his legs harder toward Bucky, toward the cliff's edge, once again toward an ocean beyond a cockpit under a gleaming blue sky. He had quickly assessed. He had made a decision. His gut had told him it was the only way. He had made peace with it. But he had never expected Bucky's pleading face to be there as he pushed toward his destiny. It was supposed to be quick, quiet, just a single inhale, a single exhale, and…

Bucky's face cleared. Steve saw through his tears the calm and the peace and the brutal acceptance, and he tried to smile. His friend knew, he understood what Steve had to do. It made it all easier. Just a handful of steps.

"It will be all right," Bucky said, nodding once. He bent his knees. "Don't forget to tell her."

And Bucky Barnes spread his arms wide and propelled himself backward with closed eyes and a small grin.