Antarctica-or-bust (rata_toskr) wrote,

what once was love

Title: what once was love
Fandom: Avengers Infinity War
Pairings: Steve/Bucky
Ratings/Warnings: angst, but nothing worse than freaking canon for the most part.
Word Count: 5287
Disclaimer: If I owned this film, it would be happier
Summary: After the Snap, Thanos learns regret.

Thanos knew he’d mourn his daughter but he never thought he’d miss her like he does. It had been years since Gamora fought beside him and even longer since she’d looked at him with anything but hatred in her eyes. His daughter had been lost to him already and the price of the Soul Stone did not change that. It did not change anything.

The titan persevered where weaker hearts had faltered and Gamora’s death cemented his path to victory. At long last the universe is balanced, the completion of his mission well worth the sacrifice.

And yet, that does not stop his daughter’s ghost from haunting him. That does not stop the strange bright visions where she weeps and asks him why.

Gamora always looks so young now. Thanos never sees the angry woman who betrayed him and tried to strike him down. The titan only sees the child that he rescued, the one who placed her life into his hands. Even the gauntlet cannot make his daughter leave him and Thanos begins to think that the Soul Stone holds her spirit. Perhaps she is still with him and he has a chance to make her understand.

Ghost or not, she seems to listen. She seems to hear him, turning dark eyes upon her father when he begins to speak.

“I did this for a better world, a better universe,” Thanos tells his daughter just as he’d done once before. The titan told Gamora everything before sending her to seek the Soul Stone and though she’d still obeyed him, he thinks that was the moment when she chose the other side. He cannot be sure exactly since he had never imagined that his daughter would betray him. The thought simply never crossed his mind.

Thanos knows better now. But that scar still twinges when Gamora’s ghost just looks at him in silence and his words ring as hollow as her eyes.

“You never will believe me, will you? No matter what I say,” the titan sighs. “The universe was spinning toward destruction and you could only see the present, not the future that I saved – you and untold billions of sightless imbeciles. Your heart was soft, my daughter, but perhaps you might still see. If words will not convince you, I will show you truth instead.”

So he takes up his gauntlet one more time. The once-shining artifact is scorched and twisted from the Snap, but the Infinity Stones answer his call when Thanos bends his will around them, spinning a vision of the future that will be. The titan shows his daughter a thousand different planets, once broken worlds remade in prosperity and peace. Without overpopulation, there is no need to struggle. There is no need for violence without the threat of poverty.

Thanos shows Gamora the future that he fought for and while these images are pulled from his own imagination, he believes them utterly. He knows with absolute conviction that tomorrow will be better because of what he did today; the titan made a difference and he should go down as a hero in the annals of history.

He does not expect that. Thanos will be a villain for the ages to those who know his mission, an unseen God to those who cry for answers in the dark. Should there be new religions, he will be the Devil, the Deceiver, or the Executioner, punishing the sinful for their crimes.

The ones who fought against him, they’ll be martyrs. Their futile efforts will be lauded as the struggle of true heroes and the titan can admit that a few of them fought well. The battle for the Mind Stone could have ended in his failure if the lord of lightning had been a little smarter, less concerned with vengeance than with his victory. Thanos will remember the Asgardian and he will remember the human who dared to hold him for a moment, brief though it had been. Indeed, he finds himself wondering if that man survived the reaping or if all those so-called heroes had fallen with their kin.

At this thought, the titan’s gauntlet shivers and his image of the future slips away before his eyes. The vision twists around him until Thanos finds himself standing in an armory, Gamora at his side.

Apparently the Infinity Stones have chosen to answer his unasked question and the titan wonders why. The Stones are not just tools; they have intent as well as power and Thanos can feel them struggling against the prison of his mind. The battle between their wills is never-ending, though he is the stronger now, so perhaps the Stones seek an advantage with which to turn the ride.

Yet Thanos sees nothing in this vision that would shake him. He sees the human that he thought of and several of his allies: a flame-haired woman, a dark-skinned warrior, and the rodent creature that his daughter traveled with. They are discussing retribution, but these people cannot hurt him so the titan does not bother to listen to their plans. Instead he turns to Gamora and waves expansively.

“Do you understand now?” Thanos asks her. “I did not kill the universe; I merely thinned the herd. These people are survivors – heroes to this planet – and Earth will grow more prosperous beneath their guiding hands. Do they not look determined? Their hate for me has honed their spirits and their struggle made them strong.”

“You may see strength but I see pain,” Gamora answers. “What will you do if these people break because of lives you murdered, father? What happens to your future if the present is despair? ”

“Necessary casualties,” the titan says dismissively. “Whole planets would have perished without my intervention. But I’ll prove it to you. I’ll prove this pain you speak of will not last.”

Thanos raises his hand and the vision blurs around them. He speeds forward through the day, keeping watch upon these heroes to show that they won’t shatter. Indeed, their faces show nothing but stony determination through planning, meals, and training, and by the time evening falls outside their windows, his point has been well-made.

So the titan does not listen when his daughter bids him wait. Thanos has spent too much of his life coddling her failings; it is time for Gamora to accept that she was wrong.

And yet… just before he ends this vision, the human’s leader leaves his allies and before his eyes, the one known as Steve Rogers simply breaks. The man's expression fractures until even Thanos can’t deny his anguish any longer. Steve doesn’t weep but he looks as though he wants to; he looks like he’s been stripped down to the bone.

“I don’t know if I can do this, Bucky,” the human whispers, his voice cracking on the words. “I’ve lost you so many times already and if we can’t get you back, I… I’m trying to be strong, Buck. They need me and I’m trying. But I’m so fucking tired and I miss you. You’d kick my ass for saying this but I miss you like a limb.”

Steve trails off on a choked sob, one hand reaching up to grab a chain around his neck. The captain looks utterly defeated and Thanos finds himself struck silent by the sight.

“I told you, father, pain,” Gamora says and though her tone is not vindictive, the titan feels her judgment anyway.

“This proves nothing,” he growls, shattering the scene with a wave of his left hand. When the vision melts around him, his daughter’s ghost is gone and the titan puts aside their conversation. Words mean nothing, only actions, and Thanos has earned a long retirement. He watches the sun rise every morning and tends to his new garden, enjoying the feeling of damp earth beneath his hands. The titan spent so much effort on destruction; now that his mission is completed, he has a chance for life instead.

Perhaps that’s why his thoughts keep turning back to Steve. The man had seemed skilled enough in battle – for a human anyway – and determined before his friends. But alone he had been miserable, on the edge of breaking, and eventually Thanos brings up his vision once again. He hoped to find himself mistaken, but after seven repetitions of Steve’s breakdown, the titan can see cracks in the mask of strength as well.

However, this is just one moment. One moment of weakness does not prove his daughter’s point.

So Thanos expands his range. The Stones show him a dozen different days, a thousand different seconds, a hundred different visions of the captain and his men. And yet, no matter when the titan travels, he finds sorrow instead of healing. Steve only seems more haggard as Thanos moves toward the present, the weight of his loss growing heavier each day. The titan would expect that for his planet, all leaders grieve for failure, but when Steve falls to weeping, there's only one name on his lips.

Thanos cannot understand it. A single death should not destroy a person's spirit. If he could kill his daughter, how dare this human break?

Who could be so important? Who the devil is this Bucky? he cannot help wondering. And in answer, the Stones show him a new vision. Thanos sees another human, dead-eyed and dangerous, with an arm made out of metal and that same question on his tongue. He tries to kill the captain, attacking Steve without mercy, and the titan watches in confusion as the battle rages on. These men seem far from friends but only fools or madmen mourn their enemies.

He did not think that Steve was crazy and so Thanos goes back farther to seek some clarity. This time the Stones don't fight him. Their power leaps to his call almost eagerly as the past spins out before his eyes.

When the titan’s vision settles, two young boys are sitting on a threadbare mattress, one holding the other around the shoulders as he coughs helplessly. Every breath sounds painful and when Thanos looks around the room, it reeks of poverty. Nothing is new, not the clothes these boys are wearing nor their simple furniture, and the titan feels a stab of smugness at the sight. These are the lost downtrodden souls that Thanos fought so hard for; no one will ever live like this in the future that he’s made.

However, the titan does not understand why the Stones have brought him here. How could two poor sickly humans be the answer to his question; how could these people matter when the smaller boy can’t even breathe?

“Come on, Stevie. You got this,” the other human pleads. “Your mother will be home in a few hours so please just breathe with me.”

Steve? That couldn't be….

“Don't wor-ry, Buck. I’ll be fine,” the boy gasps between his coughs. “Said we'd go to Con-ey Is-land for your birth-day, did-n't I?”

“You say that every year, punk, and we're always two months late,” his friend replies with a weak smile. “Just make my present getting healthy. There'll be time for the Cyclone afterward.”

His tone is light and yet his expression brims with worry. Bucky – if this truly is that Bucky – holds the other boy gently and his face barely eases when the coughing finally stops. Even then the blond is frail and shaken, a far cry from the hero that Thanos chanced to meet. This boy would shatter like a twig.

A flicker of movement draws his attention and when he glances down, his daughter has rejoined him. She doesn’t say anything but her grin is tinged with glee. Perhaps this is what she wanted, but the titan can't deny that this moment has piqued his curiosity.

Thanos wants to know how these boys became the men he saw in other visions. What turned weakness into power and friends to enemies?

Indeed, if this backwater planet could transform its sick and injured, the titan should have faced more than one small army when he came for the Mind Stone. Something isn’t right here and thus he decides it’s only sensible to explore the captain’s history; the best way to defend his hard-won triumph is to know his enemies.

With the power of the Stones, the past spreads out before him and Thanos dives in without hesitation. The titan watches Steve and his friend grow up together, sees them stand firm against bullies and the winter cold alike. He watches them struggle for survival, whole days slipping through his fingers when he cannot pull away. There's something so compelling about the effort they put forward and the way that they eke joy from their tiny pointless lives.

These frail and flimsy humans do not know that they are hopeless; compared to Thanos, they are insects and in their future, he'd paid as much attention as such minor pests deserved. Yet here in their beginning, these creatures feel so much. Indeed, Steve and this Bucky fall in love before his eyes. The titan doesn't notice at first, too unfamiliar with human mating rituals. But even he cannot miss the months of pining, the years of longing glances that never seem to meet.

A dozen perfect moments slip through the captain's fingers until the titan wants to shake him for his utter foolishness. Thanos doesn't care about their romance; that would be ridiculous. He's merely irritated by their inefficiency. If he had been Steve Rogers, he would have had his Bucky bedded long before this, tied down as he belonged.

That's what he tells his daughter after another pointless conversation uses up his patience and she finds him shouting at the men to get a clue. The titan is not invested. He doesn't need to see these humans come together – that isn't why he's here – and to prove the point, he goes back to gardening.

Thanos tends his plants until his daughter's ghost has left him and then he returns to watch the moment of confession anyway. Bucky is the one who speaks just as he had expected and he finds himself grinning smugly when the damn fools finally kiss.

Yet this frivolity is weakness. The titan has a purpose that should not be forgotten and he doesn't need Gamora to find him watching this. So Thanos snuffs that feeling without mercy and then moves his vision forward until the men are grown.

Even as an adult, Steve is frail and unassuming, but his lover doesn’t care. Bucky is loyal and adoring despite the broken world they live in, and the titan can understand the captain's grief a little better now.

However, he still lacks the explanations that he was searching for. Thanos still doesn’t know how Steve turned into a hero and Bucky to a villain, so the titan continues watching their futile lives play out.

There's a certain beauty to their stubbornness, their endless refusal to accept what fate has dealt. The humans share what they have freely, little though it is, and Bucky is clearly the only reason that his friend survived this long. Yet even as his sacrifice keeps Steve from starvation, it also proves the importance of the titan’s mission; no one else had the courage to cull the herd as he did. No one else could put their love aside.

Of course, love doesn't stop the captain's country from calling Bucky off to war. Thanos sees Steve grow in desperation when the other man is forced to leave him, trying anything that he can think of to reach the battlefield. He lies and begs uncaring doctors, speaking of his duty rather than the truth, and it is hardly surprising when he's denied at every turn.

But then someone says yes. Someone tells this broken child that he can make a difference and the titan wants to scoff. The man's science is nonsensical, his technology pathetic, but somehow he transforms the captain anyway.

The machine should not have worked; Thanos is certain of it. The machine should not do what it has done. Yet Steve stands before the titan as a completely different person, his body finally matching the fiber of his heart.

I can’t believe that worked, he thinks incredulously. The titan is still gaping in scientific outrage when both inventor and invention are destroyed by human infighting and that should have been the end. Thanos has his information. He knows he doesn’t need to fear from an Earth army and he knows why the captain grieves for his lost lover; he does not need to watch this man’s life anymore.

But the titan wants to. He wants to know if Steve and Bucky survived their country’s war or if the captain is in mourning for what might have been instead.

Thanos is learning about regret now. Every time he sees Gamora, that gnawing feeling grows. A futile fleeting wish that his daughter was still living and that she'd stood by him proudly to see the future that he'd made.

He did it for her, that's the part which haunts his dreams. In his heart of hearts, he'd wanted Gamora to be safe. He'd wanted her to live without the danger of destruction. No planet should ever break the way his did. Thanos wanted to protect the universe but the knowledge of the cost still burns within him and when he sleeps, he often wakes with tears upon his cheeks. He is stronger than these humans – he would not change what he has done – but that doesn't fill the hole inside his chest.

Perhaps that's why the captain's past has dug its hooks beneath his skin. Despite the man’s weakness, he refuses to stop fighting for the people that he loves and the titan wants to know if his efforts were rewarded before the Snap changed everything.

So Thanos stands on the sidelines of Steve Roger’s life. He watches the captain be treated as a sideshow by the very men who gave him power, his potential wasted to make the masses cry for war. In some ways his life is better, he has fame if not a fortune, but he gets word of his lover, the man doesn't hesitate. He risks everything he's gained in order to save Bucky, dropping behind enemy lines with nothing but sheer determination and a shield upon his back.

The captain has no plan. Chaos and audacity are the skills that lead him through. Indeed, he's lucky that his lover is still breathing when he finds him, days of torture burned into his skin. Earth may be a backward planet but it seems its people have discovered wide depths of cruelty.

Even partially damaged though, this Bucky loves Steve Rogers. His smile may be sharper, rough around the edges, and he flinches at the shadows like he never has before. But the man’s eyes are still adoring when he looks at his captain and together the couple manages to carve out moments of true peace. Thanos sees trust between them, love strong enough to ease the horrors of battle, and he thinks perhaps this is enough. He need not feel guilty about their ending when they had this time together; Steve's loss need not add to his regret.

That's what the titan thinks until the day that Bucky falls. The man does not hesitate when his captain is in danger; he gives up his life for his beloved with that same selfless courage and once again Steve breaks. His expression is familiar, too familiar, and only a few scant hours later, he flies his plane into the ice. He says it's to protect his country and perhaps he even means it, but Thanos knows the truth.

“I'm coming, Bucky. Wait for me,” the human whispers just before he crashes and the titan's rage shatters the vision instantly.

Thanos burns a mountain in his wrath, the power of the Stones carving out great canyons and shattering the peak. This isn't how that story should have finished. The captain should not have proved Gamora right in his despair.

The titan stands atop the wreckage and screams out his fury, the smell of ash and fire filling up his lungs. But as his anger starts to fade, Thanos soon remembers that this cannot be the end. Bucky has to live until he tries to kill his captain and Steve fought with the titan before the Snap. Somehow both men survived their fates since humans haven't conquered death - no one has managed that - and a quick search through history shows the ice upon their souls.

His daughter finds him as he’s watching a familiar dead-eyed Bucky try to slit his lover’s throat. She sits down beside him without a word and Thanos is too tired to restart their argument. Instead he simply sighs and says, “That’s some impressive brainwashing.”

He’s seen enough to know that Bucky would never hurt his captain willingly.

“Yes, it is,” Gamora answers. She curls against the titan’s side as the fight grows fiercer and Steve Rogers finally realizes that his beloved isn’t dead. Thanos can see the knowledge hit him, destroying his will to struggle with one well-placed blow.

Without his allies, the captain would have died there. He would have let this brain-washed Bucky kill him and so love is nothing but a weakness after all. Of course, the titan already proved that. It was his opponents’ love for their companions that sealed his final triumph. None of them were strong enough to put their hearts aside.

“But it isn’t strong enough,” his daughter whispers and the echo startles Thanos. Did he speak his thoughts aloud? Yet it seems that Gamora is merely continuing their conversation since her eyes are fixed on Bucky as the vision follows him.

Indeed, his daughter is right for the human starts to question after his meeting with Steve Rogers. He questions but it’s futile and he doesn’t even struggle when his doubts are burned away. His captors’ methods are crude but effective, wiping clean his memories with pain and electricity. Watching the light fade from Bucky’s eyes actually bothers Thanos even though he knows it shouldn’t. He’s no stranger to torture or interrogation and he’s done his fare share of damage to the people of this world. The titan did worse to his own daughters in order to make them strong and he’s never once felt guilty about their treatment until now.

Perhaps it’s because he’s seen the man that Bucky was before. Or perhaps it’s the way Gamora weeps when Steve is forced to hurt his former lover and the sudden recognition that she knows this human’s pain. His daughter wept like that when she thought that she killed Thanos. She cried because she loved him and yet she’d fought him anyway.

The titan knows that feeling well. It’s become familiar since the day he killed Gamora, that hollow pain he cannot shake, and watching these men battle is a mirror of his own recent history. He sees himself in Steve when the captain beats down Bucky to complete his greater mission, but that’s where their paths diverge.

As soon as the threat is over, the human just stops fighting. He doesn’t even try to block; he only pleads for understanding, prepared to die instead of hurting his beloved anymore.

Bucky should have killed him. But the man hesitates until an explosion sends Steve Rogers falling into the river far below and when his captain hits the water, he jumps in afterward. He drags Steve to shore with only one working arm, refusing to let go even when the weight threatens to pull him under. When they finally reach the bank, Bucky brushes the hair away from his captain’s face and presses a soft kiss to his forehead, his expression a mix of confusion and the utmost tenderness.

This human ignored decades of brainwashing for the sake of his beloved and the thought makes Thanos ache. For while his daughter was as strong as he could make her, the titan doesn’t know if she could have done the same. In truth, it hardly matters when he killed Gamora freely, paying the cost of the Soul Stone without even trying to find another way.

Such thoughts only lead to weakness – to excuses and desperate bargaining – but that doesn’t stop the niggling sense of doubt within his heart. Because he would have saved Gamora if he could have. Sitting here as her spirit weeps beside him, the titan wants nothing more than to protect her from the pain. So he reaches out to hug his daughter even though it’s much too late and for once she doesn’t fight him. She simply curls into his arms, both warm and insubstantial, and it is a long moment before he can let the vision end.

The titan dreams that night. He dreams of Gamora as a woman instead of a small child, standing far away across a field of brilliant gold. Next to her is a shadow, a scruffy man with a bright smile, and Thanos recognizes Bucky instantly.

The two are not alone.

An endless sea of people spreads out behind his daughter and the titan can feel the weight of their eyes upon his skin. There are so many, the line of shades stretching far past the horizon, and yet he can see them clearly, every one. Not their bodies, but the web of their connections, the shattered threads they left behind, and the weight of all that death nearly brings him to his knees.

Although he may not know their names, the titan knows these spirits. These people are the unlucky half, those who were not chosen. These are the souls the Snap snuffed out.

The titan feels their judgment and he wants to tell them that his cause was necessary. He wants to argue that their deaths had been a boon for the survivors on a million crowded worlds. But Thanos chokes upon the words. Because these are not faceless strangers, not completely, and he cannot tell Bucky that his loss had been a mercy when he's seen the aftermath. When he knows for a fact that Steve would have preferred to die with his beloved rather than be left behind.

Gamora speaks then and despite the distance, Thanos hears her clearly. “We could have found a better way.”

The titan wakes then, a hard knot of sorrow in his chest. He’s not supposed to doubt his actions. He hardened his heart against regret in the ashes of his planet, when the destruction of his people first made his mission clear.

But now there are cracks within that armor, the barest trickle of misgiving, and the feeling proves difficult to squash. Because the dreams don’t stop.

Night after night, the titan is faced with those he murdered. Day after day, his daughter’s spirit haunts his steps and Bucky haunts his thoughts. It seems vitally important to prove that the man’s death was a mercy. Thanos is convinced that doing this would chase his doubts away.

But watching Steve and Bucky only shows the depths of their devotion. The men fight for each other against friends and enemies alike, their loyalty unshakable despite their suffering.

When the world says Bucky is evil, his captain answers, “No.” Steve’s denial is unyielding even as he loses his friends, his rank, and his good name in the defense of his beloved and this should have been proof that he was better off with Bucky gone. This should have let the titan sleep in peace.

Except the man is right and Thanos can see the ripples of his choices spreading out through history. When Steve refused to budge, the whole world moved around him, slowly and with protest but moving nonetheless. Although these men are only human, their love had been a fulcrum that could shift the universe.

And now that love is gone.

The idea gnaws at Thanos and leaves the titan wondering. How many people had he killed who would have made their planets better? How many souls who would have changed their worlds had the Snap snuffed out? The titan still believes that death was the best answer. That nothing else could have stopped the universe from expanding uncontrollably until all life had been wiped out.

But what if he is wrong?

Thanos finds his faith is waning and the Stones give him no answers. Their power only shows him endless possibility. Indeed, the questions haunt him from waking into dreams and it’s almost a relief when the Avengers come for him at last.

There are more than he expected: the last heroes of a dozen worlds banded together to hunt the titan down. Some he recognizes from previous encounters – the captain and the scientist, the god who missed his shot. Some the titan doesn’t – a woman wreathed in fire, a man who shifts his size. But all of them have murder in their eyes.

So Thanos takes up his gauntlet and goes to meet his challengers. He will not surrender. Whatever doubts the titan has, he could not live with the knowledge that he’d broken his last vow. He swore to save the universe no matter what the cost and he will die before he admits that mission failed.

He fights because he must and yet his heart’s not in the battle. The Stones resist his call, not enough to stop him but enough to slow him down, and this gives the Avengers the edge they used to lack. Soon both sides are bleeding as his opponents force him back, though Thanos makes them pay for every inch of ground. He is still a warrior, fighting to the last, and he snaps the captain’s arm with one sharp blow when the man extends too far.

Yet before he can press his new advantage, the titan sees his daughter and when he turns to look at her, he falters where he stands. For the first time in the waking world, it is the woman not the child, and her ghost is not alone.

There is a strange plant creature and the fool that loved Gamora, the mage he met on Titan who gave the Time Stone up. Thanos sees women, men, and children here to support their loved ones and he stumbles back when Bucky’s spirit runs to his captain’s side. The Avengers’ dead are here to witness their failure or their triumph and Bucky is not the only one with such longing in his eyes

Thanos is not supposed to feel regret. The titan is not supposed to care.

He only hesitates for a few seconds but those seconds are enough. While he’s still distracted, the woman wreathed in fire strikes him to the ground and her allies quickly leap in to hold the titan down. No one asks for his surrender – they are here for blood and vengeance – and this time the Asgardian knows where to aim when he raises his axe high.

Thanos could escape this. He could force the Stones to heed him and deflect the weapon with his gauntlet before showing the Avengers the true power of a god. He could slaughter Earth’s last heroes for daring to confront him and rip out Steve Rogers’ heart while his beloved watched.

But when that axe swings toward his neck, the titan doesn’t struggle. He simply smiles at his daughter’s ghost and lets the weapon fall.


Tags: angst, avengers, fic, minor pov, post-series, steve/bucky
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