"You have them all?"
The person standing in front of him is almost uncomfortably calm. Steve pauses at the doorway and then looks around. The street is smashed to pieces and part of him feels an urge to turn around and start helping those that are already starting to emerge hesitantly. But it's already different - when he looked in at the shawarma place for a last glimpse the restaurant was empty and he'd felt a kick in his stomach and the realisation that it had all already started to change.
"I do," he replied, stepping through into the hall. His boots sound loud as he takes cautious steps forward and he presses his lips together in annoyance when the person turns away and seems to be leading him to a sitting room.
"No, thank you." Steve looks around him hoping to find a clue because he thought that this would be the easiest stone to return. "Bruce said-"
A chair is pushed out with a few sparks and Steve stares at it before sighing and taking a seat.
"Do you understand how this has worked?" the Ancient One asks.
"Our time line cannot be altered," Steve replies. "We've created other realities. Four of them. Spawning off from the main one. The stones have to be returned to allow those realities a defence." There. And he feels a moment of pride that he understands the mechanics, but it's bittersweet because the two people that it might mean something to, the people who teased him about it the most, are gone.
"And you are returning the time stone to me," the Ancient One smiles. "It has changed things though. And not just in this timeline."
Steve sits back at that. "They have defenders," he says, but it feels…uncomfortable to say it. "All of those realities will have the Avengers." And perhaps in those realities they'll all survive. Or perhaps it just means there'll be someone else in the team making the sacrifice play. Steve looks down at the briefcase in his hand and then smiles sadly. "I can't change what's happened."
"Because your past is your past," the Ancient One offers. "Except this isn't your past."
It…it hadn't necessarily occurred to him. "So…here…Loki leaves and isn't imprisoned. Thanos will still come and…" Steve considers it, "I fought myself, Strike team think I'm aligned with Hydra and I was told Bucky is still alive." And it's tempting…so tempting. "But there's a Steve Rogers here."
"There's a Steve Rogers who has just woken," the Ancient One reminds him.
"Two of the realities you created are not in danger. Thanos left one reality. And returning the stone to Asgard will change little there. That reality should continue and follow yours closely. The other two though...the schism you created in the seventies will be secure I suppose as long as someone returns the power stone and there is a line of protection, but it will be a very different reality. And here...well...I suppose it's as close as someone could get to changing and fixing the past. I count two realities that need a Steve Rogers. A past that he could do good things in and a present where he could make changes that only someone with knowledge of the future could be capable of."
Steve blinks. "I..." it's hard to know what to say. "I said I'd go back," is what he ends up leading with because he did. He promised.
"And you will return," the Ancient One says, sitting back. "I can see that. When you are past fighting, when you wish to say goodbye to those in your timeline. But you know that timeline is safe. The legacy of the Avengers is secured and the fights that are coming are meant for others. But there are two realities that would benefit from another Steve Rogers." The Ancient One smirks. "You know the things that you could do with this opportunity."
It's...unbelievably tempting. Steve looks down at the suit he has. "I only have enough for a certain amount of trips. A back and forth for each," he points out.
The Ancient One lifts an eyebrow. "I cannot go to another reality that way, it's too much of a split. But to return someone to a reality that was created in a past that we share? With the time stone? I can return a Steve Rogers to the moment of the split. As if placing him on a road just at the moment a fork in the road occurs."
He stares at her. And then seriously considers it, insane as it is. Here, in this time and reality, there is a Steve Rogers that can just go back, not quite to what he had before, but enough. A life with Peggy. A chance to save Bucky early. To maybe start the Avengers earlier, to truly lead that team when they arrive. He'd be far older, perhaps, but…
And it would work. That Steve Rogers would be suited to it; he'd have enough time to lose the self righteousness and help. Perhaps be an uncle to Tony, be someone to welcome Natasha, to temper Thor, to boost Bruce and mentor them all as they arrive. And as for himself? The man he is now wouldn't be suited to Peggy. He's gone to far now to go back that far, no matter how much his mind can dwell on the missed chance. But to go back to this time? He can see how it might unfold here. The people that he could find. That he could help.
And Tony. Maybe he'd actually get that quiet life, to go home. Natasha would find peace. Bucky saved not early, but earlier. Thor wouldn't be destroyed by a missed chance and Clint wouldn't have been without his family and-
And he wants it. He wants it like he wants air. A chance to do what is right. To save people. To right all of the wrongs and to stand against Thanos with a team around him. No snap. No five year agonising wait to find a plan. No fighting with Tony or breaking up the Avengers.
And this, at their beginning, this is the moment where they had the most hope, he realises. The most opportunity. This is where the man he is now could do the most good.
"I need to get the stones back to those realities," he says, standing.
"And then you'll come back and give me your answer," The Ancient One tells him. "But you and I both know what that answer will be."
Steve stares at the confident expression that The Ancient One is wearing and of course Steve knows. He's never been able to walk away from a fight in his life and now? Now he can protect them all.
"He should have a chance," Steve says, turning around. "The other Steve Rogers. I'll offer it to him before I go. He has until I return here to change his mind." He clenches his jaw. "There'll be two of them at some point. And he'll still have missed out on some years. He should get a true choice. And time to consider it."
The Ancient One nods. And then seems to consider what he has said. "You are aware that you can jump between the realities," the Ancient One asks with some amusement. "You could return three seconds after you make the offer."
"I'll give him a day," Steve counters, just about restraining himself from rolling his eyes. "Probably need that long anyway to convince him that this is all real."
The Ancient One's mouth quirks. "I believe I can help with that."
"Yeah," Steve says as he stands. "Maybe. But Steve Rogers is an annoyingly stubborn ass."
The Ancient One watches him. "I believe that has been observed often today. Go. Bring him to me and then continue your mission, Captain. I look forward to working with you."
It annoys him that the Ancient One is talking about it like it's a done deal.
Not enough to make him not do it, he's past being quite that stubborn. Because, for the first time in what might be seven years, he actually feels some hope.