There were several reasons Steve didn’t react to that at first. As far as he knew, he was no one’s uncle, for a start. He rather thought everyone had reached their quota for wrong-century celebrity comebacks, and he was at least sixty per cent sure he’d remember siblings if he’d had any. Besides, his only company was supposed to be solitude at the moment – he’d accept he was hearing voices in his head faster than he would assume someone had found him.
Then, there was the way his name was spoken – not a prayer, not a request, not a respectful acknowledgement, not a timid bid for attention thought undeserved. Not a curse or an accusation. More of a disinterested command from someone with no authority over him, but who couldn’t care less about it.
Only one person ever spoke to him like that.
Steve looked down several seconds too late, and was instantly pierced by a painfully familiar pair of the widest brown eyes.
“Morgan,” he said reflexively, as much a greeting as a belated reminder straight from the still-bleeding bits of his brain. “What-”
They were surrounded by nothing – Tony really had gone the Barton route, settling in the middle of trees and bugs to live out the rest of his life next to what was important, and far away from selfish former friends wanting to drag him back into the fray. Away from the Avengers. Away from the looming promise of his own death.
Steve pressed his nails against his palms again, something he was finding himself doing at least once every few minutes. Any second now, the skin would give.
“Uncle Steve,” Morgan called again, more insistently, and he was punched back into reality.
Steve had wandered, worn a new path along the wildlife. Tony’s house was lost in the distance. And yet there stood Morgan, in her funeral clothes, apparently wandering exactly as far as Steve had and no more.
“Oh, kid – where- how are you alone right now?” he demanded at once, priorities realigning.
“Everybody’s crying,” she commented, which was neither an answer to his question nor a statement made with the appropriate gravitas. “I really hate it.”
Steve blinked twice so as not to add to her distress.
He took a moment to take her in – to relish in the brilliant presence of this tiny, blooming remnant of Tony Stark. It was obviously not the first time he’d laid eyes on her, but so far, Morgan had been Tony’s priority and Steve’s afterthought. He still remembered asking Tony about Coulson’s family – talking to him the way he’d talk to his men during the war, forgetting himself for a moment and slipping back into anything familiar. Steve had thought this was simple. He'd thought he had it down to a science.
It had infuriated Tony. He’d set him straight, though. He always had. Reminded Steve how much bigger and better a man he was, not like anyone he’d ever met. They weren’t soldiers, they were warriors – they didn’t trail dangerous paths, they carved their way through them. Tony wasn’t a fighter – he was a mechanic.
Tony built amazing things, Steve reminded himself, staring at Morgan Stark; he didn’t destroy them. Tony should be here to watch them grow.
Steve took a shuddering breath and realized Morgan had started chattering again.
“I met my brother,” she carried on, as though they were having a pleasant chat, catching up on intertwined lives lived far and wide apart, over coffee and bagels. “He was- he’s so sad. I think he liked me, though. I liked him.”
“You’re talking about Peter Parker,” Steve clarified, and Morgan gave him a deadpan, no-duh look that nearly made Steve’s knees buckle.
“Daddy always said he wished I could meet him, but he never told me why I couldn’t,” she said, scuffing the dirt with fancy shoes. “I knew him from the pictures, though. He’s been with me the whole time, so mommy can talk to everybody. Aunt May, too,” she added as an afterthought. “I snuck away.”
“How about you?” Steve returned carefully. “Aren’t you sad?”
Morgan frowned thoughtfully like that was an interesting question, and Steve, irrationally, felt exactly like he used to, whenever he said something stupid that for some reason derailed Tony’s train of thought exactly in the right direction. “I guess,” she conceded. “But I’m trying to focus.”
Steve looked at her. There was a tiny crease between her brows, a strained but firm air to her stance. ‘I have a plan – attack’ and ‘we need you, Cap’, rolled into one. Steve had never been so in awe. “I’m starting to think there’s a reason you’re here talking to me,” he said, a smile on his face.
The look she gave him then, the curl in her lip and the glint right at the corner of her eye – it was all Stark. “There’s always a reason.”
He couldn’t help it anymore – he let laughter bubble over, startling himself. “You are your father’s daughter, through and through, you know that?”
“Compliment?” she inquired simply, and Steve understood just like he’d always instinctively understood Tony, in their unique brand of communication.
“The biggest, bestest compliment,” he promised, “squirt.”
“Maguna,” she corrected. Steve stared at her. “Daddy’s nickname. He calls me that.”
Steve’s throat seized. “Course he di- doe- He- Of course. Tony got to name you himself, but he still gave you a nickname.”
“Nicknames aren’t supposed to replace names. They’re supposed to help you tell people you love them.”
It wasn’t like Steve could stop it then – there was no warning, no building of pressure, just a sudden well of tears spilling over, and now he was crying in front of Tony Stark’s kid. Crouching down at eye level with her, out of some sort of masochistic empathy.
“What’ve you got, Stark?”
Morgan smiled at him, and that one, that was all hers.
“Daddy always told me if I needed help, I should ask you,” Morgan had explained. “He said he’d seen you do the impossible.”
Could say the same right back at him, Steve had wanted to tell her, but that was not for a four-year-old to understand. “And you need help?”
She’d nodded, very serious, very young. “Sort of. Not me.”
The horrible, sinking feeling in his stomach, Steve told himself later, was the realization of what this little girl was about to ask of him. It was the same realization Captain America always had, dealing with the fallout of his failures – a child’s plea for their world to be returned.
Morgan wanted her father. And she wasn’t asking Captain America for it, she was asking Steve Rogers. It made it personal.
“Yeah?” he mumbled anyway, bracing himself for a vaguely expected blow. His ears were ringing. “What is it, Maguna?”
Morgan frowned at him. Called him stupid with her eyes. Tony, some automatic part of his brain chided instantly, a background process he never needed to trigger. “Mommy’s crying. My brother is, too. Uncle Rhodey, Uncle Happy. Everyone’s crying. I told you, I hate it a lot.”
“Morgan,” he said hoarsely. Steve had still been crouching, then, so he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I can’t – this is something that can’t be helped.” Death can’t be helped. Four-year-olds, even Stark ones, couldn’t possibly understand that. Steve didn’t expect her to. Steve shouldn’t be the one explaining it to her.
Morgan’s brows furrowed further. “Why not?” she wondered.
Steve opened his mouth. Closed it. Tony thought like this too, his brain supplied, unhelpfully – ‘what is my goal?’ ‘How do I get there?’ ‘What are my obstacles?’ ‘What can I do to remove them?’ ‘I am going to remove them.’
‘If I die now, I’ll answer all my questions.’
“I can’t bring him back, Morgan,” Steve said carefully, willing the hitches in his voice to steady. “I’m so sorry. I miss him too, so much, and I love him too. But no one can bring him back, it’s not possible.”
Morgan wasn’t listening. Steve knew from the moment he’d started speaking that she wasn’t listening. He wished he could forget all of Tony’s little quirks and expressions, just so he wouldn’t feel like this every time his daughter witlessly channeled a ghost. That stubborn, petulant, dismissive air of hers was such a vision.
“Why not?” she repeated, impatient.
Steve needed to get Pepper. Rhodes. Happy. May. He was desperate and cowardly enough to hide behind Tony’s other kid, at this point. Anyone.
“Sam,” he gasped out loud as realization hit. Sam would know exactly what to say. Morgan was staring at him and he remembered he’d let his mouth run right along his train of thought.
“I didn’t ask him for help, I asked you,” she insisted sincerely before he could say anything. “Unless you need his help?”
“I definitely need his help,” Steve said promptly.
Morgan must have read something in his expression that told her they weren’t really on the same page – God, Tony, your genius infected your genetics big time – because she scowled. “Uncle Steve,” she said, as firm as Captain America, and it startled him a little, “answer my question. Why not?”
This was the part where Steve focused. This was him and Tony, sitting down before a mission they hadn’t planned for yet, only their goal and the players in mind. This was brainstorming, this was a team exercise. This was the first sketch of their path to victory.
This was – impossible.
“What did your mother tell you happened to your father?” Steve asked softly.
Morgan’s face screwed up in thought. “She said he needed to help everybody. So he couldn’t come home. Not- not ever,” she stuttered a little. “And we couldn’t go to him either.”
“And why do you think I can change that?” he continued, ruthless, helpless, agonizing.
“Because daddy said you could.”
“He didn’t say- he didn’t mean this, Maguna.”
“Why not?” she reiterated, and she sounded so frustrated, like Steve was the one who didn’t get it, like Steve was somehow evading the question.
“Because-” Steve’s voice died somewhere along his throat. Suddenly, he didn’t know how to finish the sentence. He thought he’d been doing so well, too. “Because…”
Because maybe Steve really was the one who didn’t get it.
So, then, Morgan had breathed a sigh of relief and of exertion, and walked away without another word, a spring in her step, and Steve had been left stunned, still practically kneeling on the forest floor with a dumb look on his face.
So, then, there Steve stood, days later, accompanied by a group of partially oblivious people, holding the infinity stones and Mjölnir, prepared for a time roundtrip that they had planned from the beginning. Except, in Steve’s head, the plan had drifted, grown roots, twisted around some ideas and some feelings, around a little girl who needed answers from Uncle Steve. Steve’s plan echoed things like tell people you love them and why not?
Power was dangerous, Steve thought, a little deliriously, and a lot uncaring. Taking temptation and calling it hope. How had Tony ever lived like this, holding this much possibility in the palms of his hands, heavy from his intellect alone?
Steve saw Bucky’s expression of coiled expectation and sunny worry, because of course Bucky knew exactly what he was going to do. He thought about using his chance to go back to a world he thought he’d left behind forever, but which was now unspeakably alluring and within reach. He thought about dancing with Peggy, the gut-wrenching inspiration he’d drawn from Tony’s longing for a certain kind of life, only to lose it in a snap of his fingers.
And then he thought about using the machine to do something useful.
Steve made it all the way to his first stop before he decided his plan was subject to immediate improvisation.
“Nope,” he declared, standing in Vormir, staring at a face so buried in his nightmares, that he’d been, up until that exact moment, completely certain it would never get the chance to resurface again.
The Red Skull was undeterred. “Welcome, Steve, son of Sarah.”
“Shut the hell up.”
“I am the guardian of the-”
“You are the nazi standing in my way.”
“-Soul stone. You-”
“I said shut the hell up.”
“You have returned with my-”
“‘My’, my ass. It’s not yours. Nothing’s yours. You have nothing. I took everything from you and I’ll do it again if I have to. I don’t even know why you’re here.”
The first flicker of emotion revealed itself on those crimson features, and Steve felt extremely satisfied with himself that it was annoyance.
“Just put it back and be on your merry way,” Schmidt snapped. “I’ll go back to guarding it and you’ll go back to being America’s ass.”
“Absolutely not,” Steve answered very simply and very firmly.
There was actual surprise on the Red Skull’s face. “It’s exactly what you came here to do.”
“Yeah, like five minutes ago, before I got a look at you.”
His face twisted. “I am the guardian-” he started to repeat, and Steve hadn’t even heard the full of it, but he was already fatigued.
He clenched his fists, and one of them curled around a hammer. “You are Schmidt. You’re not a guardian, you’re not Red Skull, you’re the loser leader of a loser faction of a loser army, and there is no way in hell I’m handing an infinity stone over to you.”
“I am the guardian-”
“My eternal purpo-”
“I am the Red Skull!” he finally bellowed.
“Schmidt,” Steve growled back, except more impressive. He took two steps forward and Schmidt took five steps back.
“What is your plan, then?” Schmidt demanded suddenly. “Set the stone adrift? Set me adrift? A poor tribute to your friend, who traded her own soul for your chance at heroics.”
But Steve had gone very, very, very still. ‘A soul for a soul’, Clint had explained. ‘Stone counts as a soul. Apparently.’
‘I fought her. Always fighting her. She won. She always wins.’
“I give back the stone to this place,” Steve began slowly, “and you’re trapped here?”
Schmidt contemplated him evenly for a very long time. He tilted his head. Something strange that Steve didn’t care to analyze crossed his whole expression. “Your plan. It is not feasible. What has been done cannot be undone. There is little point dwelling in fantasies.”
And that, well, that only made Steve plant himself like a tree. “I want to trade.”
“You’re not in charge here.”
“Just return the stone and leave.”
“Soul for a soul,” Steve said, reiterated the painful words from his memory. “This is a deal, not a gift.”
“There is nothing to deal for. Vormir is not here for soul storage. There is a point to the sacrifice – there is a price to pay.”
Steve clenched his jaw. “Well, then – my stone has a price too.”
“I do not bargain.”
“Neither do I. I’m a very all-or-nothing kind of guy. You going with nothing?”
“I am going with this: wishful thinking does not make it so.”
Steve plopped Thor’s hammer down, handle on the ground, and then sat cross-legged on the metal, the picture of virtuous patience. “I could do this all day,” he announced, and some Tony Stark with a permanent living space in Steve’s head wheezed out an overacted sigh. “After that, I’ll just leave. And take the soul stone with me.”
Schmidt let out a very long, drawn-out groan. “You are insufferable. What makes you think I would trade my freedom for the stone?”
Steve bore his eyes into him for a stretched-out, silent moment. “You’ll trade anything for the stone.”
Schmidt just glared back leisurely, prolonging their impasse past the amount of time which would let Steve know he was right, and which would let Schmidt know Steve wasn’t bluffing.
Finally, Schmidt’s hovering seemed to drop several centimeters. “Throw the stone over the cliff. Natasha, daughter of Ivan – she will be waiting.”
Steve leapt to his feet, grabbed Mjölnir. “I have several more stones and a mighty hammer,” he warned. “This better not be a trick.”
Schmidt’s lips twisted and pursed in a way that made him seem almost human again. “And what would be the point of that?”
Steve threw the stone over the cliff and the universe faded.
When he came to, the first thing he noticed was a strand of the loudest red hair, spilling onto some sort of ominously grey substance. He followed its trail to a familiar face as though in a rush, heartrate picking up rhythmically, and pushed himself on all fours, all at once. A pair of pale hands contorted in the usual instinct to assume a defensive pose when disoriented, and then Natasha noticed Steve.
She blinked up at him drowsily. He grinned like a fool.
“Did Clint do something stupid?” was the first thing out of her mouth.
Steve shook his head dazedly. “Does today end in day?”
Nat’s face split into a blinding smile. “I don’t know. Feels like I’ve been gone a while.”
Steve threw his arms around her. “Not that long,” he mumbled, and discovered he was crying again. “But it did feel that way.”
“Steve,” she choked, “ease up. Crushing hug isn’t just a figure of speech with you.”
He let go instantly, but kept a relentless grip of her arm. She offered up a wobbly smile. “You’re sad. Don’t be jealous just because I stole your martyr move.”
Steve shook her a bit. “I’m gonna kick your ass for making us all cry later. For now, though, I’m on a tight schedule.” He pointed at her arm. “You still have your- time thingy, right? The wrist strap?” Natasha rolled her eyes but nodded, holding it up. Steve exhaled quickly in a surge of successful adrenaline. “Go back. They’ll be waiting for me, they’ll be expecting me – but I’ll go a little later. Tell Bruce – tell him I have two devices,” Steve said, holding up one of Tony’s straps in each hand. “Tell him to be ready.”
Natasha’s eyes were wide. “What? Ready for what? What happened? Who are you taking-”
Steve made his next jump before she finished her sentence.
There was some guy passed out on the dirt right in front of Steve. He squinted down, and recognized Peter Quill, from the battle and then Tony’s farewell. Steve strode past him purposefully, and then turned right back around.
Shrugging, he pressed the container holding the power stone into Quill’s hand, and closed the man’s fingers around it, tucking it under his body in case anyone else stumbled upon him. With any luck, Quill would be too scatterbrained to question his inexplicable find too much.
He activated the device one more time, mentally counting down both his resources and his objectives.
Asgard was beautiful, and Steve didn’t know how Thor ever left.
The gold and blue and white hit his eyes the second he opened them, and he became transfixed. It looked like something straight out of Steve’s escapist fantasy entertainment, in all the good ways. The light spilled over a gleaming expanse of marble as far as the eye could see, wall and floor and ceiling alike. The world was so regal there.
The first thing he did was drop Mjölnir wherever – Thor would summon it as needed, and Steve knew, from experience of living with the god, that no one would question any unexpected property damage. So now, all Steve had to do was locate Thor’s ex-girlfriend in the middle of this beautiful, high-arched, spacious, long – great big endless maze.
Steve wanted to leave already.
He decided on a stealth approach. The Asgardian guards didn’t really buy it for very long, or even long enough that he had time to put down Mjölnir and take his first post-time-travel breath.
“Who are you? How do you wield the Prince’s weapon?” one of them demanded. Steve assumed it was the one in charge, since the other two were holding him aloft, against the wall they’d slammed him into.
Steve sputtered in return and felt a stark reminder of his childhood days, where everyone was faster, stronger, bigger, healthier and better. Being Captain America in Asgard sucked.
He slacked his left arm and the guards made their first mistake – they allowed his hand far too close to Mjölnir.
“It’ll- it’ll leap into- my hand,” he warned them, but they weren’t listening very closely.
Steve was sure they were just knocked out, once he and the hammer were through with them. They were Asgardians, the resilient sort. It was a work nap, that was all. He returned Mjölnir to the floor when he was done and gave it a small pat before walking away.
Jane Foster’s room was the one outside of which he’d crash-landed. He tip-toed inside and immediately made eye contact with her.
Steve curled his lip at the assumption made twice now in the space of – what, a week? God, Steve was having one fucked-up week. That look on his face only seemed to sell the notion to Ms. Foster, whose expression hardened bravely over the understandable fear.
“Yes, I will scream!” she replied instantly, voice raising steadily with every word. “I will do the exact opposite of whatever you tell me to do-”
Steve furrowed his brow and concentrated very hard. “Please do scream-?”
“-First it was the racoon, and I don’t even understand how you know what a racoon is, but-”
“They’re all over the place on Earth.”
“A-and now Captain America? I – honestly, is this like a fetish-”
“God, I hope not.”
“I’ll get your brother to come here, how did you even get out of your cell? Thor said-”
Steve slapped a hand over her mouth. However much Jane struggled, she was still only human. The terror in her eyes as he man-handled her made something twist deep in his gut, and he kept up a non-stop stream of silent apology as he returned the reality stone to her.
By the end, she was sound asleep and would hopefully have very fuzzy memories of him or Rocket.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized again anyway, and slipped back out of her room, not wasting any more time before jumping back and sideways into a new time and place.
“If you could leave both stones you intend to return to this time and place on the table, Captain, I’d be terribly grateful,” a bald woman in a yellow robe told Steve, not a second into his foray into the next scene. She hadn’t even looked up, nose tracking weird words on a weird book that looked like the composite of weird paper. “I’ll make sure the mind stone ends up exactly where it’s supposed to be. Apologies – the accommodating host in me feels ungracious. You look like you could use some tea. Unfortunately, the pragmatist tends to hold the reigns – and she thinks that’ll be enough dillydallying around time and space for one day. Do be on your way.”
Steve hastily dropped the green and yellow stones on the nearest surface he saw, saw the woman wave her hand out of the corner of his eye. His device activated without his say-so, and then he was gone.
Steve landed on what was to be his last stop and took a deep breath.
He’d saved the space stone for last for several perfectly valid reasons and one wildly reckless one. One, he might have made use of it in one way or another; two, this would be the hardest part of his mission, particularly without Tony – and the sharp strike of pain that always accompanied his name now, even if it was only spoken in Steve’s mind, it really needed to go, along with the memory of his smile as he’d placed his shield back in Steve’s undeserving arms – and three, he wanted the Tony from after they’d fully worked through their differences. Because Steve tended to make things personal, and he was selfish like that.
Steve was early. He knew he was early. It was by design.
Making his way down to where Tony would now be retrieving the Tesseract was far easier than he thought, at least once he’d slapped on someone’s hat and sunglasses and used Tony’s fake story. He snuck around the room, avoiding the center out of a fear of exposure, and managed to return the stone to its destination with the muffled sound of quiet voices in the distance.
He was feeling rather satisfied with himself, and even took the extra precaution of walking up a flight of stairs in case someone questioned his presence on that specific level, for some reason. Making people believe he was a doctor, in that attire and with that demeanor, however, was getting much harder every second that passed. An air of confidence and blustering assertions would only get him so far.
Fortunately, they wouldn’t be there for very long, which would hopefully prevent him from stumbling into an actual catastrophe.
When the elevator doors opened, a couple of levels up when he could no longer take the stairs for security reasons, he nearly came face-to-face with Howard Stark.
Tony noticed him first, because if Tony wasn’t always fixing everything, what was he doing? He shoved Steve into the elevator, back-first, with a swift move that Steve instantly synced to, both of them all wide eyes and jumping heartrates. Their third-wheel wasn’t paying enough attention to think it was weird. Tony stood next to him at an angle, covering Howard’s view of his face in the most precarious position ever known to man, and then began making stilted conversation with his father all the way up the thirty-second-long elevator ride.
Steve took about thirty seconds too many to realize this was the first time he’d landed eyes on Tony Stark since he’d watched him die.
The doors opened with Steve still staring, still transfixed by every line on the face of a friend he thought he’d lost forever. Why not, Morgan had asked, a tiny tremble on her bottom lip, and why not, Steve was asking, trying to keep his own from doing the same. Why not?
Those lines – every day a little older, a little darker, a little harder – were trying to communicate something to him, Steve could tell. They were tightening, frowning. He was very lost in his thoughts in every way that mattered, but he could tell Tony was trying to get his attention.
With a glare. Tony was glaring at him. His father was a few steps away, still speaking to thin air as though Dr. Potts was right beside him.
Steve snapped out of it and exited the elevator Tony was holding open for him.
Tony fumed at him. “What is the matter with you – first you compromise the plan by going down to-”
“Your father’s waiting for you,” Steve whispered back abruptly, and then disappeared to where he remembered meeting back up with Tony, mission successful. Should’ve done that in the first place, asked him to wait, he berated himself, you’ve got some eagerness to blow the whole thing because you just needed to see him so bad.
Steve was still wallowing in his own self-recrimination when he almost tripped over himself. He righted his stance, threw out a hand to support his weight against the nearest wall, and stared at his own face. His other self’s eyes flickered down to his wrist, took note of Tony’s device.
With some sort of unspoken communication, both Steves headed for the nearest secluded corner before glowering at each other.
“What the hell?”
“I know, second time today, right?”
The other Steve pulled a face. “Why?”
Which was the exact moment Tony suddenly popped up between them, repeatedly switching between a glare and a plain stare very fast. The other Steve took the opportunity to slip the Pym particle into Tony’s device, and then his own, locking both straps once they were properly loaded and secure. Tony was still staring. The other Steve joined him as soon as he was done.
“What the hell,” Tony sighed wearily.
“Why are you here?” the other Steve tried again. “You’re only supposed to return the stone after we’ve left.”
Steve decided to take action, and rounded on Tony, who took an alarmed step back. “Need him in my reality,” Steve offered by way of explanation. He tugged on Tony’s arm, who couldn’t exactly put up much of a resistance. “Lost our Tony,” he added, and didn’t have the wherewithal to consider the reactions that could be set off by his words. “The universe needed him, so we lost him.”
The other Steve grabbed Tony’s other arm, priorities clearly in order. “So you’re gonna take mine?”
“Two sobbing kids and a widow I need to return him to. You’re not careful, you’ll end up like me.”
Predictably, that distracted his alternate self enough that Steve got the upper hand as easily as he had by mentioning Bucky. Tony went stumbling into his chest, and his ire finally reached a fever pitch.
“That’s enough,” Tony yelled, wrenching his arm away from Steve’s grip. He allowed it because going against his own wishes was far easier than going against Tony’s. “What’d you mean, two kids?”
The other Steve huffed. “That’s your first question?”
“Did you want me to ask about next week’s Powerball? Damned right, that’s my first question,” Tony barked back irritably, and Steve missed him suddenly with an intensity completely inappropriate for the fact that he was standing right there in front of him. Tony’s gaze cut back to him urgently, blowing away the dark cloud of pain. “What do you mean, two kids?”
“I mean Peter and Morgan, obviously.”
And that, right there, on Tony’s face – that was triumph. That was Morgan’s eyes opening under an iron mask and a scar in the sky, surrounded by battle-armor-red and blood-red, surrounded by destruction, surrounded by family that wasn’t family yet and home that wasn’t home yet. That was Pepper’s I do and his baby girl’s weight in his arms, it was the Avengers’ rooms in the tower and the Avengers’ rooms in the compound. It was JARVIS and FRIDAY and a bump against Steve’s shoulder, a grin, and an offer of food after a good mission.
That was Peter Parker crying into his chest and Pepper Potts’ murmured promises of days he’d never get to see. It was rest and peace from a war that Tony shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t end. Not if Steve had a say in the matter.
That was Tony Stark.
“It works.” It was said in a giddy daze, breaking Steve’s reverie, and Tony turned to his own Steve immediately, who was just as wild-eyed. “It works. We’re actually pulling it off.”
It took a second, but Steve was staring at his counterpart, and he figured it out very quickly. “Not for you.”
Tony’s thrill abated fast. He turned to his would-be Captain America kidnapper and clenched his jaw. “Right. The reason you’re using the time-turner against the Ministry of Magic’s regulations. Is it cool if I call you Minority Report, y’know, to distinguish between the two of you?”
Steve nodded, feeling as though that was an appropriate response to give Tony’s mix of obscure reference and nervous diversion. “I’m here because Maguna asked me to.”
Tony flinched so violently he took a step back. The other Steve’s expression was crestfallen. Personally, Steve understood exactly how he felt. He just had a few days’ head-start on the grief.
“Coming?” Steve asked politely.
Tony gaped at him. “What?”
“I’ll bring you back with me. I’ll – I’ll take you back to your family. After all the- without making you go through- what you did. Without losing you,” he promised invitingly. “Thanos is gone. You get to rest for real this time. You get to watch Morgan grow up, spend the rest of your life next to Pepper. Come on.” He pointed at the other Steve, who had gone very pale. “He can take the stone, the particles back with him, you don’t have to go.”
“I- don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything, just come home.” Isn’t that the ‘why’ we fight? So we can end the fight, so we get to go home?
But Tony was still rooted in the exact same spot, and Steve’s heart dropped straight down to his feet. “Please,” he begged, something raw and terrible in his voice.
Tony was very responsive to it, wincing and twitching and refusing eye contact. “Tell Morgan I love her a ton and a half,” he said, a look of finality on his face, his words equally broken. “And Peter, and Pepper, and Rhodey, Happy – tell them- Bruce, Nat, Thor, and Clint-”
“They know. They all know. That’s why I’m here.” Steve’s words were still pleading, but the resignation was creeping in, he could feel it – he knew that hard, stubborn look on Tony’s face, he’d known that look from the day they’d met.
That look had sent him on a desperate, last-ditch-effort fool’s gambit, to save the father of a little girl with big brown eyes.
“I can’t doom one reality just so I get to live in another,” Tony declared slowly, as though explaining it to a toddler. “If your timeline needed me, then- then mine does, too. They’ll merge and become the same. I don’t-” He cut himself off, swallowing drily. “I don’t get a different ending whatever you do. We told you. You can’t change your past. And I have to – I have to think of the greater good. I have to – Morgan’s gonna grow up in a good world. Peter’s going to- he’s going to thrive in a good world.”
“Tony-” The other Steve was crying now, too.
“None of that,” Tony argued, shaking his head forcefully. “I don’t need to be a part of it, no matter how much I want to. Maybe this was always how it was going to end, for me.”
“Don’t say that,” Steve denied instantly, and wasn’t surprised to hear his counterpart say it right alongside him. “It’s not true.”
Tony gave them both a lopsided smile, eyes shining a little too bright. “Woah. Captain America crying twice over for me. Tell that to fifteen-year-old Tony. Honestly, if I go out today, it’ll be with a lot of issues dealt with in the weirdest way possible. That therapist I never went to see would be so proud.”
And then he held his wrist to his chest, activated his return device, and vanished on the spot. Both Steves were left staring at the empty ground where he’d stood with identical dumbfounded looks on their faces.
“Really should’ve seen that coming,” Steve muttered hollowly, and his counterpart’s head was snapping up to react to that, a little bit of fire in his expression, when Steve pulled the exact same move as Tony. The last thing the darkness swallowed was a pair of watery blue eyes.
Steve didn’t really know where he ended up, not at first.
It looked like Tony’s home, but it couldn’t be, because if he’d done it right, he should have appeared in a time machine, not in his backyard, and if this was his house, there should be remnants of a funeral all around him.
It was nighttime. The porch door was wide open. There was a familiar little girl sitting on the porch, swinging her legs.
“You’re young,” Steve blurted out stupidly, and Morgan knew it too.
She squinted at him. “I’m two.”
“Shit,” he let slip out, and then slapped a hand on his mouth. Morgan stared at him.
Steve needed to go. Tony and Pepper wouldn’t leave a two-year-old girl unattended in their backyard; there was no way Steve wasn’t two seconds away from a very awkward encounter. He needed to go and he couldn’t.
“I’m sorry,” he told her, and a muscle on his jaw trembled. “I failed.”
Morgan blinked at him. “Something bad?”
Steve swallowed drily. “Yeah.”
“Fix it. Try again?”
Steve was delusional. He had to be. This was not a conversation he was having with a two-year-old.
He heard steps on wood, Pepper’s soft croon calling for her daughter. Steve recharged and reactivated his device one more time, and then vanished, staring directly into Tony’s eyes – into a shade of brown that had spent the last decade changing Steve’s life.
Steve was early again. He had two charges left and one last option.
He scrambled for his earpiece. The frequency the team was on, he was fairly certain, was still programmed into it – there shouldn’t be a reason he couldn’t simply join it. He needed to know what was happening.
“Queens,” Steve heard another version of himself say, “heads up.”
Early. He needed that gauntlet in Carol Danvers’ hands. Tony would kill him dead if he risked Parker.
Steve focused on the battlefield instead – and took a moment to have his breath stolen by the veritable army converging behind him, around him. He stayed out of the way, hiding behind debris, keeping his carefully measured distance. Steve needn’t change a thing or fight – they’d won. Well, Tony had won it for them, and then they’d all lost him. Steve took a deep breath. The longer this went on, the harder it was to clam up on his breakdown.
Steve needed Tony home. Now. So did Morgan.
A glowing force of nature disguised as a woman charged up into the clouds, backed by the fiercest faction of Steve’s team, and the wait was over.
“Carol,” he barked into his comm., wincing as he saw Clint narrowly dodge a fiery projectile. He needed to leave, soon, or he would end up interfering, “there’s no time to throw that thing back into the past now.”
“What the hell?!” he heard the other version of himself gasp into the comm. too, surely flabbergast at whatever was happening. Thankfully, everyone else seemed to accept it as some random battle exclamation, and not an expression of shock at the sudden appearance of what only he was realizing was a Captain America clone.
“Yeah?” Danvers snapped back, just as tense and afraid as the rest of them. “You have a better suggestion?”
Those were several voices saying the same thing, so even if the other Steve had spoken, he was drowned out by the crowd.
“The Hulk survived it, you can survive it. Use it before we lose our chance.”
Steve felt a piercing gaze on his back and spun around to find Dr. Strange boring a hole into him. There was a moment of silence that stretched into infinity, and then a tiny nod. In a second, he’d disappeared into the fray again.
Steve only needed to find Tony and that would be it.
“Wait a second-” the other Steve started to protest, but Danvers was headstrong. She’d stopped abruptly, mid-air, hovering over the fight. She was too far away for Steve to take in the determination in her glowing expression. The other Steve was preoccupied enough with staying alive to do much more to stop her.
“You just said we’d lose our chance. We’re not gonna lose our chance.”
Carol Danvers put on the gauntlet. Steve’s eyes landed on Tony.
The Iron Man armor slammed to the ground, about twenty meters from Steve’s own position. And of course he was going head-to-head with Thanos himself.
Steve was a master strategist. He was supposed to consider his current situation carefully and work out a proper plan in the time it took Thanos to reach his target. He was supposed to weigh his options.
Steve broke into a sprint. Carol snapped her fingers. He didn’t look.
Steve reached over and slapped the device’s strap over Tony’s wrist. He barely caught a glimpse of Morgan’s eyes widening before the world went dark and familiar once again.
“I’m not sorry,” was the first thing out of Steve’s mouth.
Everyone was gaping at him – everyone but Bucky, who shook his head and patted his back. “You brought the stupid back.”
Bruce had a hold of Natasha’s forearm that looked painful, but she wasn’t complaining, too busy staring. She seemed a bit faint – as though a veritable deluge of information had been dropped on her in the span of a few minutes instead of days, something Steve could vaguely relate to.
He spun around. Tony rounded on him at the exact same moment.
Steve knew that look too. It was the look that promised a yelling match. He’d never returned it with a goofy grin before, but there they were.
“When are you ever, Cap?!” Tony exploded, and Bruce let out some sort of strangled noise at the sound of his voice. “What’d you even think-”
“Can’t change my past,” Steve insisted, still breathing heavily. He sat down on the grass, rubbing his chest. “Can bring you into my future.”
Sam opened his mouth, clearly to intervene in some way, but both Natasha and Bruce shook their heads vigorously, making some sort of abort noises, and he took the hint. Steve appreciated it. He always preferred to loop everyone else into his snappy, whirlwind back-and-forth with Tony when they were actually done talking.
Tony was still staring at Steve. “How do you know the timelines will converge? Because you’re clearly the looks of this operation, which makes me the brains, and since I don’t know they’ll converge, I’m gonna take a wild guess and say you don’t either.”
“Thanos brought his daughter here, from the past. She stayed. She- she’s dead too, but she stayed.”
“Gamora wasn’t the key to saving our planet, moron.”
“Danvers did it, snapped her fingers, saw her do it-”
“Could’ve jeopardized the entire universe, I don’t even know how badly it might’ve been screwed up-”
“You’ve known what I’m willing to jeopardize for the people I love since the day we almost killed each other-”
“Little earlier than that, actually, the murder attempt was just an overdramatic flair.”
“Yeah, and while we’re on the topic, you’re very welcome, Tony, your life is that important to me.”
“You have got to learn to differentiate between your stupid recklessness and your stupid hero complex, seriously-”
“Yeah, love you too, dipshit, but that doesn’t mean you just get to-”
And then – then, Tony caught sight of something over Steve’s shoulder, stiffened; a car door slammed in the distance, and there was nothing else to talk about, really.
“Oh my God.”
“Oh my God!”
Peter got there first, because there was no one in the vicinity and possibly otherwise with the ability to outrun him. It was more of a tackle than a hug, what he did, but he seemed about as sorry for it as Steve was for bringing Tony back. His face was buried into Tony’s neck in the time it took Steve to blink once, and Tony was immediately clinging back almost as tightly.
“Hey, Mr. Parker,” Tony berated, and Steve could hear it in his voice, the way he’d gone from yelling at Captain America to crying on Spider-Man, “I’m really freaking done with this Mr. Stark bullshit.”
Peter huffed into the jacket Tony wore under the suit. “There’s no point using freaking if you’re just gonna go back on the bullshit, Tony.”
“Smartasses,” Tony muttered, sniffling. “Every single one.”
Which was Morgan’s cue for impact. Tony wasted no time in helping her climb up to his arms, reaching over for Pepper in a freakishly successful bout of multitasking. He still had one hand gripping Peter’s coat at the nape of his neck, and if this went on for much longer, Steve would start worrying he’d brought him back just to lose him to suffocation.
Pepper punched his arm, and not gently either. “You’re done. Thanos is gone, Peter’s back. No more Avengers, no more Iron Man,” she ordered, crying. “You’re done, you hear me?”
“Loud and clear,” he hurriedly promised into her hair. “Done, no more nothing. I’m just- I’m gonna be the most boring trophy husband in the history of stay-at-home dads.” A small laugh broke through Pepper’s tears. “You deserve so much better,” he murmured fervently, and Steve looked away because that wasn’t for his ears.
“I’d rather deserve what I want,” she told him, and Tony hid his face in strawberry-blonde curls again.
Rhodes was staring at Steve in amazement. “What did you do?” Happy Hogan asked, gasping.
Steve bit the inside of his cheek. “Morgan asked for help.”
Everyone looked up to stare at him for that one. Which was when Natasha, who was looking at Morgan with the softest look she’d ever been caught sporting, crossed Tony’s eyesight.
“Nat,” burst out of him, and he almost took down his family puppy pile in a rush to check his incredulous eyes. “Natasha – how-”
“Steve keeps busy,” she mumbled in a monotone. Tony pulled her into a hug too, Morgan still glued to his torso.
“I’ll call Clint and Thor here.”
Steve’s declaration returned the focus of all attention to him, because he still hadn’t answered any questions and his excuses were running out.
“How – when – where – why – how-” Tony’s sputtering was only half-intentional. His eyes were gleaming with that little twinkle that threatened to spill one of his real smiles – Steve should’ve known he’d be happier to find Natasha alive than to be saved himself.
“Well, we know why,” Natasha said, always so much better at keeping her composure. “Steve started panicking when it hit that they really can’t even take down a squad of generic murderous robots without the two of us.”
She’d jabbed a playful elbow into Tony and subsequently Morgan, which earned her two identical smiles. “That’s obviously a given. I just wanna know what this help my daughter needed was about.”
Steve fell silent, as though giving the little girl the floor. Morgan peeked out from inside her father’s hold to find herself under the spotlight, and instantly straightened, crossing her arms. No Tony Stark spawn would be caught dead acting timid in front of an audience. On top of that, Morgan had the smug look of someone who’d just been proven irrefutably correct and was going to rub it in the face of all her naysayers.
“You told me. If I need help, I go to Uncle Steve,” she recited, gaze switching up to her father’s, as though looking for validation. Peter made some sort of affected little noise on the back of his throat. Tony’s expression was a myriad of emotions so heart-wrenching and intense, Steve had the urge to look away. Heavy, complex, but good.
Mostly, he looked deeply touched, and if Steve were a braver man, he’d accuse Natasha of tearing up right then and there.
“Yeah, you little shit,” Tony choked out, much to Steve and Pepper’s outcry, “you need help, you go to Uncle Steve.” Steve caught a glimpse of Morgan’s beaming smile before she buried it in her father’s chest, who buried his in her hair right back.
“Captain America always saves the day, huh?” Bucky muttered beside him, a smirk tugging at both corners of his mouth. Steve had the inexplicable urge to beam, rock on the back of his heels, and preen like a golden retriever receiving praise.
It caught Morgan’s attention. She squinted at Bucky, then at Steve. “Who’s Captain America?”
Steve did it on instinct – before he quite knew what he was doing, he’d reached out, gotten a good grip of Sam’s arm, and tugged Falcon in front of him. “This guy.”
Morgan pursed her lips. “I told you. I’m supposed to ask Uncle Steve for help.”
Tony hid his smile, because Sam was frozen in place, and he was being uncharacteristically considerate.
“Slip of the tongue, my bad,” Bucky chuckled, and patted Sam on the shoulder. “He needs a minute.”
Jumping into action felt, somehow, like the next natural choice. The machine loomed over them like a promise and a curse all at once, an inexplicable allure that needed to go. Bruce and Tony packed up – Morgan watched attentively from Peter’s arms, her new perch once Tony put her down. Steve asked Tony how he could help, and Natasha brought Sam out of his trance with a smirk. Pepper, Rhodes, and Happy just stared at Tony like they were afraid he might fade away the second they took their eyes off of him. And Bucky – Bucky kept his eyes on Steve, speculating, mulling something over.
“You could have told me, you know,” Bruce grumbled, and it took Steve a second to realize he was speaking to him. “I would’ve helped you. With your plan.”
Steve shrugged. “Wasn’t sure there was much of a plan until I was there, gotta be honest.”
Bruce looked up from a laptop, surprise coloring his green features. “What’re you talking about? Barnes called Rhodes, he knew.”
“Didn’t,” Bucky denied, approaching them. “I was eighty per cent sure you were gonna do this,” he said, directing his words to Steve. “So, I asked the doc to be ready. Which was apparently redundant, since right then, in comes Romanoff saying the exact same thing.”
“And the other twenty per cent?” Steve pressed, and Bucky pulled a face at him, keeping mum. Bruce shook his head.
Steve looked away from them and made eye contact with Tony, who’d clearly been eavesdropping. Their friends took that as a hint to give them some privacy, dropping their task for the Steve-and-Tony moment. There was still caked blood on Tony’s face, his clothes – a reminder he’d skipped several days of pain and grief. Steve didn’t know whether that was what guilted him into opening his mouth, or if it was the way he could only see Morgan, now, when he caught sight of those eyes.
“I almost went back,” spilled from Steve’s lips. Tony squinted at him in confusion. “I almost – all I could hear in my head were all your comments about how you wanted the simple life, and your priorities, and happiness, and I almost let it become- some sort of tribute. Going back, finding Peggy. And then, I – figured out a way to pay better tribute.”
“Thank you,” Tony told him intently, and Steve learned something new about Tony Stark, just like he always did every time he thought he had the man fully figured out. The earnestness on his face, so good and pure that no one should have a right to it. Morgan had put that there. “For everything.”
“You too,” Steve said back, voice wavering with the effort of not bursting into tears for the nth time that day. “For everything.”
Tony strode forward and gripped his hand for so long, that effort almost went to waste. Then he let go. “I mean, I would have been more grateful if you’d managed to do this in time for me to crash my own funeral, which would have become the most epic thing I’ve ever done, but-”
“Shut up, Tony.”