Actions

Work Header

Avengers: End-Game

Chapter Text

“Don’t do anything stupid whilst I’m gone,” Steve warned. His smile was genuine and warm, tinged with sadness—they had, after all, lost people. They had, after all, been at a funeral only yesterday. The war was won, but not without great costs. Iron Man was dead, but the world was alive. That was his legacy. A legacy they would all do their best to honour.

Well… not all of them.

Steve looked at his friend—his brother, really—and watched Bucky’s lips twitch in a smile. It didn’t quite get there, and his eyes were sad. “How can I?” he asked. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.” The words burned in his mouth a little more bitterly than he would’ve liked. But he knew there was no stopping Steve from doing what he wanted to.

I have to, Buck,” Steve had told him the previous night, when the lakeshore had been quiet, and starlight dappled off the surface of the water. Beautiful and tranquil and not at all the place for the argument they were having. “I have to put those stones back. It’s not… it’s not right otherwise. Things need to be corrected.”

Balanced?” Bucky had asked hollowly. Steve had almost shot him a glare. Almost.

It’s not right otherwise,” he repeated softly. “You deserve rest.

So do you.

Standing up on the platform now, Bruce explained to the others what was going to happen. With a deep breath, Steve tightened his grip on his cargo. Such precious, dangerous, damned cargo. It was a relief and a comfort to feel Mjolnir in his other hand. Not just the power, not just the piece of his friend that would be at his side, but the delicacy to it. An almost feminine energy, temperate but undeniably fierce and determined. That was a comfort as much as a stinging reminder of what he'd lost. But there was hardly anything more determined than Mjolnir—so stubborn it would let the universe move around it before letting most people pick it up.

Then again, Steve had always been pretty stubborn, too.

“Three…” Banner counted down. “Two… One…”

And suddenly, he was hurtling through infinity.


To make the time-travel less straining on his body, Banner had instructed him to go in chronological order. First the Tesseract, then the Mind and Time stones, then the Aether, then the Orb, and finally, the Soul stone.

The first three, in New York eleven years previously, went with minimal problem—though an old man at a coffee shop did ask him if he was an impersonator. “There’s a lotta demand for guys who look like you, now, kid,” he’d said, wagging a finger and cackling. That had been unsettling—almost being recognised. Though something about the man had seemed inexplicably familiar.

The Ancient One had accepted the Time stone with a serene smile, placing it back in the Amulet. Steve had already rematerialized his suit and was about to jump to Asgard, a year later, when she laid a hand on his wrist. He stopped, transfixed by her gaze. He wasn't sure if this woman was human. He'd known intense stares before, eyes that could read a person's entire life story with just a glance, eyes that hid darkness and trauma behind the batting of eyelashes and sweet faked giggles. Alternatively, eyes that stared, defiant, daring you to say something, cowing you because they knew you never would. He'd known eyes like that, but the Ancient One... Ancient was certainly the right word. 

“What you’re about to do…” she said softly. He cut her off.

“I’ve made my choice, ma’am,” he said firmly. She shook her head.

“I wasn’t going to try to stop you,” she told him. “Merely… I wish you the best of luck. And I commend you.” She glanced down, first at her amulet, then at the briefcase in Steve’s hand. “Not everyone would give up such power so easily.”

Steve gave a shrug. “I never wanted power,” he replied. And he hadn’t. Thanos had wanted power—wanted to be a god. He’d been so delusional and so self-absorbed that he’d slaughtered trillions, tortured women he’d dared to call his daughters, dared to say he loved them, dared to call himself their father. The Mad Titan indeed.

But him? Godhood had never appealed to him. Even heroism hadn’t, not really. He’d just wanted to do the right thing.

This was the right thing.

Chapter Text

The Aether, truly living up to it’s nebulous nature, proved more difficult to restore than its first three siblings.

Looking as himself, he knew that if he got caught, people would assume he was Loki—or one of Loki’s puppets. Stealth was key.

Just the word, that single word, brought him back to when he and Natasha had first been partnered up together. She’d taught him everything Peggy hadn’t. How to move silently, how to blend into the shadows. Captain America hadn’t been made for that—he’d been made to be showy and loud and brash, screaming freedom from rooftops and punching Nazis in the face. Knowing what he did now, knowing how he’d moved then—with his perfect memory, it was like a video tape replaying in his mind—he cringed at how clumsy he’d been at first, how obvious and oblivious.

Once upon a time, he’d thought that pangs of heartbreak would get easier with time. His parents, Bucky, Peggy, the commandos, and now Tony and Natasha. He knew better now, knew that they didn’t. You only learned how to power through, a little more effectively each time. The smile was a little easier to plaster back on with each attempt. But the pain didn’t change.

Or maybe that was just him. Maybe that was a sign that what he was doing was right. He was tired of living with heartbreak.

Dr Foster—he hadn’t actually had the pleasure of meeting her back when she and Thor had been involved—was wandering around a grand room in the castle of Asgard, and he watched from the shadows as Rocket crawled out from his hiding place and prodded her with the device to extract the infinity stone from her body. She started, caught sight of Rocket as he bolted out of the door, and called, “Hey! Come back—you—you! Uh—guards! Guards!

Thor had mentioned Rocket had caused quite a stir, but Steve hadn’t envisioned quite this much. Sure, the raccoon was brash, but he was an expert intergalactic thief, surely he had some idea of stealth. Was this what Natasha had felt like, watching him when they’d first been partnered up?

Either way, in all the chaos, he only barely managed to flick the Aether stone at Dr Foster—it immediately absorbed itself into her body, and he cringed at her pain, wishing it could be another way—before the guards were bursting into the room. At a loss for what else to do, he turned to the nearest window (none of them had glass. Why did none of the castle’s windows have glass? Or was he just not seeing the glass window rooms?) and threw himself out of it, still with Mjolnir in his hand.

Thor had instructed him to return it, but there was no opportunity for that just now. All things going as he hoped, someone else would be able to return her.

Hurtling towards the ground—he wasn’t even sure if Asgard had a ground, to be perfectly honest. It floated—he could practically hear Bucky cursing at him. He’d heard the parachute story at some point, probably Natasha, given how Rumlow and his lackeys hadn’t exactly been buddies of theirs, and he’d never let Steve forget it.

Pushing thoughts of Bucky and Natasha and especially Rumlow aside (god, that excursion in the elevator in 2012 had felt plain dirty) he punched his next destination into his wrist device, and once more was send tumbling through the quantum realm, vanishing an instant before he impacted the ground—which Asgard did have, and it was considerably more solid than even a super-enhanced human.

The Orb went back easier than the Aether, primarily because Quill was still knocked unconscious from Rhodey’s Iron Patriot punch. All he had to do was stuff it in Quill’s satchel and he was off to the sixth stone. The last stone.

The Soul stone.

He noticed the chill before he’d even gotten enough of his bearings to take note of the landscape around him. He couldn’t stop the shiver that rippled through him, which was odd. Sure, it was snowing, but he didn’t get cold anymore. Between the serum and seventy years in ice, he didn’t really feel the cold anymore.

It scared him, of course. More than most things. Terrified him, even. But he didn’t often feel it.

But of course this place would be cold enough even to make him shiver. Of course this place would have his—everyone’s—worst fears, designed to keep them away. Fear was a powerful motivator.

That said, so was love.

Captain Rogers…” hissed a voice behind him. He balked. He knew… he knew that voice. Turning around, he had to suppress a shudder as he saw a shadowy figure stood behind him, draped in a ragged cloth. He’d been expecting another style of dress.

Still, when the figure came forwards and he caught sight of red-raw skin, stretched tightly over cheekbones and a nose that was only half there, he was not surprised. His jaw set, and his grip tightened on Mjolnir’s handle, the leather creaking so softly, but both people present would surely hear. A comfort to one, a warning to the other.

We need not go through all that,” Red Skull drawled, his voice rasping and almost tired. It was a far cry from the harsh shouts that had haunted his nightmares so long ago. New things had come to haunt them since, but there was something about the first nightmare that would always plague the mind the worst, even if it was, objectively, not nearly as bad as things seen later.

Steve narrowed his eyes. “And why’s that?”

That is not my purpose. I am the Gatekeeper, here. I guide those to a power I cannot possess.” He paused. “Yet, I sense you already possess that power.

“In time,” Steve told him shortly. He turned away, he couldn’t even look at him.

He knew he’d arrived before the others, so walked off and stood behind a rock, and waited for barely a few minutes before he saw a ship touch down a little while away, and Red Skull floated over to them, and gave whatever speech he was supposed to give.

Even from all this distance, he saw her. Sometimes he really did wonder if his gifts were curses, because his eyesight was more like 40/40 than 20/20, and he could see every detail. The blond tip of her braid, the bright red of her natural hair, even the determined look in her eyes. She would succeed at all costs.

Even herself.

Steve grit his teeth and watched, forcing himself still as he watched Natasha and Clint be led up the rocky path to the cliff. Two great towers of stone—so high he almost couldn’t see the tops.

It was an itch, deep in his bones, to follow, but he knew he had to be careful. Red Skull could well give him away, and both Natasha and Clint were expertly trained spies—it was no small feat to tail them without them noticing. Natasha especially. All her time working alongside him, in the past five years and before, had made them attuned to each other’s habits. They worked perfectly in sync, but it also made fooling her an extra challenge. With luck, his own knowledge of her habits, combined with her preoccupation, would get him what he needed.

As he neared them, he caught snatches of their conversation.

“I feel like we’re talking about different people,” Clint murmured.

And then it all happened so fast, if not for his enhanced senses, and the adrenaline coursing through him, Steve might’ve missed it altogether.

Natasha caught sight of him approaching, and the slight flicker in her eyes—something he couldn’t name, but something in them just changed. That was enough for Clint to get the drop on her. He wrestled her to the ground, using every bit of his slight advantage.

“Tell my family I love them,” he begged her, then bolted for the cliff edge.

But Natasha caught his leg, tripping him, and he was sent sprawling to the ground. “Tell them yourself,” she ordered, and tasered him. In her frustration at Clint, her desperation to get to the edge first, she seemed to have momentarily forgotten about Steve.

She was further along—halfway, perhaps—when Clint got an arrow notched and tangled her ankles in rope. He was about to jump when Steve came up from behind him and clouted him with the briefcase. It was sturdy, designed to contain all six stones at once, and still pretty heavy even though it only contained one. Clint crumpled, knocked cold, and fell to the ground in a heap. There was a small cut on the back of his head. Steve grimaced. Sorry, he thought. But, with neither hand free, his options had been the briefcase or Mjolnir.

Staring, Natasha sat up, and untangled her ankles from the rope. “…thanks,” she muttered.

Steve set down the briefcase and Mjolnir, raising his hands as if she were an animal he didn’t want to spook, and edging towards her slowly. He hadn’t been expecting her to stop and ask him what he was doing there, to ask questions, even to alleviate what he was sure was raging curiosity.

And she didn’t. Natasha sprang to her feet and once again sprinted for the edge of the cliff. He wasn’t shocked, but the abruptness of the movement threw him off for the briefest fraction of a second. Not enough, however. She was quick, but he was quicker, and he reached out, grabbing her arm and yanking her back from the edge.

“Don’t!” he ordered, the cry more desperate than commanding. Natasha turned back to look at him, her face eerily calm, eyes glittering with determination.

“We need that stone, Steve,” she told him. “And there’s only one way to get it. Don’t even think about trying to stop me.” She looked at where his fingers were still wrapped around her arm. He hadn’t let go. He didn’t trust her not to leap off when he relaxed his grip. He knew he was right not to trust her.

“Nat—”

“I owe you,” she said shortly. “Remember?”

He shook his head, “Nat—after everything—it’s okay, you don’t—”

“I owe you,” she repeated forcefully. “If it was the other way around, and it was down to me to save your life, you said you’d trust me to do it. Were you lying?”

“Of course not,” he replied quietly, almost shamefully. He trusted her with his life. He just wasn’t sure if he could trust her with her own.

“Then let me go,” she implored. “Please.”

“I’m not gonna let you die, Nat!” he exclaimed. Her face hardened a moment; frustrated. Then she relaxed, and once more than eerie calm overtook her, wiping all emotion from her face.

“There’s worse ways to go,” she told him, and for a moment they were stood on an entirely difference ledge, and the sky was blue and clear. “Where else am I gonna get a view like this?” She looked out and his gaze followed to the mountains that seemed to form a ring around a great plane, stained purple and rising high into the indigo sky. Snow dusted them, highlighting them in pale grey. Looking out across the plane, he was struck by it’s dark beauty. His hand slackened, and he relaxed his grip on her arm ever so slightly.

That was what cost him.

Natasha wrenched herself free of his grip and lurched towards the edge of the cliff, and the split-second of dazed staring at the landscape was enough to give her an advantage.

Steve scrambled after her, something cold and unpleasant spreading from his chest to his limbs as terror shot through him. “Nat—don’t!” he cried, reaching out for her again. He caught her wrist this time, but she was already at the precipice, and he was powerless against their combined forwards momentum to stop them both falling, and together they plunged over the edge.

In the freefall, they clung to one another. Natasha wrested an arm free and pointed her fist upwards, and then they were yanked to an abrupt halt, about twenty feet down the cliff face. Natasha was holding onto a grappling line embedded just below the lip of the cliff, Steve dangling from her free hand. They were heavy, but the line had been designed by Tony. It would hold as long as they needed it to.

“What the hell are you doing?” Natasha demanded, half-shouting above the wind. Her face was almost as red from exposure to the cold and from how furious she was. “You’re supposed to be in New York!”

“I am,” he replied. The wind really was unpleasant. It was even colder, now. “Or—I was.”

I was. Two words, and that mind of hers put it together. Her eyes went wide. He hadn’t come here from New York to stop her.

He’d come from afterwards. To take her place.

“No,” she murmured. “No—no! You—Steve, you can’t.”

He cocked a smile—albeit a nervous one—and glanced down. Oh dear. It really was a long way down. Still. He’d fallen long distances before. “I think,” he said slowly, voice shaking slightly, “I already sort of have.”

“No,” she said again. “Don’t—don’t you dare. This is—this is my mission, Rogers! This was my job!”

“Yeah, well, I’m your captain,” he told her. “And I’m giving you an order, Romanoff. When you get back up there—”

“Steve—”

“—you put back the stone so no paradoxes happen—” he instructed, ignoring her.

“Steve, please—”

“—you go to Earth, to Tony’s house, five days from now—”

“Rogers, I mean it—” There was anger in her voice again, and tears were streaking down her face.

“—you tell Thor where Mjolnir is and you live your life,” he finished.

“I’m not a soldier!” she snapped at him. She shifted, clearly trying to see if she and the stone the line was hanging onto were strong enough for her to throw him bodily upwards, but the distance was too great. Steve could throw her back up onto the ledge, he was strong enough. But that wasn’t what needed to happen. “And you’re not even a real captain! You don’t get to—ghah!—” She flailed for a moment as the stones shifted, and the line shuddered. “—you don’t get to give me orders!

“Nat, please,” he said gently. She glared down at him. “You have a life to live.”

“And you don’t?” she demanded. “Your life is here, Steve! Now! You’ve had—you’ve had eleven years here, you have a family—you’re my family!”

“So is Clint,” he told her. “And Bruce, and Thor and all the others.”

“What about Bucky, huh?” She was scrambling, now. Terrified and it was showing. He’d never seen her this unsettled, and it scared him. “What would Bucky say to you right now?”

He smiled at her. That smile was haunting. It chilled her freezing body right down to the bones. It was so calm. “He knows what I’m doing.”

She narrowed her eyes. “And he’s okay with it?”

“I wouldn’t say okay, but he understands. And maybe… maybe you can make him understand, too.” He cocked a smile. The bastard was actually grinning at her. Here. Now. She wanted to punch him. “He always liked redheads.”

“Steve, I won’t let you do this!” she insisted.

“And I won’t let you do what you wanted to do,” he replied sternly. Then his expression softened. “Let go, Nat. Let me go. Let the past go.”

“Is this about Peggy?” she asked. He shook his head.

“It’s about you,” he corrected. “You deserve a life, Nat. What you were willing to do—what you did, to me—there’s no more red in your ledger. You’re worthy of love, of life.”

She glowered at him through her tears, and she could barely see him for how they blurred her vision. Just a flash of bright gold hair and soft blue eyes. And a reassuring smile.

It was something of a forced smile, because seeing her like this hurt him. Made him want to stop, to concede and apologise; to spare her this pain he was causing. But she would mourn, and she was strong, and she would learn to deal with that pain. Clint and Bucky and all the others would help her deal with that pain.

“I told you to get a life,” she pleaded, blinking the tears away so she could see a little clearer. Steve chuckled. Something soft and gentle. He glanced down, then back up at her, and smiled again. It was a sad smile. Full of apology. Not regret. Just apology. For the pain.

“You first.”

With his free hand, he reached up and twisted her wrist. On instinct, she released her grip, and once more he was sent tumbling into the abyss. He heard her scream, even above the wind rushing in his ears, howling like a wounded animal.

Then, nothing.


Natasha’s eyes flew open.

STEVE—!” The cry came out as a dry rasp, and she almost choked on it. Her throat burned from screaming, her eyes stung with tears, her shoulders ached from holding onto the line, and to Steve. She would’ve gladly taken that ache, if it meant he hadn’t been the one to fall.

She blinked a few times, clearing her vision, and she saw where she was.

It was… purple. Violet mountains, so shadowed they were almost black, cutting a dramatic silhouette in an indigo sky. Mauve clouds partially obscured a body—a moon or another planet, maybe—hanging low and large, the edge highlighted in brilliant gold. It was beautiful.

And she appeared to be lying in water. Shaking, she sat up, pulled her hands above the surface, and found herself to be perfectly dry. As she puzzled over this, her mind addled with what she’d just seen—Clint, the cliff, Steve—she only very slowly came to the realisation that she was holding something in her palm.

She knew what it would be before she uncurled her fingers and saw the glowing gem. She hated it. Hated it. Wanted to hurl it back into the water, over the edge of the cliff, scream and demand and beg for Steve’s life back—for the powers that were, for that red bag of bones to take her, take her, take her instead!

No such luck.

It was all she had left of him, she realised, and suddenly all that rage and sorrow vanished, sand swept away in a hurricane, and she was numb. Hollow and empty and numb. She cradled it to her chest, as if it were Steve’s soul and not some repulsive thing that madmen killed their daughters over on a whim, that tore apart broken, beaten-down families. She cradled it to her chest and sobbed into the water.


Clint was still unconscious when she woke up from that strange place and realised she was no longer hanging off the edge of the cliff, but safely on the ledge. She was almost relieved to place the gem in Clint’s hand—would he awaken in the same place as her, now that he held it?—relieved to be rid of that loathsome thing.

Now came the next hard part. She was not to go until after Clint had left, to ensure no paradoxes were made. The Soul stone had to leave Voromir before it was returned.

A few minutes after she concealed herself behind a rock, Clint stirred. He jumped awake with a gasp, and looked around. His eyes, sharp and quick as a birds, darted around. “Nat?” he asked. The pain in his voice broke her even more. The tremor of fear in his words. “Nat?” he asked again. She had to clap her other hand over her mouth not to call out to him. “Natasha? Natasha? NAT!”

His legs were unsteady from their fight, and he wobbled as he pulled himself to his feet, leaning on one of the rocks. “…no,” he moaned. “No. No.” Nat, please. Tell me you didn’t… tell me…”

He staggered to the edge of the cliff. It was so far down, the air so acrid and dusty, all he could see was a body in a dark uniform. Skin pale with cold and death. Hair stained bright red.

No,” he wailed, falling to his knees. “Nat—please, I…” He shook his head, words failing him. Tipping forwards, he put out one hand to catch himself, fingers clawing for some kind of purchase on the ground to steady himself as he beat his other hand, clenched into a tight fist, glowing orange, against the unforgiving rock.

With a rising feeling of sickness, utter sickness, Natasha realised just what Steve had done. He had changed time so that he went over instead of her. But this part, Clint’s mourning… this had always happened. Because before she really had been dead.

She forced herself to watch him, to see everything he did and everything he said because it was meant for her. This was the pain she’d put him through. This was the pain she’d caused him. Had it been bravery, wanting to throw herself off that cliff, or cowardice? The idea of having to face Laura and the kids, tell them their father was dead, threw himself off the edge of the abyss all for gemstone. Having to live with the pain of losing her best friend, her brother. Having to learn how to work without him at her side, to fall back on, to patch her up.

What Steve had done had been brave. Everything had been said and done. He knew the fate was sealed for the world. He hadn’t been escaping, he’d been giving himself up for her sake, saving her from her own cowardice.

A sob threatened to choke itself out of her mouth. It was too much, seeing Clint like this and with Steve so fresh in her mind it burned like a brand. After Clint, Steve had been her best friend, her partner, there at her side or to catch her when she fell.

When she fell.

She hadn’t caught him.

A soul for a soul. She decided people had misunderstood that. The Soul stone, that stupid space rock, that was no soul. No. Someone threw themselves off a cliff, or threw someone they loved off. There was the first soul. The other, that came from whoever did the throwing, or whoever had to watch. They either destroyed their souls themselves, or watched them destroyed with the pain of seeing someone they love die, leaving them high up, hollow, with the most lacking of compensation.

It was unsettling, caught between anger at herself for what she had been about to do—what she had been about to do to Clint, or to simply escape for herself—and what Steve had done for her. He’d been her friend, her mission partner, and she’d loved him, and now he was gone.

She was so lost in her thoughts, she barely heard the FZZT! as Clint left with their hateful prize. Swallowing, forcing her lip to stop wobbling, her expression to calm, she stepped out from behind the rock to face the Gatekeeper.

Picking up the briefcase, she unclasped it and held it out in a random spot. Between one blink and the next, he appeared, floating in his ragged robes, his face contorted into that perpetual crimson leer.

“It’s been taken, now take it back,” she said shortly, thrusting out the briefcase in a motion for him to just take the damn thing. Let her be rid of it. Rid of it and all the pain it had caused her family.

Are you sure you want to give it back?” asked the Gatekeeper, scarlet flesh stretched across his face in some crude parody of a grin. If a skull could look gleeful, that was it. “It’s powerful. So very powerful.

She glared at him, and it took all her resolve not to throw it in his face. “I don’t want power,” she spat. “And I certainly don’t want anything this thing can give me. Take it,” she hissed.

With a sigh, as if he were an exasperated parent with a picky child, he plucked it out of the case and suddenly, it was gone as if never there, as if by some sleight of hand parlour trick. Natasha was just contemplating that enormous feeling of utter waste, when the Gatekeeper vanished, too.

Good. He was a creep and a soulless bastard—probably literally.

The briefcase empty, she walked to the edge of the cliff and threw it out as far as she could. It had only just started arcing downwards when it vanished from her line of sight. She didn’t even want to touch anything that had housed the damn thing.

She turned her back on the abyss, then. It would have been easy, far too easy, to look down and see St—that. And seeing that, after the right on the cliffside, after Clint’s grief… it might just break her beyond repair.

Swallowing again, she wiped haphazardly at her eyes, which had started tearing up again. With a snif, she raised her hands and made to reprogram the temporal destination on her wrist device when a glitter of silver caught her eye. Turning to look at it, she stared.

Mjolnir.

With a sharp pang, she remember Steve’s instructions. She was to tell Thor where it was, and he could come get it himself. It was Mjolnir, he’d no doubt reasoned. No one who would ever come here could wield her. She would be safe for nine years until Odinson came to fetch her.

Bending down, Natasha paced back and forth as she reprogrammed her wrist device. For the next five days, the world would believe her to be dead.

She wondered idly if that would be preferable to the pain she felt, now. She’d felt loss before. In some ways it was all she’d known. She’d lost everyone she’d ever cared about in some way or another. Clint to the grief he’d felt for his family, tempering him into something barely recognisable, something he’d confessed he didn’t know if he could come back from, when they’d been battling for the edge. Laura and the kids to the snap, reduced to dust as if they really were just that insignificant, but they meant more to her and to Clint than she could ever say, for neither had ever dared dream of such a sweet, innocent, normal existence.

And now Steve Rogers, the best man she’d ever known. She’d lost him to his own damn stubbornness, and his own beautiful heart.

He’d called her worthy of life and love, but wasn’t he worthy, too? Certainly more than her. It should have been her, it should’ve been

“OUCH! Shit!

She’d walked into something. Looking down, she realised she’d kicked over Mjolnir as she’d been pacing, and subsequently stubbed her toe. With a huff, she went back to her device, wiping at her eyes and sniffing to keep the tears at bay. Tony’s place, she knew the coordinates. Five days from now, Bruce would probably have a window open…

Wait.

Stopping dead in her tracks, she raised her head and slowly turned around to look at Mjolnir.

Lying on its side.

Its… side.

Trembling, Natasha walked over to it. She’d never tried to pick it up before. At the party before Ultron… she hadn’t needed an answer to that question because she’d already known the answer.

Or… had she?

Bending down, she wrapped her hand around the handle and pulled. And, as if it weighed no more than a couple pounds, she lifted Mjolnir from off the ground, raised it up, and held it high.

Thunder rumbled in the gloomy clouds above, lightning skittered across the sky. As if the heavens themselves were mourning, rain began to fall, and soon she was stood in a torrent, hair plastered to her face with rain, still holding Mjolnir aloft. In her head, words echoed. But they weren’t in Thor’s voice, not even in Odin’s.

You’re worthy of love, of life.

Something surged through her, charging her body as if she, like Thor, could command the storm. What was this? Power? Triumph? No. No, nothing so self-focussed, nothing so destructive. She’d seen what power was—the Power stone, the Orb, the man who’d sought to wield it. This wasn’t power, this was something only faintly familiar. A memory from forever ago. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

Hope.

“Rogers,” she whispered, not even hearing herself above the growling thunder and crashing rain. She stared up. At the clouds, at the sky, at the hammer in her hand. She couldn’t fight the smile on her face, even through her tears, masked it seemed by those of the sky. “You son of a bitch.”

A laugh escaped her mouth, unbidden. It stole itself from between her lips, a bark of laughter, of giddy glee, of awe and gratitude. Tears rolled down her face as she smiled, somehow distraught and amazed at the same time. “I guess you were right.”


“Ohh, no!” Bruce exclaimed, rapidly becoming more panicked. “He’s—he’s missed his window!”

“What?” Sam asked. “What does that mean? Is he still coming back, is he—”

There was a FZZT! and everyone fell silent. They all turned to the time-travel pad, and words failed them as they struggled to comprehend what they saw. Standing on the centre of the pad, dripping wet and holding Mjolnir, was—

Natasha?

The whisper belonged to Bruce, but it was the only word in any of their minds as Natasha, calm and composed, stepped off the pad.

Sam was the first to really regain his voice. “You…” He looked down at her. “You’re…”

“Holding Mjolnir,” Natasha agreed, giving a slightly stiff nod. The remnants of tears were sparkling in her eyes. “I know.”

“Alive,” Sam said flatly. “I was gonna say alive.” There was a beat, and then he lurched forwards, pulling her into a tight hug. “It’s good to see you again, Natasha,” he mumbled into her collar.

She was slightly stunned, but clung to him all the same. Sam had been her teammate, her friend, and for the longest time her partner in keeping Steve afloat when he needed the help—no matter how much he might’ve insisted he didn’t. She hadn’t seen him in over five years, it felt so strange to be hugging someone she’d mourned for that long.

But good, too. So indescribably good. “You, too, Sam.”


This place was strange. The sky was amber, richer than any sunset, but so was the ground, and he couldn’t see the horizon. When he looked down, he noticed he was standing in water. It was shallow, not even lapping over the toe of his boots, and the floor underneath seemed a burnt orange colour. It’s surface rippled, and he saw his own wide-eyed expression staring back at him, distorted.

He looked to his left, to his right. This place stretched on forever, and he still couldn’t see where the watery floor ended and the sky began. He tried squinting, but his eyesight was perfect—there simply just wasn’t anything to see.

The sense of something behind him crept up on him slowly, and he tensed as he cautiously turned around, and saw a sort of temple in the middle of the water.

‘Temple’ was perhaps generous; it was pillars holding up a roof—technically a gazebo, he supposed. But the style was like that of a temple, and even from a distance away he could see the ornate detailing on the pillars, the flourishes on the slats.

And someone standing underneath it.

He approached, wary, but he’d only taken a few careful steps when he realised who the figure was, facing away from him.

“Nat?”

At the sound of her name, she turned, and her curious, neutral expression split into a warm smile.

She looked different, he noticed. Her hair wasn’t blonde anymore, entirely that natural red of hers. It was shorter, too. And she wasn’t wearing a uniform. With a start he realised she looked exactly how she’d looked when they’d first met. On the helicarrier, eleven years ago.

“You did it,” she said softly.

He nodded, still walking towards her slowly. A smile was on his own face, but he was still cautious—what was she doing here? “I did.”

A flicker of curiosity stole across her face. It was almost regretful, like she knew what he was going to do, eleven years in her future. How their story would end.

As he reached her, standing under the gazebo, she raised a hand to his face, sweeping her thumb across his cheekbone. Her eyes had that intense quality to them now; she was reading him. Studying him. Staring into the depths of his soul.

“…what did it cost?”

He smiled at her, raising a hand to stroke her hair, cup her cheek. “Nothing I wasn’t willing to give,” he promised, leaning forwards to place a kiss on her forehead. When he pulled away, he asked, “What are you doing here? Are you…?” He wasn’t entirely sure if this was the real Nat. He knew she was alive, back home. But this place… if this was the Soul stone, or maybe even heaven, he was reluctant to dismiss her out of hand as a figment of his imagination.

“Time is strange, here,” she said. “I was dead. Killed for the Soul stone. But not anymore. I guess we… overlapped some.” Her mouth twitched in a rueful smile. She was glad she had the chance to say a proper goodbye, but the fact she had to say goodbye at all…

“I could stay,” she then told him. “If I wanted to. For you. It’s the least I could do, considering.”

He shook his head. “You don’t belong here, Nat,” he told her. “You need to go, get that life of yours. I’ll be just fine.” He gave a small smile. “I promise.”

Her smile was soft but tired, and he was reminded of that day at Fury’s grave, as she’d given him her file on Bucky. She’d known there was no way to talk him out of something when he’d set his mind to it, and she knew it now.

Again like that day, she leant in and brushed her lips against his cheek, flashed him one last smile, then turned and walked out from under the gazebo. He watched her walk for several long seconds, until he blinked, and when he opened his eyes, she was gone.


“Nat,” Bruce said, embracing her gently—his strength was, after all, more than enough to crush her. “You… you’re alive!

“Apparently,” Natasha replied, still in that stiff tone. She hadn’t quite processed what had happened—it was not the sort of thing you just got over, especially not in twenty minutes of sobbing atop a cliffside in the pouring rain before she’d finally returned to her own time. It was also the sort of thing she did entirely in private, with only very occasionally Clint—or more likely (unlikely as it was overall) Lila—privy to such things.

After she explained to them what had happened, though she skipped over most of the more distressing details, and spoke in a very removed, clinical tone, Bruce’s eyes were wide as dinnerplates.

“No wonder I couldn’t bring you back,” he said softly, looking down at his injured hand, still in its sling. “You were already back—on Voromir.”

“Apparently,” Natasha repeated. As Bruce went back to his science talk—at some point Scott joined in—Natasha’s gaze drifted over to Bucky. The feeling of shame and guilt that blossomed in her chest threatened to physically knock her over, and as it was she struggled to strand—though that may have just been the time travel.

“He really did it, huh?” Bucky said quietly. Not meeting his eyes, Natasha nodded.

“I tried to stop him.”

“I know you did,” he assured her. “But he was never much good at listening to other people.”

Natasha swallowed. She was going to hate the words coming out of her mouth—she’d heard them too many times in her own lifetime, considered them trite and ridiculous—but they felt right, and they felt true. “I think…” she said slowly. “I think he’s happy. He’s resting.”

Bucky nodded. “I think he is, too.”

But it was more than that, they both knew. Steve’s final gift to them both. Natasha had no way to explain it other than he had given her everything—given her life itself—and in a way, he had given that to Bucky, too. He had meant to much to both of them, but they were content in knowing he was at peace. For the first time in a long time—longer than five years—Natasha believed, well and truly, that they could all be happy, and all, in their own way, find their peace.

Looking down, she reached out her right hand, taking Bucky’s left, and twining his fingers with hers.

Bucky stared down at their intertwined hands like he didn’t know—like he didn’t understand—what he was looking at. What, she wondered, was it that perplexed him so much about that picture, that she knew had once been so familiar. That someone was touching his metal hand like this? That she was touching him like this at all?

“You could at least recognise me,” she murmured, half to herself. A reminder.

“I do,” he told her, and that made her look up suddenly, surprised. He was surprised, too; surprised that he’d remembered, surprised that he’d ever forgotten. “It might take me a while,” he admitted, “But I’ll always recognise you, Natalia.”

A sob caught in Natasha’s throat. Truly, Steve had given her everything. She gazed up at him, lost for words.

“James…”


“Fancy that dance now?”

At the sound of another voice, a different voice, but still a woman’s, Steve looked to the side, away from where Natasha had vanished, and saw Peggy standing by one of the pillars.

His breath caught in his throat. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Her lipstick even more vibrant, her eyes even darker and deeper. They could hold a universe, those eyes. To say eyes were the windows to the soul were no exaggeration with Peggy Carter.

“Peg,” he said, his voice catching. She smiled so wide her nose scrunched up, something he’d always found adorable—especially since, in wartime, there’d been precious few incidents where she’d had cause to smile so brightly.

“Oh, my darling…” she exclaimed gently, stepping forwards and pulling him into a consoling hug. He hugged her back, but no tears fell. Back in 2012, they would’ve fallen, enough to drown them, even in this infinite place. But he had made his peace with that since them.

All the same, he loved her, he missed her, and she was here with him now.

“I missed you,” he mumbled into her shoulder. “I missed you so much.”

“And I missed you,” she replied, and they broke away to look at one another. Peggy raised a hand to brush his hair back from his face, and the smile she gave him was caring and almost motherly. It was also tinged with sadness. “Even one hundred years old… and you still go before your time,” she remarked.

Steve took her hand gently and kissed her fingers. “I didn’t,” he said. “I was meant to save her. I know I was.”

“Always so gallant,” she chuckled, patting his cheek sweetly. A small frown pulled at the corner of her mouth. “You look tired.”

“I am tired, Peg,” he admitted.

“The whole world owes you their lives, Steve, several times over,” she told him. “I’m glad you can rest, now. You deserve it.”

She kept hold of his hand and began to walk out from under the gazebo, but Steve remained where he was, and when their arms went taut, she turned back to look at him

Her smile was beautiful. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked. As before, Steve shook his head.

“You found the right partner,” he told her. “It wasn’t me. And I don’t mind that anymore. You can go, Peggy, I’ll be just fine.”

“Well, then,” she said, stepping back towards him, “Can I at least have that dance?”

He beamed at her. “You don’t mind I was late?”

“The best things are always worth waiting for,” she replied, sliding one hand into his, her other up his back. He curled his arm around her waist, and they swayed back and forth in a small circle, Peggy humming a tune to a song he knew, but whose words and title escaped him.

The best things really were worth waiting for. She’d had to wait to find the man who would become her husband, to realise who he was, what she meant to him. She’d had to wait (and fight and earn respect) to become Director of SHIELD. She’d had to wait for a dance with the only other man besides her husband whom she was sure she’d loved as much as her own family.

They had all been so very worth the wait.

On the dying notes of the song, Peggy moved her head from where it rested against his collar, and leant up to kiss him.

It was every bit as breath-taking and wonderful as Steve had imagined, back when he’d been fresh out of the ice, remembering their one kiss before his last battle, dreaming of others. She tasted of the honey she always put in her tea, and the scent of her perfume lingered in his nose, and it all felt so very real… he was sure beyond a doubt that her—and Natasha—had been real. That this place was a place for the dead to convene.

So convinced of this, that he really was kissing Peggy, Peggy, who he’d missed so much his heart had ached, who had meant almost as much to him as Bucky, who had been such an incredible woman—person—that he’d been so reluctant to try and date anyone else (both before and after he’d gone into the ice, he’d been taken aback again and again by her strength, her poise, her determination, everything about her and everything she’d accomplished), he felt giddy. That even after all this time, she wanted to kiss him back. To kiss him goodbye.

She pulled away just enough to be able to look at him. Once more, she cupped his face. She didn’t sweep her thumb over his cheekbone like Natasha always had—on the rare occasions she’d had cause to touch him so intimately—instead leaning in to kiss the corner of his mouth, and whisper, “Goodbye, my darling.”

It hurt to let her slip out of his arms, just like it had hurt to watch Natasha walk away, but it didn’t hurt as much as he’d expected it to. Maybe because he knew it was the right thing—for both of them. So he watched her go, Peggy Carter, both of them sure in the knowledge that they meant a great deal to one another—such a very great deal—and for that, they would never, not in all this eternal orange, forget one another.

He smiled at her as she walked out from under the gazebo, then he noticed a man was standing several metres away. Steve frowned slightly—he hadn’t noticed the man there a moment ago. Had he simply appeared, as everyone else seemed to in this place? He watched as Peggy, beaming delightedly, took the man’s arm. He was a handsome and stocky, with a sweep of dark brown curls and a strong, square jaw. But his eyes were gentle, and the way his offered his arm was so gentle and endearing. Steve felt no jealousy for this man, and recognised him from the photos Peggy had shown him on her more cognisant days. Daniel Sousa, her husband. A good man, he knew. (“perhaps a mite intimidating at first glance but, really, he was gentle as could be, and so very sweet—it seems I have a type,” she’d once said mischievously, eyes twinkling. Her eyes had never looked old. Not ever.)

They looked so happy together, so deliriously in love, that Steve couldn’t help but smile as he watched them walk away as if on a lovers’ stroll, even as he felt a pang of loss.

Love, his mother had once told him, was unlike any other resource in the world. There was no running out of love, you could simply make more of it.

The thought of resources brought a foul taste to his mouth and a fouler mood to his demeanour. Was he imagining it, or did this orange place darken slightly, tumultuous as himself?

Peggy and Sousa had disappeared next time he looked, and after glancing around perfunctorily, Steve decided idly that he was on his own for now. But what to make of that? This eternity, this vast orange plane What to do with it?


Sam felt something in his jacket pocket when he moved to hug Natasha, so when she pulled away and began to speak with Banner and Barnes, he reached into his pocket and found a note there.

Penned in tidy handwriting that he’d never been before, but nonetheless recognised on sight, were three words.

On your left.

A choked laugh escaped him, something between a snigger and a cry he couldn’t fully bite down on. Shaking his head, he very carefully folded the note up again and tucked it back into his pocket. His last remnant of Captain America—no, more than that. His last remnant of Steve Rogers. When had Steve gotten so sneaky? Then again, several years with the Black Widow as your mission partner, he supposed you would pick up something—you’d have to, for her to tolerate working with you so long.

He only looked up again when he noticed Barnes and Natasha had returned. At some point they’d wandered off, maybe to talk about Steve in private, and he was perhaps a little dejected at first, but really, it made sense if Natasha had seen her friend die right in front of her, and Barnes was like Steve’s brother. He only looked up when he knew he had a chance at actually understanding a conversation that was going on around him, and when he did, he saw that Barnes was holding Steve’s shield.

Sam held up his hands, making ‘L’ shapes with his fingers. He’d never been all that great at telling the difference between—

He laughed, shaking his head, then looked up to the sky. “Ohh, you son of a bitch.”


“Steve.”

He turned, and saw Bucky standing several paces behind him, outside the shelter of the gazebo’s ornate roof.

“Bucky.” Steve gaped, then rushed forwards and pulled his friend into a hug. It felt so inexplicably good to feel Bucky hug him back. Even despite their sizes how, he was for an instant just that scrawny kid from Brooklyn. In the same way Natasha had been steady and stalwart, Peggy had been inviting and comforting, Bucky had always felt safe to him, felt like home to him.

“I thought only the dead could come here,” Steve exclaimed, as he stepped back to appraise his latest visitor. With a jolt, he noticed how short Bucky’s hair was. He didn’t look like that anymore.

“Or the dying, I suppose.” Bucky frowned down at himself, at his two flesh hands. “I don’t die yet, do I?” I was less of a question; a statement he was mostly sure of, but not quite. As if he couldn’t quite remember everything. “We have some adventures left,” he said slowly.

“Some,” Steve confirmed with a wry, but slightly regretful smile. The two years in Wakanda—more like eight months, if you considered how he’d been in cryostasis for the first year, and undergoing mental rehabilitation for the following four months, and that wasn’t even counting all the time Steve and the other Avengers had been away on missions—had not been enough. Not nearly enough.

Bucky smiled at him, that big-brother smile that had at times—back when he’d been smaller but just as stubborn—been a source of irritation for Steve. “Are you okay, here?” he asked. “Do you regret it?”

“Saving the world?” Steve asked, then Bucky shook his head.

“Saving Natasha,” he corrected. Steve frowned slightly.

“No,” he said, and Bucky smiled. Steve realised then that Bucky hadn’t been insinuating that maybe, Natasha hadn’t been worth it, simply making sure his friend was content with the choice he had made.

“She was—is—my friend, Buck. She was most of what kept me going, after the snap. And a lot of time… she reminded me of you.”

Bucky’s eyebrows raised, “Me?”

Steve cocked a smirk. “You did help train her,” he said. “Back when she was in the Red Room.” He paused, brows twitching in a frown. “Or don’t you remember that yet?” Natasha had been the one to tell him. About the Winter Soldier, how she’d met him, why he’d heard her demand to be recognised when Bucky had been choking the life out of her. After stationing Bucky safely in Wakanda, Steve had demanded answers of her, and she’d been in no place to refuse them. So she’d told him everything. Everything they had done together—and it had been a lot more than simply train.

Bucky was stunned. “I’m… I’m surprised she remembers that,” he muttered, dropping Steve’s gaze to stare at the rippling floor with the thoughtful, concentrated expression of someone putting a pin in a discussion topic for later.

“I’ll… be sure to mention that to her when I get back…” he murmured. “That is,” he then said, gaze flicking up to Steve’s again, “If you want me to go back.”

Steve was perplexed. “But… you’re alive, Buck,” he said.

“This isn’t the first time either of us have died,” Bucky smirked, the humour so dark that Steve felt, for an instant, transported to that tiny, draughty Brooklyn apartment with the single brick ‘hiding’ a spare key and the tiny, rickety bed and little else. “And I don’t just mean on paper.”

“Bucky—”

“I’m with you to the end of the line, Steve.”

“This is the end of my line, sure,” he said. “But like I told Nat, you have your own life to live.”

Bucky scowled a little, somewhat irritated. “You can’t keep being this self-sacrificing,” he said, “You’re a goddamn Avenger, you’ve saved the world more times than I can count, you deserve something for yourself.”

“I’m getting that something,” Steve assured him gently. “I wanted rest, Bucky. Peace. Thanos was gone—is gone—and… my mission’s over. I don’t have to be Cap anymore, and I don’t feel guilty about that.”

This made Bucky stare at him, and understand just what Steve meant. Only one thing had previously been enough to make Steve give up his identity as Captain America—and that had been Bucky himself. His desire to fight for those who could not fight, defend those who needed defending, that which had made him the first Avenger, the pinnacle of American spirit and ideal, Bucky had been the only thing that could’ve made him take a step back from it.

Until now.

Bucky’s irritation melted to a tired, slightly sad relief. “It’s about damn time,” he said, a little gruffly. Steve grinned at him. “I guess you just had to go out with a bang. Thanos didn’t kill you, so—”

“So I just had to commit some big heroic action,” Steve finished with a laugh. “Maybe a little, I suppose.”

“She’s gonna miss you,” Bucky said quietly, looking at the ground again. “We all are. We—I’m gonna miss you so much.” He’d never had to live without Steve before. It’d always been Steve living without him. But after everything that had happened, all Steve had done, that was a burden he was willing to shoulder.

And who knew, maybe he, too, would find himself a family in the twenty-first century.

But one question still burned a the front of his mind.

“What’s the world gonna do without Captain America?”

At that, Steve practically waved it aside. “The world can have Captain America,” he said. “Captain America belongs to the world—he’s an Avenger. They need him, and as long as there’s someone willing to pick up that shield, they’ll have him. But they’re done having Steve Rogers.”

Bucky raised a slow eyebrow as he began to understand. “You were the first,” he said. “I kind of need your blessing.”

Steve shrugged. “Then you have it,” he said casually, and flashed another smile. “I know you guys’ll do great. Honestly, these past five years, Nat did as much—if not more—than I did. Coordinating everyone even across galaxies… You’ll be just fine with her.”

“Is that why you saved her?”

There was a slight pause, then Steve replied. “I saved her because she’s my friend,” he said quietly. “She means as much to me as you do. And you’ll be good for each other. You…” He was reminded of a party a few years ago. He’d meant those words then, and he meant them now. But maybe this time they would actually come true. Maybe this time he’d get it right. “You both deserve a win.”

“And losing you, that’s a win?” Bucky pressed. He couldn’t stop himself—even if Steve was happy here; at peace… he was going to miss his brother.

“Oh, you guys’ll be back soon enough,” Steve laughed. “But not too soon, I hope,” he added.

“I dunno, we seem to get ourselves into a lot of trouble. But then again, maybe me, Sam and Natasha will be fine on our own—maybe it was always you, dragging us into trouble.”

“Maybe it was,” Steve chuckled. He pulled Bucky into another hug. In this place, he could hug as tightly and fervently as he dared, without fear that he might hurt his brother.

Pulling away from each other, both had tears sparkling in their eyes. As Bucky wiped his eyes he muttered in a voice that only caught slightly, “Don’t do anything stupid til I get back.”

Steve laughed again. “How can I?” The catch in his voice was marginally more apparent as he watched his friend walk away, their smiles sad but hopeful. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.”


“Are you sure?” Sam asked, looking at the shield. Natasha and Barnes exchanged a glance, then Natasha, placing her free hand on Sam’s shoulder, gave a solemn nod.

“I’ll let you boys talk it over,” she said. “I have something to give back to Thor, anyway.” She waved the hammer idly, making both men stare again. She couldn’t fight the smile entirely—this was objectively funny, and objectively uplifting.

After Natasha excused herself, Sam turned back to Bucky and repeated his question. “You sure?”

Bucky nodded. “I don’t know how to explain it, but… Steve would want this,” he said. “I know he would. Me and Nat, we both used it, but it was Steve’s the most. Now it’s yours.”

Sam frowned a little. “But you’re…” He faltered. “Shouldn’t it be you?”

“I dunno,” Bucky said, shrugging. “I was always a better sniper than frisbee player—besides,” he added. “I’m not ready to be Captain America. Not like the world needs him to be. You? You’ve been ready for a long time.”

Sam stared, a little taken aback by the praise. Not that he and Barnes weren’t friends—they were, in an annoying-ass-brother kind of way—but Barnes wasn’t overly wordy, nor did he often speak about his own internal feelings, or more philosophical concepts. Over the years, Sam had wondered if it had something to do with the stress his mind had been subjected to by HYDRA; if complex, pensive thoughts were too painful, too distressing. Now he was fairly sure Barnes was just a bit stoic, but either way, his words were unexpected and for that quite flattering.

Bucky held out the shield to him. “Go on,” he said, “Try it.”

Cautiously, Sam took the shield and slipped it onto his forearm. He twisted at the waist, raised his arms and swung them a little, testing the weight of the object and how it moved. You couldn’t tell how much it’d been broken by Thanos. Much like the Avengers themselves, it had been damaged, but it had been repaired, and was ready to fight again when the world needed it to.

“How does it feel?” Bucky prompted.

Sam gave him a concerned look, hesitant. “Like someone else’s.”

“Well, it’s not,” Bucky said flatly. “That shield belongs to Captain America.”


It was a moment that Pepper, for all her poise and decorum, would never live down.

She was sitting outside the house with Thor, Morgan, Harley and Peter, and the last two were vehemently announcing their commitments to be Morgan’s big brothers, just as Thor was assuring (or perhaps more accurately notifying—there were some matters even Pepper Potts could not move Thor Odinson on) her that he would be filling the position of ‘uncle’. Natasha suspected that Morgan would have a lot of uncles.

Good. A little girl needed a family. And this was most definitely a family.

She couldn’t resist a little mischief, so as she stepped up to the porch—she wasn’t immediately noticed due to Thor, Peter and Harley’s all talking at Pepper over one another, so cleared her throat and called out,

“Is there room for an aunt in this discussion? I have experience—and excellent references.”

The boys’ jaws dropped open in rather comic unison, but Pepper screeched “Holy shit!” before immediately clapping her hands over her mouth and staring, horrified, at her daughter. For several moments, as she slowly lowered her hands, she stared at Morgan, then Natasha, then Morgan again, then Natasha again, her brain trying to process what she’d just done, as well as her friend’s abrupt return from the dead, all at once.

“Is that Mjolnir?” was the first thing Peter managed to splutter, his eyes going wide with fascinated delight. Thor managed a strangled noise, something that sounded vaguely like her name, and Harley—whom she knew entirely through conversation and had never met; not having shared so much as a conversation or a brawl in an airport with the young man—just gawked.

“It is,” Natasha replied. She held it out to Thor, who took it with a relatively calm demeanour, now the initial shock of her return had passed. “Steve was right,” she said quietly.

“Rogers was many things,” Thor agreed solemnly.

“Daddy told me that word was just for you, Mommy,” Morgan said in that matter-of-fact way children often said things that would horrify any adults around them. “He told me not to tell you he used it… Will I get to use it one day? Please?”

“I—what—no,” Pepper spluttered, but to her credit still managed a fairly intimidating tone.

“Uh, hey, Morgan,” Harley said abruptly, crouching down and adopting a very excited tone. “How about me, you and Pete go get some juicy pops?!

“Yay!” Morgan grinned, nodding enthusiastically. Pepper didn’t protest about the sugar, she was still too stunned—at herself, at Nat, at Mjolnir, at Steve.

It had been a very stressful few days.

“I…” Pepper muttered, then put a hand to her temple. She fixed her gaze on Natasha, as if trying to ground herself. “Nat,” she began. “How… how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, Pepper,” Natasha replied. “Just a bit… disorientated.” She swallowed and recounted—this time with a little more detail, but Pepper had always been easier to talk to. Maybe because she was a woman, maybe because they’d known each other for so long. Even longer than she’d known Steve.

“Oh, Natasha…” Pepper murmured. “I can’t believe—well, actually I can believe Steve would do that,” she muttered, cutting herself off. Natasha nodded.

“He was always pretty stubborn,” she admitted. “Could never go on without helping anyone and everyone.” A fond smile touched her mouth. “Just like Tony. Where is he, anyway?”

She realised even before the question was out of her mouth—just the mention of her husband’s name had something in Pepper’s eyes shift—what had happened, and her face fell. “Pepper…” she said softly. “I… I’m so sorry. Was it…?”

“It wasn’t Thanos,” Pepper replied. “Tony, he… he snapped Thanos. He saved us—all of us, the universe.”

“He died a hero,” Natasha said firmly. She wasn’t all that good at comforting, but she leant over and cupped one of Pepper’s hands in both her own. “They both were.”

“I know,” Pepper whispered. “But don’t you want him back?”

“Of course I do,” Natasha replied. “But you know them. Too stubborn to back down from a fight. So giving—maybe too giving. There’s no stopping them once they’ve set their minds to something.”

Pepper sniffed. “Do you think… do you think they’re together?”

Natasha paused a moment. They’d both been killed for infinity stones, and she vaguely remembered a place, with water in it. Not purple though, and not so deep. A structure, and a brush of lips. Maybe. “I do.”


Pepper had to all but physically threaten her before Natasha conceded to a hot meal and a hotter shower—Mrs Stark’s two conditions before she would call a car to a similar, if less technologically enhanced farm an hour or so away. Natasha reluctantly agreed, and had to admit that she did feel a lot better with the layer of sweat and grime scrubbed away, a hot meal in her belly and clean clothes on her back.

The car ride was nerve-wracking, however, and that hot meal threatened to make a reappearance the whole way there. Even as she stepped up to the porch, the dusk starting to tinge the sky purple, the nervousness was uncomfortable. She didn’t remember feeling so uncomfortable before.

Maybe because she’d never done anything this cruel before. What was crueller than letting your best friend—brother, really—think you’d thrown yourself off a cliff to your death?

She pushed those thoughts aside. Surely Clint would understand. Time, paradoxes, it was all a bit beyond her own understanding of quantum physics, and Clint’s too, but he got the jist. And Laura and the kids… she was sure they would understand. Sure.

Pretty sure.

Fairly sure.

…kind of sure.

Swallowing, Natasha forced herself to knock, and there was a stampede of footsteps inside the house. SOMEONE’S AT THE DOOR! yelled one voice, and Natasha’s breath caught in her throat. Lila. That was Lila’s voice. I’LL GET IT! Cooper. A young man, now. NO, GET YOUR FATHER! and Laura. Her sister-in-law, near enough. The woman who had welcomed her into her home, let her be around her children—used her name for one of her children. The assassin from the Red Room, welcomed and invited with open arms into a family. Their family.

They were back. Whole. Alive. The idea threatened to choke her. She’d forgotten what relief felt like. What hope felt like.

The tread was almost impossible to hear unless you knew the man who walked it and the house in which he walked. So quiet it was almost inaudible, light tread but heavy feet. The subtle creak of wood that, no matter how many times he’d redone the floor, still groaned slightly.

Natasha swallowed again, braced herself, and tried to smile as the front door opened, and she came face to face with Clint.

Clint went stiff when he saw her. Dropped the drink he was holding, and the plastic watermelon-patterned cup clattered to the floor, spilling homemade sweet tea everywhere. He opened his mouth, his lips formed her name, but no sound emerged. His mouth was suddenly bone dry.

“Hey, Clint,” she murmured, attempting a casual tone, but her voice hitched and they hadn’t even said anything but her eyes were already tearing up and her lip was trembling, and—

Without speaking, Clint grabbed her by the shoulders and dragged her into a hug so tight she almost couldn’t breathe.

“Oh my god,” he whispered into her hair. “Oh my god.”

“I’m—”

“Don’t you dare apologise,” he said fiercely, pulling away to brace his hands on her shoulders and glare at her with shining, wet eyes.

“‘kay.” She tried to say ‘okay’, but her voice was catching too much to let her speak properly.

He hugged her again, kissed her temple, and when they parted he said, “It’s shepherd’s pie tonight. I’ll tell Lila to set an extra place at the table.”

Not trusting herself to speak, Natasha nodded. Clint stepped aside, ushering her into the house, and that was that.


What to do with this eternity?

Steve looked around. At the gazebo, at the orange horizon. There wasn’t much else. He wondered if this was what he would have forever. He appreciated the peace and quiet, but this was a little… monotonous.

How could he go to that place Peggy had gone? Was Daniel Sousa going to come and offer his arm? Or did he have to make his way there himself?

That seemed the more likely option—Peggy and Sousa had both already been dead several years. He had to make his own way to whatever lay in the ‘true’ afterlife. The place from which there was no returning. This, he supposed, was heaven’s waiting room. The closest to a breach between the dead and the living, where some approximation of ‘overlap’, as Natasha had put it, was possible.

Once more, he cast his gaze around, looking for something—anything—that could provide a clue where to go. A door, maybe? A path? A yellow brick road?

“Y’know, if I’d known there was gonna be a line, I would’ve gotten here sooner,” quipped someone, and between one blink and the next, Steve saw that Tony was suddenly standing in front of him.

He was leaning against one of the pillars with his arms folded. He looked a little younger than Steve remembered. Less tired. But the brightness of his eyes—the darting, astute quality to his gaze that wasn’t dissimilar to Clint, but instead of searching for targets, he sought to find patterns; solutions—was unmistakably the same.

Seeing Tony now, it was even clearer that Bucky and Natasha, whilst he was still convinced they’d been real, had been… almost shades of themselves. As if they had very much only had one foot in this place. Even Peggy, somewhat—she belonged fully in whatever place lay beyond. Only he—and apparently Tony—fully belonged here, either for now, or forever.

“You got here too soon as it was,” Steve replied, putting his hands in his pockets and appraising the man before him.

Tony gave a shrug. “It was my time, Cap,” he said lightly. “Didn’t know it was yours, though. Get hit by a bus after I snapped Thanos for you?” Steve shook his head, but before he could answer, Tony cut across, “I saw.”

Steve blinked. “You did?”

“Perks of being dead, Cap—you’re pretty much omniscient,” Tony replied. “’course, I was pretty omniscient even without being dead.”

With a small chuckle, Steve bobbed his head in a nod. “You were always pretty smart,” he admitted. “Course, you can’t be a smartass without being smart, so—”

“Captain Rogers, was that a joke?” Tony affected mock horror and put a hand to his chest. Steve snorted.

He wasn’t sure if they’d ever truly been friends; him and Tony. They’d seen each other too infrequently, too often been preoccupied with this mission and that battle, that they’d never really gotten the chance to see how they behaved in a scenario that wasn’t rife with philosophical debates or political opinions. Both subjects on which they’d tended to differ greatly.

Taking one hand out of his pocket, he extended it to Tony. “I’m… sorry,” he said heavily.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “That all you got?” he asked. Steve balked a moment, then Tony grinned, and took the hand, shaking it enthusiastically. “Aw, relax, Rogers. We’re dead. Bygones are, by far and away, gone.”

“You’re a hero, Tony,” Steve insisted. “The entire universe has you to thank for saving them.”

“I mean, yeah, I am pretty awesome,” Tony admitted, adjusting his sunglasses and smirking. “Stopped several alien invasions, saved New York from getting nuked—used all six Infinity Stones to stop a madman destroying the universe, that’s pretty big,” he added with a laugh. Then he sobered, his smile softening to something more genuine and less snarky. “Of course… I had a pretty awesome team, too.”

“They miss you, Tony,” Steve said quietly. “Pepper, Morgan…” He glanced sideways, and saw a muscle twitch in Tony’s jaw.

“Pepper’s always been a fighter,” he said, but his voice was tight with control. The tears had come fast and strong, but it was hardly surprising, or unexpected. “Plus, she’s got the rest of the Avengers to help her. Nat’s pretty good with kids, and Peter, well, he is a kid. She’ll be just fine.” He nodded quickly, not trusting himself to speak for a moment, and coughed into his fist. “And Morgan…” His voice quavered. “I bet she’s gonna grow up to be every bit as amazing as her mom.”

“And her dad.” Tony turned to stare at Steve, who returned his gaze firmly. Swallowing, Tony looked back out into the infinite orangeness around them.

“So,” he said, voice still a little choked. He cleared his throat. “You wanna see if this colour scheme goes on forever?”

With a small chuckle, Steve ducked his head. “I guess I’ve got some time to spare.” And they began to walk off together. There were a few minutes of comfortable silence before Steve spoke up again.

“I really am sorry, Tony,” he said. “For everything. You’re a good man. We might’ve but heads now and then, but you did just want what was best for the world—”

“Relax, Rogers,” Tony cut across him. “You’re dead, too, you don’t have to give me a eulogy.”

“I want us to be friends, Tony,” Steve insisted. “After all we’ve been through, I know I need a friend. Someone to talk to—never mind all the shit we’ve seen, just someone to talk to. And if we’re gonna spend eternity together…”

“Whoa, eternity?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow. When Steve looked at him, he laughed. “Sounds good to me!” he declared, and looped an arm around Steve’s shoulders. “C’mon, let’s see if there’s a bar here, I’ll buy you a drink.”

Steve frowned slightly. “I can’t get drunk, Tony.”

“On Earth, sure,” Tony admitted. “But we ain’t in Kansas anymore. You can get drunk here, I’d bet my ass on it.”

“Your ass, or mine?” Steve asked with a smirk, throwing his arm over Tony’s shoulder. Tony glanced at him, saw the smirk, and grinned.

“Ask me after I’ve had a few drinks, Steve.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never called me ‘Steve’ before,” he remarked. Not that he could remember, at least. It’d always been ‘Cap’, or ‘Rogers’. He’d always been Captain America. A soldier.

But the world had had Iron Man and Captain America, had been saved and protected. Now, however it had other heroes. Like Black Widow, and the Winter Soldier, and Spider-Man. Iron Man would be remembered, and Captain America would have his successor; their legacies etched in the history of the universe itself. Frankly, they could both use a drink—several drinks at least—and some rest.

Tony shrugged. “I guess… you’re Steve to me, now,” he replied. Steve. A colleague. And Tony. A friend.

Once again, Steve was struck by his question: what to do with this place, with this time—the infinity before them. Maybe he now had an answer.

Maybe, Steve thought, he and Tony really could be friends. As teammates, they were too different in their methodologies. Utterly willing to fight for and alongside one another, but awkward and prickly off the battlefield. But now… there was no battlefield. Only the orange, possibly a bar, and a friend. Maybe even more.

They had an eternity, after all.

Chapter Text

He’d never wanted power.

He’d only ever wanted peace. For his friends to be safe and happy.

“Well, in that case,” said the Ancient One, “I wish you luck, and hope you find what you are looking for.”

Steve nodded to her, almost a bow, then punched a button on his wrist, and was once more sent hurtling through time.


The Aether and Orb went back with… minimal complication (Dr Foster, thankfully, had been too preoccupied with watching Rocket being chased by guards to notice Steve jabbing her in the shoulder to replace the Aether) and before he knew it, he was making his final stop, and returning the final stone.

He noticed the chill before he’d even gotten enough of his bearings to take note of the landscape around him. He couldn’t stop the shiver that rippled through him, which was odd. Sure, it was snowing, but he didn’t get cold anymore. Between the serum and seventy years in ice, he didn’t really feel the cold anymore.

It scared him, of course. More than most things. Terrified him, even. But he didn’t often feel it.

But of course this place would be cold enough even to make him shiver. Of course this place would have his—everyone’s—worst fears, designed to keep them away. Fear was a powerful motivator.

That said, so was love.

Captain Rogers…” hissed a voice behind him. He balked. He knew… he knew that voice. Turning around, he had to suppress a shudder as he saw a shadowy figure stood behind him, draped in a ragged cloth. He’d been expecting a different sort of uniform.

Still, when the figure came forwards and he caught sight of red-raw skin, stretched tightly over cheekbones and a nose that was only half there, he was not surprised. His jaw set, and his grip tightened on Mjolnir’s handle, the leather creaking so softly, but both people present would surely hear. A comfort to one, a warning to the other.

We need not go through all that,” Red Skull drawled, his voice rasping and almost tired. It was a far cry from the harsh shouts that had haunted his nightmares so long ago. New things had come to haunt them since, but there was something about the first nightmare that would always plague the mind the worst, even if it was, objectively, not nearly as bad as things seen later.

Steve narrowed his eyes. “And why’s that?”

That is not my purpose. I am the Gatekeeper, here. I guide those to a power I cannot hold.” He paused. “Yet, I sense you already hold that power.

“I do,” Steve admitted stiffly. He held out the briefcase. “I’m here to give it back.”

Give it back?” Red Skull echoed, looking about as surprised as someone with only half a face could look. “Why would someone choose to give up such power? But, ah,” he sighed, “You are Steve Rogers. You have never understood the gravity of what you possess…”

“I understood it a lot more than you did, Schmidt,” Steve retorted, rapidly losing patience with this creature. He was haunted by enough ghosts without adding Johann Schmidt to that list. “Just take it.”

But Schmidt shook his head. “I am merely Gatekeeper, here,” he said. “That is my punishment. I am forever to be taunted with the power of an Infinity Stone, never to possess it for myself.”

“My heart bleeds,” Steve muttered. “How do I put this thing back?”

The same way it is attained in the first place,” answered Schmidt. “But you must wait here. The stone cannot be returned until it has first been taken.”

Steve nodded stiffly. He knew he’d arrived before the others, so walked off and stood behind a rock. It was barely a few minutes before he saw the ship touch down, and Natasha and Clint stepped out, walking over to the outcrop where Schmidt met them, giving whatever speech he was supposed to give.

Even from all this distance, he saw her. Sometimes he really did wonder if his gifts were curses, because his eyesight was more like 40/40 than 20/20, and he could see every detail. The blond tip of her braid, the bright red of her natural hair, even the determined look in her eyes. She would succeed at all costs.

Even herself.

Steve watched, every fibre of his being screaming to follow, as the pair of them walked up to the top of the cliff. He wanted to follow, to stop her, to bring her back into that ship kicking and screaming if he had to. But no, he had to wait. Because if he didn’t, who knew how many others would die? How many countless lives would be destroyed?

A few minutes later, a flash of red hair near the top made him start, and he saw Natasha running for the edge. “No…” he breathed, even though he knew it had to be that way, he wanted to step out from the shadow and shout for her to stop. It was just as well he had a lump in his throat, choking him, because he wasn’t sure that his own will could’ve stopped him.

Just as he was sure she was about to fall over the edge, she was knocked to the side, and Clint stepped up. He must’ve fired some kind of arrow, tangled her ankles, because now he was bolting to the precipice.

They struggled, each fighting for the other’s life. One moment, Clint had the advantage; the next, Natasha did. Again and again they battled, tides changing, inching closer and closer to the edge as they fought, and Steve almost lurched forwards and cried out—they were both going to fall, they were both going to fall—when they pitched over the edge, and were sent tumbling down to their deaths.

His heart stopped, but he’d barely had time to react when they were both yanked to a half about twenty feet down the side of the cliff. Clint was further up, and it seemed he’d had a grappling line. Clinging to his wrist—or, more accurately, being held up by his hand—was Natasha, dangling beneath him.

For several long seconds, they hung there. They were talking, Steve realised. Natasha was pleading with Clint to let her go. To let her fall. To let her die.

There was a beat, and suddenly Natasha pushed off against the cliff-face like she was abseiling, ripping her arm from Clint’s grip, and she fell, hair bright and fluttering, noticeable even from a distance, towards the ground.

He’d told himself he would watch. He would watch his friend die, watch her make the sacrifice that saved the universe. But in the end, he couldn’t. And as Clint screamed her name, Steve squeezed his eyes shut, tears burning, and sob escaped him.

She was gone. She was dead. All for the loathsome piece of rock in the briefcase.

By the time Steve opened his eyes again, Clint somehow had made his way back to the top of the cliff, and a few minutes later, there was a flash of light as he returned to their time with the Soul stone.

Without Natasha.

His feet felt heavy and leaden as he trudged up to the cliff. The gravity of Voromir wasn’t really any different to Earth’s—certainly not enough to be noticeable to a super-soldier like him. But it wasn’t the gravity that was the problem. His heart was already weighed down with so much grief, he wasn’t sure it could take any more.

Reaching the top of the cliff, Schmidt was there again.

“Are you going to take it now?” Steve asked bitterly. Schmidt shook his head, and one hand emerged from the ghostly depths of his cloak, gesturing to the edge of the cliff.

Cast it over. Back to where it belongs,” he instructed. Honestly, Steve was happy to do that, setting down Mjolnir and the briefcase, grabbing the stone, and marching up to the edge of the cliff.

Don’t look down, he thought. Not because he was scared of heights, because he wasn’t. Don’t look down. Don’t look at her. Don’t—

He looked down.

And there, lying on her back, hair stained scarlet with blood, eyes wide and unseeing—

No,” he whispered, and he fell to his knees on the edge, staring at her, horrified. It was too far down for Clint to have seen her properly, but his eyesight was perfect, and he could see every harrowing detail. She’d broken her wrist on the fall, and it hung at an odd angle. Strange of hair had come free from the braid, lying haphazardly across her face. He wanted to reach down and brush them away, to pick her up and cradle her broken body in his arms.

“I’m so sorry, Nat,” he gasped. Tears made his voice tremble. “I’m so sorry. You deserved to—you deserved a life. You deserved to see that we won. We won. Thanks to you.”

He got to his feet, struggling a little, and glared down at the orange gem in his palm. All of that… Natasha dying, the universe’s population decimated… for this. A power no one should possess, a power no one could be trusted with, especially people who thought there was such a thing as divine destiny, who believed they were sent by some higher power to enact horrible deeds. The hardest choices require the strongest wills, he thought with a snort.

Was his will weak, then? Because this wasn’t a hard choice at all. He leant back and putting every shred of his strength into the throw, pitched the gem out, off the cliff, and watched it glitter in the light until it was too far for even his eyes to see it.

“Good riddance,” he muttered, glaring at the space it had vanished into. He turned back to where he’d left Mjolnir and the now-empty briefcase. Schmidt was gone. Good riddance, he thought again. He might’ve thrown Schmidt over the edge, too, if he’d stuck around.

Bending down to pick up Mjolnir, Steve raised his gauntlet and started calculating how he’d need to set it. His hand had just closed around Mjolnir’s handle when the world went up in a flash of light.


Steve’s eyes flew open, and he looked around. He was lying in… he was lying in water.

Confused, he sat up, and found that he was perfectly dry when he did. His vision, still blurred from the blinding flash of light, took a few moments to clear. When it did, he saw where he was; a strange landscape of shadowed mountains and a purple sky, reddish clouds hanging low, partially obscuring a huge moon, the edge highlighted in gold light.

“What…” he murmured. Where was he? Was this Voromir?

He suddenly became aware of something in his hand. Something cold and unpleasant shot through him—the stone? Had it refused to be put back? Was he to be cursed with it for the rest of his life?

Shaking, grimacing, he raised his hand out of the water, and saw that it wasn’t a stone.

It was someone else’s hand.

No sooner had he realised this, than a figure sat up out of the water, gasping as if suddenly woken from a nightmare. Steve’s addled mind, confused by the light and this place, took a moment to realise who it was.

Natasha?

At the sound of her name, Natasha turned to look at him, her eyes wide and alert. She was breathing hard, confused and on edge, as if she couldn’t quite believe where she was.

“…Steve?” Her voice sounded so impossibly small. “I… what… where am I?”

“I… I don’t know,” he mumbled, not believing his eyes. “You… we… You’re alive! You’re alive!” He raised his hands to cup her face, and for a few seconds all he did was hold her there, staring at her, before pulling her into a crushing hug. “You’re alive!

“I’m alive…” she agreed numbly, still not quite believing it. But she hugged him back tightly; clung to him as if he was the air she needed to breath. Tears welled in her eyes, and her voice wad choked as she repeated it. “I… I’m alive.”

With another flash of light, the next thing either of them knew was that they were standing on the cliff once again, still hugging one another. Steve rested his chin on the top of her hair, holding her close. He’d never had a sister, but this, he imagined, was what it would be like to have one.

“How did this even…?” he murmured.

“A soul for a soul,” she replied, still hugging him. “That’s what the Gatekeeper told me. I guess it goes both ways.” She pulled away and gazed up at him. “You brought me back,” she murmured. “You saved me.” A frown pulled at the corner of her mouth, confused. “Why?”

“Honestly? I didn’t know this would save you…” he admitted. “But… you can’t seriously think I wouldn’t try whatever I could, do you?”

She smiled at him. “No, I suppose I don’t,” she admitted. Then she hugged him again. “Thank you,” she whispered.

As she hugged him, her eyes staring off into the distance, over the edge of the cliff. She couldn’t quite believe she’d thrown herself off the side. She couldn’t believe she was back here, alive. “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” he replied, kissing the top of her hair.

It was a long while before they parted, before either felt secure enough to let go of the other. They’d weathered five years of utter hell together, been one another’s rocks, partners, best friends. Even if he wasn’t going to be right beside her anymore, he couldn’t go on knowing she hadn’t had the life she deserved. He’d come here to pay his final respects, and instead had received something infinitely better than any Infinity Stone.

When they did finally part, he kept hold of her hand. He’d lost so many people, including her, and he was reluctant to let her go, in case by some awful twist of luck he was going to lose her again.

“We should be heading back,” Nat said, her voice thick. She was trying to hide her smile, hide just how pleased and stunned she was, but he could see the smile in her eyes, how her lips still pulled up into a smile even as she kept them closed.

“We should,” he agreed, dropping her hand to raise his gauntlet. Then he remembered. “Oh, wait—” He unclipped a small red vial from his suit and handed it to her. “—here. I have two,” he explained as Natasha took the vial. “They gave me a spare—lucky for us,” he added with a grin.

Natasha nodded, and after she’d inserted the Pym particles into her own suit, she looked up at him. “Where are you gonna go?” she asked. Steve blinked.

“What d’you mean?”

“I know you, Steve,” she said softly. They’d been mission partners for over a decade, and friends for almost as long. The past five years had seen them go through hell together; there was little they didn’t know about one another, little they could hide. Natasha had taught Steve everything almost he knew about espionage and stealth. There was no hiding anything from her. “You’re not going back to our time, I can see it in your eyes.” Her own eyes were sad and beseeching. “Where? When?”

He dropped her gaze. “You know,” he admitted lowly. Natasha recoiled ever so slightly, stunned.

“You…” she began, then trailed off as she realised she didn’t know how that sentence was going to end. She swallowed, forced the tremor in her throat to steady before she said, “I’m gonna miss you.”

His smile was so warm, she almost forgot about the snow and the wind that picked at them, high atop the cliff. “I’m gonna miss you, too,” he mumbled.

They’d just programmed their gauntlets when Natasha put a hand on Steve’s wrist to stop him. She spoke on impulse, so rattled by everything that had happened that she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Let me come.”

He stared at her. “What?”

“I still have my own Pym particles,” she said, tapping the belt of her suit. “We all had enough for a round trip. Let me come with you. Then I’ll go back.”

He blinked. “But… why?”

She gave a shrug. “I don’t know, I just… I’d like a proper goodbye, I guess,” she admitted. She didn’t have to say it; they both knew. This was no place for a goodbye. The graves of untold horrors, the haunted stone of a power-mad Nazi, the monument to the supreme, self-absorbed cruelty of the Mad Titan. She smiled and reached out to take his hand. “Is that okay?”

His grip was tight, almost desperate, and his smile was shaky. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Nat,” he said quietly.

“You won’t have to find out,” she promised. “Now, give me the coordinates.”


"Peggy?"

"I'm here."

"I'm gonna need a raincheck on that dance."

"All right. A week next Saturday at The Stork Club."

"You've got it."

"Eight o'clock on the dot. Don't you dare be late. Understood?"

"You know, I still don't know how to dance."

"I'll show you how. Just be there."

"We'll have the band play something slow. I'd hate to step on your—"

She didn’t know why she’d shown up, she really didn’t. But, plans were plans, even if one party had crashed themselves into the arctic with a plane full of superpowered bombs…

Swallowing, she took a stiff gulp of her drink, only remembering at the last second not to slam her wine glass down onto the table and unwittingly shatter it. She eyed the singer on the front of the stage, singing about lost loves returning home.

The war is over, my darling, she thought to herself. All because of you. You saved us, and you won’t even see the world you helped create.

Her gaze slid from the elegant singer to a pair of men laughing at the bar, to a man who’d just walked in with his date, then back to the singer, who was now reclining on a piano and gazing lovingly at the piano player. The clock above the stage showed one minute to eight, and she wasn’t expecting the ache that shot through her heart when the minute hand clicked into place to read eight ‘o’clock exactly.

With a sigh, she turned back to her drink, then spied out of the corner of her eye a woman in a sleek green dress, hair set in a cascade of scarlet curls the same shade as her lips, about which a small smile played. “Excuse me, ma’am,” she said, “Do you mind if we sit here?”


Natasha had recognised the woman at once. From pictures in SHIELD files, from portraits and framed pictures from every SHIELD headquarters she’d ever set foot in, but most of all from a small, worn photograph tucked inside a compass, in the stunned, sweet smile on Steve’s face. Steve was a gentle, kind man, but she’d never seen a look on his face like that before. When they’d walked into the club, and he’d literally stopped and stared at Peggy Carter, sitting at a table alone, having every reason to believe she’d be alone all night.

“Nat—” he said, his voice strangled. “I don’t know if—if I—”

She cupped his face, forcing him to turn away from gaping at Peggy to look at her. “You can do this,” she told him sternly. “You deserve this.” With her free hand, she twined their fingers together. “Please, Steve, do this. You’ve given me my life. Let me give you yours.”

He smiled at her, almost tearful. Natasha grinned. “Come on,” she said. “Time waits for no man, Captain—even you.”

With a nervous smile, Steve was half-dragged by Natasha, half-dragging her behind him over to Peggy’s table. He was about ten feet away when he suddenly froze. It’d been eleven years for him. He’d seen Peggy die, he’d tried so hard to move on. Now that he was faced with the prospect of talking to her again…

“Steve,” Natasha said gently. “You can do this, I know you can.”

He nodded several times and quickly, not sure he could speak. Natasha led him over, and caught Peggy’s attention.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she smiled, “Do you mind if we sit here?”

Peggy turned to look up at her. “I suppose not, n—” she began, but then she noticed who was standing next to Natasha, and she stared. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, like a fish out of water, until she finally gasped out, “…Steve?

“H—hi, Peggy,” Steve replied, his voice a strangled whisper.

“I…I…” She stood from her table. “…is it really you?

He nodded. “It’s really me, Peg,” he confirmed. At his side, Natasha dropped his hand.

“I’ll go get myself a drink,” she told him with a smile. “Take your time.”

Steve nodded, but he didn’t look away from Peggy. Natasha excused herself, and Peggy stopped forwards until she was standing only a few inches in front of him. She raised a hand to cup his face, but stopped, as if afraid to touch him.

“But—you—how?

Steve cocked a shaky smile. “I could hardly leave my best girl behind,” he replied, voice quavering. Looking down, he took her hand. “And we did make plans for tonight.” He glanced towards the dancefloor, where a few couples were already dancing. “Shall we…?” he let the question hang.

Peggy cocked a smile. “I thought you didn’t know how to dance?” she teased.

He grinned. “I thought you said you’d show me,” he teased back. She nodded smartly.

“I did,” she agreed. Lacing their fingers together, she headed for the dancefloor, shooting him a delighted smile over her shoulder. With a graceful twirl, she settled into his arms, fitting so perfectly.

They swayed together, the steps so easy he didn’t have to think after the second run through, and he was content just to lose himself in her gaze. Her dark eyes were fathomless pools that he couldn’t help but lose himself in, and when she melted into his embrace, resting her head on his collar, he thought his heart might melt.

“I must be dreaming,” Peggy murmured, “Never in a thousand years, I…” she trailed off.

“I know,” he agreed quietly. “I’m sorry I cause you so much worry, Peg, I—”

“Don’t apologise.” Her tone was gentle, but there was an undeniable firmness, too. “You’re here, now.” She raised her head to look up at him, and pushed herself up on tiptoes to press a kiss on his lips. It was chaste—for the twenty-first century, but for this time, he supposed it bordered on scandalous—but it was all he could do not to scoop her up, sweep her off her feet and kiss her like a soldier in a vintage photograph.

He settled for holding her that bit closer, planting a second quick kiss as they pulled away. She chuckled softly, once more resting against his chest, humming along to the song. Steve glanced up as they turned and saw Natasha sitting at the bar, gazing at them as if she couldn’t think of any better place to be. Raising a glass to her lips, she threw him a wink as she sipped.

Once the song was over, Steve practically bounced back over to her, holding Peggy by the hand. “Nat,” he said delightedly. “I—I’d like you to meet—”

“Peggy Carter,” Peggy cut across, extending her free hand to Nat, who took it with a smile. “Pleasure.”

“Likewise,” Natasha smiled, and they shook hands. “I’m Natasha. Steve’s told me a lot about you.”

Peggy raised an eyebrow. “He has?”

Natasha glanced between her and Steve. “I… I suppose he hasn’t told you yet,” she said. It made sense; he wouldn’t have had the chance in the ten minutes since they’d stepped onto the dancefloor. She looked at Steve, but she saw no signs that he would be uncomfortable with her revealing the truth, and she prided herself on reading people well—especially her dear friends.

“Told me… what?” Peggy asked, looking more curious than suspicious.

“Steve’s been gone a little longer than a week,” Natasha said slowly. “Several years, actually.”

Peggy frowned. “But… what? That’s… that’s impossible.”

“It’s not, actually, Peg,” Steve confessed. “When I went under… well, technically I am still under… I didn’t die.”

Peggy’s eyes went wide. “What?”

“I guess it was the serum,” he shrugged. “I don’t know. But I didn’t die. I got found and, uh… defrosted.” He paused, swallowed. “…in 2012.”

What?!” Peggy only barely remembered to keep her voice down, and almost shouted.

“Steve was found in 2012, which is where I first met him,” Natasha explained, in a decidedly more matter-of-fact tone. “I work for SHIELD—the SSR’s successor. I’m an agent, and me and Steve were partnered together. Recently, a friend of ours, Tony Stark, he… he found a way for us to travel through time.” She offered Peggy a smile. “And Steve decided he wanted to spend his life with you.”

Peggy blinked. For a long time, she was silent, then. “…Tony Stark, you said? Not… not Howard?”

“Howard’s his father,” Steve explained. “But, uh… they’re similar. There’s definitely a resemblance.”

Peggy shook her head ruefully. “If anyone would be the one to invent time travel, it would be a Stark,” she said. “I can’t believe there’s a woman out there who could get Howard to settle down…”

“I still can’t,” Steve agreed with a chuckle.

Peggy then eyed Natasha, almost warily, for a moment. Then she stepped forwards and pulled Natasha into a fierce hug.

“Thank you, Natasha,” she said, “For helping bring him home.”

Though a little startled, and not really one for hugs in most circumstances, Natasha hugged her back. “My pleasure, Peggy,” she replied.


A little while later, they were all stood outside the Stork Club, in a quiet side-street, and Natasha had traded in the dress for her flight suit. It’d been a bit of a pain to find a dress so quickly, but she’d insisted on Steve’s behalf that they look the part when they stepped in. It had been well worth Peggy’s reaction.

“So,” Steve said, still holding Peggy’s hand. He eyed Natasha. “I guess this is it.”

Natasha smiled. “Only for you two,” she said.

Steve chuckled. Turning to Peggy, he said, “Could you…?”

“Of course,” Peggy smiled, dropping his hand. “Take all the time you need.” And she stepped aside. Looking back at Natasha, Steve sighed.

“I have no idea how I can even begin to thank you, Nat,” he said. “All these years, you stuck by me. Even after the Snap, and…” he trailed off.

“The best way to thank me is to live your life,” she told him. “Be happy. The world has it’s Captain America. Go be Steve Rogers for once.”

He nodded. “I think I can manage that.” Sticking his hands in his pockets, he swallowed. “So… this is it, huh? The end of…” He broke off, a little choked. “…end of the line.”

“Not just yet,” she said decisively. “We’re just… taking different routes.”

He chuckled, and nodded. But then Natasha’s expression sobered.

“Steve,” she said, voice solemn. “You know this… this choice has certain… certain constraints. You can’t change the past—our past. No one knows what could happen.”

He nodded sombrely. “I know,” he admitted. “I can’t go looking for Buck, I can’t get you out of the Room, I can’t expose HYDRA. I have to… let things run their course.”

Biting her lip, Natasha nodded. Those were the facts he’d have to live with in making this decision. But altering those things could prove disastrous, could result in Thanos winning for good—or maybe something even worse, if such a possibility existed. Watching her, Steve gave a warm smile, and cupped her cheek.

“I’ll be just fine, Nat,” he assured her. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You can stop worrying about me, now.”

She snorted. “It’s been eleven years, Rogers,” she said. “Old habits die hard.”

“That they do,” he agreed. Then, “C’mere,” and he gruffly pulled her into a hug. Natasha obliged, squeezing him tight, knowing this would be the last time.

“Thank you,” he whispered into the top of her hair. “For everything you did for me, all those years, being my friend, my partner. Just… thank you.”

“Stop it,” she mumbled. “Gonna… gonna make me cry.”

He chuckled. “Never.”

As they parted, Steve looked back at Peggy and outstretched his hand. She was only too happy to walk over and take it, and he pulled her close, hugging her with one arm as they watched Natasha. The two women locked eyes.

“You take good care of him, yeah?” Natasha said. “He’s been a pretty good friend of mine these past eleven years.”

Peggy beamed at her. “I promise,” she swore, and she wrapped her arms around Steve's arm, pulling him close. “Thank you for bringing him back to me.”

“I’ll see you later, Nat,” Steve told her, smiling. He could still hardly believe she was alive, standing in front of him. It was almost as hard to believe as having Peggy in his arms again. He was half convinced someone was going to wake him up; back with his best girl, saying goodbye to one of his closest friends.

Natasha smiled back at him, eyes shining. “See you in a minute, Rogers,” she replied, then pressed a button, and vanished, leaving Steve and Peggy alone in the alleyway. The music from inside the club was faint in the background, but the street seemed so quiet.

Peggy turned to Steve. “You’re going to miss her, aren’t you?” she said. Steve nodded.

“She always thought she was working for something,” he said. “Always thought she had something to make up for. But she was a hero, Peg. Maybe now she’ll actually believe it.”

“If you had anything to do with it, I’m sure she does,” Peggy assured him, pressing a kiss to his cheek and leading him back inside for another dance. As they stepped up to the bar to order a drink, Steve turned to her.

“Hey,” he said, “Howard doesn’t happen to have a house up by that old lake, does he?”

Peggy frowned. “I think so,” she replied. “Why?”

“It’s just that I’ve only now realised I have nowhere to live,” he admitted. “D’you think he’ll let me stay there a while?”

She gave a laugh. “You just came back from the dead, darling,” she told him. “I think he’ll let you.”

Now Steve laughed, too, and pulled her in close, resting his cheek against her hair, breathing in her scent. She was here, with him. They were together. Like Peggy, never in a thousand years could he have believed this was possible, and yet here he was. The world was safe.

And he was home.


“Ohh, no!” Bruce exclaimed, rapidly becoming more panicked. “He’s—he’s missed his window!”

“What?” Sam asked. “What does that mean? Is he still coming back, is he—”

There was a FZZT! and everyone fell silent. They all turned to the time-travel pad, and words failed them as they struggled to comprehend what they saw. Standing on the centre of the pad, her hair down and set in graceful curls, was—

Natasha?

The whisper belonged to Bruce, but it was the only word in any of their minds as Natasha, calm and composed, stepped off the pad.

Sam was the first to really regain his voice. “You…” He looked down at her. “You’re…”

“Alive,” Natasha agreed. “I know.”

Sam wasn’t really sure what to say, so instead lurched forwards and pulled her into a tight embrace. “Don’t you ever do something like that ever again!” he said fiercely. “Death-defying crap like that is what me and Cap do!”

She managed a laugh through her relieved tears. “Okay, Sam,” she agreed. “No more throwing myself off of cliffs. I promise.”

“Damn right, you promise,” he muttered, letting her go to wipe at his eyes. Natasha made the rounds, giving Bruce and even Bucky a quick hug. Then came the questions.

“Where’s Steve?” it was Sam who finally said it. Natasha turned to him, her eyes sad, but not sorrowful. She’s just opened her mouth to answer, to try to begin to explain everything that had happened, when Bucky’s furtive voice cut her off.

“Sam…” he said quietly, and they all turned to him. He was staring off into the distance, at the lakeshore. Natasha knew what she’d see as she turned, and sure enough, sat on a bench, looking out across the lake, was an old man.

When they were all standing beside the bench, staring at him, the old man turned and gave a slow, warm smile. “Hey, guys,” he said, “Long time, no see.”

“Steve…” Sam murmured. “You… you went back.”

“I did,” Steve nodded. He fixed his eyes on Natasha. “I see you got home alright without me,” he remarked. When he raised his arms slightly for a hug, Natasha was only too happy to lean in and embrace him. “I missed you, Nat.”

“Crazy as it sounds, I missed you, too,” she replied, tears stinging her eyes once again. It’d been a very taxing day. Pulling back, she placed a kiss to his forehead, then stepped back to allow Sam and Bucky to speak with him.

“Man, you got old,” Sam remarked, shaking his head. Steve chuckled.

“Took me a while, didn’t it?” he agreed. “I’m… what? A hundred and seventy now?”

“You look it.”

Steve laughed. “The serum slowed down my aging, you know,” he said. “I was a looker, right up til the nineties. Then I started getting old-old.”

“How was it?” Sam asked softly. Steve smiled, eyes twinkling with memories, and gazed out across the lake.

“It was beautiful.”


Once all the greetings had been said, and everyone had gotten over the shock of Natasha coming back from the dead, an old man still had two friends sitting by his side on the bench, gaping at him as if they still couldn’t quite believe he was real.

“I guess the world doesn’t need Captain America anymore, huh?” Sam murmured, looking his aged friend up and down. Steve shook his head.

“The world will always need Captain America,” he replied, “They just don’t need Steve Rogers anymore.” He bent down and pulled out from under the bench a circular bag, and handed it to Sam. “I went through a lotta trouble getting this damn thing fixed,” he confessed. “Had to go all the way to Africa.”

Sam took the bag and opened it to find Steve’s shield inside. His breath caught in his throat. “Oh my god,” he murmured, gently placing a hand on the cool, smooth metal, fingers splayed over the iconic silver star. “Looks good as new.”

“Glad you think so,” Steve remarked. “It’s yours.”

Sam looked up, staring. “What?”

“That shield belongs to Captain America,” Steve told him. “So, it’s yours. If you’ll have it.”

“But—but I—” Sam looked from Steve, to the shield, to Bucky, then back to the shield again. “I’m not—I don’t—” He swallowed. “Oh my god…” At a loss for anything else to do, he stood up, and saluted his Captain.

Steve laughed, shook his head, and saluted back. “You outrank me now, Captain,” he said. “Why don’t you try it on for size?” he then prompted.

Almost reverently, Sam slipped it onto his forearm, tightening the straps. He swung his arm a few times, feelings the balance, then nodded. “It fits… it fits perfectly.”

Steve smirked up at him. He’d always known it would fit, one day. It had only ever been a matter of time. Flashing them both blazing grins, Sam then chose that moment to duck out and leave the pair of them with some privacy, and show the others his new shield.

Watching him, Bucky asked, “So what’re you gonna do now?”

Steve shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Anything I want, I guess. It’s all over—for real, this time.” He looked down at his hands, old and gnarled; at the shiny wedding band on his finger.

Bucky noticed it glitter. “D’you wanna tell me about her?” he asked, smiling.

“Do you wanna tell me about her?” Steve replied, looking very pointedly over to where Natasha was standing. Bucky flushed and looked away.

“I can’t believe she’s still alive,” he said. “All these years… I thought they might’ve killed her. The Red Room burned down.”

“She’s the one who set the fire,” Steve told him. “I watched Peggy work for years, trying to bring that place down. She started dismantling it the moment she realised what it was. Nat just finished what she started.”

“There’s been a lot of that, recently,” Bucky remarked. “Finishing what you start.”

Steve nodded. “I always liked stories,” he said. “Beginnings, where everything was shiny, and the challenges were new and exciting. But I like endings, too. The battle’s won, everyone’s right where they need to be. We can have some peace, finally.”

“You deserved it.”

“So do you.” Steve looked at him intently. His face and body were old, but his eyes were young and bright as ever. “So how about you go finish what you started, huh?”

“Are you sure you’re gonna be alright?” Bucky pressed. Steve nodded sagely.

“I’m right where I need to be, Buck,” he said. “End of the line, remember? That goes both ways.”


That evening, she stood on the porch of the farmhouse, looking out over the vast, empty fields. Here, in this quiet haven, one could almost forget the horror of the past five years. One could almost leave it all behind, hide away in this rural paradise.

Laura and Clint and the kids had, of course, welcomed her home with open arms and tearful smiles, all hardly daring to believe what they were seeing. Honestly, she was still struggling to believe it herself. She’d died, and she’d come back. It unsettled her, shook her in a way she didn’t know how to cope with.

Try as she might, she couldn’t remember what had awaited her on the other side of that fall. If there was anything to remember, even. She supposed she could be glad that the mysteries of beyond were still a mystery to her. Such knowledge would surely drive her mad.

So instead she tried to push those thoughts from her mind and instead indulge in their long-fought, hard-won peace. The sunset was beautiful over the scraggly apple trees in the cloudy sky. A million times more beautiful than Voromir’s purple sky. Maybe because she knew it wasn’t her last sunset. Not by a long way.

The distant thrum of an engine caught her attention, and her eyes soon fixed on a tiny dot of light winding down the dirt road that led to the farm. As the dot grew closer, she realised it was the headlamp of a motorcycle. Curious, she stepped down from the porch and wandered over to where the motorcycle had now stopped, and with a guttural cch! the engine cut out and the night was silent once more.

Pulling the shawl tighter around her shoulders, Natasha stopped a few feet away from the motorcycle and its rider, who was stepping off the bike and removing their helmet to reveal a pale face and long brown hair.

Her mouth turned up in a sweet smile. “Hey, Barnes,” she said.

“Natasha.” He nodded at her, but not meeting her gaze as he set the motorcycle helmet on the bike’s seat. He leant against the bike and put his hands in his pockets. It was the first time in over five years that she’d seen him in civilian clothing, instead of one-armed tactical uniforms, but he still wore heavy combat boots.

“What’re you doing here?” she asked him. The question was double-edged, which they both knew. Firstly: how did he know where Clint’s farm was? Second, why wasn’t he with Steve?

“Steve sent me,” he replied, answering both her questions at once. “Wanted to see if you were adjusting alright.”

“Steve did, or you did?” She raised an eyebrow, pulling the shawl ever tighter around her, even though the chill in the night air was minimal. It was a sheer thing Laura had leant her so many times that both women thought of it as Natasha’s, since it was always in the closet in her guest room, filled with a few sets of her own clothing.

“Does it have to be mutually exclusive?” he joked, flashing her the ghost of a cocky smirk. There was a pause, and he sobered. “Steve, he, uh… he told me what happened on Voromir. All of it. He saw you… fall.”

Natasha blinked, a little stunned. “Oh…” She was at a loss for what else to say. “I… see…”

“If that’s not proof that you’ve moved beyond the Red Room, I don’t know what is,” he murmured, so low she almost didn’t hear him. But they were both so well trained; she heard him because he wanted her to hear, no matter how quietly he spoke. “Your ledger’s in the black… Natalia.”

Her eyes went wide. “James…” she whispered. “You… remember?”

“Since I came out of cryo in Wakanda,” he replied. “Just with everything going on… I didn’t get the chance.”

“Do you wanna come sit on the porch?” she asked him, looking back at the house with its warm lanterns and the sofa-hammock that swung gently in the breeze. Bucky grinned at her and nodded.

“I’d love to.”

She led him up the rickety wooden steps, and despite their age, neither of them made a single creak, their velvet treads utterly silent. For a while, they sat in comfortable silence, side-by-side but not touching, admiring the evening.

After several minutes, Bucky swallowed. “Do you… you remember, too, then?”

“I forgot, for a time,” she admitted. “You weren’t the only one whose mind got wiped. But I’d remembered by the time Steve found you. Back in Washington.”

“In Vienna… you said I could at least recognise you…” he murmured, the memory surfacing slowly, like a bubble in a glass of champagne. He looked up at her, giving another half-smile, this one slightly nervous. “Took me long enough.”

“Lucky for you,” Natasha said, not looking away from the sight before them, but reaching out one hand to lace their fingers together, “I’m patient.”

“Lucky for me,” Bucky agreed, raising their linked hands and looping his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him. She rested her head on his shoulder, he put his chin on top of her hair, ducking to kiss her forehead before returning to gaze out at the fields, and watch the sun finally dip below the horizon.


The music was quiet. It didn’t need to be loud, when it was just the two of them, swaying back and forth to the gentle beat, lost in the sultry tones of the singer and the feel of each other in their arms. He thought he might burst for how happy he was. He hadn’t know content like this for so long—maybe ever.

Raising his head from where it rested on her hair, he looked down at her, and she up at him, their eyes dizzy and bright with love. He pressed a kiss to her lips, deep and adoring. One of many kisses they’d shared, one of infinite kisses left.

Some people move on, he’d once said to an old friend of his. A friend who he hadn’t been willing to let die. A friend who had urged him to go where he belonged, to be where he was meant to be.

But not us.

Chapter Text

He’d never wanted power.

He’d only ever wanted peace. For his friends to be safe and happy.

“Well, in that case,” said the Ancient One, “I wish you luck, and hope you find what you are looking for.”

Steve nodded to her, almost a bow, and raised his arm to set the coordinates for his next jump when the Ancient One laid a hand on his arm.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said. He looked at her, transfixed by her intense gaze. He was reminded of when Natasha would look at him, that intensity to her gaze where he knew she was looking right into his mind, his soul, and seeing all the secrets he tried to hide.

You wear your heart on your sleeve, Rogers, she’d once teased him, when they’d been new partners and still not quite sure of the dynamic between them. You might be in the wrong business.

That old joke of theirs.

Once, they’d been sparring. She’d been insisting he fight dirty, because the people he’d be up against would. He’d socked her right in the face and she’d staggered back, clutching her face and falling to the floor, and he’d dropped his fists. Upon rushing to her, crouching to one knee and frantically asking if she was alright, she’d pounced. In a flash, she’d wrapped her legs around his torso and her arms around his neck, trapping him in a headlock. She’d opted to release him rather than snapping his neck, and when he’d complained, after all he’d been trying to make sure she wasn’t hurt, there had come those words again. You might be in the wrong business.

“Loss?” he asked, pulling himself from the barrage of memories. “We won.”

“Your goal was achieved, but at a terrible price,” the Ancient One said calmly.

“My friends…” he admitted quietly, dropping the woman’s gaze. “They didn’t get to see our victory.”

The Ancient One smiled. “The world is a lot simpler than the dichotomy of life and death,” she said. “Oftentimes, the soul is betwixt and between such existences. The land of the dead is not wholly closed off. They know.”

He managed a wan smile. “Thank you for that, ma’am,” he said, and he meant it, even though it had been a long time since kind words had been of use to him. Bobbing his head in some approximation of a bow, he pressed the button on his wrist, and was cast once more into the infinity of time.


The Aether and Orb went back with… minimal complication (Dr Foster, thankfully, had been too preoccupied with watching Rocket dart out the door to her room to notice Steve jabbing her in the shoulder to replace the Aether, then letting go of Mjolnir when he felt it being yanked from his hand by Thor’s summons) and before he knew it, he was making his final stop, and returning the final stone.

He noticed the chill before he’d even gotten enough of his bearings to take note of the landscape around him. He couldn’t stop the shiver that rippled through him, which was odd. Sure, it was snowing, but he didn’t get cold anymore. Between the serum and seventy years in ice, he didn’t really feel the cold anymore.

It scared him, of course. More than most things. Terrified him, even. But he didn’t often feel it.

But of course this place would be cold enough even to make him shiver. Of course this place would have his—everyone’s—worst fears, designed to keep them away. Fear was a powerful motivator.

That said, so was love.

Captain Rogers…” hissed a voice behind him. He balked. He knew… he knew that voice. Turning around, he had to suppress a shudder as he saw a shadowy figure stood behind him, draped in a ragged cloth. He’d been expecting another style of dress.

Still, when the figure came forwards and he caught sight of red-raw skin, stretched tightly over cheekbones and a nose that was only half there, he was not surprised. His jaw set, and his grip tightened on Mjolnir’s handle, the leather creaking so softly, but both people present would surely hear. A comfort to one, a warning to the other.

We need not go through all that,” Red Skull drawled, his voice rasping and almost tired. It was a far cry from the harsh shouts that had haunted his nightmares so long ago. New things had come to haunt them since, but there was something about the first nightmare that would always plague the mind the worst, even if it was, objectively, not nearly as bad as things seen later.

Steve narrowed his eyes. “And why’s that?”

That is not my purpose. I am the Gatekeeper, here. I guide those to a power I cannot hold.” He paused. “Yet, I sense you already hold that power.

“I do,” Steve admitted stiffly. He held out the briefcase. “I’m here to give it back.”

Give it back?” Red Skull echoed, looking about as surprised as someone with only half a face could look. “Why would someone choose to give up such power? But, ah,” he sighed, “You are Steve Rogers. You have never understood the gravity of what you possess…”

“I understood it a lot more than you did, Schmidt,” Steve retorted, rapidly losing patience with this creature. He was haunted by enough ghosts without adding Johann Schmidt to that list. “Just take it.”

But Schmidt shook his head. “I am merely a Gatekeeper, here,” he said. “That is my punishment. I am forever to be taunted with the power of an Infinity Stone, never to possess it for myself.”

“My heart bleeds,” Steve muttered. “How do I put this thing back, then?”

The same way it is attained in the first place,” answered Schmidt. “But you must wait here. The stone cannot be returned until it has first been taken.”

Steve nodded stiffly. He knew he’d arrived before the others, so walked off and stood behind a rock. It was barely a few minutes before he saw the ship touch down, and Natasha and Clint stepped out, walking over to the outcrop where Schmidt met them, giving whatever speech he was supposed to give.

Even from all this distance, he saw her. Sometimes he really did wonder if his gifts were curses, because his eyesight was more like 40/40 than 20/20, and he could see every detail. The blond tip of her braid, the bright red of her natural hair, even the determined look in her eyes. She would succeed at all costs.

Even herself.

Steve watched, every fibre of his being screaming to follow, as the pair of them walked up to the top of the cliff. He wanted to follow, to stop her, to bring her back into that ship kicking and screaming if he had to. But no, he had to wait. Because if he didn’t, who knew how many others would die? How many countless lives would be destroyed?

A flash of red hair near the top made him start, and he saw Natasha running for the edge. “No…” he breathed, even though he knew it had to be that way, he wanted to step out from the shadow and shout for her to stop. It was just as well he had a lump in his throat, choking him, because he wasn’t sure that his own will could’ve stopped him.

Just as he was sure she was about to fall over the edge, she was knocked to the side, and Clint stepped up. He must’ve fired some kind of arrow, tangled her ankles, because now he was bolting to the precipice.

They struggled, each fighting for the other’s life. One moment, Clint had the advantage; the next, Natasha did. Again and again they battled, tides changing, inching closer and closer to the edge as they fought, and Steve almost lurched forwards and cried out—they were both going to fall, they were both going to fall—when they pitched over the edge, and were sent tumbling down to their deaths.

His heart stopped, but he’d barely had time to react when they were both yanked to a half about twenty feet down the side of the cliff. Clint was further up, and it seemed he’d had a grappling line. Clinging to his wrist—or, more accurately, being held up by his hand—was Natasha, dangling beneath him.

For several long seconds, they hung there. They were talking, Steve realised. Natasha was pleading with Clint to let her go. To let her fall. To let her die.

There was a beat, and suddenly Natasha pushed off against the cliff-face like she was abseiling, ripping her arm from Clint’s grip, and she fell, hair bright and fluttering, noticeable even from a distance, towards the ground.

He’d told himself he would watch. He would watch his friend die, watch her make that sacrifice. But in the end, he couldn’t. And as Clint screamed her name, Steve squeezed his eyes shut, tears burning, and sobbed.

She was gone. She was dead. All for the hateful piece of rock in his briefcase.

By the time Steve opened his eyes again, Clint somehow had made his way back to the top of the cliff, and a few minutes later, there was a flash of light as he returned to their time with the Soul stone.

Without Natasha.

His feet felt heavy and leaden as he trudged up to the cliff. The gravity of Voromir wasn’t really any different to Earth’s—certainly not enough to be noticeable to a super-soldier like him. But it wasn’t the gravity that was the problem.

Reaching the top of the cliff, Schmidt was there again.

“Are you going to take it now?” Steve asked bitterly. Schmidt shook his head, and one hand emerged from the ghostly depths of his cloak, gesturing to the edge of the cliff.

Cast it over. Back to where it belongs,” he instructed. Honestly, Steve was happy to do that, setting down Mjolnir and the briefcase, grabbing the stone, and marching up to the edge of the cliff.

Don’t look down, he thought. Not because he was scared of heights, because he wasn’t. Don’t look down. Don’t look at her. Don’t—

He looked down.

And there, lying on her back, hair stained scarlet with blood, eyes wide and unseeing—

No,” he whispered, and his legs gave out beneath him, and he crumpled to his knees on the edge, staring at her, horrified. It was too far down for Clint to have seen her properly, but his eyesight was perfect, and he could see every harrowing detail. She’d broken her wrist on the fall, and it hung at an odd angle. Strands of hair had come free from the braid, lying haphazardly across her face. He wanted to reach down and brush them away, to pick her up and cradle her broken body in his arms.

“It should’ve been me.” His voice was guttural, his jaw clenched so tight he might break a tooth. “I’m so sorry, Nat. It should’ve been me.”

He sat back on his heels and gazed up at the sky, the two colossal monoliths reaching up the scrape the heavens. The snow had stopped, though the air was still frigid with cold, and he shivered as tears rolled down his face. Squeezing his eyes shut again, he bowed his head, gritting his teeth to stop himself from crying out.

I let you die, he thought. I trusted you to save my life, and I couldn’t save yours. He knew how much the victory had meant to everyone, how incredible it’d been that they’d succeeded, but without the woman who had become his partner, his best friend, it all felt a little hollow.

The tears streaked through the dirt on his face, and he grunted as he tried to hold them back, swallow the cries of pain. People could die of heartbreak, he knew that was true. Losing someone was physically painful. He’d known loss before, of course he had, but this was something altogether different. Maybe because she’d thrown herself from this ledge willingly. Maybe because her broken body lay abandoned, at such an odd angle, such a wrong angle.

Maybe it was simply because it was Natasha. And he could no longer remember a time where she hadn’t been at his side.

He fingers dug into the dirt as he clenched his fists and forced himself to stand upright. Turning to face away from the precipice, he saw Schmidt. He held out a hand, and sat in his palm, a glittering orange gemstone.

“Take it,” he grit out through a clenched jaw. “Take it back.”

You are sure you do not want to keep it?” Schmidt asked. “You could do great things with that kind of power.”

“I don’t want to do great things,” Steve half-snarled. “I’ve done great things before. It’s cost me everyone I love, at some point or another. I’m sick of great things. Take it back.”

With a resigned sigh, Schmidt gestured behind Steve. “It must be returned in the same manner it was gained,” he said.

Barely pausing, Steve turned, and in one smooth motion drew his arm back and threw it high into the air. He watched it arc through the purple sky, glittering like a falling star, until it was so far away that even his eyes couldn’t see it.

He wished it would shatter on impact. He wished he could destroy it forever.

“A soul for a soul,” he muttered. That thing hadn’t been a soul.


He was underwater.

That was the first thing he registered, that and the terror; the blinding fear that he was underwater, with no way to breathe, and there was only water around him. So cold, so fathomless. Was he back in the ice? Had that all been a dream? His lungs were strong, stronger than most people’s, but he was suffocating. How long since he’d last drawn breath? How long, how—

Above him, he saw a sky. Without thinking he pushed upwards and with a dry gasp drew in a lungful of cold air. He wasn’t underwater. He was sat in a shallow pool.

Shuddering, his mind scrambled from both the sudden onset of the fear and it’s equally sudden vanishing, it took him several moments to realise he held something in his hand. He raised his arm out of the water, dreading to see that orange gemstone in his palm again, but instead he was holding someone’s hand.

A black glove. Accents of white and red. And he jumped when out of the water beside him, gasping for air, wide-eyed, sat Natasha.

He gaped at her. For several long moments he couldn’t quite form words, until he managed a strangled, “…Nat?

She turned to him suddenly, eyes quick and darting, looking stunned and confused and wary. “Steve?” she whispered. That was what did it for him, made him realise that whatever was happening, whatever was going on, this was Natasha and she was alive. He couldn’t say who moved first, but the next thing he knew they were clinging to one another in the water, fingers digging into each other’s shoulders, because surely if they relaxed their grip, if they let go, they would slip apart, never to be reunited again.

Steve…” Natasha muttered into his shoulder. She wasn’t crying, but she was coming damn close. Maybe she was simply too stunned to cry. Too shell-shocked. “Oh my god… Steve…”

When they finally felt sure enough to part, they found themselves standing on the cliff, several feet away from the edge. Steve gripped Natasha’s hand so tight he momentarily worried he might crush her fingers. Not that he was scared she would jump again, but that she would fall. Natasha, the ballerina with perfect balance and utter grace, the assassin who had trained her body into a meticulous weapon that only ever did exactly what she wanted it to. And he was afraid she would fall from all this distance away.

Natasha gazed at the edge of the cliff. She’d thrown herself off it’s edge. Died. She had died and come back.

“You… you okay…?” Steve asked hoarsely. She turned to him, holding his hand tightly. His grip was so tight it hurt, but she didn’t care. It meant she could feel. It meant she was alive.

Shakily, she nodded. “What—?” She said the first word but had no idea how to finish the question. A million burned in her mind and yet none would allow themselves to be formed into words. What she eventually managed to ask was achingly broad. “I… What happened?”

“We won,” he said simply. He wanted to raise a hand and stroke her cheek. We won, but it didn’t really feel like it until right now. Until he’d had his friend back.

The thought dawned on them both at the same time, but it was Steve who voiced it.

“A soul for a soul goes both ways…”


It could well have been hours that they stood there, holding each other’s hands, gazing out across the vast, barren stone before them. The snow still fell, but he didn’t feel nearly as cold anymore, and small flakes settled in his mussed hair, in Natasha’s braid. Something about this place slowed the mind, made it easier for your thoughts to wander, to zone out and drift away like a snowflake in the breeze.

His voice sounded not quite his own when he finally said, “We should get going.”

“We should.” Natasha sounded almost herself. Not quite back to her reticent, no-nonsense demeanour, but close. To her, there was still work to be done.

“Five days from when we left,” Steve then told her. “That’s where—when—I came from. Tony’s… lakehouse.” His voice hitched both on the mention of his fallen friend, and a momentary confusion on what to call that thing. ‘Lakehouse’ sounded far too quaint for the likes of Tony Stark, but it was hardly a manor, or Stark Tower.

But Natasha shook her head. She stepped forwards, putting her hands on his chest, and the contact startled him enough to make him look at her. “I have somewhere I need to go, first,” she said. He blinked down at her.

“You—what?” He flailed for a moment, confused, before adding, “O-okay, fine. Where do we need to—”

“No,” she cut him off. “No, Steve, where—when—I’m going… You can’t follow. This isn’t a ‘we’ thing.”

“Why not?” he asked, the desperation in his voice palpable.

“You’ll understand,” she replied, pushing herself up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. Her smile was warm and sure. And what would have been against his better judgement five years ago, he decided not to ask. He trusted her. He’d trusted her for more than nine years.

“Wait for me there,” she murmured, and dropped his hand. It felt wrong, not to have her hand in his, now. It felt like he was letting her go all over again. Watching her die.

But, before he could protest, she’d stepped back and vanished; shrunk to the size of a quark, hurtling through time. For a long moment, he stared at the place where she had stood. Then he, too, activated his wrist device, and vanished in the blink of an eye.


“You thought you could defeat me?” snarled the Mad Titan, as he raised his hand high. “I am inevitable!

“Oh, yeah?” scoffed Tony, glaring up at the would-be god with the confidence of a man who knew exactly how this would end, the conviction of one who would see that ending play out. He raised his own hand, and on his knuckled glittered the Infinity Stones. “I am Iron Man.

He made to click his fingers, but suddenly someone was standing at his side. Stunned, shocked, he turned, and with one hand brace on his shoulder, the other on his Gauntlet, stopping him from snapping his fingers— “Natasha?

Natasha took her hand away from his Gauntlet, freeing his fingers to snap if he chose. She smiled, then, keeping her hand on Tony’s shoulder, turned to Thanos. Rage burned in her eyes. Rage and defiance. She had seen the world in danger, and she had saved it—they all had. But never had they let it fall. And they never would. “I am Black Widow.”

She stood, hand on Tony’s shoulder, glaring defiantly at Thanos. Because he had taken half of the universe and almost everything she’d loved—everything everyone had loved, and he had to pay. Because she was an Avenger, and so was Tony, and they would avenge the fallen. That was the inevitability.

A burst of light slammed into the ground on Tony’s other side, and another hand gripped his shoulder. A supernova burned inside her as she glared at Thanos. “I am Captain Marvel.”

Peter scrambled over the piles of rubble, his enhanced senses being the only things stopping him from face-planting into the ground. He put a hand on Tony’s arm. “I am Spider-Man.”

Just behind him, Rhodey landed, and there was a clank! as he clapped Tony on the back, heavy but sure. “I am War Machine.”

A tentative grip closed around his wrist. Part machine, part flesh. Hatred and retribution glittered in black eyes. “I am Nebula.”

Lightning skittered across the sky, and a heavy hand landed on Nebula’s shoulder. Eyes glowed white, crackling with energy as they gazed upon the Mad Titan and found him not worthy. “I am Thor.”

“I am Dr Strange.”

“I am the Black Panther.”

“I am Hawkeye.”

One by one, they rose. They climbed over the rubble, knocking aside Thanos’ army—he’d decimated it to escape Wanda, they were easy pickings, now. Without the stones, he was powerless to do anything but watch as the Avengers assembled. A long chain of hands on shoulders, fingers intertwined, arms looped around necks. The power of the Infinity Stones split across ten, twenty, thirty.

Finally, it was the glitter of a shield that caught Tony and Natasha’s eyes; the edge ragged and broken. Surprise and confusion registered on Steve’s face, but all he said as he reached out and clapped his hand on her shoulder was, “I am Captain America.”

Tony looked at Thanos. He raised his hand, the stones shining brighter than they ever had when just one man had commanded them. Thanos had been powerful, once, but he was one man. One deluded man who slaughtered and called it mercy, who tormented and called it justice, who threw a woman off a cliff and dared—dared—to say he loved her, that she was his daughter. A smirk crawled up on Tony’s face, proud and scornful.

“And we…. are the Avengers.”

Snap!


“Ohh, no!” Bruce exclaimed, rapidly becoming more panicked. “He’s—he’s missed his window!” He lurched for the control pad, frantically pressing buttons and typing in override codes.

“What?” Sam asked, trying to remain calm, but concern stained his voice. “What does that mean? Is he still coming back, is he—”

FZZT!

“Steve!” Bruce and Sam chorused, and he barely had time to step off the pad before they pulled him into a hug. “We were worried for a sec!” Sam exclaimed. “What took you so long?”

“A soul for a soul,” Steve managed, still so flabbergasted he couldn’t really speak. “I… I returned the Soul stone and—Natasha, she…”

“Hey, sailor.” A voice behind him made him turn, and he saw Natasha walking over to him, her hair set in curls, her clothing civilian, her smile radiant.

…Nat…” he gasped. She’d told him it would be fine, assured him all would be well, but some part of him couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been giving him sweet lies. Even as they’d sworn to always be honest to one another, it was a relief—no, that word was paltry; it was a deliverance—to see her standing there.

Without another word, he scrambled off the pad and rushed to hug her, surely crushing her in his embrace, but neither cared. She seemed so small in his arms, unbelievably strong but still so small, her head only level with his shoulder, her arms around his torso, squeezing tight.

Eventually, he released her, but one hand lingered on her arm before he forced himself to drop it. “You’re alright…” he murmured, still gazing at her like he couldn’t quite believe she was real. “But… how?”

“You saved me, remember?” she prompted. “A soul for a soul.” She smiled at him, eyes sparkling with a warmth and hope that for the longest time they’d both thought was gone forever.

Steve’s gaze then wandered to the others, who didn’t seem at all shocked to see Natasha standing there, literally back from the dead. Natasha caught his gaze and patted his shoulder, half soothing, half teasing. “I caught them all up, don’t worry.” She paused. “Your memories should catch up, too. Give it a few hours.”

“Catch up?” he echoed, “About what? What happened?”

“Give your mind time to adjust, Steve,” Bruce said gently. “Your memories are still in the old timeline.”

“Natasha time-travelled to the final battle against 2014 Thanos,” Sam told him. “You remember that?”

“Mm… no. Not… not yet,” Steve muttered, still staring at her.

“You don’t? Damn,” Sam grinned. “Shit was epic. Like something out of a movie.”

Bucky snorted. “Our whole lives are something out of a movie,” he said, “We’re goddamn superheroes.”

“Wait…” Steve said slowly. “I think… I think I do remember…” He frowned, eyes narrowing as he thought, but he didn’t tear his gaze from Natasha. It was almost as though he thought she would vanish again, forever, if he took his eyes off of her. “You… you split the stones,” he said softly, “You divided their power. How did you… How did you know to do that?”

Natasha looked around at them all, seeming genuinely startled. “Seriously?” she asked. “None of you thought of…?” She broke off and shook her head. “Honestly. You guys really would be lost without me.” She sighed. “I got the idea from Rocket, when he was telling me about the Power Stone, where and when we’d need to go to get it. He said that Quill was holding it, but he was also holding hands with Gamora and the others. I figured, if you have enough people, why not split the power of all six stones?”

“And then someone doesn’t need to die a heroically sacrificial death,” crowed another voice, and behind her Tony was walking down from the lakehouse in tinted sunglasses and a grin more radiant than Steve had ever seen—with the exceptions of Tony and Pepper’s wedding, and the card they’d been sent announcing Morgan’s birth.

Tony saw Steve’s gaping expression and snorted. “Don’t tell me,” he said, “In your original timeline, I die?”

“It was heroically sacrificial,” Steve replied lightly. Tony laughed and pulled him into a hug. Steve’s movements were awkward, and it was a delay before he raised his arms to hug Tony back, but when he did, the embrace was warm and firm. This time, they both reckoned, the friendship would stick.

“I’m Iron Man,” Tony said, “I started this whole Avengers thing. No way I’m dying before you, old man.”

Steve frowned. “I thought I started it,” he said, “I was the first Avenger.”

“If you boys are splitting hairs, it was Carol who started the Avengers,” Natasha interjected, folding her arms. “It was her nickname, after all.”

Steve, Tony, Bruce, Sam and Bucky—who had so far remained his normal quiet self—all stared at her. “Marvel? What?” Sam managed. Natasha shook her head.

“Utterly lost without me,” she muttered. Her gaze fell on Steve, and she smiled. “C’mon,” she said, “Let’s get you cleaned up.”


A while later, fed, showered and in a set of clean clothes, Steve sat on a bench overlooking the lake, Sam and Bucky either side of him. In his lap, his repaired shield; courtesy of Wakanda’s supply of vibranium, T’Challa’s gracious generosity, and Tony’s engineering genius.

“You sure?” Sam asked, looking apprehensive. Steve nodded. “And you?” Sam looked to Bucky, who smiled.

“I was always a better sniper than a frisbee player,” he replied.

Swallowing, Sam took the shield, stood up, and slipped it onto his arm. He swung his arm around, testing the balance, the weight. It was, of course, perfect.

“How does it feel?” Steve prompted. Sam gazed at the pristine metal, forlorn.

“Like someone else’s,” he admitted glumly, looking at Steve with hesitance in his eyes. Steve’s smile was warm and sure.

“It’s not,” he said. “That shield, there?” he pointed to it to emphasise. “That is the property of Captain America. Which means its yours. If you’ll have it,” he added with a shrug.

Shakily, Sam’s face split into a grin. He looked at Bucky. “Does that make you my sidekick now, Tin Man?” he asked.

Bucky scowled. “I ain’t nobody’s sidekick, bird-brain,” he said grouchily, but he was smiling. The world would always need Captain America, he thought. It can have Captain America. But Steve Rogers? Steve Rogers was his best friend, his brother. And he deserved some goddamn peace.

A small distance away, a little further out from the house, Steve stood on the lakeshore and watched the water ripple in the sunset. His mind was racing with all that had happened. As Avengers, they lived pretty crazy lives, but this was really taking the cake. His memories would catch up soon, but he already had fuzzy recollections of the battle as the others remembered it.

I am Captain America.

And we… are the Avengers.

It was strange, having two memories in his head. The same event twice, but different. He doubted he’d ever get used to it, and Bruce had admitted that he didn’t know if the ‘obsolete’ memories would fade. Only time would tell.

As Bucky and Sam bickered about shields and sidekicks, Natasha came over to him then, at his side with her hands clasped in front of her like she was a SHIELD agent awaiting orders, and looked out across the lake. For a moment, he was in another place, at another time. Natasha was still by his side, but instead they were looking out to a sky, a world far below. It had been a comfort then and was a comfort now, to have her as his right hand. Sam on his left, Natasha on his right, Bucky at his back. That was how it was meant to be.

They stood there in silence, listening to the water lap at the shore and Sam and Bucky’s faint quibbling, for several minutes. But at last, Natasha asked, “You sure? About giving up the shield?”

“Yeah,” he assured her, smiling as he looked out across the lake.

“Because I seem to remember a certain soldier friend of mine saying that he wasn’t cut out for the quiet, domestic life,” she shrugged. At once they were both transported to eight years ago. A quaint little farm with a quaint little family.

“We don’t always know what’s right for us at every second of our lives,” he replied, glancing at her pointedly. They both knew he wasn’t just referring to what he’d said, back then.

It was a testament to both his skill at reading her, and their longstanding friendship, that she actually dropped his gaze and blushed slightly. He almost wanted to whoop and call Bucky over to see—he’d made Black Widow blush—but he didn’t want to ruin the moment.

“I suppose we don’t,” she conceded. “So you… do want that life?”

“Not exactly that life,” he admitted. “When I was a punk kid, back in Brooklyn, there was always something stopping me from that. The war, me being sick, me being tiny. I never believed for a second I was gonna settle down and have a family. And honestly? Some part of me never wanted to. The kids, the white picket fence… that’s not me.”

“Always, a fighter, huh?” she teased, nudging his arm. He chuckled softly.

“I guess.”

“So…” she dragged out the word, “What d’you want? To carry on being a hero?” she eyed Sam and Bucky at the other end of the lakeshore, admiring the repaired shield.

But Steve shook his head. “The world will always need Captain America,” he told her. “And the world will always need the Avengers. But… I think—I know—I’ll always wanna be a part of that. If only because they—you—are my family, here.” He was suddenly reminded of a meeting on the lakeshore. Do we know if she had family? Yeah: us. and tears threatened to overcome him for a moment. “I’ll always be an Avenger. I’ll always want to help people.”

“Some people move on,” she murmured.

“But not us,” he agreed. The words were heavier than the simple joke they seemed. He had come back for her, seen her dead and dying and said no, casting the stone out into oblivion. Not us. Not me. “But I think it’s time—for a lotta reasons—that I pass that mantle on,” he continued, “I haven’t had a chance to be Steve Rogers yet—not here, anyway.”

“You want to discover who Steve Rogers is,” Natasha realised, nodding. “I can understand that. Had to do some of that myself, after the Red Room.”

He turned to smile at her, impish. “So that means you have experience in finding yourself?” he asked, “Would you be willing to be my teacher again?”

She folded her arms and leant back slightly to smirk up at him, appraising him. “You’d want me coming along?” she asked, “Tends to be a pretty solitary thing, finding yourself.”

He shrugged. “Dunno. I’ve been solitary for a pretty long time. Kinda sick of it. I think I’d like some consistent company, y’know?”

Yet another memory. An empty church amid an ocean of uncertainties, the calm before a storm they’d all only half-understood the magnitude of. I didn’t want you to be alone.

She gave a slow nod. “I can understand that,” she agreed. A smile touched the corner of her mouth. “I’d like to do some travelling again, anyway. Haven’t done that since before SHIELD fell. And it’d be nice to pick my own destinations this time.”

Steve grinned down at her. “Wanna go fight a terrorist cell in Hawaii?” he suggested.

“How about a human trafficking ring in the Caribbean?” she offered.

“Oh, I know! A drug empire in Australia.” At that, Natasha gave a loud snort.

“I did that in 2011,” she told him, “It was one of my last missions before Fury called me in to vet Stark for the Avengers Initiative.”

“You know, I don’t think you or Tony ever told me the full story about that,” Steve remarked thoughtfully.

“I don’t think we ever did, no,” Natasha agreed. “He may have sworn me to secrecy on a few details,” she added.

Steve smirked. “You’re a spy, your job is telling people’s secrets,” he said.

“I’m a hero. My job is saving people, including their secrets,” she countered, a defiant glitter in her eyes that made him blush.

“Well,” he said, forcing his voice steady, “Would you be interested in telling me that story—with or without those secrets—over a drink later tonight, Ms Romanoff?” he asked, offering her his arm like a true gentleman.

Natasha smirked up at him, and took the arm. “I’d be delighted to, Captain Rogers.”

“Ah-ah. Not a Captain anymore. It’s Mr Rogers.”

Natasha snorted so loudly he jumped, and stared at her. “I… don’t understand that reference?” he said hesitantly. Natasha nodded.

“I’ll explain it later,” she promised. “Whilst we’re stopping the Hawaiian terrorists.”

He nodded, chuckling. “Sounds like a plan.”

They both then turned to watch the lake, and the sun that was starting to set, casting orange and gold shafts of light across the rippling water, dappled white spots glittering. The world was whole again, their Avengers family included, and surely, Steve thought, things couldn’t get any more perfect.

For a long while, they stood, side by side as always, in comfortable silence, watching the sky go from blue to orange, to pink, and eventually a darkening purple. Solar-powered lights were strung up all over the lakehouse and the surrounding land, and it was as though a cloud of fireflies was hovering around them.

The silence was calm and soothing, gently broken when Natasha murmured, “You know, when Scott started talking about time-travel… if you’d… go back. To Peggy. To your life.”

Steve turned to look at her slowly, one eyebrow raised. “My life?” he echoed.

“Yeah,” she shrugged, still gazing out across the lake, now reflecting the emerging stars and a silver- crescent moon. “In ’45. Your life.”

He chuckled, shaking his head. “Nat,” he said softly, “My life is here. Now. You are my life—you guys,” he added quickly. Then, he thought, no, and reached out for her hand. “You are my life,” he repeated. “You’ve been my life for five years, at least. Probably more—at least nine.”

She looked down at their joined hands, then up at him, amused but wary. “We weren’t even really friends nine years ago,” she said.

“We were mission partners,” he told her. “Even if I didn’t really realise it, yet, I trusted you with my life. And we did always work well together.” He flashed her a hint of that sweet, charming smile that even now he didn’t really realise how powerful it was. Big blue eyes, mussed blond hair. Utterly sweet and giving.

Of course. Of course she’d fallen in love with him. She just hadn’t had the guts to admit it—or, maybe, she’d had the sense to try and ignore it. The world had been falling apart, after all. One crisis after another. And after the Snap… it almost hadn’t seemed right. There was no real word for what they had been to one another in the past half-decade. The level of support they had provided for one another. The level of trust. More than friends, but not lovers.

“We did,” she agreed softly. “Do you remember Sokovia?”

There’s worse ways to go,” he quoted at her.

“And where else am I gonna get a view like this?” she agreed, looking out across the lake. “I think that was the moment I realised… what it truly means to be a hero. First time I really felt like a hero.”

“You were always a hero, Nat,” he said quietly, “The first person you saved was yourself.”

“You were, too,” she said. “You might not know much about twenty-first-century Steve Rogers, but I think we can both agree, he’s a hero.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he joked, giving her hand an affectionate squeeze, quietly very relieved she hadn’t pulled her hand away, or relaxed her grip.

Natasha then dropped his hand, instead curling her hands around his bicep and leaning so her head was on his shoulder. They watched the sunset over the lake, water shimmering as if made of diamonds.

“I never believed this was possible,” she murmured.

“I know what you mean,” he agreed. “The last five years—”

“No, not that,” she cut across, her voice soft. “Well. That, too, I suppose. But I meant… this. A family. Clint, Laura, the kids. The Avengers. …you.”

He turned away from the lake to gaze down at her, his smile so gentle. “When I woke up… I thought my life was over. I thought I’d never have what I had back then. I’d lost Bucky, Peggy, the Commandos… But here I am. Here we are.” He’d actually gotten Bucky back; his brother, his best friend. He’d stolen those precious moments with Peggy, hearing of the wonderful life she’d made for herself, all her incredible work. He’d found a new family in the Avengers, his new Howling Commandos.

And maybe, just maybe, he’d found himself the right partner.

They’d turned away from the lake, now, standing before each other with the light of the water dappling the right side of Natasha’s face, the left side of Steve’s. Sunlight was warm on his cheek, shimmering red and gold in her hair. With a jolt he realised that this was exactly where, almost five years ago, Pepper and Tony had stood when they’d exchanged their vows. A rare bright spot in a half-decade of devastation and darkness.

Natasha had been his ‘date’ to that affair, insofar as they’d been living together at the Avengers Compound, been working together, still both so fiercely in denial that they had lost. It had been a long, difficult journey to accepting what had happened, but neither of them had ever given up. We lost, but we’ll avenge them. We lost, but we’re not defeated.

They’d managed to dance on that day. A little, but even though everyone had been so happy to see Tony and Pepper finally tying the knot, it had been bittersweet. So many empty chairs.

He and Natasha had never danced together before that day, but they’d been good partners. He’d never been much of a dancer, either without the time to practice or a willing partner, but the serum combined with years of combat and espionage training had moulded his body into an instrument that understood grace, rhythm and balance. He was innately a good dancer, and Natasha, well. She’d been trained as a spy and a ballerina since literally before she could remember. To see her dance was no small thing. To dance with her—to have her consent to you touching her, to decide your skills are sufficient to keep pace with her, to feel the fluidity of her body in such proximity, the grace and strength—was nothing short of an honour.

This was also the same spot where, last time he’d been here, Tony’s memorial had stood. But it stood here no longer, again thanks to Natasha. But what Steve remembered most was that they’d danced on this spot. Mission partners turned dance partners turned quite simply partners. Because that was the word that fit her best. His partner, in every sense of the word.

Well… almost every sense.

“I didn’t know returning the stone would bring you back,” he told her, “I was planning to…” He trailed off, because this moment was so perfect, he didn’t want to ruin in with sad, grim words.

“I know what you were planning, Steve,” she said quietly. He blinked at her, eyes widening. She continued, “I did the same thing, for Clint. And he was going to do the same for me. I know that look in someone’s eye.” She paused, and he knew what she was thinking. She’d never believed in her life that she would be so willing to die for someone, or that someone would be so willing to die for her.

“In a heartbeat,” he swore, raising a hand and gently brushing the backs of his fingers down her cheek, like he’d been aching to do since he found her. Her eyes fluttered closed at the touch—just for a moment, and she sighed, leaning ever so slightly into the touch.

Nine years prior, a million miles away and a million lifetimes ago, they had sworn to one another that they trusted each other, and had become true partners. Now, he realised that with everything else between them; the easy banter, the subtle tells, the deep understanding they shared; this was the natural progression of things. He didn’t know anyone else who knew him like Natasha did. Bucky, perhaps, but Bucky knew best the boy he’d been before the ice, just as he’d known Bucky better before he’d fallen from that train in the Alps. They knew the boys better than the men, forged in fire and ice.

“So… Hawaii?” he asked, voice low and husky, and his eyes darted down, breaking her gaze to glance at her mouth.

“Hawaii,” she whispered, giving a small nod and staring intently at his lips. She put a hand to his chest, feeling the heartbeat he swore by. The strong, steady rhythm, as unwavering as the man it belonged to.

Natasha… she knew everything there was to know about him. Countless dark nights, recounting stories of their lives before, to stave off the nightmares of ‘now’. Trying and failing to hide tears, trembling hands, wavering hope.

She tilted her head up at the same moment he ducked down, and at the first gentle brush of lips it was like a fizzle of static electricity passing between them. Barely a kiss, barely a breath, the lightest of touches. Then Natasha pushed herself up on tiptoes, raising her arms to catch his neck like she had on the escalator all those years ago, bracketing his face in her hands and pressing her lips to his, only this time it wasn’t for show.

Steve responded at once, eagerly, leaning down further and wrapping his arms around her waist, her shoulders, pulling her tight against him, leaning over, curving towards her as she curved into him, a perfect fit—so perfect it was bizarre they’d never noticed it before.

Or maybe they had, but they’d been too afraid to acknowledge it. To disrupt what they’d had, to risk it, in the wake of all they had already lost, to lose one another would have broken them entirely.

His lips were softer than she could ever have imagined, slightly chapped from the cold and the way he bit them when he was stressed. Pliant against her, she looped her arms around his neck, running her fingers through the short hair at the base of his skull, and then they pulled away.

For several seconds, they just looked at one another, smiles hinting at the corners of their mouths as they gazed up at each other. Without saying a word, they knew there was no going back, and that they didn’t want to, anyway. It was a new world, now. Fresh and hopeful, their family tired but whole. They had been by each other’s side in the past and they would continue to be in the future, however long the other would have them. Steve smiled to himself. Peggy, he reckoned, would be proud he’d found the right partner, after swatting him over the head for taking so long.

Took you long enough!” crowed a voice, and they both turned to see Sam laughing. Beside him, Bucky was grinning, nodding proudly as his friends.

“You’re one to talk about being slow, Sam,” Natasha shot back, but she was laughing, and still had her arms around Steve’s neck, and he still had his hands on her hips. As she laughed, she tucked her head into his chest, shoulders shaking. They were both so giddy—from the events of the past few days, past few hours, past few seconds, it was no wonder even the Black Widow was laughing.

Seeing Bucky and Sam catcalling them, a memory bubbled up to the surface of Steve’s mind, and he looked down at her, trying to smirk, but smiling too much to really manage it. “Cut him some slack,” he implored, “Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.”

Chapter Text

The wind whistled around them, whipping through his hair, snowflakes settling in the bright gold. His face was stony, muscles twitching in his jaw, eyes shining with tears as he knelt on the edge and gazed down into the abyss below.

“Nat…” he croaked. “I… I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She shouldn’t have died here. Falling through the air, only to be left cold and broken at the bottom. She shouldn’t have died alone, not knowing if their plan would succeed.

“We won, Nat,” he whispered, “We did it. We saved them, all of them. Laura… and-and the kids. Wanda, Peter. Bucky. They’re all alive, they’re safe. Because of you.”

Captain Rogers…” hissed a voice behind him, and he turned sharply to glare at the creature behind him. He didn’t need to shout, or curse, or threaten. One glare from those blue eyes, so capable of kindness but now cold an unforgiving as ice, silenced Johann Schmidt.

“You deserve better than this, Nat,” he murmured, looking back down over the edge. “I was in a bad place when I came out of the ice. And for a long time I thought I was alone. But you…” He broke off, swallowed. “You were my best friend.”

He rose to his feet and looked down at the glittering gemstone in his palm. Disgust rose inside him, and he planted his feet, winding his arm back and pitching it over the end as hard as he could, as far away as possible. He wished he could believe it would shatter on impact, destroyed so no one else could ever do any harm ever again. He knew it wouldn’t.

Shaking his head, no longer trying to hold back the tears, he turned away from the edge, and the world went up in a flash of white.

The next thing he knew, he was sitting up in a pool of water. The sky was purple and though he was submerged, he was perfectly dry. He looked around, confused—where was he? Was this the world of the soul stone?

Something heavy was in his hand. He looked down, expecting—dreading—the stone. Was this the curse of whoever returned it? Another soul to pay that price? But no—he was holding someone’s hand.

With a sharp, dry gasp, sudden enough to make him jump, Natasha sat up out of the water.

Steve gaped as she looked around wildly, confused and disorientated. For a few moments, he had lost the ability to speak—to think. Natasha was sitting next to him, alive. Natasha.

She soon noticed the man beside her, the grip on her hand, and turned to him. Then, she, too, was staring, stiff with shock. “S… Steve?” she murmured.

“I’m here,” he managed, awkwardly raising his other hand to grip her shoulder, the movement jerking and uneven, like he didn’t have full control of his muscles. “It’s me. I—I’m here, Nat. I’m here.”

“Oh my god…” she whispered, and then suddenly she was moving quickly, putting her shaking hands on his shoulders, his arms, his face, as if some part of him wasn’t solid, and her fingers would pass right through, and when they did she would return to that blackness, of which she remembered less and less with each passing second. “Oh my god…

“It’s okay, Nat,” he promised her, pulling her into a hug, so tight he might crush her. But she didn’t protest, instead clinging to him, numb with disbelief. “It’s okay.”

He closed his eyes for just a moment, just content in that he had her at his side, and when he opened them they were both standing on top of the cliff, still hugging one another, standing right on the edge.

As soon as he noticed this, he pulled her back, pulled her far away, because the idea of her falling over—as if she, the trained ballerina and superspy would simply fall; as if he, the supersoldier with lightning fast reflexes wouldn’t catch her—was too much to bear.

“But… how?” he mumbled, looking down at her, hands braced on her shoulders—because surely, if he stopped touching her, if he let go, she would become a ghost and fade away forever.

“A soul for a soul,” she answered, “I guess… I guess it goes both ways.”


“Ohh, no!” Bruce exclaimed, rapidly becoming more panicked. “He’s—he’s missed his window!” He lurched for the control pad, frantically pressing buttons and typing in override codes.

“What?” Sam asked, trying to remain calm, but concern stained his voice. “What does that mean? Is he still coming back, is he—”

FZZT!

The delighted cries of “Steve!” died on their lips as they stared at what had arrived on the timetravel pad. In his hand, he held not Mjolnir, nor the briefcase with the stones. No, standing at his side, looking exhausted and shaken but very much alive…

“Natasha?” Sam was the first one to regain his voice as he stared at her, and her face broke into a grin as she stepped off the pad and pulled him into a hug.

“It’s good to see you,” she told him. “I’m so sorry—”

“Don’t apologise,” he told her sternly, “What you did? To get us back?” He pulled away and grinned at her. “It’s good to have you back,” he insisted. He glanced at Steve and Bucky, who were hugging tightly, relieved it had gone according to plan.

“It’s good to be back,” Natasha replied, and she raised an eyebrow. “What’d I miss? Besides you lot saving the universe?”

She looked between them, her teammates. Bruce, Sam, Scott, Barnes and Steve. All of them looking ill; apologetic, almost. It took her only a moment to piece it all together, to note the conspicuous absence of their greatest mind.

“He was Earth’s mightiest hero,” she murmured, remembering the suave, conceited young man she’d met all those years ago. Remembering how it had been such a blatant façade for something more broken and beaten down than even he himself had cared to admit. Remembering how, even then, he’d been so weighed down with guilt—something she could relate to—that he would do anything to help those who needed help. Even if it meant dying.

Another thing they had in common, she supposed.

“He asked…” Bruce started, then swallowed. “He asked what family you had, who we’d need to notify.”

“You told him it was you guys, right?” she asked. Bruce nodded.

A while later, once Pepper had stopped staring and little Morgan had stopped screaming “AUNTIE NAT!” and a tearful conversation had been had over the phone to Clint and Laura and the others—who were currently on their way to the lakehouse—Natasha stood at the shore beside Bucky, both staring out over the water, a silent remembrance to their fallen friend.

The silence was calm and comfortable, but things needed to be said. She swallowed, composing herself, because so few people had ever been able to shake her to her core. It had always either been her most feared enemies or her most beloved friends. The man at her side had somehow managed to be both, once upon a time.

“I’m glad you’re alright, Barnes,” she said calmly. He turned away from the lake to eye her, and a warm smile spread across his face.

“My memory’s still a little fuzzy in places,” he admitted, “But I always thought you called me ‘James’.”

The surprised laugh stole itself out of her mouth so much that she clapped a hand to her face to stifle it. He chuckled, smiling at her, and gave a one armed hug. She turned away from the water just enough to hug him back. “I’m sorry it took me this long to recognise you, Natalia.”

“I’m sorry for choking you out with my legs,” she shrugged, looking back at the lake. A wry smile curled her lip. “Call it even?”

He chuckled. “Deal.”


Sam watched as Barnes chatted with Natasha—somehow, they knew each other. He’d never gotten the full story from either of them, not really having had much opportunity to talk to Barnes, and not ever getting as close to Natasha as Steve had. He was certainly a good friend of hers, but he had yet to unlock her tragic backstory.

Steve watched them, too, amused. “Never would’ve thought two of my best friends would already know each other,” he remarked.

“Small world,” Sam shrugged. He looked Steve up and down, how he was wearing civilian clothes, now. “You gonna take a sabbatical, then?”

“Retirement, actually,” Steve corrected. “I feel like one-hundred-and-two is a good age to stop. Wanna save my golden years for me, y’know?”

Sam snorted. “Platinum years, more like,” he replied. “I guess the world doesn’t need Captain America anymore, huh?”

Steve shook his head. “The world will always need Captain America,” he replied, “They just don’t need Steve Rogers anymore.” He pulled out a pair of tiny discs from his pocket. One, Sam recognised as one of Scott’s size-changing thingies. The other looked to be a tiny black speck.

A second later, Steve was holding a large, black, circular bag. “I had some free time between getting Nat and coming here,” he said, and Sam had to roll his eyes at the joke. Steve could’ve had all the time he wanted—he could’ve grown old and come back here as a man in his physical nineties.

“So, what? You went hat shopping?”

Steve rolled his eyes, handing the bag to Sam. “I went through a lotta trouble getting this damn thing fixed,” he said, mock-sternly. “Had to go all the way to Africa.”

Curious, Sam opened the bag, and when his eyes fell upon the smooth, perfect surface of Steve’s shield, he sucked in a breath. “Oh my god,” he murmured, gently placing a hand on the cool, smooth metal, fingers splayed over the iconic silver star. “Looks good as new.”

“Glad you think so,” Steve remarked. “It’s yours.”

Sam looked up, staring. “What?”

“That shield belongs to Captain America,” Steve told him. “So, it’s yours. If you’ll have it.”

“But—but I—” Sam looked from Steve, to the shield, to Bucky, then back to the shield again. “I’m not—I don’t—” He swallowed. “Oh my god…” At a loss for anything else to do, he stood up, and saluted his Captain.

Steve laughed, shook his head, then saluted back. “You outrank me now, Captain,” he said, then nodded to the shield. “Why don’t you try it on for size?”

Sam looked from Steve to the shield, then nodded, still disbelieving. Almost reverently, Sam slipped it onto his forearm, tightening the straps. He swung his arm a few times, feelings the balance, then nodded. “It fits… it fits perfectly.”

Steve smirked up at him. He’d always known it would fit, one day. It had only ever been a matter of time. Flashing them both blazing grins, Sam then chose that moment to duck out and leave the pair of them with some privacy, and show the others his new shield.

Watching him, Bucky asked, “So what’re you gonna do now?”

Steve shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Anything I want, I guess. It’s all over—for real, this time.” His eyes went to where Bucky was standing at the lakeside, next to Natasha. They didn’t seem to be talking, but they seemed at peace.

All of them, for once, were at peace.


“Oh my god, Nat!

The thrilled shriek of Laura Barton could be heard all over the farm as she practically jumped out of the car and sprinted across the driveway to pull her sister into a hug tight enough to rival Steve’s. Nat hadn’t cried this openly in front of people in years, but she cried now; relieved beyond words, giddy with joy, that Laura and the kids were safe and happy.

“I missed you guys so much,” she told them, hugging Cooper, Lila and Nathaniel, showering them with kisses. Scott, standing on the porch with some iced tea, gaped at the spectacle. That’s the Black Widow? he thought, now more terrified of her than ever.

“Steve, I…” Clint struggled to put into words how grateful he was, struggled more to keep the tears at bay. “I can’t begin to thank you. You don’t know how much I…”

“Blamed yourself?” Steve offered. Clint swallowed and nodded.

“I would’ve hated myself for the rest of my life if not for you,” he said quietly. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Steve told him, sincerely. “I haven’t known her as long as you, but…”

“You love her, too,” Clint nodded. He chuckled, wiping at his eyes. “If I could go back twenty years, tell the woman trying to garotte me that she’d end up with all this; brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews… I think she’d cap me in the head as a mercy.”

“You could,” Steve suggested, nodding towards the time-travel pad. Clint laughed.

“Thanks, but I think I’m done with time-travel for now,” he said.

“Me, too,” Steve replied. Clint raised an eyebrow.

“Really?” he asked. Steve nodded.

“It’s been, what? Eleven years since I came out of the ice? We’ve saved the world about ten times, the universe once, fought aliens and killer robots and gods… Call me sentimental, but… If doing all that doesn’t make you a family, what does?”

“Speaking of family,” Clint murmured, “Laura’s, uh…”

“Really?” Steve exclaimed, staring at him. “Already?

“Actually, it was before the snap,” Clint replied. “We went to the doctor, he says it’s all fine. Just like everyone else, it was like there was a five-year gap. We, uh…” He shrugged. “She reckons it’s gonna be a boy, but then we thought Nate was gonna be a girl—” He chuckled, and Steve did, too. “But we were thinking, if it’s alright with you… You’d be godfather?”

Steve blinked. “Me?”

“Why not?” Clint shrugged. “The kids love you.” That was true, Steve realised. Since he had gone on the run with Sam and Natasha, he’d often accompanied her on her visits to the Barton farm, and the kids had come to think of him as ‘Uncle Steve’.”

“Not to mention,” Clint went on, “You’re probably Coop’s favourite superhero—” There was a slight dryness to Clint’s tone that suggested it wasn’t wholly funny to him that his eldest son’s favourite superhero wasn’t Hawkeye. “—and… we were gonna talk to Pepper about calling him Anthony.”

Steve smiled. “I think she’d like that,” he replied. “But what if it’s a girl?”

Clint grinned. “Antoinette. Toni for short.”

“Toni Barton.” Steve tested the name in his mouth.

Clint shook his head. “Toni Stephanie Barton,” he corrected.

Steve gave a laugh, flattered and delighted. It felt good to laugh again; for so long there’d been far too little joy in his life—in everyone’s.  But now, he got the feeling that he—and everyone else—would be doing a lot of laughing.

“Antoinette Stephanie,” he remarked, “That’s almost as bad as Nathaniel Pietro, Clint. Your kids are gonna hate you.”

“Their dad’s a superhero and they have more aunts and uncles than they’ll know what to do with,” Clint snorted, “I’m their connection to the biggest, weirdest family in the universe. They’ll love me.”

“Yeah, I guess their dad is pretty great,” Steve said, mock-grudgingly. “But right now, I think they want their dad to come over and hug their Aunt Nat.” He nodded towards Laura and the kids, who were beckoning Clint over. Laura then walked over to get him herself, but not before she hugged Steve.

“No words,” she told him, “I have no words to tell you how thankful I am, Steve. I can’t… I just…”

“You don’t have to thank me,” Steve promised her, “She’s my best friend—I love her as much as I love those kids.”

Laura raised an eyebrow at that. “He told you?” she exclaimed, half amused, half irritated. She glared at Clint, who grinned sheepishly, ducked in to peck her on the cheek, then dashed over to where Nat and the kids were. Laura turned to Steve, saying, “It was supposed to be a surprise!”

“Well, it was,” Steve pointed out. She rolled her eyes and swatted his arm, but couldn’t keep the smile off her face, even as she heaved a sigh.

“Well, anyway. Next week, we’re holding a family barbeque,” she told him. “Gonna put all the benches and tables out in the garden, everyone’s invited—and that absolutely includes Uncle Steve and…” She paused, gaze sliding over to where Bucky was watching the scene, a little distance away. It was an old habit of his, watching from the sidelines. He was trusted around children, to the point he even trusted himself around them again, but he wasn’t used to being in the centre of things yet. His life in Wakanda had been secluded to say the least. “…whoever he’d like to bring as his plus-one.”

Steve blinked at her, and she smirked.

“Nat told me just how much you guys mean to each other,” she said, “But even if she hadn’t, I could tell.” The smirk became a beaming smile—Steve got the sense Laura would be doing a lot of beaming from now on—as she added, “I’m really happy for you, Steve. You, probably more than anyone else, here, deserve a bit of rest.”

“Why do you think I gave my shield to Sam?” he asked, then ducked down as if letting her in on an awful secret, and added amusedly, “Can’t believe the sucker bought it.”

“You only have yourself to blame for that one,” Laura said smartly. “You could inspire a horse to drink.”

“I’ll settle for having a couple drinks to myself,” he chuckled. Laura gave him another quick squeeze, waved to Bucky—who waved back, if a little hesitantly—then went back to where Clint was piling the kids into the car. It had been decided that Auntie Nat would come over for dinner tonight, and stay a few days. Sitting shotgun, with Clint in the very back, dealing with a fussing Nathaniel, Nat waved to Steve through the windshield. He grinned and waved back, nodding in promise when she mouthed See you Monday.

As the rumble of the car’s engine faded, Steve wandered to the edge of the lake and watched as the sun began to set over it, colouring the sky vivid orange, setting the water aflame. He stood in the exact spot where Pepper had set down the wreath and watched it float away only yesterday afternoon.

So much had happened in the last twenty-four hours, it was too much to really be aware of, and it felt as if everything had taken place over weeks, months, or even years. He stood with his head slightly bowed, hands tucked sheepishly into his pockets. He almost felt a little guilty, being this happy when he’d lost a dear friend. But he’d gotten another back—more than one, really, because thanks to Tony’s sacrifice, he had Sam and Bucky and everyone else, too.

“Antoinette Stephanie Barton,” he murmured, “You left a bigger legacy than you ever realised. Peter, Harley, Morgan, and now Clint’s adding to it? There’s gonna be a whole generation of kids carrying on your legacy, Tony. And a whole universe to watch them do it.”

He swallowed. “And I know…” he began quietly, then faltered. “I know we were never all that close,” he admitted. “We had a lot of differences, but ultimately our goals were the same. We both wanted to save everyone, protect the world… And you did that, Tony. You did that. I’m just sorry I wasn’t a better friend—that I wasn’t there when you needed me. I’m so sorry, Tony. And I know it’s too late for apologies and I have no right to ask for your forgiveness, but… I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure the world remembers what you did. Iron Man was Earth’s best defender, and absolutely it’s mightiest hero.

“I was wrong, on that helicarrier in 2012. You’re the guy to make the sacrifice play, I mean, look around me. You grew up hating me because of what Howard was like. I can’t claim to know what that was, cause how I knew him… you remind me a lot of him. But you have more heart. You were only ever trying to do your best and make the world a better place. And thanks to you… it is.”

“He did forgive you, you know,” said a soft voice, and Steve turned to see Pepper standing a little ways behind him, smiling softly. “He understood the differences between you. And he might not have always liked you very much… but he understood you.”

“Pepper…” Steve murmured. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how hard this has all been for you…”

“I’ll get through it,” she told him, determined but already her eyes were shining with tears. “I’ve lost him before.” The poor joke was hollow in the dusk air. Steve stepped forwards and carefully put his arms around her, allowing her every opportunity to push him away, as he felt she ought to do.

But she didn’t. Instead, she hugged him back.

“We’ll help you get through this,” he swore to her. “All of us. We were a family, and you’re part of it. Me, Rhodey, Nat, Bruce. All of us. We owe this universe to Tony. It’s the least we can do.”

Pepper sniffed. “He was right, you know,” she said, pulling away from the hug and dabbing at her eyes. “You really do just come up with those rousing speeches on the fly.”

He chuckled. “I guess that’s why they picked me to get the serum,” he shrugged. Pepper gave a small laugh.

“I’m gonna head up to bed, now,” she said, “It’s been a long day, and I need the rest. But I’ve made up a bed in one of the guest rooms—”

“Oh, no, Pepper,” he protested, “I couldn’t impose, I—”

“You’re not imposing,” she said firmly. “I’m insisting. You’re always welcome here, Steve. Like you said, we’re family.”

They managed warm, albeit watery smiles before Pepper turned and headed back towards the cabin, the lights inside the windows warm and inviting as the sun set lower and the sky began to turn from orange to purple. All the same, Steve sat a while longer. He knew he wasn’t alone out here, not just yet, and he knew that for this person, it was best to be patient; let him come to you. Give him a choice in the matter. After all, for the longest time, choice had not been a possibility for him.

He felt more than saw Bucky walk up to him, take a place at his side and slightly behind him, just out of his peripheral vision. But he’d known Bucky so long, he’d have to be blind and deaf and dead before he’d not notice him.

“So… you’re gonna be a godfather?”

“Apparently,” Steve nodded. “Oh, and you’re—”

“Invited to the barbeque next week. I heard.”

“Do you wanna go?”

Bucky shrugged. “I like barbeques. It’d be nice to see Natalia again—y’know, when I’m not trying to kill her. And Barton’s kids seem nice.”

“They are.”

A few moments passed, and they fell into silence. It was comfortable, but still burst with unsaid things that demanded voicing. For decades, they’d been unable to talk for one reason or another. Now, they had the opportunity to sit, to take their time, to speak. And words seemed to fail them.

At last, it was Bucky who dared breach the quietude.

“I’d thought…” he started, then broke off, shaking his head and swallowing. Steve turned to him, eyebrow raised.

“You thought…?” he prompted.

“Just… with all the time-travel stuff,” Bucky murmured. “You could’ve… You could’ve gone back to Peggy. You could’ve gone home.”

Steve stared at him, stunned. “This is my home, Buck,” he said. He cast his gaze around, taking in the verdant trees, the tranquil lake, and the presence of the man beside him. “I’ve had ten years of my life here. I have a family. And besides,” he added, “We both moved on. I love her—always will—but… she had a husband. Kids. I got that last dance with her, but…” He turned to face Bucky, smiling radiantly. “…I think I’ve got a good place for myself here.”

A tiny smile tugged at the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “So you’re moving on?”

Steve nodded. “I am,” he said firmly. “I couldn’t, before. Not as Captain America.” As he explained his new freedom, his eyes sparkled with anticipation; sheer lust for life. “I think it’s time Steve Rogers got to know the 21st Century.” He grinned. “You wanna come with?”

Bucky grinned back. “That guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to run away from a fight? Always.” 

They reached for each other’s hands at the same time.

“I was scared,” Steve admitted, “When I first woke up here. I thought you were dead, I thought I was gonna die in that plane crash. So when I woke up… I really didn’t have anything to lose. But then I met Nat, and Sam, and all the others… They reminded me what it was like to have a family. And after I found you, well… Why the hell would I want to go back to a time with no good food and no internet?”

Not expecting the joke, Bucky didn’t expect to laugh, either, and a bark of mirth escaped him, sending them both into a fit of laughter. Their hands stayed tightly entwined, and Steve gave him a reassuring squeeze. His amusement sobered, eyes bright and hopeful, his smile calm and content.

“Why would I want to go back to a time when I couldn’t do this?” he asked softly, raising his other hand to cup Bucky’s cheek, and leaning in.

It was something he’d longed to do for years, something he hadn’t known he’d longed to do, and to be able to do it now was… indescribable. That they were both here, alive, together, free from the stigma that would have surrounded them eighty years ago. Such had been that stigma that they had pushed it down, the both of them, so far. Called each other best friends and brothers in arms. Close, so very close, but never daring to touch, for fear of what it might set free.

None of that, now. None of that sadness and uncertainty. The day was won, and they were together.

When he pulled away, Bucky gaped at him, and both were flushed bright red. “I…” he mumbled, “Steve, I…” He swallowed. “You… you’re sure? I mean I’m not…”

“Not the same man you were back then, I know,” Steve nodded. “But neither am I. The man back in 1945 was an oblivious punk.” He swallowed. “And I’m sorry it took me this long to realise it, but yeah, I’m sure.” Tentatively, he eyed Bucky. “Are you?”

Bucky dropped Steve’s hand so both his own hands were free to grab Steve’s face and pull him in for another kiss. “You don’t remember?” he whispered, pulling away only barely enough that he could speak. “I’m with you to the end of the line.”