Steve hears scampering paws coming around the corner of the hallway he's appeared in. He ducks behind a pillar, just in time to avoid being seen by Rocket, who runs right by him and barges into a nearby room.
"I got it, let's go!" he hears Rocket shout.
Steve waits until he can no longer hear Rocket (the raccoon has always been so loud that no longer hearing him is as good an indication as any that he and Thor have left). He's about to head east, where Rocket told him Jane Foster's room was, when he hears a woman's voice calling from inside the room.
"Why don't you come in?"
There's got to be another door to the room, someone else this lady must be talking to. Steve is about to continue slinking off down the hallway when she comes to the doorway and looks right at him. She's beautiful—hair piled high in braids shaped like a crown, enveloped in soft robes, and staring down at him with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
It's the twinkle that tells Steve who this is. The same twinkle—though a kinder, calmer, saner version—that he remembers seeing in Loki's eyes every time he was about to do something 'mischievous' (read: terrifying). Only families share expressions so exactly.
"Come in, Steve Rogers," Frigga says, "before anyone sees you."
There's nothing for it but to obey. She welcomes him into a sunny room with a great view of the city—the kind of view he's been hoping to get a glimpse of during his brief mission here. She leads him to a piece of uncomfortable looking furniture (now Steve understands why Thor rhapsodizes about the sofas on Earth) and brings him a bowl of fruit.
(Steve's relieved to see that they're grapes, same as he might get back home. He doesn't have fond memories of the space food on Rocket's ship.)
"How do you know who I am?" Steve asks as she sits down opposite him, a little close, but still comfortable.
"Thor just finished telling me all about his part of the mission. Since you are here, right on schedule, I assume all went well?"
Steve made a noncommittal noise. "I wouldn't call it 'well'. We sustained a lot of casualties. In some ways, by bringing everyone back, we've created even more of a mess than we fixed. But yes, we got it done. We won. Something tells me you already knew that."
Frigga smiles. "I did, but I always like hearing the tales from others. My tapestries tell me the general outline of a story, but they lack entertaining inflections and details."
"I weave the stories of time. You know Thor, God of Thunder. And you have met my other son, the God of Mischief. And now you meet their mother, Frigga, Goddess of Destiny."
She says it like it was no big deal, like she's announcing something as mundane as what university they'd all attended.
"Oh. Right. Well." Steve clears his throat and tries again. "Nice to meet you, ma'am."
She grimaces, an expression that manages to still look beautiful on her. "Don't call me that. It makes me feel old."
"Says the woman who's how many thousands of years old?"
"Now you're being rude on purpose," she says, but her mouth crinkles in a way that he takes as permission to laugh, so he does, which sets her off, too.
Steve feels himself relax, just a little bit, for the first time in years. Something about being here, with Frigga, makes him feel nurtured in a way he hasn't experienced since before his own mother passed.
Then he remembers what today is. That he and Thor are about to lose her, too. He stops laughing.
As though reading his mind (probably not necessary, given his complete lack of poker face, which Nat had always teased him about), Frigga scolds, "None of that, now. As I just told Thor, everything happens the way it's supposed to."
Frigga feeds him a grape to shut him up and changes the subject. "Thor came home so full of stories about his new companions. It is my joy to final meet one of them. Especially you." She leans forward to rest a bejeweled hand on his thigh and grows serious. "I know that the battle he told me about feels like a lifetime ago for you. I know you've experienced pain since then. Not just last week's losses. I know you think there is nothing but more of the same before you, more of this sadness."
Steve chokes, but not on the grape. He'd been trying, badly, to keep it together for years, for everyone else's sake. However, the pressure of her hand on his knee, so like his mother's (save for the jewels), cracks the façade. He lets his head fall into his hands, lets himself shake with tears that, even now, he refuses to let fall. Lets her hold him through it. She knew who he was before even getting an introduction. She knows what's about to happen to her. She knows all that, and therefore has got to know what he's not-crying about. For all that he's spent years trying out Sam's group therapy methods, it's nice not to have to talk.
They stay like that for a few minutes, until he's let out a bit of it. Not all, not even most, but enough to keep going a little while longer.
"I was thinking of going back when I'm done with all this," he tells her. "Back to where I left off. Living the life I should have had." It's the first time he's voiced his plan aloud. The only other person who knows is Bucky, who figured it out without needing to be told.
"I did not take you for a coward," Frigga says.
Steve snaps his head up. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"The life you ought to have is the life that is before you, not behind. And don't tell me that time travel makes the past the future."
"I don't know what else to do. Bucky—my best friend, you probably know all about him, too—is miserable here, too, in the now, I mean, the future."
"But he is not here with you. He has not chosen to go backwards."
"He doesn't have the same motivation, but we're both lost. We're both stuck in a reality where we don't belong."
"So make your own reality," she says with a shrug.
"Why not? You have the tools to do so sitting in your pocket."
Steve shakes his head. "I'm supposed to put the Stones back just as we found them, and not change anything."
"According to whom? Who told you this?"
"The Sorceress Supreme."
Frigga raises a delicately shaped eyebrow. "I see. Far be it from me to malign her considerable talents. The Sorceress Supreme understands much and has saved us all, in ways that no one but me will ever know or fully credit. However, there are some things that even she misunderstands, through no fault of her own."
"You're saying she's wrong?"
"My son took advantage of your friends' bungle and escaped with the Tesseract, did he not?" Frigga waves around her. "And has anything terrible come to pass?"
"I guess not, but—"
"Do you doubt me?" she asks imperiously, but with that same little Loki-twinkle.
Steve thinks about it. She is the goddess of destiny after all. If she says it's all right, it must be. Slowly, because he's only now beginning to think about this new set of limitless possibilities, he says, "So, how would it work?"
"What would you like to change?"
"I can think of a few things." Then, impulsively, because it feels right, he adds. "Would you come with me? I don't know what I'm doing and could use the help."
Frigga tilts her head and studies him. "I'll ask that we make one stop, first. Something for me."
"Sure. Anything you want." Steve stands up. "Ready?"
"We should complete your mission first. Let me return the Aether to Jane. She's still sleeping, and no one will notice me slipping into her room. I'll be back in a moment. In the meanwhile, you can begin packing."
She takes the Aether and hands him a bag.
Frigga points at the snacks piled high on a platter near the window. "The people we pick up might be hungry."
"We haven't gone anywhere," Steve says. Even after activating the Pym particles, he and Frigga are standing in the same palace hallway that he showed up in.
"We have moved in time, though not in location," Frigga says. "You'll see that things are not as you left them. Come."
She's right. The sky grows dark outside and a storm rages. Steve glimpses the outline of something massive outside, and the sounds of masonry falling fill his ears. He glimpses out a window and sees the city in ruin and an enormous spaceship taking off.
The palace is completely empty, and looks like it's been deserted for weeks. Half the ceiling of what has to be the throne room is laying in rubble on the floor.
"What happened here?" Steve asks.
"Hela. And hush. She might be anywhere."
Frigga took a length of rope off some curtains and wound it around her arms as they walked. When they reached a wide hole in the floor that looked like it had been hammered in, she tied the rope to a nearby statue and started climbing down.
"Where are we going?"
Hoping to be a gentleman, Steve belays down into the darkness first, in order to meet any trouble before it gets to Frigga. The room is empty, save for some dusty objects that look like they belong in a space version of the Natural History museum. Steve figures that's basically where he is.
And then Loki runs in. He doesn't notice Steve standing in the shadows. Steve watches as he pauses in front of a pillar on which sits the Tesseract.
He picks it up.
"Leave it, darling."
At the sound of Frigga's voice, Loki spins around. What little color there had ever been in his face drains away, and his jaw hangs slackly open.
Steve thinks he's never looked better than right now, with that smug satisfaction nowhere in sight. Just a scared guy seeing a beloved ghost.
"Mother?" He runs to her but stops short, just in front of her. "How… This is not possible."
"Anything is possible." Frigga closes the distance between them and stroked his face to prove that she is real, solid. Loki leans into the touch with the kind of sigh that leaves Steve bashful; he doesn't deserve to be here, at a reunion like this.
"What is this?" Loki whispers. "Is this a trick? If it is, it is a most cruel one."
"I hope this experience will lead you to stop playing similar ones, now that you understand how much it can hurt. But this is no trick, no spectre, no illusion. This is your mother, alive and well, telling you to leave it." She grabs the hand in which Loki held the Tesseract and firmly leads it back to the plinth. "Loki, do as I tell you. There will be time for questions later."
"Fine. But if I leave it, how will we get out? I've already put the helmet in the flame. Surtur will destroy the planet, and us along with it."
Steve steps out from the shadows and said, "We'll get out the same way we got in."
Loki stares at Steve, then back at his mother, then back at Steve. "What is he doing here?"
"I am helping him. We are helping each other. You are going to come with us, but on the condition that you do not torment him. Not everyone is accustomed to your teasing."
"But he's such a perfect butt for it," Loki can't help but say, eyes sliding down Steve's side. "In more than one way."
Steve rolls his eyes, and Frigga chides, "Loki."
"We need to talk about this. You didn't tell me we were picking up Loki," Steve hisses.
"Did you think there was anything else I could desire but to save my son?"
"Save me from what?"
Frigga ignores him, and Steve gets a glimpse of the kind of patience that must have gone into raising a kid like him.
"I understand your concerns, Steve. I will vouch for my son. He will do no harm under my watch. Will you, Loki?"
Loki must have missed her something awful, because he doesn't even put up a fight. "No, Mother."
Frigga forcibly joins Steve's hand with Loki's. She ignores their simultaneous cringing. "Now, Steve, if you please."
Steve doesn't like it, but he likes the idea of blowing up along with the planet even less. He uses his free hand to activate the Pym particles just as the ceiling begins to crack.
If Asgard had an opposite, it would be Vormir, Steve thinks when they arrive. Empty, bleak, stinking of dust and decay. The perfect place to hide the Soul Stone is in a place devoid of souls.
He slows down and hangs at the back of the group to allow Frigga and Loki a little space for their reunion. There's a lot of hand-holding and what looks like scolding. Loki looks so bowled over to have her back that he forgets to be obnoxious. He even, albeit stiffly, turns around to thank Steve for assisting in saving him from himself.
"It seems that I would have died had I taken it."
"Yeah," Steve replies. "Thor's still cut up about it. Even more so than the previous times he thought you were dead."
Loki gives a ghost of a smile. "In that case, I shall plan something interesting for the grand reveal."
"Please don't," Steve and Frigga said in unison.
Loki looked between them. "Now tell me, mother, what is this? You and the valiant Captain here. Is he a new addition to your brood? Am I now, horrors, the middle child? Need I fight even harder for my share of attention?"
"Your assumption that you need to fight for it at all has always been your biggest problem," Frigga says.
"I can think of a few other problems," Steve mutters, and gets a dark look from Loki in reply.
They grow quiet as they approach the mountain. There's something too solemn about this place for chit-chat.
"I want Natasha back," Steve says. "That's the first thing I want to change. But I don't know how to do it."
"The spider?" Loki sneers. "Are you and she—"
"Oh, hush, Loki," Frigga says, and then stops. "On the other hand, perhaps not."
"What do you mean?" Loki asks.
"For once, I believe there is an opportunity for you to put those tricks and that silver tongue of yours to good use." She outlines the situation for him, the challenges and desired outcome.
"You want me to trick the rules of the universe itself?" Loki sounds practically delighted about the prospect. He almost rubs his hands.
"Yes," Steve says, surprising even himself. He's still making his peace with having rescued Loki, with his qualms about this entire plan, but hell, if he's going to do this—if he's going to work with Loki—then he might as well go whole hog.
"Steve, you should stay back with me while Loki treats with the keeper of the stone."
"Why? This is my mission, not his. We should do this tog—"
"Because you are as self-defeatingly hotheaded as Thor, and this particular mission requires someone who will remain wholly unemotional when faced with the keeper."
There aren't many people who can match Steve for strength, but even though he struggles, he can't escape her grip on his wrist.
Loki stretches his hand out for the Soul Stone. "I'll need that to get what you want."
Steve reluctantly gives it to him. "This is a terrible idea. I should never have agreed to this, to any of it."
Frigga shakes her head. "So dramatic. You two have more in common than you care to admit."
Steve watches helplessly as Loki trudges up the mountain with the Soul Stone. "I hope you're right about this."
"He's having too much fun to misbehave. That has always been the trick to Loki, the trick Odin never understood. If he is kept busy and amused, he will flourish."
Steve is still thinking about this minutes later when he sees Loki coming back down the mountain, this time with a smaller figure beside him. He breaks away from Frigga and runs towards them. It's Natasha, looking just as he'd last seen her in the lab, wearing her time suit. She's perfect. Whole and beautiful.
"Nat?" And yeah, in this second, he does feel some kinship with Loki, who has just finished going through the same roller coaster of emotions.
"Hey, Steve. You've been making some interesting new friends."
"You don't know the half of it." He hugs her tight, and she hugs back, reassuringly solid and face a little wet.
"I know you made a choice, and I respected it," Steve says. "But I figured… you made the choice because you wanted to bring everyone back. Since we've done that, I hoped you wouldn't mind…"
"Mind being alive again now that everyone's back? Yes, Steve. I mind terribly." She smiles, and Steve's heart hurts from how much he's missed her sarcasm, even after only a few days.
"How did you do it?" Steve asks Loki.
"Oh, there's always a loophole with these mythical gatekeepers of long-lost treasures in desolate landscapes. You simply haven't read the right sorts of stories if you can't imagine how someone of my talents could trick him into taking back the stone and restoring me the payment."
"Well, whatever you said to him, thanks."
"Where are we going next?" Loki asks. "Or should I ask, when?"
Steve looks at Frigga, who puts her hand on his arm.
"You cannot undo it entirely," she says. "There are some things that must happen, and a little bit of this story is one of them. However, we can alleviate much of the pain."
He hands her the time travel computer. "You do it. Take us as early as you think is safe."
Frigga keys in coordinates that Steve thinks line up with Earth, 1954.
"I know this place," Natasha says. "I hate this place."
"I don't know it," Loki adds, "But I second your other sentiment."
Steve checks to make sure the coast is clear. "We shouldn't be here long. Loki, can you make us invisible?"
"Yes, but we should join hands so as not to lose one another once I do."
Steve's expanded little band reaches out for one another (but only Frigga really wants to hold hands with Loki) and then vanishes just before a Hydra agent rounds the corner of this bleak, grey, underground bunker somewhere in Siberia. They all back up against the wall to let him pass.
"I know this is long before your time, Natasha, but do you know where they'd have kept him?" Steve asks.
"Would it perchance be behind the double-locked doors guarded by five guards and a synchronous activation system?" Loki says as exactly that comes into view.
"Yes," Natasha replies through what must be gritted teeth. "Loki, you and I are going to be Hydra agents. Can you do that?"
In answer, Steve sees two Hydra agents shimmer into being in front of him while he and Frigga remain invisible.
"We'll get access, and then you two follow us inside," Natasha says.
She and Loki make their way to the door. Despite the glamor, Steve can tell which is which by the way one of them works the guards near the door, getting everything out of them with seemingly little effort. It's pure Natasha. Even Loki can only stand there and admire her skill. Before Steve knows it, they're heading in.
He and Frigga make a superhumanly fast run for it and slip inside just before the thick metal doors clamp shut behind them.
There's only one thing in the room, and it's horrible. Bucky's slowed breath has fogged the glass of his too-small prison, but not so much Steve they can't tell it's him. If he didn't know better, he'd think Bucky was dead in there, frozen solid.
"I thought we going to Earth," Loki sniffs. "But this looks more like the Collector's museum on Knowhere."
"This is Earth," Frigga explains. "And that is Steve's friend."
"Are you sure about this?" Natasha asks. "I know he's your friend, and I want to see him happy, too, but…"
"Peggy told me to respect his choice that day on the train. And she was right about that. But nothing, nothing, about this has been his choice. It haunts him every single day, I know it does. He's always said he wishes he could erase even one of his kills, wipe everything one last time and start over clean. He's told me every single one keeps him up at night. This way, we can erase most of them."
"'Kills'?" Loki asks, sounding intrigued for the first time since they got here. "What exactly is this man?"
Everyone ignores him. Steve's getting the hang of how to handle him.
"He will still remember them, and everything else that has happened to him. But as a dream, something that happened to someone else," Frigga says. "That is the only way it can work. He is too important to rewrite completely, but we can ease his pain."
"Everybody, stand back." Steve smashes his shield into the glass of the case, careful to avoid hurting Bucky inside. The glass is so thick that it takes even the shield a few tries to crack it. They all work to remove the wires and tubes that have been keeping him alive in stasis. Bucky tips over and Steve catches him, just as he should have all those years ago.
"I got you, buddy," Steve whispers. With the hand that isn't clutching Bucky's shivering body to him, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the Mind stone. It doesn't work as easily without the scepter to give better handling and direction, but he manages to press it against Bucky's chest. Just as when he'd used the scepter on himself in 2012, he wills Bucky to remember, wills the trigger words away, heals him.
When nothing happens at first, Steve begins to panic. He looks up at Frigga and Loki. "Did I do something wrong? Did—"
"Steve?" Bucky whispers groggily into his ear.
"It's me, Buck. It's okay."
Bucky closed his eyes again. "I just had a really weird dream."
Steve laughed, hysteria bubbling up and frothing into happiness. "I'll bet you did."
Bucky squints. "Aren't you the guy who tried to take over the planet?"
"It's nice to know my reputation precedes me."
"Shut up, Loki," Natasha says.
Bucky sits up and begins to smile at Frigga, the charming, almost rakish smile that Steve remembers from before the war. He stops his friend before things get awkward.
"Loki's mom," he whispers. "Queen of Asgard and Goddess of Destiny."
Bucky schools his face immediately. "Oh. Right. Nice to meet you, ma'am."
"Don't do that either. It makes her feel old."
Frigga kneels down and kisses Bucky on both cheeks. "You poor thing. It makes my heart glad to see you restored." Then she whispers, but not so softly that Steve's super-hearing can't pick it up, "You can smile at me all you like."
And that does it. Bucky gives it to her in all its toothy, eye-crinkling glory. He even winks.
"Stop it!" Loki covers his eyes in horror.
Natasha bursts out laughing.
"This one's gonna be complicated," Bucky says.
They're hiding behind the last standing wall of Avengers Headquarters. On the other side of the rubble, the battle spreads out as far as the eye can see. Steve can just make out Thanos in the middle of the action, and Peter running with the gauntlet.
"Norns, is that Thor? What's happened to him?" Loki gasps. "What's happened to his beard?"
"Leave him be," Frigga warns.
"So, I barely knew what was going on here," Bucky says. "Who are our heavy hitters? Who can take it?"
"Hulk's out. He's too weak after bringing you all back," Natasha says. "Thor might be able to do it."
"He cannot," Frigga says quickly, firmly. She glances at Steve, "And don't even think about volunteering yourself."
Steve frowns. He hates how everyone here has his number.
"What about her?" Bucky asks, pointing at Carol Danvers zipping around the fight like a comet. "What even is she?"
"Originally human, but like you, circumstance has left her enhanced, well beyond the extent that you and Steve are enhanced. She possesses even more strength than the gods. If we are to do this, we should put our faith in her."
"You sure she can survive it?"
"Okay," Bucky says. For all that history has put Steve down as the tactical master of the Howling Commandoes, all their best plans were actually Bucky's, and Steve thrills to see him getting back into his groove. "So, if I've got this right, we need to get this Danvers woman up to speed, pull the same trick with the decoy gauntlet, and get it to her before Tony can be a self-sacrificing idiot. Steve, I need you to take the Natasha over there out of play so that this Natasha can take her place and get to Danvers. Frigga, you do the same thing to the other me. Loki, you're on fake gauntlet duty. Make the illusion so good that even Thanos will buy it. I'll get the real gauntlet from T'Challa and get it to Danvers."
"It should be me," Steve argues.
"Get me some Jiuliana's takeout and a beer later and we'll call it even."
"This is going to be fun," Loki says.
Frigga catches Steve's eye and made a face that says, "See?"
Like all of Bucky's plans, this one goes perfectly, with the sort of momentary hiccups that make for great bar chat but don't meaningfully derail the mission. Once they catch the other Bucky and Natasha, Frigga does something funny with her palm that puts them both to sleep. From where he stands guarding his sleeping friends, Steve watches Loki disappear in a green shimmer, only to be replaced by the most whimsical of nonsense—curlicues of ghosts and Asgardian warriors of old. Thanos (and everyone else) is so disoriented by all the apparent new arrivals that he misses Loki also creating an illusion of the gauntlet. He misses Bucky passing the real one to Danvers, who nods at Natasha.
Tony tries to run to stop her, to be the one, but Bucky (joined by Pepper, who's gotten the memo without even been given it) holds him back. The entire Chitauri army slowly disintegrates into dust. Loki's illusions fade. In the happy aftermath, Bucky and Natasha run back to Steve and Frigga. Loki materializes beside them.
"Where to next?" Natasha asks.
Frigga looks at Steve. "What say you, Steve? Back? Or forward?"
Steve looks at all of his friends, both here and on the battlefield. He looks at stupid Loki, who's having the time of life. He looks at Thor on the other end of the field, and realizes that he doesn't want to miss out on the reunion. He looks at Pepper, who's hugging Tony, and realizes that he'd like to be an uncle to Morgan, if they'll let him (he knows they will). He looks at Bucky, beaming for the first time since the war, and Natasha, who exudes peace.
Frigga smiles. "Good answer."
"But what about you? Do I, uh, do I need to drop you back off?" He cringes. He doesn't want to. He knows what awaits her.
"Don't worry, darling. I have no intention of dying today. Forward."
They all join hands, one last time and skip forward a day, to five seconds after Steve left.
He's never felt more hopeful.