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The Last Mission of Steve Rogers: Returning the Stones

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"Don’t do anything stupid ‘til I get back.”

Bucky laughed quietly, looking away before meeting his eyes and nearly whispering, “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

As they hugged, Steve closed his eyes tightly. He felt Bucky’s warmth, heaviness blooming in his heart. This could be the last time they saw each other; this mission wasn’t like the others.

“I’m gonna miss ya buddy,” Bucky admitted.

“It’s gonna be okay Buck,” Steve said, eyes sincere. Bucky was watching him like he was already gone, and it honestly made Steve want to stay. But he couldn’t, he was the only one who could do this job. So after Bucky smiled at him, and he smiled back, he walked up to the platform and tapped his time-GPS. As the nano suit grew around him, he took a deep breath.

Sam looked unsure, “How long is this gonna take?”

“For him? As long as he needs. For us, five seconds,” Banner said, tapping a few buttons on the control pad. Steve watched those big green fingers from afar, overcome with a feeling of finality. This was it. This was the end of everything. After this, everyone and everything could get back to their lives. But the world, the timelines, everything needed Captain America one last time.

Resolve swelled in him as he picked up Mjolnir. Steve turned so that the last things he’d see in case this all went wrong were his best friends, Bucky and Sam. The two human beings left on Earth who meant more to him than they could ever know. This was for them, for their future, for everyone’s future.

“You ready, Cap? All right, we’ll meet you back here, okay?” Banner asked, voice resonating with worry.

Steve Rogers was confident he could do this right. It was a mission that held more weight than just about any he’d ever been given. It wasn’t a war, it wasn’t pirates. This was about mending whole realities, the very implications of this mission were hard for him to understand. So he didn’t try. He had his objectives. Failure wasn’t an option. No matter what, he would make sure everything was back in its proper place.

Steeling himself, he swallowed and replied, “You bet.”

As Banner began to count down, he met the eyes of his friends.

“Going quantum in three…” the big scientist started.

He locked eyes with Bucky, who watched him the way families watched loved ones who were getting shipped off to war.

“Two.”

Steve met Sam’s hesitant expression with a look of determination.

“One.”

Suddenly his body was jerked aggressively from where he stood, and a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes began hurling past his vision. The warm sensation of the sun on his back was replaced with the wind-rush feeling of falling. His time-GPS beeped and sent him violently in a different direction, blooming g-force flutters through his stomach and chest. As the rainbows and light blew past his visor and the muffled hum of the quantum realm shook his ear drums, he briefly mused that that old nickname was really starting to suit him. He had certainly become a Man Out of Time in more ways than one.

NEW YORK 2012

Steve felt his boots thud heavily onto the ground and then slip in debris, making him tip forward. He caught himself before he fell, shutting his eyes as light brilliantly flashed in front of him.

Standing up straight, he saw he was in a messy alley just feet from a car covered with small pieces of concrete. His nano suit retracted, blue eyes scanning the area tactfully. Steve spotted three sets of shoe prints in the rubble. Dust was softly settling to the ground as if dropped by a phantasmic breeze. He stared at it, knowing that the small disturbance was the result of Scott Lang disappearing back to the compound with the Mind Stone scepter. The bright light he’d seen had been from Scott leaving, too. A sense of joy swelled in the Captain; he had arrived at exactly the right time. The joy died down into something dark as he stared at the most distant set of footprints.

He gripped Mjolnir for a semblance of comfort, eyebrows furrowed as he realized with a sad longing that he was now inhaling the very same air a living, breathing Tony Stark had been seconds before. The echoes of their conversation from that day rang in his brain, a muscle in his jaw tensing at the thought of missing them by less than a minute. Being in this alley alone was like standing in an empty hospital in broad daylight. It felt wrong. He needed to get this stone back into the right hands.

Steve turned to head toward Stark Tower, thinking about the conversations he and the scientists had all had about what to do with the stones once he arrived in each timeline. Banner and Shuri had spent days agonizing on when and where to drop each stone. They’d preset the time-GPS to drop him off at precisely the moment each one physically left its own timeline, since most of the data from the Time Heist had been recovered from everyone’s devices. Shuri had explained that the stones needed to be back in their reality as each was leaving, but the fate of the stones could potentially be different forever in their respective realities. This timeline wouldn’t play out the same as it would have since they’d already permanently messed things up before the stones physically left each timeline. The most they could do was return the stones and hope for the best.

Steve had worried that his own universe would crumple since Thanos shredded the stones to atoms, but Banner assured him their universe would be fine since the stones had technically never left their reality. The stones were still there, existing as they had always been, except as atoms and not as whole objects. It all gave Steve a headache, these were not things he liked think too hard about. As long as everything was okay, he trusted the people that knew more about it than he did.

Shuri had come up with a plan that Steve Rogers at first had fought against. It was a plan that was unorthodox, but it was one he knew Tony would have liked. Steve firmly believed that every time someone tried to win a war before it started, innocent people died. But this time, it wasn’t just a war they were trying to win. There would be no preemptive shots. It was something different. Once they’d all understood that in this particular alternate branch reality Loki had gotten away with the Tesseract, Stark had practically had a heart attack, and that SHIELD thought Steve was a HYDRA agent, they all knew they couldn’t fix whatever butterfly effect had begun. Shuri and the rest of them decided that a few more changes might help this new reality not to fail as they had done.

There was a reason Steve Rogers was carrying a briefcase of stones and not a scepter, metal ball, Aether-syringe, or tesseract. There was more to this mission than just dropping the stones into their realities and leaving. They were going to be dropped into the right hands.

So Steve rose his right arm high and started spinning Mjolnir. The hammer began to rotate until Steve felt his boots leave the ground. He increased the speed, instinct taking over. He was pulled high into the sky above buildings, flying straight toward the tower. He saw the massive wreckage and destruction from the alien attack below him, as well as the downed leviathans. Steve landed with a wide stance where Tony usually always landed, up at the Iron Man landing platform attached to the penthouse. He came in, looking around and standing near an elevator. He was in the very spot his past self had been when Tony and Scott had commented on his ass if what he’d gathered from the comms was correct. He had remembered where he was in this room that day. The memory made him smile.

“Hey, JARVIS,” he greeted. “I have to talk to you.”

 “Ah, Captain Rogers, good afternoon,” JARVIS’s pleasant voice rang out from a speaker nearby. There were intercoms, cameras, and speakers in just about every place around the tower. “My cameras show you’re being rushed to the infirmary right now, having been found unconscious. I’m sorry, I think I’m going to have to alert Mr. Stark. You are most likely an imposter, Sir. The security of this tower may be compromised.”

“That’s fine. But let me ask you a question. You see everything, right JARVIS?”

“Of course, Sir.”

“So, you’d know that there were two Tony Starks and two versions of myself, along with Loki, all in this tower at the same time. Correct?”

After a brief pause. “That is correct.”

“Then go ahead and alert Tony Stark. But don’t alert any other forces. Alert all the Avengers if you want, but I have important information for Tony Stark. I won’t tell anyone anything if I feel threatened,” he said, lying for the sake of any SHIELD microphones that could be lurking. “Just the Avengers,” Steve said as he sat on an expensive leather couch. He knew JARVIS was programmed with Tony Stark’s interests in mind, so the AI would do as it was told. He distantly wondered how many people had noticed the ambiguously Captain America shaped blue blur flying through New York.

“I’ve alerted the appropriate figures. I hope you’ll forgive me if you turn out to be yourself Mr. Rogers. I hope you understand.”

“I do, JARVIS. Don’t worry about it.”

Steve shoved down the wave of emotion that hit him from knowing he was going to see a younger Tony again. They had planned for this scenario, but it was still going to be hard. Steve missed Tony like a stool missed a leg. He was a vital part of their team, a best friend, and with him gone, nothing felt right. Steve knew this Tony Stark wasn’t the one he’d lost, but it didn’t matter, it would feel the same. He missed him.

As he waited for whatever Avengers decided to show up, he let the memories he’d had in this penthouse flood him. The birthday parties, the Christmas mornings, the Ultron incident…his life was so vastly different than he’d ever thought it would be. All he’d wanted was to fight the bullies no one else could, to help America…and now, he was helping whole realities. He felt humbled, maybe even a little sad. He lost track of time as his mind wandered.

An elevator dinged and he turned to look, breath leaving him as Natasha, Clint, and Tony came walking into the space. His eyes widened and that prickling sensation started up in the back of them, but he stood and turned anyway, chest and chin raised. These weren’t his friends, not really. But as they got closer, he couldn’t help but feel his gaze soften at seeing Nat’s beautiful, youthful, and currently suspicious face. He wanted to hug them, pull them both close, and never let them go again. But he could move on from the urges, mind on his mission. They weren’t the version of his friends he’d lost.

“Hey, Tony,” Steve said warmly, voice not wavering. It was so good to see him.

Thor must’ve already gone back to Asgard to search for Loki, or else Steve was certain he would have been here too. Tony tilted his head, blinking and just looked at him. Nat was staring at him with her arms crossed, focused on the suitcase. Clint was gaping at Mjolnir in Steve’s grasp.

“Loki, how many times do we need to kick your ass?” Tony said, sounding tired and bored. He was wearing an unpainted and shiny suit of armor, one Steve didn’t know if he’d seen before. “You’re the reason I didn’t get my lunch, and I’m in no mood for whatever Blade Runner bullcrap—”

Stark rose his arm at Steve, palm blaster audibly charging up.

Steve put down the hammer and suitcase, holding up his own hands. “I’m not Loki. The Loki you know has escaped with the Tesseract. I’m Steve Rogers,” he started. “If you ask JARVIS to show you, you’ll see that there were two of me and two of you, plus Loki, at the same time here. There’s a reason for that.”

Rogers could practically feel Stark narrowing his eyes in suspicion at him through that helmet. Nat and Clint looked at each other.

Stark kept his blaster aimed at Steve, but turned his head away, saying, “JARVIS. Is this true? Show me.” He didn’t sound convinced at all.

“Of course, Sir.” A screen and projector they usually used for movie nights came from the ceiling. It immediately began to show footage of a different Tony Stark flying to and from the tower at different angles. Then, it showed a Steve Rogers in the elevator, plus another scene of Steve walking down a hallway at the same time. One had a helmet, one didn’t. All of the Avengers were strangely quiet as the video feeds played.

JARVIS then showed the battle between the two Captains, but there was no clear audio as they were scuffling and falling. Finally, it showed a bird’s eye view of Loki escaping with the Tesseract in the lobby followed by an image of Steve leaving with the scepter.

“Well, that's something,” Tony said sharply, metal hands on metal hips.

“What is this?” Nat asked, stepping forward. “What did you do with the scepter?”

Steve took a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to her since Tony was still fixated on the video screen. She unfolded it and read it, her brows furrowing deeply.

“Tony,” she said, holding it up to him.

Stark took the piece of paper, reading it carefully. After he read it, his faceplate flipped up. He was staring at Rogers with round eyes, his bruised face flushed. He immediately walked right up to Steve, locking gazes as if searching for truth there. Steve couldn’t stop thinking how wonderful it was to see him so angry, so alive again.

Clint was standing closer to them, “What? What’s it say?”

Tony shoved the paper backward into Clint’s chest and then took a step back, smirking at Steve.

“Okay, Spangles. Say I buy this, then what?”

“I give you this. Then I leave. You can go get shawarma. Pretend like I wasn’t even here,” Steve said, eyes constantly going between Nat and Tony. This was still so surreal to Steve, like a dream, even though he’d already been through an entire Time Heist.

Clint read the paper, aghast. It said:

IT IS OUR FAULT LOKI GOT AWAY. THERE ARE EARS EVERYWHERE. SHIELD IS COMPROMISED. SHIELD HAS BEEN INFILTRATED BY HYDRA. THEY WILL USE THE SCEPTER FOR HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION. NICK FURY DOES NOT KNOW THIS. YOU CAN TRUST HIM; HE AND MARIA HILL ARE ALLIES. WE NEEDED THE STONE THAT WAS INSIDE THE SCEPTER. WE’RE GIVING IT BACK NOW. WE ARE ALSO GIVING YOU A FLASHDRIVE WITH INFORMATION ABOUT WHY WE NEEDED IT IN THE HOPES YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN WE COULD. THE INFORMATION ON THAT DRIVE MIGHT MAKE EVERYTHING WORSE, BE WARY. YOU CAN BELIEVE THIS OR YOU CAN IGNORE IT. WHAT YOU DO WITH THIS INFORMATION IS UP TO YOU.

-THE AVENGERS

Clint looked up white-faced, lips parted, “This…this can’t be true right?”

“Can it, Barton,” Tony said, looking anywhere but at Steve Rogers.

The Captain took a few steps back, opening the briefcase and pressing a spot near the golden mind stone. A small oval box made of nano tech enshrouded it, letting him just reach down and take it from its place. “If I give you this, you can’t let it fall into the wrong hands. I know you’ll figure out what to do. You always pull through, Tony,” Steve said, fondness filling his tone. He offered the little box to Stark.

Stark took it, holding it in his metal fist and then shaking his head. His expression was unreadable. Steve offered Nat a flash drive.

“Make sure to look at that on a computer that isn’t connected to the internet,” Steve warned. He took the piece of paper from Clint.

“How do we know this isn’t a trick?” Natasha said.

“You don’t. All I can tell you is that I’ve watched too many of my friends die. I’m here because I believe in us,” Steve said. He looked at them and smiled, genuinely. “I was told the information on that could make everything worse or it could save some lives. I’m not here to make that decision, and I don’t know how it’ll turn out. What I do know is how it went for us the first time around.”

“So what you’re saying is that we’re supposed to believe you’re from…” Clint made a funny gesture with his face and hands.

Steve nodded. He knew his suit was different than usual, and he looked visibly older.

“People die? Why?” Nat said, seeming to believe him the more he talked.

“I can’t say,” Steve said, eyes downcast. “You’ll see. If you choose to. I’ve got to go.”

Steve snapped the briefcase shut, looking at them all.

“You can't just come and leave with no explanation, McFly. Where are you from?” Tony said.

“I can’t say—”

“Answer the question,” Tony snapped, seeming shaken. Steve thought he’d be snarkier, but maybe he realized the gravity of the situation. He had just almost died with a nuke in space after all. The world had suddenly become a bigger, more terrifying place. This certainly didn’t help. Yet here Tony was, still trying to protect everyone. He’d never stop being proud of him.

Steve sighed, looking around. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his (2023 Stark Brand) cellphone, typing a message draft on it. He held it up. It said: From about a dozen years in the future.

Nat gasped and Tony chuckled somewhat hysterically.

“Wow,” Clint rasped, eyebrows raised.

“Listen, I’ve got to go. It was good seeing you,” Steve said. He couldn’t resist it, he gave the metal shoulder a pat—Tony seemed to care less about the contact. Then he turned to Nat and reached his hand out to squeeze her shoulder. She let him, eyeing him with curiosity. “I know you have questions, but I can’t answer them. You don’t need to know the answer to all of them, but I know you’ll try,” Steve said, chuckling. He was filled with elation at getting to see Natasha one last time, god he missed her and Tony more than breathing.

He stepped back, gathering everything and trying to distance himself. If he talked to them any longer he’d be tempted to stay and help them, but he just couldn’t do that. He prayed that this information would help their universe and not destroy it, but no one had all the answers. Giving their past selves a slew of information wasn’t Steve’s idea, but the more he thought about how the final battle could have gone if they’d all been together and fought Thanos as a unit…the more he knew that they probably could have won. They didn’t need the Infinity Stones to beat Thanos, they needed each other. Maybe this universe would turn out better, but again, who knew?

“Goodbye,” he said, taking in their shocked faces. He was memorizing the lines on Tony’s forehead and cheeks, the pink of Nat’s lips, the green of her eyes. He would relish this moment like a gift, however brief. He pushed a few buttons on his time-GPS, telling it to send him to the next prescribed location.

Tony stepped forward like he was trying to stop him, reaching out a hand and shouting, “Hey! Get back here, you can't just Lake House us like th—”

But then they were shielding their eyes as he disappeared in a flash of white, startling light.

NEW YORK 2012

Steve squatted a few inches, bracing himself as he appeared. He looked around, prepared for the blinding light that greeted him as Banner disappeared. He was standing on a roof, a person in yellow—The Ancient One—had her back to him. Bruce may have arrived when he, Tony, and Scott did, but he left at a completely different time of that day. She turned, eyes wide and mouth slightly open. She walked over with grace looking him up and down.

“It seems I counted on the right people,” she said. She came toward Steve, her gaunt face watchful but calm. He opened the case and offered her the emerald Time Stone, without letting a nano-box cover it. He was told she would be waiting. She reached out her fingers and delicately took the stone, looking at it with an expression of awe. “Thank you, Mr. Rogers.”

Steve knew enough about this woman from Dr. Strange to know it wasn’t out of place for her to know a famous name like his.

“The future hasn’t been kind,” her words were a statement as she looked him over and felt his energy. He thought she was fascinating, and briefly regretted not meeting her in his own timeline. This was clearly a person he could have learned a lot from.

“No. It hasn’t.”

Blue eyes locked on blue eyes as the woman stared at him. He wondered what she was seeing to look so interested.

“I won’t keep you, I know you’ve got many more stones to deliver,” she said, never breaking eye contact. “But, I want to know one thing.”

Steve tilted his head a bit, nodding once, “What is it?”

“Stephen Strange in your timeline, how is he?”

“He’s doing fine,” Steve offered, knowing Dr. Strange was alive and trying to be a sorcerer supreme without a Time Stone to guard. He couldn’t say he liked Dr. Strange very much, but he did respect him and his work. Maybe that was only because Steve didn’t know him that well.

The Ancient One nodded, the corners of her eyes crinkling only the slightest, “Thank you,” she bowed her head lightly, stepping away from the blond. “You still have a long journey. I am putting my faith in you, Steve. If you’re doing this alone, I know it’s for a reason. You must be the only one who can."

“I am,” he said, resolution in his tone. Two down, four to go. “Thank you for trusting us. You saved us.”

She looked up at him, knowing crossing her features, “But not all of you.”

“No.”

“You can not save everyone.” The Ancient One gave him a somber look, like they’d been friends for years. He decided he liked her.

“No. Didn’t stop us from trying.”

“Nor should it.”

“Goodbye, ma’am.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Rogers,” she said with compassion. The way she seemed to see right through him was unsettling, but there was something about her that was so transparent, so decent, that Steve knew he would have an exceptionally hard time forgetting her. He input the direction on his device to send him to the next location. As light engulfed him and clouded his vision, he vaguely saw the Ancient One still watching over him, making sure his exit was a success.

ASGARD 2013

This time whenever his feet hit the ground and he appeared—with a flash and a noise that seemed to echo off the high stone ceilings and large walls for far too long—he crashed to his knees. His stomach lurched and he immediately felt his gut turning. He gagged once or twice and then threw up most of his breakfast, unable to stand up from vertigo. As he vomited, he distantly heard a shout. Just as quickly as the wave of sickness struck him, it seemed to go, leaving him feeling hungry with ringing ears.

“Oh, goodness!”

A woman—he’d been told was Thor’s mother Frigga before he left—had been sweetly rubbing his back, and she was on her knees with him.

Once he blinked and wiped his mouth, he sat back, panting softly. As a super-soldier it was rare for him to ever feel sick, but he knew this sickness had nothing to do with the flu. Somehow, it was related to time-travel. He didn’t recall feeling this way during the original Time Heist, but that didn’t mean that traveling through time couldn’t mess with his body. That wasn’t something he’d given much thought too, but he wasn’t going to let it mess with his mission. He’d keep going if it killed him.

He steeled himself and cleared his throat, “I’m fine, ma’am.”

Her long wavy tresses of blonde hair dragged the floor as she sat with him, concern worrying her features, “Are you sure?” she said, a small laugh of disbelief. Her smile turned into a frown though as she caught sight of Mjolnir.

“I’m sure. I’ll be alright.” He reached into the case and pushed a spot near the Reality Stone. The Reality Stone was engulfed in a nano-tech box. He handed it to her. She took it, looking worried.

“Where is my son?”

She kept staring at Mjolnir, even though her hand was still rubbing his back. He remembered Thor telling him that Frigga could see bits of the future, but he supposed even someone like her couldn’t see everything. He had no idea how any of this worked, but he didn’t mind easing her fears.

“He’s alive and doing pretty well. He helped save a whole lot of people.”

She put a hand over her heart, sighing, and smiling broadly, “My boy…I told him he could do it.”

“I’m Steve Rogers. I’m a friend from work,” he offered his—vomit-free—hand to her. She shook it and then stood, offering to help him up. She hauled him up with more strength than she looked like she had.

“Hello Steve, I’m Frigga. Thor’s mom. You must be a…”

He’d dropped Mjolnir when he arrived, but he picked it up and put it on the large sill of a nearby massive and glassless arched window. Somewhere he knew he’d miss the weight of it in his hands, holding Mjolnir was like holding his shield—the thing had become a part of him. But, it wasn’t his. It needed to get back in its own timeline where it belonged.

“…good friend,” she said, wide-eyed, staring at him.

He looked a little shy upon seeing her face, “Don’t tell him,” Steve said through a chuckle.

She blinked away her surprise, laughed, and threw her arms around him. She didn’t seem to care that he’d just upchucked at all. He blinked, and then patted her back politely, heat rising in his cheeks. He’d forgotten what it was like to have a mother’s worry and delight directed at him. It was pure and something he couldn’t believe he’d once had, the 1940s life he’d left behind felt so distant now. Frigga reminded him of his own mother. They both had such beautiful blond hair and blue eyes, kind smiles, and strong wills. He could already tell Frigga was a great mom. He wasn’t for sure what had earned a hug from her, but it made him remember a warm and whole feeling that he didn't know he'd missed so much.

“Are you sure you don’t need anything?”

“I’m alright. It was nice meeting you.” He input the command on his device. Three down. Three to go.

“You take good care of Thor! Make him eat a salad! Bye bye Steve,” she said, waving at him and going over to stand by the window. He smiled at her, waving a hand too.

“I don’t think anyone could make him eat a salad, not even me.”

“Well, at least give it a shot! Mjolnir trusts you! So will I! Leafy greens!”

He disappeared while laughing this time. Once he was thrown into the quantum realm again, his laugh died down into a pleased huff. Now he understood why Thor was so spoiled. A good mom like that? Oh yeah, that’s the kind that spoils their sons. But Thor was a good person, no matter how spoiled he’d been when they’d first met. His heart swelled. He was glad Thor had gotten to see his mom again. Steve was glad he gotten to meet her. He was halfway finished with this mission. But even so, he knew that the last place on this quest was going to be the hardest. He tried not to think about it.

MORAG 2014

After being greeted by a burst of brightness, he found himself surrounded by dark, inky stone. He looked around, the air smelling dank, musty, and reminiscent to that of an old basement. During the war, he’d been in enough old places to know the essence of an unused, uncared for space. Shouting rang in his ears, causing him to take a battle stance. He held up his hands, just as he saw Nebula screaming. She shouted, her left eye glowing and sparking. He reached for her out of instinct, just as she fell and collapsed in his arms. She was completely limp, and when he went to check for a heartbeat on her neck he found there wasn’t one. Instead, he felt a harsh, hard piece of something. He frowned, hating how Nebula had been treated. No one should have to go through what this woman had. He knew that somewhere between now and a few minutes from now his Nebula runs away and then gets abducted by Thanos. He wasn't sure how much time he had until then. What he was sure of was that Nebula was his friend, and in his eyes, an Avenger.

Shuri had told him that the moment the stones were back in their own timelines, that timeline and all those that branch from it were hypothetically safe. She had also said that the moment he arrived and put the stone back, it was possible that after that second, he would create alternate timelines within those timelines since they had become his new future. So, in this reality, if he saved Nebula, the Time Heist in that other reality could have turned out different. Shuri loved talking so fast he could barely comprehend what she was saying, even when he did understand the words. The only thing he took from her speech was that if he saved or helped people when he went back, it wouldn’t affect what they had already done so long as no new threats arose and came back with him. So, he took Nebula in his arms and checked her over. He worked fast once he realized a projection was coming from her eye and turned her on her back. He input the right coordinates on her device, then held her hand over her other hand. Steve dropped it. The force of her lifeless limb slapping against her time-GPS and was enough to activate it, making her disappear in white iridescence before him.

Steve stood panting, body surging with the urge to fight. He knew Thanos was coming soon, remembering Nebula’s warning. Somewhere, he hoped that with this Nebula safe, maybe the Time Heist in her new reality would have only had one casualty. Maybe Tony was alive there. Or maybe worse would happen. The 2014 he was stuck in still had a chance at a different fate too, if he got to Peter Quill fast enough.

He ran out of the sanctum of the Power Stone temple, sprinting into the muddy, alien-vermin infested ruins. He looked around, backtracking the footprints he saw in all the dirt until he found Quill. Quill was laying face down, drooling. Steve reached down and grabbed him fireman style, running as fast as he could with his slack—and startlingly heavy—form.

His legs sunk into the dirt and mud since they were carrying almost five hundred pounds—he and Quill together weighed quite a bit. He distantly saw a ship and he ran toward it panting, noticing it didn’t look like The Benatar at all—he remembered 2023 Quill had called it the Milano when he asked what to expect. Nebula had told him that shortly after she collapsed, Thanos had taken her and the pod-ship from the Benatar hostage, using the other Nebula’s mind link to keep making her collapse. Nebula had tried to escape back into their timeline, but she’d scream and fall each time she suited up. It made him seethe.

The moment he got near the other ship, hairs on the back of his neck raised. He looked up. Rage filled him as he watched a huge, ominous dark shape travel through the clouds. The dull roar of the distant colossal engines cut through his bones, familiar and daunting. He knew it belonged to Thanos. The ship moved on and didn’t abduct anyone or anything, disappearing into the overcast sky. Steve stared, wondering why it didn’t take the pod-ship from the Benatar like Nebula had told him it would. Perhaps with her gone he couldn’t lock on to her location? He wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He also wondered where that other ship full of people were. Rocket had explained a man named Korath had originally tried to fight Quill in 2014. Strange, Steve didn’t see any other aircraft at all.

Steve looked up at the ship, jumping on a few rocks and managing to climb up on a small outcropping without dropping Star-Lord or the briefcase. He stared at the cockpit, unsure of how it opened.

“Hey!” he called, slapping Peter’s face as he laid him out on his back. “Hey, Quill!” Grabbing the man by his coat, he shook him, calling his name. It took a while, but eventually the man roused.

He ran a hand threw his hair, groaning and writhing on the rock.

“Oh, man,” Quill rubbed his face, rolling back and forth and looking around. His tired eyes finally settled on Steve and he drew his guns immediately. “Hey, you—!"

“Hey, Quill. Star-Lord, I’m a friend. I’m helping you,” he said, a gentle but serious look in his eyes.

Quill’s eyes widened but still seemed to calm, and perk, at being recognized. “Then where’s the bag of cracks that knocked me out? I’ve been knocked out enough to know what being knocked out feels like,” he said, laughing in a gruff, throaty way. “If you knocked me out, you better fess up man.” Quill was checking his bags and pockets to see if he’d been stolen from.

Cap just looked at him, thankful he was awake, “Not exactly. Can you open your ship? I need to talk to you.”

Star-Lord turned around squinting into the mist and rain, “Did they get the orb thing?”

“No, we have it.” Caps’ hair was plastered to his head and he was wet. His boots were covered in mud.

“Who's we?”

“Me. Us, I grabbed it. I'm on your side, Quill.”

Quill looked at him, tilting his head, “What is it, anyway?”

“I’ll tell you when we get inside the ship, it’s not safe out here. There could be more people coming.”

It didn't take as much persuasion as Steve thought it would to encourage the other to let him on-board the ship. But even when Quill agreeably brought them inside, he still seemed wildly unsure about Steve’s presence. He kept looking at him with suspicion, body tense. The moment they were inside, Quill took off, the Milano rising into the atmosphere. Out of nowhere they were startled by a sudden voice.

“Peter?”

Quill turned around, eyes wide, “Oh. Hey! Uh…um…uh…”

“Bereet!”

“Hey, Bereet! I’m gonna be completely honest with ya, I forgot you were here.”

Steve could already tell trying to convince Peter Quill from 2014 to do anything was going to be hassle.

As they got farther and farther away from Morag, Steve finally began to talk. He didn’t know much about space or space travel, but he did know Thanos had the most powerful fleets. He couldn't have been far away.

“Quill, you’ve got to listen to me.”

“Okay, are you a Nova cop? You look like a Nova cop. Look, whatever I did—”

“I’m not a Nova cop. I’m an Avenger. I want you to take this ship to Earth. I want you to go to New York,” Steve started.

“What? I’m not going to Earth, screw that. I’m selling this thing.” Bereet was discreetly covered in a blanket, it seemed that Steve made her nervous. Rogers didn’t blame her. “Okay, buddy, I don’t know who you are…”

“My name is Steve Rogers. I’m here on an important mission.”

“Pfft, Steve Rogers? What, like Captain America, c’mon man,” Quill said, laughing as he stood and went over to a box. He pushed a few buttons and a pleasant song started playing, something from the 70s Steve knew—since Rhodey and Sam had forced him to listen to 70 years' worth of pop music practically all at once.

Steve nodded, “Exactly like Captain America.”

“What?” Quill turned to him, scratching his nose on his knuckle. A phone call alert rang, which Quill promptly ignored. It was too far away for any of them to reach anyway.

“I am Captain America. When I went down in ’45, I went down on ice. It froze me and kept me in a state of suspended animation. I was thawed out just a few years ago. Ever since then I’ve been helping keep Earth safe as part of the Avengers, Earth’s mightiest heroes,” Cap said, watching complex emotions go over Quill’s face. He knew the spiel was corny, but it was the truth. Quill was a simple man.

Peter just stared at him, looking like he didn’t believe it for a second, “Come on man. Don’t mess with me, I’m tired and my head hurts.”

But the more Quill looked at him the more he seemed to show recognition. He looked Steve up and down, eyes so narrowed Rogers actually wondered if he could still see him. Suddenly his eyes practically bugged out of his head.

“Wait—holy crap!”

And what followed was a few hours of Steve trying to tell Quill to calm the hell down—Peter was fanboying, and hard—while also trying to ultimately express to him the seriousness of the whole situation. Talking to Peter Quill was like talking to a rock…a very excited, thick rock.

“Quill, listen. I know how you're feeling, but I've got to tell you about the orb. The object we got from that temple is an object of unimaginable power, and if you sell it, Thanos is going to get it. And do you know what he does with it?”

Star-Lord, still looking blown away, shook his head, “No? I don't even know who Thanos is!”

“He's called The Mad Titan. He wants to destroy half of all life in the galaxy. And in my reality, he succeeds in doing it.”

Quill quirked an eyebrow, not seeming convinced once again as Steve continued, “I’m from the future. I can’t explain it fully right now, but Quill, you have to understand. In the future you fight among the greatest warriors in the galaxy to protect the universe from Thanos. I know you want to make money off of this, but whatever you're hoping to get will not be worth what happens when it leaves your hands.”

Peter had told him that if Steve ever needed to convince Quill from the past, there was only one way to make him believe he was the real deal.

“Man that sounds like some grade-A bullcrap a crazy dude who wants this orb thing would say to take it from me. Doesn’t it?” he turned to Bereet who panicked and nodded in agreement.

“You told me that if you didn’t believe me I should tell you that I know that when you were younger, you used to carry around a picture of David Hasselhoff, and tell people he was your father,” Steve hoped his voice carried the urgency he so desperately was trying to convey.

Star-Lord had looked relatively joking, but the moment he said that his look turned serious and he leaned forward. “The hell you just say?”

“I said—”

“I heard you…” Star-Lord looked back at Bereet, back at his tape player, and then to his hands like all of these things could help him. “Aw…no,” he covered his face. “Captain America knows I was a freaking loser.”

Steve sighed, “Quill. You’re not a loser. In my universe you help save the world more than once. I need you to do it again. I need your help. The universe needs your help. I happen to know a lot about you, and the great things you’re capable of. There’s no one else we can trust with this.” Cap put his hand on Quill’s shoulder, squeezing it, “You have to help. Or else it will not end well. Trillions die. Maybe, we can save some of those people. Just, listen to what I have to say and consider doing what I ask?” The fact Quill was a fan of him was the only reason he was positive this would work, he could tell he was winning the other man over. Was it manipulation? A little, but his words will still the truth.

Quill watched him with wide eyes—Steve thought he legitimately saw a glossy sheen begin to form in them.

“Am I…am I dreaming right now? I’m dead right? Bereet, did you drug me and take my stuff? Am I tripping on something and dying like Elvis on the crapper?” Quill’s voice was shaking. “I mean…Captain America needs my help? That’s impossible, right?”

Bereet tried to hide in her blanket, mumbling something. Steve knew she couldn't understand what he was saying to Quill. But he couldn't understand what she was saying either. Quill was the only one in the ship with a translator chip in his neck. What Steve was fascinated by was the fact that both he and Bereet seemed to be able to comprehend what Star-Lord was saying at the same time. Cap wondered if the translator chip was a sort of transmitter that could help everyone around Quill understand his words. Steve would never stop marveling at technology.

Steve continued squeezing his shoulder, a look of hope covering his features.

“Will you listen to me?”

Quill nodded, double chinning as he looked at his legs, expression vulnerable, “Yeah, sure man.”

Steve Rogers exhaled with relief. That was how he ended up somehow convincing Quill to go back to Earth, find the Avengers, and keep Thanos from getting the Power Stone by decimating Xandar. Cap had come prepared, and was showing Quill videos, data, voice recordings, and even a few clips from some documentaries. It took a lot, but eventually the other man caved and set course for Earth. Steve had brought a few more flash drives (it turned out Quill did have technology to make it work), all copies of each other. Quill dropped off Bereet somewhere of her choosing, and that’s when Cap decided it was time to go. He’d just have to trust Peter with this. Quill seemed unsettled by the whole thing, but Rogers had faith in him.

He’d been told that Peter was half-celestial and had a father who was a powerful living planet. That data was on the drives too. Cap couldn’t change this world, he’d have to trust others could if equipped with the right knowledge. As he watched Peter excitedly tell him a story about reading his comics as a kid, he began to remember something Tony had told him long before they’d tried to kill each other.

“You know Cap, you don’t have to do everything yourself.”

Steve almost smiled, thinking about it. It wasn’t until he'd seen Carol Danvers singlehandedly bring down Thanos’ ship as thousands of Avengers and warriors fought on the battlefield that he realized the Earth was in good hands. Avengers would come and help. They weren’t alone, and there would always be someone, anyone, ready to fight. There would always be someone…on the left. Earth wasn’t defenseless, and Thanos in any universe had a fight coming his way. Who knew what would happen? The Thanos of this branch 2014 timeline didn’t get the Pym particles. So that meant he could never go back to the past. But it did mean he was stuck here, and someone would have to deal with him.

Even as he watched Peter brim with childish vigor in front of him, he couldn’t help but think this world didn’t need his help. This world didn’t need an old, washed-up Captain America. It needed Quill, the Avengers, anyone. He’d been fighting for so long and fighting so hard, he’d almost forgotten that he wasn’t always fighting alone. No one liked bullies. He was convinced that however his return of the Power Stone would affect this universe, it had to end well. And if it didn’t, someone would make sure that everything turned out okay. He’d have to trust that it would.

“So there’s another Captain America on Earth, like right now?”

“Mhm. Yeah.”

“That’s so freaking weird...So, you said I helped save the world? How?”

"By being yourself. And working with a team. Teamwork, family, it’s the most important thing there is.”

Quill looked at him and then out the window, eyebrows knit. “There’s…no one alive left for me on Earth. My mom died on Earth. Don’t seem right to go there without her. I don't really have a family, Captain.”

“Then make one. That’s what I did,” Steve said, watching Quill admiringly. For as much of a pain in the ass as he was, he was kind of charming. “I can’t tell you who’s destined to come into your life, but what I can tell you is that it will happen. What you need to do now is go to Earth. Cloak the ship. Go to the coordinates I gave you. Tell them who you are and use this flash drive as evidence. Ask for Tony Stark. I have his phone number and an emergency line that his AI, JARVIS, will recognize. You’re going to be able to do this. The stone just has to be as far away from Thanos as possible.”

Quill nodded, looking constipated.

“I know you don’t want to do this. But I also know that when Power Stone ends up on Xandar, in our universe, Thanos annihilates the planet. I don’t want that to happen to Earth or Xandar. The Avengers will know what to do, but they haven’t faced anything like this yet, so you’ve got to try your best to educate them. You’re used to space. You’ve got the flash drive. You know so much more than they do right now,” Steve finished. After giving him everything, including the Power Stone encased in nano-tech, he stepped back. “If anyone touches that stone with bare hands, it will kill them. Don’t let the stone fall onto the ground, and don’t let it touch anything organic.”

“Can I trust you, Peter Quill?” Cap said, raising an arm and saluting Star-Lord. He could tell he was going to have to pull the "American War Hero" card.

Star-Lord got tears in his eyes and nodded his head up and down, “Hell yeah, Captain America,” he said, voice wavering. He saluted himself so hard in the forehead Steve wondered if it had hurt.

“The universe is counting on you.” Then, he pushed the right button on his time-GPS, disappearing from Quill’s ship.

NEW JERSEY 1970

Steve appeared with a glorious shimmer in a storage closet. He and Tony during the Time Heist had ran to a storage closet in the compound to get out Pym particles out and zap home unseen. He arrived just as they left. His heart sank a little.

He could still smell Stark’s cologne and aftershave permeating the small space. It made his heart hurt, knowing that he was smelling and seeing remnants of a ghost. A ghost that was a best friend. Family.

Steve had been told what to do with this stone. It was relatively safe in SHIELD’s control, even if they were infiltrated by HYDRA. The only reason the stone got taken in the first place was because they had been trying some pretty risky experiments with it, and of course, Loki. In 1970, there really weren’t any better hands to give it to.

He was in his entire scaled Captain America 2023 outfit right now, and that was going to be damn hard to hide. He needed to change his clothes. So, he took off his layers until he was just in a white under shirt and his tactical blue pants. He’d taken off the boot toppers and gloves. Eventually, he listened, waiting, and standing in the closet for the sounds of foot traffic to die down outside. Eventually, it did, and he opened the door. There was no one in the halls. He brushed his hair back, using a discarded piece of the suit to dry off his face. He was still damp and soggy from his gallop on Morag. He pressed the buttons on the case and grabbed the two remaining nano-tech covered stones, shoving them in his pockets. Steve couldn’t travel with the briefcase.

Slipping out of the closet, he looked around and then ran down the hall. This place was laid out differently than he’d remembered, but it was still a military base. He knew how to make his way around. Eventually, he high-tailed it back to Hank Pym’s office.

The moment he got in; his eyes darted around the room. He stopped when he saw what must have been Hank Pym. Hank was holding a cup of coffee, staring at him with wide eyes. The man looked disheveled, hair insane, and his lab was a disaster. The man’s eyes were bloodshot, and he looked like he’d been upset recently. Steve felt guilty for taking his particles—and probably getting him screamed at by some higher up official—but he hadn’t taken them all. And he certainly couldn’t give them back. Not time to lament now.

He laid the Space Stone nano-box down on the nearby lab counter.

“Be careful Dr. Pym, HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD. Dr. Zola isn’t who he says he is, he’s still loyal to HYDRA.”

Mr. Pym tilted his head, “What? Who are you?” Even though it was clear there was recognition on his face. Steve was glad Pym’s first instinct was to listen.

“This belongs downstairs, it was in the Tesseract. I stole it. Please make sure that box gets returned to where it was taken from. My apologies Mr. Pym. I’m the guy who stole your Pym Particles, too,” Steve managed to say as he input coordinates on his time-GPS. The moment he mentioned stealing the particles, Hank ran toward him sloshing the coffee like he planned on using it as a weapon. Once upon a time the super soldier recalled Scott telling him how Howard and Hank never got along because Hank was convinced Howard had stolen something from him. Maybe now they would be more at peace.

Steve disappeared to his last location the moment he heard Hank begin to shout obscenities. Dr. Pym could be trusted. Maybe he’d know what to do, or maybe he’d even be able to help prevent some carnage in the future. Steve didn’t want to linger there any longer. If he did, he would have been tempted to stay, to find Peggy and just talk to her.

Peggy. Her very name filled him with warmth and longing. But the warmth of her memory, soft hair, red lips, and sweet brown eyes was replaced with the hollow, harsh, chill that ran through his spine when he felt his legs sink into water, drenching his pant legs once more.

VORMIR 2014

He was standing in a few inches of water, surrounded by large threatening mountains, and dunes of shadowy sand. There seemed to be an eclipse happening as he looked up into a purple and red sky filled with darkened clouds. There wasn’t a sound on this planet other than wind and trickling water. There were no animals, no insects, no wildlife of any kind. As he looked all around, he couldn’t even see plants. The entire planet felt otherworldly, and of all the places he’d been so far, it felt the most like a place where he wasn’t welcome. The dark pink of the sky made the colors fade from everything around him, as if he was constantly in twilight. The air tasted different. The pressure on this planet was affecting his eardrums. This place was wrong. There was a biting edge to the air that made the hair stand up on his arms and neck. Steve had the strangest feeling to turn around, and then he saw the large mountain with its two mighty pillars. The cliff that Clint talked about.

The cliff where Natasha killed herself for the Soul Stone.

Steve’s hands clenched into fists. His heart sank as he realized her body was probably still here. He grimaced, but nodded to himself, he’d find her and properly cremate her like she’d wanted. Not on this planet, but on Earth, with her family. He began his journey running, trudging through the wet and the sand. He had a long trip to make, and he wasn’t feeling all that well thanks to the time travel sickness, but this wasn’t about him. It was about Nat, and giving her some god damn dignity. The dry, cold wind whipped his hair around his face as he walked, sending goosebumps down his body with the chill. Every now and then his boots would sink into the sand, and he’d nearly fall in or sink too. Sometimes, he’d take a step thinking he was seeing sand, only to find himself waist deep in water. This place was playing tricks on his mind, and he was already exhausted by it. This whole planet was a tomb, and he was still having trouble believing that the whole “soul for a soul” thing was real. But they had a Soul Stone and no Nat. God, Nat. He felt a weight in his body, a guilt, that she had to die so they could get the damn stone that sat in his pocket.

Before he knew it, he’d climbed up the small mountain, heart heavy and mind lamenting. He was a soldier, he was strong. He’d seen many comrades and friends fall in battle. But Natasha’s death? He had a hard time not feeling personally responsible. She didn’t deserve to die on an alien planet alone. Clint may have been there, but it just wasn’t right. No part of it sat well with Steve. Natasha deserved better.

Finally, he came up a pass, seeing the two monumentous pillars looming like giants above him. He didn’t know this place, but it felt foreboding. A feeling in the back of his mind was telling him to leave. Whispers of terror pulled at his brain, almost begging him to reconsider. He pushed on though, never having experienced this feeling before. It wasn’t fear, or anxiety, it was something in between that he had no control over. He kept looking over his shoulder. He’d been told of a man with a red face in a cloak, but he hadn’t seen any form of life so far. The wetness from his pants and boots was starting to freeze, crusting against his legs with frost. He only had a white shirt on. Eventually deciding it was enough, he pushed a button on his hand that unleashed his nano-tech suit from its housing in the time-GPS. He’d been using the cold to keep him focused, now it was just getting in the way. The higher he’d gotten, the colder it had become. Flurries of snow and ice ticked against his helmet. It was miserable, but he’d endured worse. Just as he stepped up near more level ground, a raspy voice sounded from somewhere his astute ears couldn’t identify.

“Steven. Son of Sarah,” a figure called, floating before him as a specter. He couldn’t see the wispy form’s face, it was hidden under the shadow of a black hood. The eclipse had moved, and now the large sun was casting blood red light on the planet as it began to set. Steve’s breathing picked up at hearing the voice, it sounded strange. It was almost like he knew who it belonged too.

“How do you know me?” Steve asked, taking a few steps forward. His helmet retracted, but the suit stayed on. He approached, shoulders back, and head high.

The other form was quiet for a moment but constantly got closer to Steve, as silent as death. “You and I have crossed paths before, Captain Rogers. Long ago, when the world was at war.”

Steve stopped, clenching his jaw. Then, the man came closer and the ghastly red light of this planet’s sun shone upon his boney visage. He wore the face of a man Steve hadn’t seen in almost a hundred years. A face he thought had died. A face red and tight with the skin shrink-wrapped to the skull. The blond didn’t know what to feel.

What was he to feel when faced with such a phantom from the past? He felt confusion, and he wanted to feel anger, but this thing that floated before him…was it really Johann Schmidt? Or just some trick to test him?

“Johann? Is that you? Whatever you are, I don’t like tricks,” Steve said, stepping toward the figure, stance aggressive.

Red Skull paused to stare at Steve, a look of many things crossing his ancient weary features. But aggression and hatred, those were absent. “I have no name, I am but a guide. The name died with the man who wanted more than he deserved.”

Steve tilted his head, “What is this? How are you here?”

“In my greed and desperation, I thought I could handle the power of the stones. A lifetime ago, I reached for one, taking it in my hand. It banished me here, forcing me to guide others to a treasure I could never possess…” he floated down to be at Steve’s level. “Yet here you stand, come to give me a taste of what I once sought.”

This was beyond comprehension. The Space Stone had transported Johann here instead of killing him? The man looked like he’d been dead for years and this was just the apparition he’d left behind. There were no legs under him as he walked, yet he still seemed to have memory. He was a prisoner of Vormir, this dominion of death. Steve believed this manifestation of his past enemy; he knew this was no trick. Johann had been a Nazi. He was greedy, and he was evil. Steve was not a cruel man, so he could have never in his life have imagined a more perfect punishment for a man who enforced genocide. He would always be left for want, and Steve felt no guilt when considering how appropriate and ironic it was to see Johann had endured years of endless torment alone in this place. No bullet to the head or Earthly jail sentence could dole out this kind of justice. Steve didn’t feel sorry for Johann at all, but he was certain by the forlorn sound of Red Skull’s voice, that the other man had moved past regret, and had now accepted his sad, grim fate. This was a prison sentence well-served. A fitting end for a Nazi.

They just watched each other in a strange silence. It was a bizarre feeling, to see this man that had ruined his life, caused him to go into the ice, and yet…he didn’t want to hurt him. He was already being hurt. He had no hate for him anymore, just contempt. There wasn’t anything left of this man to hate other than his past deeds. Steve frowned, looking into his unnatural eyes and nodding.

“Yeah. I’ve come to give it back,” he said, pulling out the Soul Stone. He glanced around, noticing the edge of the cliff. Steve didn’t hate Red Skull. He didn’t hate the cliff. He didn’t even hate this god damn planet. He hated himself for not being strong enough to prevent Nat’s death in the first place. Rage bubbled up inside him again as he turned his head to Red Skull’s. “Where’s Natasha? She died for this.” His voice was cool, but his blood was boiling. He wanted her back. He wanted to back so badly.

He walked closer to the edge of the cliff, sparing a glance down. He could see nothing. No blood, no body, no Nat.

“What has been given can never be returned as you once knew it. I can take the stone if you truly wish to give it back, but irreversible choices have been made.”

Steve looked down at the spot she died with immense sadness, grief overcoming him. “Take it." There was a bite to his voice. He held up his hand to Red Skull, the Soul Stone in its nano-box resting on his palm.

He held a hand up to grasp at his own face, just as thunder began to crack loudly around him from seemingly all directions. He felt pressure pop in his ears, and wind began to turbulently storm around him. Harsh gusts forced his eyes to water, and he looked up through blurry eyes to see the sky had began to glow, the clouds moving up and swallowing themselves in a way that didn’t make any sense to him.

“What’s this? What’s going on!” Steve called, falling over as a harsh draught of wind seemed to blow the very air from his lungs. He collapsed, his world going dim in a sea of bitter cold and whirling air. A deafening, rumbling din got louder until there was only silence, his body going numb.

-

Steve was awoken by shivering. Violently, tremorous shivering. His torso was quaking, and his teeth were chattering. He was lying on his back, looking up at a black sky littered with stars and nebulas. Even as he drew shaking breaths, he could appreciate what he was seeing as beautiful. A strange sense of peace had washed over him even though he was so frigidly cold. He sat up, looking around in the dark, only to find his right hand wouldn’t move.

He looked down, seeing that someone was holding his hand. Confusion shone on his features until he realized with a surge of shock that the hand belonged to Natasha.

“Nat!” he shouted like a war-cry, reaching for her pale face shining in the darkness only to find she was ice cold and her skin was hard. He had gathered her up in his arms, feeling the heavy, wet weight of her body—his chest immediately began to convulse with tearless sobs. He gasped, trying to breathe as he looked down at her face. Her vibrant green eyes had turned grey and hazy, her skin practically blue. Her hair was still in the intricate braid it had been, but it was messy. Her mouth was open and her lips were parted, and it was so horrifying to him, all he could do was mourn her. He held her and rocked her for an unknown amount of time, his nose buried in her frost-crusted hair. She didn’t smell like she used to.

He clutched her close, shaking from the chill and his grief, wishing beyond all reason she was alive and smiling at him. He wished for a million things, but nothing in the world would ever breathe life back into her body. When he finally managed to open his eyes, he kissed her forehead, hearing words she’d said to him over the years sing through his brain. He stayed sitting as he slowly input some coordinates into his time-GPS. He didn’t want to be on this planet, and she deserved to go home, even if it was in some other timeline.

Steve held onto her body in a vice grip as he traveled through the quantum realm, still quivering from emotion. He didn’t want anyone else to see her body. They’d grieved her. They were mourning her. This wasn’t their Natasha anyway, not really, it was just a shell. That didn’t stop him from wanting to hold it close.

He would give her the funeral she didn’t get to have.

NEW YORK 2018

He arrived sometime in the middle of the night. Nat had once told him she'd always wanted to be cremated, not buried in the ground like some forgotten thing. So he took her to an Avengers warehouse where they often burned objects villains left behind that they didn’t want people to get their hands on. Outfits, weapons, clothes, nothing was too proud for the incinerator. He got in the building using his credentials. No one was in here this late at night, and he knew no one would bother him.

Steve took her body and pet her hair, just looking down at her face and thinking about things he'd wished to tell her. Steve looked for the little arrow necklace Clint had given her a long time ago, the one she always wore. He found it wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet underneath the electric gauntlets. Steve delicately took it off, clutching it in his fist. She deserved so much better.

He took a deep shuddery breath as he put her body in the large furnace. The building wasn’t scary, dark, or unkept. The furnace was large, clean, and everything around it was white. This room looked more like an operating room, but it didn’t make what he was doing feel any less dirty. This felt wrong for many reasons, but mostly because he should have never had to bury her, figuratively or literally. He squeezed her hard hand before stepping back and closing the large door. Steve said a few words for her in his head, cursing that she never got to see what her sacrifice did. But she knew. He knew she knew.

As he pushed the button and heard loud warning buzzers sound, he shuddered. Their initial failure had caused her death. At least she died knowing she mattered. Steve knew she would be proud of them, everything had turned out alright. But it didn’t feel alright because she wasn’t there to celebrate with them. But he couldn’t change it. Her sacrifice wasn’t in vain. It was because of Nat that everyone else in the whole universe could survive, and love, and live. He stayed until the incinerator turned off, and there was nothing left but black soot on the walls. It performed a cleaning cycle that gave him the ash residue in a small container, something they’d normally discard. This time, he took it with him.

Later that night he found himself at the Avengers Compound in just a short run. His mind was a mess, and he was overcome with grief, cold, nausea from the time sickness, and a sense of mild confusion. It was only after he’d gotten into the compound’s grounds that he realized he’d safely returned all of the stones. The realities were safe. Natasha was coming home. Everything was how it was supposed to have been...He’d done it. After he laid Nat to rest, his mission would be complete. He could go home.

We can go home. Peggy’s voice rang out in his mind.

He stopped, clutching the container of Natasha’s remains to his chest and looking out at the large “A” on the side of the building. Home. He shook his head, walking to the edge of the body of water that touched the compound’s property. In his mind’s eye, a memory played.

It was a cold morning a few years after the Battle of Wakanda, after the Snap. He and Natasha were drinking coffee and just sitting on the dock bundled up in warm clothes. Sometimes he and Natasha would get to spend time together, trying to find some happiness in each others’ company. Most of the time, they led lives far apart. But they were still family, and whenever Steve visited the compound, she always made time for him out of her busy schedule. There was a long comfortable silence before she smiled at him, nudging his shoulder.

“You know what?” she said.

“What?” he asked, sipping his steaming cup and turning to her.

“This is my favorite place in the whole world.”

“The dock?”

“No, just…this place. The compound. You guys. It’s my home here, y'know?” she put her cup down, setting her chin on the knee she had drawn to her chest. “I love it.”

“I like it too,” he said, wrapping an arm around her and giving her a squeeze. “I know what you mean.”

They enjoyed another silence before going back inside so Nat could start a meeting she’d planned with Okoye.

He walked up to the water. Even though it was late, he could distantly see the dock in the compound’s floodlights from his place on the bank. He opened the container and poured it into the water, watching as the blackness of the ashy soot swirled into the depths. He gently tossed in her little necklace, only feeling truly satisfied when it sank from view. Steve knew this is where she would have wanted to be laid to rest, in the place she loved and in the place she felt loved. In the place he had admitted she didn’t want to leave. It felt right, it didn’t matter what branch timeline or universe, she was home. This was her home in every universe. Steve took a deep breath and turned away, walking from the compound down to the tree-lined roads. He felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. It had never sat well with him that they hadn't gotten to give her a proper goodbye. Even though he was deeply unsettled and disturbed, he was glad this task fell to him. He wouldn't have wanted anyone else to do such a miserable thing. As appalling as it was to carry her and see her that way, he would forever rest easy knowing that he had managed to bring her home in some tragic, awful way.

As he walked, he pondered life and tried to repress down what he'd just done. He thought about what he was going to do once he got back to his own time. After that final battle, he didn’t really feel like they needed Steve Rogers anymore. The Earth was safe. They could survive without him. Maybe he’d train Sam and Bucky to do his job. Afterall, Bucky hadn’t gotten a chance to try getting a life yet. Steve input some coordinates on his time-GPS, trying to swallow down the shit-show that was his most recent 24 hours of existence. It only took him a whole day to return every stone. But as he prepared to push the initiation sequence key, he stopped. Home.

We can go home. Peggy’s voice called to him again, as clear as a bell. He suddenly got hit with that same pang of need, of want, that he’d had during the Time Heist. He was abruptly standing there behind that window, watching Peggy from behind the glass. She was everything he wanted. She was everything he fought for. But home…would it be too much to say his real home was back in the 1940s? After everything that had happened, everyone else was moving on. Could he move on? What did moving on mean for Steve Rogers? He wondered, could it mean going back? Moving on from being Captain America, Avenger, The Man Out of Time? He looked down at the device on his wrist, whole body shaking at the prospect.

The past few years faded away and he remembered the things Peggy had told him when she was old and trying so hard to be herself for him. She told him to start over. He loved her so much it physically hurt him. If Natasha was here, what would she say to him? What would Tony say to him?

The sun was starting to rise, and he’d only noticed because a sun beam cut through the trees and caused him to close his eyes. When he opened them, he heard Tony’s voice in his mind.

“What the hell are you waiting for, Capsicle? 

He felt guilty for wanting to go back to where he left off. Could he? Would everyone be okay? He couldn’t really go home home…right? What was it like to live that life that Tony had? To be himself instead of what the future had turned him into? Questions, options, thoughts, and fantasies he rarely let himself dwell on flooded his conscious. Cap’s eyes widened as his stomach filled with butterflies at the very idea. What was stopping him? Who was stopping him? The universe didn’t need him anymore, he’d done everything that had been asked of him. The final mission of Steve Rogers, Captain America from 2023 was complete.

He could go home.

He could go back and make the home with Peggy he’d never had. The only one that needed him now was Peggy, somewhere in time. He had seen Peggy die, he knew she’d leave the world before he did with his super serum, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the space in between. That life, that little bit of something he’d missed between now and the 1940s. What would it be like…to go home? Forever? For real?

As he watched sun rise through the trees and over the tree tops he let himself really consider the idea. Nat was at rest. She’d done what she wanted. Tony was at rest, having finally become the very suit of armor around the world he’d so hoped for. Could he be at rest with the woman he loved? He turned around and ran all the way back to the compound. He didn’t know what day it was or even if his other double was home. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except the next set of coordinates and getting clean. He got into the compound with no resistance, running into one of the gyms and taking a long, hot shower. After borrowing some clothes from a locker, he ran out to the large Avenger garages. Once inside, he found his prized motorcycle. He found the bag with a change of dress clothes in it; a dark blue shirt, a belt, nice dress shoes, and some dark slacks. It was tradition in case he needed to be presentable fast. He pulled out a baggy with a comb, his favorite gel, and a stick of deodorant. There was tiny toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste.

As he changed and spiffied himself up, his heart hammered with each action. It wasn’t until he’d looked in the side mirror of his motorcycle to make sure that his hair was acceptable that he really understood what he was about to do. He was about to trade everything he knew, this entire modern world and all of its amenities for the life he wanted. He remembered Bucky’s face, his tone. Had Bucky known he was going to do this somehow? Of course he did. Bucky knew him better than he knew himself. He smirked sadly. Bucky knew that she was home for Steve. He straightened his collar and then rose a hand to push the buttons of the time-GPS. His fingers shook as he entered the coordinates of where he knew she was in 1947. She’d been kicking ass and taking names, long after he’d left her. He was so proud of her. She inspired him every day and now…he…

His breath hitched and his arm quaked, tears prickled his eyes and he swallowed, gasping, hand hesitating over the button. Why was it so hard to just take what he wanted? He deserved it, right? Did it matter if he deserved it? He wanted…he wanted, so badly. He pushed the button on the time-GPS, vaulting himself through space and time once more. Maybe he’d come back to the future to talk to his friends, to pass on the mantle. He didn’t care about that right now, Steve knew he could come back at the moment he’d left. Steve Rogers would have as much time as he wanted to decide what he wanted to do when he saw them again. But he wouldn't do that until Peggy was no longer in the timeline he was headed to. Until it hurt to be there. As the medley of colors flew past him, he knew that life wasn’t going to be perfect. He might have ups and downs with her, hell it might not even work out in the long run, but he loved her. She loved him. The doubts only made him want to get there faster, knowing in his heart that she wanted him just as much as he wanted her.

1947

He arrived on a sidewalk. It was fall. He could smell it in the air. There were leaves rustling along the ground, and the ones still on the trees were all sorts of shades of orange and gold. He felt the sun warming his back through the cotton of his shirt. Steve’s eyes were wide as he just looked around, taking it all in. This scent, he remembered it. It smelled like the cars, it smelled like leaves, smoke, freshly cut grass…It smelled like…

He looked across the street and saw a modest yellow home. A figure moved past the window. He gasped, clutching at his chest, and just started running. He practically leaped up the stairs and by the time he reached the door he was panting from barely any exercise at all. He got to the door and just stopped, freezing in front of it. Steve knocked, licking his lips and staggering for each breath. He wanted to see her so badly, he could barely stand. He couldn’t breath. His head felt light, the butterflies in his stomach swelling to his chest.

She opened the door.

Peggy stood there with her hair beautiful and shorter than he’d last remembered. Her red lips matched her dress and her nails. Her makeup was perfect. She was perfect. She would be perfect when she was 95 with no makeup at all. She would always be perfect, in every way. Even her flaws, whatever those were, were gorgeous too.

His breath hitched and he tried to speak but couldn’t. His mind could barely believe she was right there, not a world away from him behind a pane of glass. He just reached for her and took her in his arms. She shouted his name and he whispered hers. They held each other in the doorway before Peggy put her head on his chest and cried his name brokenly, the sound of his name on her exquisite lips so lovely after all this time. He held her and slowly began to rock her back and forth, and before he knew it, they were dancing.