There’s a table next to his bed, filled with pictures.
A candid of Sam and Wanda, making goofy faces at each other, while Natasha watches on, fond and amused. A photo of Peggy, deep in thought, as she digs through old SSR reports. An old, faded snapshot of him and Bucky, in Brooklyn, before the war, with Bucky’s arm wrapped around his skinny shoulders.
A drawing of his mother, the way he remembers her, standing in the kitchen of their old tenement in her nurse’s uniform, trying to soak up as much of the sun that would shine in from their small sliver of a window.
This is his family.
Steve wakes up every day in this apartment, this third-story walk-up in West Harlem that Sam grew up in, that Sam’s mother couldn’t stand to give away, but couldn’t stand to live in anymore, either, and every day, that table of pictures is the first thing he sees.
This is his family and out of all of them, Natasha is the only one left.
The ride from West Harlem to the Avengers Compound should take about an hour, if he’s weaving in out of traffic.
It still takes about an hour, these days, only instead of traffic, he’s weaving in and out of abandoned car wrecks and potholes.
Steve is full of nervous energy, fingers tapping out a pattern on his jeans as he strides up to the front door and lets himself in. There’s a story stuck inside his chest and this doesn’t usually happen to him, he doesn’t usually find himself so sideswiped that he has to go and say it out loud just to finally let someone else see the full extent of the injury that he’s carrying around inside of himself.
Well, he and Natasha did do their fair share of crying on each other, back in the early days.
Back before Natasha decided to patch up what was left of the Avengers with scotch tape and determination.
Back before Steve started up the group at the near-shuttered VA because it was what Sam would’ve done and he couldn’t, for the life of him, figure out what Steve Rogers should do in the face of all this terrible, enduring grief.
It’s almost four years, to the day, and some part of Steve is still in Wakanda, choking on all that dust.
He clears his throat, self-consciously, and raps lightly on the doorframe to Natasha’s bedroom.
Natasha’s curled up on the bed with a book, like she always is at this time of night. She doesn’t say anything, just dog-ears her place, and sets the book aside, and these days, that’s invitation enough for Steve to step inside and collapse into the empty space beside her. His sixteen year-old self, Steve thinks wryly, would be fucking appalled.
Steve gets settled into the pillows and brings both hands to rest lightly on his stomach. “Whatcha reading, Nat?”
“Brave New World,” Natasha says, “thought it might give me some ideas.”
Steve doesn’t have to turn to look at her to know that she’s wearing that small, sly smile that means she thinks she’s being funny. “Have you ever thought about maybe picking up something funny? I hear comics are real good, these days.”
“I like the dystopias,” Natasha says, “they let me believe that there could be worlds out there that are somehow more fucked than our own.”
“That,” Steve says, “has to be the most Russian thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
Natasha just makes a small humming sound. “But you didn’t come here to talk about my taste in literature, Rogers.”
Steve lets out a sigh. He came here to talk, to exorcise some of the grief that’s threatening to spill out of him, but still, in the moment, he wants to stall. “No, I didn’t. I….I had group, today. There’s this girl….this young woman,” Steve corrects himself, “she was twenty-two, when it all….when it happened. She was between tours, she was home spending time with her boyfriend that she’s been with since high school. He proposed, I guess, and they were….they were starting to plan their wedding, when it happened.”
“Yikes, Rogers,” Natasha says. “That’s a rough one.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and has to tamp down the urge to say, they’re all rough ones, because he won’t be saying anything that she doesn’t already know. “Anyways, she said something that sort of….sort of stuck with me, about how…...she knows that no one ever actually ends up with their childhood sweetheart, these days, but that she thought…..she was so sure that she would get to.”
Steve feels Natasha roll over, curling to face him, and causing her quilt to bunch up between them in the process. “Barnes was your childhood sweetheart,” Natasha says, in a voice that sounds like she’s making a guess.
“Sort of, I mean….in the plainest, simplest terms, yeah. That’s exactly what he was,” Steve says. “We were kids, eighteen and nineteen, the first time anything ever happened between us.”
“It didn’t last, though,” Natasha says, because that part of the story, she already knows, or at least -- she knows it in broad strokes, he’s never told it to her in fine details.
“Wasn’t the way things were, back then. Bucky’s parents, they…..they loved him,” Steve says, firmly, because he wants that to be clear, he wants Natasha to know that. “I think they worried, you know, by the time he turned twenty and everyone knew that all of the girls loved him, but he wasn’t making time with any of them. Instead, he was spending all his days with his skinny wreck of a best friend and I don’t think…..I don’t think they knew, exactly.”
“But they worried?” Natasha breaks in, gently.
“Yeah,” Steve says, softly, blowing out a breath. “Yeah, they worried and Bucky, he was the oldest, he was the only son, and he wanted to be everything his family needed him to be. So, you know. We just sort of, agreed that it was just kids stuff, that we maybe we had outgrown it, because it was better to lose all the rest and stay friends, instead of….letting everything get all fucked up, later on.”
“Rogers,” Natasha starts, in a light, lilting tone, “no offense but you make all that sound entirely too emotionally mature for a relationship that you were apart of.”
Steve barks out a laugh. “No, you’re right. It was….god, it was so awkward, for almost a whole year, it was awful and uncomfortable and I tried my best to avoid him like the plague for a good chunk of ‘39, until he came knocking on my front door and started yelling about it.”
Steve pauses, but this, this is the part that he came here for, this is what sent him on the road for an hour, the truth that he needs to get out. “See, the thing is, with me and Buck….the first time around, it wasn’t possible, we couldn’t love each other forever. But I always thought, you know, given the chance. I know I could’ve.”
Natasha is silent, for a moment, before she reaches over to place one hand over his, her palm a steady warmth against his skin. “When was the last time you talked about this?”
“With Sam,” Steve says, and Natasha makes a small, hurt noise, because they are both of them carrying that loss around. “He got it out of me back when we were hauling ass across Europe, trying to find Bucky. He sat me down and told me that he wasn’t going any further until I was honest with him, until he knew what the stakes were, for me.”
“Sounds like our Sam,” Natasha says, an aching fondness curling around the edges of her voice.
Steve looks at Natasha, takes in the dark bruises under her eyes, the slip of her red-blonde braid running past her shoulders, and tries to remember, just for a moment, what was going through his mind the first day they met on the Helicarrier.
He doesn’t remember much. He was too soon out of the ice, too raw, too overwhelmed with the enormity of his loss. She spoke in low, teasing tones like she was sharing a joke but Steve didn’t get it, wasn’t in on it, and if he’s being honest with himself, he didn’t want to be.
He didn’t know what she would mean to him, some day.
Natasha and Sam, they saved his life. Steve never got the chance to tell Sam that, though. He thought he had more time.
That’s Steve’s problem, the mistake that he keeps making over and over again.
“Hey,” Steve says, “Thank you. I just. I’m….you know, I’m glad you’re here.”
The corner of Natasha’s lips quirk up but this time, they’re both in on the joke, and Steve’s never been good with words, not with things like this, not in the ways that really mattered, but he’s pretty sure that she gets what he’s trying to stay.
“Rogers,” she says, “this is my room. Where else would I be?”
Steve huffs, and kicks against her feet, lightly. “I’m trying to say that I’m here for you too, you know.”
At this, Natasha closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, in and out, and a multitude of expressions flicker across her face in the blink of an eye, before she settles right back into her default of cool amusement. “Steve, I left my childhood sweetheart for dead in the middle of the tundra. Trust me, I’d much rather be talking about your problems.”
Steve stares at Natasha for a beat, torn somewhere between exasperation and horror, and then Natasha cracks and slumps forward, giggling helplessly into the side of his chest and Steve joins her, and it’s not the same huff that he usually passes off as amusement these days, but something full-throated and just this edge of hysterical, but maybe after the end of the world, the only thing you can do is laugh at all of the wrong things.
At least, Steve thinks, with the blackest of humors, he still has someone to laugh with.
There’s a table next to his bed, filled with pictures, and as Steve stares blankly at the empty space on the platform where Natasha should be, a small voice in the back of his mind whispers, again, oh God.
Steve watches from the kitchen table as his mother clangs angrily around the sink, taking clean but chipped plates off the rack and shoving them into the cupboard.
The whole line of her back and the curve of her jaw is set with anger, highlighted by the sun coming through the window, and Steve — Steve thinks this is something he should know about, something he should understand, but he doesn’t know if she’ll tell him if he asks. Doesn’t know if this will fall under the category of “when you get older, Steven,” but it shouldn’t, it can’t because he is older, he’s just turned ten this past summer.
“Ma,” Steve starts, aiming for casual and probably missing the mark by about a mile, “what did Missus Morris mean, when she said you weren’t doing things right? Is. Is that why you’re so angry?”
Ma pauses, a dish towel in one hand and an old teacup in the other, and then bows her head, and sighs. “Steven. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine, Ma, because you’re upset,” Steve says.
Ma puts the towel and teacup down, and turns around. Her eyes are a little bright, like she’s about to cry, and that can’t be right, because his Ma should never cry. “Steven. It’s just….there are people who think I shouldn’t be raising you on my own, is all.”
Steve frowns. “Who else would you raise me with?”
Ma lets out a small, breathless laugh, and then takes a seat at the table. She looks at him for one long minute and then reaches across to brush the hair out of his eyes, the way he always wishes she wouldn’t. “There’s lots of people who think I should marry another man, get you a new father so we can be a real family.”
“But….” Steve says, hating the tears in her eyes, the tremble in her voice, “we are a real family.”
And Ma….it’s like all of the anger bleeds from her and she slumps, a little, and then presses a light kiss to his forehead. “Yes, we are. Family is what you make of it, Steven, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.”
Clint says, “we can’t do it, it’s not possible,” and Steve thinks suddenly, viciously, it should’ve been you, but he can’t even finish the thought without shame flooding every inch of his body.
Still. He opens and closes his hands, makes a fist, and tells himself that throwing a punch won’t do any good, that breaking Clint’s jaw won’t bring her back.
Steve looks down at the reddish-purple mixture bubbling softly on the stove and frowns.
He looks between the photo on his tablet and the goopy, tasteless reality in front of him, and shakes his head. “This doesn’t look right at all.”
“Somethings smells like a dead body after 48 hours soaking in water,” Natasha’s voice calls out, from the top of the stairs to the gym. “Rogers, are you cooking?”
“That was a disgustingly specific example,” Steve calls back, and then frowns some more. He picks up a wooden ladle and pokes at the mixture.
“Okay, seriously, what is this?” Natasha says, entering the kitchen in her usual workout gear, slinging a hand towel over her shoulder. “That’s not Stark, is it?”
Steve shoots her an annoyed look. “No, it’s…..it’s borscht, uh, I think.”
Natasha comes to stand next to him at the stove, hip-checking him lightly out of the way, and plucking the wooden ladle out of his hands. She dips it into the mixture and then brings the spoon up to her mouth for a taste. Natasha scrunches up her nose and drops the ladle with a clatter. “Steve. What the fuck.”
“I followed the recipe?” Steve says, because he’s pretty sure that he did, and he’s a tactician so, a recipe should’ve been child’s play, considering.
He wants to say, Sam used to do the cooking. Bucky used to do the cooking. Me and Wanda used to go for kebabs and I miss the way the sauce would get in her hair, and we’d laugh about it.
Steve blows out a breath and pokes at the mixture again.
Natasha just raises one eyebrow. “Steve, you dumb, earnest bastard,” she says, but there’s the curl of a smile around the corner of her lips as she says it, taking all the sting out, “please never cook for me again.”
Steve draws a finger along the edge of the saucepan to catch hold of the liquid that’s splattering over the lip of the saucepan before bringing it to his mouth to taste, just to be sure, and then grimaces. God, that is terrible. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Black Widow.”
It’s a dizzying twenty-four hours, when the fight ends.
Steve finds Bucky in the midst of rubble and ash and doesn’t waste time, just grabs him and holds on tight, burying his face into the crook of Bucky’s neck, into warm skin that’s flesh and blood proof that this crazy fucking plan actually worked.
“I’m here,” Bucky murmurs, in low, even tones, pressing soft kisses to the side of Steve’s head, “I’m right here, pal, not going anywhere.”
A minute later, Sam finds them and Steve breaks away, wraps Sam in the tightest hug, says “on your left,” and Sam laughs and smacks Steve in the only arm that’s not bleeding, all while Bucky keeps a calm, steady hand on the small of Steve’s back, and he thinks, this is almost perfect.
But then Sam steps back and frowns, and asks, “wait, where’s Nat?” and Steve inhales sharply, and feels his heart shatter all over again.
“Sure about this?”
Steve is in the middle of Midtown, covered in dust and dirt and bleeding from ten different places, but for the first time in six months, something feels right. Something finally feels like home.
It’s not the battle, not the thrum of war, because God, there is nothing of the European Theater in this.
It’s who he’s fighting with.
Steve looks up at the Chitauri in the sky and then back down at the woman standing in front of him, the Black Widow, or Natasha, or Nat, and he doesn’t know her at all, but the wild look in her eyes, the determination in her gaze, that’s everything he’s been missing.
Steve can’t help but grin, helplessly, when she says, “sure, it’ll be fun.”
There’s a funeral planned for Natasha, for after Steve’s done returning the Infinity Stones.
They don’t have a body to bury but they’ll gather, anyways. They can stand around and tell stories, spill Asgardian ale in her honor, and let Okoye lead them in a Wakandan mourning chant. That’s the plan but Steve, Steve doesn’t want any part of it.
If he has his way, there won’t be any need for a funeral at all.
“I’m going back for Nat,” Steve says, dropping his voice to a near whisper in this wide open clearing so Bruce and Sam don’t hear him. It’s not that he doesn’t want them to know, but — he doesn’t want to disappoint them, either, if he fails.
He understands failure, now, in a way that he never did before. He’s tasted it in the back of his throat, along with so much dust. It doesn’t always work out, but — that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
“I know you are,” Bucky says, stepping up to help Steve into the clunky white and red suit. Bucky slides one hand along the clasps at Steve’s left side, slotting them into place. “Wouldn’t be you if you didn’t. Sure you don’t want company?”
Steve takes a small step forward, knocks his forehead against Bucky’s and takes a deep, measured breath. Part of him wants to say yes, if only to keep them together, but he knows this mission will go better if he’s solo.
“Nah,” Steve says, “it’ll only take a minute, you won’t even have time to miss me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Bucky says, coupled with a small smirk that belongs about eighty years in the past. “Won’t miss this ugly white suit though, that’s for damn sure.”
Steve cracks a smile. “When I get back, I kinda want to take a pick-axe to the whole time travel machine, suits and all.”
“We can do that,” Bucky says, smiling crookedly, “that’s what Shuri would call constructive destruction. Not the worst coping method in the world.”
Something in Steve’s heart twists a little, at that, because he hasn’t been any good at figuring out the right coping mechanisms, but he wants to try, now, wants to figure out how to really live, after all of this.
“Yeah, alright,” Steve says, “just don’t do anything stupid until I get back.”
Bucky rolls his eyes but leans in, presses a brief, dry kiss to Steve’s lips, easy as anything, like they’ll have all the time in the world to turn it into something more, later.
And they will. Steve will make sure of it.
Bucky takes a step back, pushing Steve lightly towards the platform. “Sweetheart, you’re a big enough pile of stupid for the both of us.”
It’s easier, the second time around, now that he knows what to expect.
Steve lingers just once, just for a moment, in 1970, in Peggy’s office. He looks at the curl of her brown hair, now streaked through with grey, and that same-old determination that she’s always had written into every line of her face, and he thinks, God, I love you, and then, I’m so fucking proud of you.
“Bye, Pegs,” Steve says, into the empty office, “I’m gonna do my best, gonna try to finally follow your good example.”
And then with the flick of a wrist and the press of a button, he’s in Vormir.
“You’ve gotta be shitting me.”
“I assure you, Captain Rogers, I am no more thrilled to see you than you are me,” Johann Schmidt’s voice rasps out beneath the shroud of his giant cloak, barely disguising the red skin that Steve still sees in his nightmares.
Steve takes a step forward, raising his shield. “You know, I could’ve sworn I killed you.”
“I am not that easy to kill, not anymore,” Schmidt says. “An experience that I’m sure you’re quite familiar with.”
It makes sense, in a way, but it doesn’t explain anything about how Schmidt wound up as the guardian of the Soul Stone. Steve wonders, for a second, if killing Schmidt would do the trick, if that’s the way to get Nat back.
Probably not. That feels too easy. Probably, Schmidt can’t be killed.
But left to stand guard over a cliff until the end of time isn’t exactly how the Red Skull wanted his story to end, so Steve’ll let this one go.
Steve shakes himself. “Natasha Romanoff. I’m here to return the stone and get her back.”
Schmidt laughs, and it echoes across the chasm, sending a shiver down Steve’s spine. “It doesn’t work that way, Captain Rogers.”
“Soul for a soul, right?” Steve says. “I don’t buy that you know all the rules, this wasn’t exactly your first choice gig, Schmidt.”
“Perhaps,” Schmidt says, “if you came here with a sacrifice, willing to lose someone that you love, you could get her back.”
“Yeah, no thanks,” Steve says, stepping forward again, closer to Schmidt, and he doesn’t miss the way Schmidt moves back, just a few inches, in response. Schmidt is, despite everything, nervous. Good. That means Steve has him on the ropes.
“I’ve done my fair share of losing the ones I love,” Steve continues, raising his chin to glare right at the place where Schmidt’s eyes should be. “And I’ll bet whatever magic that holds this place together, I bet it knows that too. So how about we try this again, since you know very well that I won’t leave here without her. A soul for a soul. Return Natasha Romanoff, alive and safe and unharmed.”
Schmidt scoffs, annoyed. “Fine. Try it, Captain Rogers. Offer the Soul Stone up in sacrifice but I must warn you, if she has already accepted her fate, if she has walked towards The Valley of Death, rather than away from it, there’s nothing you or I could do.”
At this, Schmidt glides towards him, whispering viciously as he does it. “Mortals give up too easily. She jumped, remember.”
Steve can’t help it. He’s punching Schmidt before he’s even really thought about it, and he wasn’t sure if the punch would land, but it does, and it sends Schmidt sprawling. “Trust me. You don’t know anything about her. She doesn’t give up.”
Steve doesn’t know how long he stands there, holding out the stone in one hand, doing his best to shield his eyes against the bright purple light coming from every inch of the rock face that surrounds him.
Steve prays, in English, in Gaelic, and in Russian, just like Natasha taught him to. He tells stories. He screams into the nothingness and he begs Natasha to come home.
He talks and talks and talks until his throat aches and his voice has gone hoarse and at the end of it, the light flashes just once, and then goes out.
Steve closes his eyes and opens them. Blinks the light circles away until he can finally see, again, and there in front of him, is Natasha.
She says something, he’s pretty sure, but he’s too busy pulling her close, wrapping her up in a hug, to hear it.
“Natasha,” he breathes, “it worked.”
There’s a table next to Steve’s bed, in his new apartment in Red Hook, and it’s filled with pictures of his family.
Some of them, he’s lost, to sickness and to old age, and that’s not fair, either, and it never will be, but he’s settled their memories into his bones and he’ll never, ever forget them.
As for the rest of his family, well, they’ve got lives to live, now.
And so does he.