“Don’t do anything stupid whilst I’m gone,” Steve warned. His smile was genuine and warm, tinged with sadness—they had, after all, lost people. They had, after all, been at a funeral only yesterday. The war was won, but not without great costs. Iron Man was dead, but the world was alive. That was his legacy. A legacy they would all do their best to honour.
Well… not all of them.
Steve looked at his friend—his brother, really—and watched Bucky’s lips twitch in a smile. It didn’t quite get there, and his eyes were sad. “How can I?” he asked. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.” The words burned in his mouth a little more bitterly than he would’ve liked. But he knew there was no stopping Steve from doing what he wanted to.
“I have to, Buck,” Steve had told him the previous night, when the lakeshore had been quiet, and starlight dappled off the surface of the water. Beautiful and tranquil and not at all the place for the argument they were having. “I have to put those stones back. It’s not… it’s not right otherwise. Things need to be corrected.”
“Balanced?” Bucky had asked hollowly. Steve had almost shot him a glare. Almost.
“It’s not right otherwise,” he repeated softly. “You deserve rest.”
“So do you.”
Standing up on the platform now, Bruce explained to the others what was going to happen. With a deep breath, Steve tightened his grip on his cargo. Such precious, dangerous, damned cargo. It was a relief and a comfort to feel Mjolnir in his other hand. Not just the power, not just the piece of his friend that would be at his side, but the delicacy to it. An almost feminine energy, temperate but undeniably fierce and determined. That was a comfort as much as a stinging reminder of what he'd lost. But there was hardly anything more determined than Mjolnir—so stubborn it would let the universe move around it before letting most people pick it up.
Then again, Steve had always been pretty stubborn, too.
“Three…” Banner counted down. “Two… One…”
And suddenly, he was hurtling through infinity.
To make the time-travel less straining on his body, Banner had instructed him to go in chronological order. First the Tesseract, then the Mind and Time stones, then the Aether, then the Orb, and finally, the Soul stone.
The first three, in New York eleven years previously, went with minimal problem—though an old man at a coffee shop did ask him if he was an impersonator. “There’s a lotta demand for guys who look like you, now, kid,” he’d said, wagging a finger and cackling. That had been unsettling—almost being recognised. Though something about the man had seemed inexplicably familiar.
The Ancient One had accepted the Time stone with a serene smile, placing it back in the Amulet. Steve had already rematerialized his suit and was about to jump to Asgard, a year later, when she laid a hand on his wrist. He stopped, transfixed by her gaze. He wasn't sure if this woman was human. He'd known intense stares before, eyes that could read a person's entire life story with just a glance, eyes that hid darkness and trauma behind the batting of eyelashes and sweet faked giggles. Alternatively, eyes that stared, defiant, daring you to say something, cowing you because they knew you never would. He'd known eyes like that, but the Ancient One... Ancient was certainly the right word.
“What you’re about to do…” she said softly. He cut her off.
“I’ve made my choice, ma’am,” he said firmly. She shook her head.
“I wasn’t going to try to stop you,” she told him. “Merely… I wish you the best of luck. And I commend you.” She glanced down, first at her amulet, then at the briefcase in Steve’s hand. “Not everyone would give up such power so easily.”
Steve gave a shrug. “I never wanted power,” he replied. And he hadn’t. Thanos had wanted power—wanted to be a god. He’d been so delusional and so self-absorbed that he’d slaughtered trillions, tortured women he’d dared to call his daughters, dared to say he loved them, dared to call himself their father. The Mad Titan indeed.
But him? Godhood had never appealed to him. Even heroism hadn’t, not really. He’d just wanted to do the right thing.
This was the right thing.