Sam’s brain is gonna break. He’s staring at the shield in his hands, and sure, part of his brain is going MINE??? in confusion and glee. Mostly though, the rest of his brain is trying its damned best to put together the reality of Old Steve sitting on this bench with him, this shield, and the past week and change and/or last five years, and Sam’s never been a math whiz, but none of this is adding up. He needs a flowchart. He needs alcohol. He needs to freak the fuck out, because he’s been putting it off for a while now, but a full-fledged freakout is definitely coming soon. Like, in five minutes maybe. Fucking time travel.
He looks at Old Steve. Yup, still there. Still old as hell. He looks down at the shield, squints at it: it’s shiny and almost new—no scratches, no blast marks, no fading paint—and it’s whole. The last time Sam had seen it, gathered up carefully from the battlefield, it hadn’t been. He runs a hand over the shield’s surface, searching for a seam, an indication it’s been mended, but there’s nothing.
“So…like, where is this shield from? Or…when?” He screws up his face, thinking it through. “You have it when I meet you in 2014, so…”
“Don’t worry about it,” says Old Steve, eyes twinkling like he’s goddamn Dumbledore or something. He stands up, claps Sam on the shoulder. “You’re gonna do great.”
“Right. Uh, you wanna…” Sam looks over at where Bucky’s still standing a few yards away, looking calm and maybe kinda sad and way, way too unsurprised. What the fuck is going on. “Maybe you should talk to Bucky…?”
Old Steve just shakes his head. “Nah, I gotta get going, Buck and me are good. You’ll see.” Then he grins, looks over at Bucky, and blows him a kiss. Sam sees Bucky’s eyes go wide, before a bright and stunned grin lights up his face, which, what.
“Okay, at the very least, I feel like you should talk to Banner—” tries Sam, but when he turns back to look at Old Steve, he’s gone. “What the fuck.”
Bruce is clutching at his hair and moaning. “What did he do, where did he go? When did he go to—”
Sam flips the shield, over and over, looking for a clue. He runs his hands along the inside edge, along the straps, which aren’t old and blood-soaked, but supple and soft like they’ve just been oiled.
“I cannot believe that grandpa-looking asshole, did he seriously just drop this off then fuck off to who knows when, no explanations? What am I gonna do with this shit?”
Sam’s distantly aware that his voice has gone very shrill and that his long overdue freakout is beginning its slo-mo collision into his carefully cultivated aura of handsome competence. It’s not fucking helping that Bucky’s about as chill as it is possible to get outside of a cryotube. Usually, Sam appreciates that Bucky is a pretty go with the flow kinda guy, all that meditation and spiritual healing and shit in Wakanda has done wonders, and Sam’s happy for him, he really is, but right now, Bucky’s chill is stressing him out like everything else is stressing him out. Why the fuck is Bucky so calm?
“Thought it was pretty obvious, Cap,” says Bucky. He nods towards the shield and adds, “Now you gotta be responsible for this water bottle.”
And okay, there it is, it’s been a while, but it’s nice to know Bucky can still inspire a good old-fashioned surge of homicidal rage in him. Sam gathers the tattered remains of his composure and heroically does not beat Bucky to death with his shiny new Captain America shield.
“Okay, first off, that meme is like, over ten years old now. Second, Kanye’s twitter, really?”
Bucky shrugs. “Shuri,” is his only explanation.
“Yeah, okay, whatever! Why aren’t you freaking out right now? I’m kinda freaking out right now, man.”
“Uh huh, I kinda noticed,” says Bucky, still calm. Honestly, he’s giving off real White Jesus vibes what with the hair and the general aura of serene acceptance, but Sam’s way too far gone to feel either amused or comforted by that.
“You better be this chill because you’re fucking dissociating, Barnes,” hissed Sam.
Finally, Bucky looks something other than calm, his eyebrows furrowing. Granted, that something is annoyed, but whatever.
“Wow, okay. I’m not dissociating, what the fuck. The reason I’m not freaking out right now is because I know Steve.”
Bruce stops clutching at his hair and poking at the quantum tunnel readouts, and whirls around to squint suspiciously at Bucky.
“You said you were gonna miss him,” says Bruce slowly. “He was supposed to be back in five seconds, but you hugged him and said ‘I’m gonna miss you.’”
Bucky’s face is serene again now, and gives nothing away. “I know Steve,” he repeats. “You think you can hand him a time machine and some rocks of unspeakable power and he’s just gonna go put ‘em right back where they belong?”
Okay, when you put it like that…Sam fucking knew they shouldn’t have sent Steve off alone. Bruce apparently reaches the same conclusion and goes a pale mint green.
“He can’t fuck with the timeline,” he says, and Sam just waves the shiny, polished shield at Bruce wildly in response, because clearly, Steve has fucked with the timeline. Sam doesn’t entirely begrudge Steve the shot to go through the twentieth century the long way around, to build a life without the mantle of Captain America, but Steve can’t just ditch them—
“I only fucked with the timeline a little,” says someone. A familiar someone. Sam closes his eyes. Because shit isn’t weird enough already, it sounds like Steve. It can’t be Steve. Sam is going to lose his fucking mind. “Or I made some new ones? Honestly, not really clear on all of it, but I got the okay from the bald lady with the Time Stone, so I think we’re good. And I brought back a friend!”
When they all turn to look at the quantum tunnel platform, empty just a minute ago, Steve is standing there, their Steve in the white and red suit he’d left in less than an hour ago, and with him is Natasha, who’s smiling bigger than Sam has ever seen her smile. It makes him smile back, reflexive, automatic, because if Nat’s here, if Nat’s that happy, then everything has to be okay. Steve’s smiling too, wide and maybe just a little crazed, as he practically bounces down from the platform and heads straight for Bucky, sweeping him into a hug.
“Nat? But—” Bruce just blinks at her, dumbfounded, and holy fuck, Sam is so confused. Nat hops down from the platform and makes her best effort at hugging Bruce. Her arms can’t reach around him, though she doesn’t seem to mind. Bruce puts his enormous arms around her carefully, and his arms are either trembling from the effort to be gentle, or from the shock. He looks over at Steve. “What the hell did you do?”
Steve just beams, and he’s still holding onto Bucky, who’s holding on pretty tightly right back, both of them kinda just…swaying back and forth with each other. Bucky’s hiding his face in Steve’s neck, so there’s no help on that front.
“I did a Reverse Time Heist.”
“I thought it was gonna take you longer,” mumbles Bucky. He still doesn’t lift his head or let Steve go, so Sam figures he’s having an Emotion and doesn’t wanna show it, which, whatever. They can’t all secretly cry out their feelings on Steve Rogers’ bosom.
Steve doesn’t seem to mind it, anyway; he brings a hand to Bucky’s head and strokes his hair, presses a kiss there. They’re still swaying together, like they’re slow dancing, maybe.
“I have a time machine, Buck.”
Sam is also having an Emotion or two by now, mostly coalescing into a giddy, confused relief and baffled rage. Thankfully that’s when Natasha lets go of Bruce to come hug him, and he knows shit is serious because she doesn’t make any smart ass comments. She doesn’t say anything at all. She just holds him, real tight. Five years, Sam remembers. She’s been missing him for five years, while Sam’s only had a few dazed days stuck in the Denial stage of grief. He holds her close, and doesn’t say a damn word when he feels her tears against his shirt.
“Explain,” he demands eventually, calmer now. He’ll postpone the rest of his freakout pending Steve’s explanation. “Explain everything about your Reverse Time Heist and what the hell the deal was with Old Steve.”
Steve looks relieved. “Oh good, he already came by. That’s why we’re a little late, didn’t wanna risk running into him. Seems like it usually doesn’t go well when I run into myself.”
“So did you…put the Stones back? How did—I thought Natasha was—what the hell!” Bruce looks at Natasha for answers, but she just laughs and shrugs.
“Don’t ask me, I just woke up on Vormir, I missed most of this Reverse Time Heist.” Her smile finally falters, and Sam knows: Steve’s already told her about Tony. “Missed the big showdown too. I’m sorry. Looks like you guys did it though, you brought everyone back?”
“Yeah, and lost Tony. Or did we?” asks Bruce. He starts pacing back and forth in front of the quantum tunnel platform, and the motion is a little too Hulk-like for comfort.
“We did,” says Steve, expression turning serious now. “I couldn’t do anything to change that last battle.”
“But you did put the Stones back, right?” Sam asks.
Steve nods, and while he loosens his grip on Bucky, he still doesn’t let him go. They’re still rocking and swaying back and forth in each other’s arms, and Sam’s not sure who’s comforting who there. Steve, Sam notices, keeps stepping on Bucky’s toes. Bucky doesn’t appear to mind. If Sam hadn’t already thought whatever was going on between the two of them is true love, he sure as hell does now.
“Yeah, I put the Stones back,” says Steve. “I just did a few other things too. So, I did go to all the coordinates you input for me, Bruce. I put the Power Stone back first…”
Steve headed for Morag first. He had a narrow window of time here to return the Stone—after Rhodey and Nebula had taken it, and after Thanos had shown up and left again, but before Quill regained consciousness—but apart from that, there wouldn’t be any other obstacles to putting the Stone back where it belonged.
With the help of Rhodey and Nebula’s intel on the temple, he was in and out in minutes, tossing the Power Stone carefully back into its booby-trapped Orb in the ominous temple that housed it.
One down, five to go.
Once he got to Asgard, returning Mjolnir was easy. He could leave it anywhere, pretty much, since Thor could call it to himself whenever he needed it.
“Thank you,” he whispered to it, with one last fond stroke that sparked with lightning, and set it down in the hallway outside Dr. Foster’s room.
Returning the Reality Stone was trickier. Thor had told him that his mother would know something was up; she’d seen a future version of her son, after all, and let him leave with Mjolnir. But running into her and attempting to explain why he was putting the Aether back in Dr. Foster, when she had no idea who he was or what he was doing, was something Steve would prefer to avoid, for the sake of this timeline.
He managed to sneak into Dr. Foster’s room easily enough, mostly by dint of looking far more confident than he felt in the golden and glittering halls of Asgard’s palace. He injected the Aether back into her with no trouble, then booked it out of the room when he heard someone coming.
Only to nearly walk right into Thor. Fuck. Okay, this was fine, Steve could deal with this. He’d just have to pretend to be Loki pretending to be him. Easy!
“Brother, your preoccupation with impersonating Captain Rogers grows tiresome.” Thor grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “Does somebody have a cruuuuushhh?” he teased, singsong, and Steve did not have to fake his total horror at the thought.
Should he try to fake Loki’s accent? Did Loki keep his own accent when he impersonated Steve? Probably not, right? Fuck fuck fuck, he needed to say something, Thor was looking concerned and suspicious.
“No! That’s—that’s—preposterous!” That sounded like a word Loki would use, right? Right.
“Not really, the Captain is a fine-looking man,” Thor said, then squinted at him, looking him and up and down. “You’ve gotten his uniform entirely wrong though. Your attention to detail is really slipping.”
Steve tried his best to filter his own bland Cap-selling-war-bonds smile through Loki’s smarminess.
“Red, white, and blue is such a garish color combination, don’t you think?”
Thor wrinkled his nose. “White and red is no better. Are you attempting to escape again? Because if so, impersonating the Captain isn’t the way to do it.”
“Obviously,” said Steve, making his best attempt at Loki’s withering, haughty tones. Exit strategy, exit strategy, what would Loki do… “I don’t have to explain my magics to you!” he added and then triggered the wrist band, hoping like hell that from Thor’s perspective, him disappearing would in fact look like Loki’s magic.
When he rematerialized in Camp Lehigh without any trouble, he figured he’d pulled it off. And if he hadn’t, well, it wasn’t like he could do anything about it. It was Loki’s problem now.
Four more left.
A brisk walk and a uniform got a man pretty far in a place like Camp Lehigh, though he had to keep ducking in and out of closets and bathrooms in his attempts to avoid the fuss kicked up by the too-perceptive woman from the elevator. He headed for the secure storage facility as quickly as he could without drawing suspicion; there were too many ghosts and too many temptations here: to kill Zola, to find Peggy, to talk to Howard. But 1970 wasn’t the right time for the extracurricular timeline meddling Steve had planned.
So he stayed on mission and stuck the Tesseract back in its neatly labeled case, just like he was supposed to.
Halfway done, now, and the hardest Stones to return left to come. Now Steve could try out a little side mission. He pulled out one of his extra vials of Pym particles, and input a carefully calculated destination of his own into his wrist band.
“So that’s why you asked for extra Pym particles! It wasn’t just as insurance, you were planning this all along.” Bruce brings a hand up to his mouth and shakes his head, evidently equal parts impressed and annoyed.
Sam’s right there with him. “You seriously planned this all along? You couldn’t have shared your Reverse Time Heist plans with the rest of us?”
“And risk being benched?” says Steve. “Hell no. Listen, I didn’t go in without any intel. I made sure to check that all of you still remembered the same things I did about our timeline.”
Motherfucker, so that’s what all that remember when we met reminiscing had been about. And here Sam had thought Steve was being emotional on account of how Sam had come back from the dead and all. Instead he’d just been one of the marks in Steve’s Reverse Time Heist. Though, judging by the way Bucky lifts his head from Steve’s shoulder to glare at Steve, Sam apparently hadn’t been the only one, which is some comfort.
“Is that why you asked me about DC, about Insight?” He punches Steve in the shoulder. “I thought you were just making sure I didn’t have amnesia again, you asshole!”
Sam punches Steve on his other shoulder. “And I thought you were being all sappy about me being back from the dead!”
“I mean, it was those things too,” says Steve.
“But—you asked for an extra wrist band too…if it wasn’t just a backup then what…” starts Bruce, but Steve interrupts him.
“Yeah, I’ll get to that.”
“And! You asked me to set two different coordinates for picking up the Mind Stone and the Time Stone even though you could have done them both in one jump!” continues Bruce. “What exactly did you do, did you change something—”
“Nooo…” says Steve, looking decidedly shifty. “Or, uh, not more than I already had. Listen, just let me finish, alright? I promise, I was careful. I knew I wasn’t going to ruin our timeline.”
“Not more than you already had? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” demands Sam, because if they have to deal with a universe-ending paradox or some shit now, after everything, he is going to lose his damn mind, he is going to hand this shield right back to Steve.
“Just—let me explain, okay?”
Los Angeles, 1947
Steve knew he was taking a risk, with this side mission. He knew Bruce would say he was endangering their timeline, that he was risking a paradox, that there was no changing the past.
But in 2012, Steve had told a version of himself that Bucky was alive. In 2012, Steve had basically told Rumlow and Sitwell that he was HYDRA. And Steve, here and now, didn’t remember any of that as his own past. Steve, here and now, knew he’d only learned about Bucky on that bridge in Washington DC in 2014. Steve, here and now, remembered how SHIELD had fallen, and so had Sam and Fury and Bucky, he’d checked.
So Steve knew: he hadn’t changed his past. He hadn’t ruined his timeline. He’d created a new branch on the tree of time, and who knew what it would grow into. Something better, Steve hoped. And if he’d created a new branching timeline once, he could do it again. He could keep an old promise, and maybe plant the seeds of a better life, a better SHIELD.
If he’d told the rest of the team as much, they wouldn’t have let him do it. It would have all ended in days’ worth of arguments about time travel and timelines and whiteboard diagrams that didn’t make any sense, before they eventually benched Steve and sent Thor or Clint instead. So Steve had kept his plan to himself, and he’d made his own contingencies.
Like the extra wrist band he’d conned Bruce out of. He used it now to send him to a new destination, one Bruce hadn’t programmed in for him: 1947, Los Angeles, where he knew Peggy was on assignment for SHIELD and working with Howard.
He’d agonized over whether to go back even further: to catch Bucky before he fell, to shoot Zola on that train, or even to bring the Valkyrie down safely. But, he thought with a spasm of too-fresh grief, despite what Tony himself had always thought, Steve did listen to him.
Listen, it’s too much to hope we can all get in, grab the Stones, and get out without changing anything. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, etc., so forth. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful. We need to take as few risks as possible, change as little as possible. We’re introducing more chaos into an already chaotic system, and that could end real badly. I don’t want to come back to a future we don’t recognize.
Now, Steve was pretty certain it wouldn’t be his future he could ruin with an ill-advised trip to the past. The Time Heist’s adventures in 2012 had proved as much. But when it came to chaotic systems, there were none more chaotic than war, and Steve wasn’t about to ruin any timeline’s future by fucking up the end of the Second World War. One wrong move, one unlucky accident, and he could make things worse instead of better. So he picked 1947 instead, and hoped for the best.
He used the skills Natasha had taught him, what felt like a very long time ago, to track Peggy down to a small house on a sleepy, tree-lined street. By the time he got there, it was early evening, the golden hour here in sunny California, and the clear honey-colored sunlight made everything feel like a dream. It could have been his dream. He slowed his pace and let himself imagine it, sink into it like he would a soft bed at the end of a very long day: a dance, then a wedding, then a small home for the two of them, and maybe, some day, a family, Bucky next door with a family of his own, just like they’d always—but no.
That wasn’t for him. Not the version of him he was now, anyway.
Peggy herself had told him: none of us can go back. Just because Steve could actually go back in a very literal way, didn’t mean he could go back to being the man who could live that kind of life. The best he could do was to give the man who could a chance. In the infinite array of his own self’s timelines and universes, Steve could nudge at least one onto a safer, sweeter path.
But first, he had to walk up the path to Peggy’s house. Steve took a deep breath, walked up to Peggy’s door, and set his briefcase with its precious cargo down. He opened up one of the pockets in his belt, and took out the one thing in it—battered now, after so many years and fights, but still pointing true north—and he gripped it tight in his hand. Then he knocked in a rhythm he knew Peggy would remember, their old secret knock.
When she opened the door, she was white-faced and wide-eyed, and so, so beautiful. And so young. For a moment, the years of war and grief and missed chances weighed so heavy on his heart that he could have sworn his heart would stop under the crush of it. It was a familiar feeling, after the last five years. But just like always, his heart kept beating, fast and strong, so he held his tears back and smiled at her, willed his voice not to shake.
“Hi, Peggy. Sorry I’m late.”
His eyes drank in every last detail of her: the way her mouth dropped open, lips painted that familiar, bold red. The way furious color appeared on her face, high on her cheeks, the perfect bounce of her brown curls, her smooth and unlined skin, the fire in her eyes. He didn’t flinch when, after a tense second or two of shock, she drew and aimed her pistol at him, because even this was familiar, beloved. Her hand didn’t shake. Steve could only keep smiling helplessly in response, because that was Peggy, that was his best girl.
“Steve Rogers is dead in the Arctic somewhere, so tell me, who the hell are you and why are you wearing his face,” she snarled.
There were no words that would convince her, so Steve just opened his hand to reveal the compass in it. He offered it to her, slowly, carefully.
“Peg, it’s really me.”
She shook her head, but she took the compass with her free hand, and while her gun hand stayed steady, so steady, her aim still true, her left hand shook as she thumbed open the compass’s cover. One tear, then another, spilled out of her eyes when she saw the photo inside it.
“Steve?” she whispered, and lowered the gun. “But—how?”
“I’ve got a hell of a story to tell you.”
After he gave Peggy the broad outline of the story in all its crazy, impossible truth, they finally got their long-delayed dance. It wasn’t the Stork Club, sure, but it was better than that. Here in the living room, soft music playing, lit with the golden embers of sunset, she fit against him just as perfectly as he’d always known she would, her hand over his heart, her head tucked just under his chin. It wouldn’t be their last dance for her, he hoped. There would be dozens more, hundreds even, for her. But it would be the last for him. So they rocked and swayed and held each other close long after the record player stopped.
“Wow, you’re a really terrible dancer,” she whispered into the hushed quiet, and Steve laughed.
“Sorry, I should have warned you.”
“All that time in the future and you didn’t find anyone to teach you? Or to dance with?”
“Well, Buck keeps trying, but apparently my lack of rhythm is terminal and not a flaw the serum can fix.”
Grief almost weighed his heart down again, and habit made him mentally brace against the crushing pain of it, but no—Bucky was waiting for him. Steve would return to that little clearing in the woods, and he’d be able to step into Bucky’s arms and rock and sway just like this, because Bucky was back.
“Does he now,” murmured Peggy, knowing and sly, and Steve blushed. Maybe he’d given too much away.
“Anyway, maybe you’ll have better luck with your Steve. At the very least, now you know to keep your toes out of range for his first dance with you.”
Peggy tilted her head and looked up at him, assessing and fond. “And you’re not my Steve?”
She brought a warm hand up to his cheek, and he pressed a kiss to her palm.
“No, Peg, I’m not. You told me—will tell me—will have told me…?”
Peggy laughed and pulled him closer to her. “English doesn’t have enough tenses for a time traveler like you,” she teased.
“No, guess not. Anyway, you told me once, that we can’t go back, and I figure you weren’t wrong. I’ve traveled a long way from the guy who brought that plane down in the Arctic, to some good places—really good ones—and some…some real bad ones. I can’t double back now. It isn’t—it wouldn’t be honest. I know that.” He rested his forehead against hers. “But I’m not a good enough to man to not steal the chance for this one last dance when—”
Peggy didn’t let him finish. She leaned up into him for a kiss, and god, her kisses. They were almost enough to make Steve say to hell with his plan, and to hell with this timeline’s Steve currently frozen in the Arctic, he could go back, he could stay, he was keeping this for himself. She kissed with bruising honesty, and she gave no quarter, demanding more and deeper, and taking it herself when Steve didn’t get with the program fast enough. When she let him go, he was gasping.
“You never stay entirely on mission, do you?” she said, not quite succeeding at a breezy tone, her voice too breathless and her eyes too sad, but her lips were tender when she kissed him again. “Just—promise me, darling, you won’t be alone?”
He thought of Sam and Bucky and Bruce waiting for him in that forest clearing, of Rhodey and Pepper and little Morgan, Wanda and Clint and Thor, Scott and Rocket. He thought of Natasha, who maybe, just maybe, could be the last miracle he would ever ask of the universe. This life here, with Peggy—it wasn’t for him. But his friends, his family—they were, and they were waiting.
“No, I’m—I’ve got a family, Peg. Not the usual kind, I guess. But they’re mine. I’ll be alright, I promise,” he told her, and for the first time in a long time, he even believed it.
Peggy must have seen it, because she smiled at him, the lines of worry on her forehead smoothing out. “Alright. And I suppose this won’t be goodbye, will it?”
“No, not for you,” he said, and brushed her hair back from her face. “Your Steve—he’s the one who needs you. He’s waiting in the Arctic somewhere right now. I’ll give you the best coordinates I can, it should make the search easier, and you’ll have to tell Howard to rig something up that can track gamma radiation—”
Peggy put a finger over his lips and tapped warningly. “You call this a briefing, Rogers? Let’s do this properly,” she said, and slipped out of his arms, walking over to a desk to fetch a notebook and pens. She settled herself on the couch, as poised and intent as if they were in the SSR’s war room. “Now, begin at the beginning,” she ordered, so he did.
It took the entire night and the better part of the next morning, Steve giving Peggy as many details as he could: things gleaned from the Winter Soldier files and from the data dump of SHIELD, things he’d learned from Natasha and Hill and Fury. He held back when it came to everything else—he couldn’t hope to fix or ameliorate the whole mess of the human history of suffering— so he limited his briefing to HYDRA and its pernicious influence in SHIELD, and how to better prepare to face Thanos. He was putting enough of a burden on Peggy and his alternate self as it was, and he could only account for so many changes, could only extrapolate so many consequences. When he finally finished, Peggy set her notebook down with a sigh and leaned against him where they were sitting on the couch.
“You’re leaving me with quite the job here, Steve. Save Barnes, find you, get you thawed out, burn HYDRA out of SHIELD, make sure bloody aliens don’t end the world…”
Steve took her face in his hands and kissed her one last time. “No one else I’d trust more.”
First side mission accomplished, Steve went back to 2012 to give the Mind Stone back to himself.
This was where Steve’s plan grew considerably more vague and shaky, given his unavoidable lack of intel. It would be easy enough to just leave the Stone and scepter here and head to his next destination, let this Steve think Loki had tried and failed to take it from him. Steve hit his window to do just that, appearing next to his past self what couldn’t have been much more than a few seconds after Steve had first grabbed the Mind Stone.
But he’d told this Steve about Bucky. And if he wanted this Steve to believe him, to not dismiss it as a cruel trick of Loki’s, he had to convince him. And he didn’t have much time. He had maybe a minute, two minutes tops, before someone came looking for this Steve and the scepter. It wasn’t nearly enough time to tell himself everything he needed to know. He’d need hours for that, his briefing with Peggy had proven as much.
And that was where the Mind Stone came in. Steve didn’t know much about magic, sure, but he figured the Mind Stone’s name was pretty self-explanatory. It gave you power over minds. Loki had used that power to control people. Wanda had used the power she’d gained from the Mind Stone to get inside people’s heads. And while Steve had no interest in essentially highjacking this version of himself, he could use a shortcut. If he could just get inside his alternate self’s head, leave the knowledge there…
He touched the scepter carefully to other Steve’s temple, and focused.
On Vormir, Steve intended to do more than just give the Soul Stone back. He was bringing Natasha home, one way or another.
Thanks to Clint, Bruce had been able to give Steve more exact coordinates for the Soul Stone’s location on Vormir, so Steve was spared the long climb up to the icy mountain top. He materialized directly onto some kind of flat platform or ledge, barren and dark. Red Skull was nowhere in sight, not yet.
Steve’s eyes were inexorably drawn to where the ledge fell away into a sheer drop. Where Natasha had—Steve couldn’t even finish the thought. How many people was he going to lose to long falls? Steve was going to stop letting his friends anywhere near heights just on principle. Which made him a hypocrite, because here he was, inching towards that edge, driven by some terrible desire to know, to be sure. Would Natasha—her body—be down there right now? Or had the Soul Stone claimed that too?
No, focus, Rogers. You have to try to bring back more than just a body.
“Hey! Is anybody here?” Before the last word was snatched away by the mountaintop’s icy wind, the Guardian of the Soul Stone appeared, a floating, dark form shrouded in grey mist and black robes. “Hi, Johann. Long time, no see.”
The eerie, rag-clad shadow that was all that was left of Johann Schmidt, once called Red Skull, stopped, his floating coming to a standstill.
“Ugh, it’s you. Of course you’re still alive,” he said with a mixture of disgust and resignation that really did Steve’s soul some good. “What do you want, Captain Rogers? The Soul Stone is no longer here.” Schmidt floated backwards cautiously. “Or are you here to kill me? That would be superfluous, I assure you.”
“I’m not here to kill you,” said Steve, though he was honestly kind of tempted. He didn’t like to leave a job undone. That wasn’t the mission though. “I’m here to make an exchange.”
“I told you, the Soul Stone isn’t here. Even if it was, you haven’t brought a sacrifice worthy of it.”
“Oh, I know the Soul Stone’s not here. I have the Soul Stone already. I’m here to return it.” Steve opened the briefcase to give Schmidt a look, then snapped it back closed when Schmidt’s skeletal hand drifted too close. “But fair’s fair, I want Natasha back.”
“Natasha was the sacrifice for Clint to get the Soul Stone. Well, now I’m returning it, in good condition. So I’d like Natasha back, please. A soul for the Soul Stone, and the Soul Stone for a soul. Seems fair. Balanced.”
Steve kept his expression even, his tone brisk, as if this was eminently reasonable, totally obvious. It wasn’t like it didn’t make sense, that was why Steve was trying this in the first place. It was just that it was also almost certainly a totally bullshit loophole, and he had nothing but wild and terrible hope that it would work at all.
“That’s not how this works, Rogers,” snapped Schmidt. “That’s not how any of this works!”
Steve summoned up every single ounce of stubbornness and certitude at his disposal. “Yeah? Says who?”
“Says me, the Guardian of the Soul Stone!”
“Yeah, that’s not gonna work for me,” said Steve, shaking his head. He smiled politely at Schmidt, like this was just an inconvenient mix-up. “I’d like to speak to your manager, please.”
“Your manager. Or your superior officer, your boss, whatever. I’d like to speak with them.”
If Steve had to make his case to God himself, he would. If he had to wrestle an angel, argue with an all-powerful rock, beat his fists bloody on the gates of heaven, screaming at St. Peter, whatever the fuck it took, Steve was not leaving here without Natasha. She deserved to live. She had held the faith, had done the work, had fought and fought to bring them all safely home from total desolation, and Steve was going to bring her home too.
Steve had had a lot of miracles already, he knew. He wanted just one more. One last miracle, wrenched out of the hands of impassive fate. Maybe he didn’t deserve it, but surely Natasha did.
“You’ve gone mad,” marveled Schmidt. “There’s no manager. There’s just me. And there is no bargaining, not with the Soul Stone. Give it back or—”
Schmidt reached for the case again and Steve held his ground, gripped it tighter. He wasn’t frightened of Schmidt. Schmidt was nothing, Schmidt was a ghost, and if Steve had to go through him to get to whoever or whatever really held answers about the Soul Stone, he would.
“Nope,” he said. “And there’s gotta be a manager, some kind of higher up, something. Because something made you the Guardian of this Stone. Something told you how to protect it, what it costs to use it. And I want to speak to whoever or whatever that is. I’m not giving the Soul Stone back until I do.”
“Oh, okay, well in that case, I’ll just send a telegram then, shall I? It will have to travel far, not certain how long it takes to get to infinity, but you’re welcome to wait with me, my dear Captain. We’ve plenty of unfinished business, haven’t we?”
Schmidt threw back his hood and floated even closer, the skull that was his face even eerier in this form, like he was some sort of living mummy. Steve didn’t back away; he just bared his teeth at that ruin of a face and stood his ground.
“There’s no call for sarcasm,” Steve told him. “I’m here to do the right thing, to return the Soul Stone where it belongs. I just think it’s fair to get back what the Soul Stone took.”
Schmidt snorted. “You used it, the woman was the price. That is entirely fair.”
“I didn’t use it.”
“You heard me. I didn’t use it. Neither did Clint, who got the Soul Stone when Natasha—in exchange for Natasha. As far as we’re concerned, we shouldn’t have paid the price at all.”
“It doesn’t matter. Someone used it. A price is demanded. A sacrifice is required.”
“Yeah, okay, sure,” said Steve with a shrug. “Someone did use it. Tony used it, and he died. Thanos used it, and his daughter died, and he died too. Twice, actually. Seems to me that the price has been paid, and with one extra death too. The Soul Stone’s been overpaid, if anything.” And okay, yeah, Bruce had used the Stone too, but Steve wasn’t about to mention that. Even including Bruce, they were still one death away from being square with the Stone, at least by Steve’s reckoning. “So I’m asking again, can I talk to your manager. I’d like to make a return.”
Schmidt sneered, stretching what little skin was left on his face grotesquely taut. “Ask all you want, you have no leverage, mortal. The Stone always returns to its home. I have only to wait.”
Yeah, Steve didn’t exactly have the best hand here, and he knew it. He only had the one hand to play, and that hand was going all in, double or nothing. He grinned at Schmidt, who actually looked kind of discomfited.
“Oh? What if I destroy the Stone though?”
“Impossible,” scoffed Schmidt.
“Oh, it’s possible,” said Steve, still grinning. Schmidt actually recoiled a little, so Steve figured he was looking pretty crazy. “I’ve got another Infinity Stone here, you see. And I’ve been told the only thing strong enough to destroy an Infinity Stone is another Infinity Stone. If I can’t make this totally fair exchange right here, right now, I’m just gonna have to destroy the Soul Stone. I’ve got no use for it, after all.”
Schmidt stayed silent for a long moment, appraising Steve and thinking it over. “You’re bluffing.”
Steve opened the briefcase again, then grabbed both Infinity Stones in one hand. When Schmidt floated closer as if to take them, Steve brandished them warningly, sending out a small warning pulse of power. Which wasn’t the best idea, he belatedly realized, as he swallowed down a scream. Even that small pulse of power nearly brought Steve to his knees, agony burning up through his arm and to his spine and heart.
“Try me. I can do this all day.”
He couldn’t, actually. He was pretty sure the Stones would kill him. Using the Mind Stone in its scepter was one thing, but these two Stones were bare in his hands and he didn’t actually know what the hell to do with them. This was absolutely a bluff. But a bluff was all he had, it was the only chance Natasha had, and he couldn’t not try. He had to try.
“You’ve only become more foolish since I last saw you,” said Schmidt in disgust. “You will be waiting an eternity, there are no exchanges with the Soul Stone—”
Steve didn’t hear whatever Schmidt said next, because the Soul Stone pulsed in his hand, and some vast presence, aggrieved and curious and so, so enormous, brushed against his mind. Steve fell to his knees, and his grip around the Stones convulsed.
No one has ever brought me back, whispered a many-voiced voice. An exchange…quite unprecedented. But your logic…it is...compelling. There is balance in it. All power requires balance. What is the exchange?
Steve took a deep shuddering breath, and considered his next words carefully. He’d heard enough stories of twisted genie wishes to know he had to be specific.
“I want the Natalia Alianovna Romanova who sacrificed herself for the Soul Stone back, body and soul, alive and unharmed.”
The Stone was silent for a long, long moment, but its presence didn’t retreat, it intensified. Steve felt its focus on him, scouring and pitiless, impossible to hide from, and still so impossibly enormous. Steve was nothing, in the face of that, just a loose collection of atoms in a universe teeming with them, and even atoms were mostly empty air. And okay, yeah, sure Steve was small, compared to all this vastness. But he’d taken on Thanos, and he’d helped bring half the universe back, and he could do this. He straightened his back, and looked straight into the Soul Stone’s burning light. He had wielded Mjolnir. His soul was worthy of standing up to this chatty jewel.
Very well, it shall be done, said the Stone. Give me back to the Guardian or the release of energy will kill you.
The energy, presence, whatever of the Soul Stone was already overwhelming enough, and Steve wasn’t even doing anything with it. He wanted to ask for a guarantee, a promise to seal the deal, but he couldn’t keep holding onto the damn thing, and he was out of cards to play. Steve handed the Stone over to Schmidt, and hoped.
Please, please, let it be enough—
There was a flash of amber gold light, and then he was somewhere else, no longer on the cold and desolate mountain, but on his knees in shallow water, under a roiling, alien sky. He was still gripping the Time Stone barehanded, and he fumbled to put it back in its case, when suddenly, Natasha was there too, rising up out of a pool of water that should have been too shallow for her to surface like that. She was wide-eyed and gasping for air, submerged up to her knees and elbows in the water. She staggered up and looked around wildly, though he wasn’t sure she was truly seeing anything yet. Her gaze skittered over him, darting back and forth as if she didn’t believe he was really there, and she fumbled for her batons, ready for a fight.
“Clint! You asshole, it was supposed to be me! Clint!” she shouted. The ragged agony in her voice made Steve drop the briefcase in the water and lurch towards her.
“Nat,” said Steve. “Nat! Hey, Nat, it’s me, it’s Steve. Clint’s fine, it worked, we did it.”
She stared down at him in disbelief, tears overflowing to spill down her cheeks. His hands were still stretched towards her, and though she didn’t reach for him, she lowered her batons, then dropped them, fell back to her knees.
“Then how am I—the Soul Stone, I was—I was the sacrifice, so how am I here?”
“I asked nicely,” he said, and when Natasha gave him a flat, incredulous look, still looking pretty wild around the edges, he elaborated, “Well, I brought the Soul Stone back, so I figured we were owed an exchange.”
Natasha laughed, a fast and frantic sound. “Bullshit you asked nicely,” she rasped.
Then she closed her eyes, hid her face in her shaking hands, and just breathed. Fast and shaky at first, but slower and deeper as Steve breathed with her. When she opened her eyes again, she was steady, even with the tears still making her eyes bright. The grief for her he’d scarcely been able to accept felt so small now, compared to his love. This was the last miracle he would ever ask for, this was the gift he would thank the universe for everyday, one more in a long and beloved litany: Natasha here and alive, snatched back from death.
“How long has it been? You said it worked, is it—is everyone—”
“Just—just a couple weeks, I think. I’m a little turned around on account of all the time travel. And yeah, it worked. There was another fight, Thanos attacked again—”
“What, but we, he’s—”
“Different Thanos, from a different timeline, it’s a long story, but we beat him, it worked. We—we lost Tony. But Sam, and Bucky, and Wanda, T’Challa and Shuri, all the missing, we got them back—and now you too.”
Then Steve let himself break, just a little, and finally, Natasha came to him, splashing and stumbling through the cold water to hold him, both of them still on their knees, and they stayed like that, forehead to forehead, holding each other and rocking together, for a long time.
It turned out it was easy enough to stuff horror and despair down to keep doing the work, but at least for them, joy and relief left a giddy exhaustion that was more difficult to set aside. It kept rising up like bubbles in champagne, fizzing out of them in disbelieving smiles and happy, tired tears.
“We’ve got one last Infinity Stone to return, then we can go back home,” Steve told Natasha, once they’d both mostly gotten a hold of themselves.
“Which one’s left?” asked Natasha. She was already checking her gear and re-holstering her batons, each step of the steady routine dropping her further back into mission mode.
“The Time Stone. I left it for last just in case I run into any problems with the, uh, sorcerer lady.”
Natasha raised an eyebrow. “You anticipating any problems?”
“I may have gone on some side missions while returning the Stones,” said Steve, checking to make sure the briefcase was secure. If this so happened to let him avoid Natasha’s eyes, well, that was just a coincidence. “I don’t think I fucked anything up, but—”
“Steve,” said Natasha, half delight and half dread. “What did you do? Don’t tell me you went and killed baby Hitler...”
“No! Even I know that’s a terrible idea with way too many possible repercussions to predict. I just—made a few tweaks to a couple of my other timelines, is all.” Natasha winced and Steve rushed to reassure her. “It’s fine, it’s totally fine, those new timelines got created anyway, so I figured, you know, why not make them—better. Do some alternate versions of me and Bucky and SHIELD a favor.”
Natasha frowned at him, clearly working up an argument, before she gave up with a sigh and rolled her eyes.
“You know what, whatever. If the multiverse or timeline collapses, we’re just gonna have to deal with it.”
God, Steve hoped the multiverse didn’t collapse. Well, if it did, presumably the Sorcerer Supreme would be able to…do something about it. He hoped.
“Are there any extracurricular side trips you want to go on?” he asked, because fair was fair. “We have enough Pym particles, and I’ve got an extra wrist band if yours is broken.”
Natasha just shook her head. “Uh uh, no way. I’ll be happy if we get back home and don’t vanish in a world-ending paradox. We’ve pushed our luck far enough, Steve.”
“Yeah, probably,” he admitted. “Ready to head back to 2012?” he asked, and Natasha took a deep breath and nodded. “Alright, the coordinates are…”
They materialized on a rooftop in New York, in front of an ageless-looking bald woman whose unimpressed and serene expression reminded Steve unpleasantly of Sister Mary Joan every time she’d caught him at some bit of classroom mischief or playground hell-raising.
There was an old man standing beside the bald woman, a round case at his feet, and he looked terribly, fascinatingly familiar. When he grinned at Steve, Steve realized why. Oh fuck. If he’d followed his branching timelines right, an older version of himself shouldn’t have been here in this 2012. This 2012 was supposed to be the one where Steve had left his recently defrosted counterpart with the knowledge that Bucky was alive.
“Well, you’ve really bollocksed up some timelines, haven’t you?” said the bald woman.
Steve didn’t even have to look at Natasha to feel the I told you so radiating out from her very being.
“I’m here to return the Time Stone, ma’am,” said Steve, and held it out to her, feeling way too much like he was ten years old again and holding his palm out for a slap from Sister Mary Joan’s ruler. Only this woman could probably do a hell of a lot worse than that.
“I see that,” she said, taking the the Time Stone. “And thank you. Congratulations on saving your universe. But—” she gestured at Steve’s elderly counterpart, who waved cheerfully. “As you can see, you’ve left a few dangling threads. And do you know what dangling threads do, Captain?”
“Uh, dangle?” tried Steve, and Natasha elbowed him, hard.
“They unravel the fabric.”
“Guessing that’s bad, when the fabric is…spacetime.” said Natasha, cutting a deadly look over Steve’s way.
Steve’s older counterpart smiled at her and Steve. “Don’t worry, you didn’t destroy my universe. Or ‘bollocks up’ my timeline as the Ancient One here put it. We just need to tie up some loose ends,” he said, and Steve saw the realization of just who he was dawn across Natasha’s face. Her eyes darted between them in fascination.
“So can it be fixed?” Steve asked the woman—or the Ancient One, rather, which seemed like a pretty portentous title.
“Lucky for you, it can,” she said. “My counterpart in Mr. Rogers’ timeline has helped me…sew together a fix, so to speak. All we need to do is send Mr. Rogers to your timeline in your place, then bring him back here. You can return after he comes back.”
“I’m simplifying things, but yes. The branching timeline you created for him is stable enough only so long as you tie off the threads connecting both of you to each other’s timelines. Sending Mr. Rogers through to your timeline along with a spell of mine should mend things adequately.” She leveled a stern glare at him. “Which is not an excuse to go about creating branching timelines willy-nilly. Then the multiverse really would collapse.”
“Right,” said Steve, and heaved a sigh of relief, before he fidgeted guiltily, the same way he always had under Sister Mary Joan’s unblinking gaze. “But, uh, I definitely created at least one other—”
“Oh, I know,” she said with a thin smile. “And for your sins, you’ll have Loki to deal with. He took the opening to slip through to your timeline to escape this one.” The sorcerer tilted her head. “Though I will say, while he may be the god of mischief, his magic is tidy. He did his own version of my spell, so no worries about unraveling this timeline in his wake.”
“Great. Time really is a flat circle,” said Natasha. “This whole thing started with Loki, and now we’ve gotta deal with him again.”
“Well, at least Thor will be happy?” tried Steve, and his counterpart laughed.
“There’s that silver lining, sure,” he said.
“So, how do we do this?” asked Natasha.
“Hand over your little time travel gadget, the one you used to get here,” said the Ancient One, holding her hand out to Steve, and Steve gave it to her. “Now give me a few minutes, magic like this isn’t easy,” she said, then began moving her hands in complex shapes, glowing lines forming in the wake of her movements.
Natasha watched the Ancient One carefully, as if she could follow along with the spell if she stared hard enough. Steve’s older counterpart tipped his head at Steve, gesturing him over.
“Here, while she’s busy, I have something for you.” He lifted up the round, flat case, and opened it to reveal the shield, looking considerably better than the broken version Steve had left behind in his own timeline. “Peggy told me what you told her, that in your future, you actually manage to break this old frisbee.”
“Wait, you broke the shield, how is that even possible?” asked Natasha.
“Hey, I didn’t break it, Thanos did!”
Other Steve grinned, turning his face into a roadmap of happy wrinkles.
“Yeah, yeah, save the excuses for someone who isn’t you. Now I figure, whoever broke it, it’s a damn shame to leave you shieldless, and a new shield’s the least I owe you when you’re the reason I’ve had decades with Pegs and Buck.”
“Decades? So it—it all turned out okay?”
“More or less, yeah. Thanks to you.” He held out the shield. “So here, take it. You can sure as hell use it more than I can.”
Steve couldn’t quite bring himself to reach for the shield. This version gleamed in the sunshine, polished to a bright shine. It was missing the blast marks and chipped and faded paint Steve was familiar with; more gently used, maybe, or maybe Tony had just spruced this one up too.
“You don’t want to pass it on to someone in your own time?”
“Don’t worry, we’ve still got a shield,” said Other Steve. “Howard made a second one when—well, it’s a long story, but the point is, we’re set. This one’s all yours.” Other Steve narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, still smiling. “Unless…you don’t want it?”
Steve thought of who and what was waiting for him back home, of the last five years, and the two before that, time spent shieldless but not adrift. He hadn’t been Captain America in a long time, not really. He was ready to be something else. He was ready to step back from the fight, for a while, anyway. The world probably needed something other than the fight, he figured. It needed someone who knew what it was, to return unchanged to a changed world and changed loved ones.
“No,” he told his other self. In his counterpart’s aged face and twinkling eyes, he saw the possibility and the promise of a peaceful life, and he was sure. “No, I don’t. But I know who’ll carry it well. Do you know who Sam Wilson is?”
“So that’s how I did the Reverse Time Heist and helped fix a couple timelines along the way.”
They’re all sitting in a circle on the ground now, criss-cross applesauce, like Steve’s been telling them a story around the campfire. Bucky and Steve still have their arms around each other’s waists, apparently unwilling to detach, which Sam can’t entirely blame them for. He’s been holding onto Nat’s hand pretty tightly himself.
“Okay,” he says slowly, still processing Steve and Old Steve’s Excellent Adventure. “But now I’m kinda pissed at Old Steve. He couldn’t have explained any of that to us before going poof? That’s some real Dumbledore shit, man. Promise me you won’t turn into a cryptic, twinkly-eyed asshole in this timeline.”
“He’s already a cryptic, twinkly-eyed asshole,” grumbles Bucky, and Steve grins and presses a kiss to his temple. He’s been doing that a lot, idly, reflexively, like he just has to keep making sure Bucky’s still there.
“Sorry for worrying you guys, really. I think the Ancient One just wanted to get other me back before either of us messed with any more timelines.”
“So we should probably stop time traveling, huh?” says Bruce. “Because unravelling the multiverse seems…bad.”
Natasha snorts and leans against Bruce. “Just a bit. We should destroy the equipment. This isn’t the kind of thing we want getting into anyone else’s hands.”
“Yeah, probably,” says Steve with a sigh. “I just wish I could see what ended up happening in the other timelines.”
Bucky lifts his head from Steve’s shoulder to give Steve a look of such naked affection that Sam feels his face heat just from proximity to it. “What, after you gave Peggy and 2012 you a fix-the-future cheatsheet? Come on, Rogers, do you even have to wonder? You save the damn world, just like you always do.”
Steve smiles back at Bucky with besotted adoration, and before he and Bucky can start making out right here on the damn forest floor, Sam pokes Steve with his foot.
“Hey, if I’m Cap now, what’re you gonna do?”
“Oh, Steve didn’t tell you?” says Natasha with a bright smile and what he hopes are happy tears in her eyes. She squeezes his hand, brings it up to her hand to press a kiss there, and that one gesture tells him every damn thing he needs to know about just how much she’s missed him. “He’s taken over your old job: running support groups.”
Well, okay, now Sam wants to happy-cry too. “Steve—” he says through the thick lump of tears in his throat, but he doesn’t even know what else to say. Steve giving him the shield was an honor, a privilege; Steve taking up what amounts to Sam’s own shield is something far more personal. At the end of the world, and after it, Steve had thought of what he could do to keep going, to keep helping, and he’d taken up Sam’s work. Cryptic and twinkly-eyed or not, Sam couldn't ask for a better friend. “That’s—that’s really great. I’m real proud of you, man.”
Steve ducks his head and shrugs. “It seemed like the right thing to do. And I figure, maybe people aren’t grieving anymore, but now there are a lot of people who’ve come back to a world they don’t always recognize. I know a little something about that. And anyway, Tony always said I oughta get a life beyond just being Cap.” Steve takes a deep breath and pulls Bucky closer, looks at all of them with shining eyes. “I think I’m finally ready to.”