Thunderous, discordant noises left Steve’s ears ringing, they denied him sleep and sent his thoughts into disarray. His ankles and wrists were chained to a steel chair which was bolted to the floor, he couldn’t even cover his ears. Too bright lights burned white spots into his vision, not that there was anything to look at besides cracked concrete.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been there anymore. But more and more his scattered thoughts were filled with an awareness that no one was coming for him. That they’d failed. The Lost Half hadn’t returned and there were no more Pym Particles. No more chances.
The room was suddenly plunged into silence and a dim-half light that might as well have been pitch black to Steve. The sheer relief from the abuse to his heightened sense was almost enough to start him sobbing.
He only had few moments, barely time to think she was early- Other times she hadn’t come until his throat was parched and dry. -Before he heard the door creak open behind him followed by the staccato click of heels on tile. A slim hand cupped his jaw and guided a straw to his mouth allowing him a few gulps of water. Reflexively he turned towards her, pressing his cheek into her hand. On some level Steve knew she was responsible for his current misery but his only respite was when she was there… And it was Peggy.
“You can have more, just tell me your name.”
“Peggy, You know who I am,” Steve murmured.
The hand pulled away. He heard her walking away, her steps clipped and angry. The unseen door behind him opened and closed. The lights came up to their former painful brightness and the noise returned.
Steve shut his eyes, he tried to tune out the noise. ‘They’d failed. No one was coming.' In his mind Steve tried to block it all out. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept. Time in general had assumed a weird fluidity, telescoping into eternity, vanishing in a moment. The din took on a tinny, distant ring, the irregularity that had kept it from fading to white noise for so long somehow ceased to matter. Steve found himself staring past the cracks in the wall, between the mottled old cement and white spots dancing in his vision a picture started to form.
The Avengers gathered around the Quantum platform. Tony, Scott and Rocket all gesticulating wildly as they argued, brainstormed. Bruce shaking his head, feet on the ground. Thor, Rhodes, Nebula and Danvers occasionally adding something as the madly veering conversation careened in and out of areas they were knowledgeable about. Natasha and Clint on the sidelines, watching the debate like spectors at a tennis match, so hopelessly far out of their depths. Gradually the debates wound down. Nothing, nothing left, no more Hail Mary’s, no last straws to grasp. They’d tried, how they’d tried, but there was nothing left. Bruce left first, just turned and walked away. Clint and Thor took their cue from him, they stumbled out of the Compound even more broken than when they’d arrived.
Steve felt a spear of guilt lance through him, for the false hope he’d held out to Clint, to Thor. For Bucky, Sam, Wanda and so, so many others who hadn’t been saved. But he couldn’t find the energy to raise his head or blink away the vision- Hallucination? -That was playing out before him.
Tony drove slowly, as he never drove, away from the compound. Admitting defeat didn’t come naturally to any of them. He dragged his feet, waiting, anticipating that last minute burst of inspiration or insanity that would put them back in the game. Slowly, slowly the car wound its way up the narrow forrest road, until it opened out in the driveway of the isolated home Tony and Pepper had built as their escape from a lost world.
The porch door slammed open at the first sound of tires on gravel and the little dark haired girl flew out. Tony reflexively masked the defeat and exhaustion that had clouded his features since leaving the Compound and he was smiling as he stepped out of the car.
“Daddy! Where were you? I missed you!” the little girl pouted.
“I missed you too,” Tony replied sweeping her up into a hug maybe a fraction too tight. While Morgan’s face was buried in his shoulder, Tony looked past her to where Pepper waited on the porch. When their eyes met, she read the defeat in his face but it was gone by the time their daughter pulled back.
Morgan carried the dinner conversation, telling her father everything she’d done while he was gone. Despite everything, Tony’s interest was genuine and his smiles for her lost a touch of the strain. After he’d tucked her in, Tony sat on the couch, Pepper curled up against his side. There was a blurry picture in his hands, someone he’d failed to bring back, and they grieved for the loss anew.
Days turned into months and the wounds ripped open by hope-now-crushed scabbed over again. The moments of desolation became fewer. Tony’s smiles became genuine. Morgan grew older, began to long for companionship beyond her parents and the few friends they remained in contact with. Tony and Pepper began reaching out and helping the world recover. Reversal was a jagged-edged dream that had cut as they tried to grab it but healing was possible and Tony had always been the futurist.
There’d never been a moment of epiphany but over the last five years Steve had felt the creeping revolation steal over him that he’d never done right by Tony. He’d judged Tony and found him lacking before even meeting him.
Then, after Tony had disproved all of Seve’s opinions, there’d been Bucky and the secret of Howard and Maria Stark’s deaths that had created a wall between them. A wall, Steve had gradually come to realize, that he’d never tried to pull down or go over. He hadn’t wanted to care about Tony and it had shown in every aspect of the team’s interactions. A wall that, even in the best of times, had always kept Tony on the outside looking in when it came to the team.
‘Then I had the gall to say they were Tony’s family. What was I thinking? ...Maybe this time, I finally did right by Tony. Even if we can’t save everyone- No, we didn’t save anyone. But at least Tony’s still with his family. At least I could send him home.’
Peggy Carter left the interrogation cell and headed straight for Hank Pym’s lab, collecting Howard Stark on the way. “What do you have?” she demanded of both men. Then, before either could answer she added, “Could he believe he’s Steve Rogers?”
Hank held up the shattered remains of the device they’d taken off the man currently held prisoner a few levels above. “It runs off of Pym Particles and it’s designed to shrink someone down to a subatomic size. I’ve always theorized that going into the quantum realm would be a death sentence but this proves it’s possible to survive it, use it… I don’t know what for but whatever he and his cohort were up to it required incredible computations.” He held up a computer chip he’d taken from the device. “I don’t know how it’s possible to make something like this but, unless I miss my guess, this little thing has ten times the computing power of that monster Zola’s making in the basement.”
“Peg, I think we’ve got to start considering the possibility that he actually is Steve Rogers,” Howard said.
The glare Peggy turned on Howard was enough to have him stepping back, hands up in surrender but it didn’t silence him.
“The shield? It’s the one I made for Steve, the same alloy down to a thousandth of a percent,” Howard continued. “He’s got all the right antibodies in comparison to Steve’s enlightenment papers… And I do wonder about Erskine’s sanity now that I’ve seen them, the serum could have generated super viruses instead of or in addition to amping up his immune system. We were goddamn lucky. But hell, the general public’s only just started to catch a hint about the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains. Back then we weren’t even thinking about what else we might enhance with Project: Rebirth…. The guy in that cell, he’s got Steve Rogers’ fingerprints.”
“Why do you have Steve’s fingerprints?” Peggy demanded.
“Because I wanted to know if they’d change,” Howard said. His face flushed, “I took his whole palm print too. I don’t believe that shit about life line and such, but my Ma did. I wanted to see if we changed his fate by giving him the serum? Ridiculous, I know but… I have a record of his finger prints.”
“I- still-“ Peggy shook her head. “He’s not Steve. What if he’s some sort of sleeper agent? The war’s left the country in such turmoil… And we all know it’s only a matter of time before the President’s paranoia blows up in his face. A scandal involving Steve Rogers, on top of everything else? It would be devastating.”
“What can I say Peg, If you hadn’t dumped a certain blood sample I’d have a better answer for you,” Howard replied.
“All I have to do is look at SI’s contribution to this latest war to know I made the right choice in not trusting Steve’s legacy to you,” Peggy replied sharply.
Howard’s shoulders stiffened. “Carter, on account of Dan’s memory, I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that,” he said. “The Tesseract’s gone, along with our -um- guest’s cohort. He used Hank’s particles to go... Somewhere we can’t follow.”
“Now that I know humans can survive the Quantum Realm it’s only a matter of time before I crack it,” Hank protested.
“Maybe you will,” Howard replied. Then he nodded to the broken device in Hank’s hands. “But will it be soon enough or will you run into the same wall I’ve been trying to get past with the Tesseract: Our tech just isn’t far enough along, yet. We’re at a dead end, so I propose that we… Give our guest enough rope to hang himself. We act as if we believe him and we watch and see what he does.”
“I will not risk Steve’s legacy,” Peggy snapped.
“So we tell him, with everything going on, trust in the government at an all time low. This just isn’t the time for Steve Rogers to return. We set him up under a different name and if that throws a wrench in his plans so much the better. Our chances of catching him only improve if he has to improvise.”
Peggy’s lips compressed but she didn’t disagree.
“So it’s a plan, we turn off the sensory screw-job and start making nice,” Howard said.
“He’s not Steve,” Peggy insisted again. Then she sighed. “But… Everything points to it working, even if he knows better he’s turning to me for comfort. That’s why I wonder if he even knows that he’s not Steve. I think he’s trying to please me but he doesn’t have the answers I’m asking for. It was one thing when I thought he was trying to use my memories of Steve against me. But if someone’s done something to him, if he’s just someone’s cat’s paw and he honestly thinks he’s Steve…” Peggy shook her head. “I can’t do this to him anymore.”
“Then it’s settled. I’ll call Maria, tell her to set up a room,” Howard said.