“How long is this gonna take?” Sam asks, eying both Bruce and Steve, who has one hand on Mjolnir and the other on the suitcase holding the six infinity stones. Steve notices that Bruce barely looks up from where he’s punching numbers into the quantum tunnel as he answers.
“For him, as long as he needs. For us, five seconds.”
As long as I need, Steve thinks, trying not to catch anyone’s eyes. He hopes his expression is neutral enough to not betray what he’s planning. A part of him wants to stay here, with the Avengers, with Sam and Bucky. Bucky. Steve had told his oldest friend his plan last night – how he was planning on tracking down a young Peggy Carter once he had returned the space stone to Camp Lehigh. There was a part – a small part, but it was there nonetheless – that had wondered what he would have done if Bucky had asked him to stay. The ex-Soviet assassin had only given him a small smile and wished him well, before quickly excusing himself, claiming that he needed some fresh air despite the bedroom window already being wide open. Steve had watched him go, a strange feeling forming in the pit of his stomach.
The only feeling he could feel now was resolve. Determination. He knew that his team – his friends – were counting on him to make sure that their Time Heist hadn’t caused even more problems for the universe. Everything that would hopefully come after, Peggy, retirement, a chance at a normal life – all of that rested on Steve being able to carry out this last mission.
“Going quantum in three…two…one,” Bruce calls out, shaking Steve from his thoughts. He’s traveled through the quantum realm a handful of times at this point, but it doesn’t stop the weird feeling he gets as he shrinks down, smaller and smaller. As if by reflex, he clutches the suitcase and Thor’s hammer tighter.
Moments pass, and when Steve is aware of his surroundings again, he’s standing in a Manhattan alleyway. He peeks out into the street, careful not to run into the other Avengers. Or myself, again, he thinks. He glances quickly up and down the block, trying to gauge where exactly in the battle he’s landed.
The portal’s closed, Steve thinks as he looks up. Which means I need to get to Stark Tower – quickly. He clutches Mjolnir and begins to spin it rapidly, sending up a quick prayer of thanks when it lifts him off the ground and towards the nearest rooftop.
As far as last missions go, this one isn’t nearly as bad as previous ones. Steve can return both the mind and time stone without a hitch. The Ancient One had been pleasantly surprised to see Steve – he expected she was anticipating Bruce instead. When she asks if they won, Steve has a feeling she already knows the answer.
He decides to return the reality stone next. Maneuvering around Asgard is a challenge – not because Steve stands out like a sore thumb (he’s certain the only ones who would recognize him at this point in time are Thor and his brother) – but because he’s holding Mjolnir which in 2015 is something only Thor should be able to do. It takes about twenty minutes of ducking into shadows and dodging groups of Asgardians who seem to appear out of nowhere, but finally Steve is able to drop the hammer roughly where Thor had told him to and stick the aether back into a sleeping Jane Foster.
Steve’s dreading the next trip. Rhodey and Nebula had been smart enough to warn him about the energy field in the power stone’s temple, and the two had created a pseudo metal-appendage that Steve could use to put the stone back, claiming “No one would forgive us if Captain America’s arm melted off”. On his way out, he spots Quill – a younger Quill – stagger to his feet, clutching his forehead. Steve accidentally steps on a large branch, which lets out a loud crack that echoes, but before the Guardian-to-be can see who else is on Morag with him, Steve is gone.
Nebula hadn’t been kidding when she had called Vormir a dominion of death.
Steve can’t shake the feeling of utter dread as he stares up the mountain. Nat had refused to talk about what had happened up there – only that there was a floating red man and that Clint had sacrificed himself to get them the soul stone, but “It should have been her”. There’s a part of him that doesn’t want to scale that mountain – doesn’t want to be reminded of what they had to lose in order to win the final battle. But there’s another part of him that reminds himself that this is it, his last mission as an Avenger, and it’s his duty to finish it. And so, with the same unwavering resolve that he’s carried within himself for as long as he can remember, he begins the hike up the mountain.
He reaches the top, or what he assumes is the top, since the only thing in front of him is a steep cliff that he’s positive no one could climb. Less than a second passes, and then a voice that Steve hasn’t heard in over seventy years speaks.
“Steven, son of Sarah.” Steve whips around, his heart nearly stopping. When Nat had told him about the ‘floating red guy’ at the top of Vormir, he had not realized she was referring to his original nemesis.
“You!” He spits hatefully, because of course someone as evil as the Red Skull would be tasked with forcing people to kill themselves for the soul stone. An image of Natasha tearfully looking up at him burns in his mind and rage fills him. If I was there with them, I would have fought this piece of shit for the stone myself. Still seething, he opens the suitcase, where only the soul and space stones remain and pulls the former out, practically shoving it at the Red Skull.
“Take it.” He says through gritted teeth. The Red Skull holds out an almost ghost-like arm towards the stone. As Steve watches, a blinding light fills his gaze and he steps back as a reflex. Except now he’s stepped off the edge of the mountain and he’s falling –
No wait, he’s not falling anymore. And when did he get so wet? And when did he – ah. Steve is back at the base of the mountain now, the suitcase still in his hand. As if by instinct, he opens it. One stone left.
Well that was…something, he thinks bitterly. Had he hoped for some longer confrontation with his foe? Perhaps, though there was also that feeling of wanting to be done with it all – the fighting, the hero gig, everything – and it was this feeling that drove Steve to stand up and punch the coordinates into his suit for what he hoped would be the last time.
Steve Rogers prides himself on being a brave man, but it takes him a full half hour before he has the courage to walk up to Peggy Carter’s door, and another five before he knocks on it. For a moment, Steve panics, wondering if he’s got the right address. It would be just his luck to show up on the doorstep of some poor unsuspecting soul. He can hear footsteps inside, and then a British voice that is clearly, unmistakably Peggy’s.
“I’ve told you, I’m not interested in whatever you’re sell -,” Peggy’s voice is cut short as she swings the door open and stares, open-mouthed at Steve. He smiles.
She gapes up at him. “Steve?” She manages to squeak out after what feels like hours pass between them. “You’re – how?” She motions quickly for him to come inside, and he does, shutting the front door behind him.
Once they’re both inside, Peggy stops and stares – really stares – at Steve, looking him up and down. Her brows are furrowed in confusion, and Steve wonders what’s going through her mind.
“Who are you?” She asks, finally. Steve freezes.
“I – I’m Steve,” he stammers. Was this a mistake?
“Steve is dead,” Peggy states matter-of-factly. “We-I heard him go down in the ice almost thirty years ago.”
Oh, right. Steve takes a deep breath. It’s bizarre, to think about the fact that there’s another version of him who won’t wake up for another forty-odd years. But if he’s going to spend the rest of his life with the woman in front of him, he owes her the truth.
“I am Steve Rogers,” he begins slowly. “But not from this time.” He pauses, searching Peggy’s face.
“When?” She asks him quietly.
“Twenty – oh,” she replies, taking an involuntary step back. Steve moves, catches her arm. They stay there like that for a moment. Finally, Peggy seems to relax.
“Tell me,” she says, meeting his gaze.
And so, Steve does. He tells her all about waking up in the twenty-first century, about the Avengers (‘Howard’s son?’ Peggy interjects and Steve chuckles). He tells her about Loki, the Tesseract, and the Chitauri. He goes on, talking about S.H.I.E.L.D, and Hydra (Peggy purses her lips at this, and Steve has to quickly tell her that ‘It’s fine, it all turns out okay, but we have to let things play out this way to keep the timeline from exploding’). He tells her about Sam, and about Bucky.
“Barnes? He’s alive?” Peggy asks incredulously. Steve nods. He wonders if the infamous Winter Soldier is already on S.H.I.E.L.D’s radar at this point. He continues his story, telling Peggy about Ultron, the Maximoff twins, the infinity stones. The accords. Zemo. Having to take half of the Avengers as fugitives from the law.
Thanos. Steve feels his stomach drop as he recounts the mad Titan’s quest to wipe out half of all living creatures. How Steve had returned from exile to find the world in utter chaos. How they had fought, so desperately to keep Thanos from winning, and then how they had lost – how Steve had watched half of life disintegrate before his eyes. How they had taken a ship up and killed Thanos – but it was too late, the stones were already gone.
“But you must have done something?” Peggy presses him. “Otherwise, I don’t think you’d be here.”
Steve nods. “It took – it took five years, but Scott – he had an idea. A Time Heist of sorts, to get the infinity stones back from before Thanos. Bruce and Tony – they were able to figure out time travel.” He tells Peggy about their plan, about going back to New York, and then – how he and Tony had taken another detour to now – 1970. When Steve tells Peggy about how he had stumbled into her office, she inhales sharply, but motions for him to continue.
Steve does. He talks about the Nano gauntlet, how Bruce had managed – miraculously – to harness the power of the stones to bring everyone back. Thanos – again – showing up and bombing the compound. Tony, Thor, and Steve making one last, desperate stand together, knowing they were probably going to lose – again. How, in the moment when Steve was sure he was going to die, suddenly, there were portals opening all around him – the dusted coming home.
He pauses, his breath catching in his throat. Peggy rests a hand comfortingly on his arm.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs. “Whatever happened, it’s okay.”
Steve swallows. “We were, we were supposed to get the gauntlet back through Scott’s van – the other quantum tunnel. Carol, Captain Danvers, she had it and we were so close, but Thanos was able to destroy the van. Carol was able to fight him for a moment, but he – he got the gauntlet again. We were all waiting for him to snap, to wipe us all out once and for all, but Tony – Tony knew something that we didn’t, I think. He got to Thanos before any of us could and he – he got the gauntlet off...He put it on himself, to destroy Thanos’ army, even though Bruce had told us that none of us could survive its power…” he trails off.
“Oh, Steve,” Peggy says. “I’m so sorry.”
Steve realizes that he’s starting to cry, and he wipes a tear from his eye. “That’s the thing – he didn’t – he didn’t die. Thanos and his army were disintegrated, and then Tony just kind of – collapsed. Pepper and Rhodey were there, and it looked like he was having some sort of seizure while they were trying to get the gauntlet off. The last I saw of them, Rhodey was rushing him onto a Wakandan airship. I don’t – I don’t know if he’s alive.”
Steve stops, realizing for the first time how parched his throat is from talking so much. Peggy notices him rub his throat and asks him if he’d like a glass of water, to which Steve nods gratefully.
A few seconds later, and she’s back in the living room, holding a glass out to him. Steve takes it and downs it in three gulps.
“And you’re here now,” Peggy asks. Steve nods.
“I returned the stones to their original times – Bruce was able to rebuild the quantum tunnel. But I – I was so tired of being a hero, and when I saw you, I thought – I thought maybe this was my chance at a normal life.”
“Did you tell anyone?”
“Only Bucky. I thought if I had told anyone else it would have been harder for me to leave.”
“Were you looking for a reason to stay?”
Steve pauses. For a moment, he wants to reply ‘No.’. Then he remembers telling Bucky, and the feeling of disappointment he had felt when his friend had barely reacted to his news. Instead, he simply replies with “I don’t know.”
Peggy looks up at him. Her gaze is a mixture of love and sadness. “Steve,” she murmurs. “From all you’ve told me, everyone you lost, everyone you’ve left – I think you should go home.”
He stares at her, willing her to change her mind, to say anything else. “I don’t – I can’t be a hero anymore, Pegs,” he says desperately, willing her to understand. She smiles at him.
“Oh, Steve, you don’t need to be a hero. I think – I think what your friends need right now is a friend.”
In an instant, Steve sees clearly for what feels like the first time. His mind flashes with images of his friends – Sam, Bucky, Nat. Tony, lying in some hospital bed. He had thought that there was nothing left for him in the future if he gave up the shield. Now, thinking about all the people in the future who cared for him, he realized he was wrong.
“Peggy,” he says softly. “I’m so sorry.” He steps forward, pulling her into him. They stay there like that for a moment, Steve absentmindedly running his fingers through her hair.
“Before I leave,” he says quietly. “Would you indulge me in a dance?” Peggy smiles up at him. Steve can see tears in her eyes.
“I would love to.”
So, they dance, slowly, to a song Steve has loved for years. They fit together perfectly, and when Steve leans down to kiss her as the song ends, they’re both crying.
“I love you,” he says as they pull away from each other. Peggy is furiously wiping her eyes.
“I love you too.”
A moment passes between them, before Steve slowly raises his arm, pressing down on the switch that causes the quantum suit to form around his body. Peggy smiles sadly at him.
There’s that familiar feeling of shrinking, of being carried through a void, and then – daylight. Steve opens his eyes. He’s back outside – Bruce and Sam are staring at him, a look of relief on their faces. He gives them both a nod.
“Welcome back, Cap.” Sam says. Bucky, whose back is turned, wheels around suddenly. He looks shocked to see Steve standing in front of him. Steve jumps down off the platform and moves toward his friend.
“You -you came back,” Bucky says, quietly, making sure Bruce and Sam can’t overhear. Steve pulls his friend into an embrace.
“I came home.”