2016 (Alternate Timeline): Steve
In 2016, it’s finally time for Steve to go home. It's been seventy years since he showed up on Peggy’s front porch, fresh from the future and broken into more pieces than he could count; and another sixty-eight years since they’d been married.
Peggy died two months ago with Steve holding her hand, her last breath sliding out into the universe with the finality of a bell.
It had been a long time coming. Peggy hadn’t ever wanted to know about her death, once she learned Steve was from the future. It was one of the many rules they put around their life together from the moment he stepped into 1946. Steve quietly funneled money toward Alzheimer’s research for years, never breathing a word of it to her, even as a clock ticked over their heads.
In this timeline, when Peggy died, the grief wasn’t a black maw that swallowed him whole. He wept but it didn’t choke him, didn’t suffocate him. She got the life she dreamt of and he got his as well. The agony of all he missed was replaced by the warmth of memories. A chapter closed.
The funeral was lovely - grief intermingled with sheer pride at all she had done and all they had accomplished together. After, Steve sat at the top of the Tower and watched Tony and Natasha and Sam and Bucky and his younger self stand together, strong and alive and safe and known it was time.
He spent the next few weeks putting his own affairs in order, making the final arrangements on the very old plan. All that was left was a one-way trip back to 2023, fulfilling a very old promise.
The night before that day he came back to Peggy, Bucky and he stayed up talking for hours, sitting so close their shoulders touched and Steve could see the little flecks of gray in the blue of his best friend’s eyes. All these years later, he can still picture them. Steve had told Bucky everything: how he couldn’t breathe in this century, how he saw her in that office in 1973 and his heart shattered all over again. He needed to go back. He needed to get that time back.
Bucky nodded. “You gotta promise to come back, though,” he said at last, soft and firm, a blessing. “You can’t stay back there forever. No dying in another timeline. I will chase you down and kick your ass.”
“I swear. You’ll barely even know I was gone.” Steve tried to smile, couldn’t quite make it. “Will you be okay?”
“I think I can survive for a couple minutes without you, Rogers. I’m not the one who throws myself at purple gods.” The noise of the wind outside swelled between them. “You need this?” Bucky asked and there was something in his voice that Steve couldn’t pinpoint.
Steve looked down. “I need to try. Maybe she won’t want me. Maybe it won’t work out. I’d never force myself into her life.”
Bucky nodded, like he was affirming something, and gave Steve that half smile he knew so well. “As long as you come back.”
“I promise,” Steve said and meant it with all his heart.
He has spent the last seventy years committed to that promise.
“I was always going to go home,” he tells the Bucky of this timeline, once all the plans are in place, sitting in the kitchen he shared with Peggy for a whole lifetime. “I've stayed longer than I should. I made promises and I intend to keep them.”
Bucky’s eyes stare down at his coffee mug. His hair is still brown and thick, cropped short around his ears, skin unwrinkled. His serum is still chugging along at full steam. “I’m not ready to say we don’t need you here,” he says. “Who’s gonna keep all of us in line, huh?”
Steve smiles. “I think you got it under control.”
He plans to leave two weeks later, from the rooftop of the sanctum on Bleecker Street. They’re all planning to be there and he appreciates the gesture. He plans to say personal goodbyes to each one of them, leaving the last bits of wisdom he can.
His own self is the longest goodbye.
They finally found him in the ice in 1996, a spring that finally warmed enough to let the old plane shift enough to be visible on sonar. It was still over two hundred miles from where Steve was found in 2011, in another timeline. This Steve got to wake up with Bucky holding his hand and Peggy hovering nearby. He got to wake up slow and sweet and learn the world at his own pace. He got to rest.
Sometimes Steve can’t help but be jealous of that. When this Steve woke up, that was the first time Steve almost went home. Young Steve was so bright and shiny, fresh and whole in a way that he hasn’t been in decades. He still gleamed with that righteous resolve that was Captain America. Steve isn’t bright and shiny: he’s been broken and remade so many times, he’s not sure how much of his old self still remains at all. “You don’t need me,” he told Peggy and Bucky. “You have him.”
“Darling,” Peggy said. “You greatly underestimate the love we have to go around.”
So, he stayed.
Two days after he says goodbye to Bucky, Steve walks with his younger self to Prospect Park and they meander among the children and dog walkers and bicyclists. The other Steve is just over forty now chronologically but Steve will always think of him as a kid, even if he's now been Captain America longer than Steve ever was. Everyone calls young Steve ‘Cap’ and he wears the mantle confidently, the taint that hangs over Steve far from him.
They’ll never quite be the same man. There was no Hydra in this world by the time Cap woke up. Howard Stark died only a year ago of heart failure and Bucky hasn’t been a Hydra prisoner since 1951. So many experiences that molded Steve into who he is today never came to pass. Cap is a glimpse of what he could’ve been had he woken up in peace: a warmer, more trusting Steve.
“When you go back,” the kid says now. “I know Peggy was the love of your life, but...” he hesitates. “I think everyone has more than one, you know? We all change and grow and I think, sometimes, we grow into people who fit others and...” His hair is still gold blond and he runs his hand through it. “I know you miss him,” he says at last. “I see it in your eyes when you look at Buck. You should go to him.”
Steve cocks his head at the kid. There’s something below the words that he isn’t saying.
Cap laughs a little and nudges him. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” he says.
A week later, Steve stands above New York and smiles at them: how beautiful they all are. “Whatever is coming,” he tells them, “face it together and you can’t lose.”
Tony steps forward, holding something behind his back. “We have a going away gift. I know you said it was destroyed... but we can’t let Steve Rogers go to a timeline without a shield.” He unzips a brown carrying case and Steve sees the familiar red and white stripes.
Steve looks down at his wrinkled hands, at the heavy ring on his finger. “I’m not sure if it’s for me anymore.”
Cap takes the carrying case from Tony and presses it into Steve’s grasp. “Then you’ll know what to do with it.”
Strange steps forward, a green glow already emanating from his necklace. “Are you ready?” he asks and Steve nods.
“Let’s get you home.”
He steps from a rooftop in New York to the side of quiet water. He can hear Sam’s voice, angry and rising over the hum of the quantum tunnel. Across the grass, he sees the back of Bucky’s head, the easy slant of his shoulders.
Steve smiles and feels the same ache in his chest that he did when he first stepped into Peggy’s arms in 1946.
After a long, long time, he’s come home at last.