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Where Our Restless Monsters Sleep

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PREFACE

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.
W.B. Yeats—Death

 

 

Steve had assumed, by this point in his life, that he had a good shot at old age being the cause of his death. He was wrong, of course. That was the thing about assumptions. They were the mother of all fuck-ups.

The crowd was screaming and the sand was hot underneath his feet. There was a riot of sensations; heat, light, sound. The blood gushing down his side was warm and too plentiful. How could Steve have ever guessed that this was how he would die? In an alien gladiatorial arena, thousands screaming for his death as Iron Man bore down on him?

Tony’s face was cold as he stepped forward. His armor was gold like the sun and red like Steve’s blood. It was Tony and he was alive. Just the sight of him made all the pain Steve had experienced to get here completely worth it.

“Good night, Captain,” Tony said, and his spear flashed in the light of the double suns as he raised it high in a killing motion.

 

 

 

 

~ SEVEN DAYS EARLIER ~

 

 

 

Part I: DEPARTURE

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep
W.B. Yeats—When You Are Old

 

 

Steve was dreaming.

Or maybe it was a memory? He could hear fragmenting sounds, children laughing, Peggy humming under her breath while she tried and failed to cook something, and chuckling when Steve took over. It could be a memory, because he could see familiar flashes of their beautiful home, the clock on the mantelpiece, the upright piano, the long line of shoes queued up by the door in descending size.

Then everything shattered with a screech, and a thump, and the sound of something soft hitting concrete, and that's when Steve knew it had to be a dream. It couldn't be a memory, because Steve had never heard those noises on that actual day. His attention had been pulled from the kitchen by a scream. A terrible scream that he would never forget. A scream that started again now, swelling, breaking, rolling across Steve's mind like a siren. Death was coming, that scream said. Death was coming soon. Death was coming now.

Steve startled awake and didn't believe it for a second, because the ground wasn't solid beneath him. He felt off-balance, uncertain. He took a deep breath and when he looked up, he saw he wasn't alone.

"You know, if you really want everyone to stop treating you like an old man, you probably shouldn't fall asleep in your rocking chair," Bucky said, smirking.

Steve resisted the urge to scowl. Bucky was perched on his usual seat near the window. He liked that he could see the white walls of the Avengers compound rising in the distance from that vantage point.

"I wasn't asleep," Steve lied. He was still clutching the book he'd meant to start reading after lunch. He shifted in the seat and surreptitiously tried to put the book to one side, like his thumb wasn't wedged in awkwardly enough to bend some of the pages. "You been here long?"

"Long enough to know you snore now," Bucky said, still smirking.

"Laugh it up, Barnes," Steve said. "You're not getting any younger either."

"You've still got, what, a century on me now? I don't think I'm ever catching you up, old man Rogers."

Steve smiled and then belatedly remembered his manners. "Can I get you something to drink?"

Bucky arched an eyebrow. "I'd have one already if I wanted one," he said, which was fair; Steve encouraged everyone to use his small home as their own if they ever needed to. "Nah, I was just on my way up to the compound, thought I'd stop by before the meeting starts."

Steve tensed. A meeting? And he hadn't been invited?

"Relax, it's probably nothing," Bucky said. "If it was urgent, would I have been given an actual appointment time?"

Steve tried to relax. "I didn't even know you were back in the states yet," he said.

"Oh boy, it was a surprise to me too," Bucky said, and immediately started launching in about his latest adventures with some Canadian superheroes, and apparently Sam had egged Bucky into challenging Justin Trudeau to a boxing match. "I'm only showing you this because Sam's looking forward to your face and I need to deprive him of that joy." Steve did laugh at the photo; Bucky grumpily holding up a sign admitting his loss to the retired politician.

"How about you?" Bucky said. "Kids driving you wild yet?"

Steve pulled a face. Every weekend he helped coach some of the rookie wannabe Avengers and they were teenagers, their judgment wasn't always… amazing. Steve told Bucky how last weekend he'd had to confiscate the stunning device that Obadiah Stane had once used to nearly kill Tony.

The little idiots had been stunning each other during class. For fun.

"The punks," Bucky said. "We'd have never done anything like that." Bucky winked and Steve laughed, because maybe there was that ill-advised game of Pocket Knife Baseball one summer; Steve was lucky the cut he'd ended up with was shallow. His mom had chastised him softly for days about it. Worse, Steve had been banned from seeing Bucky for a whole week. In those fractious New York summers, a week had felt like an entire lifetime.

Bucky might have been about to say something else, but he was interrupted when the walls of Steve's small house shook as the front door slammed shut.

Bucky jolted, but Steve didn't even turn his head. It was five o' clock on a Friday. Meetings often ran late on Fridays at Stark Industries and Steve was an easy on-site babysitter. Besides, Friday meant art and history class, so if she was this early it meant Morgan probably had homework she needed help with.

It was almost a miracle that Steve's house held together, considering how hard Morgan slammed the door to announce her arrival.

Morgan poked her head around the doorway, a bright expression on her face. Her cheeks were flushed and there was a smear of blue paint on her forehead. Nebula blue, Steve thought wryly; Morgan made no secret that Nebula was her favorite aunt.

Natasha would have easily been her favorite, if she was still alive. Steve swallowed the thought back; it wouldn't do for Morgan to see an old man cry.

"Oh hey," Morgan stayed in the doorway, hanging onto the frame. Her eyes darted to Bucky. "I didn't see your bike outside."

"Left it at the compound," Bucky said, surreptitiously sliding his metal hand into his pocket and turning away from Morgan slightly. Steve wasn't even sure if Bucky consciously knew he was doing that. Bucky nodded at Steve. "I've gotta get to my meeting. I'll see you tomorrow, probably."

"Probably," Steve echoed. "I'll be teaching all morning. You know where to find me."

"You don't have to leave on my account," Morgan said.

"I was leaving anyway," Bucky said. He smiled at her politely. The tension between them was mild, but it never went away. Morgan only had a couple of grudges, but she was tenacious about holding onto them.

"Let me know if it's anything important," Steve said.

"Sure will," Bucky said, but he didn't quite meet Steve's eye as he waved with his non-metal arm and left. Morgan's smile was tight as Bucky nodded again and left Steve's small house. Her face only relaxed once he'd gone.

Steve's heart ached a little. Morgan hadn't existed when that particular tension occurred, but she'd learned the story a long time ago, because everyone shared their Tony stories with her, and that one had been inevitable. Morgan had forgiven Steve for his part in it, after a grumpy couple of weeks. She would forgive Bucky too, Steve was sure of it, if she just gave him a chance. You couldn't force something like that, though. Steve knew that. All he could do was be there, a reliable presence, and wait for the time to be right. Sometimes it felt like time was all he had.

"I'm gonna raid your fridge," Morgan announced, her voice sing-song and confident now Bucky was gone.

"Go ahead," Steve said, unable to help his automatic smile. "You know where everything is."

It was almost reassuring, hearing Morgan clattering around his kitchen. He heard a thump, probably her dropping her bag of schoolbooks on his coffee table. She liked to spread out her books and work near his fire when it was cold. He remembered surreptitiously remaking the coffee table every summer to compensate for her growth spurts; Morgan inherited her height from her mother, thank goodness, although Tony would have bristled if anyone had said that to his face. Morgan's face when she found the old coffee tables in the shed and realized that the coffee table didn't miraculously grow on its own had been a picture.

Steve's chest ached and he stared dully at his book, not reading a word of it. Tony didn't get the chance to react to anything Morgan did. It was enough to drive him mad if he thought about it too long.

When Pepper had first insisted Steve stay close at hand, he had figured it was guilt or nostalgia, but he'd indulged her. It was hard to say no to Tony's widow without Steve's own survivor's guilt choking him, so he built the small wooden home out of that sense of duty, never expecting to stay there permanently.

He built the house on the outskirts of the land that Tony and Pepper had owned, close enough that he could see the Stark house from his living room window, but far enough away that he didn't feel that he was encroaching too much on the building that was supposed to be Tony and Pepper's happy ending. Steve was old in appearance, but the serum still made him strong, so he built it by hand. The Stark property was remote enough that no one had to question the old man hefting impossibly large pieces of wood on his own.

Steve thought about leaving, once the house was finished. He nearly did. There were plenty of places for an old man to become a hermit and live out his days. But then Fridays started to happen. Pepper needed a babysitter, because Friday was the only night Morgan didn't have an extra-curricular at school, and Steve was the only one available. After that one time, Morgan showed up nearly every Friday after school, and Steve stayed. Steve became Uncle Steve, but that wasn't too strange, because all the Avengers—except Bucky and Strange—gained Aunt or Uncle before their name. Still, despite her widespread use of the terms, he liked the sound of it. Uncle Steve. It made him feel like even now he still had a purpose, a role to fulfil.

Once Morgan turned nine, it wasn't uncommon for her to drop by every day, even if only for a few minutes. Sometimes she cajoled him into joining family dinners, especially if Pepper or her new husband Hugh were away on business. In return, Steve told her as many stories of her father as he could, or he would convince another Avenger to come by and share one of their stories. He liked to think he was helping to keep Tony alive for his daughter, in the only way he could.

The noises from the sitting room had subsided, so Morgan must be comfortable now. Steve reached out for a paper tissue to slide into his book to mark his page, because it was easy to accumulate bad habits when you lived over one hundred years, and rose up from his chair. The serum still gave him additional strength, but sometimes his joints liked to remind him of his real age.

Tony and Natasha used to be pretty handy with an age joke. Steve's students often said things were funnier when they were true; would Tony and Natasha agree with that? Then again, if they were around to tell jokes, would Steve have made the same decision to travel back to the forties? Would he have gone to those same lengths to find that life that Tony had told him to get?

Steve took a deep breath. It was dangerous to let his brain travel down that sort of path, because he didn't regret the life he'd had, and he knew better than anyone how unpredictable even one turn in the road could be. Thinking about the past too much was painful; it wasn't a healthy can of worms for him to open.

It was a daily battle for him, because it was hard to make it through any chunk of time without thinking about Tony or Natasha. Steve had to accept that as part of life now. He hadn't realized how important they had both been to him until it was too late, but wasn't that too often the way of life for everyone? Steve didn't have a monopoly on grief, even if he liked to think so sometimes.


Morgan, as expected, was sitting at the coffee table, a bottle of water from his fridge on the table and a half-eaten sandwich next to it. Pepper didn't allow Morgan to have white bread at home, but Steve was fairly sure she knew Morgan cheated on that when at Steve's house.

There were several books spread over the table already. Steve didn't acknowledge her; she was busy scribbling something in a notebook, and he knew not to interrupt her train of thought. Friday was art day, so Steve picked up his sketchbook and tin of pencils and sat in his usual armchair. Near the fire, it was angled so he could see both the room and the main window, the Stark house reassuringly part of this easy view.

Steve settled in with his sketchbook. If Morgan needed help, she would ask.

It didn't take long. Morgan was naturally inquisitive.

"I'm supposed to be doing hand studies for Ms. Gray, but I've drawn mine like, four hundred times." Morgan pursed her lips. "We're allowed to get other people to model for us. Do you think Uncle Bruce would let me borrow his hand at some point?"

"Probably if you agreed to leave it attached to his arm," Steve said.

"Can I borrow yours?"

Steve pretended to think about it, long enough that Morgan squinted at him in exaggerated confusion. "Do you promise to leave it where it is? I'm quite attached to it."

Morgan's squint shifted quickly to a scowl.

Steve laughed. "Left or right?"

"You're right-handed, so...left," Morgan decided. "So you can still sketch as I draw."

"Very thoughtful of you," Steve said. "Should I draw your hand while you draw mine?"

"I've already told you, it's boring," Morgan said, dismissively. Steve nodded. She was always good with saying yes or no. Unless she enthusiastically gave permission, he wouldn't do it. It must have been one of Tony's earliest lessons for her, Steve thought, because she was always very firm about her personal boundaries. It helped if she said no, and someone tried to proceed anyway, that she had more than a handful of superpowered individuals close and ready to raise hell if Morgan even made the slightest sign of discomfort.

Maybe they spoiled her a little too much, Steve thought. It was a miracle she remained grounded. Probably Pepper's influence in her, both nature and nurture. Although Morgan spent most of her weekends and a lot of her vacations at the Avengers compound, surrounded by superheroes and gods and mutants and Eternals and whatever else turned up that week in that general mayhem, on weekdays she was a regular teenage girl. She had homework, and cheerleading, and school excursions, and play dates, if you were allowed to call them play dates when they reached double figures.

Morgan swiped something on her phone and music filtered into the room through the bar speakers Morgan had installed a few years ago for Steve's birthday. She’d snuck in with her Uncle Rhodey and installed them herself. While it turned out to be a gift that had been mostly for her (she'd regularly been appalled by his old-school music system), Steve had still been touched by how she'd managed to engineer it happening while Steve was at the compound.

She pulled up her favorite beanbag and perched on it, staring intently at Steve's left hand as he sketched with his right. The music she listened to wasn't the worst Steve had heard, and it was low enough that the crackle of the fire and scratching of their pencils could be heard over the top.

Steve's chest ached. He'd had eighty years to try and get over the fact that Tony was gone, but Tony should be the one experiencing this. Tony should be the one here, watching his daughter's intent, curious face as she focused on her art. Steve supposed it had been long enough that he probably should give up the notion that he would ever be okay with what had happened.

Morgan paused, squinting at her sketch. "Is it bad to say I actually think I've done a good job?" She pulled a face. "Uncle Clint keeps telling me I'll get a big head like my dad if I keep saying I like my own things."

"Uncle Clint says a lot of dumb things," Steve said, because to be honest the alternative was going to get his bike so he could go punch Clint in the face. "I don't suggest you listen to him." He paused. "Unless it's safety regulations at the shooting range."

Morgan pulled a face. "I'd rather be down at the dojo with Uncle Danny and Uncle Shang-Chi. I think I like the defensive stuff best of all."

Steve smiled. "As a fan of shields, I can't help but approve."

Morgan squinted at him. "I've seen old footage of you fighting, Uncle Steve. I don't think you can really argue you didn't use that frisbee as a lethal weapon."

"A frisbee, how bold, that's a national symbol," Steve teased. Morgan rolled her eyes. "You have done a good job. I like the wrinkles."

Morgan beamed. "Mom says she doesn't know where I get my artistic talent. She can't draw. And she said Dad wasn't good at art and that's why he just kept telling her to buy a lot of it."

"I can't speak for your mom's talent," Steve said slowly. "But...I always thought your dad's engineering was a kind of art all on its own."

The look Morgan gave him was a rare one, that appeared whenever something reminded her of her dad. The number three thousand randomly appearing somewhere, or the smell of cheeseburgers, or a new Iron Man book or movie appearing on the scene. Steve empathized. It had been hard to explain to Peggy why he broke down during their vacation to Miami; Peggy wanted to try the very first Burger King. Steve was a mess from his first bite. Peggy didn't say anything, but she also never ordered him a cheeseburger ever again.

That was the thing about grief. Even when you thought you were ready for it, sometimes it punched you as hard as it had the first time. Before Steve lost his mom, no one had warned him that when a loved one died, you lost them over and over again. He hadn't realized Tony had somehow quietly crossed into that category until it was much too late.

Even now, years later, some days Steve woke up and found it too hard to get out of bed into a world without his mom, Tony or Natasha in it. Morgan had been a big part in forcing him up and about every day, just in case she dropped by. Steve wondered sometimes if that was Pepper's motivation behind arranging the Friday babysitting that first time. He wouldn't put it beyond her. She had copious experience micromanaging one stubborn superhero, after all.

"I'm nowhere near your talent yet," Morgan sighed, glancing moodily at Steve's sketchbook page. Steve had taken to drawing from his memories; he hadn't been able to photograph the earliest chunks or the most dangerous parts of his stolen lifetime, so he was reduced to his mind and a pencil and a blank page for a lot of it.

"I have had a tiny number of extra years to practice," Steve said. "And I was a pro. You can whine at me in eighty years if you still think I'm better by then."

Morgan raised one eyebrow in such a perfect Stark manner that Steve almost flinched. "Bold of you to assume that I won't overtake you in a tenth of that time."

Steve laughed. "I'm sure you will."

Morgan's attention span was limited. It was one of Steve's favorite things about her. No danger of losing her into a seventy-hour invention bender like her father. Once she'd had enough of sketching, she rolled back over to the table, opened her favorite planning app on her phone, and groaned out loud.

Steve kept silent. She would elaborate if she needed to. Apparently she needed to.

"I scheduled time to work on the project that's due next," Morgan said, "but I can't." She tapped the edge of her pen against the table, obviously agitated.

Steve kept his gaze on his sketchbook, because Morgan was too much like her father; sometimes when it came to approaching emotional things face-on, you had to approach her from the side. Sneak attack. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Morgan made a non-committal noise in the back of her throat. "It's not that big a deal," she said, continuing to tap her pen; her notebook, the desk, and her leg were all equal targets. Then she sighed. "Mr. Dell assigned us group work and my team is made up of morons."

Steve winced. "Did you tell them that they were morons?"

Morgan's eyes flashed in his direction. "I'm not a moron. I already learned not to tell anyone to their face that they were stupid. Even if they are."

"Most people are stupid compared to you," Steve said, hesitantly.

Morgan rolled her eyes but smiled at the same time. "These people tank that comparison more than most," she said, conceding to his compliment. She sighed and then put her pen down, crossing her legs and facing Steve directly. This meant she was ready to vent, so Steve could put his pencil down and engage her directly with less chance of her spooking. Emotions were difficult for everyone, he supposed, and Morgan was dealing with some hefty Stark genes on top of that.

"We're supposed to be doing a themed book report for General Studies," Morgan started, and Steve immediately understood some of her anguish, because Morgan hated General Studies with a passion. It was some sort of class that gave the school extra funding from one particularly rich donor, meaning every child was forcibly signed up to it, and it was supposed to encourage key skills that might otherwise be missed by a regular curriculum: communication, interpersonal skills, teamwork. There had been a lot of weird initiatives instituted across the globe in response to the Blip. Everyone knew the world needed a little help to restructure, but nobody could quite agree what that meant.

Steve stayed out of it. He was a relic of the past. The future had been Tony's domain.

"What theme has your group decided on?" Steve asked.

Morgan made a complicated gesture with her hands. "Red."

"Red?"

"As in red the color. The color of the cover. We're supposed to be producing a display that would encourage other kids to read more and pick ten to twelve books as a group that fits a specific theme, and they picked books that have red on the cover."

"Well, could you go to the teacher and—"

"I already tried that." Morgan thumped her head forward so it rested on the coffee table. "Mr. Dell approved it. He thinks it's an acceptable theme."

"Ah."

"And even though I argued my case—de nada. And it's not like I can say, hey, I'm Tony Stark's kid, maybe I have a couple of brain cells that might be going in the right direction. Because if I did that, then mom would yank me out of the Tomorrow Academy."

Steve nodded solemnly. They made Morgan use a fake name at school during the week, even though he was aware Pepper had a rotation of bodyguards stashed through the school anyway (three of the teachers, four of the janitorial staff, two administrators, one of the cafeteria workers, and a taco van nearby.) Morgan was too clever for her own good. Steve had a private pool going on with Bucky and Rhodey as to how many of them Morgan had already figured out weren't entirely on the level.

"And apart from those morons," Morgan continued with a sigh, "I really like the Academy."

"So why can't you work on it?"

"Because they wouldn't let me pick two books and work independently on those books, we have to pick ten or twelve books together, that we all agree on. And we're not meeting up again until next week, so I can't start on it."

Steve winced in commiseration. Morgan inherited Pepper's Type-A personality. Getting an early start on her homework was something she always loved to do.

Morgan eyeballed him. "You've worked in a few teams in your time. Any tips?"

Steve sighed and thought about the best way to answer. "Unfortunately, what you need is time. You've got a bunch of different personalities in a small space, you need time to adjust, to learn how to be in each other's space, to learn how to balance your strengths and weaknesses. It's an adjustment period for all of you. Sometimes time, communication and experience is all you need for a team to come together." He frowned apologetically. "I know it's not exactly what you want to hear."

Morgan wrinkled her nose in agreement. "I was hoping for some tips and tricks."

"Donuts," Steve said. "Take donuts to the team meeting. If nothing else, it'll shut them up for a couple of minutes."

"If mom ever let us have sugar in the house, that might have been helpful advice."

Steve snorted. "If you haven't learned how to wrap Happy Hogan around your little finger by now, I don't know what to say."

Morgan grinned.

"You know, one thing I have learned over the years, though…" Steve templed his fingers together and looked away. "No team lasts forever, even when you want it to. That's a tragic truth, but at least here maybe it's a comfort."

When he looked back, Morgan had a soft smile on her face that she quickly swapped for a grimace. "It would still be easier with a plan."

"I'll cheer you on from afar and hope everything goes well for you."

Morgan narrowed her eyes. "Hope is not a plan."

"No," Steve said, faintly. He felt like there was something he should say, something that would help, but he couldn't find the words. He settled for validation, because it was better than nothing. "I suppose it's not."


Steve tried not to show he was worried, but he was. Pepper was rarely this late. He kept his expression plain as Morgan continued to type frantically; he didn't know whether she was working on homework or chatting with friends, but he hoped it was the latter.

He got up and wandered across the room with feigned casualness, pretending he needed to stretch after sitting too long, but he glanced out of the window in worry. There was still no light on at the Stark home.

Steve's gaze drifted to his phone, or what was supposedly a phone; it looked like a computer and a phone had a misshapen child together. There was no alert on it, even though Steve had it set to display even voicemails as text on the small screen.

Pepper was probably just running late. If something major had happened, Morgan would know about it—she was tied into so many of the Avengers computer systems that she wasn't supposed to be, but who would reasonably be able to consistently keep Tony Stark's kid out of his own computer systems, anyway? Steve's phone-computer-hybrid thing (it had a name? StarkHub? StarkHome? Steve couldn't remember, but it was more because he was disinterested rather than his memory failing him; his memory never failed him) wouldn't be blank, either.

But then, Bucky had been called into a meeting. And he was back early from Canada, without real explanation. Maybe something big had happened. Something they were being terribly secretive about. Steve wouldn’t put it past Bucky to be lying to him. His friendship with Bucky was still strong, but it wasn’t the same as it used to be; sometimes they kept secrets from each other. That was what they both needed, but it left them a little more distant than Steve liked to admit sometimes.

Steve was so absorbed in his thoughts he hadn't noticed that Morgan was wandering around too until he heard the thud; he turned to see Morgan picking up his sketchbook from the floor.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to knock it off," Morgan said, "I was just—" Her explanation faded as she glanced down at the page the book had opened to, and her expression switched to open curiosity.

Steve's heart lurched as he saw what page it had fallen onto. A woman with her arms around two boys and a girl. For a moment, he felt dizzy.

"This is amazing," Morgan breathed. Her face was alight when she looked up at him. "Who are they?"

Steve forced himself to smile and tried not to look too desperate as he held out his hand for her to give his book back. "Faces from a dream I once had," he said, letting her look a little longer like that might hide how fast his heart was suddenly racing, how exposed he suddenly felt.

Thankfully Morgan seemed to buy into the act and she nodded. "I read that every face we dream about is someone we once saw, because the brain can't invent faces. That's cool, right?"

Steve, his heart aching, nodded. "Yeah." He was proud that his voice held together. "Yeah, that's cool." He inhaled and exhaled as quietly as he could. "Look, I guess your mom and Hugh are running a bit late. How about I gatecrash your mom's kitchen and we get started on some dinner, so they have some hot food to come home to? We can make it together, give you some extra experience on that concept of teamwork you're so worried about."

"That's a nice idea," Morgan said. "As long as you're aware I'm not allowed near knives."

Steve winced, remembering the Great and Terrible Knife Incident of 2028. Sam still had a very tiny scar on his right arm from it. "I'm aware," he said, heavily.


Morgan chattered the whole very short way to the Stark house, only stopping talking once she opened the front door (retinal scan, because of course Tony had loaded his house with Stark tech) in favor of hanging her schoolbag up on its designated hook and heading over to the mantelpiece to smile up at the photograph there. It was a beautiful photograph—Tony in a suit at some benefit to raise money for families affected by the Decimation. He was holding a young Morgan who was dressed in a bright red beautiful ballgown. She looked like a princess and Tony looked so happy.

"I'm home, dad," Morgan whispered to the photo. “I love you five thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight."

Steve headed over to check Pepper's fridge and tried to pretend his heart didn't break a little bit every time he heard that part of her daily ritual.

Pepper Potts was even more Type-A than her daughter; a menu displayed on the fridge door as soon as he stepped close to it. Friday night: Harissa Roasted Vegetables and Chickpeas with Tahini Yogurt. Steve had seen Pepper work in her kitchen enough to know there would be a laminated recipe in her recipe folder, which she kept in a drawer in the kitchen island.

As expected the file was there, already open on the right page, so Steve dutifully started pulling out all the right ingredients.

"If I promise to chop the vegetables, do you want to handle the tahini yogurt sauce?" Steve asked, putting the oven on to the right temperature.

Morgan shut one eye and glanced at him over the top of the sofa. "Not really, but I want to eat, so I guess so," she said, and joined him over on the counter to squint at the recipe.

It was an easy recipe; the most time-intensive part of it was roasting the vegetables for forty-five minutes. Steve hadn't been much of a cook until his sojourn to the other timeline; he'd ended up taking some cooking classes when it turned out Peggy was even worse in the kitchen department than he was, and he ended up finding a kind of peace in the monotony of preparing food. He was fast at it too, adeptly cutting up the cauliflower and sweet potatoes before stirring in the rest of the ingredients.

"Do you want salmon or chicken with this?" Steve asked.

Morgan pulled a face, already finished with her careful stirring. "Chicken," she decided, as she put the bowl of sauce into the fridge and rooted out a pack of four boneless chicken breasts. "Can I put some seasoning on mine?" Pepper was notoriously stingy with salt.

"Only if you put some on mine too," Steve said; they shared a conspiratorial smile over the counter-top.

This was Steve's life now. Small. Domestic. This was how a life should end. Not in fire and pain. Right now, Steve was standing where Tony should be and he hated that. He already knew his own life with Peggy was a stolen one, but apparently that was Steve's lot now. Life thief. Human cuckoo.

Finished with preparing their chicken, Morgan flopped backward onto the sofa, idly doing something with her StarkPhone—it rarely ever left her hand. "Tell me a dad story," she said.

Steve huffed an amused breath as he started to heat up the grill. "I'm trying to think of one you haven't heard yet." He cocked his head. "Did I tell you about the time your dad took on a skyscraper?"

Morgan squinted. "You mean with the Hulkbuster?"

"No, this was in—what's that country near Latveria?" Steve's memory might hold onto everything, but with over a century of input, sometimes pulling out the right fact now took longer than a second. "Used to be annexed to it. Got in the news last year for its Molynite exports."

"Rotruvia."

"It was back in 2013 when we were looking for Loki's scepter." Hydra had taken it, of course, walked it right out of the front door of the Avenger's tower with their own damn permission, but hindsight was only helpful when they were doing a time heist. "We kept hearing reports from all over the place, possible Hydra bases with unusual power signatures, and of course we chased all of them."

"Of course."

"And where there's smoke there's fire. So while we didn't find the scepter, we found a lot of Hydra bases."

"I thought SHIELD was Hydra."

"Hydra had infiltrated many of SHIELD's operations," Steve explained, "but Hydra still had its own bases around the world. Squirreled away in remote locations where they could hide from law and order."

"But not from my dad and the Avengers."

"Not from your dad at all." Steve smiled, settling into the story. It was a pretty fun adventure, one of the first missions they'd nearly been fighting together long enough to work as a team without too many hiccups.

There were hiccups, though. By the time Steve was most of the way through the story, Morgan was hiccuping herself with laughter, especially about Bruce hulking out in a phone booth and then getting wedged, at the exact same moment they discovered the signal coming from Rotruvia's highest skyscraper.

"Oh my gosh, what did you do?" Morgan had abandoned lying down; she was propped up against the back of the sofa, elbows leaning on the back, her eyes shining as Steve continued the story. Even her StarkPhone was somewhat abandoned, lying on the arm of the sofa, although it was still technically close to her.

"Well, Hulk got his legs out from the phone booth he was stuck in, but not his body. He panicked and started running. Which wasn't exactly great because we were supposed to be approaching the facility covertly."

"Yeah, I'd think the phone booth running around screaming with giant green legs sticking out of it doesn't exactly scream covert."

Steve shot her a quick grin. "Your Uncle Clint and I tried to stop him, but it was too late."

"Did Dad have to blast him free?"

"No, Hulk smashed himself free a few minutes too late. And your Dad didn't exactly stick around to help."

"Let me guess: he went off alone."

"Of course. While we were trying to extract Hulk from the booth, and fight off the Hydra agents who came out to investigate all the fuss, your father scanned the skyscraper and found the missile launcher Hydra had hidden inside it. They'd literally built the skyscraper around it. Seeing us there, though, they panicked, and launched all their missiles toward Latveria at once. However, there was a problem."

"The missile launcher wasn't finished?" Morgan guessed.

"The launcher itself was finished, but in their panic, Hydra had forgotten that the skyscraper itself wasn't finished. They'd meant the roof to open to let the missiles out. The roof did not open." Steve grimaced. "Your father realized that it was about to explode and take out the entire mountainside, which would have killed thousands of innocent civilians. So first he had to get in and take out the roof so they could get through, and then he tried to stop the missile launch from happening at all. But in destroying the roof, several chunks of it had gotten lodged into the launcher, so after your dad disabled three of the missiles, two of them went off early."

"Obviously he stopped them, because Latveria still exists."

"Well, yeah, I suppose the fact all my stories aren't fiction can ruin a story twist or two."

"What happened next?"

"Well, your dad managed to stick the remaining missiles into the walls of the skyscraper somehow, I don't know, I was still smashing Bruce out of the phone booth at this point—your Uncle Thor might have more information, so ask him next time he's on Earth—and then the whole building took off. With him still inside it, of course. So we turn around, and there's this entire skyscraper flying through the air, and it ripped out the floor, so there's an exposed room full of Hydra goons screaming at the top of their lungs—and then there were fireworks, as your dad blew the skyscraper up high enough in the air so it couldn't hurt anyone."

"I wish I'd seen that."

"We had our hands a little too full to take video, sadly," Steve shook his head. "And we took it for granted. It was only on the flight back home that he collapsed. Turned out that there'd only been a ten percent chance of success; there was a ninety percent chance it would fail and the strain of redirecting the missiles and the amount of power that he had to expend would stop his heart."

"Oh, wow. He knew the odds before doing it?"

"Yeah." Steve smiled, shaking his head fondly at the memory. "He said when it was 10% chance of success, if the alternative didn't bear thinking about, it was basically 100%. And retroactively, even 1% chance is 100%, so we couldn't shout at him for knowing it was bad odds and going in regardless when he had proof there was 100% of it succeeding, because he succeeded."

"That's amazing." Morgan clapped her hands together appreciatively. "Why have I never heard this story before?"

Steve realized the reason too late to take the story back; he scratched the back of his neck and winced. "Probably because it sets you a terrible example. No one should go into anything with such a low chance of succeeding, not if there's other options." He paused. "And if you have a team with you, you have other options. We simply weren't at the point yet when we were all comfortable enough as a team to discuss things before acting."

"You don't have to stress, Uncle Steve. I inherited my mom's sensibilities." Morgan smiled ruefully. "Risks aren't exactly my scene." She glanced over at the photo of her dad. "I didn't inherit dad's bravery."

Steve frowned at her. "Uh, is it me, or do you not get up on stage regularly in front of hundreds of people?"

"That's different," Morgan said dismissively, her gaze flickering over to where the upright piano nestled behind the stairs.

"Are you scared before you perform?"

"Well, yes."

"And you play anyway."

"Well, yes—but that's not exactly, like, facing Hydra."

"Bravery is bravery," Steve said. "And you're plenty brave, Morgan Stark."

"Hmm. Perhaps you've charmed me enough into playing for you," Morgan decided, gracefully rolling over the top of the sofa, snagging her phone as she headed for the piano stool.

Steve started to grill the chicken as Morgan opened her book and started playing. Sometimes, if she wasn't directly stared at, she would forget anyone else was there and would start singing too. It took a few minutes but then Morgan was singing beautifully, gently coaxing the listener to follow her if they remembered September; it was a song Tony's mother used to sing to him. Steve stared at the cooking chicken, pretending it was the referred heat of the grill causing his eyes to sting a little. Tony should be here. He never would be. It wasn't fair.

It was as he was pulling the chicken out, debating whether he should cover it in foil and let it rest, or make Morgan eat hers now while it was warm, that the door opened. Steve looked up as a weary-looking Pepper and Hugh walked in. Hugh had his hand hovering near the small of Pepper's back; he was obviously worried about her. Steve tried not to show how tense he was about that, because Morgan was still in the room.

Pepper gave Steve a small, relieved smile before calling out, "There's my little bundle of sunshine," as Morgan finished her song.

The piano stool scraped noisily on the wooden floor as Morgan ran to hug her mother. Even though she hadn't said it out loud, she must have been as worried as Steve about her lateness. "Mom! Uncle Steve and I cooked you dinner."

"I can smell that," Pepper said. She smiled brightly at Steve. "Please say you're staying to eat with us."

"I don't want to intrude," Steve immediately said; he always felt especially intrusive when it was the three of them.

Pepper leveled him with an exhausted stare over the top of Morgan's head. "I insist," she said, looking serious. Behind her, Hugh nodded once, tersely.

There was something going on, then. Steve swallowed. "You two get settled. I'll start dishing up."

"Thanks, Steve," Pepper's voice was soft, but there was a definite tension around her eyes.


The conversation during the meal was light and entirely free of substance, with Hugh spending an impressive fifteen minutes talking about the distribution problem they'd been having at Stark Industries. Steve could feel the tension bristling below the conversation, but he kept up the pretense, even knowing Morgan had figured out that they would try to exclude her from whatever was obviously going on.

Morgan's eyes narrowed as soon as the meal finished and Pepper immediately tried to order her upstairs. "I'm old enough to hear whatever you and Uncle Steve are going to talk about," Morgan said, folding her arms.

"Mom and Uncle Steve are going to be drinking," Pepper said, flatly. "I've had a day and a half, and I need some adult company."

"Well, guess that rules me out," Hugh said equably. "How about you and me go out front and shoot some hoops before bed, eh?"

There was a small basketball court Hugh and Morgan dug out a few summers ago when Morgan had a Space Jam phase; it was rigged up with floodlights especially for dark nights like this one.

"Fine," Morgan snapped. "But you're gonna have to stop underestimating me one of these days."

Pepper suppressed the sigh as Morgan stalked past her to grab the ball and head for the door. Hugh shrugged at them and hurried to follow her.

Morgan paused as she reached the door. "I'll see you later, Uncle Steve," she said, rolling her eyes at him as she opened it wide, letting in a cold draft.

Steve held up his right palm, folded down his fingers and opened his palm again. Morgan echoed the gesture and added the gesture for see you later; most of them had learned to sign after Clint blew out his eardrums during one of the many tussles with the mutants, but Morgan had learned to sign as a toddler after Tony had ruined his own hearing for a few months when one of his inventions blew up in his garage.

Morgan had barely left and Pepper was already trying to open a bottle of wine. It was bad, then. Steve crossed the room and took the bottle from her; his hand was much steadier than hers was, so he poured her a glass and handed it to her with a solemn expression. She downed it in one go and held it out again for a top-up. Steve felt queasy. How bad was it?

"You're gonna want to sit down," Pepper said. "But I know once I say something like that, you won't."

Steve quirked an apologetic expression at her. She knew him too well. "What's wrong, Pepper?"

Her eyes were wet when she met his gaze. "Tony's body," she said. "It's gone."

Steve stared at her, the words making sense individually, but not as a whole. It wasn't common knowledge that Tony's body wasn't cremated, rather cryogenically frozen and stored in a deep basement at Stark Industries headquarters. Even many of the Avengers hadn't known, assuming that he had been cremated and his ashes scattered privately by his family sometime after the funeral, where only the wreath had been pushed onto Tony's favorite lake in memorial.

"How is that possible?" Steve's throat was dry; he poured himself a glass of wine mostly to give his mouth something to do that wasn't screaming. Bucky cutting his mission short for something of this magnitude made a lot more sense now.

Pepper shrugged. "We've checked the footage, combed through it, but—honestly, it could have happened at any time. Any time. Carol's been investigating the chamber, and—it seems like for a long time it hasn't been his body in there, it's been some sort of—" She shrugged tightly, staring into space. "Some sort of Life Model Decoy, I guess. A-Force has been looking into it surreptitiously, but it seems a lot like the fake LMDs that the cosmic branch dealt with last year, with that thing on Arima, where the Atlantean delegation disappeared, but there's been a trace of some unusual radiation on the remnants too. Queen Shuri has promised she'll analyze it as soon as possible; the samples are on their way to Wakanda right now."

Steve frowned. "And there's nothing on the footage?"

"FRIDAY scanned it all immediately. No anomalies so far." Pepper stared. "If it was a LMD, I should have known. Steve—" She looked up at him miserably. "He counted on me and I couldn't even tell that his real body was gone?"

Pepper's hair got up his nose when he tugged her in for a reassuring hug.

"If A-Force are on the case, Carol won't rest until we get some answers," Steve said, trying to sound calm and reassuring, even though his brain was somewhat screaming at him.

"We always knew his body would be a draw," Pepper said, when she pulled away from the hug. She picked up her glass again and leaned against the kitchen island, shaking her head dolefully. "He did a lot to his body over the years to handle the Iron Man upgrades. The nanotech injections alone were enough, but he had a limited working form of Extremis in him at the end. I should have protected him better." Her voice hitched a little.

Steve stared. He hadn't known about the Extremis. But that made sense, he supposed. The last suit—Tony's coffin, Steve's brain interjected painfully—had obviously been designed to absorb a lot of the blowback from the Infinity Stones, but knowing now that Tony had used a form of Extremis… And even that had only kept Tony alive for mere moments after the end...

This wasn't going to help anyone. Pepper was the one who needed calming down. The man she loved had died, and now his body had gone missing. She was his widow. That trumped any pain Steve was feeling.

"C'mon," Steve said, "a pretty smart woman I know suggested sitting down."

Pepper looked at him wryly. "She also suggests bringing at least two more bottles of wine with us so we don't have to keep getting up to get more."

Steve smiled wryly. "I did say she was smart."


Alcohol didn't affect Steve, but Pepper wasn't cursed by the same inadequacy; she was much looser after her third glass and kicked her shoes off, tucking her legs under her and talking through everything that had been covered in the meeting, obviously needing to get it off her mind.

"I still feel like I should have done more," Pepper sighed, rubbing her forehead. "We owe him so much, I owe him so much. And I couldn't even protect his body?"

"You couldn't have predicted this," Steve said, firmly. "And the Avengers are as fiercely protective of him as any of us. If no one noticed, it was because someone's gone out of their way to be sure we don't notice. Until now." He wrinkled his mouth. "How was it even discovered now?"

"I've been erring over whether to open investigations into Extremis ever since—Tony left." Pepper sighed. "I finally agreed that Reed Richards could have a simple skin scraping, and as soon as the chamber opened...the fake dissolved."

"You were there," Steve surmised.

Pepper's face was taut with distress. "I thought seeing him like that on the battlefield was the worst I'd ever have to see him look. Seeing that copy melt…I'm gonna have some nightmares." She huffed. "Thank goodness Tony insisted on having a switch so I can soundproof my bedroom."

"He did like to think of all contingencies," Steve said, keeping his voice soft. Trying not to let too much of his regret sink into his tone. Those regrets were his cross to bear.

Pepper took a deep breath and let it out noisily. She shot him a sad look. "I'm sorry, I've been just thinking of my own pain over this, not yours. Are you okay hearing this? I can cut the rambling short—"

Steve frowned. "I'm—this isn't about me."

Pepper arched an eyebrow. "If you're going to pretend your feelings for Tony were neutral, you're trying to kid the wrong woman, Steven. He was dead and you immediately threw yourself into another timeline. Pretty big statement there.”

Steve looked at her guiltily. He had nothing to really feel bad about, because he'd never acted on his feelings—hell, he hadn't even realized he had feelings until it was much too late to act on them—but it still felt wrong, that Pepper knew he had harbored feelings for her dead husband. He swallowed awkwardly, but maintained the eye contact. It had been a decidedly unspoken undercurrent to their friendship for the last eight years. Now, Steve supposed, it was heading into the category of things they did talk about.

"Couldn't handle a world without him in it," he admitted. It wasn't the full truth, but it didn't have to be.

Sympathy washed over Pepper's face and her face creased into a sad smile. "It's nice to get to spend time with someone else who loved him too at a time like this."

Steve could feel his cheeks get a little warmer and tried to blame it on the wine. "What are you going to tell Morgan?"

Pepper raised her eyebrows. "Changing the subject. How…unsurprising." The corner of her mouth twitched. "I'll tell her the truth. When she comes back in." Her gaze flitted out to the light of the basketball court. "I'd rather wait until morning, but I know she'll stay awake thinking the worst otherwise." Pepper stared at the contents of her half-filled wine glass like she'd never seen anything like it before. "Some of the things she inherited from her father are not as pleasant as others."

"It could be worse, she could have inherited his height."

Pepper's mouth twitched. It wasn't quite a laugh, but Steve would take it. "What was Tony like? In your other timeline?"

Steve frowned. It had been eight years and she'd never asked. Pepper flinched at the frown, obviously imagining the worse; Steve sighed at the realization he'd have to tell her, if he wanted her to even be remotely calm. It wasn't a great topic, especially for the moment, but Tony wasn't the only one who would lie awake worrying; Morgan was kind of doomed on parental inheritance when it came to that character flaw. Both sides of her genetics could worry like a champion.

"The problem with time travel is it causes ripples," Steve said, slowly. He looked across at Pepper, but he couldn't actually see her; her face was a blur as he sank into the memory of it all, and the regret that was deeply knotted up in it all. "You change one single thing, you change others. And as careful as I was to change what I could beneath the surface—all it takes is one day here or there, even a minute for one person to be delayed—"

His vision focused enough to see Pepper slowly looking horrified. "Tony didn't exist, where you went to? How—"

Steve blinked. "He did. Sort of. As much as I tried my best to keep an eye on things developing as they should, the changes that happened just by me being there—I guess I nudged Howard's trajectory—" He shook his head slowly. "Maybe by minutes, who knows. Long enough."

"What happened?" Pepper's voice was quiet. "You don't have to tell me."

"Maria Stark gave birth on May 29th, 1970, at 2.32pm."

"Tony was born at 8.39am."

"And Natasha Stark was born at 2.32pm."

Pepper put her glass down so she could put both her hands to her mouth. When she lowered them, her eyebrows were raised. "Tony was born a girl in that timeline?"

"Loud-mouthed, insanely intelligent, amorously libertine, whisky-drinking, egotistical—" Steve pressed his mouth into a line and shrugged, acquiescing to her conclusion. "Yeah, Tony was a woman in that timeline." He exhaled slowly, hoping he didn't sound too wistful about it.

Pepper had obviously imbibed too much wine to be rational because she leaned forward. "Was she hot?"

Steve wanted to deny it, but he couldn't. "Smoking hot. Tony would have been all over her."

"I bet he would." Pepper let out a low chuckle, shaking her head. She froze. "Was I a guy in your timeline?" Her nose scrunched up a little. "Did I exist?"

"You existed," Steve laughed. "Married Hugh in that timeline too."

"No way," Pepper breathed. "Wow." She did smile, finally, looking a little pleased at that. "That's kind of romantic." She sank back deeper into the sofa and closed her eyes briefly, her smile hovering. "I'm glad your timeline had a Stark there to kick ass." Pepper opened her eyes and trained them on Steve way too astutely. "Did you and she—"

"Oh god, no," Steve interrupted, immediately. It wasn't exactly the truth, but he could at least hand on his heart honestly say he personally had never gone near Natasha Stark, save for a few meetings where they barely interacted. Just enough for Steve to realize how similar Natasha Stark was to Tony. Heartbreakingly similar. "I barely said ten words to her. Besides, by then—" He pulled a face. "I was already ancient."

"And she didn't die," Pepper realized. "Oh. I'm glad. Even if it means it doesn't give us any more clues to our current dilemma, I don't know. I'm kind of reassured that out there is a universe that has Iron Man still protecting it." She squinted. "Iron Woman?"

"Iron Woman," Steve confirmed. "Although there was a good couple of years when Natasha's bodyguard Iron Man protected her."

Pepper stared at him. "A version of Tony where that cover story flew successfully? Wow."

"I'll tell you the tale sometime," Steve promised. "I think it's probably too late tonight."

"Probably." Pepper looked thoroughly exhausted as she started to straighten herself up. Her gaze returned to the small basketball court. "This is going to upset her so much."

"We'll find him," Steve promised. "Or at least we'll find out what happened and avenge him. That's what we do."

Pepper exhaled. "I'm not an Avenger."

"You were for a day, and I'm pretty sure that's the saying we go with now. Once an Avenger, always an Avenger. And as Avengers—" Steve nodded to himself. "We take care of our own."


Steve didn't hang around to find out how the discussion with Morgan went. It must have gone somewhat well, because all the lights in the Stark house went out by 2am. Which Steve knew, because he sat in his armchair and stared obsessively until they did.

He wanted to reach out to the others to find out if they knew anything, only to get brushed off by Sam and Bucky both writing back quick "still no updates" messages, so Steve stopped while he was behind. He stared a while longer at the Stark house, but eventually had to tell himself firmly that he didn't have to. The safety protocols that Tony had installed in his little house were decades ahead of their time and had only been improved upon since, Queen Shuri stopping by personally a few years ago to install a Wakandan-style force-field around the entire Avengers property line.

Everyone knew how much they owed Tony Stark for their lives. And apparently making sure Morgan was safe and happy was the way most of them actively chose to express that.

Steve had a class to teach the next day. Except it was technically today, so Steve heaved himself out of his sad chair and up the stairs to his bed, sinking into the too-soft mattress and staring up at the ceiling. The idea of someone taking Tony's body was turning his stomach, making his mind do somersaults. If it was for the Extremis, or for research into what Infinity Stones did to a body, or for any of the numerous things Tony did to his body in the name of science and Iron Man...it must be for selfish reasons, and Steve would never be able to forgive that.

Tony was a hero who had given up everything for everyone. If death was his poor reward, then he deserved to rest in peace.

Needless to say, by the time Steve's morning alarm went off, he wasn't exactly sure he'd had any sleep at all, although he supposed he must have.

Thankfully his Saturday junior superhero classes (not the official name—there was a formal title for it, the Stark Industries Personal and Social Education Youth Program—but Steve couldn't help but pick up the terms his students used) had been rigorously planned months in advance, so at least the lessons were already laid out, and although it had been decades since Steve's last all-nighter, he was pretty sure he could hold it together for a few hours. Even if some of the youths were...enthusiastic.

The Stark house was closed up by the time Steve had finished his morning ablutions, gotten dressed and left his own small house. That was fine. The weather was crisp and cool, exactly what he needed to prepare for the day ahead. He left his bike behind and walked. He had the time and he was of a mind. He needed to calm down about the Tony situation if he was going to stand up in front of multiple teenagers for any length of time.

Morgan was unexpectedly still in the lobby of the Avengers compound, sitting on one of the visitor's chairs, sitting with her legs folded underneath her as she tapped on her ubiquitous StarkPhone, chewing her lower lip as she did so. When Steve walked through the front doors, tapping his wrist against the security sensor, she looked up and smiled briefly, but the smile faded moments later. Her pale skin seemed almost translucently white in the unforgiving compound lights.

"Uncle Steve," she sighed, as he came up and sat next to her.

Steve smiled sadly. "How you holding up, kiddo?"

"Eh," Morgan puffed out her cheeks. "It's not like there's anything I can do, I know that. But it's in my head. Like an itch. Like—I should be able to find him."

Steve looked at her sympathetically. "The best people in the world are on this. They're going to find out what happened."

"Yeah, the best people," Morgan said. Her gaze inexplicably darkened. "And some of the not-so-best people."

Steve frowned and then followed her gaze to the doors, where Doctor Strange was sweeping through, his cape billowing behind him, even though the air was recycled and filtered in Avengers compound and there should be no breeze to move it.

Strange paused near them and nodded at them politely. "Good morning, Mr. Rogers, Ms. Stark."

"Good morning, Cut-Price Dumbledore," Morgan greeted, her tone bright and sardonic. "How's it going today? Got any more parents you're planning to knowingly send off to their death?"

Steve winced and opened his mouth to step in, try to dissuade Morgan or reprimand her for the unkind tone in her voice, but Strange subtly shook his head at Steve to stop him.

Morgan glared at him. "Tell me, Mr. Fourteen Million Possible Outcomes, did you really look at all options, or did you just stop at the first solution that meant your sorry ass got to survive?"

Strange made a soft noise as he exhaled. "Always a pleasure to see you, Ms. Stark."

"I'm gonna go inside," Morgan said. "I'll see you in the lab, Uncle Steve."

She shot Strange another dirty look and stalked off toward the main hallway, her chin held high as she stomped off.

"I'm so sorry," Steve said, "I know Pepper's tried to talk her into speaking to you more kindly—"

Strange quirked an eyebrow at him. "It's not your job to apologize for another," Strange said, in that infuriatingly superior tone of his. "Besides...I deserve it." Strange's gaze drifted to the space where Morgan no longer was, his expression becoming pensive. "There are some things you cannot change. And much like as in my own history—" Strange looked at Steve then, his expression suddenly sharp. "There's more than one stain in Tony's past. We make amends for things however we can."

Strange smiled quirkily before striding away toward the main offices, his cloak still dramatically billowing. Steve frowned to himself. That was weird. He blinked a few times and shook it away. He needed to stop by the cafeteria before class was due to start. While his serum still rendered alcohol impotent, caffeine thankfully still worked, if he drank enough of it.


By about an hour into class, Steve was ready to thump his head through the nearest window. The only reason he managed to resist the urge was because it would accomplish exactly nothing.

Well, it might get him out of this classroom. He considered that for a moment. That would be cutting off his nose (perhaps literally) to spite his face. Normally he really enjoyed his weekend work at the compound. He was just having an off day because of the news about Tony's body.

Teaching was perhaps the most helpful that the Avengers actively let him be. Steve did most of his useful work directly with Pepper these days, still working diligently on behind-the-scenes on reparations after the Blip. He often still prepared tactical plans and consultations for the newer Avengers, but they didn't let him out in the field.

Once an Avenger, always an Avenger, but Steve's decades of experience and his appearance got him constantly relegated to a supervisory role. It was probably right. There were always new Avengers, strong ones, young ones, who deserved their time in the spotlight, who deserved the opportunity to prove their worth and protect their planet. And on Saturday, that supervisory role was allocated to the teenagers who'd gotten involved in that planetary protection gig.

Steve's current group of youngsters fluctuated, but there was a program for him to follow, which was probably good because Steve would have been too distracted to come up with his own lesson plan today; they were currently doing a pop-quiz on supervillains, seeing how much information they could remember about the foes all the Avengers had faced, whether cosmic- or planet-based, whether as a team or on their own. Too many of them had started to recur, escaping the prisons, or escaping before they could be imprisoned, before restarting their angry campaigns against whichever Avenger they believed wronged them.

Today was a decent attendance, Steve thought, which was probably because he hadn't advertised today's topic. Morgan didn't officially have to take part in the course packet, because she wasn't fifteen yet, but she was tapping away at her table, frowning at an image of Stilt-Man and murmuring under her breath. Teddy was trying to sneak glances at Karolina's table, but she flicked a hand and a light-screen appeared, blocking his gaze, and Nico high-fived Karolina without even looking. Noh-Varr looked like he was ten seconds away from punching his table, which is why he'd been given the equipment that Jennifer had cleared as Hulk-proof. If it could survive a Jennifer punch, it could survive Noh-Varr's Kree-enhanced strength and durability. RiRi wasn't paying attention, but Steve wasn't worried about that. Rayshaun seemed to be the only one taking it seriously, which meant Sam was probably somewhere on the compound. Cindy and Lana thought they were being sneaky by tapping hints in morse code to each other; Steve had already used his console and amended their score so it would show up as zero by the time they hit submit.

Steve could see the dojo through the windows of the classroom, where some of the actual Young Avengers were training. Peter Parker was leading the class along with Lila Barton; currently Toni Ho and Kate were demonstrating a throw. Harley Keener was shuffling with a desperate expression, probably wondering why he was having to do something so active when he had signed up as Avengers tech support.

Steve knew how Harley felt. He'd rather be doing something else too, if he was honest. But Steve had lived his life. He'd lived two lives, really. Both of them exciting enough in their own ways. It was more than fair for him to step away from the active roles and work behind the scenes to support others. The super serum wasn't formulated to cause immortality and Steve knew his time left was limited. It was an honor to be able to shape some of the future he would be living behind soon.

He hoped he would at least be able to learn what had happened to Tony's body before he died. Steve didn't think that was too much to hope for.


Carol was waiting at the doorway to the classroom as Steve's session ended. She leaned against the door and high-fived Cindy and Lana who were the last to leave; both of them were red-faced and embarrassed that Steve had so easily caught them trying to cheat.

Steve shut down his console and looked up at her.

"We've got some intel on the situation," Carol said softly.

Steve was surprised he was being brought into the loop, to be honest; he'd been left out of several major events recently. He understood why he was when he followed Carol to the main boardroom and Pepper was there. She must have asked for him, because there was a spare chair to his right. Peter gave Steve a wobbly smile over the table. Steve wasn't the last to file in, but it wasn't long until Carol closed the door and activated the code 3 protocol: the strictest safety protocol they had on file.

This was proof that they were taking this incident seriously, along with the roll call. Alongside Steve, Carol, Pepper and Peter Parker, Sam, Rhodey, Bucky, Clint and Shang-Chi were there too. Carol pressed something on the console and several of the holographic long-distance comm panels set up behind the main table lit up with holograms of some others: Wanda, Bruce, Shuri, Valkyrie, Rocket, and Marc Spector.

Strange wasn't here, meaning he must have already been and gone. Probably off exploring the mystical angle of events.

"I think we all know now why we're here," Carol said. She was never one for starting with small talk. "We've had a development, so that's why I wanted to gather you all together so I can let everyone know at the same time."

"You found Stark's body yet?" Rocket asked, because even cutting out the small talk still meant most announcements took too long for him.

Carol ignored him, knowing Rocket would stick around and listen anyway. "About a year ago, A-Force and I picked up a signal in deep space. It was in the memos but we didn't really pay as much attention to it as we should, because we thought it was just noise. But Queen Shuri took a second look at it recently because of recent developments, and she realized something."

Carol pressed something on her console and a digitized waveform appeared on the main screen.

"This was the message we got," Carol said, and played a sample of it. It almost sounded like a random piece of music; certainly the pitches of the notes were all over the place. Until Steve realized it was the same rhythm. She smiled at him briefly; Steve was obviously the first to pick up on it.

"It's morse code," Steve realized. He got a few surprised glances, which soothed his ego probably more than it should; he couldn't tamper down the small flash of resentment that because he looked like an old man now, most of them forgot he could still be useful. He frowned. "L-A-X-E," he translated. He cocked his head. "What does that mean?"

"Nothing, or so we thought, which was why we hadn't looked into it," Carol shrugged. "Until Queen Shuri picked up on the fact the pattern repeats twenty times."

"Just Shuri is fine," Shuri murmured, still distinctly uncomfortable at the fact she'd had to remove her brother from the throne. Atlantis had insisted on it as a stipulation to not going to war with Wakanda and T'Challa had been enthusiastic, especially considering he was able to finally convince Nakia to marry him. Shuri was mostly just smarting over the fact she couldn't spend all her time in her lab anymore. "It's a simple code, really. The number of repetitions is a signifier that it's a regular Caesar cipher, on a rotation of 20."

"Fury," Peter breathed, having already figured it out.

"Yeah," Carol said. "That was what made me think it might be a message for me." She pulled a regretful face at Pepper. "I swear, I had no idea it was related to Tony somehow or I would have been pushing to solve the mystery much sooner."

Pepper stared at Carol, wide-eyed. "But it is related to Tony. How?"

"Well. I followed the signal." Carol sat down on the front table, leaning forward to look at them all intently. "What I found—" She exhaled and shook her head. "It took some chasing, but there have been rumors for the last few years of some sort of a gladiator arena in the N-Zone." She leaned back, pressed the console again, and brought up an information slide on the N-Zone. "It's a pocket universe, colloquially known as the Negative Zone. I've been chasing ghosts of this rumor for years, hearing fragments here and there. Anything that comes up about it disappears moments later. Anytime I've gotten close it's disappeared like smoke. Until now."

The display changed again into what looked like a creased flyer, covered in alien typography. A sword and a trident were crossed over the center.

"Shuri's realization prompted me to chase the signal to where it bounced off a small moon outside of Ceres, Port-in-a-Storm. It's got a dive of a city on it, lots of shady business, more casinos than living residences. It's the kind of place where you go when you want something very off-menu. I chased the signal to a building there which emptied out the instant we got someone close; this flyer was all they found."

"I ran it through my translation algorithms, but nothing happened. Until last night. When Tony's body went missing, my mind was in overdrive. Something was pinging in my head, like a word on the tip of your tongue that you can't remember. So I fed the name Stark into my algorithm and that's when it worked," Shuri said and pressed something near her.

The flyer onscreen shifted, now showing the alien text translated into English, and Steve felt his heart sink immediately.

"WATCH THE UNIVERSE'S STRONGEST WARRIORS BATTLE TO THE DEATH!

Featuring: the famous AVENGERS! Famous across the stars. Anthony Stark, aka THE IRON MAN, the Earth’s Greatest Defender. Natasha Romanov, THE BLACK WIDOW, a deadly assassin. Pietro Maximoff, QUICKSILVER, the fastest creature in the universe. THE VISION, part-machine, part-man. Can they defeat the CHAMPION of DEATH???? SEE FOR YOURSELF, COMMON XANDARIAN TIME, MOON HARVEST 5/4/23. 10% DISCOUNT IF YOU SHOW THIS FLYER."

Steve could feel his own breathing increase. He wasn't the only one. He reached across and took Pepper's hand; she blindly grabbed at it, her fingers squeezing his, her eyes trained on the words.

"That's impossible," Pepper breathed. "When did you find this flyer?"

Carol sighed. "About a month ago."

Pepper's voice went up into the stratosphere. "A month ago? But—"

"I told you, I didn't think at first it had anything to do with Tony," Carol said, holding her hands up. "So as soon as you let us know about his body going missing, I put all my available resources into it. But I didn't want to get your hopes up, even when we hit the translation last night. It could be someone using his name, or look-a-likes, or—I didn't know. So we've been pushing harder than ever. The instant you told me his body was gone, I pushed on some contacts I've had in reserve, because using them burns them, but—it was worth it. Literally just an hour ago, I swear on my life, one of them came in with this."

Carol's hand trembled a little when she reached again for the console and pressed a function. A video filled the screen and Steve suddenly understood the trembling.

It was shakily filmed footage, like many of the videos that populated the internet where a civilian tried to grab footage of a villain attack while running for their lives at the same time.

Steve stared at the footage. He didn't think he could breathe. He couldn't remember how.

It was Iron Man. It was blurry, but the red and gold armor was unmistakable, even if it wasn't that clear. Steve knew how Iron Man flew, how Iron Man fought, and it was Iron Man on the screen in front of them, fighting what looked like a massive dragon. This was impossible. This should be impossible. Pepper's hand was so tight on him that her fingernails drew blood from Steve, but the small pang of pain somehow helped Steve keep watching, when what he wanted to do was start screaming.

On screen, Iron Man lowered his faceplate and Pepper let out a small, helpless whine. It looked like Tony, as he stood in a victory pose, but as the video zoomed in awkwardly, the brief clear glance they had of Tony's face, his expression was blank.

The video blinked and then there was footage of other battles. The clips were cut short, like the person filming was frightened of being caught. Steve saw a glimpse of Heimdall fighting with branches wrapped around him; he saw a blue-skinned man with a red crest; he saw a blue hooded figure take out a man with smoky eyes wearing yellow robes; he saw a black-clad man wielding a sword against someone who looked almost like T'Challa. All the footage was shaky, blurry and cut out occasionally.

The final piece of footage showed Iron Man standing victorious over a blur of bodies. His faceplate rose and again his face looked blank, but his right hand—Steve couldn't help but focus on that rather than the smoking, bloodied body at Iron Man's feet. It was a sly movement, but Iron Man's right gauntlet was spread into three wide fingers, before he balled his hand into a fist and tapped it four times against his thigh, surreptitiously.

Three thousand. Three thousand.

Steve's hand was almost numb with how hard with Pepper was gripping it. She'd seen it too.

Carol had no idea Steve and Pepper were freaking out. "Now we still don't know yet if it's some sort of copy, or if somehow—"

"It's him," Pepper said, in a strained voice.

Carol's face creased with sympathy. "Until we find out more—"

"Three thousand," Steve said, when Pepper's voice had failed him. "That was—that was something meaningful to Tony."

He heard Clint and Rhodey both inhale sharply, the only other ones present who had been in that room when Tony's finally message played, as the three thousand realization suddenly made sense to them too.

"Could they have—revived him somehow?" Pepper's voice was thin, understandably hysterical. "Like a zombie." She stared up at the frozen image on Tony in horrified shock. "Did someone turn my husband into a zombie?"

"The flyer said they had Pietro Maximoff," Wanda said, her voice and face hard. "Permission to go and see if my brother's body is still in his grave." Her voice shook.

"Of course," Carol said. "Report back ASAP."

Wanda nodded and immediately disappeared from her hologram screen.

"I saw an old friend on there too," Valkyrie said. She looked angry. "I'd like to check if his body has been disturbed. If someone's stealing bodies and reviving them, or re-animating them somehow, or copying them—"

"Go," Carol said, and Valkyrie's hologram blinked out. She looked around the room. "Any of the other figures seem familiar to you?"

"When it came in I thought I recognized N'Jadaka," Shuri said, softly. "I didn't say anything sooner in case I was wrong, but I've already sent Okoye to check his tomb."

It didn't take long until the calls started coming in. Carol wasn't kidding when she said that every resource had been redirected to this. Valkyrie came back saying that Thor had confirmed that Heimdall's cairn was empty, no sign he'd ever been in there. Shuri called back saying Killmonger's tomb was also empty. Rocket returned to say Quill had flipped out at the hint that Yondu's body might have been disgraced somehow, and they'd immediately gone back to Vormir and scoured that deadly hell planet again for any trace of anybody, but there was nothing. Not even bones. Marc disappeared briefly and came back with the good news that Bushman's body was still where it should be, which no one had asked him to check, but it was good to have confirmation that it wasn't just corpses in general that were vanishing, Steve supposed.

Wanda returned last. Her face was tear-stained as she showed the video footage she'd thought to take of the excavation. Pepper gasped as the coffin lid slid open and the same thing happened to what looked like Pietro Maximoff's body as what had apparently happened to the fake body in Tony's cryo chamber. It melted into nothingness. The footage shook, Wanda barely holding it together.

Steve stared up at Carol in horror and she had the same lost expression on her face that he imagined he was wearing too. It spoke pretty clearly the same damn question: what the hell was going on?


Steve called Hugh and he canceled all his meetings with SWORD immediately, showing up to escort Pepper and Morgan home. From the boardroom window, Steve watched the three of them leave, huddled together in a freaked-out mess, and he empathized sharply.

Most of the others had left in a flurry of panic. Steve was left in the room alone with his thoughts. He didn't trust his legs to carry him home quite yet. He kept replaying the footage in his mind and the flyer. Tony? Natasha? Pietro? Vision? How was it possible? Was it some nefarious system of copies? Was it actually them, revived somehow? How long had this been going on?

Someone cleared their throat. When Steve looked up, it was Carol in the doorway of the room, wearing the space-ready version of her uniform.

"Still here, huh?" Carol's throaty voice was warm with concern. "We'll figure this out, Steve."

"I know," Steve turned back to stare out the window. "It's just a lot to wrap my head around." That was an understatement.

Carol came to join him at the window, staring out at the sky. "I never got to spend much time with Tony Stark, beyond finding him stranded in space trying to starve to death. But the space he left behind for all of you—it's tangible. I almost feel like I did know him." Her smile was brief, regretful, and she looked at Steve firmly. "We'll get to the bottom of this, Steve. I know how important he was to all of you."

Steve nodded tersely. "You send out the full rally call?"

"Yep. Called in all the supporting members, everyone who's retired. All hands are onboard." Carol squinted. "I did, of course, try to message the Eternals with a request for help." She dug in her pocket and pulled out a phone, tilting the screen at him.

Steve leaned in to look at the single message from Ikaris: "LOL, NO." He laughed, although he was aware that the sound wasn't exactly ringing with amusement. "Well, I suppose that was to be expected."

Carol stared at him until he met her gaze. "I'll find out what's going on. I promise."

Steve’s eyes searched her confident face. "And you'll let me know?"

Carol smiled brightly. "Of course."


Steve didn't always turn up to the compound on a Sunday because he didn't have any active classes—it was usually a lot more practical exercises, honing powers, making sure everyone could fully control their skills before they went out into the field.

He did this Sunday. According to the front desk Carol hadn't yet returned from space.

Carol hadn't misspoken when she said everyone would be focused on solving this problem. The dojo, gym, and shooting gallery were all empty, when normally they'd be full of people fighting and falling and generally shouting, because puberty and superpowers was not a relaxing combination. When Steve checked the roster, all of the adults who had mentoring scheduled for the day were active elsewhere.

Steve frowned and checked the sign-ins for the day. There were several of the youngsters on base. He headed for the cafeteria first—the vending machines were always stocked well and it was never too much of a surprise to find the kids congregated on a table eating. Superpowers played havoc on the appetite, Steve knew that fact intimately. The cafeteria was empty, beyond a couple of the kitchen staff moving behind the hatches.

They must be in the common room, Steve figured, heading for the stairs. He felt useless. Carol hadn't given him an active role yet in this investigation and it wasn't like he had many contacts in this world, and Sam and Bucky were still both being stubbornly quiet on the messaging front.

The teenagers had been given an attic room to hang out in. Steve rarely went up there unless he was chasing someone down specifically for missing homework, but he still knew the way. He knew something was going on the instant he peered around the corner—and the screen that the inhabitants of the room were crowded around suddenly went black.

Steve frowned at the row of faces that blinked at him, all of them assuming expressions of faked innocence that no one would buy, let alone someone like Steve who knew them so well. Harley Keener was there, as was Morgan, Nico, Karolina, and Rayshaun.

"Uh, hi, Mr. Rogers," Karolina breathed, smiling wide and twirling a lock of blonde hair in one finger, trying to look as innocent as possible. "We were gonna—"

"We hacked into the main boardroom," Morgan cut over her. Karolina shot her a hard look, but Morgan shook her hair and reached out, flicking the main screen on. "He should know, Glow Stick. They've left him out of the loop too."

Steve walked forward immediately, baffled by Morgan's words. "Who's left me out of what loop?"

"They have. This one." Morgan turned back to the screen, staring at it. Steve followed her gaze and his hands clenched into fists almost automatically.

It looked like Morgan had hacked into the boardroom footage, and from the clock visible from the camera she'd gotten into, this was happening right now.

Steve tensed at the sight of who was in the boardroom. Carol. Rhodey. Sam. Bucky. Shang-Chi. Clint. Bruce. Shuri. They were all there, right now? Why the hell hadn't he been invited? Steve had literally just checked the sign-in log five minutes ago. There was no evidence that they were even on base. Why would they keep it a secret?

"Can you turn up the volume?" Steve asked. As a responsible adult he probably shouldn't be condoning any of this. Morgan had never really abused her backdoor access into the Avengers security systems, but this thing with her dad had understandably rattled her—the lights on the Stark house last night had been on the entire time—and Steve couldn't find it in him to reprimand her in this scenario.

"Of course," Harley said, typing something briefly on a keyboard. Harley was older than the others and should know better than to be helping facilitate this spying, but Steve shouldn't judge that; he was older than everyone currently in the building, and if he was in his right mind, he should have stopped this immediately.

His brain was too full of this betrayal. They should have told him.

"This is real," Carol said, on-screen. "We brought the Controller in last night and asked him, politely, about why we could see Control Discs on some of the footage."

On the boardroom monitor, the footage from the night before played again, and then paused on an image of Heimdall raising up his massive sword; there was a silver disc clearly implanted in the back of his neck. Steve recognized it too. Definitely a Control Disc. Sandhurst was a horror to deal with at the best of times, and he'd been involved in this business somehow?

"It's definitely some sort of gladiator arena," Carol said.

"Like the one on Sakaar?" Bruce asked, his expression haunted.

"As far as we can tell, yes." Carol shook her head. "According to Sandhurst, he's been supplying Control Discs to a mysterious entity for the last two decades. He delivers them to somewhere he describes as a pocket universe quantum-locked to our timeline, but he's 'pretty sure'—" Carol made air quotes, "—that it couldn't be too bad, because only a small margin of the requested discs were the 'real deal'."

"Could it be the Grandmaster behind it?" Bruce looked unhappy.

"I contacted the Xandarian high council—" Carol's mouth wrinkled. "What's left of it. Their records say after his capture, he was exiled to the mines of Dyofor for a century of hard labor, and forbidden from ever trafficking live souls for his arenas again."

"And how much do we trust the Xandarian prison system?" Rhodey asked.

"I'll send an emissary to Dyofor," Carol nodded. She sagged against the table. "Honestly, as far as we can tell, this is real. I've still got people investigating missing bodies and I've made some discreet inquiries, but there's been a few more high-profile bodies that have gone missing. And not only heroes. I have a contact in Russia who tells me that Ivan Vanko's gravesite sank into itself. It happened when they excavated it; same residue, same trace of cosmic-radiation."

"We've taken as many stills from the footage as we can," Sam said, and pressed something on the main table's console, making a line of faces appear on the main screen. "We haven't yet been able to identity them all—"

"Oh, that's Aldrich Killian," Shang-Chi said, nodding at one of the faces. "For sure. That asshole white guy who stole the Mandarin's origin story, tried to pass it off as his own to cover up his own sins." Shang-Chi was still peeved about Killian; a lot of people didn't believe him the Mandarin was really the one behind everything, because Aldrich Killian had turned him into a fairytale and the real Mandarin leaned into that, used it to his advantage to hide his dastardly meddling. Considering Shang-Chi nearly got killed because of that lack of support, he had every right to be annoyed.

"There's been no one identified who died earlier than 2010, but everyone identified we know to be dead," Carol said.

"The Negative Zone is an unusual pocket of time-space," Shuri said, slowly like she was translating it. She would be, from the complex science she spoke as naturally as English or Wakandan. "Normally—it exists at every time at once. But for someone to be using it like this, it must have been...tethered to a particular moment in time. Which means it must be running parallel to our flow of time now."

"So someone started stealing dead bodies for over twenty years, and we've only just noticed now?" Bucky exhaled roughly.

"Whoever it is, they're experienced at hiding their tracks," Sam said. "We've combed back through all the footage of Stark's cryochamber. Took several passes, but there was a missing thirty second segment the day after his death; someone had perfectly spliced some of the loop footage to cover it. To open the chamber and swap it for a perfect LMD clone? In thirty seconds? While infiltrating Stark's security systems and covering up for themselves?" He shook his head. "I don't think we should be hard on ourselves for not noticing this was going on. It's not an amateur Wrecking Crew smash-and-grab operation. We're dealing with an expert."

Clint drummed idly on the table. He looked angry. Steve didn't blame him. The idea that Natasha's body might have been stolen was traumatizing enough, let alone the idea of someone...doing something with it. "Have we got eyes on Annihilus? This stinks of something that he would come up with."

"We're looking for him," Carol promised. "But I'm hitting walls, everything we try. We need to make our own leads."

"That sounds like you have a plan," Peter said, leaning forward in his chair.

"Our best guess… for some reason, someone is stealing dead bodies, re-animating them somehow, and forcing them to fight in arenas. I can't get anything solid but the one thing that has been verified is that someone's making a lot of money from this." Carol exhaled roughly. "We've traced the LAXE signal, but its origin keeps moving."

Shuri put something else onscreen, a scientific diagram of some sort, along with a map showing planets and locations where the signal had been picked up. "We know if the Negative Zone has been quantum-locked to our flow of time, there must be a concrete connection point. A Gate of some sort, which is how the LAXE signal is getting through. But it must be a portable gate because the signal keeps moving."

"Even if we find the Gate, it can only be opened by both sides at once, so even if we find it, forcing it open will be impossible solely from our side. And we can't even find the Gate. Even when I've had my best people pretend to be customers for this rumored arena—they're not getting anywhere." Carol shrugged. "We need to get someone on the inside."

"Oh, no, I'm starting to figure out what you're suggesting it and I'm not sure I like it," Rhodey said, his eyes warily tracking Carol's face like he's desperate to find a comforting denial in it. He obviously didn't find what he was looking for. "You've got to be kidding me. That's the plan?"

"What is it?" Bucky asked.

"It's kind of risky. Because we have no idea if it will work. But…" Carol pressed her mouth into a line. "If they're stealing dead bodies of high-profile heroes and villains, then we give them one."

There was instant uproar, both in the boardroom and the common room.

"Woah, that's dark," Nico muttered.

"Oh, I can go after any of our top ten most wanted," Shang-Chi said, straightening in his seat. "Just give me the nod."

"I don't think she means for a villain to die," Peter said.

Shang-Chi's eyes widened as he caught up with the rest of the room. "One of us?"

"Bruce and Shuri have been developing something," Carol said. "You want to take it away?"

Shuri raised an eyebrow at Bruce. Bruce pulled out a box from under the table.

"Shuri and I have been developing this," Bruce said, heavily. "It's a nanotech injection, designed to do several key things. First, it puts someone into a coma that heavily emulates death. Second, it's designed to disrupt the Control Disc technology. And third, it'll send out a subtle signal to piggyback on that LAXE signal, to give us more of a chance to locate where this Gate might be."

"It's a risk," Shuri said. "We don't want any of you to think this is a good idea. It's probably not. It's not one hundred percent positive that we can bring you out of the coma. It could kill you permanently. And if whoever is behind this realizes it's a trap, they might kill you permanently. It's risks everywhere you look."

"And we're still heavily speculating," Carol said. "We could still be dealing with a race we've never met before. We've met parasites, shapeshifters—it could be Skrulls in that arena for all we know, ones more like Veranke. But both Pepper Potts and Steve Rogers confirmed that the Iron Man in the footage had at least one of Tony Stark's most intimate memories, something that Pepper said she couldn't believe Tony would ever have shared, even under torture. Which leads us to believe that this is our people. Revived somehow. There's always new technology being discovered every day. It's possible."

"Nat could be alive," Clint said quietly, his voice roughened with emotion. "Even if it is Skrulls, we know they keep the original alive."

"We need to talk this through logically." Carol sat on the edge of the table, looking at them all seriously. "This isn't something we rush into. This is big."

"We've calculated the odds," Shuri said. "Best estimate, this has maybe a ten percent chance of not outright leaving you permanently dead, let alone the chance of actually getting revived by this possible thief. The injection could go wrong. And if you're not re-awoken in time, or if the person behind it wants to send a message—dangerous doesn't cover it."

"I want to do it," Clint said, staring at her hard like the lack of blinking was a persuasive technique, rather than making him just look overtired. "I volunteer as tribute. Whatever. Seeing her again… I have hope. Again. And it—It should have been me on Vormir, and it should be me now. I owe her."

"We all owe Natasha and Tony everything," Bucky said. "I'm the oldest here. I've lived more life than any one person should. This has a risk to it and I'm the logical choice to take that risk. I ain't got anyone waiting on me."

"I want to, believe me. I was big in an arena before, but—I have to take myself out of the running. Last time I went in, I couldn't remember who I was." Bruce looked down at the ground, toeing at it with one bare foot. "I didn't even want to remember who I was."

"That's a fair decision and we all support you with that fully," Rhodey said. "Besides, do we even know if you can die, I mean. Considering everything you've been through in the last few years?" Bruce looked at him, a haunted expression on his face. "And after traumatizing Bruce, I want to throw my hat in the ring."

"Rhodey—" Carol started, softly.

Rhodey glared at her, mouth downturned. "Don't tell me you're not putting your name forward. It's no different. I loved Tony, more than anyone else here, he was my best friend. And Nat was just as necessary to me. I have as much right to help get them back, if it's possible, and I have as much right as anyone here to get the opportunity to take that risk, if I want to. And I want to."

"No offense, Colonel Rhodes, but I think we need someone really well known," Peter said. "They're taking big name heroes. I don't deserve the infamy I have, but I'd be honored to finally use it to do something worthwhile, like saving Tony."

"People know War Machine," Rhodey frowned.

"They know Captain America more," Sam held up one hand. "This is me volunteering too."

"If anyone's the most famous here, it's me," Carol said. She folded her arms. "I'm known galaxy-wide, more than any of you. I don't think they'd be able to resist taking me."

"We're all well known, we're all Avengers," Shang-Chi muttered. "Why shouldn't I get to do it, just because I can't blow up a spaceship with my bare hands? You might be too big a risk. The fighters on the video looked like mostly physical guys, maybe I'd be more what they were after."

"You didn't even know Tony or Natasha," Bucky said.

"No, but I'm one of the people who live on the planet they saved, maybe I'm grateful about that," Shang-Chi said, pushing into Bucky's personal space with a challenging glare. Bucky clenched his jaw, clearly about three seconds away from punching Shang-Chi in the face.

Steve stared. None of them had suggested him? He was clearly the best option. Maybe someone would finally get around to it. He leaned it, frowning as he focused on the chaos happening on-screen.

"Jack texted me, he wants to throw his hat in the ring," Peter said, his phone in one hand.

"How does he even know about it?" Clint muttered.

Peter gestured at the cameras. "Guy watches every security feed at once. What would you do if you were stuck in a room for twenty hours a day?"

Clint pulled a face that said he thought it was a fair answer.

Sam scoffed. "Of course Hart wants to do it, he would volunteer for anything that gets him out of that basement. Can I veto the idea? I don't dig the idea of getting our people back and immediately blowing them up."

"You think we can get them back?" Rhodey's eyes were shining as he looked at Sam.

Sam reached over and gripped his shoulder tightly. "We're either getting them back or ruining the lives of people who dared to use their bodies and faces for their ill-means."

Rhodey nodded fervently. "I'm definitely up for that."

"I'm a solid choice for this," Shang-Chi insisted.

"You're just desperate to prove yourself. And I don't trust anyone who hates Lord of the Rings," Bucky sniped.

Shang-Chi narrowed his eyes. "Excuse me for having a valid reason not to like something about a powerful dude with magic rings."

"I have red in my ledger, I'd like to get a chance to pay it back," Clint said.

"You're not the only one indebted to them," Peter said, stepping closer to him. "And let me reason you this, if you're the one to go, how would you stop me from trying to date your daughter?"

Clint actually growled and then paused and stared at him. "Even if Lila was that dumb, Laura's lethal with a knife, kid."

Peter glared. "I'm not a kid anymore."

Clint used his extra height to try and loom over Peter. "Yeah, well, you sound like one to me right now."

"Kate would also shoot you if you went after Clint's kid," Sam pointed out.

"Wait," Shuri said to Bruce, "are they all eagerly trying to volunteer who should be the one to die?"

Bruce wrinkled his nose at her. "You're surprised?"

"Well, I'm not throwing my hat in the ring. I have a country to run." Shuri paused to consider it. "And an actual self-preservation streak."

"I was wondering why Steve wasn't here," Bucky said, looking up at Carol.

Carol pulled a face. "Yeah, I—I really do not want to be the person who went down as killing the original Captain America, y'know? And there's no way he wouldn't think he was the best candidate."

"I am the best candidate," Steve said, only remembering belatedly that he had an audience of kids when four faces looked at him, all wincing at different levels of intensity.

"And they say we're the nihilistic generation," Nico said, arching an eyebrow.

Steve had the grace to look embarrassed. But he refused to take it back. Who would be a better candidate than him? He'd lived for over a hundred years and he was the best shot of getting the attention of whatever mysterious force was stealing dead bodies, because he was the first Avenger, what could be a bigger lure than that?

As the other Avengers continued to argue on the screen, Steve ran through the past minute, because something was bothering him, and he couldn't figure it out at first. Steve had delighted in the serum’s effect on his memory at first; being able to glance at a map and recall it all perfectly later had come in useful so many times. But when you remembered everything, it came at a price, and that was the speed of his recall. He had over ninety years of perfect memories in his head, and sometimes that slowed things down.

When he did put the pieces together, he nearly swore out loud. Four faces stared at him. There had been five of them huddled around the screen to start with.

Morgan's StarkPhone was on the desk. But Morgan wasn't there.

She never let that thing go.

Horror clenched in his gut as he replayed Shuri's "Best estimate, this has maybe a ten percent chance of not leaving you permanently dead" in his mind. He tied it into that last story he told Morgan and nearly convulsed with the sudden wave of self-loathing.

He was an idiot. There was a reason he held back some of the stories of Tony, because Tony hadn't always been the best example (Steve respected him and admired him, but wasn't blind to the fact that Tony—like Steve himself—absolutely wasn't perfect.) But he'd been so sure she was smarter than this.

"Morgan," Steve said. One benefit of the past few years was that his Saturday teaching position had given him a bonafide teaching voice, guaranteed to get the attention of young people around him, even if it made them uncomfortable. "Where is she?"

"She's right…here," Karolina's voice faltered and her eyes widened. "Is that her phone? She never leaves her phone."

"Checking the systems now," Harley said, making the image of the bickering Avengers go smaller in favor of bringing up a coding window and a map. "Tracking her based on her last scans. She's down on the second floor? But—" A camera showed the cafeteria floor, where the red dot he was tracking should be, considering its place on the map. "—she's not there."

"The vents," Steve realized; he knew the layout of this version of the Compound well, having helped supervise the rebuilding. He went into action mode. "Karolina, go out the window—get to the boardroom, get their attention. Morgan will be going for that injection. Harley, keep tracking her, let me know via the intercom if she deviates. Nico, with me."

"What do I do?" Rayshaun demanded.

"Keep an eye on that footage on the screen so Harley can keep focusing on his code," Steve yelled back, starting to run, Nico close on his heels.

"You're fast for an old man," Nico breathed as they helter-skeltered down the stairs.

Steve frowned. "Not fast enough," he said, skidding to a halt on the landing. "I hate to ask, but—"

"It's you asking and for Morgan, I don't think there's a more convincing combo," Nico muttered, not even hesitating to use part of her jewelry to slash open a small cut on her hand; she drew forth her staff in its usual flamboyant flash of power. "I can't get you to the boardroom, Doctor Strange warded it too deeply, even for me." She winced. "I deny any implication in that statement that I've tried to get into the boardroom with my magic."

"I didn't hear anything," Steve said, grimly.

"Brace yourself, I'll try and get you as close as I can," Nico said and pointed her staff at him, her dark hair lifting into the air before she shouted, "Drop spot!"

Steve landed in his classroom, hard, in a spark of purple energy. He blinked, shook his head, and headed for the door, but something made him hesitate for a second.

Doctor Strange warded the boardroom. There was no reason for the ward to bounce him this far back from the boardroom, unless it was deliberate. And Strange had said those odd words to him. More than one stain in Tony's past.

A thousand things clashed together in Steve's head, all at once. This classroom. He'd been thinking about the incident just the day before with Bucky, where he'd had to confiscate a device from his students that they were using to stun each other.

The device Obadiah Stane had once used to stun Tony Stark. Tony had nearly died then.

But Steve had an idea, and it was a deeply ironic one—that maybe he could use the same device that had nearly killed Tony and use it to save Tony's daughter. He grabbed the device from the drawer in the main desk and started to run again.

When he got to the boardroom the door was locked. Steve glared up at the nearest camera.

"Harley, get me in, I know you can do it," Steve yelled. The boardroom was sound-proofed and locked down, but only from the outside. He wasn't sure if the field extended across the ceiling like it should.

The door buzzed and Steve pushed open into the chaos beyond. The Avengers were still arguing, but stopped at the sight of him.

"Steve," Carol started, immediately realizing he must have known what was going on.

It looked like Karolina had smashed in the window to fully get their attention and was getting unfortunately chastised for it. She had a level head; Steve knew she was going to be a terrific Avenger someday soon. There was glass all over the floor and she was panting.

"Morgan," Steve said, desperately, eyes wide. "Where is she?"

"See, that's what I was saying!" Karolina yelled, looking distressed that no one had been listening to her.

"She isn't here," Carol said, "she—"

Which was when one of the tiles from the ceiling came down sharply, Morgan moving rapidly, too rapidly. Steve got a brief glance of some technology on her feet of some sort, making her speed insanely fast, but Steve's reflexes were better.

"Shuri," Steve yelled, and threw the paralyzing device to her.

Shuri was quick too, and smart, and leapt forward, managing to stab and activate it in one smooth motion, sending Morgan crashing to the tabletop, thwarted.

Steve felt like he was going to have a heart attack, seeing how close her hand was to the nanobot injector.

Morgan's eyes slid toward Steve in open hatred for him stopping her.

"I'm not sorry," Steve said.

There was a burst of noise then that Steve barely heard in his sheer relief that Morgan was alive. This was all his fault.

"I had to try," Morgan whispered. "Ten percent. Basically a hundred."

Steve shook his head at her. "You're not an Avenger yet, kiddo. That's not the kind of odds game you can play yet."

"I'm old enough to help," Morgan said, because she'd inherited her father's stubborn streak. Steve's heart lurched in empathy; it had been one of the things he'd had most in common with Tony.

"I'm really sorry, we should have locked down better, or paid more attention—" Carol was shaking her head. "It's not exactly like there's a guidebook for a situation like this one."

Steve sighed; she couldn't meet his gaze because she knew she was wrong. He was the right choice for it. Well, at least he had the chance to argue his case, he supposed.

"Don't even try," Sam said, eyeballing Steve. "We all know what you're about to suggest, Rogers. You've done enough. Time to step back and let the next generation save the Earth, huh?"

Steve pressed his mouth into a line. He wanted to respond, but the impulse was moot. Because they were out of time.

When it all went wrong, it was almost like Steve saw it all happen in slow motion. The way Morgan's jaw tensed stubbornly, and then her foot twitched and the jet boot she was wearing lit up, and she started to move toward the injector, still lying on the table—why was it still lying on the table?—her hand still outstretched and Steve realized even in the room of the heroes they had, no one was going to be able to stop her in time.

There was one way. Steve's brain lit up hard with the passionate truth that there was nothing he wouldn't do to ensure the main reason for Tony's terrible sacrifice would be okay.

He couldn't reach Morgan in time. He couldn't knock in the injector from her hand. But he could give her a reason not to use it. He could give her a choice impossible for her to refuse.

Even as around him, all the Avengers there tried to move to stop her—Carol's fist glowing up uselessly, because she was realizing too slowly that she couldn't exactly photon blast Tony Stark's kid; Bruce lurching to stop her; Shang-Chi jumping forward; Clint reaching for something to throw to knock the injector away; Karolina blazing up to fly forward; Sam standing up; Shuri reaching for her wristband that probably had a thousand technical innovations that might help; Rhodey reaching for the table to tip it up and maybe knock her trajectory—they were all going to be too late.

Steve would not be.

All around him on the floor were glass shards from where Karolina had busted through the window to get their attention. It was the work of seconds. It probably shouldn't have been so easy.

He didn't even pause to take a deep breath before grabbing the nearest shard and slitting his own throat in one quick movement.

Everything went into a hazy, blurred mess. Steve was aware he'd dropped the shard and had automatically tried to grab his own wound. His blood was warm and copious because his aim was true and he'd dug the glass shard in deep enough to slice past the muscle to the artery and vein below.

Steve forced himself to focus long enough to see Morgan sobbing and letting the injector go. Bucky was the first to reach Steve, his hands pressing down on Steve's neck, but Steve knew it was too late. He had forced their hands by doing this, Steve thought. Good.

"Oh, you stupid stubborn self-sacrificial bastard," Bucky murmured.

Steve stared back at him, knowing Bucky knew him well enough by now to read the you would have done it too on his face. He couldn't say it himself; when he tried, Bucky pushed down harder, and Steve's body spasmed on its own.

"No," Morgan whispered, still mostly frozen from the paralyzing device, tears starting to well up in her eyes. "I had to try. I could have saved him too."

"Give me the injector," Bucky barked, his voice rough. "We can't waste this opportunity."

Steve stared up at him, trying to communicate his gratitude. He managed to twitch his right hand to sign two words. Best choice. He was the best choice. And now he would actually be dead, it removed some of the risk. The body thief would find an actual corpse. That had to increase the odds of success. Higher than ten percent.

This was good. It didn't matter if it didn't work for the purpose of the investigation. If Steve didn't wake up from this, that was fine. He wasn't even angry at the idea that whoever was stealing bodies might not even go after his. He'd had a good life. And saving Morgan… this was a good death. Steve was okay going out like this. He'd saved Morgan, just like Tony would have wanted him to.

Steve died, still thinking about Tony Stark.