Steve went to Morag first.
He'd went under the ice long before his country set its mind on the sky and woken to a world where aliens attacked his city, so he didn't understand the allure of space. But there was something in the way others spoke of it. The little boy glee that had broken through Clint's lethal melancholy at the prospect of flying a spaceship to another planet. The wistfulness in Carol's stories about worlds and wonders far beyond Steve's reckoning.
With a case full of Infinity Stones and a heart full of grief he was in desperate need of just a glimmer of joy. But as he arrived on the red tinged planet crawling with the ugliest lizard-rats he'd ever seen he kept thinking of how Clint's excitement turned to ash just like his family. The red reminded him of Nat's blood, spreading out to stain the ends of her two-toned hair.
He'd asked her why she didn't cut it. She'd asked him why he'd kept the beard so long. He didn't think it was the same. Nat was blameless in all that happened. But she'd told him once over a glass of vodka and a shared peanut butter sandwich that she'd never seen Clint again after they squared off at the airport. That she'd never been mad in the first place and it killed her that he suffered alone.
Morag held nothing but refuse. Steve returned the stone to an unconscious Quill. Music blared so loudly from his Walkman that Steve could hear it. Each soaring chord and swinging note felt like a blow, and he was so tired of getting up.
Tony was always blaring music, loud and obnoxious, as he worked up some stroke of genius. Like how to save everyone in the world but himself.
Steve couldn't help but feel that it should have been him. Maybe it was arrogance. America's defender and the ultimate soldier and all that. But he's not the strongest among them – that's Hulk. Not the most powerful – that's Danvers. Not the smartest – that's Tony by a long run, though Bruce gave him a run for his money. Not the most compassionate. He thinks that was Nat, as much as she'd argue otherwise. But he was the first – if you don't count Thor – and self-sacrifice for God and country was kind of what he was made for. And if he had been the one to snap his fingers the world would have given speeches about how it was fitting, and though his friends would have mourned there wouldn't be a fatherless little girl, and a widowed woman, and a lost looking kid from Queens.
The world was saved, the lost returned. But it never felt like victory.
One stone back. Five more to go.
Asgard was next.
This, Steve thought, was a planet. Every color seemed more vivid. There was a lightness in that air that was euphoric like a drug. Music swelled even in the silence and he could feel it, complex like a symphony. It was far more alien than a red haze and a crumbling temple.
The beauty made Steve feel even more undeserving.
He shouldn't be there. All he could think was how much Thor has lost. How they couldn't save him, and had barely tried.
In most places Steve was too imposing to hide properly. Here he was the puny one. He contemplated finding some sort of tunic to try to blend in, but was apprehended before he could find an unguarded closet.
In hindsight, it was perhaps unwise to stride into the Royal Palace with the prince's missing weapon.
He was quickly surrounded by four strapping warriors. Steve could take them – maybe – but it would serve no purpose, and he was not in the mood for sparring. He was supposed to get in and out unnoticed, but it seemed he couldn't do anything right.
But miserable and unworthy as he felt, the hammer was steady in his grasp. He surrendered it when asked, but it clamored to the floor when one of the guards tried to take it from him. As each guard tried in vain to lift it Steve thought of a night, long ago, filled with laughter and testosterone fueled attempts at bravado. It seemed ridiculous that he could be worthy now, when he didn't have any idea then all the ways that he could fail. But it was ridiculous that a piece of metal could render judgement at all.
And yet the hammer would not move.
"I'll give it back to Thor," he said, even though that wasn't the plan at all. He wasn't supposed to be noticed. Could not interfere because who knew what would happen. Certainly not him. He had no idea what Tony and Bruce had babbled on about as they discussed the intricacies of the time heist; hadn't even heard of most of the movies Rhodey referenced. "Shouldn't just leave this in the hall." He opened his hand and concentrated. Mjolnir's handle slapped against his palm with a thunk that he found satisfying despite himself.
"You demand audience with our prince," said a massive man with a gregarious ginger beard. Like some dwarf out of Lord of the Rings – which Steve had seen – but giant.
"If you don't mind," Steve answered, finding himself channeling Tony's cheek with absolutely no idea what he was doing.
His escorts stayed close as they frog-marched him to the throne room, the deluded Asgardian weapon swinging merrily at his side.
Then Thor was there before him, hale and hearty, and Steve understood what had compelled him.
He was looking for ghosts.
"Rogers, my friend!" Thor boomed, his hair tidy and glistening, his eyes perfectly matched. "Unhand him. This Captain of America is perfectly welcome here. He has come a long way. This is not how we treat our guests from Midgard."
The others fell back as Thor stepped forward and wrapped Steve in a hug that would have crushed an unenhanced man. But Thor knew Steve could take it. "However did you get to Asgard?" Thor asked in what he probably thought was a whisper, though the sound carried across the room. "I thought only my Jane had any understanding of such travel, and she is already here."
"It's kind of a long story." Steve pulled away and held out his wrist.
"That looks like one of Stark's magic gadgets."
That stung in a way Thor could not understand. "Yeah," Steve said softly. This Thor, who was not numbed by beer and loss, noticed the change.
"There is something different about you. Something has happened."
Steve huffed out a breath, feeling on the brink of a confession that would be catastrophic. "Can we talk in private?"
"Leave us," Thor commanded. The others shuffled away. Steve still didn't feel alone in the massive room, but perhaps that was better.
"I came to return your hammer." Steve lifted it one last time, memorizing how it felt, so perfectly balanced and also, somehow, righteous, and brimming with power just below the surface.
He should have used it to fly. Just once.
Thor took it, eyebrows raised, and Steve thought again of that night at the party, moments before Ultron. Would Thor know now that Steve could wield it, even when Steve did not?
Time travel made his head hurt.
"It is the strangest thing. Less than an hour ago some of my men saw it soaring through the palace even though I had not summoned it. Try as I might I could not make it return. I would have torn the place apart to search for it, but Jane has been in fits. I just only got her to rest. She keeps muttering about a rake-coon or something, whatever that means."
"Yes, well." He shrugged, and the silence dragged on. It felt wrong to lie about the hammer when the hammer was supposed to have judged him as worthy. That felt enough of a lie already. "Speaking of Jane," he finally said, as he pulled the vial of Aether from his jacket pocket. "You're supposed to put this back inside her."
Thor's eyes opened wide. He took the vial, but held it far in front of him as if it were the plague. "Why would I do that? We have been trying to get this out of her."
Which was one of the many reasons Steve was supposed to do it himself. "That's fine – I guess. Just destroy it – however you planned to do that. And there might still be more in her, possibly."
"Something is going on here," Thor growled. "I am no fool."
And he wasn't, had never been, but they'd still found something comic in his misery, and Steve burned with shame. If he tried to summon the hammer now, he knew, it would not come.
"You're right, but I can't explain. Just take the vial and let me go."
"You are changed. You are older."
The fact that Thor could see that – Steve wanted to sob. It would be so easy to plunge from this precipice into the stunning waters beneath. To tell Thor everything he knew about his tragic future in hopes that he could save his mother, his father, his Jane, his home, his eye. His brother, as treacherous and murderous as he was. His spirit.
But the years that would follow were woven through with Thor's downfall, and Steve couldn't know how they would be impacted if he made just one little change, let alone half a dozen. He did not come to undo the victory that had been so hard to win.
He did not know how to make this better. He would not make it worse.
He swallowed hard and shook his head, committing Thor's regal countenance to his memory one last time. "It's real good to see you. But I have to go. Take care of Jane."
"You could stay. Just a little while." It was not a threat, it was an invitation, and Steve's heart swelled even as it sank. "There will be revels tonight. There are always revels. You look as if you need them."
He considered it just a second. His bracelet was programed to jump back shortly after each stone was taken. He was not on a deadline. The only urgency was his own. He did need to relax.
But Asgardian mead might loose his tongue, make him say something he couldn't take back.
And Thor's mother would die that day, he realized with a chill, and that decided it. He did not want to be there to see that. He could not stand to witness any more grief.
He clapped the god's shoulder and tried to smile. "Farewell, Point Break. We'll see each other again soon."
"I do not understand why Stark calls me that," Thor grumbled.
It's only as he made the jump that Steve realized there was one thing he should have said.
Aim for the head.
Two stones down.
Vormir was enough to make him swear off other planets forever. The place was a desolate wasteland, eerie like an abandoned battlefield. Ash fell from the sky like snow. Steve felt sick to his stomach. This was a terrible resting place for Nat.
Don't be such a crybaby, he could hear her chide. It's better than a crack den or a whorehouse.
She'd been his constant longer than anyone except Bucky, and even that had been close. Buck had been his confidante in his youth, back before the serum and shortly afterwards. Nat had been by his side as he faced the new world, so much murkier than the one he'd left. At first he'd thought she was too much gray in a world that should have been black and white. But as the rest of the world had gotten darker her light had shown through. When half of everything had been lost she'd kept trying to help long after he he had given up. She deserved to see their victory more than anyone. That she'd died here a few hours too early was so fucking unfair.
Clint's description of Vormir had been terse and on the brink of tears. There was this mountain. Guarded by a floating man. He gave us an ultimatum. We fought. She fell. I woke up with the stone.
Steve had never expected to climb the mountain and find the Red Skull.
"You have got to be shitting me!" Even though he'd never been so alone he still expected Tony to comment on his language. But Vormir was silent, except for the monster floating before him wearing a familiar devil's face.
"Steven, son of Sarah."
"What the hell is this? Do you take the form of some demon in our past? Is this whole rock some giant test?"
Just as in life the Nazi didn't quail, but Steve could feel himself shaking, the rage that he'd tried to tamp down bubbling up to the surface. He didn't need this now, the man who had stolen his life and set him on this path of heartbreak sneering at his failure.
"Do not flatter yourself. This is my true form. I was banished here to watch over the stone. My punishment for seeking another."
"You killed Natasha!" Steve lunged forward, intent on shaking the life out of him if he could, but the Red Skill simply drifted up and backwards, just out of reach.
"I did not. Clint killed Natasha, as the price for the stone. Or maybe she killed herself. It was not clear. I have seen others resort to blows to decide who will die, but never before to decide who will live."
Steve couldn't imagine the guilt Clint must feel. He and Nat had a bond no one else on the team could touch. He also had a family whose absence had left him wrecked. But Steve knew he never would have chosen to leave Nat there, no matter the prize.
"A soul for a soul. That is the rule. I was not the one to make it. Clearly not, for it is my lack of soul to give that binds me here."
"You don't have the stone now."
"Not currently. But I will soon enough. For that is why you have come, is it not?"
Steve couldn't believe that he was right. That there was any possible timeline where he left an Infinity Stone with this Nazi monster when he'd sacrificed his very happiness to keep one out of his grasp. "Maybe I won't."
The Red Skull chuckled, cold and scornful, and for the first time Steve understood Bruce, for he felt like his anger could turn him into a mindless, uncontrollable maelstrom of rage. "What would you do instead? Where else could you hide it that would be safer?"
"Anywhere," Steve spat, desperately searching for an alternative, all the while knowing that there wasn't one to be found.
Was that how Tony had felt, the moment before he took the stones from Thanos?
"You will not." There was steel in the monster's voice and he seemed to grow larger, swelling to fill the sky, but Steve had known him as a man and would not be cowed. "You have made a promise to return the stone, and Steve Rogers is not one to break his oath."
He didn't know how the Nazi knew that. Didn't understand why it sounded almost like a compliment. But he knew all at once what he needed to do.
"I will give you the stone. You will give me Natasha." The thought of her gave him the strength to go on. For she would know what to do. She would convince Clint to cut his hair and turn this whole nightmare into a bedtime story for his kids. She'd remind Steve that Tony had lived a good life, and regale him with stories of Tony's playboy youth that would override the image burned so vividly across Steve's mind of the man with his daughter at his hip, desperate to avoid the inevitable loss that Steve asked of him.
"That's not how this works."
"Yes it is. A soul for a soul."
"She is dead."
"Then bring her back!"
The demon seemed to shrug, and then he floated to the edge of the mountain. "I cannot. But you will give me that stone."
Steve dropped his pack and settled to the ground. "We'll see."
He wasn't sure how much time had passed, because there was no sunrise or sunset, just an eclipsed moon and sick twilight. Every few hours or so he would get up and pace around the mountaintop. His routine always ended with the same demand. "Bring her back."
"Give me the stone."
Hunger and thirst has been familiar companions on the battlefield, and his body was better able to handle it than most. But there were no MREs waiting for him after a long march. He almost relished the discomfort, certain he could take it.
It was the lack of sleep that wore him down. He dared not close his eyes, in case the monster had some way to take all four stones still in his possession. He'd barely slept in the week since the time heist, too plagued with nightmares, too sick from reality.
He didn't know how many days he lasted. He only knew it was not enough.
The monster's answer was always the same.
Until it wasn't.
"Bring her back." His voice was barely a croak as his parched throat flared in agony. He hated that it sounded more like a plea than a demand.
"She is not here," the monster said quietly. "Not any longer."
Steve stared into those red eyes and did not understand what he found. "Where is she then?"
"Gone. Stolen from my grasp by someone who does not respect the rules."
"How am I to know? He did not come here. But nothing is strong enough to thwart the will of an Infinity Stone besides another stone."
"Bruce," he breathed, but that was all he could wrap his mind around. It didn't make any fucking sense. "Bruce tried, when he had the gauntlet, but it didn't work. He couldn't bring her back."
"Look down into the valley," the Red Skull commanded.
Steve had been afraid to for a long time, not willing to see Nat's broken body there, not when he intended to save her. Eventually he'd worked up the courage. But there had been nothing but an expanse of rock, so very far down.
As Steve approached the edge he wondered if the Red Skull intended to push him down the mountaintop. He found that he didn't much care.
This time the valley was not empty. Half a dozen corpses were scattered across it, though their forms were bright and hazy. Something told Steve it was their souls he was seeing, not their bodies.
There was a green woman who must have been Thanos's daughter, and a shape or two whose species he didn't think he could identify even if they hadn't been shattered. But none of them were Nat.
"Your quest is futile, Captain Rogers. Give me the stone and go search for her elsewhere, if you must."
Something clawed in his chest, but if it was hope it was a terrible thing. He just wanted to stop. He wanted all of this to be over.
He envied Tony his rest.
There were still four stones to go.
Soon it would be three.
"How do I return it?"
The Skull smiled, Steve's skin crawled, and the moment passed. "Throw it over the cliff."
Steve opened the case, removed the red stone with the glove Bruce has fashioned to counter the radiation, and resigned himself to never seeing Natasha again.
The stone soared over the cliff, winking for a moment in the twilight.
Steve woke in a shallow pool, desperately floundering for the case that was still, thankfully, by his side.
He hadn't been able to see water from the mountain. A new moon shone in the sky.
Natasha was there, somehow, at the bottom, though he couldn't see her. He just knew.
"It's all right, Old Man," she said drolly, with a smile that was wry but true. "I've found my peace. It's time to find yours."
He activated his quantum suit.
Three stones to go.
It was ironic really that the stone in Loki's scepter was the easiest to return, when there was already two versions of Captain America facing off in New York. The Hydra goons in the elevator were only too glad to take the case back when Steve met them again at the bottom, claiming he'd gotten a second call from the Director changing the plans once again.
It felt wrong placing the scepter back in Hydra's hands, but that was a mistake made long ago. He'd never meet Wanda – or Vision – if he didn't.
Two stones left.
By the time he stumbled up the fire escape to Bleaker Street he felt so faint he resolved to stop for a sandwich before he jumped to 1970. Maybe pass out in an ally for a while.
"You are not Bruce Banner."
The bald woman waiting for him on the rooftop was not what Steve was expecting. From what Steve had seen on the battlefield and afterwards her successor was far more sarcastic and flamboyantly dressed.
"No, ma'am. But Bruce sent me to return what you gave him." He opened the case and pulled out the green stone, desperate to be rid of it. If he had any delusions of being strong enough to wield any one of the stones, this is the one he would use.
"Steve Rogers. The man out of time. But never more so than now." She accepted the stone with an uncanny grace. The case at her neck opened, and in an instant the time stone vanished inside.
"Funny that of all the heroes, you would volunteer to return it, when time has already treated you so strangely."
There was black at the edge of his vision. "Who said I volunteered? There weren't many options left." The ground swayed beneath him. He didn't remember an earthquake, and all the Chitauri destroyers should have already fallen.
"There are always options, Captain."
She reached towards him and Steve collapsed.
He woke in an unfamiliar bedroom amidst soft sheets and foreign artifacts. He pulled an IV from his arm, momentarily frantic, but his mind was clear and he did not feel drugged.
The case was on a table by his bedside, the final Infinity Stone still inside.
He took it with him as he crept out of the room, every muscle stiff and screaming in protest. Whatever had been in that bag certainly wasn't a pain killer.
As soon as he stepped into the hallway he was overcome by a delicious smell. Against his better judgement he followed his ravenous stomach to what was clearly a kitchen, where the Sorcerer Supreme sat at a table set for two.
"Ah, there you are, Captain. Your aura grew unsettled. I suspected the smell of breakfast might rouse you."
There was a large window by an ancient looking range, but it was mostly dark, save for the dull glow of perpetual city light. New York was never truly dark. Even after Thanos came. Steve narrowed his eyes. "What time is it?"
"Two am, or thereabouts. But it is breakfast time somewhere."
It had been afternoon when he'd passed out. "I slept that long?"
The woman pushed a bowl toward him and gestured for him to sit. "You slept for days. You were exhausted and starving when you collapsed on my rooftop. I had to give you fluids to sustain your body while your mind rested. You have been on quite a journey, it seems, and it has not been kind to you."
"That's an understatement," Steve muttered, though the woman looked unimpressed by his self-pity. "Why do I get the impression you helped with that collapse?"
She smiled, all sparkling eyes and teeth. "Men. You are not the first of your ilk I have dealt with – nor will you be the last. Always pushing yourself to the brink of collapse, as if you're good to anyone that way. Now eat."
The bowl held some sort of porridge, filled with fruit he did not recognize. It was delicious, and he devoured it eagerly. When it was nearly gone the magician waved her hand and the bowl refilled itself.
Steve looked up at her but paused only for a moment. "Why are you helping me?"
"It is my path to help people. As it is yours. This suspicion is unlike you."
She wasn't wrong. But his perpetual optimism, which he'd tried to hold on to even after the snap, had vanished when he'd seen Tony's eyes blinking back tears from the face of his little girl on the day of his funeral.
"I don't know what I'm like anymore." He was struck, suddenly, by the realization that his task was almost over. There was only one stone to return, and then nothing left to face but the world they had saved.
"Loss can teach us a lesson, or it can destroy us. That choice is always ours to make."
That sounded like something he might have said once. He was no longer sure he believed it.
"Whatever battle you faced you must have won, for here you are, returning the stones. Stephen saw truly."
"We did. But the cost was high."
"It often is."
Steve wanted so desperately to feel that it was worth it, but could muster no such certainty. Perhaps this woman could give him that, and that's why he was still here. "Bruce said you made him promise to return all the stones. He told me I needed to clip all the branches to preserve the original timeline. Have I done that? Will everything happen as it's meant to?"
The woman looked at him. There was something uncanny about her eye contact, and if she was staring right inside him. "With the stones restored the timelines will not crumble. I cannot speak to anything more of other times you have visited, for I am no longer part of those paths. I know only of this one. And while you did return the stones, the taking of them was not without consequence. This reality will continue. But the course of it has changed. Already it is not the timeline you are familiar with. Those changes are likely to magnify as time passes."
"What do you mean?"
"Due to your meddling Loki escaped with the Tesseract. Surely you can imagine how that will ripple."
Except Steve couldn't. Loki – the Tesseract – it was all so entwined that Steve had no idea what moving the pieces would do. That's why he hadn't been able to help Thor. He'd never been any good at chess. That's what Tony had been for. Steve was just the compass and the muscle.
"Did we make things worse?"
"Who's to say. How can one weigh one outcome against another when the exchange is never fair? Some people may live. Others may die. Already my grasp on what would have been slips away. You and your friends have removed those possibilities."
"Natasha." Realization struck him like a physical blow, nearly knocking the air from his lungs. "The Red Skull told me he couldn't give her back because she was no longer there. That someone had used an Infinity Stone. Bruce – my Bruce – tried but he wasn't able to. But maybe something happens here that changes that. Maybe this time he can."
Steve had a few extra vials of Pym particles. He reached for one, a plan already forming in his mind. He was going off book now, but it would be worth it, to know there was a universe where Nat came home. He could live with himself again if he just knew for sure that she was alive somewhere to see their victory.
"I caution you against that, Steven. That bracelet of yours is calibrated for the timeline you came from. Once you leave this one you'll never be able to return. The future you see will be the one you left."
Steve stopped, and it felt like losing her all over again - Bruce throwing a bench halfway across the lake and Clint's defeated certainty while the rest of the team wallowed in a collective despair, as sharp as it was unexpected. Somehow he was all of them now, angry and resigned and devastated simultaneously.
See you in a minute, she had quipped.
He had forgotten how well she could lie.
"So I'll never know whether we saved her or not?"
"I didn't say that. There is one way. The way open to all mortals."
"What is it?" Steve asked, not beyond begging. At least this woman wasn't a Nazi.
He was not entirely convinced that she was human.
The woman's eyes never left his. "You wait."
I'd really love to know what you think! I have so many thoughts about this movie, and while I very much enjoyed it for the most part I was one of those desperately wishing for a happy ending, and this is my denial.
Steve's journey was supposed to be a lead in to some much needed Iron family fluff, but then it took on a life of it's own and suddenly I was writing the Ancient One and all this happened. There's at least one more Steve part, and then two Tony parts … but I tend to underestimate these things. Especially when I have reviews cheering me on.
Also, if you're in desperate need for some IronDad/Spider-son fluff, feel free to check my profile for After the Smoke Clears and Phoenix Rising – my post Infinity War coping mechanisms.
Stay strong, my friends. Tony and Nat both live on in out hearts and our fanfiction!