She lives across the hall from him.
And it's not an accident. At least, not on his part.
He plays the doddery old man. He is old and doddery to a certain extent. But he hams it up whenever she's around, testing her patience, desperate for her attention. Since Peggy passed, he's found he has a lot of time to fill.
He's never really been one for gardening. Or bowls. Or bingo. Those seem to be the only, extremely limited options for people of his seniority.
Her red hair swooshes as she dips to pick up his cane, milliseconds after the handle slips from his grip while he fumbles for his door key.
"Butterfingers," he says, as she hands it to him. When he turns his gaze to her face, he sees a swelling around her eye socket, the skin tinged purple and blue. She smiles briefly, and pushes the cane into his grip, before turning to her own apartment door.
"Have you got ice for that?" he asks, as she pushes open the door.
"It's fine Joe," she says. "Really it is."
He nods, and she waits for him to organise himself, keys in his right hand, cane in his left. After he's gone into his apartment - all high ceilings and aching silence - he hears the soft click of her own door outside.
She calls him Joe. Because she believes that's his name. He'd toyed with the idea of being a Roger Stevens, but that had been too much. She's not an idiot after all. He could have destroyed everything with a stupid little joke.
Or maybe not. She's good at secrets. Better than anyone he's ever met. But she doesn't deserve to carry this burden. There are years before it'll all come to light. Except she won't be around to realise.
Only he will. And he'll kick himself for not seeing it sooner.
He's caught in a loop, but that's fine. Because he sees her most days, and it helps to heal his heart, just a little.
"How come she got a black eye?" he asks. "I don't see a scratch on you." He brandishes his cane at his younger self, who is currently carrying his groceries up the steps of the brownstone.
"I took my eye off the ball, Joe," Steve says. "There was a lot going on."
He makes a sound of discontent through his teeth and shakes his head. "It's all right for you Captain Super Soldier," he mutters. "I bet your Mom didn't raise you to let a lady take a beating."
From the corner of his eye, he sees Natasha press her lips together in a barely contained smile. He brandishes his cane again for good measure. He knows she finds it charming, in an eccentric kind of way.
"Joe, there were dozens of nazis. She can handle herself. She doesn't need me."
All of this is true, but it doesn't stop him from pushing the point further. He wonders what's the use in antagonising his younger self. He's only pissing himself off at the end of it. But the point needs to be made. He needs to value her, keep her safe, hold her tight while he still can. He'd be a mess by now if it weren't for Natasha, keeping him on the straight and narrow in a world that's too noisy and too grey.
"You need to take better care of her," he lectures, fishing his apartment keys from his inside jacket pocket. His fingers brush against the metal casing of his compass, and his levity breaks momentarily. "Black eyes are about the only thing that looks bad on her," he tells Steve. "You make sure she doesn't wear another one."
"Yes sir," Steve says patiently. He squeezes past him in the doorway, brown paper bags rustling. Steve sets them down on the kitchen counter, and begins to unpack them, loading the fridge for the week ahead.
Nat leans against the door jamb, arms folded, looking down at the kitchen tiles with a grin spread across her face. He pushes his tin of hard boiled sweets towards the edge of the counter, and she surreptitiously takes one while young Steve is wrestling with broccoli and onions and the salad drawer. She unwraps it - a bright yellow lemon drop - pops it in her mouth, and winks by way of a thank you.
He helps himself to a pear drop, and they both enjoy watching Steve be the good neighbour - despite the fact that he actually lives several blocks away. It's a game for both of them whenever he's around.
Good deeds complete, Steve and Nat file out of the apartment, closing the door behind them. On the other side of the wood, he can hear Steve mutter to Natasha, "I think he's got the hots for you," in something that could be described as a possessive tone.
"I think he's sweet," Natasha replies. "Reminds me a little of you, actually, with his old timey manners."
There's a click as the door closes, and their voices become muffles on the other side of the wall.
He remembers this day - or at least a day like it. They watch TV - he's healing from a broken rib but hadn't dared say anything to the old man across the hall. Later on, they'll order take out, and once the sky outside is inky black, Steve will drag himself back to his apartment for a night of fitful sleep, peppered with memories of icy landscapes hurtling towards him at two hundred miles an hour.
He should go easier on him, really. He's got a lot on his mind.
Sometimes he makes dinner for her. He texts her, which she finds hilarious, as a concept.
Spaghetti and meatballs tonight if you're not busy fighting a bunch of jackasses?
Sounds great. X
She never put a kiss on any of the texts she sent to young Steve. Emojis had been her limit, and even then, they'd been used ironically. But maybe it's the offer of dinner, or maybe because he's a little old man, that she grants him an inch of extra affection. One key pressed to show her appreciation and lift his spirits.
They sit at the kitchen table, napkins tucked into their collars to protect their clothes from the inevitable splashes of tomato sauce flicking from the long strands of spaghetti. She's brought a bottle of wine with her, and it almost feels like a date, tucked away in his little kitchen. She tells him about her day more candidly than he expects, and he wonders whether the Cabernet Sauvignon has loosened her tongue a little.
Or maybe she knows he's got nobody to tell.
"They're still picking up alien tech from the attack on the city," she says. "People are getting their hands on it, and it's a disaster waiting to happen."
"Eight million people in this city," he ponders. "You're bound to have a few assholes among them."
She laughs, a low chuckle that sounds good reverberated by his kitchen tiles. It's a sound he'll hold on to. For after.
"What did you do today?" she asks, twirling her fork in her spaghetti, her green eyes fixing his across the table.
"Oh you know," he says, gesturing banally with his own fork. "Walked over to the library, went to get a coffee. Read the newspaper. Standard fare."
"Sounds good," she says with a smile. "Sounds peaceful."
"Too much of a good thing, Nat," he warns her. "Far too much."
She nods, and he gets the feeling that she knows exactly what he means.
When he falls, he falls hard.
His hip crashes into the hardwood floor and he yells out as white hot pain sears through him, blinding him to the world as it takes over.
It's the rug. The shitty shitty rug. His slipper must have caught on the corner and sent him tumbling. He tries to move but it's pure agony. He's not like he used to be. He's over a hundred years old and he doesn't have the same recovery power, or the same pain threshold.
Nat's still at work. She will be for a couple of hours.
And so he lies there, on the floor, trying to blank out the pain.
Much later, the clock chimes seven. Each ding pierces his ear drums, intolerable to his pounding head. It's another quarter of an hour before he hears her, that familiar gait in the hallway. Nobody else has footsteps that light.
He has his ammo ready. Which of course means he reaches out and pushes the end table over, sending everything on it crashing to the floor.
The footsteps halt.
"Nat..." the sound is strangled, and trails off pathetically, his voice weak. But within seconds she kicks the front door open, and marches in, gun in hand, ready to take on robbers, thieves, or any other type of scoundrel.
Shooting the rug won't do much to help him now.
"Shit," she breathes, holstering her weapon and getting down on her knees next to him. "How long have you been down here?"
"Only a little while," he lies. He doesn't want her to try and convince him to go into a home. He won't do that. Not ever.
He lets go of reality after that. In the background he hears her call for an ambulance, and then the blue flashing lights are flickering through his blinds. He's loaded onto a stretcher, and she rides in the ambulance with him, holding his hand.
"You okay Joe?" she says, in a perfectly calm voice.
"Yeah..." he sighs, and the EMT administers a painkiller that sends him loopy for a few hours.
Everything is a blur. He needs a hip replacement, and he agrees to it. She stays with him, as they prepare him for surgery. He has a suspicion she's pulled some strings to rush things through, or maybe the cocktail of meds has made him lose track of things.
Either way, it's no time at all before he awakens, bleary eyes, dazed, and with a dull ache in his bones. She's sitting there, reading a magazine, sucking on a sweet. There is a soft blip, blip, blip in the background, taking note of his heart rate.
She looks across and smiles when she sees he's awake. She tucks the magazine between her thigh and the side of her chair and leans forward.
"Hey," she says, reaching out and taking his hand. "You okay?"
He hums an affirmation, and she gives his hands a gentle squeeze.
"You gave me quite a scare," she says, and then she carries on talking, filling the empty ward with warm words of little consequence.
"Steve's fixing that rug for you. I think he's going to get some tacks to nail it to the floor."
She takes care of him - something he doesn't remember from back in the day. She must have kept it quiet. But it's her who takes him home in a cab, and her who does his laundry so he has clean pyjamas to wear to bed. She makes him three meals a day, every day, for two weeks. She sets up shop in his living room, taking calls, tapping away on her computer, and refusing requests to come into the office.
He'd not expected any of this, and he's almost sorry when he's back on his feet again, and cooking his own breakfast.
But he repays her with flowers on her birthday, and, a few days later, a thanksgiving dinner that even Peg would have been impressed by.
As the winter wears on, they watch old movies together, sharing bags of microwaved popcorn and laughing as Jimmy Stewart struts about on screen.
The time is coming when he'll have to give this up. He's not ready for it. Not at all.
After Vienna, and Berlin, and all the mess that follows, she goes dark. Her apartment is searched no less than half a dozen times. He is questioned, relentlessly, at least eight times. At first by standard, run of the mill agents, and then by those with increasing seniority, and increased delusions of power.
"Sir, I really must impress upon you the importance of your cooperation. We know you had a close relationship with Agent Romanoff, and we must remind you that it's an offence to withhold information from a federal investigation."
"I don't know what to tell you," he says with a helpless shrug. "I can't believe you're trying to tell me that that nice young lady across the hall is a spy."
A roll of the eyes follows his remarks.
"She's always been very kind to me," he reiterates. "Always helping with my groceries, took me to the hospital when I fell. She's a very a nice lady. I don't believe any of this hooey."
"Sir, we have incontrovertible proof that Agent Romanoff has committed treason - "
"And I have incontrovertible proof that you're an asshole, but that doesn't change anything, does it?" he snaps. Treason is a very heavy word in his book. Treason, used against the woman who will one day sacrifice her life for half the universe, is not to be tolerated.
Secretary Ross steps in and sinks onto the couch, his trouser legs hitching up an inch or two, revealing a strip of black sock that jars against the navy blue of his suit.
"Mr Rushman," he says imploringly, trying his damnedest to meet his gaze. "You'll have to forgive my younger colleagues. They lack a little of the wisdom that you and I would have both accrued over the years.
If Ross thinks he's about to be taken seriously, he is, as ever, grossly mistaken.
"Do you have any idea where she might be?"
"Don't you think," he says, each word barbed with a heavy venom. "That if she were a good enough spy to escape your attention, that she would be blabbing to the whole neighbourhood about her safe houses?"
Ross turns his gaze to someone standing nearby. His expression is fast turning from one of frustration to one of defeat.
"If you don't have any relevant questions to ask, then it's best that you leave, and stop harassing an old man. She won't like it, you know. If she hears about it. Harassing a veteran like this. It's despicable."
It's the last time they bother questioning him, and soon they leave her apartment alone for good. Once the air is clear, and the hubbub has died down, a postcard arrives in the mailbox. It's from Oslo, and the snowy scene on the front makes him nostalgic for cocoa in the midst of a New York winter. They'd spent many quiet evenings together like that. He doubts he'll get them back again. The world is hurtling towards the snap far faster than anyone realises.
He turns the postcard over. Despite the card's Norwegian origin, the postmark says Zagreb.
Sorry for all the hassle they've been giving you, and sorry if this card makes things worse. Steve and I are both fine - he says hi, by the way - and whenever I get round to coming back I'll make sure I bring you some good candy.
Missing your spaghetti already.
He'll see her again, he's sure. But he's not sure he'll get a chance to say the things he wants to say. All this time he's been so busy playing games, for once revelling in the notion of being undercover. But it's all going to hit the fan soon enough and he doesn't know how he'll feel when it does.
He sighs and switches on the TV, only to be greeted by a familiar face.
It's weird, seeing Tony pop up in the news every now and then. It hurts just as much as this postcard from Nat. He's still more than five years away from losing both of them all over again, but the grief is rearing its head already, anticipating the deluge to come.
He stays inside the day it happens. But he knows the precise moment it does. He hears the alarms, the sirens, the crashes of cars whose drivers have dissolved to dust.
She's in Wakanda. She might as well be a thousand lightyears away, but he remembers this night. Remembers how the grief had pierced his heart. He remembers laying with her on the bed in an unfamiliar Wakandan guest room. They will lay silent for hours tonight, playing events over and over in his mind.
Steve will have a pounding head from Thanos's knockout punch, and she will be cut and bruised, the physical pain far outweighed by that of their loss.
Neither of them were used to losing this badly, this catastrophically.
When the last siren finally gives way to the night, he lets out a heavy sigh. It's a long five years ahead. And then what? Then he runs out of answers. He'll have to step forward into a world with new questions, new threats, and no Natasha. No Tony.
All this time, he's been living in a safety net. He realises now, in the way that he can only realise in his old age, is that he couldn't bear to live in a world without them. And so he stepped back, to a world where they were yet to even take their first breath.
Selfishly, he placed himself decades from their loss to placate himself. He gave in to temptation because he was weak. He could have stayed around to fix things. He should have.
But he's not sure he wouldn't do the same thing all over again, given half the chance. Given a time machine, and a universe aching with grief, he'd bet folding money that he'd jump straight back into familiarity all over again, exhaustion winning out against an endlessly raided sense of duty.
It's just gone five in the morning when he sees his phone light up with the text message.
Please tell me you're okay. X
He turns on the lamp by his bed and props himself up on his pillows to type a response. These days he has to hold the phone a little further away so he can see the characters.
I'm fine. Spaghetti and meatballs ready whenever you like - just say the word. X
The message lights up with two little blue ticks. She's seen it, and she starts typing, but then she stops, and starts again, then stops, for a little while this time.
He picks up the baton for her.
I'm so sorry you had to go through that. Don't ever think you didn't give enough - I know you'll have given everything you had. X
She doesn't type this time, but she calls him, a picture of her lighting up his screen, her frozen smile at odds with the weighty melancholy that has settled over the world.
"Nat," he says quietly, and she bursts into tears at the sound of his voice. He hears her feet padding on marble floors as she disappears to some quiet corner, away from Steve.
He doesn't remember falling asleep, but he must have, at some point, because he doesn't remember her leaving him that night.
She tells him everything, and he lets her, despite knowing it all already. He gives her soft, placating words, reminding her not to lose hope. It all feels a bit empty when the planet is three and a half billion people lighter.
"Tyranny doesn't last forever," he tells her. "Not while there are people like you in the world."
"I couldn't stop it. None of us could." Her words are jumbled, her voice raw from crying.
"It's not the end, Nat. You need to regroup, figure things out, work out a plan to move forward."
"Joe it's half the world."
"I know," he replies. "I know."
There's nothing to be said to her tonight, and so he tells her little things. Tedious anecdotes from the time they've been apart. Like how Mrs Atozzi had asked him to dinner with a twinkle in her eye that suggested she had plain forgotten about Mr Atozzi.
He'd managed to coax a laugh from her with that one, but then he hears her shiver.
"Nat, you should get back to bed. You must be exhausted."
She sniffs in agreement, and he hears her get to her feet, rising from whatever chilly corner she's found in the palace. She heads back to her room.
"Steve's asleep," she says. "But he lost Bucky all over again. And Sam." Her voice cracks with his name, and her breathing is muffled by the hand she presses to her face.
"Nat," he whispers. "Nat..." But he can't tell her anything. He can't tell her that one day, everything will be okay, because she won't be here to see it. He won't lie to her.
She sighs, her breath loaded with misery and inexpressible thoughts.
"I'll be here when you come back, Nat," he tells her. "Anything you need, it's yours."
It's a few days before she knocks on his door. It's eight in the evening, and she's exhausted. He platinum blonde hair is hanging limply around her face, and it's been a long long time since she took good care of herself.
He pulls her into the tightest hug he can manage, and she buries her face in his shirt, tears flowing immediately. She is inconsolable in a way that he doesn't remember ever seeing her. She must have kept it hidden from him all those years ago, conscious that her own grief would only add to his.
He cannot bear to see her break all over again.
And so he tries to put her back together. Little bit little.
He makes spaghetti. They eat in silence, and somehow, it doesn't taste anywhere near as good as usual. After dinner, they move to the sofa and share a chequered blanket across their legs. She has a mug of herbal tea in her hands, steam rising in spirals. He doesn't know if it will actually calm her nerves, but the heat of it will soothe her.
She talks him through it all again, through the events of the past few days too. Everyone is at an all time low. Tony is out of reach. He might be gone forever. Fury's pager is buzzing constantly, and it just won't stop. They have no idea how to decode the message - if there even is anything to decode.
When her voice gets dry, and she runs out of things to say, she curls up next to him. He puts an arm around her, his hand on her upper arm, thumb moving slowly back and forth across her skin in a soothing motion.
She carries the burdens of someone five times her age. But she's still so young. She had always seemed so world weary to him, way back when. She had always had so much to teach him, had always known what do. She'd always been able to figure something out.
And now, here he is, his skin liver spotted and crinkly like crepe paper. And he can't offer her anything.
He realises his mistake as soon as it slips out of his mouth. He tries to cover it with a "How's he doing?" but she's already sitting up and staring at him.
"I fucking knew it," she breathes, and she collapses back against him, linking her fingers with his. "Joe Rushman you fucking liar."
There's no bitterness in her tone. But it's something like relief. Maybe she figures he's proof. That something happens, in the end.
"You still smell the same," she says, her voice rough. She swallows the lump in her throat and continues. "And you have his eyes." She shakes her head, as though she can't believe it's taken her this long to figure it out. "I didn't realise until I saw you tonight...I was so used to you."
He casts his mind back to the time they'd spent on the run, ducking and diving between bustling cities or sparse landscapes. They'd shared cramped beds and attic rooms and shady hotel suites. And all that time she must have been looking, looking, looking.
He'd looked too. They'd formed a new level of closeness, to the point where they synchronised, waking at the same time, falling into step with one another without a second thought. He'd learned to make her coffee exactly how she liked it, and she'd realised that he preferred the left side of the bed, or the floor, depending on their luck.
"You gotta tell me," she says. "Do we get through this?"
She's so broken that he almost caves. He almost tells her everything - except for that one thing that he can't.
"Nat I can't tell you a god damn thing," he sighs. "But trust me when I say, you always do the right thing. Always."
She does. It's true. Except for the times when she's pissed him off. But even then, he's not exactly sure she's been wrong. But when it comes to this, when it comes to them, the Avengers? She's always done right. She's always been practical, pragmatic, and never loses sight of the end goal.
Nat twists to look up at him, chewing on her lower lip. There is a question in her mouth that she's anxious about voicing. But the words stumble out in their own time.
"What happened to you?"
"I got old."
She fixes him with a look. A look that tells him it's not a good enough answer. "What happened?"
"I got old," he repeats, meeting her gaze. She huffs, looking at the ceiling in dissatisfaction.
"It wasn't an accident, you living here."
He shakes his head. "Of course not."
This seems to satisfy her a little, and she adjusts her position, making herself comfortable. "Do you know that you own that exact same shirt, right now?"
He looks down at the chequered flannel. He has a vague memory of something similar. "I got it in the sale," he tells her.
"Yeah, I know," she replies. She must have heard this story from young Steve too. "You still look exactly the same, I can't believe I didn't..." she presses her hands to her face, breathing deeply. He knows her next question is brewing.
"Why did you move in here, next door to me?"
"Because I'm selfish," he tells. "And because I knew it had already happened, I guess."
"What do you mean, 'selfish'?" She frowns, tilting her head so her eyes can fix his with a challenging gaze. "You're the least selfish person I've ever met."
He clenches his jaw and looks away, forced to blink rapidly by the constriction in his throat. If only she knew.
"So what do you call stalking a woman you used to be friends with? Lying to her about who you are? Making her dinner just you get to spend time with her?"
"I call it love in a fucked up world," she replies, and she reaches up a hand to cup his face, her fingers rough, and still sporting a minuscule tremor from battle trauma. "You're one of the good guys, Steve. Always have been."
He shakes his head. There are so many 'should have been's that it hurts. It should have been him on Vormir. It should have been him who wielded the gauntlet. It should have been him who stuck around to help everybody through the aftermath.
He ran away to a quiet, comfortable corner of the universe where no one could text him.
She stays that night. He sleeps on the left side of the bed, and she sleeps on the right. In the morning, he makes her coffee.
She comes to him again after the Thanos debacle. She's at a loss, after having been given a glimmer of hope. It had all been snuffed out with a ravaged gauntlet and the swing of an axe.
He wraps a blanket around her shoulders and makes her a herbal tea. She is distraught and there's nothing he can say.
"Steve please," she says, voice cracked and raw. "Just tell me something."
He wonders if she knew, when she stood there, shifting her weight with nervous excitement. Whether that 'see you in a minute' had been one last little joke from her, but one he wasn't supposed to get until now.
But he doesn't see the funny side.
It would be just like her to keep it all a secret and hurtle towards her destiny without a single thought towards her own self preservation.
This is a slippery slope towards telling her everything, but he can't leave her like this. Not when she has five long, hard years ahead of her. He can't let her give up, not now.
"Keep at it," he murmurs. "Just...keep at it."
"For how long?" she asks.
"Until it's done," he replies, and she looks down into her tea at his response. There is a silent agreement between them that there will be no more questions, at least not tonight. He's given her far more than he should have, but when she sips her tea, it's with a steadier hand. Maybe it's all she needed.
She stays again, as she often does. She flits between him and his younger self, depending on what she needs - the comfort of the now, or the comfort of some sort of future, regardless of what it entails.
But then her visits start to peter out, and she spends more and more time at the compound. She calls him every day, her voice distant and distracted as she analyses data and disturbances.
"I still can't figure Carol out," she says to him one afternoon. He puts down the crossword that he's been intermittently paying attention to as Natasha's concentration drifts in and out.
"What do you mean?" he asks.
"Well, Nick adored her, apparently," she pauses, seemingly choosing her next words with care. "But...he never mentioned her. Not even to me. Nor you."
"Fury had more secrets than the rest of us put together," he replies. "He's probably just protective over her. Look at how powerful she is."
"You don't think it's weird she never came back home?"
"Home's what you make it, you know that." He traces the outline of the pattern on the arm of his chair. Carol is far too integral for him to feed any doubt that Nat has about her.
She sighs. "I guess I just don't get it. It's not what I'd do if I was a walking nuke."
"What would you do if you were a walking nuke?"
She pauses for a moment, a long moment, but then comes another sigh. "I don't know," she says. "Heavy burden."
"Yeah," he agrees. There's a buzz at the other end of the line.
"Oh, you're at the front gate," she tells him. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Take care Nat," he says, but she's already gone.
The years drag by. Things start to find a natural rhythm. Sort of. He doesn't have to take the subway to get a haircut any more, because someone's taken over the barbers two blocks over. A different lady brings his mail in the mornings, and he greets her cheerfully whenever he sees her.
But it all still weighs so heavily. No one has any sense of urgency anymore. New York has gone from the city that never sleeps to the city that doesn't quite see the point in anything.
The Time Heist is fast approaching. And he doesn't know what to do. And so he does what any sane man would do. He hits the grocery store on a night when he knows his younger self is running a particularly painful group therapy session. They will talk long into the night about their struggles, their obstacles to finding a sense of wholeness.
Natasha will be alone at the compound.
He hails a cab, and it takes him all the way upstate for a not inconsiderable sum of money. But he doesn't have anything else to spend it on, and he can't take it with him when he goes.
She's surprised to see him, and he dodges her questions by heading straight for the kitchen, ignoring the sick feeling of deja vu in his stomach. He should have thought more carefully about coming back here. In a week's time, this will all be destroyed. It will be rubble and dust, and it will be littered with the atoms of Thanos and his armies.
And she'll already be gone.
He makes dinner and she watches him, arms folded, leaning against the door jamb.
"Why now?" she asks.
"I missed you," he tells her, focusing on cutting tomatoes. He can't look at her. But he's had all this time, all these extra years he's given himself, and now he's down to the last week, to tell her what she deserves to hear from him.
Why has he failed to act until now?
He shuts down the inner voice and begins cutting onions instead. At least he has something to blame it on if he actually does start crying.
"Steve." It's not a question. It's a prompt. A reminder, that his answer is bullshit.
"I just wanted to see you," he says. He doesn't know whether it's old age or not, but the knife is shaky in his hand. "It's been such a long time, and if the mountain won't come to Mohamed..."
She pushes herself away from the doorframe, padding across the kitchen in her socks. She takes the knife from him and puts it down on the chopping board, before wrapping her arms around his middle and pulling him into a hug. She rests her head against his chest, and she must be able to hear his heart pounding. He must be so transparent to her.
"I just need you to know...because I know younger me won't say it any time soon. He's too much of an idiot."
"What do you wanna say?" she asks, and her voice is calm. Too calm.
He pulls away from her so he can look at her. He cups her face in his hands, her skin soft beneath his wrinkled palms. "I love you. Ever since I came out of the ice, you were my go-to person, my best friend. Everything we went through, I couldn't have asked for anyone better. You're...you're so important to me. And I need you to know how much you're loved. Not just by me, but by everybody. Our whole team. We're family."
She nods, chewing on her lower lip. Until finally, she utters a word. "Wow..." she says, pressing a hand against his chest and smoothing the fabric of his shirt. "You've really been storing that up, huh?"
He doesn't laugh. There's nothing funny about any of it now.
"If we're gonna...talk feelings," she says, navigating ground that is just as unsteady for her as it is for him. "Then, you know, I would think it goes without saying, but you're rejecting that idea..."
"You don't need to say anything you don't want to," he tells her. "I just need you to know that you're...perfect. I wouldn't change you for anything."
She smiles, albeit briefly, and ploughs on with her own words. "Steve, you've made me a better person. Before you, I just cared about getting the job done, but now...I care about what the job means, who I'm working for, what I'm trying to achieve. Your friendship has meant more to me than...anything. Ever."
He's not sure he believes that, and it must show in his face, because she argues with him.
"If Captain America can be friends with an ex-KGB agent, then maybe that ex-KGB agent ain't so bad...you see what I'm saying?"
He does, and he's about to reiterate his sentiments, tell her that she doesn't need his validation, when the spaghetti starts to bubble over.
Nat swears and turns down the heat, and Steve takes the opportunity to return to the onions, his eyes prickling.
There is a moment where the universe shifts slightly. It's a flicker, nothing more or less. He looks at the date and the time, already knowing what has occurred.
Clint has come back without her, and his younger self is falling apart, barely able to step down from the platform, his legs are so weighed down with callous grief.
He doesn't really know what to do now.
And so he sits in his armchair, and waits.
And then, much later, the universe shifts again, with much more purpose this time. In the distance, cars blare their horns. There's a rumble of background noise that he's not heard these five years, a hubbub that builds and builds and builds.
And then the boom, as, twenty miles away, Thanos destroys the compound.
He thinks he feels it, when the light of the arc reactor on Tony's chest flickers out. But it could be his imagination. All he knows is that the universe is safe, but a far worse place for losing both of them.
It should have been him.
He goes to her funeral. He's not worn the suit since Peggy's own service, and Natasha's is a far smaller affair. It's held in a quiet place, a few miles from the wreckage of the compound. His younger self had picked the spot - they used to go running here together.
Steve embraces him when he sees him, but when he pulls away, he looks down at him, and something changes in his expression.
He remembers this. He remembers thinking about the tasks that lay ahead - replacing the stones, trying - and failing - to bargain for Natasha's life on Vormir. And then that decision that lay before him, as he stood on that coarse black sand, winds whipping around him, one last vial of Pym particles in his hand. Go home, and rebuild, without her, without Tony? Or go and find Peggy, and build something with her?
With grief renewed and hope snuffed out, the choice had been easy, and final.
And he'd had a good life with Peggy. A wonderful life. He had spent decades with the woman he loved, and it had been beautiful.
His younger self is now faced with the same conundrum, and he's realising that the decision has already been made - that he doesn't have a choice in all of this.
Except maybe he does.
Time is messy, and complex, and sure, he's supposed to put all the stones back where they're supposed be. Sure, all of that is very clear.
But nothing is pre-set, just because two Steves are here right now.
"You have to do better than I did," he tells him. "I failed, miserably. You have to get her back. She deserves it."
"You're me," Steve breathes. "Joe, you're..."
"Shut up," he hisses, gripping Steve tightly by the forearm and guiding him away from the masses. Fury watches through one beady eye, but his attention is diverted by Carol handing him a strong drink.
"But doesn't this all mean - ?"
"No," he tells him firmly. "Steve, I've spent the last ten years of my life chasing after my best friend because I let her down when she needed me most. You're not gonna screw this up. You can't afford to."
His younger self looks at him with an earnest seriousness that he has long since shaken off. "Tell me everything," he says.
And he does. He breaks every rule in the book, because it's exactly what she would do.
His legs aren't made for pacing these days, but he knows what day it is. It's been seventy-five years since he walked that walk, and he has never felt those years as much as he does right now.
He hasn't gone along to watch - no one else even knows he exists - but he waits, and waits and waits.
The sky outside goes from white, to grey, to navy blue. He's switched the TV on and off a dozen times, unable to bear the news coverage featuring Tony's face, still, weeks later. Memorials are happening all over the world in his honour, murals spray painted on once-blank walls. Even the local grocery store has put up a photograph of him behind the customer service desk. A solitary battery operated candle illuminates his face in an unpleasant sort of way.
But he hasn't said anything. He just has to let people grieve, even if it makes his own grief all the harder to process.
He must have fallen asleep in his chair, because he awakes to the sound of tyres on the tarmac outside. Before he can get out of his chair, he hears the main door open. He hurries over to his own door, pulling it aside to see her, and him.
Their grins could outshine Times Square at Christmas.
Her hair is still in that single red braid, falling over her shoulder.
She steps forward, wrapping her arms around him and pressing her lips to his cheek. "It's okay," she tells him. "Everything's okay."
He holds her tightly, and he can't stop himself. All of his unprocessed grief comes flowing out of him. All this time he'd been thinking about how to say goodbye, when he could have just spent a bit more time trying to figure out how to save her.
He's such an idiot.
As though she can read his mind, she murmurs softly in his ear. "Two Steves are better than one," she tells him, and she kisses him again.
He feels lightheaded, and the pair of them help him back to his armchair. Steve sinks down onto the sofa, while Nat perches on the arm of his chair, his hand in hers.
"How d'you do it?" he asks. He has to know, has to understand where he went wrong.
"I spoke to Hank before I went," Steve explains. "Tried to really understand the wildness of this whole thing. You expected a straightforward swap - that she would be lost in 2014 and be brought back in 2014."
"But Bruce brought her back with the second snap. It's just that she was all the way on Vormir. I left supplies when I took the Soul stone back. Hank gave me two dozen extra vials of Pym particles, so I could try and narrow down where she might be. When, she might be, that is."
"I camped for a week before he finally showed up," Nat explains. "With that stupid fucking Skull hanging around."
Both Steves bristle at the mention of the Red Skull, but the moment passes. And then Nat asks the question that both of them have long since stopped considering.
"So when are you going back?"
Steve frowns. "Back where?"
"To Peggy," she says with a shrug, then looks down. "Live your life, all of that?"
Steve shakes his head. "He's already done that." He gestures across to his older counterpart. "I think I should stay here. You know, build a life right here."
The answer causes Natasha's grip on his hand to slacken a little, tension eking from her muscles. But then she turns her gaze on him, a smile playing at her lips.
"Have you eaten?" she asks. "I'm starving."
He knows the suggestion, hidden between the words. He hauls himself out of his seat and shuffles to the kitchen. Even after all this time, he'd do anything for her.
Luckily she's easy to please.
Spaghetti it is.