DISCLAIMER: Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers are the properties of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.

RATING: T (for language, violence)

SELF FROM SELF

11

The punch flew straight toward Steve's jaw, but he easily avoided it. Lithely he turned, side-stepped, and grabbed Thor's wrist, using the other's momentum to his advantage. Faster than the Asgardian could prevent, he twisted Thor's arm and slammed his own shoulder into his chest. Thor was flung up and over him, flying head over heels, and he hit the bottom of the boxing ring with a resounding thud. Steve was on top of him in a minute, pinning him. "Do you yield?" he asked.

Thor shook his hair from his face and blinked the stars from his eyes. He was surprised at first, but a broad smile overtook his face in short order. "Yes," he said. Steve nodded, quickly catching his breath and climbing off of Thor. He wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of one hand, offering the other to his fallen friend. Thor grasped it and pulled himself gingerly to his feet. "That is the third time this afternoon that you have bested me," he said.

"Who's counting?" Steve asked.

"At least you now sound winded," Thor said, panting himself. He crouched slightly, exerted and more worn from their sparring than Steve had ever seen him be before, bracing his hands on his knees. Steve watched him trying to catch his breath, patting him on the shoulder before walking to the edge of the ring. He hopped down and went to the refrigerator, pulling two cold waters from it. He tossed one at Thor. "Had I known giving you the nectar would make you unbeatable, perhaps I would have thought twice," he chided with half a grin before lifting the bottle to his lips. "You wielded my hammer, and now you bat me around like a fly."

Steve grimaced slightly. "Bruce doesn't think it's permanent." Even still, it was still remarkable. Two days ago he had nearly died, mortally wounded and frozen alive by the Frost Giant's dark magic, and now he was alive and well. More than alive and well. Beyond what he had been before, and the serum had brought him to the very pinnacle of human perfection. Ever since he'd awoken yesterday morning to a bright and sunny world, he felt different. It was difficult to explain, but he was stronger, faster, more powerful than he had been. He breathed deeper. He felt more. Every muscle was taut with energy, every nerve tingling with electrifying life. Physical exertion was nearly non-existent. He could push himself harder than ever before. His senses were sharper, more attuned to the world, and he could see, hear, smell, and taste with a stunning level of detail. Supposedly the medicine he'd been given on Asgard was meant for only the gods, but Thor had somehow managed to convince the king to allow Steve a few sips to save his life. It had done more than that. Bruce was amazed and flabbergasted at the results of the tests he'd done. He wanted to study more, believing the effects were likely transient, but Steve had politely declined. He'd had enough of being analyzed.

And he wasn't sure he wanted this gift. He wasn't sure he wanted the reminder of what had happened. There was no scar on his chest where he'd been stabbed, but he would always remember the pain, how horrific it had felt that have that poisonous ice inside him. To have it creep over his body and steal his heat and seep into his muscles and skin and bones. To have it drive into his heart.

He didn't want to think about it.

"Steve?"

He focused on Thor, who was watching him intently. Thor's face was open with concern, and there was a glint of grief and shame in his eyes that he was trying adamantly to hide. "I should not have made light of it. I am sorry."

Steve shook his head and took a huge drink of water. "No, it's not that."

"Then what is it? You have seemed troubled these last days, certainly with good reason. What happened was traumatizing. We worry for you. I worry for you," Thor said. He as well jumped down from the ring. The gym seemed huge and vacuous with just the two of them. "I told you before that you need not suffer in solitude. I meant that. If you wish to talk–"

"I don't think I can," Steve said. His heart ached more and more with every word Thor spoke. His friend looked upon him sadly, perhaps a bit hurt that Steve would not confide in him, and he couldn't help but be ashamed. But he didn't feel ready. He was just overwhelmed by it all. He didn't remember much of the horrible day he'd been wounded, just fleeting moments filled with agony and terror. That crushing cold consuming him. That, of course, took him back to his last moments alive on the Valkyrie before he'd sunk down into the ice and ocean. After he'd woken in Stark Tower he'd been immediately and miserably aware of memory and reality and dream and the harsh differences among them. This newfound mental clarity allowed him no repose, no escape from it all.

He'd died in 1945 and awoken in the future.

And in this future, the life he'd shared with Peggy had never happened. In this future, she was dead, and they had never even had their date.

He couldn't even convince himself the slightest bit that the dream or hallucination or… whatever it had been was real. He knew better, this firm, unyielding voice in his mind denying his heart any shred of hope. It had seemed so real, vivid and powerful, and he could almost hear Peggy's voice as surely as he heard Thor's. He could almost feel her in his embrace, dancing the night away, as he felt the clothes on his body or the air against his skin. He could feel her lips against his as he watched Natasha smile at him. He could smell the light scent of her perfume with every breath he took. This other life he'd lived was a phantom, a ghost that lingered in everything he saw and heard and touched and thought.

He didn't feel strong enough to deal with it. It was easier to just not think about it, because beneath his calm exterior, there was a storm building. A storm of grief and anger and hurt. The others were worried about him, as Thor had said, but thus far no one had been brave enough to openly approach him. They regarded him with helplessness and sympathy (he hoped it was sympathy, at least, and not pity), uncertain of how to help him. He didn't know how to help himself, or if he even wanted to. It was simply safer to keep silent about it, even if it hurt to swallow the pain and the grief and even if he felt that storm getting stronger and stronger. It was easier to pretend nothing had happened.

Fondly Thor grasped his shoulders with both hands, his eyes shining in compassion. "Steven, you must grieve. You loved her." Steve stiffened and couldn't meet his gaze. "It is not weakness."

There was such a rise of anger within him that he clenched his jaw to keep himself still. "Thor, I just… I need some time." Thor seemed disappointed at that. "I know you mean well, and it's not you. It's me. I'm sorry."

"You've no cause to apologize."

"Yes, I do. I don't think I thanked you. I know what you did for me. I know what you gave up." Steve gave a small, lopsided grin. "So thank you. Seems crazy that I was frozen alive twice in my life and survived, but I guess there's been crazier."

Thor shook his head. "As Stark would say, 'we deal in crazy'." It was certainly true. Craziness and miracles and everything in between. Thor offered him a huge, disarming grin that stretched across his bearded face. "And I gave up nothing," he answered. "It was worth far more to have you safe."

Steve nodded, but he frankly didn't want hear more about how important he was, about how essential Captain America was to the Avengers and to the world. It reminded him far too much of the innumerable times he'd been told that in the past, and all the pain that conviction had caused. Bucky. Howard. Peggy. He didn't know if he was worth it or not. He didn't care. So many people in his life had thought this about him. Deep down inside, he was still just a kid from Brooklyn, and he just wanted to do what was right. He didn't want anyone else to suffer on his account.

Thor downed the rest of his water and tossed the bottle into a recycling bin against the far wall. "I believe the others were ordering dinner. Something called 'tie food'." The God of Thunder shook his head quizzically. "Does that imply that we must dress in formal attire for this meal?"

Steve smiled. "No. Just dress normal." Thor looked doubtful. "It's good. You'll like it."

Thor nodded, pulled a towel from the back of one of the chairs, and wiped his face. "Then we should join them. A shower is in order first, though." He draped the towel across the back of his neck and headed for the door. He got halfway there before he realized Steve wasn't with him. "Steve?"

Steve winced a little as he turned away, dreading an interrogation or debate. As hungry as he was, he just didn't feel ready to go up. "You go on ahead," he said. "I'll be there in a minute."

Thor paused at the door, and that clenched, worried expression instantly returned to his face. He looked as though he did wish to argue or dissuade Steve from solitude, but he thought better of it. He respected Steve enough not to question him or belittle him or smother him. So he nodded and smiled comfortingly. "Whenever you wish. I will ensure some of the meal is saved for you."

"Thanks."

He was alone. The gym was silent, and the steady beat of Steve's heart seemed thunderous. His body tingled with energy; it was almost difficult to stand still. Vivid images prodded at his consciousness. He knew he could sink into them if he wanted, if he let go. But it wouldn't be any truer now than it had been. The strangeness of it all was aggravating. He felt completely whole, yet a huge chunk of his heart was missing like this gaping pit in his chest that throbbed relentlessly and hungrily for something to fill it. He felt completely alive, but he wasn't at peace. Something inside him was still dying. He didn't know what to make of what he'd experienced, the things that didn't seem entirely real but had happened and the things that felt more real than anything he'd ever known but hadn't. He was fundamentally cheated yet so incredibly blessed. He didn't know what he wanted or how he should feel.

As he stood there, though, he started to feel angry. Furious. Suddenly it was too much to keep it all inside. He flung his water bottle against the wall. The plastic ruptured on impact, liquid spraying everywhere. He stared at the hole in the drywall, at the wet dust sliding down to the floor. His chest was heaving. His heart was breaking. The water dripped like tears.

"Temper, temper," came an oily voice from behind him.

Steve whirled to find Loki emerging from the shadows on the other side of the gym. The God of Mischief was smiling in amusement, his hands clasped behind his back. Steve clenched his fists and thought to fall into a fighting stance and order JARVIS to inform the others. With this enhanced strength and vitality coursing through him, he knew he could stand toe to toe with Loki and stop him if need be. But something told him that Loki hadn't come to fight. Past encounters have dictated that he should act quickly to summon the Avengers and capture the estranged god before he engaged in his next plan to dominate and destroy, but he didn't. He couldn't explain it. He prayed he wasn't making a mistake.

Steve shook his head and then looked back at the weeping hole in the wall. "Why am I not surprised to see you," he muttered disdainfully.

"For the same reason that I am not surprised to find you alive," Loki answered. "We are both of us who we are. We cannot be anything else."

"Is that your way of telling me I'm supposed to suffer?"

Loki smiled that aggravating smile of his. Any sign of the unhinged monster who had tried to murder him on Asgard was gone. He was as cool and calculating as ever. "If the shoe fits," he said. "I believe that is one of your Midgardian sayings, is it not?" Steve grunted and looked away. The rage came hotter and harder, and holding himself completely still was all he could do to not flat-out attack the other. "Truly you think yourself as nothing more than a glorified shield. You willingly plant yourself between devastation and the innocent. You even do this for the not-so innocent, without a second thought. And you do it over and over again, no matter how much it hurts. Truly, Captain, you–"

"Shut up," Steve snapped. He didn't need to hear this. Not again. "I highly doubt your opinion of me has changed since the last time you told me how pathetic you think I am, so cut to the chase. What the hell do you want? Make it quick or I'll change my mind about getting Thor down here."

Loki continued smirking, but Steve was perceptive. He saw something glint in his green eyes, something like fear. Something like hurt. "You needn't be so confrontational. I only came to ask you if you enjoyed my gift."

"What are you…" Then it dawned on him. Loki pinning him down as the ice had consumed him. Loki's green eyes, boring into his. Loki's presence inside his mind, inside his heart, inside his soul. He hadn't been trying to kill him at all. The sudden realization washed Steve in unsettling chills, and he abruptly felt weak and ill. He nearly staggered. "It was you. You made me…"

Loki's smile grew impossibly wider. It was dripping in self-gratification. "So there is a brain under all that brawn."

It was crushing. "How?"

Loki's eyes flashed in pride, and he opened his hands to Steve. "They do call me the God of Lies for a reason."

That confused storm that been swirling and threatening inside for the last two days suddenly roared and burst. His control snapped and he was across the gym in a blink. "You bastard," he snarled. The heat rushing over him was unbearable, a fire burning him, scorching the planes of his thoughts until there was nothing left but an uncontrollable sense of violation. He wanted to hit the smug smirk off of Loki's face. He wanted to destroy him. "You son of a bitch! You had no right!"

Loki remained unwavering even in the face of Steve's wrath. "I gave you what you wanted above all else. You desired nothing so much as the life you could have had had you not sacrificed yourself. A life with her."

"But it wasn't real!" Steve said. His voice was rough with emotion. He felt like a caged animal, one kicked and teased and tormented too many times. His body was crawling with restless energy he could hardly restrain. If the wounds on his heart had healed at all, this had torn them wide open again and he was bleeding. "None of it was real!"

"Oh, please," responded Loki dismissively. "What does it mean to be real? Real to you?" He shook his head in disgust and pity. "You certainly enjoy your own misery. You and I are too alike in that regard."

"You're a goddamned liar! You and I are nothing alike! You don't know anything about me!"

"I know everything about you. I looked through all your placating lies and fake assurances and into your heart and saw its desires. I gave you the life you wished you had, and you lived it."

"No, I didn't," Steve corrected harshly. "It was all in my head."

"You lived it. You experienced it. You felt it, and it felt real, did it not? Vivid and colorful and teeming with truth and emotion. Beautiful, even. Every minute, your marriage, your children… Everything you shared with her felt real."

"But it wasn't!" Steve argued. His eyes stung with tears that he refused to cry.

"Reality is a matter of perspective," Loki explained.

Steve could hardly believe what he was hearing. "You vindictive monster," he hissed, struggling with everything he had to hold onto his emotions. "Why the hell did you do this to me? Why torture me like that?"

"Torture?" Loki sounded genuinely affronted. "I did not do this to hurt or spite you, Captain. Do not be such a fool."

Steve looked away. He tried to breathe through the pain and rage, tried not to succumb to it. It, like everything else, was so much brighter and hotter. Silence came, thick and heavy and suffocating. Loki's voice was soft and seemingly innocuous. Gentle, if he could be such a thing. "You cling to your grief, but you do it irrationally. Why not embrace what I gave you? It was what would have happened, as true as it could be. You will never come to a closer realization of what you lost. Why shun that? Why languish in this future you hate–"

"I don't hate it."

Loki didn't look at all convinced. Frankly, Steve wasn't either. Some days he thought living in this time with the Avengers at his side, this new team that had become his friends and family, could be alright. It could all be alright, and he could even be happy and content. They didn't replace what he'd lost, but they were something wonderful and precious in their own right. But other days… It was too hard to let go and move on. It was too hard to grieve for everything he'd lost and everything he could never have. "Why suffer with your longing?" Loki asked. "She's dead. She cannot be brought back to you. At least this way you have memories of what could have been. Do you think she would deride you for that? Do you think you dishonor her by enjoying a good dream?"

Steve was breathing harshly through clenched teeth. He dropped his burning eyes to his feet. He honestly didn't know what to think. It had felt so real and vivid that it seemed impossible that it all had been an illusion. No, not an illusion. A lie. But it was wrong to think that. He couldn't throw it all away, even if he wanted to. He just couldn't do it. Loki was right; it meant too much to him. He swallowed the bitterness in his mouth, struggling to find some sense of calm.

"Would it be so wrong, Captain, to simply take a selfish moment?" He could feel Loki staring at him. "Enjoy it. Savor it. I would much appreciate it if you did rather than stupidly lamenting it all." Steve didn't know if this was some kind of trap or trick or if Loki was just abusing him for the sake of his own entertainment. "I gave you this gift in return for what you gave me. It was a token of gratitude. A life for a life. We are even."

He looked up. Loki was gone like he'd never been there at all.

The gym was silent again.

A slow sigh. Another deep breath centered him. And another. The minutes slipped away. The storm quieted like a taut cord loosening inside him. Ever so slowly his body relaxed, and his heart ceased straining in his chest. Ever so slowly his mind sunk into a quiet, calm place. It was all there, deep inside him, safe and precious, and no matter how it had come to be there, it was his.

"JARVIS?" he said softly.

"Yes, Captain?" The AI's gentle voice echoed in the stillness.

"Do you think you could help me get to London?"

It was time to embrace the truth.


It was a pleasant spring day. The sky was blue, the air warm and sweet with new life. Trees were lush with verdant leaves that danced in the gentle breeze. The grass of the cemetery was young and springy, and flowers shone brightly along the pathways that led the living among the dead.

Steve stood by himself, his hands tucked into the pockets of his leather jacket. He looked down at the gravestone, unblinking, unthinking. Unfeeling.

Margaret Carter. 1918-2014. Beloved wife, mother, grandmother. Not his wife. Not the mother of his children. Somehow seeing those words engraved into the stone didn't hurt as much as he feared it would. He'd been terrified of the pain the entire flight from New York, building it up into this monster of sorrow and madness in his mind. It wasn't so sharp, really. It wasn't anything as bad as he'd imagined.

He'd laid a bunch of tulips on the ground before the grave, pretty and bright against the shining gray. He hadn't known what kind of flowers to buy. The last few times he'd visited Peggy in the nursing home she'd had tulips around her, red and yellow and pink. Gifts from her children and grandchildren, she'd said. And the Peggy of his dreams had loved them as well. Tulips in the flowerbeds around their house. Tulips in the kitchen.

It wasn't real, but it was, and he was okay with that. He was okay with how much his dreams had borrowed from reality and how much reality would now always be touched by his dreams.

"Hi, Peg," he whispered. His throat ached. There was so much he wanted to say, things he had thought and agonized over, but now he couldn't remember any of it. "I'm sorry I kept you waiting. I'm sorry I broke our date."

He'd apologized before. Sometimes she'd remembered that he had, and other times she hadn't. She'd sobbed softly and brushed aside his words and cupped his face with a teary smile, so very glad that he'd come to her after such a long time. That he was alive. He'd held her gnarled hands in his own as he'd sat beside her bed and watched her sleep. All around there were pictures in frames, scenes from her life. It was a wonderful life she'd lived, a life filled with love and accomplishment. She'd married a man from the war, another soldier, a good man, and had his children. She'd built SHIELD with Howard at her side. She'd helped to craft this future in which he found himself. He could never begrudge her any of that, no matter how it hurt. "I, uh…" He stammered and swallowed the lump lodged in his throat. "I just wanted to come and say goodbye. And to give you this back."

He pulled the wrinkled, folded papers from his pocket. Her letter to him. He hadn't wanted to look at it, afraid of what it would say. She'd obviously written it years ago, long before he'd been found. His heart was such a mess of things, of yearning and sadness and desperation, that he didn't think he'd have the strength to accept the finality. Tears filled his eyes. He couldn't make himself forget it, though. He needed to do this. He needed to know what she had wanted to say to him. The yellowed paper blurred, and he smiled weakly. "Should probably read it first, though, right?"

There was no answer save the breeze brushing through his hair. He unfolded the letter. Her beautiful cursive painted the page.

Dear Steve,

I don't know why I'm writing this. I'm supposed to be getting ready right now, but as I looked at my wedding dress, I just couldn't put it on. I'm too afraid. You know how I hated to ever admit that, but I can't lie to myself. For the first time since the war, I'm terrified. The man I'm going to marry is a good man, and I love him very much. He loves me as well, so much so that I can't imagine ever losing him. We will be good for each other. But he isn't you. I know it's not right of me to wish him to be, but I'm sitting here doing it all the same. Unfortunately hearts aren't always willing to give up the things they desire most.

But I'm starting a new life today. I think I can do it. I will put on that dress and get married and finally close the door on the past. It's silly, but I've kept up this dream that somehow you'll find your way back to me. Everybody else has given up and moved on, but I haven't been able to. I've never told anyone, but I went there. To the Stork Club on the Saturday night after I lost you at eight o'clock on the dot. You weren't there, and I knew you wouldn't be, but I went all the same. I had to. I dream sometimes that I'm there and you're there and we dance all night. It's an impossible dream, but the sweetest I've ever known. I can still keep that dream alive in my heart, and I will, but I can't let it control me any longer. I don't think you would have wanted me to waste my life waiting for something that can never be. I put my faith in that. I have to.

I pray that you're alive. I know in my heart that you are. Someday you'll come back. Maybe you'll remember me as I remember you today and every day. Maybe someday you will read this. I hope that you will. I'll never let go of that hope. You must promise me that you'll live your life, no matter what happens. You deserve so much happiness. More than anything I wish I could have been the one to give it to you. Please promise me that you will never forget that I love you, now and forever.

With all my heart,
Peggy

A beat. A breath. The saltiness of tears on his lips. Steve looked up to the blue sky, to the white clouds and the bright sun. He breathed deeply with a rush of emotion, of pride and love and sorrow. A million memories floated through his mind, blown on the gentle breeze. Peggy's dark eyes and silky hair. Her soft, strong hands, clasped in his own. Her body, warm against his. Her lips pressed upon him in countless kisses. Her voice, rich and wild with passion and light with happiness and serious with worry and filled with love. A lifetime of moments that never were.

Somehow it was enough. He knew what he was supposed to do.

Steve wiped his face with the back of his hand and folded the letter. He slid it into the envelope and crouched before Peggy's grave. He set the letter beside the flowers. Then he reached into his other pocket and felt the smooth cover of his compass. He pulled it out, sweeping his fingers over it one last time. He put it down in the grass, too. "I promise," he said. "Now and forever." He braced his forehead to the cool stone and closed his eyes and let her go.

He was walking after that, his hands in his empty pockets. Blinking back tears. Feeling everything. Thinking that this would be okay. It would all be okay.

Over a little hill and down by the street, his friends were waiting for him. Tony and Bruce. Natasha and Clint. Thor smiled, stepping closer as Steve approached. He slid his arm across Steve's shoulders and drew him into a comforting hug. "Are you alright?"

Steve pulled away and looked into his friend's deep eyes and found only loyalty and love. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'm fine."

"Do you wish to stay longer?"

He thought about it, but he felt warm and whole and happy. He couldn't ask for anything more than that. "No. It's alright now." Steve smiled. "Come on. Let's go home."

THE END

I want to thank everyone who read this story, and I hope you all enjoyed it. I especially want to express my gratitude to the reviewers for their wonderful comments. It was a pleasure to write for all of you, as always. And special thanks to my beta-reader, E.

If you are interested, I have a slew of other Avengers and Captain America stories. Check out my profile page for a complete list!

Feel free to follow me on Twitter and tumblr (thegraytigress) for story updates, announcements, and discussions!