I apologize ahead of time.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
A Million Dreams
"I think of what the world could be,
A vision of the one I see.
A million dreams is all it's gonna take.
A million dreams for the world…"
A Million Dreams – Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman)
The silence was deafening.
Even worse than the screeching of the machines that were trying to keep her alive.
The void of sound was just so…final.
Steve was a practical man, even if he never knew how to take no for an answer. Never knew when to stay down when it was good for him.
Being born and bred in Brooklyn, New York seemed to have a lasting effect, even with the change of the times.
A bullet had been all it took to take away his fiancée. A single bullet, perfectly aimed, had lodged itself so deep in her heart that there was no hope of getting it out.
But hell, he'd tried.
He'd done everything in his power to help the doctors. Donating pint after pint of blood to save her.
It just wasn't enough.
"You gotta get outta here, punk."
"What's the use?" Steve's voice was raspy from all the yelling. It burned in the worst way, but he didn't want to soothe it. Didn't want to risk forgetting.
Bucky shook his head, looking down at the blood-soaked sheets uneasily. "Ellie wants to see you. She's worried about her papa."
"Send her home with Clint," he said gruffly, resisting the urge to cringe. "Laura will look after her."
"It's not the same and you know it."
She and Laura had been best friends. Swapping Avenger stories, baking mounds of everything sweet at every chance they had. He and Clint had become closer because of it, nearly as close as he and Bucky. It was a type of family that he needed after…waking up.
"You want me to meet Clint?" Steve asked, scratching his head in confusion. "Honey, I work with him."
She merely shook her head, her riotous curls cascading around her joyful face. "I know you already know him, but I want you to know him. He's like my BFF."
"Best friend," she shrugged, dancing around the kitchen and pulling a pan of banana bread out of the oven. "I think you'll really like him."
"I'll take her to Barton's," Bucky relented, shaking the blond out of his reverie, "Get your head on straight, punk. She…she'd want you to be there for Ellie."
Not tripping over her combat boots when he walked in the door of their apartment was the strangest feeling in the world. Not seeing her purse piled on top of her coat on the small table next to the door was even stranger.
Steve was used to silence when he was young.
It was only he and his ma growing up and they were both quiet. He'd draw most of the time and she'd read an old, beat-up novel that she'd reread a thousand times over. The most excitement he got was when he met Bucky and regularly got himself into scrapes that he struggled to get out of.
When she came into his life, it was like the world had sound again. She was loud and opinionated and ambitious.
As soon as Dr. Jane Foster began calling Stark Tower home, he couldn't escape her curvy, little assistant. She took her coffee the same way that he did – black, of course – and she was sure to always have a pot brewing in the common area when he got back from his morning runs.
"You should come running sometime."
She snorted and looked at him incredulously. "Me? Run? I know you're from a different time and talking about the bust I'm currently carrying is inappropriate, but they're exactly the reason why I don't run. Besides, if you see me running, you should probably run, too, because that means something's chasing me."
He smiled at the memory. Exercise definitely wasn't something she was good at, but she managed to get a work out when she was on top of him. Or under him. Or in front of him. She wasn't picky at how she decided to…work out.
There was a half-empty cup of coffee on the dining room table and Steve had to really think. Was it just this morning that they were locked away with Ellie in their apartment? It seemed like so much longer. So much longer since they ventured downstairs to get some ice cream for their little girl's birthday…
A knock on the door pulled him away from his thoughts and it was more for formality because before he knew it, he had his arms full of tiny brunette scientist.
"Oh, Steve, I'm so sorry!"
The blond patted her back awkwardly and swallowed against tears. "Thanks, Jane." They stood for a moment before he offered, "Can I get you anything? Coffee?"
Jane pulled back and wiped the mascara from under her eyes. "Shouldn't I be asking you that? Fuck, Steve, you lost…you lost so much. Do you need me to stay with you? Or what about Clint or Bucky? Where's Ellie? Oh, God, Ellie…"
A pang tore through his chest at the thought of his daughter. "She's with Clint. She's going to Iowa so she can see Laura and her cousins."
She nodded. Peering up at him, she quietly asked, "Have you given any thought to the…arrangements?"
"We," he swallowed the lump that formed in his throat, "We never talked about it."
His girl didn't have family. The Avengers were her family. And, as much as death and destruction seemed to overshadow the tower, they'd never gotten around to having wills or final wishes. It all seemed pretty stupid now.
"Do you want me to call Clint? I know he's on the jet, but…" She trailed off, not really sure where her offer was going. She knew science and anomalies and analyzing data, not dealing with the death of her best friend.
Steve picked at the stray thread on his shirt, ignoring how the blue plaid was now stained a brownish-red. The crook of his elbow was sore from all the needles that had fought their way into his skin to take his blood for the transfusions. But the ache didn't matter. Not when it felt like his chest was collapsing from the inside.
"I'll call you when I figure it out, Jane. Thanks. Y'know, for sticking around."
Jane nodded. "She's my best friend, Steve. Was…my best friend."
Steve had read about depression when he woke up, worried that he was displaying symptoms from having to adjust to the new world so quickly. So, he was aware that he needed antidepressants. Or something that could take some of the edge off.
Alcohol had no affect. He had no interest in drugs. Meaningless sex was never something he practiced. Death was an enticing thought, but he had Ellie to think about. His daughter…
"Steven Grant Rogers! You are never touching me again!" She screamed, her nails digging into the strong thighs that were bracketed around her. "I swear to God!"
Bruce looked up from between her thighs, a crease forming between his eyebrows. "Just a few more big pushes and you can meet your daughter."
She screamed louder, bearing down with all she had.
Steve had to admit that she never looked more beautiful. Her curls were plastered to her neck with sweat. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes alight with determination. The lipstick that she'd painted onto her lips at the beginning of the day was still holding on valiantly and he thought that was an apt metaphor for how well she was doing.
"C'mon, honey, don't you want to be home? Curled up on that god-awful couch you insisted on salvaging from your ratty New Mexico dealership?"
She huffed. "You love that couch and you know it."
"Almost as much as I love you," he whispered, bracing his back against the gurney and rubbing his large hands up and down her trembling thighs. "You got this, honey. Push!"
Steve shook his head. Getting her pregnant had been a surprise of the highest order, but he never regretted it. Bucky nearly took his head off when he brought up marrying her.
"Look, Stevie. Offering to marry her just 'cause she's pregnant is stupid – "
" – she's a modern girl, punk. You can hyphenate the last name if she doesn't want the baby to have yours." Bucky shook his head. "But asking that dame to marry ya just 'cause she's pregnant is asking for trouble. Don't try to be her white knight."
He'd waited exactly three months after Ellie's birth to pop the question. He didn't get down on one knee or plan some extravagant party. He asked Thor for her hand and the God had readily agreed.
Steve's hand paused on the doorframe. He had intended to knock, but seeing his little girl curled on his girl's chest had literally taken his breath away.
She had taken to motherhood like a duck to water. Steve had been prepared to share midnight feedings and dirty diapers and lack of sleep, but his girl had never asked. She got up every single morning, made breakfast and coffee, took care of their daughter, and everything in between. He was partly convinced that she was the superhero and not him.
"Hey," she whispered, her blue eyes opening and finding him lingering in the doorway. "Do you need anything?"
He chuckled and meandered into the room. "I should be asking you that. How long has she been out?"
She stretched and looked at the blonde bundle drooling on her chest. "About an hour."
She looked up at him, a confused look flittering across her face. "What?"
"Marry me," he repeated. A smile tugged at his lips and he pulled out the ring that had been burning a hole in his pocket for the past year. It was simple, vintage, his mother's. "I'll follow you into anything, honey. Might as well follow you into parenthood. Marriage. Our lives together."
She laughed, a loud, excitable sound that woke up the child on her chest. "All you had to do was ask."
Steve didn't even notice that he'd dropped the mug he'd been drinking from until the spilt liquid soaked through his socks. Ridiculous frog ones that she'd bought him for Christmas.
He sighed. He missed his girl. He missed his daughter.
Her funeral had been exactly what she would've wanted. Tony gave a eulogy that embodied her wit and snark. Jane blubbered over the time they got drunk in New Mexico and stole a police cruiser. Clint bragged about bailing them out of jail. Thor spoke of how his lightening sister was the bravest, fiercest warrior that he'd ever come across in his lifetime. Natasha reminisced about how nice it was to have a sister, even if it wasn't by blood.
It was perfect.
Until Ellie had started wailing about her momma and it was all Steve could do to get through the rest of the funeral.
"It's all right, Ellie," Steve murmured quietly, bouncing her on his hip as she struggled to get out of his arms.
"I want momma!" She screeched.
And Steve understood. He wanted her, too.
"C'mere, Ellie. Let's go look for your ma's books," Bucky said, easily taking the squirming child from his best friend's arms. He locked eyes with Steve and quietly said, "I'll keep her tonight."
The blond couldn't do anything more than give a forced smile.
"Ellie's been asking about you. I don't know how much longer Laura can keep her occupied at the farm."
Steve stared at the ceiling of the lounge, his eyes tired and itchy. He couldn't recall the last time he slept. The last time he ate. If he was called out on a mission right now, he'd end up collapsing and taking the whole damned team down with him. He wasn't any good in the condition he was in.
Clint sighed. "Any plans on coming back?"
"Coming back where?" There was so much he'd abandoned in the past month.
"Iowa. The Avengers. Anywhere but the tower, really."
The blond heaved himself up and looked at the archer. "I'm not sure what I can do, Clint. I've…tried talking to Sam and Bucky about everything, but they don't know what to say. Nat's been holed up in her room…" His voice broke. "I lost my girl, Clint. I lost her to some stupid asshole who decided to shoot up a ma and pop ice cream shop. What was the point?" He stood up and paced. "What was he trying to achieve? I didn't have my shield. I didn't have a weapon. She fucking threw herself on top of Ellie so she'd be safe. She took a bullet for our daughter when it should've been me!"
Clint looked pained. "Steve – "
"It should've been me," he whispered, collapsing back on the couch and cradling his head in his hands. "I shouldn't have been so concerned with the civilians. I should've protected my family. I failed."
The weight of the world was crashing down on him. He allowed the tears to fall freely even though he knew they wouldn't change anything. Wouldn't bring her back from death.
Steve Rogers had failed his mission.
A loud metal clang reverberated through Tony's office, causing the man in question to look up from his tablet in shock.
"And to what do I owe this pleasure, Cap?"
"I'm retiring," Steve said, motioning to the shield lying on the table between them. "From the Avengers. From saving the world. I should've done it three years ago, but…no time like the present."
Tony nodded. "I've been waiting for this, honestly. Pepper told me to give you time, but…we've been expecting it. I've already talked to Coulson, made sure that your retirement fund was deposited as well as…her life insurance. Everything's been handled, Steve." He stood up and walked to the other side of the desk, a sad smile on his face. "We all loved her, y'know. You're not the only one grieving her. Just…remember that little girl of yours. She's going to need her dad."
Clint looked down at the papers in confusion. He'd signed enough papers from working with SHIELD and Stark Industries to know that something was up. "What is this?"
"Adoption papers. I want you and Laura to adopt Ellie," Steve said. His voice sounded a lot more sure than he actually was.
The archer shoved the papers away from him. "She's not my daughter, Steve. She knows you. Knows her family."
"You don't want her?"
"That's not what I'm saying – "
"Then sign the papers, Barton. Legally adopt Ellie and take care of her – "
"I heard you're retired now. That you're taking off." Clint looked down at the pen Steve had thrust at him. "I think Ellie should go with you." He looked around the sparse apartment, noticing that most of it was boxed up or already gone. "Where you headin'? I can – "
"I'm not comin' back. I'm not…this is the last mission, Clint. I need to know my daughter…our daughter is growing up in a place where she's going to be loved and wanted. I look at her and I see her mother. I'm not…I wasn't cut out for this stuff."
Clint laughed. "And you think I was? I'm a carnie that's a good shot. I joined the army and got nabbed by SHIELD. Laura literally fell into my lap and we started poppin' out kids before I could blink." He shook his head. "If any of us were ready to be a dad, it's you. Why do you think she picked you? Hmm? Besides the fact that she had a crush on Captain America since she was seven. She loved you, Steve. And she loved Ellie. She wouldn't want you to give up."
"I'm almost a hundred years old." And it was a fact. He'd been feeling his age more and more, especially since Bruce said the serum was deteriorating.
"Steve, can I talk to you for a minute?"
The blond dutifully followed the doctor into his lab, ignoring the sinking feeling that was settling into his gut. "What's up, Bruce?"
Bruce settled his glasses on his nose and looked over a chart he'd flipped open. "You came to me a few weeks ago because of normal aches and pains. I took some blood and ran a few tests and there's not really an easy way to say this…"
"Just say it."
"I don't think Dr. Erskine meant for the serum to be as long-acting as it has been. There's a reason why you're the only one that survived with all your faculties." He paused and sighed heavily. "The serum is dying off, replacing your mutated cells with normal ones. Ones normal for your age. Essentially, your body is aging at a much quicker pace than what's expected given your…stasis in the ocean."
"So…I'm dying," Steve summed up, nodding in understanding.
"To put it bluntly, yes. I don't know at what rate, more tests would need to be done, but I'd give it six months. Maybe a year."
"I can't keep her. I wanted her to go to you and Laura seeing as you're her godparents, but I can ask Tony and Pepper if you don't feel comfortable – "
"Of course we'll take her. Just…don't do anything stupid."
Steve looked at the small girl curled up in the large bed. He'd brought the last of her things as well as some of her mother's things – including his mother's ring – so she'd have some stuff to remember them by.
Her hair was blonde, a few shades darker than his. Her eyes, when she was awake, were a perfect mixture of his and his girl's. Small freckles littered the bridge of her nose and matched the pattern that was mapped out on his right shoulder.
Eleanor Kathleen Rogers was the most beautiful little girl that he'd ever seen in his life. He'd never been happier than finding out that his girl was pregnant, that she wanted to keep his baby. And then Ellie was born and it was like the heavens were shining down on him and his little family and he knew his ma would be so proud.
He took a seat on the bed next to her, stroking her hair and smiling when her bright blue eyes opened.
"Hi, baby. I didn't mean to wake you up."
Ellie wasted no time crawling into her father's lap and looking up at him happily. "I missed you."
"Ellie…daddy's gotta go away for a while," he said slowly, hoping that she understood.
"But…momma went away, too."
Steve swallowed hard. "I know, baby. Daddy's going to go be with momma. You're going to stay here with Uncle Clint and Auntie Laura."
A little crease appeared between her pale brows. "You come back?"
His heart broke more if it was even possible. "Daddy's not coming back, baby. You're gonna live here, okay?"
Her lower lip quivered. "But I'll miss you."
Steve held her tighter, tucking her head underneath his chin. "I know, baby. I'll miss you, too. But you'll be safe here. Uncle Clint will protect you from all the monsters under your bed and Uncle Tony will come over with new toys for you."
"Even Uncle Bucky. He'll come over here and you'll spend time with him at the tower when you're in New York."
She nodded and laid her head on his chest. "I love you, daddy."
"I love you, too, Ellie. Always."
The last HYDRA cell burnt out without a problem. Steve had acquired intel from Natasha about a final cell that had cropped up in Romania and he wasted no time destroying it. Singlehandedly.
He'd locked all the entrances, overrode every single code to unlock the doors. At the center of the base was the file room. The room that Steve had rigged to blow up as soon as the timer stopped counting down.
He sat in a metal chair in the middle of it, watching the blinking red lights count down in silence.
His joints ached. His body was tired. His mind was exhausted.
The smoke from the base was beginning to filter through the room and Steve coughed, feeling the familiar tightness of an asthma attack starting.
He closed his eyes and waited. Waited for the sticky tendrils of unconsciousness to claim him.
He opened his eyes and suddenly he wasn't in the base anymore. He was in their little apartment in Brooklyn that she'd picked out a few months before. When he had talked about setting down the shield for good.
And she was standing right in front of him, dressed in a gauzy white dress with her ringlets hanging down in the most beautiful way. Her small hands reached out towards him and he stood, taking them in his.
"I've missed you so much, honey."
She smiled. "I know. I've been waiting for you, Stevie. I heard what Bruce said…and I'm so proud of you."
He wilted in her arms, dropping to his knees and wrapping his arms around her waist. Sobs broke free from his chest and he buried his face against her stomach. "I'm so sorry, Darcy. I'm sorry I couldn't be stronger. For you, for our daughter."
"Clint's got her now," she said softly, running her fingers through his hair. "He's going to take such good care of her. And she's never going to forget us."
Steve looked up at her through his lashes. His hand went to his chest and he wheezed. "Darce?"
"You're dying, Steve." She said simply. "I brought you here to make it easier. I'm sorry…"
He stood up and cradled her face in his hands. "I once said that I would follow you into anything. Death was included in that list, honey."
She looked up at him, her eyes the shade of the calmest ocean. "Steven Grant Rogers, you're the love of my life. I can't wait to spend forever with you."
He pressed his lips to hers and breathed out, "Forever should be just enough time."
Steve Rogers was a man that shaped a century. A man that embodied a nation. A man that loved his fiancée enough to follow her into the afterlife.
And that's exactly what he did.