Oh god, Endgame. So many feelings. Lots of disappointment. I think I spent too much time reading fanfiction over the last year, so when I finally saw the movie, I was just… not happy. I totally had other ideas for how I wanted it to go. That seems like a problem with fanfiction sometimes, so many people coming out with such amazing stories that sometimes canon just can't compare. Oh well, that just means we get to turn back to fanfiction to fulfill all our heart's desires! So here is my obligatory Endgame fix-it. It also kind of turned into a little bit of a Civil War fix-it because I always hated that we didn't get to see Steve and Tony work their shit out. I hope you enjoy, it kind of got away from me a little bit but hopefully I managed to find my way back!
The standard disclaimer of course: don't own Marvel, never have, never will (cue fangirl heart wrenching sobs).
Story title from the sort-of theme song to Supernatural, because I love mixing my fandoms :)
The thing about the super soldier serum was that people always seemed to assume all it did was enhance strength and endurance.
Erskine had burned all of his formulas and notes the night before they had put Steve Rogers in the chamber, dosed him up on steroids, and let Captain America walk out. Premonition, perhaps. A gut feeling. Either way, he had made it impossible for anyone to recreate the formula without him – not such a bad idea, considering what had come next.
It wasn't just strength. Steve had always been smart. The serum made him a tactical genius. Steve had always had good vision. The serum made it better. And Steve had once been partially deaf in one ear, the result of a bad bout of meningitis when he was a child. Now, he could hear everything.
It wasn't just hearing someone talking to him without having to turn his head to the left to make sure he caught every word. Marveling at the sound of birds chirping in the springtime.
It was the rustle of someone's coat from fifty feet away. The individual conversations he had no business being part of. Morgan Stark crying in her bedroom, the sounds muffled by her Iron Man patterned comforter. Peter Parker having a whispered conversation with himself behind a tree on the other side of the house. Apparently, he was trying to convince himself that there really was nothing he could have done to change anything.
Steve came back to himself with a shudder as the light sound of footsteps rustled softly over the grass by the lake, coming closer. He knew without turning that Bucky had found him.
The nervous breathing from ten feet behind the former assassin told Steve that Sam was watching.
"Tony sure knew how to pick a retirement spot," Steve murmured softly, voice barely a whisper as he kept his gaze focused on the lake in front of them.
Bucky stopped a few feet away and studied the same view Steve had been contemplating for the last half hour – ever since the funeral had ended and most of the guests wandered inside to break out the good scotch. Not that there was really any other kind of scotch when it came to Tony Stark. Steve would put good money on every bottle of liquor in their cabinet costing a minimum of a hundred bucks. Tony and Pepper may have donated heavy amounts of their fortune to help people affected by the decimation, but they still had a decent chunk left.
"Not bad," Bucky agreed, the words sounding unusually loud against the quiet lapping of the water at their feet.
Steve winced, and Bucky threw him a knowing look. He was probably one of the only people still alive who understood just what the serum had done. He had seen Steve in one of their first fire fights after the Commandos were formed, overwhelmed by the noise, the clarity, all the enhanced senses. It hadn't been Steve's first fight by that point – Azzano had been several weeks earlier – but it was overwhelming in a way that that prison rescue never would be. Muzzle flashes, men yelling in German and English, screaming from villagers and the wounded and dying soldiers.
Bucky may have spent most of the last eighty years in and out of cryo, mind wiped more times than he could count, but he knew Steve. "On me," he instructed sternly. Steve jerked slightly, and finally turned to look at his friend. Bucky offered up a small smile. "Focus on me, Steve. One voice. One sound. It's just me."
It had taken a lot of trial and error, but eventually Bucky had been able to help Steve deal with the enhanced senses. By focusing on just one sound, he could drown out all the others – or at least make them manageable.
Steve grimaced, but let Bucky continue, voice still just as soft and calming. It didn't matter what the man was saying, just that he didn't stop talking. After a few minutes, Bucky saw the tense lines in his super soldier best friend's shoulders smooth out. The tightness around his mouth lessened. Something in his eyes loosened.
Bucky smiled. "Better?"
Steve nodded wearily. "Thanks."
Bucky shrugged. "How's your head?"
Steve didn't really think they were headaches, but when the world got this overwhelming, he could feel something like phantom migraines pulsing in his skull. "Five," he replied, knowing Bucky wanted an answer. "But it was a nine ten minutes ago, so definite improvement."
Bucky grimaced, wishing he could do more. The two lapsed into silence once more.
The last few days had been a blur, even for Steve with his better than average memory. The final battle, Thanos and his army gone, but so was Tony. So was Natasha. So many others. Steve hadn't met all of them before, but they had answered the call just the same, come to join the fight in what used to be a pretty nice compound in upstate New York. Earth's last stand. The Universe's last chance.
And against all odds, they had won. Because of Tony.
Steve still couldn't believe Tony was gone. It had been tense between the two of them for a while, but with half the universe just… gone, things like old grudges just didn't seem that important. They had talked, cleared the air – not without serious effort and a lot of Pepper and Natasha forcing them not to storm away angrily if they didn't like what the other was saying. There was a lot of baggage to unload. Their split over the Sokovia Accords – though Tony could admit that he had probably been in the wrong there. Presenting the team with this huge document and then giving them only three days to sign or retire? Not allowing them any input or ability to make changes before it became law, and just hoping that they could alter things from the inside once they signed? Especially considering what was written in that document. Regulation and oversight was not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they could trust the authority not to abuse the power - and once he had calmed down and really thought about Steve's objections, Tony knew that the number of people who could be trusted to oversee a group like the Avengers was incredibly limited. And that was just one of the many issues Steve had brought up now that they were all calmer and in a better state to actually discuss their fallout. An inhuman registry was probably taking the whole thing a step too far.
I once knew a man who thought people need to be registered and tracked. He convinced people that one specific subgroup of the population was to blame for all their troubles. Convinced them that they needed to keep an eye on these people, make them easily identifiable, then it was keep them contained and away from their betters. You know what happened? Six million people died, Tony. Because they were Jewish. Because they were gay, Roma, of African descent. And it starts with a document just like the Accords. Identify an enemy the majority can blame, convince people you can keep them safe, and then take away the rights of millions of people just because they're different.
Steve could still remember Tony's response. They're dangerous, Cap. How many enhanced have we come across who have killed people, or put people at risk with their powers? Most people don't have a way to fight against that. Just look at the damage we caused.
Steve knew the look on his face was pure 'disappointed Cap', as Clint had once told him (apparently, he had a look that just made people want to apologize for all the wrongs of their ancestors, whatever that meant). You're punishing them for a crime they haven't committed yet. A crime they may never commit. Punish the people who have broken the law. Help governments set up teams of law enforcement that specialize in taking down enhanced criminals. But tracking and surveilling law abiding citizens for no reason other than they can do things you can't is a step our world can never recover from. Steve's expression grew contemplative then. We caused our share of destruction, Tony, I won't deny that. But what happens if we sign this document, and there's another crisis - and we can't deal with it because the UN is still debating whether or not we should be called? How many people might die because we're waiting on a group of independent countries to decide whether it's worth it for us to get involved? What if the request for our aid is denied because the crisis is in Russia, but other countries want Russia destabilized, so they vote no? What happens if we're given an order that we don't agree with? Steve grimaced. What if the first order they give is to hunt down and subdue Bruce for the destruction he caused all those years ago - and we can't say no because we signed the Accords.
Tony had to concede the point, but he refused to take all the blame for what had happened between the two of them. You should have told me, Steve. He killed my parents.
Steve knew he had screwed up on that. There hadn't really been any time to talk it out after their fight, with Steve breaking the others out of the Raft and then going on the run. But now that Pepper and Natasha had locked them in a room and made FRIDAY refuse to open the door until they "figured their shit out" according to Natasha, there was nothing to do but talk.
I didn't know for sure, he finally admitted, to Tony's shock. When they had come to that bunker in Siberia, when he had confronted them with the truth about his parents' murder, Steve had never denied knowing. He had just accepted Tony's recriminations, and in Tony's mind, that meant he had been right. I suspected. All I really had to go on was a flash of a news article about the accident when Zola's computer memory was telling me and Nat about the Winter Soldier. They had made sure to share the whole story of SHIELD's demise with the other Avengers as soon as possible after Steve had gotten out of the hospital. I didn't want to say anything unless I had more proof than that. I didn't want to bring up old wounds for nothing more than suspicion. But I should have, Tony. I'm sorry. Steve remembered letting out a long sigh and slumping gracefully into a chair, head resting in his hands as he found himself unable to meet his friend's suddenly concerned gaze. If it had been anyone else, I probably would have said something, he admitted ruefully. But it was Bucky. I can separate the Winter Solider from the guy who has been by my side since I was five years old, but I can't ask anyone else to make the same call. I couldn't ask you to try and see my point of view, so I took the coward's way out, and I just didn't say anything. There's nothing I wouldn't do to save him, Tony. You're my friend, and I would do anything for you, but I couldn't do that.
Tony didn't want to forgive. He really didn't. But the thing was, he could understand. If he had known, he would have asked Steve to help him bring his parents' murderer down. He probably would have played on Howard being Steve's friend back in the day. He would have tried to appeal to the soldier's sense of duty and honor. And Steve would have had to say no. He would have probably destroyed their friendship anyway if he had done that, because Tony would never take that for an answer. He would have gone after the Winter Soldier himself, and one way or another, they still would have ended up like this.
Sometimes I just want to punch you in your perfect teeth, Steve remembered Tony saying, a small smile and a light chuckle coming easily after the heavy conversation.
And just like that, Steve knew that they would be OK. It would take some time, but they wouldn't cut each other out anymore.
And they didn't. They helped each other rebuild. Steve was there right next to Happy and Rhodey when Pepper and Tony finally got married. He was Tony's first call when they found out about Morgan. He was right there in line to hold the baby once Tony convinced Happy to let her go.
Tony was the one who convinced Steve that he needed to get out of the Compound and start reintegrating himself in the world. It had been years on the run for him, and he wasn't entirely sure how not to always be on edge, ready to leave at a moment's notice.
But there was no more imminent threat. Thanos had won. The aftermath hadn't been pretty, countries were still fighting each other for resources, people were still trying to find out what had happened to friends and loved ones, but slowly they were coming together.
Steve blinked and realized that they had been standing by the lake for far longer than he had thought. The light had faded rapidly, and the funeral goers had mostly left.
Bucky and Sam were still there though, still waiting and watching. Sam had come closer, standing just behind the two super soldiers. Steve tried to smile but knew it fell flat. "Sorry. Lost in my own head there for a while. I'm fine."
Neither one believed him, but they couldn't really argue. For them, it had been days. Faded out one minute, and back in the next. Only it wasn't minutes. It was years. Five years Steve and the others had had to live with half the world just vanished. How did one even pick up and move forward after that?
"Steve?" The quiet call interrupted anything Sam or Bucky might have said, even if they could think of something. All three men turned to see Pepper approaching, still dressed in her black funeral dress – she was so burning this dress tomorrow. Morgan was in her arms, wearing Captain America pajama bottoms and a Hulk t-shirt. Pepper tried to smile but it came out weak and watery. "She wanted you to tuck her in."
Steve immediately smoothed his face out and offered the almost five-year-old a much more reassuring smile than he had mustered for his two friends a few moments ago. "Hey Maguna, you making things difficult for your mom?" he reached out and Morgan willingly let herself be transferred to the new embrace.
"Daddy always tells me a story, Uncle Steve," she whispered, burying her face into the soldier's strong shoulder.
Steve could do little more than hold her tightly. His eyes met Pepper's over the girl's head, and he saw a few tears leak out before she wiped them away. "I've got this," he whispered, and waited until she nodded gratefully, before he carried the child back towards the house.
Peter and May were still in the living room when he came inside, and Happy could be heard cleaning up in the kitchen, but everyone else was gone. They looked up when they heard the door close, but let Steve and Morgan pass without comment.
Steve carried his pseudo niece upstairs and settled her on her twin sized bed. The Iron Man sheets twisted his heart painfully, but he refused to let it show. "Do you want me to tell you a story?" he asked instead, once he was sure his voice wouldn't shake.
Morgan sniffled. "Daddy always said not to let you tell me stories, Uncle Steve," she mumbled. "He said you'd lie and twist things around so that he would look like an idiot."
Steve snorted. "I would never have to lie to do that," he whispered conspiratorially. "Your daddy's already an idiot. Smartest idiot I know." Knew. Damn it, he needed to stop thinking in the present tense.
Morgan frowned, confused. "How?" she asked.
Steve's smile dropped slightly as he thought, trying to come up with a story that wouldn't make them both burst into tears. It took a minute, but then he found it. He grinned. "Did your dad ever tell you about the biggest birthday party he ever threw your mom?"
Morgan shook her head, so Steve let himself fall into the story. Planning the whole thing in a week, roping Steve and Bruce into helping, inviting hundreds of people, enough food to feed a city – three cities. Chefs from multiple five star restaurants doing the catering. Four floors of the tower filled, with a live band on each floor. "It was a great party," Steve admitted. "No doubt about that. Unfortunately, your dad got the date wrong."
Morgan laughed, her eyes gleaming with this new information about her parents. "He did?"
Steve nodded, letting out a small chuckle. "Pepper walks in, looks at the guests – Tony's right there in front of a sheet cake the size of your bed," he paused so that Morgan could let out a small gasp at the idea of a cake that large, "and says, 'you know my birthday was two months ago, right?'"
Morgan laughed again, grinning widely. "Why didn't he just give her the party on her birthday?"
Steve shook his head and snaked an arm around her back, tugging her closer as she burrowed into his side. "Your dad's a brilliant idiot, Maguna," he informed her. "He had spent weeks practically locked inside his lab working on something, and thought it had only been a few days. When he realized how far off he was on the date, he took a napkin and wiped off the 'happy birthday' on the cake, turned back to her and said, 'this is the part where I make up some excuse about how it's not a surprise party if it happens on the actual day, but I know you won't believe me and I want cake. So it's now a 'thanks for being in my life I wouldn't be able to function without you' party. Cake?'"
Morgan laughed again. "Was mommy mad?"
Steve chuckled. "Pissed. He hadn't even gotten her favorite cake flavor right."
Morgan gasped. "Really?" How could daddy do such a thing?
Steve shrugged. "He made up for it later," he reassured the girl. "Had Uncle Happy run out to pick up a carrot cake for the two of them later that night. Your mom later said it was the best thanks for being a part of my life party she'd ever been to."
Morgan grinned, but then let the smile fall away slowly as the silence began to permeate the room. "I want daddy," she whispered, tears beginning to build in her eyes.
Steve winced, hugging her closer, one arm around her shoulders the other cradling her head. "I know, sweetie," he replied softly. "I wish I could bring him back for you."
"Why can't you?" Morgan asked suddenly, pulling back. "Daddy says you can do anything. He always says 'if you need help and you can't talk to me, call Uncle Steve.'"
Steve bit his lip and shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry, Morgan. There are some things even I can't do. I miss him too." He drew her back in, hugging her tightly as she finally gave into the tears.
It only took her a few minutes to cry herself to sleep, but Steve stayed there far longer, holding her gently, wiping away the dried tear tracks as he tried to compose himself. Finally, he set her down and pulled up the comforter.
Morgan shifted in her sleep but didn't wake, and Steve forced himself to leave the room.
He was still thinking about that night a few days later when Bruce told him that they finally had the smaller time machine built and were ready to return the stones.
He had offered to be the one to do it, despite protests from Sam and Bucky. But he was experienced in time travel – and wasn't that just his life now? Time travel? Seriously? – and he had just gotten them back, he couldn't deal with it if something happened to either one of them again. Besides, he had a hammer to get back to its owner, and with Thor off into space with the Guardians, he was the only one who could wield it.
"You sure about this?"
Steve turned and looked at Bucky. He tried to smile but knew that his oldest friend saw right through it. "Sure," he replied easily, going for nonchalance but falling far short. "Just a few stops, drop off a few stones, and then on my way."
Bucky frowned. "You're not going to do something stupid, are you?"
Steve grimaced. "How can I? I'm leaving all the stupid with you."
Bucky's frown deepened. "Steve…"
Steve sighed, and dropped his gaze. His eyes suddenly looked every bit the hundred-year-old man he was. He could pretend with just about everyone else, but not Bucky. Never Bucky. "I'm tired, Buck. Tired of fighting, tired of losing everything. I feel like I've been playing a role for so long, I have no idea who I am anymore."
"So stop," Bucky replied reasonably. "Return the stones and then retire. Find a place in the countryside somewhere, or by a lake – if Stark could do it, so can you."
"Find some goats and shack up with them?" Steve grinned, and Bucky shoved him lightly. So maybe becoming a Wakandan goat herder hadn't been his best idea.
"Punk," he retorted. "I'm serious though. You don't have to keep fighting anymore. The world's saved."
"For now," Steve muttered, looking away. "Something always happens, Buck. Whether it's a threat from outer space or your run of the mill terrorists. There's always something. I thought once that if I didn't have a war to fight I wouldn't know who I am, and I was right. The last few years, once people finally settled down and started figuring out how to live without blaming each other for their losses… I'm out of place here. The only thing I'm ever good for is a shield. I was created to be a weapon, Buck. I never needed to be anything else, they never wanted me to be anything else."
"Bullshit," Bucky retorted. "I was created to be a weapon, Steve. You were created to be a symbol."
"Because that's so much better," Steve muttered.
Bucky ignored him. "Seriously punk, you need to snap out of it. Return the stones and then come back and figure out how to live without a war. You don't even have the shield anymore, remember? So get your shit together, finish this last mission, and then you and I will figure out how to be regular humans, OK?"
Steve looked at him, confused. "You and me?"
Bucky shrugged. "I'm done fighting, Steve. I mean, I'm not saying I wouldn't pitch in if something like this ever happened again – and oh god I seriously hope that never happens – but I don't want to spend the rest of my life fighting a war, Steve. You were the one who couldn't wait to join the army, remember?"
Steve smiled slightly. "You always were following me," he remembered. "Couldn't trust anyone else to watch my back."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "You're always too busy watching out for everyone else. No sense of self preservation. Asshole." Steve let out a soft huff, but didn't contradict the former assassin. After a moment, Bucky sighed. "We all made our choices, Steve. I just don't want you to do anything stupid because you're still hurting over losing Stark and Romanoff."
Bruce called out to them at that moment, interrupting any further conversation. "We're ready!" he informed the crowd around the machine.
Steve and Bucky walked over, joining Sam at Bruce's side. Bucky stayed there while Steve grasped the case with the stones in one hand, and Mjolnir in the other, climbing onto the platform. He met Bucky's gaze head on and nodded slightly in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture.
He listened to Bruce with half an ear – "five seconds for us, but as long as he needs" – and let his gaze linger one last time on two of the best friends had had ever or could ever have. With a bright flash, he disappeared.
His conversation with Bucky stayed at the front of his mind as he made his first few stops. Asgard, one less stone and one less hammer. New York, two stones down. Camp Lehigh, one more stone gone. He had to force himself not to go back and find Peggy again. Seeing her the last time had been jarring, and he had wanted so badly to just gather her in his arms and never let her go. But he couldn't disrupt the timeline any more than they already had. Besides, she had lived a full life with her husband and children. He could never take that away from her.
Morag was a completely dead planet. Steve didn't waste time, returning the stone to the vault Rhodey had told him about, and reactivating his suit.
One more to go. Steve still didn't know what he would do after this. There was a large part of him that wanted to take one of the extra vials of Pym particles he had on him, just in case, and just… not return to the present. But he had made so many promises to Tony over the years, to always be there. Just because Tony wasn't, didn't mean he could check out. He owed it to Morgan and Pepper.
But what he told Bucky was true. He was tired. He was so tired of always fighting and losing so much more than he gained. He wanted to rest. He wanted to be done. Tony had created Ultron so that they could 'win the war and go home', because he had seen an ending. He had seen a way out. Steve never could. Whatever Bucky said, he was a weapon, plain and simple. He had one purpose – to fight, to save others so that they could go home and live after the war.
And he had failed. Tony. Natasha. Every death weighed on him until he felt like he was buried under a twenty-story building and would never be able to dig himself free.
The eerie plains of Vormir loomed around him, and Steve forced himself to make for the stairs he could see set into one mountain in front of him. Two thirds of the way up, he felt someone - or something - join him.
"Welcome, Steven Son of Sarah."
Steve looked up and set his mouth into a grim line. "You've got to be shitting me."
Johann Schmidt didn't react. "What you seek is no longer present. You have come for nothing."
Steve rolled his eyes. "So this is where you disappeared to. I thought the Tesseract would have just disintegrated you."
Schmidt's gaze remained impassive. "The stone in the Tesseract brought me here. My penance for seeking that which I could not control. I am to spend eternity as a guide, leading others to a power I can never possess. But the fact remains, Captain, what you seek is not here."
Steve finally smiled, just a shadow of a smirk that crossed his lips and was gone in an instant. "Not seeking. Returning."
For the first time, Schmidt looked fazed.
Steve shrugged. "We're done with it."
Schmidt observed the Captain carefully, and then nodded. "This way, then." He led them up the remaining stairs and to the rocky look out where just a few hours earlier – by Vormir's standards – Natasha had thrown herself off a cliff to give Clint the opportunity to go home and hold his family again.
"Throw it over the edge, Captain," the Red Skull instructed. "The fabric of reality thanks you for your service."
Well that just sounded overly dramatic, but Steve didn't question it. He knew from Bruce's interaction with both Strange and Wong years ago and the Ancient One during their trek through time that these stones were in fact what shaped the fabric of their existence as they knew it. So sure, why not. It was kind of nice to be thanked by 'the fabric of reality'?
He threw the stone over the edge.
The world disappeared into a flash of bright orange light, and when Steve's vision cleared, he was no longer standing at the top of the mountain.
All around him was a thick fog, and he could feel something like water licking at his boots. He looked down, but the fog was so thick that he couldn't see anything below his knees. When he brought his arm up, he was no longer wearing the time GPS on his hand.
Steven son of Sarah. Man out of time.
The voice seemed to echo around him, coming from everywhere and nowhere.
Steve frowned. "What is this?"
The voice seemed to heave a sigh. Never before has one returned the stone to its resting place. The universe has taken, as it would have again, had you not altered the course. Always, the stone returns to the source.
Steve had no idea what was going on. "You're welcome?"
Now there was definite amusement in the ethereal entity's tone. You offer it freely, expecting nothing in return. You, who have lost so much to the realm of death. A soul for a soul exchange, and yet you do not even attempt a bargain.
Steve frowned. "You mean, I could have?" Clint had said it was permanent, so he hadn't even let himself consider the possibility.
No. The voice was resolute. A soul for a soul. The stone contains the soul realm, but it is not a soul itself.
Steve was getting confused. "Then… why am I here?"
The voice was perplexed now. You seek only to right the balance of the universe. Return the entities to their proper place and keep the flow of time intact. You have succeeded. Never before have we seen one less eager for the power at his command. You had the stones and yet all you sought was to fix the wrongs that had been committed by another. Not your responsibility, not your duty, and yet you fought.
Steve glared at nothing. "It was my responsibility," he argued. "Thanos may have caused the destruction, but we had the ability to fight back. It took us far too long to figure out a plan, but we couldn't let all those people stay gone. The universe needed to be set right."
Indeed. The amusement was back. Earth's mightiest heroes. Guardians of the Galaxy. You stand together, you fight together, you persevere together.
"Not without cost," Steve admitted. He had no idea what was going on, but so far it didn't seem like this… whatever this was, wanted to hurt him. Just… to understand?
Cost… there was an edge to the sexless voice's tone, as if it was trying to draw Steve towards a conclusion. Everything we do has a cost. Pay now or pay later, with someone else's credit or your own, but you will pay.
"I would never want someone else to pay for my mistakes," Steve argued. "I've made so many over the years, and all I've ever tried to do is set them right." He grimaced. "I would have worn the gauntlet in a heartbeat, if I had been in the right position. Tony had a family to go back to. I brought him into that fight, and now he's gone."
You have lost much, Steven son of Sarah. I know your struggle. I know your fears. I know your pain.
"What does it matter?" Steve asked reasonably. "We made our choices. We brought everyone back. We won."
Steve frowned. "Are you saying… was Thanos right?" He could never accept that, but then, he was only too human. He loved and laughed and lived in a much smaller world. This entity was not mortal. It didn't have the same kinds of attachments as him. Perhaps it too saw the merit in Thanos' actions?
It is not for me to decide.
This voice was seriously getting on his nerves.
You lived in a world without half its population for many years, did you not? You grieved, but you all moved forward.
"We were all missing something," Steve argued. "We learned to adapt to survive, but we never moved on."
Steve bit his lip and sighed. "Millions of people who have suddenly reappeared to find that they no longer have jobs or homes. The blink of an eye and it's been five years. It's a whole new world for them. But at the same time, people who have spent those five years in mourning suddenly have their loved ones back. It's… chaos, but given time? We'll adapt again. I can't believe that Thanos was right. He had unlimited power at his fingertips, and instead of thinking about how he could increase the resources, he decided to just get rid of half of living beings."
And you, Steven son of Sarah? What would you have done? There was no condemnation or mocking, just idle curiosity.
Steve shook his head. "I would never have used the damn things in the first place. We're not perfect, and yes, we're going to run out of resources sooner rather than later if we don't do something to fix that, but the solution isn't to just… get rid of half the problem. That doesn't give you a solution, it just gives you half a problem you still don't know how to solve and a whole other mess of problems piled on that you never even considered."
Never before have we seen a man like you. The voice was smug now. Many have taken a stone over the eons. Held power in their grasp and used it to further their own ends. Never before has one held a stone and looked for a solution.
The fog around him swirled, orange murkiness flashing to a light purple and then pale yellow. You have sacrificed and lost and mourned, but always strove to be better. You have stood in front of humanity as a shield and shown them the way forward. We offer you a chance. That which you most desire. It can be done.
Steve frowned. What he most desired… "You can… bring someone back? You would do that? I thought you said it was impossible."
A soul for a soul. The voice resonated around him. I cannot simply return that which has been lost. Had it been anyone else, perhaps I would not even be offering this now, but you have… intrigued me, Steven son of Sarah.
Steve's frown deepened. "So you can't bring someone back, but… you can?" He got the distinct impression that the voice was raising an eyebrow, which was just weird considering it was a disembodied voice and didn't actually have eyebrows. His eyes widened as he caught what the voice was implying. A soul for a soul. "You can't give me someone back, but you can trade. Right? A soul for a soul."
The voice sounded very pleased when it replied. Just this once. For your sacrifices and your selflessness. For the universe to which you restored balance. An offer only. You may choose to decline.
Declining was never an option, now that Steve knew it was possible. One soul, one person. Steve knew what that meant. Natasha or Tony? He so wanted to bring both of them home. So many people on Earth who would never get over their loss.
But the thing was, it really wasn't that hard a decision. Steve and Natasha had done a lot of talking over the last five years, and he knew that she felt the bone-deep weariness at continually fighting a war with no end in sight just as badly as he did. For her, it was the ever-present need to wipe out the red in her ledger. Refusing to take a break because she had already taken so much from so many people, so how could she rest now? She had offered herself to the stone for Clint, content in the knowledge that they would bring everyone back, and Clint would be there to see his children and his wife once more.
Steve couldn't take that choice away from her. But Tony…
Tony had a nearly five-year-old girl at home who had cried herself to sleep every night for the last two weeks.
Tony had a wife who couldn't even set foot inside the bedroom they had once shared, sleeping on the couch every night – when she actually slept.
A teenager from Queens who had just started to figure out what it meant to have a father-figure again. Tony was reluctant to admit it, but Steve knew that he hadn't just been 'the kid from Queens', he was Tony's kid.
"I'll do it." Steve was proud of his voice for not shaking.
The entity seemed unsurprised. You sacrifice your life so willingly, Steven son of Sarah. Always your life for others.
Steve swallowed. "I can do this for Tony. For Pepper and Morgan and Peter. They need him, way more than they need me. The world needs him more than me."
He got the impression of a nod from the entity. The fabric gives you this gift. It is done.
And the sad thing was, Steve actually did see it as a gift. Trading his life for Tony's was the best sacrifice he could make, and he made it willingly. Morgan, Pepper, Peter, Happy, Rhodey… Tony had so many people that needed him. Steve knew his friends would be sad. They might mourn him, and he felt terrible for leaving Bucky alone, but they would move forward. They would survive.
And Morgan would grow up never knowing what it was like to turn around to tell her father something, only to be met with empty space and all-encompassing loss. Steve had felt it often enough with Bucky. He couldn't bare the thought of his pseudo niece being buried under that crushing grief until every single thought of her father brought pain and sadness.
The fog flashed back to orange, and a bright light filled his vision. Looking to the center of the brightness, he could see a dark shape at its center.
The call was faint, but Steve would recognize that voice anywhere. He smiled through the sudden onslaught of tears. "Tony," he breathed.
The shape continued to form, and Steve could see Tony's face now. It looked like Tony could see him too, if the worried expression was any indication. "Steve? What… What's going on? What did you do?"
Steve swallowed harshly. "It's OK, Tony. Everything's OK."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Yeah, because I believe that. You did something stupid and selfless again, didn't you." It definitely wasn't a question.
Steve shrugged. "You know me. Not happy unless I can lay down my life for truth, justice, and the American way, right?"
Tony didn't rise to the bait. Steve frowned when the world around him began to blur. Tony was becoming clearer, but everything else was just a mess of colors. He knew he was almost out of time, and he was grateful to the... stone? fabric of reality? Whatever it was, for giving him just a few final minutes with his friend. He hadn't expected this.
And Tony's panicked cry was another indication that the clock was about to expire.
Steve forced himself to smile. "You're going to be OK, Tony. Tell Maguna she was the best thing to ever happen to me. Tell her I love her. And tell Bucky…" he sighed. "Tell him this was my choice."
The world faded out to a plain gray fog, and then he was gone.
Tony sat up, shaking his head to clear it. "Damn it, Rogers," he muttered. He was alone. Steve was gone. By Tony's right hand was a time GPS, coordinates already locked in.
Tony stood up, picking up the device and sliding it onto his hand. "Damn you for being all self-sacrificial and making me go tell a four-year-old her uncle's never coming home because he thought someone else's life was worth more than his." Tony continued to mutter to himself as he clicked the GPS and disappeared in a whirlwind of light.
"He's coming back!"
The first thing Tony heard was Bruce's voice, calling out as the lights began to whirl around the small time machine.
The first thing he saw was the utter shock on Bruce's face when the lights cleared and it wasn't Steve standing in front of them.
Tony rolled his eyes and hopped down off the platform. "You brought Lang back a baby, Bruce. In what world do you think Steve would come back as me?"
"What the hell?" Sam's outburst demanded an explanation. "How… where's Steve?"
Tony winced and removed the GPS from his hand. "Yeah, about that." He sighed. "Damn idiot. Apparently, he got it in his head that the world needed me more or some stupid shit like that. Not entirely sure what happened, but I got the impression the stone offered him a trade or something."
"A soul for a soul," Bruce breathed, and Sam looked at him, confused.
Tony nodded, grimacing. "Yeah. This wasn't… I mean, I wouldn't have wanted him to, but you know how he gets when he has an idea in his head." He glanced over at Barnes, who hadn't moved since Tony had landed on the platform. The former assassin's gaze was still fixed on the small time machine, eyes glazed over as if staring hard enough could somehow magically make his friend appear. Tony sighed. He had made nice with Steve years ago, but the last time he had seen Barnes they had been in the middle of one hell of a disagreement. What did you even say to a man when his best friend had just traded his life to bring back the man that had tried to kill him?
There was a small commotion coming from the house, and then people began to spill out.
"Holy shit," someone exclaimed. Happy.
"Tony?" That was Rhodey, looking and sounding completely incredulous.
"Tony." That one was breathed reverently by Pepper as she grasped the small hand of…
"Daddy!" Morgan broke free from her mother's grasp and ran down the lawn to be scooped up by Tony in a move they had perfected many times over the years.
"Maguna," Tony whispered. "Missed you."
"Daddy," Morgan cried, burrowing into his shoulder and squeezing him as tightly as a four-year-old could. "Don't leave again. Promise?"
"I promise," Tony said softly. "Love you three thousand and five."
Morgan giggled and looked up. "That's not a real thing, silly."
Tony mock-gasped. "It's not? My mistake."
Pepper had reached them now, and she held out one hand, almost afraid that touching him would prove he wasn't really there and this was all a figment of her imagination. Tony let her run a finger down his cheek, kissing it gently when it brushed across his lips.
She leaned forward, and snaked her arm across his shoulders, hugging him tightly around the child in his arms. He leaned into her embrace willingly, breathing in the unique scent that was part vanilla, part lavender, and one hundred percent Pepper.
"Are you hungry?" she finally whispered when they pulled apart a few minutes later.
Tony snorted, because of course that's the first thing you think of when your husband comes back to life. "I could eat. There are no cheeseburgers in the afterlife. Total letdown."
Morgan clapped her hands. "We should have a 'thanks for being in my life I wouldn't be able to function without you' party! Like you had for mommy when you forgot her birthday."
Tony blinked, and behind them, Bruce snorted in amusement. "Who told you I forgot?" he asked sternly. "I would never forget such a momentous occasion."
Morgan grinned. "Uncle Steve. He said you spent too much time in your lab and didn't realize what month it was. He also said you're a brilliant idiot which I don't understand how that works but it made Uncle Steve smile."
Tony's grip on his daughter tightened, and Pepper watched him worriedly. She had no idea what had happened but she wasn't stupid. She knew Steve had been going to return the stones today. Now Tony was here but Steve wasn't.
Tony forced himself to smile. "Yeah, Uncle Steve likes to make fun of me. Come on Maguna, let's go have a party."
He carried her up the lawn and into the house, Pepper at his side. Happy and Rhodey followed quickly behind. There would be time later to tell Morgan what her Uncle Steve had done for her. To hold her as she cried at losing yet another person in her life, even as she got the first one back. He would tell her what Steve had said, about how much light he had gotten from having the little girl in his life. There would be time to tell her how much love he had for her, how he had been willing to sacrifice every part of himself if it only meant she could have her father back.
Tony knew why Steve had done it. He totally understood, because he knew Steve far better than many people realized. He knew how hard it was for Steve to live in this new world, so far out of his time that he constantly felt like he was drowning. Steve had friends in this time, but he continually mourned for what he had lost. Even getting Barnes back hadn't changed that. Peggy, the Howling Commandos, even Howard, Steve had given up so much when he had flown that plane into the ice all those years ago.
He had made some good friends here, but it was in his nature to always place everyone else's life above his own. Once he had learned there was a way to bring Tony back to his daughter, he would have done whatever it took to do it. No matter the cost to himself, even – and perhaps especially – if it meant he could finally let go and move on.
Tony hated him for it.
Tony loved him for it.
It was several hours later when Tony managed to escape the constant presence of Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, and Peter and May who had come back as soon as Happy had called them with the news – once they finally believed that he was telling the truth – to wander back outside. He totally understood their clinginess, apparently he had returned to a couple weeks after the final battle, and just days after his own funeral. Damn, he really should have shown up earlier. Nothing like crashing your own funeral, that would have been so epic.
But Steve had given him one more message, and no matter what his own feelings were, he owed it to both of them to deliver it.
Barnes was still there. Tony was actually surprised, he had expected the former Winter Soldier to have taken off as soon as it became clear Steve was gone.
The former assassin had moved to the water's edge, where just days before Steve had lost himself in memories. He tensed slightly but didn't give any other outward indication that he had heard the other man approach.
For a few minutes, Tony remained silent, watching as the last few rays of sun disappeared, and the water became lost in the inky blackness of nighttime.
"I don't think he wanted to leave you," Tony finally spoke, voice hushed. He didn't look at Barnes, and for his part, Barnes also stayed focused on the water in front of them.
"I've been leaving him over and over, guess it was finally his turn," the super soldier whispered back. Tony raised an eyebrow, and Barnes huffed. "Falling off that train, dragging him out of the Potomac, over and over when he was trying to track me down, going back into cryo until they could get rid of the HYDRA programming, getting snapped to dust… I don't blame him for being done."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Hate to break it to you Barnes, but Steve doesn't work that way. He never held any of that against you. I know you lost a few years while you were doing time as a dust pile, so you don't have the same perspective, but Steve would have done anything if it meant saving his friends. This wasn't about evening the score or some bullshit. He…" Tony sighed. "He told me to tell you that this was his choice. He didn't choose to leave you, he just…" he shook his head, annoyed. "He was so damn self-sacrificial that he couldn't live with a world where someone else made the suicidal play to save everyone. So damn it he had to go back and just one-up me, right? Asshole."
Unbelievably, Barnes snorted. "He really was," he agreed ruefully. "I thought he might stay back there, you know. Just, take one of those time jumps and go back to the 40's, find Peggy, settle down and finally be able to live without a war… I had a feeling I'd be losing him today, but I still wasn't ready for it."
"He wouldn't have done that." Tony was positive. "I don't care how much he missed Peggy or his life back in the 40's. He would have screwed the timeline up so badly trying to fix every little thing. Can you imagine him sitting on the sidelines while SHIELD became HYDRA, knowing you were out there somewhere, brainwashed? Besides, he had too much respect for Peggy to take away the family she was able to build once she let him go. I asked him to take care of Morgan and Pepper if anything ever happened to me. I made him promise to be there if I couldn't. He wouldn't have broken that promise. So instead, he decided to make it moot. God, I really want to hate him."
"It's a feeling," Barnes commiserated. "You get used to it. I didn't realize it was possible to love and hate someone so much at the same time, but he's been defying expectations since I was six."
The two lapsed back into silence for another few minutes.
"I'm sorry," Tony blurted out finally. Barnes looked at him, confused, and Tony grimaced. "Don't make me say it again. I know what he meant to you, and what you meant to him. I can't say I regret what he did because I get to go home to my wife and daughter, but I hate that I get to go home and he doesn't. We had our issues back before this whole mess, but I'm really glad we were able to work things out. Steve was one of my best friends, Barnes. I might still have a few issues with you, but it's been an eye opening few years, and I don't want to be angry anymore. And Steve would want me to make nice." Tony huffed. "Stupid. He's not even here to see me be the bigger man and everything," he muttered. "What do I care if he's proud of me for letting the resentment go?"
Barnes raised an eyebrow. "Are you… having a conversation with yourself?"
Tony looked up and glared. "Don't mock me. Here I am trying to be all magnanimous and shit, and you just have to go and ruin it."
Barnes smirked. "Sorry. Go ahead."
Tony growled. "No. I'm done." He turned back to the house. "You should spend the night. Morgan apparently loves your arm." And damn it what had he missed in the last couple weeks, that his daughter was somehow enamored with a deadly assassin?
He heard Barnes rush to join him as they made their way back to the house. "Steve told her it was magic," he informed Tony. "She spent an entire day following me around saying abracadabra. Steve and I started making things happen – bowl of food appears on the table, lights turn off and on, things like that - every time she said it."
"Magic's not real," Tony grumbled. "My kid should know better than that." He looked at Barnes out of the corner of his eye. "But thanks for entertaining her."
Barnes shrugged. "She's a good kid. Really loves Steve. Hard to hate anyone who thinks like that."
And Tony heard the meaning behind the simple statement. Barnes didn't necessarily like Tony – maybe because of the whole tried to kill him thing – but he knew that Tony cared for Steve, so he couldn't hate him for that simple reason alone.
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry too."
The words came out of nowhere, as they reached the porch and Tony was about to open the door to head inside. He stopped and turned around, facing Barnes.
The soldier shrugged. "I can tell myself it was the Winter Soldier all I want, but it was still my hands. I did that and I can never take it back."
Tony sighed. "You didn't do it," he argued wearily. "I finally get what Steve tried to tell me all those years ago. I never believed in things like brainwashing, I mean seriously? It's straight out of a cartoon! But I've had to alter a lot of my perceptions over the years, and I know that if you had been in control you never would have killed anyone. I was madder at Steve for not telling me what happened, but we figured that out years ago too. If you want my forgiveness, fine, but as far as I'm concerned there's nothing to forgive. I blame HYDRA."
Tony paused, and was rewarded when he saw Barnes' hesitant nod. He was about to turn back to the door when something compelled him to add, "If you really want to make it up though, there is something you can do for me."
Barnes frowned, confused. "I thought you said I didn't need to?"
Tony shrugged. "Call me selfish. Yeah, you know what? Scratch what I just said, there is definitely something I want you to do to make up for the fact that you killed my parents."
Barnes looked a little nervous. "What is it?"
Tony smirked. "Don't disappear." Barnes blinked, startled. Tony nodded decisively. "Yeah, that'll work. I want you to stick around. Maybe not here, at least full time, but stay close. Morgan needs her Uncle Steve, and since he's not going to be here, you need to keep him alive for her. I've got some stories, but you've known the guy since you were practically in diapers."
"Seriously Stark? I was six when we met. Steve was five. So not in diapers."
Tony shrugged. "Same difference. Point: I want you to be Uncle Bucky to my kid. Oh god, did I actually just say that?" he grimaced and shook his head, looking away. "Wow, maybe I came back wrong or something. Damn, can't believe I'm actually saying this. But seriously," he looked back up and fixed Barnes with a fierce stare. "Morgan seems to like you, and I can't take anything else away from my kid. Someday I'm going to have to tell her that I'm the reason Steve never came back, no matter how much I get that 'it was his choice' and 'he wouldn't want me to blame myself' and all those crappy platitudes. I hate platitudes. Let's just agree that this whole thing sucks ass, hate Steve for what he did, and love him all the more because of it. But please just stay in Morgan's life."
Hesitantly, Barnes nodded, and Tony smiled. "Great! Now, that's enough of the feelings for one day, right? If you need a place to crash, we've got a spare room. I'm going to work on finding a new Avengers Compound since the last one got kind of… broken. You'll have a room there too once we figure that all out, but you don't have to if you'd rather go back to Wakanda or something."
Bucky didn't even know how to unpack that stream of consciousness, but he did accept the spare room for the night, and headed there silently, passed Happy and Rhodey on the couch in the living room, and passed the second spare room where Peter and his aunt May were settling in for the night – Peter hadn't wanted to leave Tony so soon, and May hadn't wanted to leave Peter, so they had been invited to stay as well.
He collapsed onto the bed with a silent groan, and finally let himself grieve. Tears poured from his eyes, and he struggled not to scream his anger.
Bucky wasn't sure how he was supposed to live in this world without Steve. Steve's calm, unwavering presence, his certainty and pure goodness, even in a world that was more shades of gray than there were stars in the sky. Steve had never been blind to the world's faults, but he had never let that stop him from stepping up to defend the innocent. Even if he got punished for it. Especially when he got punished for it.
Bucky didn't know if he'd ever forgive Steve for doing this, for choosing to send Stark back instead of coming home himself, but he could never say it wasn't such a Steve thing to do. And he could respect the hell out of it. Steve was always thinking of others.
Bucky had only gotten snippets of information on what the last five years had been like – Bruce (seriously, he was Hulk and Bruce now, what the hell?!) had told him and Sam about Steve trying to council those who had been left behind. Pepper had briefly mentioned Steve working with new world leaders to put the planet back into some semblance of order. Apparently, the Accords were over, people were so busy figuring out how to survive and rebuild that they didn't really care about whether those offering to help had powers or not. Rhodey told him that the best thing to come out of the snap was that Thaddeus Ross was no longer around to fuck everything up.
But Bucky remembered that conversation he and Steve had had only this morning – shit, had it really been less than a day? Steve didn't know how to live without a war. He felt like the only thing he was good for was to be a shield so that other people could survive. And to the very end, that's what he had done.
So no, Bucky might never forgive him, but he could never hate him for it. As Tony had said, this was Steve's choice. And Bucky would make his own. He'd try to integrate with Steve's family here – Tony, Pepper, Morgan, and the other Avengers. Steve may have felt out of place here, but Bucky could see the gravity well where once there had been a super soldier punk, and now was just a sucking black hole.
He hated that Steve could never and would never see just how much influence he had on this group. And it had only been one afternoon. There were still so many others that needed to be told – Wanda, Barton, Lang, Thor, T'Challa and Shuri, all the rest. Steve might think he could lift right out and they'd all go on, but some things could never completely mend. This would be a scar that would never fully heal.
They would carry on his legacy, continue protecting their world and the universe, but there would always be something missing. Still though, Bucky knew he would honor that legacy to his dying breath. He had told Steve that he didn't want to fight anymore, but the truth was, Bucky knew he would never be able to sit things out and let others take up the shield – metaphorically of course, Steve's current shield was in pieces among the rubble of what used to be the Avengers Compound – if he had the ability to step in himself.
And one day, he would move on, find Steve in whatever version of the afterlife existed, and give that goddamn punk a piece of his mind.
So… yeah. That happened. Not sure how this all came out, but… hope you liked it? I really wanted to bring both Tony and Natasha back, but there was no way to do that without it being completely cheap. And I like to think that Natasha would have kicked Steve's ass if she ever learned he had a chance to save either her or Tony, and he chose her.
Anyway, please review. Let me know what you think!