Title: Chaos Clock—Chapter II
Summary: An accident with a SHIELD artifact lands the Avengers back in the 1940s. Second chances, headaches, conflictions, reunions, HYDRA plots, explosions, rescue missions and 'Back to the Future' references ensue. — Steve/Peggy, one year post-Avengers.
Disclaimer: I am merely playing the characters, settings, ideas and explosions created by MARVEL. I own no part of the Avengers (or Back to the Future, for that matter), save a few comic books, some doodles and the Cap bobble-head on my desk.
Characters/Pairings: Steve/Peggy, Tony, Bruce, Thor, Natasha, Clint, Nick Fury, Howard Stark, and more . . .

A/N: . . . You guys! I can't thank you enough for the overwhelming response to the first chapter! I'm completely gobsmacked. I'm trying to respond to everyone, but in case I miss you, just know I appreciate EVERY SINGLE alert, fave, and especially review. The feedback has been just so flattering, I don't know how to handle myself. And I've enjoyed chatting with a few of you lovely people about what you'd like to see in this! But you're all amazing. The hell, you guys, I even had exams this week! Yet all I wanted to do was write and thank you for such lovely comments. I just . . . I can't. Thank you so much.

Sorry for the lateness of the chapter, but I was obsessive (as I am) and basically rewrote it when I found a few things I disliked. After checking in on Howard and Peggy in 1946, we're going to jump ahead to 2013 in this chapter and take a look at where your friendly neighbourhood Avengers are a year after the Chitauri battle. Here's a day in the life of Steve Rogers, some epic action sequences, and a lesson in why Tony should never be allowed to handle important artifacts.

(This is why we can't have nice things.)

Thanks to Kristine for the death threat, and again to 'Tony'/kkann for yelling at me enough to get this chapter up in time. Blame her for feels. And, if you fancy some laughs, Pepperony and a picture-perfect Avengers cast post-movie, please go check out her story, Strawberries and Shawarma. GO NOW. You won't regret it.

Moreover, almost all Marvel stuff kkann and I write (like our Role Play, In Too Deep, Out of Time) happens in our same head-canon universe. So yeah. Context.

- IMPORTANT NOTICE: Unfortunately, I do imagine this will be the last update for a few weeks, as I'm going to be off to AFRICA on the 27th. I'm so, SO sorry for everyone who wants more—believe me, I want to write more as well! But people need my help, so I hope I'll be forgiven. Got to go save the world!

Chapter II

New York City, United States of America, July 16th, 2013


Sitting on the floor of his bedroom with the door closed, Steve marvelled at how Tony could still make his voice carry all the way from the elevator. Considering the occupants of Stark Tower, it wasn't the first time investing in better soundproof walls had crossed the Super Soldier's mind. Then again, for that very same reason—that sort of people living in closer quarters in an ostentatious building did attract quite a bit of unwanted company—it probably wasn't such a good idea, after all.

After the battle with Loki and the Chitauri, something that had done no good in helping Steve adjust to the Twenty-First Century, the Avengers had gone their separate ways for a short while, whereas Tony had assembled all of his resources into fixing up Stark Tower and remodelling the top floors. There was now one for each Avenger, though Bruce was the only one who consistently stayed over. Natasha and Clint had their quarters with SHIELD, and Thor was often off-planet. Steve still owned his SHIELD-designated apartment in Brooklyn, but it was only for those times that he needed his space. And as much as he pretended not to care, the inventor had done his best to make the place feel as much like home as possible. Steve still preferred to keep JARVIS on mute most of the time, however.

He did his best to block out the shouts. Though the tone of Stark's voice was more than slightly perturbed, Steve figured he was just being melodramatic. It was probably just an invite to go watch a Disney film. Maybe even one of Clint's favourites, the films with bright explosions that hurt his eyes and screenshots that flipped too frequently for him to keep up. He had enough of that on a regular day; there was no reason to fill his leisure hours with more needless violence.

Satisfied with his logic, he turned back to the cardboard box beside him on the carpet. Most of its contents were scattered across the bed (which was way too big for a normal person to use, really) and the floor of Steve's room. Newspaper clippings, old photos, a couple folders and trinkets . . . all pertaining to one Captain America. His name was even scrawled across the side in Howard Stark's handwriting.

No, he hadn't stolen it. At least, he hadn't intended to. Over drinks a couple weeks ago, Tony had offered to drive him over to his old house in Long Island and let the Super Soldier dig through some of Howard's old Captain America relics.

Steve hadn't been so enthusiastic about the notion of Tony driving after the last few experiences, but he couldn't exactly refuse.

Of course, they'd never gotten to Long Island. Never even gotten out of Manhattan, for that matter. At least 10 members of the Serpent Society had decided to break into a number of different high-security corporations in New York, forcing Steve to suit up and join Hawkeye and Iron Man in the streets, the latter of whom had honestly just been pleased to get out of board meetings all day. The state of things hadn't improved much from there, the world needing the Avengers for a succession of missions without break, and suddenly a week had gone by without a second thought to their Long Island road trip.

But naturally, Natasha had been listening in on that conversation about Howard's stuff. She heard everything.

So, Steve had ascended to his floor of Stark Tower at some ungodly hour the previous night, bent on finishing up a few pieces of paperwork (aside from Bruce on occasion, he was the only one who consistently filled out the mission reports Director Fury was always nagging them about) and getting some solid sleep for the first time in a week. Instead, his plan had been hindered by the appearance of a box lying in the middle of his bed. The Russian had attached a small note to the side, graciously handwritten instead of typed:

Don't say I never did anything for you. – Natasha

And here he was, hours later, the first shafts of sunlight filtering through the blinds in his room, sifting through the various Captain America memorabilia in the box and trying his very hardest to keep any tears at bay. That task had become increasingly difficult since he'd discovered a collection of Peggy's stuff in there, as well.

"Seriously, Wing-head!" Tony's voice rang out again, much closer and harsher, though carrying a heavy growl of sleep residue. "Dirty trick, telling JARVIS not to let me know where you are. This is urgent. Get your star-spangled ass out here now! Patchy wants us at SHIELD about half an hour ago."

Well, at least that silenced his fear of Tony having learned that Agent Romanoff had stolen Howard's stuff. He still wasn't keen on responding.

Steve turned back to the file he'd been reading, describing Howard's work on the Manhattan Project, and its final outcome. It was one of only three classified documents in the box, and Steve suspected that Howard had not acquired them for himself legally. Most of the information in this one was unremarkable, textbook knowledge—and he had been reading a lot of textbooks in order to keep up with seventy years of missed history. But it was easier to look at things about Howard, who he had long since accepted was gone, than to look at the few pictures of Agent Carter.

As Captain America, there was always a lot weighing on Steve's shoulders. He prided himself in being capable of keeping it together when it counted. But even five teammates and a year in this future-world could not erase the fact that this wasn't his home. There was no aspect of this place that connected who he was now to his old life, nothing to remind him he was still Steve Rogers, just a kid from Brooklyn.

Peggy had always been the one to remind him that they were the same person, that underneath the dauntless Captain America was still a regular person like anyone else. What's more, she'd had faith in both of them, had always been there for him no matter what the world had thrown at him. The war had taken a lot from him—his family, his old life, Bucky—but Peggy had never stood down from his side. And he couldn't have loved her anymore for it. Now, being here in this strange new world with nothing else to help keep him grounded, he wished she was with him more than ever.

Maybe it was just the notion that he had slept in seventy years too long, but he'd gotten very little sleep since get defrosted. Plagued by vivid memories and nightmares of the war and people he'd lost, it was unusual for Steve to rocket awake after only a couple hours of sleep, breathless and terrified. He had ways to occupy himself, naturally—Stark had hooked him up with a personal gym and a punching bag he could beat in as much as he liked with little significant wear and tear. And nine times out of ten, there was another Avenger lurking on the common floor of Stark Tower. Steve didn't really mind staying up to play a board game with Natasha nor having a drink with Tony if it meant avoiding the fearful and melancholy images that invaded his sleeping hours.

The worst part of it was, SHIELD had disclosed very little information about Peggy's life post-war. Before becoming the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan, Steve had been an artist, which left him with an imagination able to conjure up any number of speculations about what had happened to the dame he'd left behind, most not at all pleasant to watch play through his mind as he dreamed.

Naturally, he had asked Director Fury right away. It had been one of his first questions after waking up. "Peggy, Agent Carter; where is she?" But all he'd received were a few vague comments and the general report that it was highly classified information not even Steve was privy to. This had only spiked his curiosity more. When he'd met the Avengers, he'd seriously considered asking Tony to hack into the SHIELD . . . apparently it was called a 'database', whatever that was . . . and search for those hidden files. But after careful consideration, he'd come to the decision that he probably didn't want to know. It had been sixty-eight years—in a blink of an eye, her entire life had gone by without him. He didn't want to spoil his memory of her.

And if he could only have these pictures of her, in his head or in these photos, he selfishly wanted them to himself. If he'd wanted Tony's help, it would have involved telling his friend more than he cared to divulge. Stark had already wheeled some of the story out of him and threatened—yes, that was the right word—to invent a time machine on more than one occasion.

Steve pulled another photo out of the box, his heart skipping a beat again at the sight of Peggy. This had to be one of the only pictures of her with a grin on her beautiful—her professional half-smile, but a smile nonetheless. Candid, with her dark hair hanging in perfect curls around her shoulders. No one did that style anymore; it was mostly straight and flat and decidedly less becoming, in Steve's eyes. The quality was nowhere near the sharpness of photographs nowadays, but it didn't look tacky. It looked familiar. Like home. Steve traced her features with his index finger, swallowing back tears. He missed her so much it hurt, sometimes.

His thoughts were cut off as Stark shouted some more. Apparently, it hadn't occurred to him to look in the bedroom yet. But that was Tony at O-seven-hundred.

"Capsicle, you'd better be downstairs in five minutes. Pepper won't let us leave without breakfast, first of all. But she also says that Fury wasn't happy about us—or just me, whatever—being late last time. And I'm not going to have my armour melted down to create vehicles for transporting food and healthcare supplies to kids in Zimbabwe like Fury said because you wanted to play hide-and-seek. I do philanthropy a different way, thanks. So hop to it, soldier!"

Actually believing Director Fury might follow through with part of that threat, Steve began to neatly repack the box, figuring he could pull it back out of his closet when he mustered the strength again. He tried his best to not linger on any of the photographs, but Peggy's face had never failed to catch his attention before.

Tony was clearly still a bit weary from being up at such an early hour, but Steve couldn't miss the sound of him finally marching to his bedroom door. He sprung up in just enough time to flick the lock on the door before Tony had the chance to barge in and see that Howard's stuff was no longer in Long Island.

There were a few knocks at the door—though 'knock' was probably too light a word for the banging that Tony created. "What is it, Stark?"

". . . The hell? You were there the whole time?" Steve heard the inventor sigh in exasperation. "Steve-o, I know you think this is funny, but Fury is going to kill me if we're not at SHIELD right now. And I haven't had any coffee yet. That equals two lethal and very unhappy people. So, the longer you keep this up, the more we're—"

"I got it, Stark," Steve finally replied. "Just give me a couple minutes."

"Well, what have you been doing the whole time I've been yelling?" Tony called through the door, bewildered.

Steve shrugged to himself. "Organizing some old stuff."

"All your stuff is old, Cap. "Tony muttered something else to himself, but Steve couldn't hear it through the wooden door. That was probably a good thing. "Look, just get downstairs, okay? Goldilocks is going to eat everything pretty quickly, and if you miss the breakfast Pep serves, he's offered to make extras."

"On my way," Steve answered, motivated now. He left his tokes of the past sprawled over the floor in favour of grabbing the shield and suiting up.

By the time Steve got down to the common floor, most of the food was gone. But he was more than happy to settle for some quick fruit and cereal on the way out the door if it meant avoiding food poisoning on behalf of Thor's non-existent Asgardian culinary skills.

As it turned out, Director Fury needed them to track down a group of AIM troopers who had broken into the SHIELD archives and stolen an artifact the man with the eye patch didn't care to name. Had it been a year prior, this refusal to give them more information would have instilled a bit of reluctance in the Avengers, but they had been working together for quite some time now, and they knew the look Fury would make when he wasn't going to disclose anything else. So, they tacitly elected to ignore the lack of knowledge for the moment and headed out onto the streets.

Fortunately for them, Steve had learned that AIM wasn't usually one for being subtle, and they were therefore doing what Tony would call parading down the streets of New York, showing off their prize. Steve thought this was a great exaggeration, but he had to admit that it was awfully easy to find them.

Unfortunately for them, the AIM troopers had brought lots of heavy weaponry. Not to mention their Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing.

"Whilst I am aware of Dr. Banner's noble efforts to strengthen the might of thy all-power SHIELD," Thor called out over the cacophony of grunts and gunfire, "I do not concur with the Director Fury's decision to withhold him from this particular battle."

Steve wound up his arm, quickly judged the angle of his throw, and launched his shield towards three charging AIM troopers, effectively knocking them back and preventing them from shooting at him. Just as smoothly, he caught the shield on its rebound and whirled around to deflect some machine gun fire from the other side of him, hoping one of the bullets would ricochet and make the shooter stop. His emotional strife from earlier all but forgotten, Steve put his full effort into the fight. Still, something felt off.

The shooting did stop a moment later, as Thor managed to swing his hammer directly into the reinforced metal helmet of the AIM trooper and knock him into the nearest building. "You said it," Steve agreed with a shout back at the Demigod. Dr. Banner had been in to direct a briefing earlier that morning, and Director Fury had wrongly assumed that the Avengers wouldn't need a helping hand from the Hulk this time. But that small comment was grating on his nerves a little more than it should have. Obviously, Fury hadn't anticipated anything the Avengers couldn't handle when he'd decided the Hulk could sit this one out, but if that was the verdict, then there were far too many troopers present. Something wasn't right: dozens upon dozens of heavily-armed guards to protect the getaway of one artifact didn't exactly add up. Steve knew there were more dangerous things in the SHIELD vaults than he cared to know about, but this was more than disproportionate. What had AIM taken?

Natasha tore down the street, gracefully leaping over a green car on her way over to them. "Still no sign of MODOK or the artifact we're looking for. But Barton's got the eye in the sky, so we'll know the minute he shows up."

"Natasha, at your six!" Steve warned her, watching the four troopers in yellow armour trailing her with loaded guns. The Black Widow deftly spun around and took out two of them with a couple of accurate shots from her pistol, but her ammo fell short before she could get the rest. "Duck!" Steve shouted at her, trusting her reflexes to get her down on the ground as he whipped his shield in her direction. It glided right over Natasha and bounced off the two troopers.

A small jet flew around the side of a building, loaded with guns that Cap immediately noticed were pointed at him. He barely had time to dash over to his shield and get it in front of his face before he was struck by a rocket and launched backwards. He landed on his back with a jolt. Thor and Natasha were occupied with another sudden onslaught of armoured troopers, and Clint was on a nearby rooftop, holding off AIM's escape through a bottleneck Natasha had helped assemble. Tony was apparently occupied elsewhere, so Steve was on his own. He stood up and took a swing at the aircraft, just barely managing to bust up half of its guns with the shield.

Tony flew around that same corner an instant later, efficiently taking out the rest of the jet's weapons with a couple repulsor blasts and forcing the jet to the ground with a couple well-placed smashes on the hull. The four of them took cover from the subsequent explosion, though the force of the blast did throw Tony right back, almost knocking him out of the air. Steve spared a quick glance to make sure Iron Man balanced out a minute later, always watching out for his team.

"Hey, guys," Clint's voice sounded over their comms, "I think I've found what you're looking for. Big, ugly robot thing with an oversized head too big for its brain?"

"MODOK. Nailed it," Natasha replied. If there had been more to that sentence, it was cut off as she had to avert a couple bullets directed at her, before raising her arms and returning the favour with a succession of shots of her own from her gauntlets.

Clint's tinny voice picked up again, and Steve tried to listen and focus on taking out a number of troopers simultaneously. It was no easy feat, but he'd had a fair bit of practice. "He's coming up 42nd right now. I recommend interception if you guys aren't too busy down there."

"Haven't you got some sort of weapon, Robin Hood?" Tony called back. "What were they called? Arrows, something like that?"

"Out of explosive tricks, and my regular ones aren't making a dent in him," Clint replied. "Oh, and there's a bunch of civilians cornered by a few particularly aggressive AIM troops over here, as well. Might want to do something about that as well."

Steve threw his shield at one last AIM trooper and caught it as it rebounded off the falling attacker. "All right, listen up," he announced, trying to group everyone together. "Agent Barton, Romanoff, you keep taking care of the AIM troops under they stop coming. Thor, you and I are going after MODOK. And Tony, what do you say to a good, old-fashioned, knight-in-shining-armour routine with those civilians?"

"On it, Cap," Tony answered, already taking off again. Steve waited for a sign of assent from the other three before sprinting down the street Hawkeye had directed them to, hearing Thor hot on his heels.

It didn't take long to find MODOK, as there weren't too many enormous machines containing men genetically grafted to be half-robot, as far as he was concerned. Bruce had once tried to simplify the science and explain to Steve what exactly the machine was, but Steve had just decided that it was bad news and that was enough information for him.

Once they were within range, Steve immediately tossed his shield towards MODOK. The hit didn't do much ostensible damage, but it did knock the robot off its tracks, giving Thor enough time to launch into his own attack and half its escape further. "Hammer!" Steve called out. Thor promptly threw Mjolnir in the same direction. It had little more effect than the shield. And now, MODOK was angry.

"I would like to suggest we attempt a new angle of assault," Thor said.

Steve shot him a sidelong glance, again throwing his star-spangled shield as hard as he could. It barely made a dent in MODOK's armour. "I'm all ears, Big Guy."

Before the Demigod could formulate an answer, MODOK sneered. "All the better to defeat you with, Avengers!" he declared. Steve only had a second to puzzle over what that meant before the laser on the front of the machine's chest plate began to glow bright red. In an instant, a large beam of energy shot out and hit Thor right in the head. It didn't seem to knock him back at all, but Thor did appear to be in a great deal of pain all of a sudden, hands clapped over his ears and shouting madly. Steve sprinted forward and leapt onto a car to give him a better vantage point. He tossed the shield directly at MODOK's cackling head, following it with a shot right in the chest piece, but the machine's power would not be deterred.

Forced to think creatively, Steve looked around. Thor let out another growl of pain, and he knew he had to act fast. Moving quickly, he jumped off the automobile and threw himself between the robot and the Demigod, shield up in an attempt to deflect the energy beams. It worked, making the cyclone of energy bounce back towards MODOK, successfully throwing the machine back. Steve helped Thor to his feet.

"This device, it appears to be some nature of telepathic energy," Thor remarked, rubbing his head gingerly. "I wonder at the source from which it draws its power."

"As long as it's not pointed at us, it's none of our business," Steve exclaimed in reply. "We need a way to take this guy down. I'll get him from up high; you try to bust that energy beam of his. We're not getting anywhere if he can drop us to our knees with one hit."

"Verily," Thor agreed, immediately leaping up to do just that. As Thor tried to smash and pry the energy reactor from MODOK's chest plate, Steve managed to propel himself on top of the robot and dig his shield right into the wiring.

MODOK struggled against the duel attack. "No!" the machine cried. There was a hum as the laser charged up again, and suddenly Thor was being thrown into an adjacent building, a beam of red light striking him in the chest. Steve winced as blocks of stone collapsed on his teammate, but he had bigger problems now. Problems such as taking on the half-machine single-handedly.

With no other distractions, MODOK easily threw Steve off him. The Super Soldier managed to recover fairly quickly, fortunate, as he immediately had to bring up his shield to keep from being hit with another wave of telepathic energy. MODOK quickly realized what little effect his weapon had against the vibranium, affording Steve another few chances to take some chunks out of his weakened armour.

Steve stepped forward. "I order you to surrender yourself now!" he commanded.

"Never!" MODOK cried in response, firing another laser from his weapon. Steve miscalculated the angle, and suddenly found himself flying through the air, landing with a thud on his back again. His chest ached from the laser.

MODOK raised his foot and stomped down on Steve. The Super Soldier had just enough foresight to use the shield to protect his chest, but the impact still knocked the wind right out of him. Steve groaned, trying to get a grip on something. With a little bit of leverage on either side, he could have thrown the machine off. But the weight was crushing the shield into his chest, trapping both of his arms in the process. If only he could just breathe . . .

"You have fought valiantly, Avengers," MODOK gloated, grinning frighteningly down at Steve. "But AIM triumphs once again! And now, thanks to your technology, we shall be able to progress until we have taken control of not only this city, but all of the human race!"

Steve fought to keep a small pocket of air between himself and the crushing weight of MODOK standing on his shield, but even his enhanced strength and endurance were gradually fading from strain. Not to mention, he was also running out of oxygen in his lungs. He clenched his teeth, desperately pushing upward in the hopes of dislodging the man in the metal suit above him, but MODOK wouldn't be deterred from his position or his speech.

"SHIELD has no idea of the power they hold in their vaults," MODOK sneered, increasing the pressure on his leg and pushing any remaining breath out of Steve. Just one meagre second would be enough to get his bearings. He refused to go down like this, but already his vision was going blurry, his lungs screaming for air. The lack of oxygen was making panic kick in, and he struggled frantically. Meanwhile, the half-man, half-machine kept talking over him. "This gem will give our Advanced Idea Mechanics the ability to control something no one ever has before! I can see all the outcomes, and they end with AIM at the top of the world! We can change the past, thereby changing the future! Imagine what I could achieve wi—"

Out of the blue, a deafening EMP blast sounded from the right. The beam hit MODOK square in the chest plate and threw him quite a ways backwards, circuits fried.

"I hate monologues," Tony deadpanned in his usual snarky tone, powering down his repulsors.

Danger averted temporarily, Steve let his arms go limp and began coughing violently, gasping in too much oxygen at once and trying to clear his airways. Iron Man took his time walking over. He was standing over the Super Soldier—face mask drawn up to reveal Tony's smug grin—when Steve dared to open his eyes a couple seconds later, still gasping deeply for breath. Tony extended a hand and he gladly took it, letting the inventor pull him to his feet.

"Thanks," he panted.

Stark just shrugged. "I hope you realize this now puts my "Save Cap's Ass" count at eight times. In just over one year, that's saying something. I didn't think I could impress myself anymore, but here I am."

"Six times, Tony," Steve corrected breathlessly, doing his best to not let the other man's ego get any bigger than the Tower with his name across the top.

Tony smirked. "I'll agree on seven, because that time with Chen Lu totally counts."

Steve glowered, but didn't put any power behind it. "I had that under control and you know it."

"Enlighten me; how does being cornered by several agents and a megalomaniac bent on turning you into a nuclear Capsicle count as 'under control'?"

"There was—you know what? I've still got nine on you, so you've got a ways to go," Steve reminded him.

Tony shook his head. "Well, it's nice to see that your spirit doesn't get crushed as easily as you do, Cap. Although," he said, grabbing the star-spangled shield and pulling it up in front of his view, pretending to admire it from several angles, "your shield does seem a bit solid after all, I'll hand that to my old man."

Not up to getting into the topic of Howard Stark at the moment, something that had hung over their heads since their first encounter in Germany and hadn't been resolved yet, though not due to lack of effort, Steve pulled away and jogged towards the collapsed MODOK. Now that the worst was over, SHIELD agents would appear soon to clean up the mess left behind from the battle. However, they still needed to retrieve the artifact.

Clutched in one of MODOK's robotic arms was a small black case, only about a foot cubed. Tony wrenched the metal joints apart and allowed Steve to get a hold of it. It was clearly from SHIELD, the logo imprinted on the front of the case, but there was little other indication as to what was inside.

"Seeing as Fury's not here yet," Tony began, pulling the box from Steve's hands and inspecting it himself, "I don't see why we can't take a look at our shiny toy surprise. I did eat all my vegetables, after all."

Not understanding the reference (not that he ever did, even after all this time), Steve just fell back into his leader attitude. "We're taking it back to SHIELD so they can put it under higher security, Tony. No fooling around."

"Come on, Major Buzzkill," Tony whined sarcastically. He rattled the box excitedly for good measure. It didn't make a sound. "Don't you want to see what all the hoot is about? Don't tell me you're not just as curious.

Considering Tony was already prying the box open, Steve didn't have much of a choice other than to go along with it.

"JARVIS, give me an energy repulsor to reverse the magnetized polarity in this thing," Tony ordered as he pulled his face plate back down, probably forgetting the exterior speakers were still on. A moment later, the top of the box unlocked itself with a series of clicks, and Tony pulled off the top compartment.

"Well, I'll be damned," Stark muttered under his breath, reaching in to pull out the contents of the case. Intrigued now, Steve pushed his bulky, metal-covered hands out of the way and plucked out the small object on his own. "That's what all the fuss was about? A little rock?"

Steve looked at what he held in his hand as well, scrutinizing the small object. It was a precious stone, burnt orange in colour and glowing faintly. It was perfectly smooth to the touch and no larger than a regular egg. Steve had seen a few gems in jewellery and decorations in his lifetime, but there was certainly something peculiar about this particular one.

Natasha ran over a minute later, immediately noting the stone in Steve's hand. "What's that?" she asked.

"You're welcome to enlighten us," Tony answered, "But I'm going to call it the egg you find at the end of a wild goose chase for now."

They didn't get much more of a chance to ponder it, though, as the sound of the quinjet engines roared through the air, followed by an appearance of the aircraft itself. The three Avengers watched as it set down in a more-or-less clear patch of ground. SHIELD agents flew in from all directions a moment later. A flurry of black surrounded them, covering the area as they assessed the damage and began the systematic clean-up of the block.

Nick Fury appeared at the front of the pack. "I'd thank you to kindly put that back where you found it, Captain Rogers," he said, hand extended.

Steve, feeling a little emboldened, tightened his hand around the gem slightly. "No," he replied evenly. "I don't think it's that simple this time." He pointedly looked around at the carnage, all caused for want of a small orange gem.

Fury's expression didn't waver. "Are we really going to do this here, Cap?"

"Yes, sir, we are," Steve replied with a nod. "With all due respect, I think we deserve to know what's so special about this little gem that we had to destroy an entire city block just to get it back into your hands."

"All right, fine," Fury conceded with a sigh. "But only once we're all back at SHIELD." He gestured for Agent Hill to repossess the black case from Tony's hand and hold it forward. Levelling the Director with a look, Steve carefully placed the stone back in its spot and allowed Maria to relock the box. Fury nodded, then turned around and began walking away with a hand raised to his earpiece. "Someone get Dr. Banner out of that meeting. Party's been cancelled. And get Barton off the roof."

Steve and Natasha moved to follow the Director back to the SHIELD building, but they quickly noticed the lack of one teammate. "Tony!" Natasha called. "You coming?"

"You guys go ahead," Tony said, waving them off. "I'll go dig Thunderpants out of the rubble and we'll meet you there."

The Avengers were all standing in one of SHIELD's high-tech research laboratories when Dr. Banner finally made this way down.

"Well, I see you guys did just fine without me," Bruce remarked, not-so-subtly sizing up his five teammates and taking in the painting of stitches and bruises. The SHIELD medics had only done a quick job of patching them up. Steve was still a little short of breath, and Natasha and Thor were looking a bit worse for wear as well. Hawkeye and Iron Man—well, his suit, at least—weren't visibly damaged, but even Stark raised a hand to his head every couple minutes, indicating a bad headache.

"Oh, yeah, it was a riot. Sorry you missed the party, Bruce," the inventor piped up in reply.

Bruce smiled. "It's okay; I think Betty will thank me for it."

And as much as Steve tried not to let that kind of passing comment get to him, it still made his heart clench painfully for a moment. It still wasn't easy to hear about Bruce and Betty together. Or Tony and Pepper, for that matter. He knew they had all fought to stay together, and this sort of life wasn't the easiest to bring a loved one into. Steve was happy for them, refused to sink so low as to be jealous of them, but it still bothered him that he didn't even have the chance. The only woman he wanted was waiting for him at the Stork Club seventy years ago.

Someone snapped their fingers in front of his face, bringing Steve back to the present. "You with us, Cap?" Nick Fury asked.

Steve nodded, pushing all of those thoughts back to the recesses of his brain where he usually kept them hidden. At least, hidden until someone brought him a box of old photographs of Peggy Carter and mementos from the war. "Of course, sir."

"So, is anyone going to explain why I just emptied my entire quiver trying to rescue a . . . skipping stone?" Hawkeye asked, eyeing the orange gem disdainfully. Natasha lay her hand on his shoulder knowingly.

Director Fury crossed his arms. "It's called an Infinity Gem. The Time Gem, to be specific."

Tony scoffed audaciously. "This little thing?" He took a step forward and inspected the small orange stone. Steve hadn't gotten much of a look, but he could swear it was glowing more brightly now. "You sure it isn't just a gift for your girlfriend, Fury? I mean, not that you would have one, I'm just . . ."

Fury fixed Tony with the look—half as many eyes, but twice as intimidating. Tony obediently shut his mouth.

"It's called the Time Gem," Fury elaborated, "because as far as our research has shown us so far, it can be used for travel through time."

And suddenly everyone's eyes were on Steve.

Steve knew what they were thinking. He was thinking it himself. Time travel seemed to be the only way he would conceivably be able to get back to his own time. He'd dreamed about it a few times—going back, stopping Schmidt before the plane incident, saving Bucky on the train, dancing with Peggy and finally kissing her like he'd always meant to when the war was over—but despite Tony's enthusiasm to the contrary, it just wasn't possible. Even if he could go back, Steve constantly reminded himself that what was done was done. He would not abandon these people just to serve himself. The future was not where he was meant to be, and the Avengers were not the people he was supposed to be leading. But he was. This century was not all bad—he just had new friends that needed him, just as was not going to be dragged into those fantasies . . . Was he?

"Well," Clint said, clearing his throat and trying to break the spell, "It's more compact that a Delorean, I'll give you that."

"You said it, Tweety Bird," Tony whistled, swooping forward and picking the luminescent object off the lab desk. Ever the curious child looking to reverse engineer everything he came across, Steve watched as he pinched the stone between two fingers and began examining it from all angles.

"It's also unstable," Nick reminded him, "and not a toy." He spat out the last few words so that they seemed to sit in their own individual sentences. "Time travel is an incredibly dangerous process. One stupid misstep can and will change history. Alternate universes and all that? Yes, I'm looking at you, Stark."

Steve pushed down his unsettled feelings and decided to intervene. "Mr. Stark, I don't think this is the time or place to—"

Tony amicably nudged Steve in the shoulder. "Oh, lighten up, Cap." He wandered around until he came to stand between Thor and Dr. Banner. When he began to heedlessly toss the Time Gem into the air just in order to keep his hands busy, everyone in the room collectively grew more wary. The stone glowed more brightly, as if in protest.

"That's the point! Time! Besides, there's no way this actually works. It's one of Willy Wonka's golden eggs, if anything. I mean, Brucie and I have been spit-balling some concepts for a time machine—keeping it on the back-burner, mind you—for some time now, and it does not involve this piece of jewellery. I mean, I know there're lots of wild things in those 'Nine Realms' you're always yapping about, but I don't see how—whoa!"

On that last toss, Tony's fingers fumbled slightly, and he misjudged the distance. As the Time Gem tumbled towards the floor, Steve, along with Natasha and Clint, reflexively lunged forward in an attempt to catch it. All three of them just fell short, and with a completely indescribably sound, the Time Gem hit the floor.

Steve used his shield to prevent the bright light that suddenly swallowed the laboratory from blinding him. Even so, he heard everyone shout in alarm, and could do nothing but squeeze his eyes shut as the world disappeared from beneath him.

Fight scenes are hard to write. And apparently Tony and Steve keep tallies on who saves whose life each time. They would.

You can be honest—how did I do with the voices? Feedback is much appreciated. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you all at the end of July. Cheers!