Thursday, June 13, 2019

Six Stones to Peggy: A Marvel Cinematic Universe Story



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Bucky was right, Steve Rogers mused, he was taking all the stupid with him.

But Bucky would understand. He always did.

Always would.

And Sam…

Well, maybe not so much.

But, in time, maybe.

Time.

He was sick of thinking about time. Talking about it. Scott Lang’s idea for the “Time Heist”—it still sounded so stupid—shouldn’t have worked, but Bruce and Tony figured it out. They brought everyone back. They beat Thanos.

They used time to do it.

Thanos had taken so much from the world, and from them. First, half the universe. After that, Nat. Tony.

He allowed a slight smile as he thought about Nat. 

Black Widow was the best of them, even though she never thought of herself that way. Most people looked at Steve Rogers and saw the perfect soldier with perfect manners and perfect teeth. She saw the flaws and challenged him to be an even better version of himself. 

The world owed as much to Nat as it owed anyone else. 

Thor had a hammer, Tony had a suit of armor, and Hulk had the strength to casually toss a house halfway around the world.

But Nat and Clint didn’t have any of those advantages. They survived through wits and courage, always dependent on a special bond forged in the battlefield. As much as Steve didn’t understand monsters and magic, he understood that type of bond. He shared it with Bucky and the Howling Commandos, and with Nat and Sam after the Sokovia Accords, when they traveled the world to stomp out the stubborn remnants of Hydra.

But Nat was gone now. A soul for a soul, as Clint explained it. She gave her soul to Vormir, and Vormir gave up the Soul Stone in return. He couldn’t imagine Clint’s pain; Hawkeye would’ve gladly given himself up so the world could go on with Natasha Romanoff at the helm.

She wasn’t the only fallen Avenger.

Steve remembered standing face-to-face with Tony—he thought of him only as “Stark” back then—on Fury’s Helicarrier, telling him he was just a “man in a suit.” He knew guys with none of Stark’s wealth or genius worth ten of him. He told him that, straight and true, like he always did. 

Steve thought himself a good judge of character, but his judgment lacked something back then. He hadn’t been out of the ice that long. They never really saw eye to eye on things, but fate brought them together and they managed to smooth things out, at least until Zemo broke them.

Bucky was always his weak point. What if they’d worked things out before Thanos? Would the Avengers have stood together to defeat him the first time?

In the end, Tony made the sacrifice play. He brought back the kid and everyone else, but he left his daughter and Pepper behind. Rhodey and Happy. The Avengers. Everyone else.

He was Iron Man.

Steve underestimated Tony because Tony overestimated himself. He was a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” who wore his feelings and vanity on his sleeve. Steve didn’t think to dig deeper, and he should have. 

The wizard guy—Strange—told him later that there was only one way to beat Thanos and bring everyone back. That one way, Steve realized, required Tony’s genius and his sacrifice. Strange knew it because he saw it—one of the many things Steve didn’t fully comprehend about the superpowered world he lived in—and Strange couldn’t say a damn thing to Tony because it could’ve meant defeat.

If Tony knew he had to die, maybe he would’ve hesitated to snap Thanos and his army away. That hesitation could’ve allowed Thanos to make his latest insane idea of “balancing” the universe a reality. If Tony knew he had to die, he wouldn’t have wanted to abandon the kid or leave Morgan.

In the end, Tony Stark had a heart.

And a family.

That was something Steve hadn’t had in a long, long time.

He had a chance to change that, to live the kind of life Tony talked about it.

A simple life.

Only a few tasks remained.

Time. 

Mind. 

Space. 

Reality. 

Power. 

Soul.

Six Stones to Peggy.

*     *    *

They sketched out only the most rudimentary of plans. The broad strokes: Steve had to go back to the eras they’d visited in the past and return the Infinity Stones to their rightful places. That would, according to Bruce, restore any variations in the timeline. Steve didn’t have Bruce’s or Tony’s mind for quantum physics (Scott Lang had a better understanding of it than Steve, actually), but they’d already created ripples in the timeline.

They botched the Tesseract mission, allowing Loki to escape. That was one branch in time.

The Thanos of 2014 discovered their plan and traveled to 2023—another branch.

And so on.

While they successfully completed the mission, they hadn’t done it cleanly. They made mistakes, and that meant consequences and alternate timelines. He tried to talk to Strange about it, but the self-absorbed wizard wasn’t very chatty. He was so protective of time and space that he wouldn’t give Steve much more than hints about how to proceed. 

Bruce told him to head to the roof of the New York Sanctum on Bleecker Street. He planned to return the Time Stone first.

*     *     *

He burst into 2012 during the Battle of New York. The blue beam shot straight into the sky, opening a portal for the Chitauri army. Back then, he hadn’t seen anything like that. Now, it seemed kind of quaint. He landed on a rooftop about a block from his destination and charged ahead. 

While Chitauri skiffs zoomed overhead, he was far enough away to avoid being seen. He approached the Sanctum rooftop and stopped. Bruce said his next guest would be inquisitive, so he set the case down, withdrew the Time Stone, secured Mjolnir to his back, and leaped across.

A striking woman in yellow robes spun her hands in circles and sent an orange beam of power shooting across the horizon. Four skiffs fell out of the sky. She made another series of exacting gestures and stopped when she saw him. “That’s as far as you go, now.” A wide arc of energy caromed across the roof, ending just an inch in front of Steve’s face before shooting toward a Chitauri Leviathan. The beast bellowed in pain and crashed into a building. “That will do for now.” Her eyes narrowed. “The Green One kept his promise.” The Time Stone floated out of Steve’s hand, and he reached for it. An orange shield appeared in front of him, keeping it out of his grasp.

Then, Steve relented. He was there to return the Time Stone. The shield disappeared. “Sorry. Just a reflex,” he said. “These Stones are kind of important.”

The Ancient One opened the medallion around her neck, allowing the Time Stone to settle into the center. “This isn’t the precise moment your friend took the Time Stone, but it is close enough. This timeline will be preserved.”

“Just like that?” Steve asked.

“Maybe not quite so simple, but doable,” the Ancient One said. “The Green One said his mission was urgent. I take it you succeeded?”

“Yes,” Steve answered.

“Infinity Stones are not to be trifled with.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that impression.”

“Captain Rogers, how does it feel to exist in two places at once?” the Ancient One asked.

Steve recalled staring down the 2012 Captain America—America’s ass and the guy who “can do this all day.”

“Weird. That’s about the only way I can describe it.”

“Remember that you’ll always be there to do the things you were meant to do, even if you take a detour,” the Ancient One said. “And don’t let guilt overwhelm you.”

“I’m just trying to set things right,” Steve said.

“Your presence at this Sanctum shows you already have. Your friends trust you to complete this mission and you will not let them down.” She smiled coyly.

“Is this a pep talk or have you seen this before?” Steve asked.

“It’s my understanding, Captain Rogers, that pep talks are your area of expertise. I have seen many timelines and looked into many futures. Mine all end at a singular point. I do not believe that is the case with you,” she said. “And I wish you well on your mission.”

“Thanks.” Steve turned to leave.

“Before you go, I have a question. In a few years, I will encounter Doctor Stephen Strange, whom I believe is destined to become the greatest sorcerer among us. Does he live up to the reputation?”

Steve shrugged. “I met him once at a friend’s funeral. We shared a cheese plate.”

The Ancient One gave him a bemused look and gestured for him to proceed.

Five Stones to Peggy.

*     *     *

Stark Tower, still as gaudy and out of place as anything in the New York skyline, swarmed with SHIELD (and Hydra) agents. He got the jump on an unfortunate guard, changed into his tactical armor, tucked away the Mind Stone, and stashed the other Stones and Mjolnir. 

This particular mission had its share of mind-numbing variables. First of all, he wasn’t entirely sure if his 2023 self—the one who came back with Tony and Scott Lang to retrieve the Stones—would show his face or if he’d come to a “clean” version of the Battle of New York.

The Ancient One clearly remembered meeting Bruce and knew about their mission, but she was a special case. She was the Ancient One, keeper of the Eye of Agamotto and wise beyond all reckoning. She knew about their time shenanigans because she saw things on a grander scale than mere mortals. 

He darkly wondered if they could’ve won the Battle of New York more easily if they’d been allied with her or if they’d won simply because she’d been their ally without anyone knowing it.

He was sick of paradoxes.

“Are you taking a smoke break, soldier?”

Steve recognized the voice immediately. “Of course not, Director Fury,” he said, trying to sound as gruff as possible.

“Then what the hell are you doing out here? The rest of the team is in there securing the tower. You know, doing their jobs.”

“Yes, sir.” Steve adjusted his goggles and tried to avoid making eye contact.

Fury stepped closer and sized him up. “You know, Cap, you’re not very good at this undercover stuff. Leave the spycraft to the spies.”

“That obvious, huh?” Steve cracked a self-deprecating smile. “Thought maybe I’d catch your eye looking the other way.”

Fury’s lips curled into a scowl. “I’m allowed to make eye jokes, Captain. You’re not.” Fury jabbed a finger into Steve’s chest for emphasis. He used the opportunity to twist Fury’s arm and put him in a chokehold.

“Sorry about this.” He gently laid Fury on the ground as he passed out. “But then again, maybe you should’ve used that pager back in 2012.”

He hustled up the stairs where he and the Avengers should be holding Loki in check. Unfortunately, they were already gone, which meant the scepter was in SHIELD’s hands (which happened to be Hydra’s hands). He caught a glimpse of Rumlow, Sitwell, and Rollins going into the elevator and saw no sign of his 2023 self among them. 

He hopped over a balcony and plummeted several stories. The elevator didn’t stop, so he found the stairwell and made it all the way to ground level.

Several black SUVs were lined up near the exit, and Steve took position behind the last one, acting as the receiving party for the Hydra agents heading his way. Sitwell emerged holding the case containing the scepter. Steve opened the trunk and gestured for Sitwell to put it in the back. Instead, Sitwell handed him the case. “Heavier than it looks, right?” Sitwell said.

“Yes, sir, very heavy.” Steve pretended to test the case’s weight.

“Just put it in the back already,” Rumlow said.

Steve did the math in his head. He could easily down all the agents, but there was always the risk of attracting too much attention. He stepped slightly to the left and held out his free hand.
Rumlow and the others looked over their shoulders. “What? Is somebody coming?”

Steve waited. “Not exactly someone.”

A second later, Mjolnir flew into the group, knocking out the agents in turn before finding Steve’s hand. He quickly opened the lid, placed the Mind Stone back in the scepter, and doubled back to retrieve his case.

Four Stones to Peggy.

*     *     *

Steve had no trouble blending in at Camp Lehigh in 1970. Even after being brought out of the ice more than a decade ago, he was always most at ease among those who served. Even Fury’s absurd Helicarrier felt less ridiculous thanks to the military personnel on board. He knew where he fit in a military hierarchy, which was something he couldn’t often say in the world at large.

Still, the gigantic “Birthplace of Captain America” sign didn’t feel right.

Dressed in an olive green military uniform with his hat pulled tight over his eyes, Steve attracted little attention while walking among the staff. He’d again stashed the other Stones and the hammer in a safe place, carrying the Space Stone in his pocket. No one paid attention to a man in uniform, especially one who walked with purpose among other men and women who were also in uniform.

This time, he didn’t have to distract Hank Pym. He cut through a hallway and took the stairs, avoiding the elevator that nearly derailed their mission last time. Coming back felt bittersweet for so many reasons; not only did he have mixed feelings about Camp Lehigh, but the last time he’d been there, he’d come with Tony. They’d been united in purpose.

He’d never see him again.

He continued down the steps until he reached the secure level where SHIELD—formerly the Strategic Scientific Reserve—kept the Tesseract. He banked on the cube still being there, just as the Mind Stone’s scepter had still existed in 2012. Just a few more hallways, and he’d drop off the Space Stone before heading out.

“Excuse me, soldier!” someone yelled from behind.

Steve, head down, kept going.

“I said, excuse me, soldier!”

Steve stopped in his tracks. That voice—

He spotted an old man in civilian clothing, a light blue golf shirt and khakis. He was stoop-shouldered with white hair and possessed a gruff air of authority Steve recognized immediately. “Colonel Phillips?"

The old man, his face somehow even craggier than it had been in the 1940s, frowned. “You get out of the military for a few years and they demote you. That is General Phillips, young man.”

Steve saluted instinctively. “Of course, general. How silly of me.”

“At ease, soldier. I finally managed to lose my tour group,” Phillips said.

“This is a secure area, sir. I don’t think they allow tours,” Steve said.

“Of course, they don’t. Why do you think I’m down here? I built the damn Strategic Scientific Reserve right in this here basement. Now it’s a SHIELD base, and they just want to show me the same window dressing as everyone else. It’s absurd. Is Agent Carter around here somewhere?”

The name hit Steve with the force of Thanos’s double-bladed sword. She was here—he’d seen her during his first run on the mission. She kept his picture on her desk—not a picture of the super soldier but of Steve Rogers, the “ninety-pound asthmatic” who volunteered for Project Rebirth. Back then, Phillips doubted his physical strength while Peggy believed in his strength of character. She always believed, even when anyone could snap his arms like a twig.

Steve gestured to the hallway on his left. “Agent Carter’s office is down that gauntlet of a hallway. It’s teeming with military personnel and a lot of civilian brainpower.”

“Military personnel and civilian brainpower won the war for us.” Phillips patted him on the back. “But I don’t have to tell you that, do I, soldier?”

Steve stiffened. “No, sir.”

“Relax,” Phillips said. “I’ve been out of the game for years. Feels like you have somewhere you need to be.”

“You know how it is on a base, sir. Always something going on. Always something to do,” Steve said.

Phillips’s eyes twinkled. “And what is your plan today?”

“To complete my mission, sir.”

“Then don’t let me stand in your way, Captain,” Phillips said.

“I’m not a captain.” Steve pointed at the rank insignia on his uniform. “I’m a sergeant.”

“I’m old, not senile, son. And you’re a good man.” Phillips allowed a soft smile. “I’m going to find Agent Carter for a conversation I hope she’ll enjoy.”

With renewed energy, Phillips headed down the left hallway. A few seconds later, an MP ran toward Steve.

“Looking for someone?” Steve asked.

“Have you seen an older gentleman? Someone got away from a tour group,” the red-faced MP said. Steve pointed to the hallway on his right. “Thank you, soldier.”

Steve watched the MP run off. “My pleasure.”

He continued until he reached the entrance to the SHIELD research lab. He caught someone’s silhouette coming and stepped aside before the door hit him.

“Where the hell is Arnim?” Howard Stark muttered to himself. He didn’t even see Steve as he passed.

Steve slipped into the lab and found the safe holding the Tesseract. The troublesome cube had more influence than he could wrap his head around, helping Hydra rise to prominence, giving Carol Danvers her powers, and allowing the Chitauri to invade New York. Thanos wore it on his Infinity Gauntlet and it was instrumental in bringing everyone back. 

He opened the safe with help from one of Tony’s inventions. The cube glowed much more dimly than usual, looking more like a paperweight than a destiny-changing object.

He withdrew the Space Stone from his pocket. The cube didn’t have a coin slot, so he jammed the stone into the side. The exterior cracked for just an instant before the cube accepted the Space Stone and glowed the brightest blue Steve had ever seen. He closed the safe and left the lab.

Another successful mission.

Three Stones to Peggy.

*     *     *

Steve’s adventures took him many places, but he’d never seen anything like Asgard. Thor’s homeworld was a sight to behold with shimmering waters and golden buildings of incredible size. The Bifrost pulsed with multicolor energy. The sky was the clearest and bluest he’d ever seen, besting even Brooklyn on its best day. Thor, sober at last, told him blending into Asgard would prove the most challenging part of the mission.

After spending just a few minutes in a city of the gods, he couldn’t argue.

Before he took his next step, a tall man in imposing golden armor materialized in front of him. “No one who enters Asgard slips past my vision.”

“Heimdall, right?”

The man’s golden eyes narrowed. “You are a friend of Thor, the soldier he so admires.”

Steve gestured deferentially. “That’s really not for me to say.”

“He values your modesty,” Heimdall said. “He even thinks you may be worthy.”

“That’s good to know,” Steve said. “He’d also say I’m a man of my word, wouldn’t he?”

“Indeed, he would.”

“Listen, Heimdall, I don’t have a lot of time,” Steve said.

The Norse god scrutinized him even more closely. “Time moves strangely around you, Steve Rogers. Odd that I did not notice sooner. You are out of time.”

“Been there before,” Steve said with a chuckle. “Look, Thor said I might run into you, and he wanted me to show you this.” He reached for his back and withdrew Mjolnir. Heimdall unsheathed his impressive sword. Steve let the hammer dangle upside down to show he wasn’t a threat. “This is the real thing. Real deal Mjolnir, all right? I can summon some lightning if you want, but I’d rather not.”

Heimdall remained in a defensive pose with his sword. “How is it you possess the weapon of Thor?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Then perhaps I should take you to the Allfather so you can tell it to him,” Heimdall said.

Steve sighed. “You said time moved strangely around me, right? I’m not from this time, and I have two things to return. The first is this.” He flipped the hammer right-side up with his right hand. He held up the case in his left. “And I’ve got these.”

“Infinity Stones,” Heimdall said, reverence in his voice. “No two Stones should be so close together. You have three.”

“I used to have all six,” Steve said. “It’s important that this goes back where it belongs—that they all go back where they belong. Thor told me you’re a reasonable man who values his duty to Asgard above all else. You can see everything, right? If you stretch out your vision, you’ll see I’m back on Earth—or at least the me who belongs in this time.”

Heimdall froze in place and looked toward an unseen horizon. “I can see you now. You’re on a
mission with Natasha Romanoff. It appears you work well together.”

“You do see everything,” Steve said. “Listen, you’ve got Loki locked up in prison, so I’m not him. I need to finish my mission here, and then I’ll leave Asgard. You’ll never see me again.”

“Something tells me I should never have met you in my lifetime,” Heimdall said. “And that
would have been a pity.” He sheathed his longsword. “You may proceed, Steve Rogers. Is there somewhere I can take you?”

*     *     *

Heimdall sent Steve to Jane Foster’s quarters. Thor’s girlfriend lay peacefully in bed. He opened the case and withdrew the Reality Stone. Rocket engineered a syringe so he could inject the Reality Stone back into her body. The Stone broke down into a murky red liquid while inside the tube.

“Guess the Build-a-Bear was right,” he whispered to no one in particular. He jabbed the syringe into Jane Foster’s arm and pressed down on the plunger. A red haze appeared momentarily around her body and then disappeared. He put the syringe back in the case and closed the lid.

Things were going smoothly, a welcome relief given their struggle against Thanos. Nothing had been easy since Steve showed up at the train station to help Vision and Scarlet Witch. He took a deep breath and allowed himself a moment to rest.

Then, like a nightmare from a movie everyone but Steve had seen, Jane Foster levitated from the bed and screamed loud enough to shake all of Asgard.

Mjolnir flew from Steve’s back, no doubt on its way to the Thor of 2013.

He’d been tasked with returning the Reality Stone and Mjolnir to this time, and he’d succeeded. He reached for his case and punched in his next destination, only to realize the case was gone and he no longer wore a Quantum Suit.

Instead, he sat at a long dinner table next to a dark-haired woman with glasses he didn’t recognize. Jane Foster sat across from him.

“The turkey is nearly finished,” Thor’s voice thundered from the kitchen. He entered the dining room wearing an apron that read “Cooking God” and used Mjolnir to mash potatoes in a large bowl. “I pledge to you that it will not be nearly as dry as last year. I learned my lesson and those Butterball people are liars. You forget to defrost the turkey, you cannot salvage it. Not even the Allfather himself could.”

Jane held up her empty wine glass. “I could use a refill.”

“Of course, my dearest Jane.” Thor sashayed—he sashayed—over to the wine rack, used a corkscrew to open a fresh bottle, and then poured it. “Would you care for more wine, Darcy?”

At least the woman sitting next to Steve had a name now.

“I’m good, Point Break,” Darcy said. “Check with me in ten.”

The oven in the kitchen beeped, and Thor went to check on it.

“So, Mr. Rogers, you fight any good supervillains lately?” Darcy asked.

“I believe it’s Captain Rogers,” Jane said.

“I, uh, I don’t know,” Steve said, flustered.

The doorbell rang, and Thor’s head popped through the kitchen door. “Could someone get that?”

Jane started to get up, but Steve waved her off. “I’m on it.”

Steve felt for the Time GPS again, alarmed it was no longer there. He had no idea what happened to his Quantum Suit or the two remaining Infinity Stones. He arrived at the front door and opened it. “Dr. Selvig. Good to see you, especially under your own, uh, control.”

At first, he thought Selvig was going to slug him, but the jovial doctor shook his hand and erupted in hearty laughter. “I’ll get that son of a bitch Loki one of these days!"

"Language,” Steve said. “It is Thanksgiving, after all.” A black SUV pulled into the driveway, and Steve gestured for Dr. Selvig to come inside. “They’re in the dining room.”

Selvig shimmied out of his coat and handed it over. “Thank you, Captain.”

Several people got out of the SUV and made their way up the sidewalk. “I see the agents of SHIELD have arrived.”

Nick Fury shook Steve’s hand. “Mama Fury isn’t happy I’m not home for the holidays, but I promised to visit her next week. Airfare will be a lot cheaper anyway.”

“You could just take a Quinjet, sir. Or I could drop you off in Lola.”

Steve did a double take. “Coulson?”

“Cap,” Phil Coulson said. “Something wrong?”

“I thought Loki killed you,” Steve said.

“Yeah, I hear that a lot. I got better.” He looked at Fury and deadpanned, “What’s so hard about that?”

Steve gestured toward the dining room and exchanged pleasantries with Maria Hill. Coulson introduced him to an Agent May, who’d brought a pie and declared that the “dessert cavalry had arrived.”

He still had no idea what was going on.

*     *     *

Now wearing a plush turkey hat, Thor brought out a covered silver dish and set it on the table. “Your Earth traditions are so quaint. You wait for everyone to get served before you eat. You drink in moderation, even in times of celebration.” He gave Jane a sideways glance. “Well, most of you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine or two. Or three,” Jane said. “Anyway, you once drank an entire tanker of beer.”

“That was quality control, dear. The brewery asked me to do it,” Thor said with a laugh. “People think Jane and I incompatible, but we bicker like an old married couple.” He walked up behind her chair, put his arms around her, and gave her a squeeze. “Not many women can boast of having a literal domestic god in their home.” He walked toward the covered dish and removed the lid.

A few of the guests gasped. Darcy screamed and covered her mouth.

The turkey still had a head.

“What seems to be the matter?” Thor asked, befuddled. Jane signaled for him to come to her. He leaned down as she whispered something in his ear. “Oh. I see. Just a second, please.” He retrieved a comically large Asgardian sword and cut the turkey’s head off with a swift, clean slice. “On my homeworld, it is considered good luck to leave the animal’s head intact.” He hid the turkey’s head behind his back and gestured toward the buffet. “Jane, Darcy, Erik Selvig, my good friends, dinner is served.”

Steve let everyone else get up to fill their plates. He found Thor. “I haven’t had a good Thanksgiving in years. Thanks for having me.”

“You didn’t enjoy last Thanksgiving? I know the turkey was dry, but—”

“That’s not what I meant,” Steve said. “Thanksgiving stopped being fun after my parents passed. Bucky and I tried to make the best of it, but it was never the same.”

Thor clapped him on the back. “I understand. Visits back home feel different now that my brother is a war criminal. One day, the sun will shine on him once more, of that I am certain.”

“Excuse me, fellas,” Coulson said.

“May I help you, Son of Coul?”

“Bathroom?”

“Of course, my friend.” Thor put his arm around the much smaller agent. “Go down that hallway and to the left.”

Coulson nodded in appreciation.

“This doesn’t feel right,” Thor said.

Finally, something Steve could agree with. “Tell me about it. Do you think—”

The God of Thunder clapped once. “I forgot to put out the cranberry sauce.”

*     *     *

Thor regaled the room with tales of his boyhood in Asgard, his audience hanging on his every word save Steve, who kept his distance as he tried to reason out why he was stuck in The Thor and Jane Thanksgiving Day Special. He thought he’d successfully returned the Reality Stone.

The Reality Stone.

Things made more sense now.

Well, a little more sense.

While the Infinity Stones were immensely powerful together, each Stone was formidable, having the ability to control a specific aspect of existence. He’d personally witnessed the powers of the Mind and Space Stones. Heck, Scarlet Witch used the Mind Stone to show Steve his greatest desire and worst nightmare—a reunion with Peggy Carter, cruelly taken away from him again. The Space Stone, the foundation of Hydra’s powerful weapons, disintegrated Red Skull right before his eyes and later opened a portal for an alien invasion in New York.

He had no such experience with the Reality Stone.

Until now.

Mere humans couldn’t wield the Stones without severe and possibly fatal repercussions, but Jane Foster had somehow used it to create her own version of reality. That she was alive showed there was more strength in her than anyone thought. Perhaps that was what Thor saw in her. At any rate, Steve needed to return to actual reality and get out of the one Jane conjured subconsciously.

“Something on your mind?” Coulson asked.

Steve gestured at Thor. “Just listening to the God of Thunder.”

“He’s laying it on pretty thick,” Coulson said. “Then again, if I were built like a mythological Norse god, I'd own the room, too."

“I’ve always thought of you as a mythological Norse god,” Steve said.

“Somehow I doubt that. Listen, I know I don’t belong here. You don’t belong here either,” Coulson said.

“It’s an interesting guest list, to say the least. Still, it’s nice to have somewhere to come for Thanksgiving,” Steve said.

“You don’t have to make small talk with me,” Coulson said. “This isn’t the time for me to talk about my new, complete set of vintage Captain America trading cards. Mint condition, no foxing around the edges. More importantly, no bloodstains. It would be a real conversation starter if things didn’t feel off.”

“No one else seems to notice,” Steve said. “Not even Fury.”

“One eye can only see so much.” Coulson smiled softly. “I’ve earned the right to make that joke.”

“He said he lost his one good eye when you died,” Steve said.

“Yeah, how about we change the subject?” Coulson asked. “You have somewhere to go—I can tell. You’re too polite to say anything because you’re Captain America. It’s important, isn’t it?”

“Most important mission of my life, Phil,” Steve said.

“You used my first name, so it must really be something,” Coulson said.

He could tell Coulson about so many things, from the fall of SHIELD to the rediscovery of Bucky, his falling out with Tony, the Infinity Stones, Thanos, the Snap, the high cost of their ultimate victory. But now was not the time and Coulson wasn’t really Coulson. He died before the Battle of New York, before the Avengers were the Avengers. This was a Jane Foster-produced alternate reality version powered by an Infinity Stone.

“I’m not quite as phony as you think I am and not quite as real as I appear,” Coulson said. “These Stones are whacked out that way. There are two ways this ends—well, three, actually. One: Jane Foster’s reality lasts in perpetuity. Two: you figure out a way to break the immersion and snap her out of it.”

Steve waited for a beat and then asked, “What’s the third?”

“She dies. Infinity Stones are incredibly powerful. A normal person can’t wield that power for very long.” Coulson crossed his arms. “I realize that’s not a pleasant thought.”

“No, it’s not, Coulson,” Steve said.

“Back to the last name again? And here I thought we were bonding.”

*     *     *

“And I stared down a barren plain full of nothing but cold and death and Frost Giants,” Thor said. “With the Warriors Three, Lady Sif, and Loki at my side, I slew many of them. But then the battle turned against us. My father showed up just in time. Had it not been for my failure in that moment, perhaps I would never have made it to Midgard. Perhaps I would never have met Jane.”

“Just imagine what it would’ve been like in New York without you,” Steve said.

“It would have been a fair battle for the Chitauri, then.” Thor downed his wine in a single gulp. “I am sorry for this, Jane, but I must do it for old times’ sake.” Thor hoisted the wine glass above his head and threw it onto the floor. “Another!”

The wine glass bounced harmlessly on the hardwood surface, though the force of the impact snapped the stem. “Most of our drinkware is made from recycled plastic,” Jane said. “Learned that lesson a long time ago.”

“You know what would be really interesting?” Steve asked. “You should take that hammer of yours and see if anyone can lift it.”

Thor adjusted his turkey hat. “You think someone else among us worthy?”

“I absolutely do.” Steve pointed at Jane. “And it’s her.”

At the bold proclamation, the room erupted in a collective “oooooooo.”

Thor held out his hand, and Mjolnir flew in from the kitchen. “Excuse me for just one second.” He grabbed a napkin from the table and wiped off the top. “Some excess mashing tuber on the hammer, I’m afraid.” He set it down on the table, handle up, and gestured toward Jane. “Whoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

“Give ‘em hell, Jane,” Darcy said.

Jane approached the table and wrapped her hands around Mjolnir’s handle. Her face strained and she gritted her teeth.

Nothing happened.

Thor smiled broadly. “Would anyone else care to try?”

Jane kept at it. She closed her eyes and relaxed. Thor gasped when she lifted the hammer and hoisted it into the air with her right hand. “Whoever holds this hammer, if she be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Lightning crashed through the ceiling.

“I recently re-shingled the roof. All for naught,” Thor lamented.

Jane held her smile for several seconds before it turned into a frown. “This isn’t right.”

“You are worthy, Jane,” Thor said.

“Damn right she is,” Darcy said.

“Maybe, but this doesn’t feel right.” Jane put down the hammer. “Thank you, all of you, for being here. We would’ve had a lovely time if life turned out differently.”

Thor’s and Jane’s living room faded away, and Steve found himself in Jane’s chambers on Asgard. He was in his Quantum Suit and Tony’s Time GPS was around his wrist. Jane no longer levitated and looked peaceful as she lay in bed.

Thor barged in holding Mjolnir. “Jane? Jane! Are you—Captain Rogers? Steve?”

“Long story,” Steve grabbed for his case, “and no time to tell it. Just remember, no matter what, you’ll always be worthy.” He punched in the next time coordinates.

Two Stones to Peggy.

*     *     *

The grandeur of Asgard left him spellbound, but the backwater nature of Morag’s remote landscape underwhelmed him. By now, so close to completing his mission, he didn’t have much patience. He avoided rodent-like creatures in the cavern leading to the Power Stone’s resting place, jumped a gap where some fearsome-looking creatures lurked, and made his way toward a temple-like structure.

He found Peter Quill still unconscious, just as Rhodey and Nebula said he would. The temple ahead held the sphere that housed the Power Stone. He swiped a tool from Quill and used it to open the door. It took him longer than expected, but door finally slid open.

A laser blast singed off the side of the temple. “That’s my haul in there, a-hole.”

Steve spun to face Quill. “Peter Quill. Playing possum, huh? Great.”

“Have we met before, assbite?” Quill trained his blasters on Steve.

“No, but everyone knows Star-Lord.”

At that, Quill’s demeanor brightened. “Galactically famous thief and rogue, at your service. Oh, and ladies’ man.”

“Accomplished dancer, too, I’m told,” Steve said. “Listen, if you’ll just let me go inside the Temple of Doom here, I’ll be on my way.”

Temple of Doom? What do you know about the greatest Indiana Jones movie of all time?”

“I know there’s some debate about which one’s the best,” Steve said. He’d crossed the whole series off his list. At heart, he was a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of guy.

“You’re from Terra?”

“I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”

“That’s on Terra, idiot,” Quill said. “Why’s a dude from Terra stealing my booty?”

“I know you’re here for the sphere, but it’s not what you think it is, at least, not yet,” Steve said. “But if you’ll let me do what I need to do, you’ll get exactly what you deserve.”

Quill kept his blasters leveled at Steve. “That sounds pretty ominous, jerkwad. Now, what’s in that case? What’s with the funky suit? Why are you so unsettlingly likable?”

“The suit is classified. The likability is natural, I guess. If you’ll let me lower my hands, I’ll show you what’s in the case.”

“Kick it over here and I’ll open it myself,” Quill said.

“It’s biometrically coded. No one can open it except me.”

“Then I’ll get your handprint after I kill you, Captain Handsomeface,” Quill said.

“How do you know I’m a captain?”

Quill cocked his head. “What?”

“Just let me open the case. No tricks.”

“Make one false move, and I’ll blast you to Xandar,” Quill said.

Steve kneeled next to the case and opened it. Purple and orange light poured from the Power and Soul stones.

“What, am I supposed to make a class ring out of those?” Quill asked.

“They’re Infinity Stones,” Steve said. “And I know where the rest of them are. I’ve got a map. Let me get it.” He reached into case.

Quill, blasters still aimed at Steve, looked confused. “You have what?”

Steve grabbed the Power Stone, threw it at Quill, and tossed one of Ant-Man’s size-changing discs at it. The Power Stone mushroomed to the size of a boulder.

“Son of a—” Quill activated his rockets to dodge the Power Stone.

Steve sprinted forward, vaulted off the stone, and tackled Quill in midair. Quill dropped his blasters and zigzagged through the air. Steve held on tightly and eventually managed to shut off the rockets. They both crashed to the ground.

“You’re going to pay for that,” Quill said as they rolled in the dirt.

“You got spirit, kid, I’ll give you that,” Steve said.

“Well, you can shove my spirit right up your ass.”

They rolled around for a few seconds until Steve got the upper hand. While Quill was strong, he was undisciplined. Steve knocked him out with a punch to the face—and then delivered a second one, just to make sure Star-Lord stayed down. Steve hoped he’d learn some humility one day.

He walked into the temple and used one of Quill’s contraptions to pull the sphere out of the energy field. He opened it up, replaced the Power Stone, and then tossed the sphere back inside. A ship landed in the distance, and Steve quickly exited the cave. He sprinted to the far end of the cavern toward an opening with an area large enough for his own vessel. He withdrew another Ant-Man disc and used it to bring his ship to actual size.

He set course for Vormir.

One Stone to Peggy.

*     *     *

Even though Steve was a fair pilot, he was more than happy to let the ship’s guidance system do most of the work so he could rest on the way from Morag to Vormir. He drifted in and out of sleep, his dreams a mixture of darkness and light, of Tony and Bucky and Nat and Peggy. The console beeped to let him know he’d arrived at his destination.

He found Vormir cold and uninviting, a rocky landscape of dread. He made his way across the plain to a hill with twin stone towers set against a foreboding sky.

A ghostly form floated into view and materialized. "Welcome Steve, son of Sarah.”

“Schmidt?” Hawkeye said a ghoul awaited anyone who visited Vormir. He never imagined it would be Red Skull.

“Once, years ago, I answered to that name. I was the Red Skull. Now, I am the Stonekeeper. It is my curse to know all who journey here.”

“I’m not here for the Soul Stone,” Steve said. “I’m here to return it.”

“Soul holds a special place among the Infinity Stones,” Red Skull said. “You might say, it is a certain wisdom.”

“Then it knows why I’m here.”

The cloaked figure nodded. “In a way, you are the Stonekeeper, Captain Rogers. I could banish you here if the Stone so desired, but I can hear it right now, and it wishes no such thing. Were I given greater discretion on such matters, I would make a different decision.”

“A lot harder without any Hydra flunkies to order around, isn’t it?” Steve gestured toward the barren horizon. “I like what you’ve done with the place, but I thought you were disintegrated.”

“The Space Stone cast me out, brought me here. I have waited in time and space for a chance at revenge. Now, with that chance at hand, the Soul Stone denies it to me. Such is the life of the Stonekeeper.” A gust of wind chilled the air. “You are here to make an exchange. You know the price. A soul for a soul.”

Steve withdrew the Stone and presented it to Red Skull. “You take this back, and I leave with Natasha Romanoff.”

“A sacrifice cannot be undone, Captain Rogers.” Whatever was left of Johann Schmidt seemed to relish the words.

Steve clenched his jaw. “That’s not my understanding of how this works.”

“Neither the Stone nor the Stonekeeper cares about your understanding,” Red Skull said. “Do you hear its song? It is a mournful tune sung since time immemorial. I have learned to listen to it.” He reached out, and the orange gem floated into his hand. “As you have returned this sacred artifact, the Stone allows your soul to leave. That is the exchange, you see.” The wind swirled as Red Skull looked toward the distance and tilted his head in understanding. “But the Stone is not finished with you yet, Captain. It orders a truce between us. I must offer you a gift.”

*     *     *

Steve stood on a surreal landscape with a reddish-orange sky. When he stepped forward, he walked on water. Each footprint produced a ripple.

A woman stood in front of a vending machine, her back to him. He knew this place—he’d left Fury’s thumb drive in the same vending machine some years ago. He also recognized the silhouette and the shoulder-length red hair, the style Natasha Romanoff wore back when Steve first learned about Hydra and the Winter Soldier.

She turned toward him. “We beat Thanos. We brought everyone back.”

“Not everyone,” Steve said. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not.” She embraced him. “Clint’s back with his family. That’s what I wanted. A lot of families are back together now, because of us.”

Steve swallowed away the lump in his throat. “Bruce tried—”

“He wanted me to come with him, but I couldn’t. Big Red wouldn’t let me leave,” she said. “I have to stay.”

“Tony didn’t make it,” Steve said. “Things got…complicated…and he couldn’t pull through.”

She smiled wryly. “Didn’t expect that from Stark. The psych profile was ‘textbook narcissism.’ Must’ve missed the mark on that one.”

“The two of you saved us, Nat,” Steve said. “All the Stones are back in place. We’ve set things right, or at least as much as we could. Can’t say I care for Vormir very much.”

“It has its charms,” she said. “And one of these days, I’ll actually find one of them.”

“Nat, I—”

“We’re Avengers, Steve. We don’t always get the happy ending, but we stand up when the world needs us. The world needed me. Clint tried, you have no idea how hard he tried, but I couldn’t let his family come back without him. If we don’t do this for family, what do we do it for?”

“If you say the word ledger, I’m leaving,” Steve said.

“I wiped it clean,” she said.

“You did. For all of us.” He hugged her tightly. “You’re the best of us, Nat.”

“Mission performance files back that up.” She drew back and wiped away a tear. “You take care of yourself. Tell everyone it was worth the cost.”

“They’ll never agree with that,” he said.

“Then do me a favor. Live the life you want to live.” She put a hand on the side of his face. “You’ve already been the hero you needed to be.”

Natasha Romanoff faded away, leaving Steve alone on Vormir.

He’d returned all the Stones.

Just one thing left.

Peggy.

*     *     *

For a man out of time, no time felt right—not even the one he’d once lived in. Nineteen-forty-five didn’t have Wi-Fi, the internet (so helpful), multiplexes, electric cars, smartphones, cable, or any of the amenities he’d grown to appreciate in “the future.” He’d chosen to arrive after the war ended and wished, just a little, that he’d kept his beard because Steve Rogers sure looked a hell of a lot like Captain America. And while that wasn’t a big deal in the early Twenty-First Century, it meant something to people in the mid-Twentieth.

Captain America couldn’t blend in.

Once, long ago, Steve Rogers could. He’d been shorter then, sickly even, but he did have the superpower of invisibility. When he was short and sickly, no one paid attention to him. Now, chiseled to perfection and standing six-foot-two, he was hard to miss. At least the quaint little town where Peggy lived didn’t have too many prying eyes. He used one of the Ant-Man discs to bring an old uniform back to size and found a place to change. If the records had been correct—and if the Avengers’ ambitious “Time Heist” had left the timeline intact as Bruce was certain it would—then he’d find her at the address burned into his memory.

The unassuming yellow home with white trim seemed the perfect place to start a family. He crossed the street, narrowly avoiding an oncoming car. Crossbones could put Steve off his game by mentioning Bucky, but Steve could do plenty of damage on his own by thinking about Peggy. So many years separated them; she’d lived a lifetime with a family of her own and he’d survived Alexander Pierce and Ultron and Thanos.

He hadn’t told anyone his plan (Bucky guessed it), but Steve asked Bruce several pointed questions about the nature of time travel. He did this, of course, under the guise of needing information for his mission. He didn’t tell Bruce “the mission” was getting back to Peggy. Bruce’s explanation, which thankfully avoided much technical talk because Big Green knew his audience, made it clear Steve couldn’t truly affect the future, or at least the future they’d saved by defeating Thanos. That timeline was set.

That Steve Rogers crashed in 1945 and came out of the ice in 2011. That Steve Rogers missed his entire life and devoted everything he had to protecting the world. That Steve Rogers battled Hydra in the present day, fought one friend to protect another, and clashed against Thanos’s army with Black Panther at his side. That Steve Rogers failed to keep the world safe before making good on a second chance.

That same Steve Rogers once told Tony that the guy who wanted family and stability went into the ice and someone else came out.

At the time, it was true.

Now that Steve Rogers could be another Steve Rogers. Another timeline. His timeline. He could find Bucky before he became an assassin and prevent Hydra from poisoning SHIELD from within.

Those things could wait, for now.

He strolled up the sidewalk. He’d replayed this moment in his head for decades. His dreams in the ice—seventy years of dreams—took him to the same place. He never imagined he’d see her again, young and vibrant. For all the terrible things Thanos did—and he did truly awful things—he forced the Avengers to think outside the box, and that meant possibilities Steve would never have conceived of before.

A Time Heist.

A simple life.

A chance to undo his greatest regret.

He didn’t have flowers or chocolates, but he didn’t need them. He would be enough.

She would be everything.

He cleared his throat and knocked on the door.

A few seconds later, Peggy Carter answered.

He had so much to tell her.

But for now, he only wanted that dance.

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