Steve stands by the window and watches New York lighting up. He tries to fit the silhouettes of his memory over the skyline, but nothing fits — there are more buildings, and they're taller and brighter. But, he tells himself, he never really saw things from this angle anyway.
He watches the traffic crawling by. So much traffic. So many cars, and buses, and bright yellow cabs. Red and white lights crawling in lines, horns honking, people calling and shouting at one another. The sounds float up to him, and so do the smells — the exhaust fumes and the mixed smells of garbage, warm concrete and fast food joints.
The future is full of things competing to be noticed.
He turns back to face the apartment. His personal belongings are split between private collectors, public museums, SHIELD, and the box on the living room floor. He hasn't opened it yet. He's not sure he wants to touch and feel things he can remember touching and feeling just a few weeks ago, when they have 70 years worth of wear and dust and age on them.
He reaches instead for the file Fury had delivered to his apartment. It's still open on the page he'd flipped to, trying to fool himself into starting with something a little familiar.
Stark, Anthony (Tony) | Iron Man
He'd figured it would be easier somehow to read about him than any of the others earmarked for The Avengers Initiative. But it's not easier, because the loss of Howard is still so raw and new, and Tony is more like Howard than Steve had been prepared for — especially in the photographs. He and Tony have the same visible defiance.
He flips back to the previous name in the index.
Romanoff, Natalia (Natasha) | Black Widow
Putting his pseudo-familiarity with Tony aside, a spy feels more comfortable to Steve than electric metal men who can fly. He's had training on spies — how to spot one, what codes they might use, how to extract information without ever asking a direct question, and how to appear like you're giving information without ever actually doing so.
His training, though, was never really put to use — not so many spies make it into the combat zones, after all — and besides, whatever Steve thinks he might know about spies and spying can't possibly apply to Black Widow.
He reads the brief history Fury has provided him. She was brought into SHIELD by Barton (another spy) after he was sent to kill her. Steve's skin prickles with the idea that perhaps Barton, and SHIELD, was wrong. That perhaps she has been a spy all along; that she is simply waiting for the next agent to come along and offer her a different deal instead of killing her.
He flips the file closed again and tosses it back onto the coffee table, rubbing his eyes. He's too angry at the world to be building anything. Too out of place to feel like he can fit in anywhere ever again. He can't shake the feeling he's woken up behind enemy lines, but he has nobody left to talk to about it; nobody left to trust but himself.
He's woken up with his life pulled out from under him. Everyone he knows and trusts is dead or dying or, best case scenario, so old he hasn't been allowed to see them until a proper plan can be put in place for his 'reveal'.
And there are a hundred other reasons not to do what Fury is asking him to do. A hundred other reasons to not become an Avenger.
But all Steve has ever wanted to do is serve his country, and SHIELD is where both Howard and Peggy ended up after the war. Maybe those are good enough reasons to just jump right in, eyes closed, no parachute, hoping for the best.
It turns out that Natasha is the first person from the file Steve meets face-to-face.
She's pretty — he notices that much. And he thinks she's got him worked out as soon as she sets eyes on him, and he's annoyed with himself for not preparing to meet her. For not giving himself a better chance to get ahead of just one more thing.
That feeling of waking up behind enemy lines crawls over his skin again. Fake hospital rooms, men watching him while he's asleep, and spies.
He doesn't get much time to dwell in his introduction to Natasha. Introductions to everyone are interrupted by things like a second Infinity Stone, and Asgardian gods, and suddenly Steve is dressed in his new uniform, with his old shield somewhere behind his seat as Natasha pilots their jet towards Germany.
He's nervous. He's nervous because he's in a new uniform he's not sure he wants to be wearing. He's nervous because suddenly it feels like there's no time to rethink any of his decisions, and he's nervous because Peggy is really the only woman Steve has properly spoken to, and Natasha isn't offering up any easy conversation.
"So," Steve says hesitantly, "I'm Steve."
She grins and glances at him sideways. "I know."
"I know you do, but we kind of got interrupted back there, when were were introduced, and I just wanted… a do-over."
She smiles again. "That's cute."
He prickles defensively. "I read your file."
"I read yours, too."
They lapse into silence again, the jet roaring around them, engines and wind noise.
A spy may use silence in order to encourage you to talk, Steve remembers. He can see the line typed on thin white paper, some kind of booklet he'd been handed at one time or another. A lesson on how easy it is to give away information because of a compulsive need to fill silences.
You don't have any information to give away, he reminds himself. And then, It's still just easier to say nothing to her.
But the silence drags on, and their flight is long, and Steve is restless, and tired of feeling alone in a world which seems to be trying to invite him in with a team and a purpose.
"You used to be a spy," he says.
"I'm still a spy." Natasha looks at him, and he knows she can see his apprehension, or at least sense it accurately enough. "Don't be too hard on yourself, Steve," she says. "You're not the only person around here who doesn't trust me."
He's not sure what to say to that, but it seems like his attempt at conversation — as much as it feels like a failure — has somehow softened her up a little, because she keeps talking.
"So how are you finding the future?" she asks, giving him a small smile.
He lets out a small laugh. "Well… it sure is something. I'm still trying to get my head around a lot of it."
"I've been trying to think what I'd do in your situation," Natasha says.
"I'm open to suggestions," he says wryly.
"I honestly don't know," she says. "I trying to think about it tactically, you know — find familiar places, people, things. See if SHIELD can still offer me something. But then there's the idea of all the technology I might have missed out on — especially at the rate Stark is building it. The music I've missed. The movies. Food. How cultures have changed and developed. Where do you even start with things like that?"
"Yeah." Steve swallows and stares ahead, though he can't see anything past the windshield.
"When I first came to America I had to try and fit in here, like I was one of them," she says. "I know it's not the same thing, but… I guess it's as close as I can get to how you might be feeling."
Steve can feel his defences crumble a little further. "How did you feel?"
"Lost. Alone." There's a beat. "Angry."
"I watched people a lot. Malls are good for that kind of thing, you know? Everyone's eyes just kind of glaze over when they're inside. They don't notice anything. Being followed, or mimicked. I'd try out different American accents on sales staff. Shoplift myself new clothes and accessories so I looked like all the other teenagers. Learned all the words to the pop songs they were playing through the speakers."
"You think I should hang out in a department store?" Steve asks.
"At least once," she says lightly, and she gives him that little smile again. "It helped me figure things out."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"You should probably lay off the shoplifting, though," she says.
Steve is back in the gym, working off residual energy that somehow hasn't burned away, despite everything the world has thrown at him lately. 70 years in the ice. Gods. Magic. An alien invasion.
"Hey," Natasha says, strolling past him and heading for the mats.
"Hey." Steve looks over at her in surprise. "Can't sleep?"
She lowers herself into a stretch and grins at him. "No rest for the wicked."
He shakes his head and starts pulling the wrapping from his fingers, unwinding it quickly. "You like your reputation," he says.
"What's my reputation?" She leans over and stretches her other side.
He's immediately sorry he's brought it up. Listing his assumptions suddenly seems dangerous and cruel.
She starts guessing. "Double agent?" she asks. "An operative sent from Mother Russia, to bring America to her knees? Am I with SHIELD, or am I biding my time before I kill you all?"
He stares at her, not sure what to say.
"There are advantages to my reputation," Natasha says. "And I find my fun where I can get it, Steve." She rises gracefully to her feet in one fluid motion. "Come and spar with me," she says.
"Spar with you?" he asks in surprise.
"It's team-building. I work better with Barton because I know what his next move might be. I can use my moves with his and it makes us both better."
Steve looks down at himself, conscious of his height and his strength against her. "I don't know," he says.
"Three rounds," she says, pacing around him. "You can duck out at any time if you get embarrassed about me kicking your ass."
He grins, despite himself. "Three rounds. Okay."
She stands opposite him. "Don't pull your punches."
"If I don't pull my punches, I'll kill you."
She gives him a slow smile. "Only if you hit me."
He laughs and bounces on the balls of his feet, his muscles already warm and loose. "Okay. Show me what you've got, Romanoff."
She comes at him so fast she gets a strike in, and it hurts and takes him off guard enough for her to get in a second. He blocks her third, barely, ducks a kick and swings his leg out to knock her down. She jumps, swings herself up over his shoulder onto his back and clamps herself on, knees tight against his ribs, arms locked around his neck as he's still on one knee, trying to catch his breath.
"Round one to me," she whispers in his ear.
They separate and face one another again. She gives him a sweet smile.
"That's the first and last time," Steve says. His heart is racing.
"We'll see." Her red hair catches the light as she comes at him again, and he braces himself, preparing for it to hurt again, though he can't keep himself from smiling.
The flash drive feels like it's burning a hole in Steve's pocket. He tries not to touch it — tries to keep his hands at his sides, out of his pockets. He watches through the glass as Fury slips away, and he half-listens to Natasha and Maria talking quietly, and he wonders if they know why this has happened. Maybe they know, but neither of them can tell him.
Don't. Trust. Anyone.
What if they're all trying to decode secrets and betrayals?
He knows now what it's like to feel like part of a team. The Avengers can work together, and to a certain extent they're friends. But that feeling of suspicion Steve woke up with has never completely burned away.
He's had his world pulled out from under him, and he still feels like he's living within an illusion, most days. That there's a layer of something else beneath what he can see; what he can feel.
Like he's never quite seeing anyone's true motive.
When Natasha leaves — teary and quiet, head down, Steve goes after her. He wants to tell her they'll find who did it, they'll get to the bottom of it, it'll be all right. He wants to give that to someone. Hope, and trust, and promises. He has to believe everything will be all right in the end. That he'll peel back that layer and uncover whatever is underneath.
But when Natasha turns around to face him, she's not upset. She's furious, and calm, and cold. "Why was Fury in your apartment?"
He's thrown off guard by the sudden swing in her emotions.
Don't. Trust. Anyone.
"I don't know."
But she has been trained for this. She is a spy. She knows what it's like, not trusting people, and not being trusted. She knows this feeling better than Steve does.
"You're a terrible liar," she says.
"You know that feeling where you're not sure if you're awake, or dreaming?"
"Yeah, I know it." Steve helps Natasha down onto the cot. "You're awake, but you shouldn't be. Get some sleep, Nat."
"I'm full of new blood," she says, and she rubs a thumb over the bandaid on her arm. "Who can sleep when they're full of new blood?"
"You can," Steve says firmly. "In the past 24 hours we've both discovered we're working for an organisation infiltrated by Nazis; we've been blown up and buried under a pile of rubble; we've jumped out of a speeding car straight into a gun fight; you got shot…" He raises his eyebrows at her. "Only one of us has super serum, you know."
She smiles at him, and her hand moves to her chest, fingers tracing the padded bandage under her shirt. "It's not so bad. I got something for the pain. And all the new blood."
"Stop saying new blood," he says, sinking down beside her.
"True though," she says, and she leans her head against his shoulder. "I could probably spar with you, if you wanted."
"I don't want," he says, and he takes her hand and thinks about what has happened since their mission assignment to the Lemurian Star. The text message she'd sent him. Mission alert. Extraction imminent. Meet at the curb. :)
"Hey," he says quietly, because she's leaning against him heavily and he really does want her to go to sleep, but he needs to say this anyway. "I'm sorry about not trusting you. Before today."
"I understand why you didn't," she murmurs. "I wouldn't have trusted me, either."
"Tough way to live," he whispers, and he wonders if being shot in the chest is enough for her to reconsider that it's a good way not to die.
She squeezes his hand and moves her head against his shoulder so she can look up at him. "Thank you," she says quietly.
"Stop making things so hard for yourself," he says. "Do you know how much easier things could be if you stopped encouraging people to think of you as the enemy?"
"You have your shield," she says. "I have mine."
"Well," he says, shifting out from beneath her and easing her down onto the pillow, "you can borrow my shield anytime you want."
She's pale, and in pain, and no longer hiding it very well. "Thanks," she says.
"Get some rest?" he asks. A polite request.
She gives off a lazy little salute and closes her eyes. "Yes, Captain."
Natasha leans closer to the mirror, brushing mascara onto her lashes. She's already got the wig on.
"You still look like you," he says nervously.
"Thanks, I think," Natasha says with a grin. "You look cute too, Steve."
"That's — that's not what I meant —"
She laughs at him. "Relax. This will work. SHIELD has other toys we can use. Voice modulation and a holographic mask. Pierce won't know it's me until I want him to. He probably thinks I'm dead, anyway."
"Nobody thinks you're dead," Steve says.
"Only one of us has super serum," she repeats back at him, eyes wide.
"Maybe I jumped the gun," he says, looking her up and down. He'd never be able to guess she'd been so severely injured. So behind on sleep, so overwhelmed with the world being so full of lies and illusions.
She adjusts the wig carefully, and looks at his reflection in the mirror beside hers. "We've got this," she says. "Righting the world is what we do."
He smiles at her. "Feels like we've got an uphill climb ahead of us."
"We always do," she says. She dabs lipstick over her lips, and it feels surprisingly intimate, the two of them side-by-side under the fluorescent light, watching their reflections. Natasha doing her makeup.
"Once we get this done," he says, "I need to go and find Bucky."
She presses her lips together and gazes at him. "I know," she says.
"You said you knew him. The Winter Soldier."
She clicks the cap back onto her lipstick. "Like I said," she says softly, "ghost stories."
"What stories?" He leans forward. "Nat, I gotta ask you. And it has to be now, because I don't know what's going to happen next. Bucky is alive. He's my friend. I need to know."
"I know." She turns to face him. No more reflections. "I know someone in Kiev. I can get some answers for you. The truth. Not ghost stories."
He can feel a fight bubbling up within him — the desire for the truth versus the desire for something immediate, truth be damned.
"Steve..." She sighs, and reaches for his hand, and he gives it to her, feeling her squeeze his fingers, her skin cold against his. "I'll help you," she says. "I promise. But we don't have time for the answers now."
He swallows back his disappointment. The ache in his throat which has been there since Bucky stared back at him, no recognition. Only hatred and determination. "I know," he says. "I know."
"Kiev," she promises. "I'll get you what you need. When all this is over. It'll be the first thing I do. I swear."
He nods, and squeezes her hand. "I trust you," he says.
They find him before he can find Bucky.
He's six months into his search, and he's bounced from America to Europe and back again. He thinks he's close enough now that the window between Buck and himself is as narrow as hours, not days, but now it's all blown up in his face and any advantage he might have had has been lost.
He assumes they're HYDRA, but it doesn't really matter. They're not showing much interest in bringing him in alive, and he's pinned down behind a Chevy pick-up in a multi-story parking garage, waiting for a moment to expose himself without getting killed.
Bullets spray the wall above him. He take a chance, plants one foot against the side of the truck and pushes it. It flips easily and skates across the concrete, takes out the first gunner, causes two others to dive for cover. He throws his shield, takes out two more still standing. He lifts his hand to catch it again but instead of bouncing off a pillar it's wedged in the concrete.
Darn it, he thinks helplessly, and then he's behind a white sedan, bullets peppering the the doors and shattering the windows.
There's a sharp cry of pain, and the sound of a body hitting the floor heavily, and then Steve hears the familiar ring of his shield being used to block a blow.
Buck, he thinks, surprised, grateful, anxious.
The sedan bounces with the weight of someone sliding over the hood.
Natasha lands gracefully beside him. "Hey," she says, not even breathless.
"Where'd you come from?" he asks in surprise.
Another hail of bullets, and Steve grabs her arm and pulls her sideways, glass scraping under their feet.
"Here's your shield," Natasha says. "Two on your left." She runs around the side of the car and Steve doesn't stop to think, he stands up and throws his shield to the targets she's indicated, and she's already sliding under it, graceful and confident, and she takes out the third agent by slamming her foot into his knee. He goes down with a shriek and she punches him in the throat, gets to her feet and finishes off agent number two, not quite incapacitated by Steve's shield hitting his chest.
They're all down, but police sirens are wailing closer and closer.
"Go up," she says to him. "You'll see the way out; get to the roof across the street; go west. Russell Street. Number 18." And then she's gone again, running towards the gathering sound of law enforcement, giving him a window of opportunity to get out.
The safehouse is sterile and cold, a fine layer of dust coating the modern plastic surfaces. Steve washes up in the bathroom and waits anxiously for Natasha, listening to the sirens still wailing several blocks away, a helicopter hovering overhead, making sweeping circles.
When Natasha finally shows up, she's wearing different clothes and there's a bruise emerging on her cheek. She shuts the door and leans against it for a minute, watching Steve.
"Hey," he says finally.
She smiles. "Hey."
"Thanks," he says. "For having my back. I didn't know you were there."
"I showed up just in time for all the action." She moves to the kitchen sink and runs the cold water. She squeezes a sliver of glass out of her palm and the water turns pink.
Steve waits for her to explain, but she doesn't. "Why are you here?" he asks eventually.
"Two reasons," she says. "Sam thought you could use some company now that he's gone —"
"You talk to Sam?" Steve asks.
"Mostly about you," Natasha says, grinning at him. "I think he might have a crush on you."
"What's the second reason?" Steve asks, pointedly ignoring her teasing.
"A mission. In Sokovia." She frowns down at her hand and holds it under the cold water again. "Tony's traced some tech and it looks like a Hydra cell. We think they've got the scepter."
Steve looks at her in surprise. "Loki's scepter?"
She shrugs. "There's a good chance." She shuts the faucet off and looks at her hand again.
"Just a scratch." She leans against the counter and looks at him, and then she smiles, properly, like she's only just seeing him for the first time. "Hey," she says again.
She takes two steps and hugs him, briefly, warmly, and then she ducks around him and heads into the living room, sending a cloud of dust up when she sinks onto the couch.
Steve's skin feels electric where she's touched him. He misses gentle things.
"We can stay here tonight, get an early start in the morning," she says. "Clint has a Quinjet."
"One of SHIELD's?" Steve asks.
"Stark's tinkered with it." She curls her knees up and wraps her arms around herself.
"Is this a SHIELD safehouse?" he asks, sitting beside her.
"It was one of mine."
"You don't think it's compromised now?"
"It might be." She quirks an eyebrow at him. "But it has running water, and a decent bed."
"I'll take the floor," he says.
"Don't make sacrifices on account of my virtue, Steve."
"I've been sleeping rough. If I go to a mattress now I won't be able to walk tomorrow."
"Sorry, I forgot you were 96," she says.
"And I forgot your virtue was —"
She cuts him off with a laugh. "96 and quick as a fox."
He nudges his knee against hers. "I'll let you get away with that one because you helped me back there, but that's the first and last —"
"Hmm," she says, wrinkling her nose at him. She stretches out, drapes her legs over his lap. "Water is running but there's no heat or electricity. We might have to cuddle to keep warm."
"I never really get cold," Steve says. "It must be the serum."
"Which I don't have," she reminds him. "So you're the big spoon, okay?"
He can feel his ears turning red.
Natasha just smiles at him and stretches again, her calves sliding over his thighs.
"Hm?" He's awake, but only just. He's relaxed — having another body in the room with him, having someone there to watch his back.
He misses Sam. And he was so close to Bucky, and then Hydra showed up, and now he's back to square one again.
Natasha curls into his side, wrapped in blankets.
"Cold?" he asks in surprise.
Her teeth are chattering. "Are you kidding me right now?" She burrows into him and he puts his arm around her.
"You don't want the bed?" he asks.
"I don't have to be on the floor, if you're too cold," he says, feeling guilty. "We can use the bed."
"This is fine." She gives a sigh, head on his shoulder.
He closes his eyes again, listening to the gentle tapping of wet snow against the window. Outside, the world is still — just the falling snow, which melts as it hits the ground.
"Hey," Natasha says quietly. "I'm sorry about Bucky."
The ache is back in his throat again. "Thanks," he says.
"We'll find him."
He smiles to himself. "Will we?"
"Mmhm," she says. "This isn't how the story ends."
"How does it end?"
She's quiet for a moment, and he thinks she's feigning sleep to try and get out of his question. He almost asks again, but she speaks softly, her voice low in the dark.
"Everybody finds their place in the world," she says. "That's how it ends."
"Don't you ever pull that shit on me again," Steve says furiously.
"You said a bad —"
The sun is setting outside the windows of the new Facility, the light gleaming on all the corners and glass surfaces. It's a big, empty space and they're alone, and the world is safe again — from Ultron at least — and Steve is exhausted and upset.
Natasha runs her hands through her hair and looks away from him.
He suddenly wonders how he ever had trouble reading her. He wonders how he ever thought that he would never know her; wonders how he could ever have thought that she would always be a spy and a secret and something to be doubted. He can see her standing in front of him now, Natasha, real and worried and guilty and not hiding any of it.
"Are you looking for an excuse to die?" he asks.
"Jesus, Steve," she says, looking annoyed. "No, I don't want to die. I just thought that if saving the world meant my death, it'd be a fair trade. And don't you dare say it wouldn't be."
"It wouldn't be," he says, still furious with her, and willing to say stupid and selfish things just to get his point across.
She gives him a hard look, her eyes bright. "Really?" she asks.
"You have a place in the world," he says, jabbing his finger at her. "And it's right here, and I'm sick of you trying to throw it away and pretend it doesn't matter to you."
"You need to stop pretending I'm worth more than I am," she says quietly. "It'll get us both into trouble."
"What do you mean, pretending you're worth more than you are?" he asks. "Natasha —"
She lifts herself up onto her toes, grabs the front of his suit, and kisses him, hard and hot and angry.
It feels like an electric shock through his body — his heart jolts in his chest, his breath stutters and burns in his lungs.
She pushes him away and takes a step back, glancing to the door, though they're still alone. Everything is quiet.
"Sorry," she says. She brushes her thumb over her lower lip.
He stares back at her. "You're never sorry for anything," he says, and then she laughs, and the rest of his anger dissolves away.
She wraps her arms around him and tucks her head against his chest. "I am sorry," she says. She looks up at him.
All of his energy is suddenly gone. Suddenly he can feel every bruise, every lost hour of sleep. "It's okay," he sighs. "I'm sorry too."
"It's nice to know you think so much of me," she says softly. She stretches up on her toes and kisses him again, gently this time, and he slides his hands around her waist and holds her there, bending lower to meet her, her mouth soft and warm against his.
He sighs again when they part, and rests his forehead against hers, eyes closed. "This is gonna get us into trouble," he says.
"That's okay," Natasha murmurs. "Trouble is what we're good at."
The world has been pulled out from under his feet again.
Natasha sits beside him on the hard church pew, looking up at the the stained glass windows and kindly pretending he hasn't just sobbed his heart out into her shoulder.
"This isn't the best time for this question," she says quietly, "but I don't suppose I can change your mind about those accords?"
He looks down at his hands. "I don't know how you can feel comfortable taking anyone's orders after what happened with SHIELD."
She doesn't answer that. Steve wonders if maybe it was a cheap shot. He takes her hand.
"I want to take responsibility for my own actions," he says. "All the Accords are doing is shifting the blame. Introducing red tape. We'll be less useful. We'll be reined in when we shouldn't be. Given orders I don't believe in. Told to toe a line I might want to cross."
"Who knew you were so rebellious?" she asks, giving him a small smile.
"You've always known," he says.
She laughs and leans her head against his shoulder. "I don't want to fight with you, Steve."
"We're not fighting. Are we?"
"No." She lifts his hand and kisses the back of it. "I just don't think I can say no to this."
"You have got to stop feeling guilty, Nat," he says, exasperated. "You're trying to make up for a past life you've paid off a thousand times over."
"It doesn't feel right yet," she says.
"And this feels right? The Accords?"
She looks up at him, her cheek still pressed against his shoulder. "It feels right to try," she says. "But I'd like you to try with me."
Steve traces his thumb over her knuckles. "I just don't think I can."
She sighs and turns to press her mouth against his arm. "Will you still let me kiss you?"
"Do the Accords saying anything about that?" He raises an eyebrow. "I'm all for rule-breaking, Nat, but —"
"Shut up," she laughs, and she slides her arm over his shoulders.
He kisses the top of her head.
"I'm sorry," she says.
"Not just about the Accords. I'm sorry about Peggy. I'm sorry you're hurting. I'm sorry we don't agree on this."
He draws a breath and shakes his head. He looks up at the stained glass above him. "It's not the end of the world," he says.
"It might be." She laces her fingers through his. "What if I'm told to come and arrest you? What if the Accords really set us against one another?"
"Don't." He shakes his head. "Don't say that."
"I'm trying to be realistic here, Steve."
"You're just proving there are more reasons not to sign them."
She mutters something under her breath and leans against him again. "When we get to the point where we look back on this — and we will — one of us will get the chance to say 'I told you so.'"
"Me," Steve says immediately, and Natasha laughs.
"Steve? Hello? Steve, if you're there, come in…"
Steve sinks into the seat and puts the headset on. Bucky sits in the seat beside him, watching him quietly, his arm frayed and jagged at the shoulder.
She swears into the mic. "Where have you been?"
"Beating hell out of Tony," Steve says quietly. He pulls his gloves off and looks at his bruised hands. "He'll need an extraction. Suit's down."
"Nat, I never meant for any of this to happen."
"I told you this would happen," she says angrily. "I told you they'd send us after you. I told you that, Steve."
"I know you did." He feels defensive and guilty, and not just about his conversation with Nat in the church days before. He has Tony's blood on his hands; he has the weight of a splintered team on his shoulders.
"Tell me where you are, and I'll send someone for Stark. And then you put stealth mode on that jet and you get away from there, Steve. Don't tell me where you're going." Her voice cracks.
"Don't come back here. The others have been arrested."
Steve's stomach drops. "Sam? Clint?"
"Yes!" she snaps. "Scott and Wanda too. And if you come back, or you go after them, you and Bucky will be thrown into the Raft with them. I don't know where T'Challa went but he can't be far behind you, so you need to move now."
Steve looks out through the open doors, where T'Challa is sitting in the snow with Zemo.
"Understood," Steve says softly.
"Get somewhere safe."
"I will. We will." He closes his eyes. "You need to go, Nat. If they know you've helped me —"
He swallows. "Is Rhodey okay?"
Bucky reaches for Steve and squeezes his arm. We gotta go.
"I don't know when I'll see you again."
Steve looks at Bucky and gives him a grim smile. "I can't ever seem to have it all," he says to Natasha. "I got Bucky back and lost everyone else."
"Thanks, pal, that makes me feel great," Bucky mutters, sinking back against his seat.
Steve listens, waiting for Nat to say something else. "Nat?"
Nothing, but he knows she's still there.
"This isn't how it ends," he says. "This isn't how it ends, I swear." And then, because he wants to say it, and because he means it and because he isn't sure when he'll get another chance to tell her, he says, "I love you."
"Something about this doesn't feel right," Steve murmurs.
Through the comm in his ear, Sam's voice is low. "Trust me, Cap. I've got a gut feeling."
"At what point did your gut feeling start overruling my gut feeling?" Steve asks. He starts moving up the stairs, back to the wall, placing each step he takes lightly and carefully.
"Since that disaster in Mexico City," Sam says.
"You know, that response is getting a little predictable."
The house is dark and silent. Graffiti is on the walls, broken glass and splintered furniture litters the dusty floors. The summer breeze moves the curtains silently.
The sound of a creaking floorboard behind a closed door. Steve stops and listens.
"I've got something here, Sam," he says quietly. "Top of the stairs."
"Don't do anything too hasty," Sam says, just as Steve kicks the door in.
She's standing against the wall between two shattered windows. Her hair is short and blonde, and her eyes are bright.
"Hi," she whispers.
Steve stares at her.
"Happy birthday, Cap," Sam says through the comm. He's still somewhere downstairs. "Nice work not getting shot, Romanoff."
She smiles and touches the comm in her ear. "I'm always faster than Steve on the first move."
"This was… you planned this?" Steve steps towards her. Reaches out to brush his fingertips against her arm.
"Happy birthday," she whispers. "I'm sorry it's taken me so long… I wanted to come sooner, I just…"
He shakes his head. Folds his arms around her and holds her tightly.
She clutches him, reaches up and kisses him fiercely. "I missed you."
He stares back at her in amazement, still struck dumb with surprise.
"Hey," she says, "what happened in Mexico City?"
Sam appears behind them. "I'll tell you later." He claps a hand on Steve's shoulder. "There's a cake downstairs, and I'm pretty sure also a million rats, so we'd better head down there and get to it first."
"Oh, I wouldn't eat it," Natasha says, leading the way, tugging Steve's hand. He follows her dumbly, watching her blonde hair shine in the dark. "I've had it in my pack for almost a week now, it's stale as hell."
Sam makes a disappointed noise.
In the kitchen, the floor littered with leaves and the cupboard doors hanging off their hinges, Natasha pokes a single candle into a squashed chocolate cake, and lights it with a cheap plastic lighter.
"Make a wish," she says, smiling at Steve, the glow shining on her cheekbones.
He grins at her, the flame dancing between them. So giddy he can't think straight. What to wish for when you've just been given the best thing in the world?
I wish you'd stay with me always, he thinks, and he blows the candle out.
Natasha grins at him, and then lifts her chin at Sam. "Thanks for helping me. I think we surprised him."
"i'll never trust either of you again," Steve says.
Sam squeezes his shoulder. "Not every day a dude turns 99. And who knows what next year will bring."
"Oh, we've burned up all our bad luck," Natasha says. She smiles at Steve. "And you wished for something good, right?"
He smiles back at her. "Birthday wishes always come true."
"See?" Natasha says to Sam. "Nothing to worry about."
Steve stands on the balcony with his back to the room, looking out across a green canopy of trees stretching like a carpet in front of him. He stands and he stares at the trees, at the smoke still lingering in the sky, no breeze to tear it apart.
And he listens, but there's nothing. No sound at all. Everything is still.
When he closes his eyes he is cast back: wet, torn earth, tree roots pointing to overcast skies. Splintered forests and smoking rock, and slow rivers of mud. The desolation and the silence where the German bombs had hit the ground, and nothing had survived, not even the birds.
Not even the birds.
His fingers are trembling.
His heart gives a sudden jump of relief. The sound of another voice; the sound of someone alive and standing.
And yet even in this eerie silence, Natasha is somehow less than it — no footsteps or whispering of clothing to betray her. She slides beneath it.
"Hey," he says. His voice is rough. He clears his throat and turns to look at her. Thank God, is all he can think.
Sam and Bucky… but Nat…
Her hands are clasped tightly in front of her. "I can't reach Fury." She blinks, eyes bright. "Hill… Lang…" She stops, maybe due to the expression on his face.
"What about Barton?"
She brushes a hand across her cheek, the shine of moisture on her skin. "Yeah, he's… but Laura and the kids… Laura and the kids…"
Steve is already too hollowed out. They failed. They failed.
His throat tightens.
"Hey," Natasha says softly. She's at his side suddenly, hand on his arm. "Sit down."
He half turns back to the balcony, aching for the view again suddenly — a sign of movement between the trees, a human voice calling out — but Natasha guides him back into the room until his legs are against the edge of the bed and he sits.
Somewhere in the back of his head a voice is trying to tell him to get cleaned up before he sits on the furniture — he's filthy; covered in dust and sweat and grime and… and god knows what.
HIs fingers twitch, the grit of Bucky's ashes still on his skin.
And the irrepressible little voice at the back of his head is worried about the furniture getting dirty.
"What will we do?" he asks. He feels hopeless. He feels empty, and drained, and lost.
"We'll figure something out." Natasha's hand cups the back of his neck. Her fingers stroke through his hair slowly. "We'll come up with a plan."
Steve slowly leans his weight against her, his face buried against her stomach. Her hands in his hair.
"It's all right," she says, and he knows she's trying to convince herself as much as she's trying to convince him. "We always think of something. This isn't how it ends."
Sound travels a lot further these days. There's a 21-gun salute within earshot of the facility.
Steve stands in the middle of the empty landing zone, watching the sun lower on the world. The crickets are starting to sing in the grass.
He senses Nat before she announces her presence with the gentle scuff of her shoe against the tarmac.
"Hey," he says. He turns to face her. "Haven't seen much of you today."
"I thought it'd be easier to face today alone," Natasha says, folding her arms. She gives him a small smile. "Old habits die hard."
He wraps one arm around her shoulders and pulls her in. "I'm glad you're here."
She lets out a shaky breath. "When it happened… I thought we'd have them back by now."
"It's been a year, and I thought we'd have some kind of sign… I thought we'd be further ahead on things than we are. I didn't think we'd still be trying to put the world back together."
He kisses the top of her head. Her hair is growing out — red showing at the roots again. "Remember our first mission together? When we went to fight Loki in Germany?"
She doesn't answer him, but he knows she remembers.
"Remember what you said to me, when we were talking about me coming out of the ice, and what you might do if it happened to you?"
She gives a short, bitter laugh. "I told you to go and hang out in a mall."
He smiles against the top of her head. "That wasn't really what I took away from it, Nat," he says. "You told me to find my place in the world again. Find a starting point."
Tears spill down her cheeks. "I'm sick of starting over," she says.
"It's okay," he whispers. He takes her face in her hands and wipes her tears with his thumbs. "We'll figure out a way to bring them back. The stones are still out there. We're gonna figure this out."
She stares up at him. She's silent, but he can see the hope in her eyes.
"And," he says, "you've always got a place here with me. I don't know if it'll ever be enough, but… you've always got a place with me."
Steve presses kisses down the line of Natasha's pale neck, in the hollow of her throat, across her collarbone. Her hands wind into his hair, but he keeps moving. Kissing his way over her breasts, her stomach, over her scars and her hipbones.
She arches back into the mattress when his mouth moves between her legs, kissing her firm and wet, gliding his tongue over her.
She writhes under him, fingers pulling at his hair, her hips rocking and circling under his touch. She swears when she comes, her thighs tight around him, legs hooked over his shoulders.
He rests his head on her chest, listening to her heart thunder as she catches her breath.
"You know," she says, "if we really wanted to abuse this whole time travel thing, I could engineer it to have a few copies of you here at the same time."
He tips his head back to look up at her. "What, one of me isn't enough?"
"I didn't say that," she laughs, trailing her fingers over his shoulders. "But I think I could handle two."
"Suddenly I'm relieved our supply of Pym Particles is so low," Steve says. He takes her hand and kisses her palm.
"Are you worried?" she asks.
He traces her lifeline with his thumb.
"Yes," she says, answering for him.
"Just thinking about what could go wrong. We've only got one shot at this. We have to get in and out. No do-overs. We know what —"
"Save the motivational speech for when everyone is here to hear it, Steve." She runs her fingers through his hair. "We'll be fine."
He props himself up on his elbows and looks down at her, her hair tousled against the pillow, cheeks still glowing. "Natasha..."
"No goodbyes," she whispers. "Don't do that."
He gazes down at her. He feels uneasy. He feels afraid. He's worried suddenly that they'll come out of this worse off.
"This will work," she says gently. "There's no need for goodbyes."
Steve curls a lock of her hair around his finger. "History tells me that if I get a chance to say goodbye, I should say it."
"Not to me." She reaches for him, and he kisses her, holding onto her tightly, unable to stop himself from worrying.
Natasha keeps her arms around him. "This is how it ends, Steve. Whatever it takes. We bring everybody back to their place in the world."
Steve sits on the edge of the bed, numb to the bone.
The others have filed outside, grieving, talking, planning.
But there's no bringing her back.
He wants to rage. He wants to throw himself against things, tear things apart with his bare hands, beat things savagely until he bleeds. He should have gone with her. He should have known that she'd do this. That she'd see it as a fair trade.
She'd said as much, years before. She knew how to measure her own life against everyone else's, and in her opinion there was no contest.
After everything. After having her with him through everything.
"Why did you do that," he whispers. He curls his hands into fists.
He's been losing people his whole life. Throughout his entire existence.
He sits silently on the edge of the bed and tries to convince himself it's a fair trade. Billions of lives. Billions of lives swapped back in, at a cost of just one.
He reaches over and touches his hand to the pillow where, according to the clock, Natasha had laid her head less than an hour before.
"Tell me how it happened."
Clint rubs his thumb on the wooden railing wrapped around the porch. The water in front of them glitters under the afternoon sun. "You know how it —"
"I need to know everything," Steve says. "Please, Clint. You said there was a guide."
"Yeah." Clint glances sideways at him. "Some red alien thing. Floating like a soldier of death." He grimaces, the words out in the air before he can think to stop them. "The Soul Stone required a payment. A sacrifice. A soul."
Steve feels a wave of anger and heartache wash through him. "Why didn't we know about this?"
"Because Nebula just thought Thanos was an asshole, she didn't know it was a rule. She thought maybe Gamora had fought him for it and he'd killed her." Clint shakes his head, narrowing his eyes against the glare of the water. "It's not her fault."
"No," Steve agrees. "I know." His anger deflates and is replaced by the familiar ache in his chest. "Did the guide explain it all to you?"
"He didn't talk that much, but what he said was… I dunno, Steve. He knew my mother's name. He knew Natasha's father's name. Or lied about knowing it. He kind of… announces your arrival."
Steve feels a prickle run down his spine. "Did you ask him questions about all this?"
"Not really." Clint folds his arms, shifts his feet. "Maybe we should have. I don't know if maybe we could have bargained another way, but… I don't think so. It made sense to us, you know? It just… it felt like a rule we had to follow."
Steve leans against the railing of the porch and doesn't bother trying to hide his smile. "Yeah, the two of you are known for being rule-followers."
Clint snorts and leans his elbows against the railing next to Steve, rubbing his face. "Fuck," he says. "Don't encourage the idea we could have done it any other way."
"No, I didn't mean to," Steve says, apologetic and worried all of a sudden. "Bruce tried to bring her back. He said he couldn't."
"Yeah." Clint's voice is soft. "Will you do something for me, though?"
"You don't have to ask," Steve says quietly. "I won't come back without doing all I can to bring her home with me."
It hits him as he starts the long, steep walk up the rocky path towards the towering stone pillars above. This is going to be lonely.
Steve stops and looks back, the orange light glinting on the windshield of his ship and the lake far below him. The red eclipse burns above his head.
He wishes Bucky and Sam could see this. He wishes he had a friend with him to share the butterfly shiver of awe in his stomach, the electric hum of anticipation and mystery under his skin. He smiles to himself as he thinks of Natasha and Clint standing here, staring at the same sky.
He doesn't know what he's going to do if he has to walk away from here alone.
He clears the top of the path and the ground evens out beneath his boots. The red sun is glowing above him, the snow falling soft and slow from the sky. Two enormous stone pillars point to the clouds, the rock looking more and more like the ruins of something once grand.
He waits, but no voice calls from the shadows. He puts a light touch against the handle of Mjølnir and moves forward, watching the dark hollows in the rocks for any movement. The snow falls silently.
"Is anyone here?" he asks, his voice sounding louder than he'd meant it to. The whistle of the wind falls away, and Steve feels the uncanny, crawling feeling of eyes upon him, before the voice finally speaks with chilling familiarity.
"Steven Grant Rogers… Son of Sarah."
Steve's throat goes dry. His fingers tighten around Mjølnir, knuckles white.
The Red Skull floats before him, black rags drifting in the wind, his skin red and dark beneath the shadow of his hood. His teeth gleam as he bares a smile. "We meet again, Captain."
"Schmidt…" Steve's voice almost cracks.
"You, of all people, are already aware that I am no longer Johann Schmidt," he says. "Here, in this place, I am the Stonekeeper." His gaze does not waver. "I guide others to a treasure I cannot possess."
Steve rolls the stone in his hand and rubs the glassy surface between his fingers. "I already have the stone. I'm here to put it back."
Schmidt's expression does not change, though Steve thinks perhaps there is something in his eyes — human emotions still buried there. Scorn, and contempt.
"I want to exchange the stone for Natasha Romanoff," Steve says, his voice clear and steady.
"Natasha Romanoff's life was given in exchange for the stone. It was a one-way trade. No such sacrifice can be undone."
"Who decides that?" Steve asks. "Do you?"
"There are rules in this place," Red Skull says. "Rules. Not bargains to be bartered and struck."
Steve didn't come all this way to be told 'no' by the Red Skull. "Rules can be broken," he argues.
"There are differences!" Schmidt snaps, sounding angrier and more human with each word. Steve's skin crawls with the familiarity of it. "Humanity builds and breaks its own rules and considers the pattern applicable to the universe. There are no such weaknesses in a place like this! This is not a place for selfishness, this is not a place for human beings!"
"That can't be true," Steve says, his heart racing. "To get the Soul Stone you need to sacrifice something you love most, and there's nothing here to say it won't work if selfishness is what drives you. You have to sacrifice a life, a soul, and you can't tell me those rules aren't built on humanity's foundations. Don't tell me the rules don't rely on people making human choices with human emotions and human beliefs."
Schmidt stares back at him silently.
"You can't convince me you don't have the power to grant what I'm asking," Steve says, but even so, his heart is sinking, his hope flutters and weakens in his chest. Because even if Schmidt has the power to grant what is being asked, surely he is the last person in the universe to bow to Steve Rogers and his desires.
"I am only a guide in this place," Schmidt says. "I was cast out by the Tesseract; I was banished here for trying to wield a power I was deemed not worthy to have." For the first time, he looks down at Mjølnir, the handle still tucked into Steve's utility belt, all appearances indicating it light as a feather.
Schmidt speaks again, very quietly. "I see your worth has also been measured."
Steve grasps the handle and hefts Thor's hammer in his hands. "Is this proof enough?" he asks. "Am I worthy enough to ask a favour of the Soul Stone?"
The wind whistles over the rock and swirls the snow falling between them. The sky burns orange and red.
"It does not work like that," Schmidt says finally.
"How do you know? Has anyone brought the stone back before? Or was Thanos the first to take it?"
"Many journeyed here before Thanos, with the desire to take the stone," Schmidt says. "But to take it requires the ultimate sacrifice. Not all who stand before me are able to make such commitment. If there is nothing permanent to it, if there is no true weight to the decision or life or death, the stone would have been taken long before you or I got here, Captain."
"I want this sacrifice to be permanent. I want to leave the stone — without the ability to win it back again — in return for Natasha's life. The stone, forever, in return for one natural human lifetime."
"The life has already been given," Schmidt says.
"You and I both know there's always an escape plan," Steve says. "There's always a loophole, or a weakness, or a caveat. Natasha deserves to win something back, and if I can ask for that on her behalf, I'm going to."
He steps past Schmidt, through the stone pillars. He walks to the edge, the wind cold on his face.
Sweat runs down his spine and the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, but he doesn't turn around. He doesn't turn to see if Schmidt is behind him, waiting to push him in the back — a human desire still buried within him; a selfish wish still waiting to be granted.
Steve looks up at the sky. Natasha fell from this ledge. He thinks about the last thing she heard being Clint's voice, and the last thing she saw this big, burning eclipse and orange clouds.
And he thinks about Natasha: at his side, guns in her hands; sparring with her on damp spring grass behind the facility; wordlessly handing him a mug of hot coffee; stretching on the floor in her ballet shoes; the weight of her body on his shield as he pushes her skywards; her soft sleeping breath on his shoulder. A life — her life, entwined with his.
He got a second chance at life. Schmidt got a second chance at life.
He'll be damned if Natasha doesn't get one too.
"Time to come home, Nat," he says, and spins the stone off his thumb, flipping it like a penny into a wishing well.
It flashes in the orange light and tumbles down through the flakes of snow, and the red sun flares behind the dark shadow of the moon.
Steve aches all over. Ice cold water laps at his skin.
He breathes out slowly and blinks his wet lashes. The red eclipse still burns.
Schmidt pushed me, he thinks, numb with shock and cold and hurt.
He sits up, water running down the inside of his suit. He touches one hand to Mjølnir's handle, reassuringly still at his side. Sitting up makes him feel better – the pain pulsing in his shoulders fades, his lungs stop aching and he sucks in a shaky breath.
The sound of water splashing and trickling makes him turn.
Natasha sits up slowly, one hand against the back of her head, her hair soaked with the cold water from the lake.
She jumps, hands immediately flying into a defensive position, ready to strike. She blinks at him, eyes wide, and her expression turns to worry and dismay. "What are you doing here?"
Steve staggers to his feet and reaches for her. She hesitates for a split second before she lets him lift her up, and then he's crushing her in a breathless hug, heart thundering in his chest.
He laughs, and cups her face in his hands, kissing her breathlessly. "It worked," he says. "I think I just bent the rules of the universe."
He kisses her again — she's warm and real and alive, he can feel her breath on his cheek, he can see the flush of red blood beneath her skin. "Are you all right?" he asks. He kisses her again and again, runs his fingers down over her braid, over her shoulders, wraps his arms around her tightly.
She looks up at him, eyes wide. "Are we dead?" she asks. "Where's Clint?"
It all comes bubbling up — everything she don't know; everything he'll have to explain. The stones, Thanos, the fight… Tony. Suddenly he's exhausted; suddenly it's almost too much and he doesn't know where to begin or what to say.
"Steve?" She prompts him again, frowning up at him. "Where's Clint?"
"Clint's home," he says. "He's safe. He's — he's with Laura and the kids. Home."
Natasha stares at him. He sees the disbelief, the mistrust spark in her eyes, and he hurries to explain. "I have to put the stones back. And I threw the Soul Stone back and I asked it to give you back to me and... and it did."
"The fucking stones." She steps away from him and rubs at her eyes, looking up at the clifftop she'd launched herself from. "Why didn't you destroy it? What's to stop Thanos coming back to take it again?"
"It's going to take a long time to explain all that," Steve says. "I promise I'll tell you everything, just... just come here." He wraps his arms around her again and hugs her.
Natasha's voice is muffled against his chest. "You're sure we're not dead?"
He laughs against the top of her head. "Not today."
She closes her eyes and leans into him. "We won?"
"Yeah. Yeah." He kisses the top of her head and pulls her closer. "It's over. Thanos is dead. Everyone is back."
"And everyone's okay?"
He pauses, trying to figure out his next words.
Natasha lets out a shaky breath and he knows she's bracing herself, trying not to jump to conclusions, trying to weigh the cost of everything.
"Tony," he says eventually. "We lost Tony."
Her weight against him gets heavier. "Fuck," she says. "Fuck."
He cups the back of her neck. Her hair is wet and cold against his skin, her braid coming apart. "Strange said it was the only way."
She tips her head back, tears shining on her cheekbones. "Can you bring him back? Like me? Can you bring us both back?"
She reads the answer in his face, and pulls away from him again. "Why not? It worked for me. The stone let you bring me back, why can't we —"
"Nat," he says softly.
Her shoulders slump. She looks back up at the stone ruins and wipes her eyes with her sleeve.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I am, Nat. I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault. It's just…" She blinks, and a tear rolls down her cheek. "Up there, with Clint, I felt like… I felt like maybe this was the way things were supposed to be. I kind of made my peace with it, you know? I thought, at least, everyone else will come out okay." She looks at him helplessly. "It'd be worth it, if everyone else was okay."
He gazes back at her. "I can't bring Tony back, Nat. I can't. And he knew that too. I'm sorry, but this is the only ending I can get."
She gives a short laugh and wipes her eyes. "It should have been me."
"It was you," he says sharply. "It was."
She steps towards him again, and she kisses him like the first time she kissed him — angrily, with heat and force and frustration boiling away within her.
When they separate, he keeps hold of her, and he can feel the fight fading out of her.
"I don't want you to think I'm not grateful," she says finally.
"I was angry when I woke from the dead, too," he says.
She sighs and rests her head against his chest. "You've got to stop breaking the rules for me, Steve."
"This wasn't breaking the rules," he murmurs, kissing the top of his head. "Just think of it like... like a little light shoplifting."
She laughs. "Very light fingers, Captain."
He grins at her. "You know, I still have five Infinity Stones to put back. It'd be nice to have some company. If you're up for it."
"Steve Rogers," she says, "are you asking me to go on a space road trip with you?"
"Technically," he says, "I think it's more of a road trip through time."
She stretches up to kiss him again. The red sun shines on her hair. "My place in the world is with you, remember?"
He smiles. "I remember."
"So I guess the next question is..." She turns the GPS device around on her wrist and raises her eyebrow. "You wanna make some history?"