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Ashes of Eden

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It was the way Sandra Givens broke through the crust of Peggy’s famous crème brûlée that finally cracked Steve’s resolve. She gingerly wrapped her slim fingers around the ornate silverware Peggy only aired out for guests and special occasions, but her pinky was pitched high into the air, and the crimson polish adorning the arrogant digit glinted in the dim dining-room lighting like a bad omen. Steve watched as Sandra guided her spoon toward the dessert, the move as silent and efficient as a swing from an assassin’s blade, and felt the world began to close in around him.

He looked on as she shattered the delicate, sugared crust and scooped out a hefty bite. Steve shivered as the pudding disappeared between a pair of ravenous lips, twin petals of overpainted flesh that were curled up into a macabre smile. The white-bleached tone of Sandra’s hair glowed eerily under the light, and the crown of ringlets framing her face were coiled so tight Steve was sure they would unwind and strike at him like Medusa’s serpents if he made any movement. The entire scene reminded him of a twisted fairytale, and it set his nerves on fire.

Steve took in a stuttered breath. He felt the pot of guilt he had been guarding for months finally boil over, and he barely managed to keep his expression neutral as a scalding wave of emotion rushed through his heart and flooded his circulatory system, choking off the oxygen supply to his brain.

“Oh, come now, Steve, it was just an innocent question,” Peggy tittered in a falsetto tone. She gave him a distinctive look that revealed she would be taking over the conversation, and Steve was grateful when she slipped her hand into his and gave his fingers a firm squeeze.

 “Steve and I don’t want to rush into parenthood, Sandy,” Peggy offered. She took a delicate bite of her dessert and allowed their guests a minute to absorb the information. “We both have huge commitments to fulfill with our work, and it would be tiresome to take on any more stress. We just don’t have the time, or energy, to start a family right now.”

“Well, I think that’s your cue to start planning on life after the military, Rogers,” Roy Givens smirked, his beady, blue eyes shining with mirth. He raised his water goblet to his lips, making sure to hook his pinky finger around the glass stem, and took a meager sip that was just for show.

“I got it made working at the bank – alls Sandy has to worry about is keeping house and tending to the boys. Well, between her hair appointments that is,” Roy guffawed. He reached over and slapped Steve on the shoulder. “I’m good chums with the bank president – we go golfing every Saturday. I can put in a good word for you when you’re ready. We’re always in need of Tellers.”

Steve closed his fist around the yellow, cotton napkin guarding his lap and offered Roy a tight smile. “That sounds great, Roy, thanks.” He cleared his throat and slipped his hand out of Peggy’s hold. “But Howard Stark’s already offered me a position with a company he’s stitching together. It should be up and running by the time my Army contract is up, and well, who knows? I might just reenlist when the time comes. My options are endless.”

Roy laughed and wiped his greasy mouth with the back of his pudgy hand. “Come on, man, please tell me you’re joking! I know you’re smarter than that, Rogers! Leave the military grunt work to the dimwitted plebeians and corrupt politicians. Present company excluded, of course,” he offered, raising open palms towards Peggy’s direction.

“Of course,” Peggy smiled, covering her half-eaten dessert with her napkin.

Steve received her message. “Well, we’ll see what life throws my way,” he closed, placing his napkin on the table. “But we can pick up this topic Friday night at the poker game, Roy. It’s half-past ten, and I need to hit the sack if I plan on having any energy tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, nonsense! Peg and I still need to get the dishes done,” Sandra twittered, rising from her chair. She smoothed down the flared skirt of her taupe shirtdress. “I’m sure you boys can fit in an after-dinner drink while the ladies put the kitchen back together.”

“That’s nice of you, Sandra, really, but it’s my turn to do the dishes tonight.”

Sandra shared a quick look with Roy, her fingers fluttering at her sides. “O-oh,” she croaked, “how nice. It’s nice of Steve to…treat…Peggy, isn’t it, Roy?”

Roy passed his hands down the front of his collared shirt, pushing the crumbs he’d collected during dinner to the floor. “Didn’t know the Army's in the business of making sissies,” he grumbled. He spoke in a hushed tone that was meant to carry away his words unheard, but Steve heard him loud and clear.

“What’s that, pal?” Steve coaxed. “You want to take home some dessert?”

“Uh, yeah, that sounds great. Thanks, Steve.”

“Anytime, Roy,” Steve smiled, rising from his chair. He internally winced as Roy rose from his seat and stepped on a small blob of mashed potatoes, his hefty weight pushing the mush deep into the textured strands of the beige carpet. “I’ll make sure Peggy throws in a container of green bean casserole – it makes a great midnight snack.”

Steve and Peggy had the Givens packed up and ready to go within ten minutes. They walked their neighbors out and stopped just short of the driveway. Steve wrapped an arm around Peggy’s waist and lifted his free hand in a courteous farewell. “See you Friday night, Roy!” he called out. “I’m feelin’ lucky, so be ready to pay up!”

“We’ll see about that, Rogers!” Roy hollered back. Sandra shuffled the perishable cargo in her hands and waved from the front porch before disappearing through the front door. Roy offered Steve and Peggy one last wave before stepping into his house and shutting down the outside lights.

Steve stared at the Givens’ darkened porch for a long second. “We should move,” he sighed.

Peggy pressed her face into his shoulder and laughed softly. “Oh now, don’t be like that, Mr. Rogers. Some people afflicted with stupidity can be cured if they are open to the treatment. Did you notice how Sandra didn’t insist on scrubbing our house after your little announcement about being responsible for the dishes tonight? There’s hope for the Givens yet.”

“You’re a peach, Mrs. Rogers,” Steve chuckled. He turned his head with the intention of giving Peggy a kiss, but he caught sight of her gaze, bright with adoration, and felt his stomach seize. The light of the last full moon of the month filled his wife’s eyes, highlighting every detail of her irises down to the last freckle. Steve traced the planes of her elfin face with a pensive look, locking each curve into memory.

Margaret Carter’s beauty is beyond description, and she houses one of the fiercest spirits that Steve has ever known. But. Her eyes are the wrong color, a significant detail that has barred her from unlocking his heart 100%.

“What’s wrong, darling? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Just a little tired,” Steve offered, pressing a light kiss to her temple. He sighed, his long lashes fluttering closed as he fought to keep the guilt from eating its way out of his chest. Steve forced himself to open his eyes and look at his wife, a wildflower he had no right to pluck from its untamed garden in the universe.

He was a selfish bastard.   

“Why don’t you go inside and get ready for bed, Peg? I’m going to stay out here for a few minutes and clear the dinner stress from my head.”

Peggy gave him a bewildered look. “All right,” she offered, slipping out of his embrace. The tips of her fingers trailed across his chest, the energy of her soul tugging on the frayed rope holding Steve’s remaining composure in place. “I’m going to have a bath before bed. See you in a bit?”

“Yeah, sounds good, honey. I’ll be up soon.”

Steve waited until he saw light fill the middle window on the second story before he gave in to the flood of emotion burning under his skin. He took a seat on the last step of his porch, ignoring the cold bite of the dew-kissed wood, and buried his face in his sweaty palms. Steve couldn’t believe he’d almost lost his composure during dinner over a simple, annoying question all newlywed couples faced until the day they conceived a child.

“So, when are you two going to start making little Roger babies?”

 Steve had buried the topic of family, and all its subtopics, under a ton of desperation and self-loathing the day he decided to live out his fantasy in a temporary universe. He’d successfully managed to navigate through the baby-question battlefield the hundreds of times he and Peggy had been bombarded with its sudden appearance, but there was something in the air tonight, a presence strong enough to push him directly into the line of fire with no weapon or body armor. Steve had been unprepared and vulnerable.

Susan’s question had leaped from her mouth like a war dog on the hunt, and it had zeroed in on the family-subject gravesite hidden deep within his mind in less than a nanosecond. The damn thing had ripped through the steel walls of the camouflaged mausoleum and exposed Steve’s guilt to the universe for judgment.

“I was gifted with two joys, Steve. Can you believe that I actually chose to become a mother?”

Steve shuddered at the memory. Peggy had been so happy to see him alive after mourning his death almost her entire life. Every time Steve stopped by for a visit, she recounted the lifetime of happiness that she’d found. Near the end, each hour seemed to mark a new day for Peggy, so Steve would often hear her tale several times during a single visit. Peggy’s voice had been filled with such tenderness when she spoke, and her love for her family, including her husband, had filled Steve’s heart to the brim.

And then one day, Steve made a choice to suck the life from a pair of innocents before they were even conceived, just to satiate his need to live out a lost dream. His current, muted joy was founded on the desiccated souls of Peggy’s most beloved people in the universe, and she had no inkling that Steve had robbed her of a priceless treasure.

“Oh, God, what have I done?” Steve hissed. He pulled at the roots of his hair and tried to swallow down the lump of misery in his throat before it suffocated him.

“My, you look quite dreadful, Captain. Perhaps that slice of the American Dream you stole from the pantry didn’t sit well with your stomach. Too much artificial, domestic bliss mixed into the recipe? It takes a special kind of breed to stomach such poisonous waste.”

 Steve’s head whipped up so fast he almost fractured a vertebra. “S-Strange?” He turned panicked eyes toward his house.

“It’s Dr. Strange, Captain,” Strange corrected, levitating toward the front porch. “And you need not worry about disturbing the peace. I have taken the liberty of…pausing…your life.” He lowered himself down slowly for drama’s sake, which settled Steve’s nerves just a touch. “I’ve been keeping an eye on you for quite some time now, wondering how long you intend to nurture this pathetic farce of a life.”

Steve released a trembling breath and collapsed into himself. “I always meant to go back one day,” he confessed. “This was never supposed to last.”

“Oh, I am aware of your intentions,” Strange drawled, crossing his arms. “On Titan, I scanned through the numerous outcomes of our possible survival, and, much to my disdain, I had the misfortune of witnessing you force life into a lost dream, a cold, dead star. For the life of me, I cannot understand why you chose to create a home inside of a corpse, Captain.”

“I just wanted some peace!” Steve snapped, jumping to his feet. “There was nothing left for me after…after everything.” He took in a shuddering breath and moved backward, his footing heavy with grief. “We brought everyone back. We defeated Thanos and prevented God knows how many deaths, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, Strange. And I – I was tired of walking in a world of ghosts I could never exorcise!”

“Oh, pray tell, Captain,” Strange sneered, cutting the air with a sharp wave of his hand. “What loss came with a weight so substantial the great Captain America could not lift it?”

Steve ran his hands down his face, wiping the wetness from his skin. He turned away for a long moment, pressing the heel of his right hand into the center of his chest. His dark eyelashes fluttered closed, and Steve opened and shut his trembling mouth several times, but he did not speak.

Strange sighed and glided over toward the humble, white railing framing Steve’s porch, ignoring how the Cloak of Levitation reached out and grazed Steve’s arm in a comforting gesture. He leaned against the legs of a narrow pillar and forced himself to wait for Steve’s response, but none ever came.  

“I assume you speak of our fallen comrades, Natasha and Tony,” Strange finally continued. “War always comes with a cost. You are a soldier, Captain, one forged through immeasurable bloodshed spilled over two different lifetimes, so you should understand this bitter fact better than anyone,” Strange chastised.

“It should’ve been me!” Steve growled, propelling himself into Strange’s personal space. Angry, cerulean eyes, glistening with sorrow, pierced Strange into place. “I should’ve paid the price,” he continued, hitting his chest with open palms. “I was born a day late and a dollar short, but I chose to make friends with my suffering. I never lost hope! I have always fought to protect others - no matter what it cost me - because it was the right thing to do! You would think the universe would cut me a break after I helped save its ass and put me out of my damn misery!”

“Destiny is not in the business of bestowing misery for the sake of amusement, Steve,” Strange offered, his tone uncharacteristically gentle.

“I swear, Strange, if you tell me that hardships build character, I will rip out your tongue and feed it back to you,” Steve spit, balling his hands at his sides.

“I’d like to see you try,” Strange barked, straightening his posture. He glared at Steve and forced himself to take in a long, cleansing breath, gradually releasing his annoyance into the void. “I did not come here to fight with you, Captain,” he finally redirected. “Whether you want to hear it or not, heroes are forged through pressurized darkness, and only those with strong hearts survive the process.”

Steve scoffed, a mirthless chuckle rumbling in his chest. “Yeah? Well, tell that to Tony. His heart was the toughest in the entire universe, and he didn’t survive the process.”

Strange stepped forward and placed a heavy hand on Steve’s shoulder, locking eyes with the distraught man. “Surviving the process does not guarantee the hero lives to experience the peace he liberated from malicious forces. You also know this, all too well, my friend.” He paused. “You had the misfortune of being resurrected to guide damaged souls toward realizing their potential. Destiny assigned you that duty. You should think about what being chosen for such a responsibility speaks of your heart, Steve Rogers.”

“The Avengers would’ve eventually convened on their own, Strange, with Fury’s help. They really didn’t need a relic mascot to cheer on the process.”

Strange sighed and squeezed Steve’s shoulder. “Tony Stark fulfilled his purpose,” he declared. “Even now, his sacrifice is inspiring those who are currently walking through the unyielding darkness of their personal hells to keep pushing forward. One day, they will become the heroes that will preserve the future he died to protect.”

A choked sob spilled from Steve’s quivering mouth, and the raw sound was heavy with unspeakable grief. “Tony was my friend, my family,” Steve breathed, hanging his head. “And I can’t bear to think about him being gone.”

“You loved him.”

Strange’s declaration stopped Steve’s grief right in its tracks, leaving his mind reeling from the instant deceleration. He swallowed hard, his throat clicking from the force of the movement. He inhaled, holding the breath, as he balanced his heart on the single thread of control he had left.

Steve finally raised his head and met Strange’s knowing gaze. “I still do,” he answered, squaring his shoulders. “I loved Nat, too.”

“Ah, but not like Tony,” Strange pressed, tilting his head just a touch. “You were barely fazed when Natasha stood against you during the Accords fiasco, but you completely fell apart when Tony denounced your friendship.”

Steve pulled away. “I was angry at myself for hurting him, and I was sad that I caused him to lose faith in me.”

“Oh, come now, Captain – speak the truth. His rejection of you broke you in a way you had never before been broken,” Strange clarified.  “Losing your bond with Tony Stark affected all of your connections, especially the one you fought so hard to protect. Tell me, Captain, was Bucky worth snuffing the life from your heart?”

“You leave Bucky out of this,” Steve sniped. “He was a victim! He deserved a chance to redeem himself, for his sake.”

“Yes, but deep down inside, you resented him for costing you that which you held most dear. Am I incorrect, Steve?” Strange gambled. “You informed Bucky that your contact with him would be minimal to decrease the chance of exposing his location. But that was not the whole truth, was it?”

“No,” Steve hissed. “I – I was angry at being forced to make a choice. There was a way to save him without sacrificing friendships.”

“And what is this path you speak of?”

“I should’ve talked to Tony,” Steve breathed, his anger deflating. “I should’ve been honest with him about his parents – about everything.” He loosely covered his mouth with the fingers of one hand, a feeble attempt to hold back the truth that he’d been carrying for so many years. He sighed and dropped his hand to his side, exposing his heart.

“I should’ve told Tony that I feared losing him, that I feared how his loss would change me if he walked away from me. I should’ve told him that I’m just a man, one who fights for what he wants.” Steve turned his face, closing his eyes. He didn’t want to see Strange’s judgment. “I stayed silent because I was fighting against time. I was selfish - I just wanted to stand beside Tony just a little longer before I turned his world upside down.”

Strange remained silent for a long time before speaking again. “You sought out Tony’s energy in the friends who publicly dared to remain at your side, which explains your short dalliance with Natasha.”

“That was a moment shared between two friends who needed to feel a connection free of guilt, just for a while.”

“But that is not quite how it worked out, is it? Natasha had a spunky attitude that rivaled Tony’s – I will give her that. But her eyes were the wrong color, too, right, Captain?”

“Damn you, Strange,” Steve barked, pushing his shoulders back. He threw up his hands haphazardly into the air. “What are you even doing here? Have you come to drag me back? You want to saw off this universe-branch at the base and watch it wither into oblivion?” Steve stood tall and locked his eyes with Strange’s gaze. “I can live out a whole life here without messing with the timeline. Why won’t you let me have that?”

“Because it would be a wasted life,” Strange intoned, taking a step toward Steve. “But you already know that. Just as I already know that you intend to diminish into obscurity the moment you return to the original timeline. You will be as young and worn out as the day you left to return the stones, resurrected for the second time. Only this time around, you will court death with open arms, and It will ultimately reap your soul.”

Strange pushed himself into Steve’s space and dared to steady Steve’s trembling shoulders with his hands. “Steve, if you follow through with your plan, you will be damned. You will either die a pointless death in a battle whose purpose has yet to be conceived, or you will flourish like a poison tree, and the fruit of your labors will choke the life of all who have the misfortune of crossing your path.”

“You can’t possibly know that,” Steve scoffed. “You don’t have the ability to spy through the timeline anymore.”

“Oh,” Strange smiled, tightening his hold on Steve’s shoulders, “but I do.”

The blood drained from Steve’s face and pooled into his heart. “W-what? How? I returned the Time Stone to the Ancient One.”

Strange chuckled, pulling away. “That you did, but unlike my predecessor, I am a man of science, and as the new Sorcerer Supreme, I know better than to place a bet on mysticism alone.” He crossed his arms across his chest, displaying a set of identical, golden cuff bracelets, each adorned with a squared, garnet jewel split down the middle with a thin, gold divider.

“Behold the upgraded Time Stone,” Strange crowed. “Well, stones. I have named them the Odyssey Crystals.”

“What am I looking at?” Steve croaked. He stepped forward and inspected the stones, running a fingertip across the nearest faceted gem. The jewels seemed to house a thick liquid. “Don’t tell me these…crystals…allow you to time travel.”

“Did it not occur to you to stop and wonder how I got here without donning one of Stark’s gaudy time-traveling suits?” Strange questioned.  

“No, not really. I was more preoccupied with why you decided to grace my home with your presence.”

“As much as it pains me to admit that Tony Stark is essentially the father of time travel, I can proudly claim to have refined his time-travel navigation system and eliminated the need for a Quantum Tunnel.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Well, I am the Sorcerer Supreme, Captain,” Strange boasted, tapping the sides of the cuffs together. “I created a complex spell and tapped into energy from the most primal sources I could safely siphon. I weaved the soundless cacophony of power into the very atoms of my body, interlacing safeguards that would kill the link upon my death.”

He paused, giving Steve a chance to absorb the information. “After I stabilized the connection, I utilized my amplified power to fuse Hank Pym’s infamous particles with my consciousness, creating an endless loop of resurgent energy that utilizes the particles without consuming them, so long as my physical body remains alive.”

“What?” Steve breathed, his eyes wide with horror. “Are you telling me that you found a way to make the particles…immortal?”

A dry chuckle rumbled in Strange’s throat. “In a sense, yes. You are not as dimwitted as I feared you might be, Captain. I was certain you were going to ask me to explain myself via a drawing produced from crayons and watercolors.”

Steve snorted, crossing his arms. He moved away and began to pace in front of Strange. “Do you realize what you’ve done, Strange? You’ve essentially weaponized Pym’s particles. You’re wearing two cuffs, which means you’re using a minimum of two vials – and you’ve magicked them so that they never degrade.”

“This same spell allows me to fashion a warded shield,” Strange continued, ignoring Steve’s comment. “The energy shield protects my physical body, and anyone I transport, from the chaotic environment of the Quantum Realm. Therefore, I have no need for a suit. The nanobot I implanted into my brain contains Tony’s navigational system, and it is programmed to die and disintegrate should my physical body cease functioning.”

He paused for drama’s sake. “The cuffs act as polarized conduits that allow my power to symbiotically merge with the Pym particles. Now when I open portals, I can telepathically activate the nanobot if I need to, while simultaneously triggering the particles to activate. The entire process creates a stable flow of continuous energy that grants me the ability to time travel from one location to another in the same timeline, or to another universe, with a simple thought.”

Steve stared at Strange for what seemed like a lifetime. “Did I just hear you right?” he croaked. “You created a spell that allows you to time travel on a whim without the need of a suit or a fixed point of exit. There’s no way in hell Hank Pym would allow you to tamper with his particles.”

“Correct,” Strange admitted. “I had no interest in presenting a detailed argument to obtain his permission, so I simply confiscated a few vials from his laboratory and manipulated them for my purpose.”

“A few vials,” Steve scoffed, raising an eyebrow.

“Four to be precise. Each bracelet holds two vials a piece, but they are only powered by one.” Strange raised open palms, holding them parallel. “Think of one vial sitting in each jewel acting as a mirror. It’s impossible for an ice cube to retain its shape if you place it in direct sunlight, correct?”

“I’m following you.”

“The same holds true for the Pym particles – once they are activated, their form breaks down. The particles begin degrading the moment they are powered, a natural entropy that completely consumes the particles. However, as I mentioned before, Captain, I have employed the energy of various primal sources, some which have the power to simultaneously create while they destroy.”

“You mentioned a mirror,” Steve murmured. He shook his head, pressing his fingertips to his temples. “So what? Are you telling me that you somehow regenerate the particles you use while you are using them?”

“Precisely,” Strange crowed, his eyes alight with excitement. “Hence the two vials per bracelet. One vial acts as a reflection, a map which my personalized concoction of energy uses as a diagram to repair the particles the moment they begin to degrade. If I activate one cuff, I can immediately use the other if I need to without having to wait for the cuff I initially used to reset.”

“And how long is that?”

“Three minutes,” Strange answered. “The entire process grants me the ability to travel through time infinitely, at will, without worrying about consuming all my resources. Not all of us can naturally produce our own Pym particles, after all.”

 “Say what?”

Strange waved off the question. “Sorry, that information is not relevant in the current timeline. But here is a tasty tidbit that is,” he added, raising one finger. The gesture immediately silenced the question jumping on the tip of Steve’s tongue. “The time I have used to explain all of this to you has allowed both cuffs to regenerate, and I need them both functioning to transport us. It is time for us to take our leave of this depressing wasteland you choose to call happiness.”

“What?” Steve paled, moving away from Strange. “Why would I leave?”

“Because your failed attempt to capture three stones in 2012 created quite the conundrum, Captain,” Strange sighed. “And it requires your immediate intervention.”

“That’s impossible,” Steve denied. “I returned the Infinity Stones we managed to confiscate back to the branched timelines, exactly the moment they were taken, which should have killed off the branch that was created according to Banner’s calculations.”

“Ah, yes, well, how soon you forget being a party to a failed attempt to capture the Space Stone,” Strange chastised, clicking his tongue. “You indeed took the Mind and Time stones out of the branched timeline in 2012, but Tony lost the Space Stone in that same timeline. Therefore, you could not return it, correct?”

“Returning the Mind and Time stones should have negated the Space Stone incident,” Steve argued.

“You technically returned the stones,” Strange offered, “but Loki had already disappeared with the Space Stone, and his actions thenceforth kept that timeline branch sustained. It never died, Captain.”

“T-that can’t be,” Steve insisted, running his hands down his face. “Bruce assured me that returning what was taken from the timeline exactly when it was taken would snip off the branched reality as if it never grew. I did that – I let Rumlow and his crew retain hold of the scepter. The Ancient One took possession of the Time Stone.”

“Loki used the Space Stone to disappear before your alleged repair of the timeline,” Strange repeated, “and his first move was to return to Thanos. He described what he had witnessed during the Space Stone’s liberation in great detail, which piqued Thanos’s interest.”

“Oh, God,” Steve breathed.

“Thanos ordered Loki to track and retrieve the Mind Stone using the Space Stone,” Strange continued, “a mission he successfully accomplished. It is a good thing he had no clue the Time Stone was in close proximity.”

All emotion disappeared from Steve’s face. “What happened?” he demanded.

“What you should be asking, Captain, is what didn’t happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“The sudden disappearance of the Mind Stone led to a rather unfortunate incident with Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. They had just begun the first rounds of their transformation sequence when the energy source was stolen, leaving them in a rather deadly predicament.”

“They died?” Steve choked.

“A gruesome, agonizing death, Captain.”

Steve blanched, and he fought to catch his breath for several minutes before walking toward his porch on shaky legs. He held onto the nearest pillar, the pressure of his fingers denting the heartwood, and dropped his weight onto the closest step. “Who else suffers?” he finally rasped.

“Everyone, Steve, in a thousand different ways that would take too long for me to list. But there’s one loss that triggers a cascade of unrivaled chaos within the group, eating the core of the Avengers before it had a chance to take root.”

“No,” Steve breathed. “Not again.”

“Fear not, Captain,” Strange assured. “Tony Stark is alive. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is not.”

What did you say?”

“Loki is quite fascinated with you, as you well know. His last trick before disappearing into the void was to ambush Captain America and tap him in the chest with the scepter. Loki imparted a little telepathic message to Roger’s brain before disappearing to the void, no doubt to strategize his next war.”

“What message did Loki give m-Steve?”

“I do not know the precise wording Loki used, but Steve Rogers immediately hung up his cowl. Three days later he awoke in his bed, aged as if he had never been frozen at all.”

A tremor passed through Steve’s body, making a home in his fingers. “That can’t be possible,” he breathed.

“Dr. Banner tested Steve Roger’s blood for the serum, but there was no trace. Rogers was moved to the same facility that housed Margaret Carter, and the two spent a glorious, confusing month together before Rogers passed away in his sleep. She followed soon after.”  

Steve didn’t speak for a long moment. “And what is it that you’re asking me to do?”

“I am asking you to think,” Strange sighed. “If I have not yet made myself clear, allow me to clarify: your presence is required in the 2012 branch universe.”

“Why?” Steve breathed, staring at a chipped brick weaved into his driveway. “Isn’t there a way to fix this mess? Can’t you go back and prevent Loki from taking the Space Stone?”

“I am afraid we are far past the point of dispensing band-aids,” Strange chided. “The wound in the 2012 branch universe is large, and it is festering with every second that passes, Captain. Whether you like it or not, you are partially responsible for its birth, and you must help me set things right to give that reality a fighting chance to survive the doom lurking in the shadows.”

“So, what are you saying? You want me to help you contain the chaos just so you can saw off the 2012 branch timeline while its heart is still beating?”

“Oh, it’s too late for that, Captain,” Strange sighed. “The 2012 branched reality, unfortunately, has carved out a permanent place for itself in the universe - and you know exactly what the future holds in store for all who remain alive in its walls. Are you willing to leave your remaining family alone to endure the trials, just so you can continue to play house in this pathetic shade of your lost Eden?”

“Tony always told me that time has a knack for pushing back when you bully it,” Steve snorted, rising to his feet. “He told me I would eventually understand. I guess he knew there was a fight waiting for me.”

“Are you really surprised that his prediction came true?” Strange scoffed, opening a small portal. He slipped his right arm through the opening and pulled out Steve’s shield. He shook off the maroon, fitted sheet that Steve had wrapped around the polished disc before stuffing it in the attic. Strange closed off the portal and tossed Steve his shield. “I have taken the liberty of gathering your personal effects. Now we must away, Captain.”

Steve caught the shield and slipped his arm through the rigid, leather straps. This shield felt wrong – it was too new, too clean, compared to the shield he lost to Thanos. He stared at it for a long moment. “Is there not a shield waiting for me in the 2012 branch timeline?”

“Yes,” Strange confirmed, “but this one must be dropped off in the original timeline, or rather, passed on. No sense in wasting ripe fruit before we chop down the tree.”

Steve looked up at the lit window. “May I say goodbye?” he beseeched.

“You and I both know there is nothing for you to mourn here,” Strange answered, his tone gentle. “Now, are you ready?”

“Do I have a choice?” Steve countered. He pushed the melancholy from his heart and moved to stand beside Strange.

“Destiny never gives her favorites a choice,” Strange snorted, “and I, for one, have never been more grateful to be placed so far from her grace. I do not envy you, Captain.”

Strange opened a portal, and the gem on the right cuff seemed to come to life. The light from the garnet washed over the golden flare of the portal’s frame, tinting it with a rosy glow. “Onward and upward, Captain,” he intoned, “Your new life awaits.”

Steve pulled his shield against his chest. His lashes fluttered shut, and he took in a cleansing breath. “I’m coming, Tony,” he vowed, and stepped into the portal without looking back.