The World We Made
It only took two weeks before he left.
No way I could have joined them anyway, my injuries far more severe than anyone had realized. The bite the least of my worries, the concussion, and energy weapon burn making the Wakandan docs debate the merits of putting me in an induced coma for a few weeks until the swelling went down. They wanted to use their magical cure-all vibranium but had been unsure how it might affect my unique brain adaptations, so had gone with the old-fashioned methods.
You know the ones that left me in pain and nauseated for long stretches of time. Not that head or shoulder injuries were a new thing to me. Been there, done that.
We'd talked about an after, but it hadn't taken into account even the remote possibility that we'd lose.
"Feeling any better today?"
"I successfully made it to the bathroom this morning where I proceeded to toss my cookies for nearly fifteen minutes thanks to the vertigo I experienced on said refreshing walk." The nurses hadn't been thrilled with my little adventure and the docs had spent a fair portion of the morning examining and admonishing me. I'd been rather proud of the accomplishment especially considering that I needed to get better as quickly as possible.
Steve snickered at my colorful description. "They'll figure out how stubborn you are eventually." He tipped his head down gaze seemingly on our hands. "Myls…"
I sat up a smidge straighter and reached over to run my fingers along his cheek. "Hey you, it'll be okay."
"I don't see how," he muttered still not meeting my eyes. "The world's broken and–"
"And you want to go fix what you can. I get it." How did I always end up consoling him? Not that I minded; there were now even fewer people for him to confide in, that he could trust absolutely. I may have been knocked upside the head a good one, but I understood the ramifications of what had happened. So many gone. So many more deaths in the aftermath. The crew of a plane vanishes behind a locked door only they can open. That plane doesn't land. It falls from the sky no matter how many living passengers remain.
Repeat that all over the world, hundreds, possibly thousands of times and you have even more deaths. And that is before you consider the literal universal ramifications.
Those of us with the means and the ability to help needed to, no matter who they might be leaving behind.
"Go. The docs here'll take good care of me and I'll join you as soon as I'm able."
He raised his head then, guilt written across his handsome if exhausted, features. "But–"
"No buts." I shrugged, gritting my teeth and making absolutely certain I telegraphed none of the pain it caused. "All we can do is try. Ares and the Expendables are at your disposal. Now that you have my number I expect you to use it. Understood?"
He managed to dredge up a grin from somewhere, but the deep pain in his eyes remained. He still appeared broken to me. "Understood." He lifted our hands and kissed my fingers then stood. He took a moment to just watch me, as if trying to imprint me upon his memory then he leaned over and kissed me lingeringly on the forehead causing me to close my eyes with a soft sigh.
I kept them closed as he released my hand, his footsteps slow as he left.
I opened my eyes somehow certain it would be a long time before I saw him again.
My recovery took longer than anyone could have expected. The blow to my head causing some weird break in my memory that left me confused and questioning my reality. And none of the best experts remaining in the world – not all that many really given the situation – either wrote it off as some form of PTSD or brain damage. Even the Wakandan docs had been baffled by it. Oh, they didn't doubt me the way some others obviously did, but they had no idea how to help me either.
Drugs might have been an option had it not been for the fact I had somehow managed to get myself pregnant.
And given the approximate date of conception, there could only be one option for the father. Not that I'd been out having wild sex prior to or immediately following Thanos's visit to Earth. Hell, it had been well over a year since I'd had anything even vaguely resembling a relationship. The last had been a weekend tryst with a former SHIELD member I trusted and had had similar fun with before.
So, yeah, I knew exactly who the father must be no matter how impossible.
I'd heard through the grapevine – Okoye – that Tony had made it back home, weak and broken, but alive. A new Avenger had appeared, apparently at the call of Fury, who along with Hill, we'd lost to the Snap. This new group had gone after Thanos in an attempt to undo the damage only to discover the Stones had been destroyed.
The one hope, one chance we had to fix this quickly gone with a snap of the Mad Titan's fingers.
Once deemed healthy enough to be released I called and messaged Steve only to receive little more than non-committal replies. While sorely tempted to just text him about his impending fatherhood complete with a snarky tone I refrained and took the lack of contact to mean he'd moved on to one degree or another.
So I did as well.
Those members of the Expendables that had no family connections prior to the Snap had stayed in Wakanda with me and when I decided to return home they went with me. I already knew that I'd lost a fair portion of my close relatives and had therefore inherited pretty much… everything. What to do with it became the question.
The world had fallen apart and we were mercenaries. Guns for hire. We had no place in the current political order. Oh, there were those who tried to hire us. Cartels and the Yakuza and gangs that had survived but needed just a bit more firepower to assure their rise to power.
We said no. Now, had it been SHIELD, the Avengers, hell the US Army we might have said yes, but they hadn't asked. So, once they'd done what they could for their families they drifted back, wanting, needing to do more.
My pregnancy hadn't been easy. The baby needing fuel in excess of what I could manage so, when I ended up on bed rest during my third trimester, I turned my attention, money, and Ares towards other projects. Organizing housing and food for the displaced. Networks to find and connect surviving family members. My parents had been big on the charity circuit I continued the trend just in a more direct manner.
Then Nat made contact, apparently having gotten wind of the Expendables efforts and asking for assistance in a specific area: children who had been orphaned by The Snap. I had the organizational basics in place, so a simple shift in focus and we had the project up and running in weeks. We provided food, shelter, education, and jobs for a lot of adults who suddenly found themselves without purpose.
Within six months it became self-sustaining and began to expand to all major cities nationwide. I spoke to Nat at least monthly, but the subject of the others we both purposely avoided. She'd become the sole remaining Avenger at the Compound, doing what she could to put an entire universe to rights with the few who had agreed to continue the fight. She didn't ask for my help in that regard and I didn't offer as I had far more personal concerns to deal with at that point.
We both knew had she asked, I'd've been there in hours, my entire team with me, so she didn't ask. I did my best to be a friend and support her, but none of us had made it through without some serious scars.
So, of course, it was Nat who discovered the truth first.
"You cut your hair," Nat observed, waving at the clearly visible scar on the right side of my head.
I shrugged. "Needed a change and I can manage a set of clippers just fine." No need to mention the incident that necessitated the sudden change in style.
"No, it looks good. You earned that scar. You should show it off."
I wanted to mention it was a reminder of our failure but didn't see the need to add to the underlying depression we both still carried around. "Maybe do some videos on how to obtain a similar scar for others to duplicate."
Nat snorted, the sarcastic humor not missed by the former spy. "Have idiots running to join the next battle against space invaders just to make their mark."
I grinned. "Might have won if we'd had more warm bodies to throw at them."
Nat just stared at me dumbfounded.
"Too soon?" I questioned, as even after a couple of years we still pretty much avoided talking about that battle.
Then her eyes went wide, clearly staring at something over my shoulder. When I heard the squeal followed by a high-pitched "Nu-nu." I realized the cat was well and truly out of the bag.
Ignoring Nat for the moment I turned about to see my hellion lifting the loveseat to free the, in her opinion, trapped Roomba. The little blue robot bounced off the back wall, spun about, and made its escape. The furniture dropped to the floor with a thud as my Sara followed the little bot towards me.
A moment later Tristan charged in with an exasperated look on his face. "Sorry, Myla, I know you're in a meeting."
Sara glared at him, making a beeline for me. "Mama."
"Hey, baby girl." I scooped the child up and set her on my lap, not ignoring Nat per se, but not about to have the discussion I knew would be coming in front of the cause. She might be young but she was frighteningly smart. "She break another gate?"
Tristan shook his head. "I think she climbed it."
The gate in question five feet high, with a gap at the bottom just big enough to permit the Roomba through. We'd gone through several iterations to find one she couldn't just rip off the wall. It had included reinforcing the doorframes to succeed, but we'd thought we'd finally figured it out.
Babyproofing had been an interesting challenge.
I tapped my daughter on the nose. "You are all kinds of trouble, aren't you?"
Her response a squeal of sheer happiness.
"Anyone hungry?" Tristan asked and it got her attention instantly.
"Tistan." She couldn't quite manage rs just yet, but that would come with time. She reached her arms up to him and I let her be taken, Tris placing her firmly against his hip and earning a dainty kiss on the cheek as his reward.
"I'll wrangle her majesty, you finish your meeting." Tristan nodded toward the computer where Nat still waited.
When they had left the room I turned back to Nat who had schooled a neutral expression on her face. I debated waiting her out for about ninety seconds even knowing I could never win. "Ask, Nat. I'll answer."
I thought for a moment she'd deny she wanted to ask anything, but then, at barely above a whisper, she said, "Does he know?"
I laughed, though even I had to admit to more than just a touch of bitterness lay buried beneath the light-hearted sound. "I think you know the answer to that."
"How–" Her mouth snapped shut, but I could see the data being processed. "Wakanda, of course, but why didn't you tell him? Hell, why didn't you tell me?"
"Nat…" I shook my head. "I tried for months once I found out, but he made it clear that he'd moved on. So I did as well."
Nat sighed softly instead of admonishing me as I expected. "None of us handled the aftermath of losing the stones well. You shouldn't've had to go through that alone."
"Alone? I haven't been alone. I've got my team and Ares and you. And you are not to tell him."
"Because last I heard he was with Sharon. If he's happy then that's all that's important."
"So you've been stalking him instead?" Nat's tone was only slightly facetious.
"If you want to call it that, then yes, I've been stalking the whole lot of you." Well, not me precisely, but Ares, admittedly at my direction. it served a specific purpose though. If ever they were needed at least someone would know where they all had wandered off to. And while that didn't have to be me, I'd taken on the responsibility. "I just want to make certain everyone is all right. Much as they can be anyway."
Nat sighed softly. "Some of us are doing better than others. Clint–" She choked on his name, lips snapping shut unable to finish her sentence.
"He's alive," I assured her, though I didn't go into details when she flinched ever so slightly. Clint had lost the most in some ways. That rumored family had turned out to be true and he'd lost every single one of them to the Snap. If Steve had been broken Clint had been fractured, the pieces strewn on the wind much like the remains of all those who had vanished.
She shook her head. Not a no per se, but to shake whatever emotions my comment had stirred up away from her. She didn't want to feel, just wanted to do the job, finish it, and move onto the next. Her way of dealing with losing so much had been to bury herself in work, even if she had to create it from scratch. "Myla, if he knew…"
"Which is why he won't. I'm am not going to dangle Sara before him like bait in a vain effort to regain his favor. I will never be that desperate." No matter how much I still… cared for Steve Rogers I could never force him to be with me.
"You can be a little selfish now and then," Nat groused. "You made him the happiest I'd seen."
I mentally conceded the point. "Made being the operative word there. He's since made it clear we're over." I had resigned myself to that truth while still pregnant.
"He's an idiot," Nat stated, then got this sly look in her eyes. "Sharon moved out last month…"
"Am I supposed to cheer? Nat…" I paused to sigh softly. I got that she wanted us happy, wanted Steve to do more than be a depressed mess, to have some sort of hope again, but it wouldn't be with me. "If he wants to contact me he will. Can we leave it at that?"
"We can. We shouldn't, but we can," she conceded. I could see her changing tracks mentally, but to where I wasn't quite sure.
I gave her a grin and didn't give her the chance to control where the discussion went next. "Distribution. We need to make a statement to the gangs attacking the shipments."
"Agreed. What did you have in mind?" I could see in her eyes what she wanted to do. A show of force that would make it clear that messing with our supply trains would be a grave mistake.
"Hire them to protect the shipments through their territories."
Her mind switched tracks quickly. "Oooo. I honestly hadn't thought of that. You can pay them?"
I nodded. "Figured a combo of goods and cash. Train 'em where possible."
"Turn them into allies and protectors instead of predators."
"And if any of them show any real aptitude…"
"Recruit them." She wagged a finger at me. "Sneaky. I like it. But if they don't want to play ball?"
"We'll make it extremely clear that they should change their minds." We would endeavor to keep the injuries and casualties to a minimum, but if we had to put our foot down we would. "Ares will enjoy a real battle, no matter how one-sided."
"Yes, I imagine he will. He's bored."
"Somewhat. Once I explained that distribution of resources and manpower was simply a different form of battle strategy he dove all in. Go instead of chess."
"No wonder the transport has been so efficient. So long as the sats keep working he can see everything."
"Yep. Almost like I planned it that way or something."
She chuckled. "All right, how is Dallas looking?"
Time to renew old acquaintences.
"Who gave you permission to drink my whiskey?"
"No one. Which is why I brought my own." I glanced over at Tony who had stepped onto the porch as stealthily as possible and if I had been an ord I, admittedly, would never have heard him, but my bonus gifts had been as good as advertised and my hearing had been enhanced along with everything else.
Kind of me to let him have his moment though.
"Care for a nip?"
"Don't mind if I do." He dragged the chair to my left across from me and sat down with a nonchalance I knew to be patently fake. He turned to look over the yard where the girls played.
I reached over to the table and picked up the highball glass. I added two ice cubes then poured a generous amount of the whiskey over them. I gave it a swirl and then held the drink out for him to take. He stared at it for a long moment - I well remembered his aversion to being handed things - then took it from me.
The fact that extra glasses had been set out today, which I had made note of when I'd sat down, hadn't seemed to be of great import at the time. I glanced over at Pepper who had a tiny smile gracing her lips. Clearly, she had been aware that he might actually deign to grace us with his presence on this particular occasion.
I had, of course, seen him around on my other visits, but aside from a start of surprise the first time he'd seen me here, he'd never spoken a word and always made himself scarce for the duration. I had no clue why this visit should have been any different and yet here he sat, watching me as he sipped the drink I'd poured for him.
"This is... rather good. Did you raid one of your parents' liquor cabinets?"
I snorted. Not that I couldn't have, from any of a dozen well-stocked locations. In fact, the wine Pepper drank had come from one of the cellars they, and now I, owned. "Actually got it in barter." I held up the bottle for him to see the label.
"You got a Pappy 23 in trade." His eyebrows went up. "Who'd you have to kill?"
I shook my head trying not to grin. Didn't want him thinking I found myself unmitigatedly grateful he'd decided to talk to me. I'd actually missed the annoying man. We'd never been close, but working with him on the Battle Library had given me a greater understanding for the man as opposed to the iconic figure that the majority of the world had been permitted to see, enough to consider him a friend. The break between him and Steve unavoidably causing one between us as well. "Protection detail. And some intel. Nothing much really. I got the better part of the deal, I promise."
"I'll take your word for it." He took another taste of the bourbon, eyes closing for a moment in obvious enjoyment.
Pepper snickered softly, a smile on her face. She sipped her wine and held her tongue, realizing that Tony and I needed to sort out our current relationship without her opinions or interference. I didn't know that she wanted us to be friends, but if I continued to come here it made sense that we at least be civil with one another. A non-issue for me, but Tony wore his resentment like a heavy cloak.
Today, at least, he seemed to have left it at the cleaners.
I took a long swallow of my own drink uncertain where to begin or what exactly to say.
Luckily he did.
"Hear tell you went down hard, during the Battle of Wakanda."
He might not have been there, given he'd been off fighting Thanos on his homeworld of Titan, but I suspected Tony had, once he'd recovered from his ordeal, taken the time to learn in detail exactly how badly we'd failed. I shrugged. "That would be a mild description." I twisted in my seat to show him the scar on the side of my head.
He sucked in a breath, eyes widening for an instant. "How'd you manage that?"
"Alien energy blast. Helmet took the brunt of it but..." I trailed off and ran my fingers along the scar. The damn thing still hurt after all these years. "Then I had to kill one of those Outriders with a knife and then-"
"Then we lost."
"I suppose we did." I gazed past Tony towards the children who worked together building a castle from whatever toys they had at hand, which included a veritable mountain of oversized legos. Perfect for small not fully coordinated hands. Sara had spent the last two days drawing the massive building in anticipation of today's playdate. She had inherited that talent from her father; her three-year-old efforts far beyond those of her age group.
"Gained a bit too." I waited to see if he would take the opening or just permit the opportunity to pass. I expected the latter so failed to be surprised when he changed the subject entirely.
"So hear tell you've dragged my wife into this project of yours."
"Hey, I volunteered," Pepper argued.
"That's even worse. Now you're not even getting paid."
Pepper snorted and sipped her wine.
"She's assisting with some international organizational issues. She crunches some numbers for me, nothing more."
"Some damn big numbers," Pepper muttered making me smirk and glance over at her. She knew exactly how much I appreciated her assistance. She'd run Stark Industries for years, even after the Snap she had international contacts and information that turned out to be a great use to me. I'd asked, and she had agreed.
He waved at hand at both of us. "You've been having fuel issues, right?"
My eyes narrowed for an instant, wondering if I'd been the only one doing stalking the last couple of years. "We're managing. Gasoline is at a premium so we're converting engines to electric and solar as fast as possible."
"Same with your buildings, right? Wind, solar, tidal where you can manage."
I nodded slowly trying to figure out where he tried to steer me with this line of questioning.
"You have several buildings entirely self-sufficient. From food to power. Low power, but off the grid. Yet with full tech. Ares is handling the systems, yes?"
"A spin-off of him. It didn't require the full interface. We're still somewhat reliant on sewer and water, but electricity was pretty easy."
He leaned forward staring at me intently for several long minutes, knowing damn well that my skill at building interactive computer programs came from him so my being able to spin off an existing version would be no trouble for me. "And where did you get the designs for the engines? I'm reasonably certain that is outside of your normal skillset."
I forced myself to hold back the grin or snarky commentary. I'd learned a lot when the Expendables had gone their own way, but he was correct; designing an electric engine had not been within my range of knowledge. "I may or may not have gained access to some cutting edge patents that had been quashed by the motor industry."
He sat back with a grin. "Made some improvements to the models I imagine."
I didn't argue the point. I learned insanely quickly, so it hadn't been all that challenging to fix the few flaws I had discovered along the way. Tony had a purpose behind this conversation one that I couldn't quite see the point of.
"That must have put a serious dent in your... resources."
I'd caught the pause while he searched for the right word. Probably concerned I'd be offended if he called me out as rich. I personally had never flaunted my wealth even as I used contacts and resources that monetary advantage gave me access to. My dad may have inherited the family fortune, but he hadn't just sat on it. He'd worked hard during his younger years to make certain that money would grow and I had continued that when my turn at the head of the table had come early.
"For the first year or so yeah. I started seeing returns during year two."
His eyes narrowed as he leaned forward. "So you are selling the tech."
I shook my head. "Long term leases with included maintenance programs. Sadly my factory production is still relatively low compared to potential pre-Snap output, so there are waiting lists, but the return on the investment has been more human targeted than monetary from the get-go so..."
Giving people, people so lost by this great tragedy, a purpose, maybe even a tiny bit of hope had been my goal more than anything else. I put in serious effort to make certain every employee could be as happy as feasible.
He sat back in his seat, downed a swallow of the whiskey, and gave me a sly smile. "Perfect."
I simply cocked an eyebrow at him. If I asked he would get all petulant and pout. Given it was a lovely day, with the ever-so-lovely company I decided to be patient and wait him out.
Pepper, however, not so much.
"Just tell her, for heaven's sake. We do have work to do."
I damn near did a spit take as I had chosen just that moment to raise my glass to my lips.
As predicted he pouted.
He whined, "Pepper." Who cut him no slack at all and just leveled a heavy gaze that bordered on glare at him.
I snickered. "Yeah, Pepper, there you go ruining all that planned build-up to his moment in the sun." I leaned over to stage whisper to her, "He wanted to make certain I'd be impressed."
Tony huffed out an exasperated breath as Pepper laughed softly, clearly not surprised that I'd caught on to Tony's machinations. "You didn't use to have enough patience to wait me out."
"I had an excellent reason to learn some." I glanced over at our daughters. "So did you."
We watched the girls for several minutes in silence. Tony had never asked who the father might be and I hadn't told, though I suspected he'd figured it out. I'd already taught her to be cautious with her strength, but I couldn't hide the intelligence or the coordination that exceeded the norm.
Finally, he turned back to me. "I want to give you the arc reactor tech."
My eyebrows shot up.
"The diagrams anyway. You'll have to figure out where to manufacture them."
"Didn't you create a new element to power them?" I asked in a voice that somehow sounded calm even though I was gibbering on the inside.
"I did and I'll teach you how too."
While I wanted to goggle and gush in appreciation of his trust in me a frisson of suspicion skittered down my spine into my gut. "Why me?"
He frowned slightly as if upset I hadn't gone straight to the gushing and goggling. "Why not you?" he countered with.
Oh, I had about a million reasons why not me that ranged from his dislike of me from day one to smarter minds out there, especially those in the actual field. I simply cocked my head slightly and made it eminently clear I would be waiting him out on this one.
"Tony, for heaven's sake," Pepper prompted, with a hint of exasperation in her voice.
I tried to ignore the fact that her words meant she'd known he had been planning to do this.
"I told you I would teach you everything, remember?"
As if I could avoid doing so. I gave him a cautious nod. "Well, yeah, but I kind of assume-"
He wagged a finger at me. "Do not use that word."
Both Pepper and I snickered.
"Fine then. presumed you were longer interested due to the whole..." I waved a hand vaguely about instead of stating the obvious. From his perspective, I'd chosen a side and it had not been his. Though, in truth, I hadn't run to join Steve and company either. Me and mine had made our own way after the events that had led to the break up of the Avengers. I could see by the sour look on his face that today would not be the day to bring that particular hot potato out to gingerly toss about in an effort to not be burned.
It needed to cool more, potentially for years.
He took a moment to let the memory pass before speaking. "I know you'll do good with the technology, not just sell it to the highest bidder and… and you'll remember. Maybe be the one to teach the next generation." He didn't turn to look at the kids, but the implication of his words came easily clear.
One way or another he didn't expect to be able to teach Morgan himself. I spent long seconds searching for words in response that might just convince him that he'd outlive us all and be there for his daughter until she took on the world for herself, but instead, I said, "Thank you."
He was trusting me not only with the power of his arc reactor, but to see to it his daughter would be able to one day follow in his footsteps if she so chose.
Much as I intended to do with mine.
He downed the rest of his drink, slapped his hands onto his thighs then stood. "Good. I'll grant Ares access to FRIDAY and we'll sort it from there."
I gazed up at him, at the jovial demeanor that acted as a facade to cover the true emotions underneath. "I'll do my best, Tony."
He gave me a quick nod and strolled away, hands tucked into his front pockets. "You always do."
The Avengers take their chance to fix what has been broken.
When my phone rang I actually ignored it given I was halfway up the salmon ladder sweating my ass off, the muscles of my arms shaking with the strain, and more than a dozen feet off the ground. So I let it ring it, figuring if it was of any great import they'd leave a message.
By the time I made it to the top, it had stopped chirping at me.
I swung up and over the bar to rest for a moment before heading back down rung by rung when Ares interrupted, "Ma'am, there's an urgent call."
I sighed softly, realizing my workout, as usual, would suffer an interruption. "Go ahead."
"Myla, you free?"
"Nat?" Our monthly Skype wasn't for another ten days and while we did talk pretty much daily it was usually by text, we were friends after all. "What's up?"
"We have a plan. A crazy-ass plan, but…"
"What are you talking about?" I shifted, locking one leg about the bar, and leaned against the upright. She sounded excited, hopeful even.
"We have a chance. A chance to fix everything," she blurted out and that hope that had nearly flickered out in my heart flared back into life. "But we'll be shaking a hornet's nest and the blowback could be… massive. Will you-"
She didn't need to finish the question. "The Expendables are at your disposal, always. Just tell me where and when."
"When will be days at most, hours possibly. Where? Probably here, but I can't be certain of that." Natasha sounded harried, rushed as if wanted to be certain no one overheard her half of this conversation. "Make sure Ares keeps his eyes open."
"I'll have them ready. Nat, how will I know if you succeeded?"
She laughed, light and airy, a sound I hadn't heard from her in many years. "Oh, you'll know." She paused and I swear I could hear her turning her head as if she had heard someone approach. "I have to run. Talk to you soon."
"Good luck, Natasha."
She did that laugh again. "Thanks. We're going to need it."
The line went dead.
I didn't move for several long minutes, not wanting the hope her words had reignited to burn too brightly. Yes, they might succeed, but they also might just fail. Again.
I refused to believe that. It had been five long, long years. They wouldn't be making this attempt if the odds weren't in their favor.
"Ares." I shifted and permitted gravity to work upon me rotating into a somersault around the bar to land lightly on the floor. I'd get it down later.
"Put all available troops on standby. Make sure all transport is ready for an immediate liftoff. And keep an eye out for trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" he asked, though the hint of snark couldn't be missed.
"The Thanos kind," I told him. "Have Tris get my gear ready, please. And contact the team leaders. Briefing in ten minutes."
"Done. And you ma'am?"
"I'm hitting the showers. Relay to my comms. And where's Sara?"
"Eating lunch currently. She's scheduled to resume her studies in one hour."
Yes, my little minx had already begun school. Just a couple of hours a day, but she already exceeded all our expectations.
"Ma'am, do you think they will triumph?"
"Or die trying if I know them," I muttered. They couldn't call me for help ahead of time. No, they plotted and planned in secret, placing all the burden on their shoulders instead of spreading it amongst those who would more than willingly assist. God knew a particular one of them might have kept me out of it intentionally. Only Nat's common sense looking ahead at the possibility they might need back up and calling me.
"Just make sure every able-bodied Expendable is ready to go at a moment's notice."
Nat hadn't been kidding about the when. I dropped the damn towel I'd just wrapped around myself to the floor as that obnoxious memory switch in my brain flipped. New memories flooding in to present themselves side-by-side with the old.
I staggered, only remaining upright because the hand I got on the counter didn't slip.
"What have you done," I muttered mostly to myself. The deluge of new information as of yet too slippery to hold onto for long. Just flashes of data.
Two Captain Americas battling each other in New York.
Hulk being spotted in two different places at the same moment.
The Tesseract going missing from a secret SHIELD lab in the early seventies along with a pissed-off Dr. Pym accusing Howard Stark of stealing his Pym Particle from another lab around the same time.
News articles and reports and videos mostly from the Battle of New York outlining a different chain of events after Loki's capture, ones that included his escape with the Tesseract.
All that followed and more shoved into my head in an instant leaving me reeling and shaking wet and naked in my bathroom. I sank to the cold tiles of the floor with care and waited with impatience for the storm to pass by while trying to absorb as little of it as possible for now.
When it did, when the flashing light and roar of sound passed I pushed myself upright and stared into the mirror, half expecting to find myself changed from the knowledge. Thankfully little of what had been altered affected my personal timeline at all. Just data that I had become aware of during my various positions in the military, SHIELD, and Avenger.
I returned to drying and getting dressed while contemplating the meaning of the new data sets.
The Stones had been destroyed some five years ago by Thanos off-world. There had been no way to recover or remake them after they'd been reduced to their component parts.
That left few options.
I scanned over the memories, lightly, making note of the whens.
The Battle of New York a key moment. At least two of the Stones there at the same time.
The Stones didn't exist in the present but in the past…
Holy shit. Tony had created a fucking time machine.
Not an impossible task, but definitely a Herculean one.
They'd gone back, but would they succeed?
I finished dressing hurriedly. Everything except the final layer of body armor, and headed out to the living area to see the rest of the team doing the same. Sara wandered about, asking questions, and commenting when straps had not been done up correctly. Surveying her troops for all intents and purposes.
Tristan and three others approached dressed only for light duty.
"We'll be staying behind to protect Sara."
Over the years this group of four had become Sara's de facto bodyguards. I hadn't forced them, hell, I hadn't even asked, but they'd taken on the role without a single question or complaint.
"You're preparing for a battle, you can't take her with you," Tris pointed out and not incorrectly.
"Are you suggesting I stay behind?"
He shook his head. "No. You need to be there, but we don't. If it all goes to hell we'll keep her safe." He patted the gun on his hip.
I looked him right in the eyes. He'd lost everything during the battle of Wakanda. His wife vanishing on the battlefield along with dozens of other Expendables. It had broken him in ways none of us had been able to fix. I didn't blame him for not wanting to fight again.
I never wanted to fight, but would do so to save others.
"No matter what?"
"No matter what," he agreed.
I nodded. "We'll leave you a 'jet. If you need to run-"
"I know where the safe houses are, Myla. Ares will track us on the encrypted line." He reached out to set a hand on my shoulder. "You just win this time."
What could I say to that when I didn't even know what the battle might be.
Nearly a day went by as we waited for Nat to contact us again. I checked in with the teams at other locations to make certain they were prepared to go at a moment's notice and then endeavored to relax.
I felt it.
A wave of… something, change slithered through me. At first, I had no reference point until a nagging pull in the back of my head presented me with the foggy memory of lying under an Outrider beneath the bright blue sky of Wakanda at the moment Thanos had snapped his fingers.
My head thrummed with the echo of power, the ache that had been buried under a severe concussion the last time I'd experienced it.
Which could explain why my weird brain had been altered further as I'd essentially been at ground zero the last time it had happened here on Earth.
"What the fuck," I mumbled, not thrilled at my sudden inability to speak at above a hoarse whisper. My head pounded in time with my heartbeat and that damn scar itched of all things.
I could feel the eyes of my teammates on me, knew they spoke words of concern and worry to me but I could not hear them over the rush of sound that had invaded my skull. That and the yipping that stabbed my already abused brain like the spears of the Dora Milaje.
"Cocoa, are trying to kill me?"
I froze, as did everyone around me, as the ugly mutt, a cross between a pomeranian and a beagle of all things, came to a halt before me panting happily. Cocoa had disappeared by the time I'd made it back to the states, I simply had no clue if it had been due to the Snap or being unable to survive without her humans to care for her.
Guess I had the answer to that now.
Holy fucking shit, they had done it.
"Reports are coming in from around the globe. The missing have returned."
"The source of the energy wave?" I knew the answer but wanted it to be confirmed by a comparatively neutral party.
"The Avenger's Compound."
Tristan picked up Cocoa who, being Cocoa, did nothing more than try to lick him to death, but it had caused the incessant barking to cease. She had always been an attention whore. He looked at me, his brows knit together, but the look in his eyes hopeful. "Myla?"
Not that I expected it to have been anywhere else. "Anything else?"
"Aside from several million people suddenly reappearing no- Wait."
We all waited with bated breath none of us certain what might happen next.
"A large ship has appeared over the Compound. It is firing energy weapons."
I blinked. "With no warning? How did the satellites miss it? Was it cloaked?" Ares had access to many eyes in the sky, most of Stark's design, a lot of them military. I'd made a lot of contacts over the years or I just plain infiltrated the systems, using them to my benefit. Using them to the world's benefit.
"It didn't come from space," Ares argued. "It came from inside the main hangar."
The nearest display lit up, showing a massive ship hovering above what remained of the compound. The main building nothing but a smoking crater in the ground.
"Can you back it up and show it's arrival?" Tristan requested. He and the others in the room shifting closer towards the screen to see better.
The view changed, the building now intact, the image clear enough to see the afternoon breeze shifting through the leaves of the trees and causing ripples on the surface of the lake. Then, literally out of thin air, a massive ship forced its way out of the building, tearing it to shreds in the process.
"Do you still have contact with FRIDAY?"
"Yes, but the signal is intermittent at best. The buildings have been severely damaged." The feed returned to live again, and we could see movement on the ground.
"Ares, send the word, get everyone in the air and to the Compound ASAP."
I met Tristan's concerned gaze. "Keep her safe."
He snapped to attention, taking my request as the order he knew it to truly be. "I will."
I turned to the rest of them, all waiting expectantly on my word. "Load 'em up."
We'd gotten this down to a science, had everything we could possibly need pre-loaded onto the 'jet, but it still took time to get the humans loaded and the bird actually ready to fly. Ares kept me updated on what he could see at ground zero, though smoke now obscured large portions of the battlefield from his direct sight he could confirm at battle raged on the ground between the Avengers and Thanos's forces.
I itched to be there. To do the job I'd always done for them and aim my anger and frustration that had been bottled up for years against the being that had wrought the damage. Just as I moved to board the 'jet, last as always, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to see a golden circle of fire and sparks form just a dozen feet away. I shifted my weapon, prepared to defend me and my team from the intruder, when a person, in decidedly foreign clothing, stepped through, the view behind her, not that of the house we had all so recently exited, but a temple for lack of a better word, one clearly with a far east flair to it.
She bowed slightly, her eyes never leaving mine. "Master Stephen Strange requests your assistance-"
"Does it involve the battle at the Compound?" I interrupted, not needing to hear the entire spiel.
She cocked her head, a slight smile curving her lips slightly. She nodded once.
"Troops form up," I barked.
The Expendables flowed from the 'jet with all the gear they could carry and into ranks quickly while she watched.
"We have teams in other locations," I informed her.
She smiled, and it made her glow in a way I hadn't expected. "We know, they will be transported as well."
The sparking door behind her closed for an instant then reopened onto a scene of devastation. My surviving XO Jacobson stepped up. "By the numbers, people. Move."
The door just wide enough for us to go through by twos, my team shifted expertly, as if they'd done it a thousand times before, weapons at the ready and charged through, as prepared as they could be for the battle to come.
"Ares, track all teams and tie into the comms on site, I want all battle orders to flow through me."
I suspected the separate teams would be arriving at different locations, and while the team leaders were more than savvy enough to handle their individual battle strategy, I needed to make certain we could coordinate properly with the Avengers and their plans, should they have any. "Ares, you ready to go to war?"
The tone in his voice changed. "Always."
I stepped through the gateway.
I came out on the uneven ground and took a moment to assess, but only a moment. We had arrived at the right of the seeming apex of the battle where our Captain, my Captain, had taken their stand. In a massive arc about them, dozens upon dozens of more gateways filled the air. With hundreds, if not thousands, of battle-ready bodies pouring out.
Ares made an odd sound in my ear.
"I have contact with those we lost in Wakanda," he told me, an odd hint of glee in his voice.
"Team leaders call out."
The responses I got back not only confirmed Ares's realization but gave me hope we might just win this. "Leaders stay with your groups, follow orders from any Avengers. Ares will play relay."
I got a chorus of "Rogers" back.
A massive army of Chitauri and Outriders faced us, more even than we'd seen on the battlefield in Wakanda, but we numbered nearly as much if not more. Thanos stood in the center, his Black Order minions flanking him to either side, somehow alive and well.
Something in my head rebelled at the realization. Thanos, the Black Order was dead. Had died prior to this day and yet…
"Fucking time travel," I muttered under my breath.
A switch flipped in my brain, similar to the one that adjusted to new past memories surfacing due to changes having been made, only this time, because of Thanos and company coming from the past to the future, it showed me changes in the other direction.
Instead of back, I saw forward.
Just a few moments, not much at all really, but enough to be able to anticipate what would be coming at me and react accordingly.
Our Captain, with Mjolnir in hand, my pride at knowing he'd always been worthy, filling me with a joy I hadn't experienced in a long time as he called out, "Avengers. Assemble."
The whole of the world paused, as if holding its collective breath, then both sides moved, racing towards each other and the inevitable clash of sides.
The battle fast and furious. My corner of it a mix of Chitauri and Outriders that seemed to come in a never-ending wave like a tsunami that just kept flowing forward no matter how many we dropped. I used my foreknowledge to my advantage, dodging energy blasts and swipes of clawed appendages with an ease that startled my opponents. Not that I was easy to kill, not with my enhancements, but I cut through the swirling tide with a focus and determination that caused some of them to swerve away, going for what they believed to be easier targets.
I watched the main battle with Thanos and the Black Order peripherally. Aware of the fight and the needs - to keep the Stark built Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos - and called out orders accordingly. I had a lull in the fighting and watched with unconscionable pleasure as Wanda let herself and her powers go to pound Thanos. I truly think she would have won had he not called for his ship to fire upon all of us killing his people as well as ours in an effort to escape her wrath.
That attempt at preemptive retribution didn't last long as the arrival of Carol Danvers turned the tide swiftly as she easily destroyed the ship.
I made certain my people were in the clear as it fell from the sky and into the lake sending water arcing high into the air and then we redoubled our efforts to protect the Avengers so they could finish off Thanos and wipe him from history.
In an annoying repeat of the Wakandan Battle, I foresaw a Chitauri come from behind, intending to blast me, aiming for my head. I'd lost the helmet early on, a hit from an Outrider catching the edge of it, the modified clasp working as intended and giving way so the helmet went flying without my head still attached which would have snapped my neck. I'd finished off the creature with a violent and messy knife thrust that had gutted it deep enough to sever its spine.
This time I spun about, flinging a knife into the Chitauri's throat and then rushing it and wrenching the weapon out of its hold. I shot it twice before spinning about and diving into a roll, weapon positioned so that when I came to a stop I'd be able to shoot the Outrider now charging me at a full run.
That thrum of power ran through me, the vibration reminding me of piano string that had been plucked instead of tapped with the hammer.
I managed to ignore the distraction of the Stones being used yet again. As I attempted to fire the weapon it shattered to dust in my hands, the monster bearing down on me swiftly following suit.
I didn't have to ask what had occurred; that much obvious. "Ares, who?" I feared it had been my Captain, that he had indeed jumped on that proverbial grenade one last time in an effort to save the rest of us.
"Mr. Stark," the computer answered, sounding battle-worn instead of ecstatic at the bloodshed he'd help orchestrate. Hell, at the fact that we had clearly won not only this fight but the whole fucking war.
I got to my feet, gazing about the destruction to watch as anything and everything associated with Thanos fell to dust and drift away on the breeze that swirled about us. Mother Nature not caring one whit that a battle had raged here.
Then again, she had been universally knocked out of balance by the first Snap, repaired somewhat on the second, perhaps she enjoyed the fact that the cause had been thoroughly eliminated on the third and only endeavored to assist in wiping any remaining trace of it away.
My head ached. The past changing once again. This younger Thanos had never succeeded in claiming the Gauntlet or the Stones. His past and future twisting about themselves in a way that made my stomach want to rebel. With prejudice.
I pushed those memories into a compartment in my mind and slammed the door shut. I didn't have time to deal with them right now.
Now… now a sense of relief washed through me, thankful Steve had survived.
Followed quickly by the loss of Tony.
We'd become friends over the last couple of years and I, in no way, would have wanted him to take this burden upon himself. Not when he'd been so happy.
That should have been me. Should have been any of my Expendables. Not that I wanted to die, or wanted any of them to die, but it was our job.
And at that moment I understood.
Understood why Steve had pushed me away.
He, of all of them, knew exactly what lengths I would go to to protect them. I had taken the hits for them before and would do so again if the need arose.
Steve had pushed me out of his life because he knew I would have put that damn Gauntlet on and Snapped Thanos away without a second thought. No hesitation even with the knowledge that I'd be leaving my daughter behind. She would live and be loved no matter what.
"Ares, put me through to Tristan."
Tristan responded a few seconds later. "Myla? Are you all right? What happened?"
"Is Sara okay?"
"Yes, she's fine, I swear it. She's with your parents, who are confused but were thrilled to meet her. Ares has been relaying what he can… we know about The Magician. Myla-"
"Keep Sara safe, I may be here for a few days to assist with the clean-up." I had to force the quaver from my voice. My daughter was safe, that was all that mattered.
I closed the connection without giving him a chance to respond. "Team leaders, on deck."
Some of the voices had changed from earlier, meaning some had gone down during the fighting. "Find clear ground and set up for triage."
"Ma'am? The Magician is down, shouldn't we-"
I ran over the top of the voice in my ear, not even trying to put a name to it. "As are others. If we do nothing more will die. Now set up triage and coordinate with first responders prior to their arrival." If my tone came out a tad harsher than normal I blamed it on the exigencies of the situation.
"Yes, ma'am," the response curt, but I didn't care. I closed the connection staring blindly at what little remained of the Avenger's Compound.
"Ares, privacy mode, please."
"Knock three times protocol?"
My comms went dead. Ares would only contact me if the need a truly urgent one.
With no one nearby and nothing to attend to in the here and now I gave in to the emotions roiling through me. The pain, the despair, the utter loss. The heavy toll this day had taken on not just me but all of us.
I sank to my knees, hands to my face, and wept.
It's time to return the Stones.
Please note the time period I've chosen is based on the "official" date of Tony's death and best guesses for how long after they might have rebuilt the tunnel. Given the state of the Compound in the background of that scene, I figured weeks as opposed to months.
In the weeks that followed the world settled into a new normal. Oh, it would actually take months, if not years, to adjust to the sudden reappearance of all those who had vanished for five years. My parents, a prime example of the potential chaos. They'd returned to discover that not only did they have an almost five-year-old grandchild, but that their various residences had been taken over by mercenaries.
And they had it easy. Many others returned to find homes gone, falling apart, or with others living in them. People had moved, died, begun new relationships, or any of a dozen other problems. Given I'd already had a sub-program designed to reunite friends and families, I officially spun it off from Ares, whose plate had already become overfull, named it Hermes, and made it available to those trying to find loved ones displaced by the Snaps.
The Expendables took the time to reconnect with family then went right back to work. Fury himself asking that we assist with the salvage that needed to be done at the Compound. Whether or not it would be rebuilt on that site remained up in the air, in the meantime, the mess still needed to be cleaned up and the tech buried in the rubble protected and recovered. The Expendables had spent the last five years becoming one of the premiere non-military security teams on the planet and we'd been good before then. Plus, I think Fury had a soft spot for me. He knew I could be trusted.
Tony had been laid to rest, the memorial service taking place at the home where I'd visited him. I hadn't gone, not able to face Pepper and the others with what I saw as my failure to protect him.
I sent my condolences, of course, without explaining the whys of my no show. She would probably understand and if not I would explain the next time the girls had a playdate. Morgan and Sara spoke pretty much daily and had become fast friends. I'd taken the time to explain what had happened to Tony to Sara and she understood as well as any above-average child could. Getting her to understand the difference between Tony being gone and her father had been a bit more challenging, but for the time being she had accepted my answer.
I could, however, see in her eyes that in the near future she would need more.
The loss of Natasha had hit me even harder than that of Tony. She had never walked away from me even if we didn't physically visit each other all that often. We had spoken almost daily and she'd become the center of the Avengers. Holding us together even when she wanted to fall apart. She had kept my secrets and I a few of hers.
She had helped me create the network that saved so many, gave them a purpose, hope even. Tristan, newly reunited with his wife, among a few others who had tired of war, had volunteered to take it over and I let them. I still oversaw the work but had stepped away from the day to day operations. They had returned to our base in Austria since portions of the network had gone international. It just made more sense.
I and the remaining Expendables stayed stateside after negotiating a temp contract to assist the Avengers. The whole Sokovia Accords thing a seeming moot point now. Tomorrow could bring yet another high-powered enemy from another world and the first line of defense needed to be rebuilt as quickly as possible. Made sense to hire those already capable and aware of the needs and sacrifices required.
And that's why I found myself standing guard at a makeshift outdoor lab in the brisk November air while the rest of my team babysat the work going on at the main site. Fury in his great wisdom had specifically asked that I be here alone for whatever reason. I hadn't been all that surprised to see Bruce in his hulking green form working the controls. I had, however, been, startled by the presence of Seargent Barnes who I gave a nod of recognition to, as we'd met only briefly in Wakanda, and Sam who insisted on giving me a quick hug even though my gear could not have made it comfortable.
Sam and I had communicated with regularity since his return, as Steve's ban on speaking to me continued without even a second thought in my direction. Hell, Sam had been the one to assist my negotiations with Fury/the Avengers et al.
I had not been informed what would be happening here, not that it mattered. My job remained the same as always, to protect them.
So I, and Ares, of course, watched and waited to see what today's adventure might be.
FRIDAY had yet to be completely rebuilt. She still functioned in the remaining Iron Man Suits and at the house, but aside from data saved offsite she had no presence here, the second round of ship attack damaging her beyond easy repair. For now anyway.
Banner stood at the controls of what appeared to be a new quantum tunnel system. I'd been one of those chosen to know all that had gone down that day. The math was unique, to say the least, and explained some of the conversations I'd had with Tony in the weeks leading up to their attempt to reverse the damage done by Thanos.
I knew why I'd been shown the final product; because I remained useful as a database. Trust might also be involved, but I think it had mostly been to have a backup just in case things went sideways again.
Steve approached then, wearing the new scale mail uniform, his eyes passing over me without recognition which made sense given the headwear that covered all but my eyes and nose. Clearly, Sam had not told him I'd be here. Either that or he didn't care.
Sam glanced back at me, eyes sparkling and I realized he had been the one to request of Fury for me to be there, in an effort to get me and Steve talking. Matchmaking yet again with the two of us.
I doubted it would work. Oh, not for my part, but Steve's. While he'd done the right thing in his mind, for all the right reasons, our situations had changed far more than he realized. I seriously doubted Sam had any clue about Sara. Nat hadn't told a soul as far as I knew, so those who had so recently returned would have no clue.
No, our chance had come and gone. The bridge burned and fallen into the rushing waters below.
I sighed softly and focused back on the group before me. Listened to Banner remind Steve, surely needlessly, to return the stones to the exact moment they'd been taken. Which involved multiple locations and planets from what I had read in the preliminary reports. Watched as he said his goodbyes to Sam and Bucky, stepped up onto the platform, Mjolnir and the case containing the stones in hands, and then vanish.
It could take him years subjectively to complete the mission as the ship that had been used on the first go 'round remained here on earth this time.
I knew the instant he made his decision to stay in the past. The memories, the now overlapping timelines of one Steve Rogers. I couldn't pretend to be surprised, I had always known no matter how much he cared about me, it could never compete with what he had felt for Peggy Carter.
More like still.
He had never truly moved past her. I had been nothing more than a somewhat pleasant stop along the way back to her.
I watched Sam and Bruce panic while my mind throbbed as the reset of everything I knew occurred yet again. The chaotic spin-off timelines created by the removal of the stones, now nothing more than loops only I would be aware of. As far as I knew anyway. I supposed there could be others, but if so, I wished them an easier time than I had. The migraines had become a regular companion since that last battle, but I refused to let them slow me down.
I had too much to do to permit some discomfort to interfere.
Less than five minutes had passed when I refocused on the tableau laid out before me. Bucky turned towards the lake and I followed his gaze to see someone sitting on the concrete bench that had been there for years. I remembered tossing my jacket towards it mere moments before diving headfirst into the ice-cold water to save a couple of idiot recruits who had failed utterly to understand how winters worked in New York.
I did not permit the memory to go any further than that, not interested in reliving the hours that followed.
"Sam," Bucky called out to get Sam's attention. I could read the shock on Sam's countenance as he recognized who sat on that god damned bench.
I half-listened to the conversation that followed, my mind spinning with the knowledge that Steve had come back, finally. He'd simply taken the long way 'round to get here.
Sam, shield on his arm turned slightly to look at me and, after a moment, Steve followed suit. I stood there frozen, much like the ice hadn't been that day, by blue eyes that hadn't changed one whit in the multitude of decades that had obviously passed for him.
The serum had massive regenerative properties so for him to have aged to the point that he actually looked old meant he'd been gone for an extremely long time. My memory said he'd gone back to the early fifties or thereabouts. Peggy's marriage on record, though the name of her husband strangely absent. Expunged from the records with an effectiveness that rivaled the nonexistence of Clint's family from any and every database on earth.
Almost as if done by SHIELD, or perhaps their precursor the SSR.
His voice soft and slightly hoarse, as if from years of use, snapped me back into the here and now.
I swallowed with difficulty, debating not answering for an instant. Instead, I removed the headgear and let it fall to the ground. Straightening my shoulders I walked over to Steve, his eyes locked on mine the entire way. Not far really, a couple of dozen feet at most. Yet one of the longest walks I had taken in recent memory.
My heart pounded in my chest, but I kept my gaze neutral, not about to show the emotions churning beneath the surface.
He opened his mouth as if preparing to speak but I shook my head, silencing the words, the apology, the guilt, the explanation, or whatever it might be. I ran my fingers along his cheek, the skin still surprisingly firm even after so much time.
"Happy?" I asked, stepping back slightly and letting my hand fall away.
The only thing I had ever wanted for him during our time together. "Good." I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, stood, and walked away.
Not everyone gets their happy ending.
Let me preface this chapter by saying this was the scene that I quite literally dreamed about and that convinced me to write this damn thing instead of shoving it in a dark corner to fade away. It has, of course, been revised and altered to better suit the actual story written, but the heart, the central discussion is as close to the original as I could manage after so many months.
Also, if you hadn't guessed already, I subscribe to the writers' theory of Steve time looping and not the producers' one of an alternate timeline. My mind refusing to justify how Steve could have appeared on that bench at the end from a different path, so, therefore, time loop. That does mean I placed him and Peggy getting together AFTER the events of Agent Carter which take place in 1946/47 as she is clearly single then. Part of me wanted to have Steve be her second husband, with the children from the first (who had died), but the producers have stated the offspring were indeed fathered by Steve so… I kinda got stuck with that one.
Still, I think overall I made the two storylines work.
We sat on the deck overlooking the pool sipping the coffee I had made while still in shock at his arrival. I'd managed about a half dozen words, none of them overly coherent. After that day at the lake, I figured I'd never see him again. Given his age, I suspected he'd just gone back to his home, wherever that might have been, to live out the rest of his days in solitude.
I'd gone back to my job. Three weeks on, one off, Sara staying with her grandparents and a team of five Expendables when not with me. This week, this month I'd taken off for the holidays. The mild winter more than warm enough that she spent a fair portion of every day in the pool.
I'd been in there myself, the cooler than normal water not affecting me as it once had; until he had shown up on my doorstep unannounced.
We sipped the coffee in silence for several minutes, my mind whirling without a clue what to say to the man before me.
Luckily, he took it out of my hands.
I blinked. I hadn't told him. I hadn't told anyone except… "How did you find out?" My voice sounding far calmer than I had expected.
"Nat," he told me.
"That's not possible." Nat had died retrieving the Soul Stone, which meant she clearly had not told him before that mission given he'd left his life here behind. No matter the distance he had put between us I would never believe he'd have stayed away had he known Sara existed.
He had never been that kind of guy. He had always and without fail done the right thing no matter how difficult or the consequences.
He sighed softly, his face awash in pain for one long moment. Nat had been his friend too. "She recorded a message before we-" He stopped cold, even after roughly half a century for him talking about couldn't be easy. His memory had always been nearly as good as mine. "I didn't get it until a couple of weeks ago because FRIDAY had been so heavily damaged." He gazed out over the pool from where laughter bubbled up, Sara squealing in glee, while Cocoa ran about the edge barking her fool head off. A smile turned his lips upwards before asking, "Were you ever going to tell me?"
A dozen half prepared speeches ran through my head, some tear-filled, some angry, some sad and disappointed, but what came out summed up the situation perfectly. "I tried. For months. But all I got from you were noncommital responses that made it quite clear you had no interest in that after we had discussed."
I raised a hand to stop him. "I figured out why. You wanted to keep me as far away from any fight with Thanos that might come. I ended up being there anyway." I shook my head at him. All his efforts to save me and only to have fate drag me right back into the thick of things.
"But you survived. That's all I ever wanted." He got this sad smile on his face. "You were never expendable to me."
"Neither are you. And you got your happy ending, that's all that matters." I chuckled softly. "Though it does explain my obsession with Grant Stevens art. I have at least a dozen of your originals."
He blushed. Cheeks reddening and his head ducking down suddenly unable to meet my eyes. "When did you figure that out?"
"About thirty seconds after you decided to go back to Peggy," I responded.
His head popped up, eyes filled with confusion. "How… No one knows…" He paused the babbling hands shifting under the table in a way that suggested he fiddled with the wedding band I knew he still wore. "You can't know that."
I shrugged. "I can. The damage I took in Wakanda altered how my brain works again. We don't know why or how, precisely, though Doc Strange and Wong find me, and I quote, 'Fascinating.' " They didn't know why, yet, but they agreed what I remembered was indeed a version of reality that had happened thanks to the Avengers messing with the timeline. Why I started seeing them after the Battle of Wakanda they had no more clue than I. But they recognized I had and could do little or nothing to change what had followed. I only saw back, only saw what impinged my personal timeline, and could in no way change the outcome of what eventually occurred. If things had not gone that precise way we would have lost... permanently.
I could live with that. I didn't like it, hated the losses we'd taken to get the win, but I could live with it.
"Oh, Steve Rogers is never mentioned, but to me it's obvious. Who else could it be? You never stopped loving her so how could I be the least bit surprised that when the opportunity presented itself you went back to her." I gave him a wry grin. "I can't say I blame you. I'd probably do the same in a similar situation."
"If you had told me-"
"What? You wanted me to leave you a message saying, 'Surprise! You're a daddy,' and force you to come back to me? No, thank you." A bit of anger crept into my tone, which surprised even me. I always believed I remained fine with how our lives had gone.
Well, I guess not.
Steve sat there in silence for several minutes. I leaned back in my chair and sipped my coffee, more than able to wait him out. Looking at him not easy since all I saw was the younger version of him superimposed over the aged man that sat across from me.
"Yes," he began voice soft and barely audible even for me, "Peggy was my first love, but, and I need you to understand this, she was not my only one."
I didn't want to know that, to believe that, because then what he had done would hurt just that much more. So I played it off. "Ah yes the other great love of your life, Bucky Barnes."
He didn't deny it, but the narrowing of his eyes proved my remark had been on target. "Not him."
"Nat? Oh, I know, Fury."
"Myla, for fucks sake," he complained, loud enough to get the attention of several of the currently not armed babysitters about and in the pool. Thankfully, Sara had just dunked under and failed to hear the untimely epithet from the old man seated across from me. Not that she hadn't heard and all but become immune to swears. She'd grown up with a group of mercenaries who rarely filtered anything they said. Oh, they tried around her, but we gave up when shit became one of her first dozen words.
"No," I hissed, my hand tightening about the mug and making the ceramic pop. "No, if that had been true you would have come back. Agreed to meet me. Been here for me. For her." I flung my hand out in the direction of my… our daughter. "Shit," I mumbled. I hadn't intended to say any of that out loud to him. Had truly thought I'd gotten past him leaving. I believed and understood why. But having Sara changed that equation. He hadn't just abandoned me, but us.
Plainly, I harbored some resentment towards him after all.
Might as well twist that knife now that I'd shoved it with force into his back. "You know, Sam was trying to get us back together. Kept encouraging me to talk to you."
"He knew about… her."
I shook my head. "Only Nat and my people knew. He just thought we belonged together. Enough that I'd been drumming up the courage to tell you. But then you went on that last mission."
"And never came back," he concluded, his expression clouding with guilt and regret.
"Steve, don't get me wrong, I'm so very happy for you. Thrilled you finally got to just be Steve Rogers and that happily ever after…"
"But there are times I wish it had been with me." No point in denying it. I had never planned on spending my life with him. I'd age at twice or so the speed he did so, in the long run, it simply wouldn't work. Never mind that we'd thought he couldn't have children with the unenhanced. Yet, he'd had two with Peggy and one with me, which proved that supposition entirely wrong.
"I can't blame you for that. At one time…" He trailed off frowning slightly.
"Steve?" I prompted, not certain I wanted to know.
"Just that I meant it when I said I wanted that after for us. Then you got hurt and we lost so much. I didn't… couldn't risk losing you too. Keeping you away seemed to be the simplest way to protect you from all the… destruction I seem to attract."
I leaned forward to set my hand atop his Steve. "We all lost, but we could have gotten through it, together."
He squeezed my fingers, revealing he still had his strength. "I did what made sense at the time. I knew it would hurt, both of us, but in the end, it would hurt less than drifting apart." He looked back out over the patio to the pool. "If I had known…"
I didn't pull, away. Didn't argue the point. Chose not to twist that knife one more time. I could still manage compassion for this man, my friend, hell, my love even though he'd caused me great pain over the last five years. "It doesn't matter now. She's happy and healthy and you're here."
"But you hadn't planned to tell me." Retreading the same ground. Not wanting to let it go until he actually understood the reasoning behind my decision. I recognized it as one of our rules from back when we were a we and trying to manage that life/work balance that could be so hard to find in our crazy lives.
I huffed out a breath of irritation. "You moved on. Seemed to be a moot point."
He nodded slowly, though in resignation or agreement I couldn't be certain.
Another squeal followed by a shout drew both our attention to the pool where our daughter picked up and tossed Carson into the water who laughed as he went under. A fairly regular occurrence around here. We'd taken care to teach her that she could truly hurt someone badly with her strength and to always ask before playing games such as this. Anyone who babysat was fully aware of her enhancements and trained to act accordingly. Any and all of them could and would reprimand her, gently of course, and she almost always knew when she'd gone too far.
This time had been part of the game, them teaching her along with the play. Today looked like rescue, as she jumped in and pulled him back to the surface and with an arm locked under one of his dragged him to the shallow end of the pool and the steps out. He praised her, tossing her up into the air and catching her before asking if she wanted to try again.
"She's enhanced?" Steve asked at a hoarse whisper.
"You sound surprised." My brain kind of hiccuped as it dawned on me that Sara had two siblings that were now old enough to be her grandparents. "Your others weren't?"
"Not really. Smart yes, healthy, but the other effects of the serum didn't carry over to them." He let go of my hand and sat back heavily running his hands shakily over his face. "What have I done?"
"You lived your life. That's all. I shouldn't have whined about the what-ifs. You have nothing to regret. Nothing." I shifted to sit next to him and encouraged him to look at me. "Steve, you got to live your life. That's worth more than anything to me. And one day I want you to tell me everything." I switched tracks suddenly at some prompting in the back of my mind. "Did you tell Peggy about me?"
His eyes went wide for an instant then he nodded. "I did. I think she would have liked you."
I chuckled. "I know I would have liked her."
Sara came running up then, a towel wrapped around her dripping wet body, trailed by Carson in a similar state of dress. "Her majesty requires sustenance," he informed me.
"Then maybe her highness should go have a snack." I leaned over to kiss Sara on the forehead. "And warm up. You feel like a popsicle."
"Ooooo, popsicles." She focused that sharp gaze on Steve. "Do I know you?"
"Sara, this is an old work friend of mine, Grant. We haven't seen each other for a while."
"Then he'll stay for dinner and you can catch up lots."
I turned to Steve, waiting to get his opinion on the offer.
"I would love to, your majesty, if it's okay with your queen." He nodded towards me, getting a brilliant smile from Sara for going along with the game.
She clapped her hands. "That means you get to be the king. Can he, mommy? Please?"
"Certainly. Now scoot. You have lessons to get done before dinner."
She pouted for a moment, causing me to narrow my eyes in response. "Maths?"
"If you like. Or drawing."
I grinned. "Both then. You drive a hard bargain."
She trotted off with a bouncy step while Carson paused for a moment. "She might crash for a bit, she was getting hangry."
"That's fine, it is a vacation, so the lesson can wait a day or two if needed."
"I figured. She needs peers, Myla. Her age. Before she can't interact with them."
An ongoing, not issue really, but something that needed to be dealt with. I arched an eyebrow at him. "Working on it. When school starts in the fall, she'll be there." Where was the question? I had work going on in four different locations, one in Europe. Made it challenging to choose a stable location for her schooling. Personally, I leaned towards Europe, the education better there overall, but had also been in talks with Hill about arranging something here.
And not just to have a pool of able-bodied trainees ready to go once they came of age.
"I know. Maybe a playdate with Miss Morgan. Pepper could probably use the company."
"I'll reach out to her. I know the beginning of the year is busy for Stark Industries, especially now."
Carson nodded in agreement. "Off to corral the heathen before she tries to eat all the popsicles."
I turned back to the pool, where the others had begun cleaning up. Cocoa had taken a dunking at some point and was currently squirming in the hands of two large men, who appeared to be losing the battle, in the effort to dry her off.
"She's amazing," Steve stated quietly dragging my attention back to him.
"Yes, she is."
"You named her after my mom." A touch of pride muted by sadness flashed across his features.
I shrugged. "Our moms. Sara Amelia. Seemed to be the way to go." My team cleaned up about the pool and headed indoors with nods towards us and the understanding that while we would now have privacy we would still be watched. They had no clue who sat before me, though I think a couple suspected, and therefore automatically eyed him with distrust.
I knew he wouldn't hurt me. At least not more than he already had.
"Why are you here, Steve?"
His brow furrowed. "I thought that would be obvious."
I sighed softly. "Not to me. You've had five years to check into my life, before this." I waved to indicate his changed countenance. "Don't see why you'd bother now."
"Because now is when I found out," he hissed, sparks of anger flashing in his eyes. "She's my-"
I narrowed my eyes warningly.
He cleared his throat. "Our daughter, I mean. I feel a respons-"
"You owe us nothing, Steve." I hated sounding so cold about it, but we'd done just fine without him and would continue to do so.
"I owe you everything," he argued. "More than everything. I want this. I need to do this. I don't regret my choice, but that doesn't mean I can't still do what's right." He ducked his head. "You always encouraged me to do what I wanted, even if it meant turning my back on being Captain America. And I can't thank you enough for that. But now…" He turned to gaze at the house, where we could see a now dressed Sara sitting on a chair, tablet before her and a huge sandwich in her hand. Adults were nearby, but not hovering over her. "I'm her father."
"Yes, you are and you are welcome to be involved with her life, but you'll have to stay my friend Grant for now."
He seemed startled by that. "Why is that?"
"She's not even five, Steve. Yes, she knows Steve Rogers is her father and understands what you are as much as she can, but you…" I wanted no part of hurting him, had missed him so much over the years, but we couldn't go back, only push forward and hopefully come out the other side at least somewhat intact.
"I'm old. Old enough to be your grandfather, never mind hers." He closed his eyes for a long moment, shoulders sagging. "How did we end up here?"
"This is the world we made, Steve, all we can do is live in it the best we can."
He settled heavily back into the chair, the muscles in his jaw flexing visibly and showing his unhappiness with my comments. "I guess we can't really go back, can we?"
I snorted. "Well, you could."
He pulled a real smile from somewhere, the skin next to his still bright blue eyes crinkling. "I think I've done my fair share of time travel. Maybe it should be your turn next."
I didn't even want to contemplate what traveling through the quantum tunnel would do to my head. "Uh, no thanks. Not unless it's the end of the world… again." I pushed to my feet. I'd long since dried but I needed to get the smell of chlorine off my skin and hair. I held out my hand to him. "C'mon, time to get to know your daughter."
He met my eyes. "Perhaps I should leave."
"Then you wouldn't have come." I tilted my head, waiting him out as I had many times before. "I won't make you cook, promise."
He laughed, took my hand, and got to his feet with a strength one would not suspect from a man his age. "Probably a good idea. Even Peggy couldn't teach me."
I grinned, leading the way into the house. "Can't say I'm shocked, but you always had other uses in the kitchen." I stopped dead, a blush creeping up my skin and flushing my cheeks. "Oh shit, sorry."
His step stuttered, head twisting about to watch me an odd mix of regret and amusement in his eyes. "Don't be sorry. Our history hasn't been erased, we just have to take the time to figure out how… how…"
"How about we start as friends and go from there?" I suggested. Part of me would always want more, but given the impossibility of that happening, I had to be realistic. We could only move forward from here. Dwelling on the past, all of it, especially for me, wouldn't do a damn bit of good.
He reached out to take my hand, squeezing gently. "I'd like that."
Side by side we walked into whatever future we might manage together.
Chapter 6: postscript
Second chances are always possible.
"Thanks, Katie." I raised my cup of caffeinated glory in salute to my barista who always got my order right when I visited this corner of New York hell. I may have grown up in this city, but I preferred the slower pace of either the Expendables home base or the summer house in Hilton Head. Still, with the ongoing work to dig out and repair the Compound from the severe damage it had sustained during the battle, it necessitated meeting somewhere and here worked. I had access to the family apartment and ready transport to the temporary HQ Hill had set up.
Traffic had been a snarled mess, as usual, so I'd elected to hoof it the few blocks to the building bolstered up by my morning dose of hot latte consciousness. I pulled up the collar of my coat and braced for the chilly air on the far side of the door. March continued to come in like a lion even though we were almost through the month and snow had been in the forecast for the end of the day. I stepped outside, tablet propped in the crook of my left arm, cup in my right, and Ares relaying some of the preliminary discussions taking place prior to the meeting to the comms behind my ear.
I made it two blocks, easily avoiding others on the crowded sidewalk. Until some oversized mountain of male stepped right in front of me and stopped dead. I almost made it around him, my right shoulder smacking into the solidity of the man. I grunted in lieu of a swear as I attempted to keep from losing both my coffee and tablet, though they could be replaced if needed.
Impressive actually, given I had a tendency to bowl others over these days.
The lunk showed a surprising amount of agility as he caught not only me but my coffee without spilling a single drop of the precious liquid. I kept hold of the tablet and turned on the offending wall of human with every intention of giving him a piece of my mind. Not a single other person had come closer than brushing the edges of my coat and this one had failed utterly at judging the flow of traffic and had now officially caused a blockage, others on the sidewalk glaring as they moved about us.
I lifted my head to see some of the thickest legs ever encased in a pair of dark-washed jeans that fit perfectly. This led to slim hips edged by a black leather jacket hanging from the broadest pair of shoulders I'd seen in some time, and I hung out with body-building military types on the regular. That got me to the well-trimmed beard and mustache that failed to hide the sharp-edged cheekbones and strong jaw.
Then I got to the eyes. Bright baby blue even shadowed by the brim of the baseball cap he wore.
Eyes I fucking knew.