It all started with Sam's question.
"What makes you happy?" Sam had asked.
"I don't know," Steve had answered, using one of the best damn truths he could possibly tell.
Sam has nodded and they talked about other things instead.
And even if neither man knew it at the time, that was what started it- the downfall of Steve Rogers as Captain America.
Steve doesn't blame Sam, not at all. Now that fighting Ultron is done and over with, and a new member to the Avengers team has been recruited, Steve once again has time to just sit down and think.
He doesn't like what he finds.
Over a year after meeting his new best friend, he still doesn't know what truly makes him happy. Maybe, if he was still back in his own time, back in the forties where things were both simultaneously more complicated and- at the same time, less- he would know what brings him some inkling of joy.
But, times have most certainly changed, and he is forced to change with them.
Maybe fighting, he thinks as he slams his fist down into a heavy duty punching bag. After all, it's pretty much the only thing I'm good at now a days.
That's not exactly true, but the only person that knows him well enough to call him out on it is... somewhere. Somewhere probably not even in the United States anymore.
Somewhere far, far away from Steve.
I've always fought, he attempts to reason with himself. If I ever stopped, what else could I possibly do?
Despite the fact that, over a year ago, when Steve was given a file all about the Winter Soldier, Natasha had warned him, You don't want to pull on that thread, Steve. You might not like what you'll see. On top of that- or in spite of that, rather- it didn't matter how eager he had originally been to get every single bit of information he possibly could, he takes his own sweet time reading his way through the aforementioned file.
The further he gets through it, the sicker he feels. The sicker he feels, the sadder he feels, the angrier he feels. Its a continuing, revolving cycle. It's a very familiar feeling.
By the time he's approximately twenty pages away from finishing his reading journey, he's hit with a very distinct sense of dread. He can't pinpoint why, and he's not sure if he even wants to. All he knows is that there's no way the mysterious reasoning will be any good.
"1991," a voice behind him calls out before Steve can even turn the page, which is actually describing late 1990, not 1991, unlike what the newcomer seems to believe. "That was a doozy of a year, let me tell you."
"Was it?" Steve asks, turning around to see Tony Stark better. The brunette is standing at the entrance to the bedroom that both men are now technically inhabiting. He lingers, but does not yet come in. "I wouldn't know."
"I would, to a certain extent at least. Why are you reading about the 90's, Cap? Trying to get hip with the times, cool cat? Getting into the Spice Girls or Michael Jackson or whoever the fuck was popular back then?"
"I have no idea who any of those people are, so you can take that as no for now. Besides, that's more Sam's area of expertise. This is something that Natasha gave me." Files and espionage and gathering intel is much more her speed anyway.
"Ah, yes." He nods. "How is our resident spider, anyway? Last I knew, she was off somewhere with Barton and his mini agents. Haven't heard from her since."
"She hasn't said much to me either, but I assume that if that's what she told you, she's probably still with them," confirms Steve distractedly. Does he tell Tony about his odd bad feeling? One part of him doesn't want to, but the much larger part of him figures if he has to read something as gut wrenching as the rest of the file has been, then he might as well have some company to help him work his way through it. There's no telling what will happen next. "She gave this to me a while ago. It's about-"
"The Winter Soldier?" asks Tony lightly, staring down at the bedside table through squinted eyes. He walks a bit further into the room. "What about him?"
"Everything. Anything she could find, anyway. I haven't... finished it yet. I don't know if you should."
"Why wouldn't you? Don't you want to be a little know-it-all about your former best buddy?"
"Well, yes, but-" Steve hesitates. "I have a really bad feeling about continuing. I don't know why, but I just figured that I should tell someone in case something goes wrong. You were the first person to walk through the door, so. Yeah. You're my choice."
"Hm." Tony, who has never been one for caution, simply moves closer. "Flip the page."
So Steve does, albeit reluctantly.
One would assume that Hydra would want the Winter Soldier to do a great number of jobs in 1991 like they had wanted him to do for multiple years before that, but they did not. They only wanted the one-
December 16, 1991.
"What the fuck is this?"
Steve wishes that he knew. Wishes that one or both of them are simply reading the information wrong- because there is absolutely no way that Howard and Maria Stark were murdered by one of Howard's friends. There's just no fucking way that that's reality.
"Did you know?" Tony demands, eyes wild and face tense.
No, Steve opens his mouth to say. He retracts it and shakes his head silently instead, hoping that his sincerity shines through and that his desperate energy will work for him and not against him.
(He wouldn't be too upset if it didn't help his case, though. If it were his parents murdered, his way of thinking shattered, his world shocked, then he wouldn't be too stable either.)
He opens his mouth to say something, anything that might help, before the shock can can wear off and he's shut out for good, but before he can actually do so, Tony is speaking.
All he says in the end, quietly fuming, is this: "Give me space for the next few days. Don't contact me unless the world is ending. Maybe not even then." He nods down at the file, which is relaxing innocently at the beside table as if it hadn't done anything wrong. "Who did you say you got this from? Natasha?"
Steve, bewildered by the abrupt change of subject, manages to nod.
"Natasha," the brown haired man practically growls out. "You got this from her. Did she read it?"
"I'm not sure," he says honestly. "But she did warn me against opening it, so-"
"So yes," Tony concludes at the same time his friend does. "Got it. She knew and she didn't bother to tell me."
"Would you have wanted her to?"
Steve blinks. "You would have wanted to be told bad news?"
"My whole life is bad news, Cap. Though, I gotta admit-" Tony cuts off, chuckling bitterly. It sounds almost as if it hurts. "-Usually it doesn't surprise me like this does."
Steve leaves Tony alone for the next few days as requested. He knows his friend well enough to know that he will not eat and he will not sleep until he can find a way to live with the new, frightening news. Steve knows he can't fix the sleeping issue while simultaneously staying out of the way, but he can do something about food part without stepping on any toes.
So that's what he does, slipping food down to one of the labs via either an independent third party or just himself on the rare times when Tony isn't down in his lab or holed up somewhere with Pepper.
(FRIDAY helps a lot. The AI is all for it.
Both of them are sure that Tony is fully aware of what's being done not quite behind his back. For some reason, he never tries to put a stop to it.)
The Sokovia Accords become a requirement. You sign them, or you retire. If you do neither, you go straight to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect three hundred dollars.
Steve says, "We can't sign this thing. It'll strip away our freedom." Tony says, "We need to be checked. This will help us."
The Avengers team are, as usual, divided.
What isn't usual, though, is that all of them manage to agree on one thing in particular: either all of them sign, or none of them sign. All for one and one for all. They won't be torn apart by some government document.
(Perhaps in another world, a world in which they aren't as close to one another, aren't as protective, aren't friends, aren't true family, then this would break them.
That world, however, is not this one, and things turn out a bit differently.)
"Look, we have find an in between here," Sam says as if this isn't already blatantly obvious. Half of the team willing to fight each other, and that could end up happening if things get bad enough, which is something that nobody can truly deny. It wouldn't help them. It definitely wouldn't help the government. "Is there a way to talk anyone into changing this thing? Add some new amendments to it before the whole thing can come into play, maybe?
"How?" snaps out Tony. He's sitting in the Avengers tower's living room, as are the rest of the group. He's sitting on the sleek black couch. His eye twitches every time someone passes by him, pacing in a brisk pace, with a stern look on his or her face that means business. All of their faces look like that, though. They aren't playing around here. "They've never been keen to listen to us before, so why would they now?"
"For the same exact reason that nobody threw me in jail when I went to talk at Capitol Hill. We're the best line of defense if something like aliens or Ultron or Hydra or whatever the fuck else comes out of hiding," Natasha pipes up, just shy of smirking. When the others turn to stare at her, she crosses her arms and keeps talking, instantly catching on to the non-spoken cue. Go on. So she does. "If we form a united front like we're doing now, we can bring in some extras who are willing to help. We do this long enough and refuse to back down, then we stand a chance at modifying the Accords. In the end, we'd still have to sign them, sure, but it'll be a more on our terms."
"You want us to compromise," surmises Rhodey calmly. He gets a firm head nod in response.
"What exactly do we all want changed?" Wanda, who's standing behind the couch, speaks up for the first time in three hours.
"Look, the police can't handle anything major- like more aliens, for example. Right?" Natasha expertly brings all eyes back on her.
"Who says that the government won't just call in the military?" the younger girl counters.
"I mean no offense-"
"Well, isn't that always a promising beginning?" asks Rhodey rhetorically. He's ignored. Natasha finishes up her statement as if she hadn't been interrupted at all.
"-But the military didn't exactly save New York back in 2012, did they? That was us. It'll be us again if anything else comes. We just have to prove that."
"As if you haven't before?" Vision makes his entrance for the first time.
"I mean, we get all the proof we can find related to our past life saving experiences. We can get some outside help, seeing as almost everyone here has connections, and we go from there." Natasha nods decisively, now having a basic outline for a decent plan.
A majority of the room looks around at one another; they don't have any major objections to this, at least not yet. It's much better than nothing at all, and it's not like they can really afford to charge in without a game plan.
It's then, when everybody starts chiming in with a yes or a hesitant It's a start, when someone picks up on two important details.
One: Steve, aside from a quick comment or two, has been abnormally silent throughout the entire lengthy discussion.
Two: He isn't even in the room anymore.
"FRIDAY, where did Steve go? Is he still in the building?"
"Yes, Miss Romanov."
"Good... I don't understand why he left, though."
"You saw him leave, didn't you?" Sam asks calmly, as if he already has his answer.
"But I don't know why."
"You could just ask him," a voice calls out from behind them all. The voice, suspiciously enough, does not belong to their friend. It's rough, low, and utterly unfamiliar. The brown haired man dressed from head to toe in all black, though, isn't.
Natasha turns around to get a good look at the man standing beside Steve. Once the presence registers, she's on her feet within the second.
Sam peeks a glance at her tense form and immediately follows suit.
"This was not my idea, but I don't think he has any bad intentions," Steve says. He's not looking at either of the two. His eyes are locked dead on Tony's. "Don't shoot."
"Why would Tony-" Sam begins to say, but quickly decides that he doesn't care enough to continue. He shrugs and starts looking around for his wings instead.
"No promises," is all Tony says, but he does lower his weapon. Following his lead, the others do too. "What are you here for, Tasty Freeze?"
The man in black- The Winter Soldier, or Bucky, as it turns out- does nothing but blink at first. Eventually, he answers the question. "I wanted to see Steve."
"And you couldn't have done that literally anywhere else?"
He shrugs. "Was I supposed to?"
"You could have at least bothered to call ahead. Technology is pretty impressive these days. There's even this thing called a cell phone."
"I know what a cell phone is," he replies drily. The word duh is pretty present in his tone of voice, even though he doesn't actually say it. "I was actually here for some of this century. Even if I wasn't, Steve owns one. He's holding it right no-"
All eyes in the room fly to Bucky's, (as if they weren't there before,) as he cuts himself off mid sentence, staring at Steve intently enough that it would make anyone else squirm. Steve is holding his phone, sure enough, but saying that he's merely 'holding' it is a light word for what he's actually doing- gripping it half to death might be a more apt description. It's a miracle that the device is surviving this.
His grasp is so tight that his knuckles are quickly going white.
"What's going on?" Sam asks, lowering his weapon even more so he can effectively rush to his best friend's side.
"I don't know. Steve?" Bucky gently taps at his shoulder. There's no response. He continues staring down at the cell phone, which is now buzzing and beeping at a worrying speed.
Sam taps at him, too. It doesn't make a difference.
"What?" Sam doesn't budge. "Why?"
"Move, Wilson. Or toss me that pillow."
"Your response to finding your best friend near catatonic is to slap him in the face with a bag full of fluff?"
"Yeah." He shrugs. "Why not? It's not like it's going to hurt him. You got any better ideas?"
Unsurprisingly, the pillow doesn't do much. It does manage to catch Steve's attention, though.
"Mission accomplished," Bucky mumbles. "Seriously, what's going on?"
Steve passes him the phone, which is somehow still clinging to life even now. "Read the message."
He does. "Who passed away?"
Steve is told that he needs to stay behind to keep working on adjustments for the Accords. It takes a lot of strength to not scream "Fuck you all," and walk off.
Natasha does it so he doesn't have to.
Nobody really likes to argue with Natasha.
He goes to Peggy's funeral. Despite the fact that she's incredibly busy picking up at least three different people's slack, Natasha makes a last minute choice and attends with him, purposely booking them the same flight.
When he reaches the church, he has his best friends by his side. When he pushes open the double doors, it doesn't take him very long to discover that Tony is there, too.
"She was like an aunt to me," Tony explains when someone outside of their group confusedly asks him why. "And I need to be here for my friend."
"Don't you have work?" Steve wonders, but the question is fruitless for two reasons: one, he's positive Tony has work. Two: it's really hard changing the man's mind when he focuses it on one thing in particular.
"It's not as important as this is," he deflects, looking away. "It can wait."
Bucky reaches for Steve's hand. Natasha, standing on Steve's left side, reaches for his other. Tony hovers somewhere behind Steve's left side; Sam behind his right.
They continue on.
After the funeral, Natasha, Sam, and Tony can't stick around any longer. The Accords are tricky work, and there's too much to do for them to be able to stay away for one more day, no matter how much they want to.
The two of them and Sharon Carter end up at a diner late the next morning. They're all quiet.
"Do you want this bagel?" is the first thing any of them has said in the last thirty minutes. Bucky holds the aforementioned bagel out toward the other two. Steve squints at it for a few seconds, but shakes his head in the end. It gets passed on to Sharon, who shrugs and accepts it, but she doesn't seem to have much of an appetite today. It says on a tray in between the trio, left uneaten.
"Have you been to London recently?" is the second thing said within the last half hour. Sharon is honestly unsure which man she even aimed the question at in the first place, but it doesn't really matter. They both answer just the same.
"I didn't have any desire to," Steve elaborates. "Or the time."
"You do now."
"No, I really don't. The only reason I managed to slip away from work yesterday without being told off about it is because the rest of the team came and covered my ass."
"That's who the three people tailing you were? Well." She pauses and shoots a glance at Bucky, who's pushing away the bagel once again in favor for grabbing Steve's hand. "Four."
"Yeah. I'm kind of a last minute addition," Bucky agrees. "I showed up just about twenty minutes before Steve rushed off to London. If I had been any later, I don't think I would have caught up with him in time."
"Well, I'm glad you're here for him. He needs someone- you both do."
"Yeah," he agrees again. He holds his best friend's hand a bit tighter. "I'm here for him."
Steve and Bucky get almost no warning about how energetic the King of Wakanda's little sister is.
"I have to warn you," he says about three seconds before a lightning bolt in the form of a teenage girl comes shooting toward them. "The person in charge of Sergeant Barnes' recovery is... energetic."
The recovery the king is referring to is mainly just talking about getting rid of Bucky's trigger words, but he also refers to helping improve the older man's memory, amongst a few other things.
"Well would you look at that! Not just one, but two broken white boys!" A teenage girl clad in bright sneakers, a flannel jacket wrapped around her waist, a plain white T-shirt, and striped leggings steps her way toward the huddled up trio. The girl grins, wide and open. "It's a two for one. What a steal!"
"Um," the two "white boys" respond awkwardly.
T'Challa shakes his head, sighing. It seems he was expecting this. "I'm so sorry. I should have warned you earlier."
"There is nothing to warn them about. I'm the best," remarks the teenager, nodding vigorously at her own statement. The two small space buns that sit on the top of her head nod along with her. "Anyway. Bravado aside, I should introduce myself, shouldn't I?"
Both men nod.
"I'm Shuri! This loser," she juts a thumb over at T'Challa, "Is my older brother. Now, I've been told that I'll be working with a Sergeant Barnes. Which one of you is he?"
"You're saying this as if you haven't stayed up until after three in the morning researching him. You've been doing this for two days now. If you aren't in bed early tonight, I'll tell Mother," T'Challa threatens like a true sibling.
"You wouldn't." She glares.
"I would." He meets her stare head on.
The duo remain locked in a staring contest for a few more seconds after that. Shuri breaks first.
"Ugh! Fine. You win, for now, but you forget that I have dirt on you too."
"Like what? What could you possibly have on me that could get me in trouble? I'm the king, for crying out loud!"
"And I'm the princess! Beat that!"
"Did you not listen to a word I just said-"
"Well, this is familiar," grins Steve in the background. He goes largely unnoticed.
"I think they've forgotten about us," Bucky remarks as the sibling's argument continues on and on. "Want to go look around?"
He shrugs. "Sure. Why not?"
(It takes T'Challa and Shuri a whole ten minutes to realize that Steve and Bucky are gone.)
Time goes on. Steve and Bucky are with one another, and with Shuri or T'Challa more often than not. Some of their other friends, such as Sam or Natasha, come to Wakanda to visit as often as they can.
It's nice. It really is.
It makes having to leave for missions even more infuriating.
When Steve gets a call about a mission- one that isn't even serious enough to require the entire team, as a matter of fact- he's finally doing something that he hasn't managed to do in years.
He's finally had the time to sit down, unwind, and paint.
He can't remember why he ever stopped doing it in the first place.
Bucky, hovering behind him and clucking like a proud mother hen, agrees. "Why did you ever stop doing this?"
Steve shrugs and replies with his ready made response. It comes in handy more often than he would like, but it doesn't make it any less true. "Missions, probably."
"Okay, but there's no way that you didn't get some downtime." He pauses, momentarily unsure. "Right?"
"Some, but not much. Not enough to really settle down."
"I wouldn't really call you 'settled down' yet. Anyway, are you going on this mission or not?"
Steve resists the urge to sigh. He peers down at his bright, colorful canvas, wishing he could stay still for just a few hours longer. It's no big deal, he thinks decisively. I'll just finish it later.
He dips his short, fat paint brush into a pallet decorated with various shades of red. Once the bright color sits peacefully on the brush, waiting to strike, he sighs and throws it onto the canvas.
It doesn't hit him until he walks away, preparing to fight, that for once, he isn't even angry.
The mission drags on. And on. And on.
Within the beginning of the second day away from Wakanda, Steve just wants to go home.
"Huh," he says aloud as the realization hits him. Home. Luckily enough, nothing is trying to kill him at that particular second, so he's free to think without the risk of certain death.
It's cool. It's good.
He just wishes he's doing it in a little hut in Wakanda, idly chatting with Bucky while T'Challa or Shuri laugh in the background.
"Hey Steve," a voice calls out from behind. Sam waves. "I had an idea."
"Oh no," Steve says, voice dripping with sarcasm. "I'll fire up the good ol' safety protocols."
"You wouldn't know what true safety protocols were if they smacked you right upside the head," Sam remarks with a roll of his eyes. "Anyway. You good, man?"
"Of course I am!" Steve exclaims with much of his usual bravado. Against anyone on the Avengers team that wasn't Sam or Natasha, it probably stood a fair chance of convincing them that he's perfectly fine.
Sam, though, is either Sam or Natasha, so it doesn't exactly work.
Steve sighs and silently admits defeat. "I miss Wakanda."
"I thought you were going to say 'I miss Bucky,' but every overplayed song ends up with a remix, after all."
He rolls his eyes. "Of course I miss him, but things are kind of..." he trails off, stalling. Is the lull in a mission really the best time to gush about his feelings? No, it is most certainly not.
He does it anyway.
"Things are kind of?" Sam prompts expectantly.
"...Awkward? On my end, though, not his. He's great." A near goofy grin breaks its way through his tough, battle ready exterior. "He's always great."
"Okay, I'm really not seeing where this is a bad thing."
"The past couple of weeks, Bucky's been doing really well. It's amazing."
Sam stares. "The point?"
"Every time he smiles at me, I feel like I'm going to explode," Steve explains bluntly.
"Oh," Sam replies as realization hits him. He grins, bright and wide. Steve cringes, realizing a bit too late that he just gave his best friend a whole shit ton of ammunition to tease him with.
Then, he remembers: they're at work. There's simply no time for Sam to make fun of him.
"What's with the shit eating grin?" asks Natasha as she saunters her way up to them, one of her Widows Bites in her hand. There's also a gun slung across one of her shoulders, despite the fact that she had once, very loudly, declared guns to be "Totally inelegant, and usually not efficient enough for our line of work." When someone had wisely pointed out that Tony would be happy to upgrade it, (seconded by Tony himself, as a matter of fact,) she had brushed it off. "They have absolutely no class."
"We don't even have a sniper," Tony calls out once he, too, spots the unused weapon. "We don't even know a sniper."
Sam grins some more. "Well, about that-"
"Shut the fuck up," Steve hisses out. Sam only laughs.
"Oh?" Natasha looks in between the two, then at them both. Sam, then Steve, then Sam again, then Steve one last time. "What's this?"
"Steve-" Sam, not one to be deterred easily, tries to begin again.
Steve smacks a hand over his mouth.
"They're actually children." Bruce is in the background, helping wrap up the almost completed mission. Nobody hears his declaration except for Clint, who only shrugs.
"Yeah, well. You don't want to know what I do with Natasha then."
"Well, you're not smirking or making any dirty jokes, so it can't be that bad."
"It's not," he admits. "Tasha and I are gambling."
"Not right now, you're not. You don't have the time."
"No, I mean, we're gambling on Steve and Bucky. Will they get together, or won't they?" Clint smacks on his most dramatic announcer's voice.
"You make this sound like a really bad soap opera," Bruce replies.
"Isn't it, though?"
It seems that mission set a trend- every time Steve really gets into something- or someone- or has some semblance of a normal life outside of superheroes, he's yanked right back into it again.
"Five more minutes," Bucky groans as he watches Steve suit up.
"You're telling me. I don't want to go any more than you want me to."
"It was just getting good!"
He motions down at their haphazardly strewn Monopoly board and the pieces that go along with it.
"I was so kicking your ass," he concurs.
"Sure you were Buck," Steve replies, rolling his eyes mostly good naturedly. He can't be entirely good natured right now, though. For one, he has to leave Bucky, which has not once been fun. And for two, he was winning, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. "I guess we'll just have to continue when I come back. I'll only be gone for two days."
Most of the time, that's true. And back then the fighting was the only thing he knew how to do, back when he had absolutely nothing to come home to aside from an unnaturally polished apartment, it was a relief to be away for that long. He didn't have to focus on how almost everyone he knew was dead when he was almost too busy to even think at all.
It's different now, though. He sees a therapist. He works through his problems. On top of that, he now does have someone to come home to, even if it's not in the exact way that he would like. He would much rather having Bucky around as his best friend rather than confessing his feelings and not having Bucky around at all.
You know that's not true, a voice in his head that sounds quite a lot like Sam chides. Your friendship survived him falling, you falling, being separated for over seventy years, and more. There's no way your relationship with each other is flimsy enough to break over this. You should just tell him how you feel.
(Logically, he knows all of this, especially since Sam actually has said all of the above and more, but that doesn't mean that it's sticking.)
Then Bucky says something sarcastic, looks up, and smiles.
Steve feels his heart pounding, feels the metaphorical "butterflies" in his stomach and has to resist the urge to swap out his Captain America uniform for a loose fitting sweatshirt and pajama pants. He wants nothing more than to just sit home with Bucky, no matter what form that takes.
(If it eventually leads to more than a hug or a friendly clap to the shoulder, then he certainly wouldn't complain.)
"Just two days," Steve says, more to himself than anyone else. "It'll be over before you know it."
He's gone for four days.
"Is this finally over with yet?" he asks moodily the minute things finally begin winding down.
"Why, Cap?" Tony smirks. "Have a hot date?"
"I could have," Steve snaps out before he can really think about what he's saying. It's better that than yelling, 'Don't call me Captain America,' which a new thing all on its own. He can't really remember truly not wanting to be called Captain America. Even when he was doing nothing more than performing with showgirls, he hadn't disliked the name. He had just wanted to do more.
He's been doing "more" for many years.
He just wants to take a break now.
Tony pauses. He was not expecting that. "I'm sorry, what? You have a date? You could have had a date? Captain America is going to get some?"
"Not if I don't ask him out I won't," Steve mumbles dispassionately. Again, his mind screams don't call me that, but he ignores it. He is Captain America. He is Steve Rogers. They're both a part of him, and it won't do him any good to get upset over it... right? Plus, he's still busy right now, anyway. He's still in charge.
"He?" asks Clint, referring to the pronoun. Sure, he probably wasn't supposed to theorize about someone that he's both friends with and works with, but it's so blatantly obvious Steve has a crush on Bucky that Clint just can't find it in himself to be surprised. He's too busy mentally crowing I knew it, anyway.
"Yeah," Steve confirms casually enough. "But I bet you already knew that."
"Natasha told me you two are gambling about Bucky and I."
"Oh." Clint's shoulders slump. He turns his gaze over toward his favorite redhead. "Traitor."
She shrugs, visibly unconcerned by his supposed ire.
"Anyway, will we be done soon?" Steve persists. "I was supposed to be home two days ago."
He's expecting an answer; he's not expecting Natasha to soften around all the edges he hadn't realized were tense in the first place.
"Home," she says. "I've known you for years and the only times you've ever used that word was to refer back to the thirties. You've found a home now?"
What she doesn't say but feels isn't hard to notice is this: the more Steve roots himself into the "future" as he has been prone to say, the quicker his recovery of being thrown into it will go.
It doesn't surprise anyone that Bucky Barnes is a part of it.
The nagging thoughts continue.
I don't like being called Captain America, he will think as some sort of official addresses him as just that, looking at him as just the superhero. Like the man behind the mask doesn't even exist.
Privately, it drives him absolutely insane.
This nagging, confusing thought continues to stick in his mind for a solid week. It doesn't matter what he's doing- spending time with friends, painting, volunteering, going on missions, planning- it comes anyway. He only get some semblance of a reason why when, on his seventh straight day of thinking this way, it all comes to a head.
Well. Somewhat, anyway.
"I hate this," he blurts out. He's currently in the process of cutting an apple in half. He's going to eat it, yes, but that's kind of because it's his only real option. He's running out of groceries, his best friends are fluttering in and out of the small cabin house; and, besides, he's not a very good cook anyway. Bucky will tell you. This is probably why Sam's first assumption is that Steve is referring to food, instead of a potentially major underlying issue.
"Man, if you're really that desperate, I can ask Shuri to invite you over for dinner. Of course, that means actually being able to yank her away from whatever evil scientist shit she's up to now, but I think it's doable."
"No," Steve manages to say. He's still reeling from his realization. He's not even sure what brought it on- he was just trying to have a snack, for crying out loud! What the heck does apples have to do with Captain America? What kind of association is that? "No," he repeats, shaking his head.
Sam shrugs. "It was just an offer. If I'm done later, I'll join you. What's Barnes up to today, anyway?"
"Um." Steve shrugs. At the moment, he doesn't know. If he stops to think about it any harder, maybe he'll remember the answer, but he just can't find it in himself to do it. It's no longer just 'I don't like this name anymore,' it's just straight up: he doesn't want to be Captain America.
He pauses. Wait.
I don't want to be Captain America anymore.
"You okay over there?" Sam wonders as he sets down a light looking box. "You look like your world's just been rocked."
"That's because it has," Steve replies hollowly. "I don't know what happened."
So. He repeats- "Are you okay over there?"
Steve isn't sure how to reply to that. He wants to be honest with his friend, true, but how does someone just come out and say something along the lines of: I knew what I signed up for going into this, and I knew it was going to be a full time gig, but I've been going and going and going for so long that I just can't see myself doing it anymore. I just need to stop.
"Yeah, I'll be fine."
It feels like a lie.
Steve should have known better than to think he could hide something this important from Bucky.
Bucky comes home the next night and wastes no time at all in bellyflopping onto the couch, adjusting his weight so he can comfortably sit at Steve's feet. He's about two inches away from sitting on them. He'd try, but he'd probably get pushed off. Not worth the effort.
He slings Steve's arm over his metal shoulder. The big, blonde lug doesn't so much as look up from the tablet he's reading something off of.
"Honey, I'm home!" Bucky calls, as if this isn't already abundantly obvious.
Steve looks up and instantly decides to play along. "Hi, honey." He leans forward, and, foregoing any warning at all, kisses his best friend of over seventy years smack on the mouth. "Welcome home. How was your day?"
Bucky blinks, momentarily phased, but does not get deterred. He's honestly proud of himself. "We're talking about that later, but I digress. My day was fine. How was yours?"
"Missed you," Steve says in a 'duh' sort of tone, as if this is a fundamental fact of the universe. "But it was fine. Sam came over for a few minutes today and he stayed a while last night, too."
He has to fight hard not to frown- yeah, it was good to see Sam, but both men had been so preoccupied that them spending time together wasn't as relaxing as it usually is.
Bucky picks up on this instantly.
"Is everything okay?"
"I feel like everyone's been asking me that a lot lately," which both is an answer and isn't one.
"That's vague. You know that's vague, right?"
"Cut the crap, you know you can't pull that shit with me."
Alas, it's true.
Steve still tries anyway.
"It can wait," he says with an utterly unconvincing smile. "You don't need to worry about me."
Naturally, the first thing Bucky does after being told not to worry is to- predictably, might I add- worry.
"He pulled some cheap line on you, didn't he?" asks Sam out of the blue almost an entire month later. Within that month, Bucky was surprised to discover that he didn't manage to get anything important out of his best friend, other than the oddly increasing tension. Sure, he got a few little shreds of information, but they were so superficial that anyone who looked at Steve for more than three seconds can figure out that on their own.
"Yeah. How did you know? Did he actually say something to you?"
"Nothing important or concrete. Everything's been really good for a solid few months now, so I don't understand what's going on here. There hasn't even been any major missions. Everything's been quiet."
"Maybe that's just it." An idea blooms. "I mean, he's been going nonstop since before he crashed the plane into the ocean, and that was back in the forties. I bet he hasn't had the time to stop and think everything through until now."
"'Everything' is a really broad subject, but that does give us a better idea of what's going on, even if it isn't much. It's better than nothing." Sam passes over a solid, silver cylinder to Bucky. "Where do we go from here?"
Bucky throws the random cylinder far away from him. He doesn't even know what it is. "Why are you asking me? You're the one that has an actual job involving talking to people."
"You're the one that's known Steve for more than two years or so. You're like, the classic Steve whisperer. I'm sure you can figure something out."
"What makes you think so? You've seen more of him in the past seventy years than I have. You're closer to him that I am at this point!"
"Bullshit," Sam retorts mildly, not accepting that statement for even a few seconds. "Wanna know what he did on his birthday last year? Sit around and mope over you. It was his birthday, dude, the fourth of fuckin' July. Literally everyone else was having the time of their lives, but no. This idiot was just sitting in my back yard, moaning and groaning about how his day can't be perfect because you weren't there. The literal day after that, he launched himself back into searching for you. Everyone was still working through the aftermath of the Ultron shit, kind of like how we're all still fighting to make the Accords a bit less of a shit show, but the most important thing on his mind was you."
There's so much that Bucky can say to that. He can protest, he can argue, he can accept it- and that's quite a stretch for him, no matter how true it is- or he can just up and change the subject. "You think his birthday is on the fourth?"
"Bro," Sam stares. His eyes are slanted and incredulous looking. "That's the part of my speech that you decide to focus on? Really?"
"His birthday is this month, but what's up with you being convinced it's on the fourth? What is he, Ame- actually, no, never mind. Point still stands though."
It takes a great deal of strength to not scream 'he's in love with you, you giant lug! Get it through your thick skull!' Somehow, Sam refrains.
The man deserves a fucking medal, honestly.
"I can't even with you sometimes."
"You sound like a teenage girl, Sam."
"Fuck off, Bucky."
"You know," someone drawls out as a new 'challenger' approaches. Steve stares at them through the open doorway. "Usually I would bother to ask what's going on, but I'm convinced I'll regret it if I do."
Foregoing any further conversation, the blond pushes past them the best he can in an attempt to make his way smoothly in and out of the kitchen.
His efforts likely would have been more effective if the kitchen door didn't swing creakily on its hinges while he forces it open.
Sam and Bucky shoot one another a glance.
Bucky makes a move for the swinging door, but he's intercepted before he can get through.
"Hey what the fuck?"
The duo turns toward the direction of the deep, confused sounding voice. Shuri is standing in the living room, dangling her house key in between her fingers as she stares, blinking, at the potential drama in front of her. She's rapidly taking it all in, enraptured. It's as if she's watching her favorite soap opera.
And sure enough- "You dumbasses are like a soap opera gone wrong. Just pinch in three times the trauma and two times the sexual tension, and you've got a hit!"
Sam sighs. Bucky can relate.
"Help," the older of the two pleads. "We don't really know what's wrong. We thought we could get through to him but we couldn't. Maybe we need a fresh perspective here- I don't know. Now he's going around and breaking doors. Help."
Shuri opens her mouth to speak:
"Why are you dressed like that?"
"Because I have a job to do," Steve says to Shuri, the latter of which is standing in the doorway with his Captain America outfit sticking to his skin, fitting as tight and snug as usual. What's not usual is how his stern battle ready face is replaced by an expression that very clearly screams 'help.' "Clearly."
"Don't you like... need to relax? From what Thing One and Thing Two over there are telling me, you've been letting your mind get away from you."
"Yeah, well." He shrugs. It looks painful. "Doesn't matter what I want. Like I said: I have a job to do."
He hobbles off without so much as another word.
It all really comes to a head when Steve once again comes home days later than intended.
This time, though, Natasha Romanov bursts through the front door.
"Listen up and listen up good," she begins, just short of snarling. Bucky gets the feeling that this burning anger is not actually aimed at him, but he can't yet pinpoint what's gone wrong.
He doesn't have the time to, because the furious woman starts barking out orders before he can even get his mouth open.
"You need to get six- no, seven- blankets as soon as possible. Get a fresh pair of clothes. I'll get the first aid kit."
She doesn't answer. "Ready? Break!"
"This isn't football!" Bucky shouts over Natasha's retreating form, but it doesn't do any good. "Redheads," he grumbles.
Whatever he's expecting, it isn't Steve Rogers, spitting mad and dripping wet.
Bucky stares. "Oh you've got to be shitting me."
Sam, who's in the background nursing his wounds, simply sighs. Sam is probably who Natasha intended to get the first aid kit for, I hindsight. Sure enough, she pops out of the house and into the jet, striding toward them all with a sense of purpose.
"Little help here, Barnes?" she asks, but it's clear that she doesn't really need it. She waves him over just the same.
He hands her a long string full of bandages. Or maybe it's a bunch of bandages that just look like a string. It's one of the two, anyway. "I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that Steve didn't just get dumped into the shallow end of a pool."
"I wish it was that fun and easy," the redhead sighs. "No. He was thrown into the ocean."
Bucky takes a moment to take that in. "Some dickwad tossed him into the ocean. Was the water warm, at the very least?"
"Of course not. I guess I know what the clothes and blankets are for now..."
He resists the urge to sigh, but instead he dutifully heads over to his blank faced best friend, not so silently cursing whoever the fuck the Avengers got into a skirmish with this time around.
Steve doesn't give so much as a hello- his mind (and his eyes, too) are so far elsewhere that it's almost concerning.
"Can you hear me?"
"Steve? It's me. It's Bucky."
"How did that not work," mumbles out someone who's been hidden in the background. A quick look around reveals that the voice comes from Clint. "I thought that was a good idea, if it helps anything."
"It doesn't. But thanks."
"Ground him," calls back yet another unexpected voice. "And get him dry. If he isn't even recognizing you, Barnes, then he might be having a flashback," explains Tony quietly. He hands over yet another blanket as he does so. The blanket count is likely all the way up to eight by now. It doesn't seem to be doing much yet.
Bucky has absolutely no good reason not to listen, so he obeys.
It takes a long while for it to work, but it does eventually prove fruitful.
When Steve comes to, and Bucky is no longer trying not to panic, the two of them are huddled up against each other somewhere in Tony's tower, far away from the meddling others. They mean well, Bucky knows, but this is not the time for them to be attached to Steve. If he were anyone else, even he shouldn't be as stuck like glue as he is now.
When he sees his best friend/crush/who even knows anymore's eyes start to clear up and roam around the room, he picks up his phone to shoot off a quick text to the Avengers group chat he's recently been added to (mostly against his will, because even when he exited, they kept adding him back until he just gave up,) just to let them all know to stand down and, you know, not rush through the door.
That's pretty much the exact same time that Steve looks up and goes, "I don't want to be Captain America anymore."
Bucky drops his phone.
He very narrowly resists the urge to shout Steve's words back at him in pure shock. You don't want to be what- Out of all of the things he was expecting to hear right now, that is not one of them.
"What?" he chokes out, stunned. Out of all the things- "What? Why? Did I miss something?"
"I can't do this anymore."
"I- you can't do what anymore? You're being really vague here, buddy."
"I became Captain America after years of minor fights, right?"
"Minor," scoffs Bucky, rolling his eyes. This- at least- is normal. "You had your ass handed to you every single time without fail. Nobody in town was scrawnier than you and everyone damn well knew it. But sure. Continue."
"So by the time I got the costume and the shield and I started fighting with the big leagues, I'd already been fighting for years. Then, throw in the ice, the cold water, the plane crash, all of it. Next thing I know, it's been seventy years. I got ten days to get used to the fact that everyone and everything I've ever known was dead."
"Not everyone. Peggy and I weren't, and I'm still not," Bucky can't help but remind him.
"Yeah, but it's not like I knew that."
"They didn't even tell you about Peggy?"
"Nope. Didn't find out she was alive until she called the building I was in and demanded to speak to me. This was just after the Battle of New York too- as in, the very same day. I was not prepared for that conversation, I can tell you that much right now."
"I wouldn't be either. She was the love of your life."
"I wouldn't go that far," Steve replies lightly. Before Bucky can retort, the blonde just brushes right over it like he hasn't said anything at all. "Right around the time the Battle of New York started, and I got recruited to join the Avengers, I had nothing better to do than accept. I didn't have anyone or anything to go home to, you know? So I figured, might as well.
"I didn't even realize until the fighting was over that I'd probably rather do something else with my time, but I couldn't pinpoint exactly what. So for a while in between missions I was barely existing, really, until the other Avengers came up with the bright idea that if we're going to have to deal with each other in the future, then we might as well try to make peace with one another."
"I bet that went over real well at first," Bucky drawls out sarcastically. "How many times did you and Stark fight within those first few weeks, exactly?"
"A lot. Too much, probably. It didn't help that almost anytime I saw him within the first few days, he kept reminding me of Howard."
"Well, being related will do that. Yes."
"And even when he didn't, we just didn't get on. Eventually we stopped trying to rip each other's throats out, but it took a while. Once that was done and over with, I could finally breathe for a second. Then, when I somehow managed to forget I was technically employed to Shield- they didn't used to be fond of sending me off on jobs that a sixteen-year-old could do- Nick Fury decided that he wanted to test how the rest of the Avengers and I could handle missions when we weren't, you know, two steps anyway from certain death."
Bucky can see where this is going. "How often did you have to fight in those first few months?"
"Months?" repeats Steve with an incredulous scoff. "No. Try years. Years and years and oh, would you look at that! More years. And it's not like I never liked fighting, don't get me wrong, you already know better than that. Then there were more years where I barely got a chance to breathe, and when I did get a chance to finally start relaxing, I was instantly sent back out again before I could even think of settling down. That happened so much and so often that I just kinda said 'screw it' to ever having the kind of normal life that I wanted."
"You? Normal life?" Bucky asks, just short of scoffing. "Really?"
"I never said I wanted to completely give up fighting," he shoots back with a crooked grin. "Then I wanted to take up painting again but I couldn't find the time. Still, I figured it would help."
"It did, though, didn't it?"
"It did. That, combined with working out and running, is like a form of fighting in its own right. It makes me feel like I really don't need to go chasing useless battles as much as I tend to anymore."
"As much," echoes Bucky, shaking his head. "Steve, it's probably better that we both accept right now that you will never entirely be done with battle and war. The next time some state shattering or Earth defying event comes to town, you're going to go chasing after it."
"That's different," Steve protests, because it really kind of is. "I'm talking about the less important stuff. Plus, now I have you."
"Me," he echoes his best friend yet again. "But you've always had me, always when it counted the most."
"Yeah, but that's not what I meant. Back at home, with you, with Sam and Natasha and Shuri and T'Challa- it's better than I expected to get. Then, even excluding them for a minute, it's different. Like when it's just me and you." Steve takes a deep breath, bracing himself, and continues. "Somewhere down the line, the fighting didn't have a purpose anymore, like it always used to when we were young. No matter how stupid the reason, there always was one, you know? But the further things got along, the more Captain America I had to become, the purpose just... faded away. I wasn't being nearly rational enough for my own good- Bucky get that shit eating grin off of your face right now I'm actually being serious- and it hasn't gotten me anywhere yet."
"So let me get this straight," Bucky says intently, looking as if he truly is listening. "You don't mind the minor stuff if it has a rhyme and reason, but you don't like it when you have a reason to get back to Wakanda. You're tired of being Captain America, and you're just plain tired in general. You want to take your time and rest. You want to settle down the best you can with your friends, and you want to have a life. The only fighting you really want to do now is if there's a real reason to be doing it, right? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I've got the gist of it."
"Yeah," Steve confirms. "Not a whole lot left I need to fight for, at least not right now."
"Except for my friends. And you, Bucky." Steve looks up again, still half dripping wet and painfully, desperately earnest. "I will always fight for you."
He launches himself forward, throws one arm over Bucky's shoulder, curls the other arm around his waist, and kisses him.
Not just a quick, playful peck on the mouth or the cheek like the last one had been, no. That one was mostly a joke, mostly just playing around, and neither person had been expecting it to escalate quite like this.
When you're kidding around, it's light.
When you mean it, it's terrifying.
Bucky hesitates. "You're positive you want this?"
Steve pauses long enough to look down into his crush/boyfriend/whoever knows anymore's eyes, just as sweetly as before. "Yes."
It's now Bucky's turn to pause. "I do, too."
With gusto, they fly at one another.
"Something's different about him."
"You're being delusional, Natasha," Sam snarks back, but he can see it too as Bucky and Steve exit the elevator and head toward the direction of the full Avengers team. By this point, it's morning, and nobody's seen the duo in quite a while.
Especially not Thor, who's actually in attendance for once.
Perfect time for an announcement or two, wouldn't you think?
"He's lighter," Natasha points out. She doesn't clarify which of of them she's referring to, but she doesn't have to. Sam already knows. "They've been gone an awful long time, don't you think?"
"Well, at least Steve isn't drenched anymore."
Natasha smirks. "You were just trying to avoiding mentioning the word 'wet' weren't you?"
He frowns as if the thought has just occurred to him. "Um, no, actually. Get your mind out of the gutter, Natasha."
"Who's in a gutter?" asks Tony, who's passing by them with a plate full of stacked pancakes. He tosses them on the table before he continues speaking. "I can put someone in a gutter if you need me to, but I'm pretty sure that you've got that handled all on your own."
"Throw Natasha." Sam points.
"Throw Sam," Natasha points back at him.
"It pains me to say this, but I'm with Sam on this one." Bucky pops out of wherever he and Steve were at ten minutes ago. He doesn't look very pained. "You don't need to stick your nose into our business, you know."
"I'm a spy, this is literally my job. Being a major snoop is how I get paid."
"No," denies Clint, who's chugging down what looks to be half a gallon full of coffee. "You get paid because you save the world and look good doing it."
She beams and shoots a happy stare across the room. It's not very intimidating. "See! This is the kind of stuff you people should be saying to me at nine in the morning. Always good to hear."
"Don't think I didn't notice you saying 'our business,' Bucky." Sam successfully gets right back on track. He shoots a glance at the brown haired man and Steve, the latter of which is on the phone, nodding and shaking his head accordingly. The three of them can hear a loud batch of talking on the other end of the line, and Sam instantly chalks it up to Shuri ranting about her latest science project. "So what's going on there?"
"Steve and I are together now." Bucky shrugs as if this is no big deal, but his grin gives him away.
The breakfast table is suddenly exploding in excitement.
"I knew it!"
"SUCK IT, 'TASHA!"
"UP YOURS, CLINT!"
Sam claps Bucky on the back. "Took you long enough, you old geezers."
On the other end of Steve's phone, Shuri and T'Challa start cackling. (Mostly Shuri, but still.)
"Congratulations!" T'Challa says warmly, but not without a spark of mischief. "But honestly, I thought you two needed to be together sooner... which is why I gave you both a little push."
Bucky frowns, confused. What little push?
"Well, Mirabo is getting married in two months time, as you're already well aware. Bucky, you've been invited. You are instructed to bring a plus one... though, I doubt that will be a problem now." T'Challa winks.
Shuri cackles louder. "You dumbass old men! I should have remembered that you two only do things on your own time. You would have seen each other in tuxedos! You would have slow danced! I would have even instructed the DJ to play a sweet, old forties song. It would have been so romantic!"
He pushes his little sister out of the frame. It's uncertain as to if she even falls over or not, because her laughter doesn't cease; it just quiets down some.
"Excuse her, you know how she is. Hopeless romantic at heart."
"It's not hopeless!" she shoots back. "I'll find someone someday! If a couple of emotionally constipated men can do it, then so can I!"
"I feel like we're supposed to be offended," Steve says, grinning. "Should I just give her a halfhearted hey and see how she responds?"
"You can find someone, Shuri!" Bucky yells out, ignoring his boyfriend. "After all, you have to. Then you get to plan a wedding, and I know how much you pretend not to love weddings."
"I don't love weddings... but I suppose it would be cool to have a whole party dedicated to my spouse and I."
"Then when you find the perfect outfit I get to be there and see you gush over it like you did with that snake you saw the other day."
"It was so cute- no! Anyway. I'd have the perfect wedding with all my friends and family there. I'll have a great band and the most amazing cake. Either you or T'Challa would give me away, maybe even both, and I'd throw cake at both of you and hope you can get a refund on your suits, but if you couldn't get one then I probably wouldn't feel all that bad about it-"
"Wait, go back a second. Either T'Challa or I would give you away?"
"Well, yes." She sniffs. "I don't want a girl doing it, no offense to my mom who I know is lurking in the background right now. So I'd want a guy to do it, because that just feels like it would work for me. The only eligible men that I really trust enough for that would be either you or him. Steve is great too, of course, but by then he'd probably be your husband and have his own separate part in the ceremonies. I know that, traditionally, my brothers aren't supposed to be the ones giving me away, but I can't picture anything more perfect."
T'Challa steps out of the camera's frame, looking about three seconds away from sniffling.
Just like a bride on her wedding day.
"Yeah," Bucky agrees. Steve grins even harder than before. T'Challa is undoubtably doing the same. "I couldn't think of anything better."
"What makes you happy?" Sam asks.
"You might want to sit down for a minute."
By the end of it, Sam says:
"That's all really good, man. Really good."