Sam Wilson was the first person since Steve came out of the ice to ask him what would make him happy.
He'd said he didn't know, because he'd learned a long time ago how hopeless it was to want what he couldn't have. Captain America embodied hope; Steve Rogers was good at putting himself aside.
Sometimes, it felt like he was two people: the Captain and the sickly artist. Sometimes, after most of another sleepless night drifting from room to room in the uncomfortable luxury of T'Challa's palace, he could barely believe that young man trembling on the razor's edge of oblivion had ever existed. On others, it felt like Steven Grant Rogers was the only real person he'd ever been.
Maybe Bucky felt like that too. Another terrible thing to have in common.
"How's the cargo?"
Natasha called once or twice a month, more often if she could manage it. Mostly she talked to Clint, but she always spared a minute or two at the end of the conversation for Steve. And the first thing she always asked him was, How's the cargo?. Steve could never be sure if she was genuinely interested in Bucky's wellbeing but paranoid of being overheard, or if it was a subtle insult. Like she was really asking the status of the burden he'd inflicted on them all.
Steve chose to believe it was the former. It wasn't that Natasha was incapable of that kind of cruelty—she was; the Red Room had made certain of it—but in the end she'd chosen Steve's side when it counted. And she and Bucky had some kind of history together, though Steve couldn't tell from her pointed silence about it whether it was good or bad.
They were shared life experiences, all the same. Maybe that was the only thing that mattered.
"The cargo's fine," Steve said. "Or, nothing's changed, anyway." Bucky slept (or, didn't sleep. Bucky existed) in his self-imposed isolation, safer for everybody. The Wakandan doctors were still working on how to neutralize the trigger words, but it was slow going. Steve figured it was because it took a certain kind of malevolent creativity to have put them there in the first place, and the Wakandans assigned to Bucky were, while absolutely capable—their intelligence and skill were staggering—so deeply unwilling to replicate Hydra's evil that it was impeding them.
Steve was grateful they were treating Bucky with such kindness, but some nights he couldn't find the strength to fight through the frustration and despair. And some nights the lack of progress made Steve so angry he purposely avoided the cryostasis room in case he couldn't stop himself from hitting something.
Natasha made a noncommittal hum on the other end of the line. "You know, we have a mutual acquaintance who has a piece of equipment that might make the defrosting easier."
Steve was very careful not to crush the phone in his hand. "If it's the same mutual acquaintance who tried to…destroy my cargo, please tell him I'm not interested in him getting anywhere near us again."
"He feels badly about what happened," she said, as if that could somehow make a difference.
"Then he can say so himself. And feeling badly isn't good enough. He almost killed…. You know what he nearly did. I'm not sure I can forgive him for that."
"You did lie to him about the most traumatic event of his life."
Steve winced. "I know," he said, anger dissipating like the morning fog outside his window. "I know. And I'm not sure I can forgive myself for that, either. But his beef was with me, not anyone else."
"I think he's aware of that," Natasha said. Steve suddenly wondered if Tony was in the same room, avidly listening. He could easily imagine Natasha looking at him, silently asking Tony to confirm what she'd just told Steve.
"Is Tony there? Is that why you're defending him?"
"No, Steve," Natasha said quite clearly. "Tony isn't with me."
Well, that could have meant anything.
"Okay," Steve said on a breath. "Thanks, Natasha. And…if you could pass on that I'm sorry, I'd appreciate it. It…seemed appropriate at the time."
He heard her dry smirk. "Doesn't it always?"
Sometimes it seemed like Bucky was the only one of them who ever slept, even though Steve knew he didn't.
Scott was the worst. He'd mentioned casually at dinner one evening that he was pretty sure he had ADHD, though he'd never been diagnosed. Steve had heard of the disorder, of course. He had a suspicion that Bucky might've had it, though he'd never shared Scott's inability to stay still. After the third time Steve discovered Scott as wide awake as he was, muttering to himself while he used a tablet to redesign yet another part of his Ant Man suit, Scott admitted that sometimes he couldn't slow his thoughts down enough to sleep. Then he added offhandedly that he was worried about his daughter, then smirked in a way that reminded Steve of Bucky before he went back into cryo.
You sure about this?
I can't trust my own mind.
Scott couldn't trust his own mind either. Maybe that was the reason Steve always found him sitting cross-legged on the floor in the cryostasis room, in front of Bucky's cylinder with a tablet or notepad on his lap. Steve didn't think Bucky was at peace the way T'Challa said, but his thoughts had slowed to nothing. He wasn't afraid, or sad, or angry. It made sense that Scott might find the idea of that soothing, but Steve never wanted to ask.
He'd sit with Scott instead, asking him questions about his designs or his daughter, or the friends and his brilliant sort-of girlfriend he'd left back in California. Scott was funny, and had a persistent optimism that Steve badly needed a lot of the time, even if it was so obviously a brittle façade over the wild misery churning beneath.
Nights like that, Steve thought that maybe Natasha really did mean that he'd forced his burdens on everyone, and now they were all slowly crumbling under the weight. And he didn't think she was wrong.
Clint was in the same boat as Scott, missing the life he'd left behind like he'd left half his soul in America. (Steve understood that; half his soul was frozen.) He and Scott talked about their kids all the time, sharing anecdotes and commiserating on the difficulties of being a parent in general and especially a parent who was a vigilante in his spare time.
Steve could never tell if their conversations made them feel better or worse, but figured it might be both, given how often Clint would prowl at night. He almost never went to where Bucky was kept. He preferred to walk around the city, or into the parts of the jungle that weren't forbidden. Most of the time he'd just smile and wave at Steve if they crossed paths, but they didn't really talk.
Steve couldn't help but look for resentment or hatred in Clint's eyes, but he never found it.
"I knew what I was getting into, Cap. There was always the chance I wouldn't go back," was the only thing Clint said when Steve finally got the courage to ask him how he felt.
"I never meant for this to happen," Steve said.
Clint frowned at him. "No offense, Steve, but what the hell did you think would happen? We helped a goddamn fugitive escape custody and violated the fucking Accords. Did you think we'd get hugs and cookies?"
"No. Of course not." Steve shook his head. "I just didn't…expect this." He had, in his heart of hearts, hoped that once he and Bucky subdued the other Soldiers and brought back proof of how Bucky had been tortured and brainwashed, that they'd all be forgiven. When Tony showed up to help, Steve had actually thought that could be their ending: a Happily Ever After.
It was hopeless to want what you couldn't have. Steve had learned that, but he kept forgetting.
"Yeah, well. Here we are." Clint clapped Steve on the arm. "Still appreciate the rescue."
Steve shrugged. "Believe me, it was the least I could do."
Some nights, that felt like nothing at all.
Sam blamed himself for not catching Rhodey.
"The crazy thing is, I know it's bullshit," he said to Steve one time. They were both at the wide, glorious observation window, watching yet another sunrise burn the fog away from the jungle canopy. He sipped his coffee, clutching the mug in both hands. Wakanda also produced excellent coffee, another odd perk of their exile. "It wasn't my fault his suit failed, and I know I did everything I could. But…."
"It's like you were just there to watch him fall," Steve said. He drank some of his own coffee. He liked the taste and the familiar comfort of it, even if the caffeine did even less for him than alcohol.
Sam swallowed, took another sip of his coffee. "Yeah," he said, quiet and rough. "Just like Riley. And I can't...." He took a breath, deliberately squared his shoulders. "I gotta stop conflating that shit in my head. I already forgave myself, you know? I did my time, got through it. And then Rhodey. And it's right back to the damn nightmares."
"I'm sorry," Steve said. He meant, I'm sorry you can't sleep. I'm sorry I put you in that position where you ended up having to watch him fall. I'm sorry I got you into this mess. I'm sorry you have to be here at all.
If Sam heard any of that in the two words, he didn't show it. "Thanks," was all he said. "Me too, believe me."
"Are you…talking to anybody?" Steve sipped his coffee, studiously looking out the window in case he overstepped a boundary. Sam would've asked him that, but well, he wasn't Sam.
"Yes I am." Sam's eyes were on the same horizon. "And it is helping. Just, it's slow. It's always slow."
"I'm sorry," Steve said again.
"It is what it is. What it isn't is your fault." Sam looked at him. "You know that, right? I made my choice long before the airport. I do what you do, only slower, remember?"
You ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?
Hell, no! The little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to run away from a fight. I'm following him.
Steve nodded, blinking away the sudden prickle of tears in his eyes. He wanted to tell Sam that he'd made a mistake; that Steve wasn't worth it; look where following Captain America got him. He didn't, because he didn't want to argue and he didn't want to foist more of his problems on his friend. So instead he said, "Thank you, Sam. That means a lot." Because it did.
Sam smiled, turning back to the exquisite view. "You consider talking to someone here? You got a lot on your mind. Might make it easier to sleep nights."
The idea of shoving all his failures, all his guilt and remorse, into the light to be examined like exotic animals filled his guts with ice. He'd had enough ice to last a lifetime, but he knew Sam was right. "We all should," he said.
"Uh-huh." Sam put his hand on Steve's shoulder, still warm from his mug. "Just talk to any of the doctors around here. They'll set it up."
"Thanks, Sam." Steve smiled at him, trying to show how much he meant it. "You're a good friend."
"Damn right I am," Sam said.
Wanda was, generally, the best off of any of them. Losing her home with the Avengers was nothing compared to the loss of her homeland and her twin. But occasionally, when Steve had given up on sleep after another bad dream, he'd come to look out the windows and she'd be there. Wanda always had her hands on the glass and her eyes staring far beyond the horizon.
"I keep thinking that if I close my eyes, I'll wake up back in that prison, trapped in the straightjacket," she told him. "If you had not rescued us, I would still be there. And I can't…." She shuddered. "I do not think I could bear it."
"I know you could. You're stronger than you think," Steve said. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. She was so small compared to him, and she seemed cold all the time. "But I'm so glad you don't have to."
She leaned against him, resting her head on his chest. "Thank you for coming for us."
"It was the least I could do," Steve said. "You wouldn't've had to go through that at all if it wasn't for me."
"No, you are wrong." She moved enough so that when she tilted her head back he could see her eyes. "I didn't go to Berlin for you. I went because Vision was keeping me prisoner in Stark's Tower, and because the Accords reminded me too much of Sokovia before the uprising. I went because after hurting Vision to help Clint, I could not stay. And I went to help save the world, because I'm an Avenger, and that is what we do."
In the end all she—all any member of his team had done—was help him and Bucky walk into a trap that tore the Avengers apart. But that was only on Steve and Tony, no one else. So instead of telling her something she didn't deserve to hear, he said, "The Avengers were lucky to have you."
She smiled. "I know. But the Avengers aren't gone, Steve. They're right here."
Steve just smiled back, because there was nothing he could say.
Ironically, the phone call from Tony woke Steve up at six in the morning on one of the nights he'd actually managed to fall asleep.
"I can't sleep anymore," was the first thing out of Tony's mouth.
"What do you want, Tony?" Steve asked, a little too tired to make his voice kind. A little too angry still.
"I want…." There was a deep, miserable sigh. "I want a lot of things. I want world peace. I want a portal to suck Ross into space. I want Pepper back. I want to be able to sleep. And I want things to go back to the way they were, when we were…when we were good, you know? Buddies. Sympatico." Another sigh. Steve could imagine Tony scrubbing his face. He still knew the man well enough to recognize that Tony's babbling was equal parts exhaustion and fear. "I want to make this right," he said finally, with the kind of quiet, sober conviction Steve recognized too.
How do you hope to stop me?
Like the old man said: Together.
Steve sighed. "You almost killed Bucky. I'm not…I don't know how you can make that right, Tony."
"And you lied by omission," Tony snapped. "Which I know doesn't square things. But you're not innocent."
"Yeah, I know," Tony responded so quickly that Steve blinked. "Hell, I knew that at the time. But, I was angry. At you, for fucking up the Accords with your goddamn self-righteousness, and because Zemo had played me for a chump when he framed Barnes and I fell for it. And because I'd tried to stop you when I shouldn't have, and because my friends got put in a fucking Bond villain fortress and I couldn't do a damn thing to prevent it. And then I get to watch the Winter Soldier brutally murdering my parents, putting his hand around my mother's neck. And you knew and you chose protecting him over telling me…." He stopped to take a few breaths, and they sounded wet and trembling. "So, I was really fucking angry. And he'd killed my mom."
Steve gritted his teeth and stayed silent. He doubted that saying how his choice not to tell Tony had nothing to do with their friendship would make any difference, even if it was true. It had everything to do with Bucky, and Steve's own fear.
"I wanted to hurt you as much as you'd hurt me," Tony said, straightforward as a gut punch. "I don't know if I would've really killed him, but…." Another breath. "Yeah. I probably would've killed him."
"I…appreciate your honesty," Steve said. He still had no idea how he could forgive him, but hearing Tony admit it helped. A little. "I should have told you. I knew that too, but every opportunity I had to tell you what really happened to your parents…I didn't. I chickened out, because you're one of my best friends, and I couldn't bear the idea of you hating Bucky. And you have so many resources…I was afraid of what you might do."
"Like try to kill him, maybe?" There was a tiny thread of self-depreciating, sardonic humor in Tony's voice. "Good call."
"No, it wasn't a good call," Steve said soberly. "If I'd told you sooner, maybe you would've been able to forgive him."
"I never blamed him for…for being the weapon that killed them in the first place. I blamed you for keeping it from me. And anger issues, yadda. But, didn't it ever occur to you I might've helped you find him?" Tony's voice had gone small, compressed around a pain Steve had never even imagined he might feel. "I was, I'm your friend. I would've gotten over myself and helped you."
"I know, Tony." He'd known at the time; he'd been too afraid to let himself believe it. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't trust you enough. I'm sorry I was a coward. I'm sorry I never tried to see your perspective on the Accords."
"I'm really sorry I tried to kill Bucky," Tony said. "I can't stand this, Steve. I want the band back together. I want…. Well, you just said you can't forgive me, so no point in that. But, I want to make this right. Did Nat tell you about the B.A.R.F.?"
"Binarily Augmented Retro Framing—yeah, the name's a work in progress—Cliff notes version, it lets you relive memories and change them. I used it to say goodbye to my parents before they left on that car trip in 1991."
"It lets you relive memories?" Steve was too confused to be hopeful yet, but he could hear the excitement in Tony's voice, and his pulse began to echo it. "How does that even work?"
"The short answer is a bad headache and holograms. Not necessarily in that order. The long answer is that it taps into—never mind. It's like this: what's one of your really bad memories?"
They clogged his throat, he had so many. "You blowing Bucky's arm off and then kicking him in the head."
There was a short silence. "Way to go for the fucking jugular, Cap. I'm slow clapping. You do know I was legitimately scared for my life, right? He was pulling out my reactor. I would've been a sitting duck in a can."
"He was already down and you kicked him in the head!"
"And I'm trying to fix it!" Tony shouted. There was a longer silence while he audibly composed himself. "Good thing I remembered how much of an asshole you can be so I wasn't blindsided by it." That sounded sarcastic. "Steve, I have barely slept because I keep seeing myself kicking your buddy in the head when he was already down. Or I keep imagining what would've happened if I'd actually killed him. Or if he'd pulled my reactor out before I blasted his arm. I can't take what I did back. But neither can you."
Steve clenched his teeth.
"I get it, if you're not going to forgive me," Tony went on. "But I'm trying, here. I'm really, really trying. And I think you owe me that. Hell, you owe Bucky that, 'cause I'm pretty sure this'll work. But I can't bring my shit to Wakanda unless you agree to it."
Steve didn't bother asking how Tony knew where he was. He'd told T'Challa that people would be coming for Bucky just days after they'd arrived. "My worst memory is watching Bucky fall," Steve said.
He could imagine Tony blinking in the fresh quiet after Steve's confession. He hoped Tony took it for the peace offering it was.
"Well." Tony cleared his throat. "The machine would let you relive that. But you could change it so that you'd be able to grab him or cushion his landing or whatever. It's not time travel or anything. Nothing that actually happened would be different, but your memory of the event would be…better. It's like convincing your brain that things weren't as bad as they seemed."
That sounded both tempting and absolutely horrifying, but Tony wasn't offering this to him. "So, you think Bucky could use this thing to change whatever he associates with the trigger words?"
"Exactly!" Tony said, excited all over again. "Assuming that's how they work, that they use specific memories that he can change. It's possible I'm talking out my ass and it'll be a spectacular failure. But, I really think it'll work. I honestly think it'll work, Steve. Otherwise I would never have told you about it."
Steve's pulse wasn't just quicker now, it was hammering. It shimmered in his blood like hope.
It was hopeless to want what you couldn't have. But maybe, this time….
Except, this couldn't only be about Bucky or Steve. "Even if I say yes, the others may not want you here."
Tony made an unhappy sound that conveyed every iota of how weary he was. "I'm working on that," he said. "Turns out, Ross was so big on the Accords because he thinks it gives him carte blanche for his personal vendetta. He's started using it as an excuse to round up anyone with special abilities. Either they get Shanghaied into his little slave army—whoops, I mean 'elite fighting force'—or they get sent to the Raft. You didn't hear it from me, but I'm comfortably certain the smug asshole is about to get his own up-close-and-personal Raft tour, if you know what I mean. And a bunch of countries have already backed away from the Accords because of what he's doing. I have a feeling you're going to want to watch the news tomorrow. Or, today, actually. Just saying."
"You mean, we'll be able to go back?" Now Steve's heart was going so fast it hurt. It was a good hurt, one he hadn't felt in a long time. "Even Bucky?"
"President Ellis is looking forward to the photo op where he's shaking his hand."
"Oh, my God." Steve let out a bark of astonished laughter. "Oh, my God." Bucky would be free, exonerated. The president wanted to shake his hand. "You did all this?"
"You know me. Go big or go home, right? And I don't really have a home right now, so…."
Steve blinked, then wiped the tears off his face. "What do you mean? What happened to the Tower?"
"Nothing," Tony said. "The Tower's fine. Nothing wrong with the Tower. But..." He sighed. "All right, I'm just going to say it. You guys are my home. I know that's cheesy as fuck, but it's true. The Avengers are my home, and I blew it up. I wrecked everything and I want it back." Steve could hear him swallowing, the ache in his voice. "I want it back, Steve. And I will fucking do anything. So, I am literally begging you, here. Let me make this right so I can go home." He didn't even try to disguise how badly his voice was shaking. "Please, Steve. Let me go home."
Steve finally got it. This wasn't just Tony looking for forgiveness or redemption. This was Tony flying a nuclear warhead through a portal he didn't think he'd return from. This was laying down on the wire. If Steve said no, Tony would have nothing else to give. Nothing else he could fix or improve, nothing he could throw money at to earn their love back. As far as Tony was concerned, there were no other options.
Dear God, but Steve knew how that felt. They all did. That's why none of them were sleeping. That was why Bucky had chosen cryo.
You sure about this?
I can't trust my own mind.
Bucky hadn't thought there were any other options either. And up until a few moments ago, Steve would have never thought Bucky and Tony could have anything in common, either.
"How soon can you get here, Tony?" Steve said.
"Sweetheart," Tony said, "I'm calling from the quinjet."
Steve couldn't sleep anymore after that. For once he didn't mind.
The first thing Tony did when he saw Steve was shout, "Hey, Spangles! Catch!", and throw Steve's shield at him.
Steve caught it automatically, then held it in both hands, flipping it upside down in his fingers. The leather straps had been replaced. The front had been cleaned and repainted. The stripes and the white star in the middle looked as fresh and perfect as when Howard had first handed it to him in 1943.
Steve stared at the shield, then at Tony. "You said I didn't deserve this."
"Yeah, I did." Tony shoved his hands in his pockets, rocking on his heels the way he did sometimes when he was uncomfortable. "But among the other things I came to realize over the last couple months, is that my dad made it for you. He would've wanted you to have it. So." He jerked his chin at it. "Have it. Wear it proudly, keep the faith, et cetera."
"Thank you, Tony," Steve said, reverence in his voice. He hadn't let himself miss the shield, hadn't allowed himself to admit he'd missed the responsibility of being Captain America. He'd drop the shield again in a heartbeat for Bucky, if he had to. He'd give up everything, every time. But he'd missed it. "That was…. You didn't have to do that."
"Totally did," Tony responded easily. "Speaking of." He gestured behind him to the robotic, mobile pallet that had trundled off the quinjet after him and still followed docilly at his heels. "Let's do this thing."
"Just a minute." Steve set the shield down gently, then strode the short distance to Tony and pulled him into a hug. "It's good to see you, Tony. I missed you." He wasn't surprised at how much he meant it.
"Oh," Tony whispered. He hugged Steve back: Gingerly at first as if he could hurt him, then with all his strength. "I missed you too."
Steve was the first to step back, because Bucky was just a corridor away. Steve didn't want to wait any longer to see his beautiful eyes, hear his voice, hold Bucky in his arms again. He couldn't wait to find out if Tony could really fix the damage Hydra had done, if he could truly set Bucky free.
"It's kind of funny, how Bucky's the only one of us who's been able to sleep." Steve had no idea why he'd said that, since Bucky wasn't really sleeping at all, but Tony just nodded like he got it.
"There've been plenty of times since our Battle Royale in Siberia where I would've given my eye teeth to not have to think anymore," Tony said. "And then I'd remember that you kind of need to think to be alive."
"Yeah. You do," Steve said softly.
"Well, I guess it's time to remind him, then," Tony said.
They entered the cryostasis room. Bucky was peaceful and still, behind the veil of ice. Just existing. Safer for everybody. But you needed to think to be alive.
"Guess it is," Steve said. He stood next to Tony, heart alight with hope, as the doctors brought Bucky back to life.