Breathing in Wakandan air feels like cheating, somehow, like it’s unfair to know what it feels like entering your lungs and what it tastes like when you gasp after holding your breath for too long—that’s how clean it is. Steve has yet to see smog or puffs of sooty air during his stay here and most likely won’t; the nation’s mastered the science of utilizing renewable, clean power sources long before the outreach mission. T’Challa had spoken sadly of his father’s experience as a young king who’d tried to bring that knowledge to other countries, only to have it snatched and buried away by the schemes and power plays of oil companies and energy providers, unwilling to relinquish the hold they had on the world. Steve had gritted his teeth.
His first thought had been, A century later and things haven’t changed at all.
And his second thought, hushed and aching: I wonder if Tony knew about it.
Probably not. King T’Chaka had been young a long time ago, before Tony became who he is now and turned Stark Enterprises around. Tony wouldn’t have let it be. He would’ve at least said something about it, because even after what happened—Steve could still taste the biting sterile air as he slumped against concrete, watching Tony stand over Bucky’s prone form—he can still say Tony Stark is a man with a good heart. And he would’ve said something about it.
He would’ve been loud and witty about it, but now Steve’s in Wakanda and the lack of Tony’s chatter is heavy in the silence. He sits at the desk in his stately room, twisting a fountain pen between his fingers, marveling at its handle—blue, not black. The pen has never been held by a president of the United States, or put in a case held in Tony Stark’s hands, placed on a glass table as an olive branch.
I’d hate to break up the set, Steve had told him before leaving. Looking back, it sounds ridiculously ironic, considering what he went ahead and did afterwards. It’s not that he regrets what he did, because he doesn’t. He would do it again for Bucky; he would set the world on fire and walk through earthly hell for him. Steve knows that.
His room comes with a floor-to-ceiling window, from which Steve has a view of a river winding its way around boulders and making its way to the edge of a cliff, over which it tumbles in free-fall in the clean, clean air. Nothing like the smoke clearing after the battle in New York. Nothing like ash and heaps of rubble around them as he crouches down next to Iron Man, lying motionless on the ground. Nothing like the first time Steve had smiled at Tony when he’d said, please tell me nobody kissed me.
The terrible thing about it was that Steve hadn’t spared a single thought about what it would be like, after. In Siberia there was nothing but fear and desperation thick in the air, strong in his blood, and Steve didn’t think about how Tony would lift him in the air or have his back in a fight, because he’d only seen Bucky with his arm blown off, falling and not getting up; had not thought, only struggled. Now that it was over and the metaphorical dust had cleared, Steve finds himself opening a fridge and noticing that he never has to push around literal jugs of coffee to get to his food. He never hears weird facts about toasters or avocados or nuclear power plants.
And, the nights when he’s sleepless and exhausted, he never finds someone at the pantry cooking something ridiculous like peanut butter mac and cheese or microwave pizza with rice krispies, who turns around and goes, hey, Steve, guess I’m not the only one the Sandman skipped, and is just there for a while, his presence silent and comforting in a way Steve never thought Tony could be when they’d first met.
These encounters meant Steve had tasted too many absurd concoctions to count (some of them were even edible) and then he would sit there with Tony, both with their eyes closed, trying to sleep. They succeeded a few times. The other times, they’d talked about everything from rocket launchers to women’s perfume and laughed at unfunny jokes born from sleep deprivation until morning came and Tony had to go to a board meeting and it was time for Steve’s morning run.
Now he just sits at the desk and looks out at the stunning night sky, clear and freckled with white-point stars. Back in Manhattan, the view from Stark Tower showed him a dusky grey-blue expanse, bloated with artificial light leaking from every building, including the one he resided in.
About a week after Steve moved into Stark Tower, some time after the SHIELD/HYDRA fiasco that forced him to leave his apartment, Tony had come down to the pantry and he’d seen Steve staring outside with his hand on the glass.
Steve was suddenly conscious of the lights dimming down until they were completely off, of Tony’s pine and cedar eau de parfum wafting from the fabric of his suit. Steve hadn’t turned, but he’d looked at the image of Tony reflected on the glass, took in the lines next to his eyes as he half-smiled.
“Shame that it’s a little too late to save the stars,” he’d said. “Penny for your thoughts?”
Steve doesn’t actually remember what he’d been thinking about, only that he did end up sharing whatever it was. He never looked straight on at Tony the entire time, just sensed his proximity from the cadence and volume of his voice, daring himself to keep his eyes on Tony’s reflection for longer and longer stretches of time.
Then Tony had yawned, saying it was bedtime for him and Steve should probably try to get some sleep too.
“You, turning in early? Maybe I should keep an eye out for the oceans turning into blood.”
“Rogers,” Tony had said in the extremely serious tone that meant he wasn’t serious at all, “you must’ve been the most popular kid at Sunday school.”
Steve had chuckled. “Yeah, they were all lining up for the chance to beat me up whenever I opened my mouth.”
He hadn’t meant to say it. But he had said it, without thinking, and Steve was waiting for Tony to throw out a mildly hurtful quip. But Tony only said, “I hope they felt really stupid when you got famous and started kicking ass in the army… but that would be a little too nice.”
For a moment, Steve was speechless.
Then, Tony continued, “And if an alien wizard tried to kill the kids who used to beat you up now, you’d still swoop in to save them. You wouldn’t even do it out of spite. You’re a marvel, you know that, Steve? I hate it when my old man gets something right.”
He’d left after that, leaving Steve staring blankly into the darkness, standing in air tinged with pine and cedar. Those trees don’t grow in Wakanda, and here in the room the diffuser T’Challa provides him with spouts sweet frangipani-scented mist from the bedside table.
It would be easy, he thinks, if it was just the pen, the night sky and the fragrance drifting in the air, but it’s not so much that specific things remind him of Tony—rather, everything reminds him of Tony, because after SHIELD/HYDRA and all the Bucky leads had dried up and Sam had to lead a life of his own, Tony was everywhere, subtly and perhaps accidentally making a space for himself in Steve’s life.
He’d been so ever-present—a conversation first thing in the morning or last thing before turning in, or a rushed meal between errands, or the familiar sound of a blaster charging up behind Steve, the reliable feeling of steel against his back—that Steve never noticed how there he was.
And now, since Steve is a damn fool, he’s only starting to realize this because Tony’s absence is a presence of its own kind.
He flips open the phone, typing out a hesitant Tony before backspacing again. Four times. Four letters. Steve wonders whether Tony threw the phone away, or, if he didn’t, whether he would even answer.
How are you? he sends. If Tony doesn’t reply, Steve will go on with his day, wondering what the view is like over Manhattan.
They all have dinner together almost every day, unlike at the Tower, where most of them were usually too busy to make it. Usually, Steve had dinner with Wanda and Vision, who weren’t off ruling a planet, carrying out secret ops or trying to hide from the government. Now he looks around and sees all of them: Sam, Scott, Wanda, Clint. All present. No empty chairs. Steve ignores the dull hollowness he feels.
Wanda and Clint had spent the entire day in the capital—Wanda’s telling them about the fountains, the literal floating market, the rings she bought. She’s in the middle of showing them one: a silver crocodile curled around her pointer finger, its ridges deep and the details exquisite. Clint shows them a delicate filigree ring made up of criss-crossing thin silver veins, catching the tasteful lamplight like the dewdrops on a web. He catches Steve’s eye, lets him hold it and feel the latticework.
The burner phone buzzes in his pocket. Steve excuses himself to the bathroom.
Fine. Dandy. Still pining for the man who left me for my parents’ murderer. How’s exile?
Despite himself, he smiles when he hears Tony’s voice read the text aloud in his head. The ghost of imagination is pale and fleeting; he wonders when he’ll next get to refresh his memory, hear the real thing.
It’s great. The food’s out of this world and you can actually breathe oxygen around here, not just combustion fumes.
The next day he gets Wanda to take him to the place where she bought the rings. She gets starry-eyed all over again, and Steve eventually relents and buys a necklace with red glass beads for her. He wishes, suddenly, that her brother were here to share this with her. (But he isn’t, and Wanda makes do with what she has.)
He spends some time looking over the jewelry—gold and bronze and silver, crushed together in wooden boxes, cascading over blunt iron hooks and rippling in the sunlight. Eventually he settles on a ring with a wide band that looks like it was made of interlocking segments.
He thinks of the way Iron Man moves—not quite organically, the gestures of a man translated into a machine’s motion—and puts the ring in the leather pouch given to him. He pays. As they leave, Wanda looks at him curiously.
“What?” he asks her, smiling.
“Nothing. You are what they call ‘a bit of a sap’, aren’t you?”
I defied the United Nations for my best friend, he thinks. I still think about dancing with Peggy. I wish Nat were here to tell me that she doesn’t want me to be alone.
An airborne speeder whizzes past them. Sam said something about wanting to have a race on those.
I wonder how Tony, Natasha, Vision and Rhodey are doing.
“Yeah,” he says.
“You know, I think about them too.” Wanda puts on her necklace, plays with one of the beads. When Steve looks at her, startled, she laughs.
“I’m not reading your mind. You just show everything you think on your face,” she says, gesturing with an open palm in front of her eyes.
“If you did read it, you’d probably see an image of last night’s dinner. You hungry?”
“Mm-hmm,” Wanda answers, then guides Steve in the direction of a restaurant she and Clint discovered the other day. It starts pouring out of nowhere; Wanda yelps and picks up the pace. When they get there her hair is all frizzed out, a nest for droplets. Her face is flushed from the running. Steve tells her that her cheeks match her necklace. She holds the beads up to her face and scowls.
Once he gets back to the compound T’Challa’s letting them stay in, he puts the leather pouch with the ring in it in his desk drawer. He sniffs a shirt Sam had bought him a week ago. Even his clothes smell like frangipani now. It’s a wonderful scent; Steve just wishes it didn’t feel so unfamiliar.
The phone buzzes again.
1) How dare you, I went Michelin on you ungrateful children. 2) Did I ever tell you about Stark Tower’s state-of-the-art air purification system? I did tell you about it. Multiple times. I’m sure you felt the difference every time you came home after running about outside doing whatever it is sad nonagenarians do. Also, isn’t this phone for emergencies? Why are you telling me about your extended vacation? Not that I’m complaining.
Steve doesn’t know how to answer Tony’s question, but he stumbles on the phrase came home. For an extremely brief period of time, Stark Tower had been home—and it felt that way, unlike Steve’s previous apartment, lonely and Bucky-free and filled with things that didn’t really feel like they were his.
In Stark Tower he had witnessed Vision and Wanda trying to learn how to use PayPal, caught Natasha eating an apple while watching a rerun of Legally Blonde, sat down with Tony and gave him advice when it came to Pepper because, according to Tony, “You’re the nice guy people say always finishes last, Steve, and Pepper is not ‘people’.”
He puts the phone back in his pocket, not quite ready to answer, and thinks about that instead: how Tony smiled at Pepper, how he always faced her whenever she entered the room like a sunflower turning towards the sun. He’d caught himself thinking, once, about what it would be like for Tony to look at him that way.
She saved me, Tony had said about her; Steve wondered when was the last time he was ever really able to save anyone like that, in mind and soul. Had he ever? He thinks of Bucky’s choice to put himself back in cryo; frost crawling up his body, ice crackling over his face. Bucky lay with his eyes closed behind glass, frozen, like the image of him in a memory.
The next day, he goes hiking. Sam offers to go with him, but Steve declines. He needs some time alone.
“You’ve already had a lot of time alone,” Sam says. Then, putting a hand on Steve’s shoulder, he adds, “I’m worried ‘bout you, Steve. I know nothing you did was easy on you. If you need to talk, I’m here.”
“I know,” he says gratefully.
When Steve first expressed his wish to explore the jungle, T’Challa had given him a tracker and an interactive map on a tablet so lightweight it would make Tony envious. He had also given Steve tranquilizer darts, smiling before telling him that the jungle is not a tamed one. Steve better take care not to let it damage him.
It’s dark here, the canopies and canopies of leaves blocking out the sunlight, only letting tiny beams pass through to paint bright circles on the floor-level plants. He trudges through leaves and steps very carefully over a line of ants, marching like soldiers; ducks under thick, solid vines and low-hanging branches. Everything smells like earth and dew and a little hint of manure; he can still taste the yesterday’s rain on his tongue.
He arrives, finally, at the clearing where the waterfall meets the ground and the river continues, onwards, to the west. The spray gets everywhere, sprinkling freshwater on Steve’s white t-shirt, drenching his hair and making it lie flat on his head. He ducks behind a boulder that shields him from the water and pulls out the phone.
Thought you might want to know how we’re all holding up. We’re doing okay, by the way. Wanda has a lot of fun buying jewelry for everyone. Don’t tell Vision she’s got something saved for him; it’s supposed to be a surprise. Clint’s at the shooting range almost daily, grumbling about sticking you to the target. Scott’s going through most of the coffee, which tastes much better than what you always made, by the way. Sam’s having the time of his life sampling the local cuisine and learning to cook it. Bucky’s back in cryo.
He deletes the last sentence. He sighs. He types it again and sends it. Maybe Tony won’t want to know what they’ve been up to, but this feels familiar, updating Tony on the team’s status. They won’t meet tonight to discuss everyone and how to fix the holes in their defenses next time they’re on a mission, but Steve can still carry out half of a whole thing.
Afterwards, Steve puts the phone and the tablet in the backpack he’s carrying. T’Challa had said that a few meters away from the falls there is a side of the cliff that he can use to get to the top. Steve scales the side, stepping cautiously on rock and keeping his hands in wall ridges. He’d left the compound at dawn; by the time he makes it to the top of the waterfall, the sun is high above his head, throwing light on the spray. A rainbow glows at the base of the falls above swirling water.
He’d had a Starkphone back in Manhattan. He didn’t remember when Natasha gave him the idea to do so, but Steve liked taking pictures of nice scenes in parks or completely random things—a churro, the fact on the bottom of a Snapple lid, a man outside a subway station playing the sax—and sending it to Tony when he knew Tony had a board meeting.
At first he had thought it would rile him up, but Tony never seemed bothered by it. He always had something to say about whatever Steve sent.
(The cart on the intersection after that makes better churros.
2 weeks kissing in a lifetime? That’s horrible. More like 5 yrs maybe, then we’re talking.
If he was playing careless whisper I’m taking that nuke back from outer space and unleashing it on him.)
Maybe Tony just liked being able to take his mind off the meetings for a few seconds.
The Starkphone isn’t with him now, but Steve has a sketchpad, a pencil and a set of watercolors Sam had bought for him. He wipes his sweaty hands on the backpack and sits, admiring the view: the sea of treetops, the water, the rainbow. Steve sits on a rock by the river and draws what he sees.
His backpack buzzes, but Steve doesn’t grab it right away. He’s painting the red-orange-yellow-green bands even as the light fades and the rainbow disappears; the golden haze over the trees, flitting over the rocks, tells him that it’s time to head back. Steve finishes up a glistening rock and puts the sketchpad and watercolors back in the bag. He gets up, breathes in the jungle air.
The journey back is over quickly. Steve walks on, his mind miles and miles away, trying to find its way back home, finding all the roads blocked.
That night he sits at the desk again and gazes at the same constellations. Flipping open the phone rewards him with three new messages, and Steve opens them in the order they were received.
You insult my food, my air, and my coffee. That’s it, Rogers. That’s three strikes.
Tony would’ve said this facing him head on, frowning exaggeratedly and holding up three fingers, one coming up after the other. Steve takes out his sketchpad and sketches exactly that, shading him like the morning light would’ve done. He adds a speech bubble and writes the text in it.
Have you ever seen an android powered by a magical alien stone pine? It’s sad. It’s like seeing a normal person pine, except he glows sometimes. I can’t believe I have to give the comforting talks now. That’s your job. I’m terrible at it. Rhodey is adjusting to the walking aid I built for him. By ‘adjusting’ I mean he can still kick my ass in hand-to-hand combat. So unfair. Is he that good or am I that bad? Don’t answer that. Natasha’s still missing. I’m 100% sure she’s doing better than any of us are.
And the last:
I hope it works out with him, whatever you two choose to do.
These, Steve doesn’t draw. He re-reads the second one twice, the third one thrice. He knows what the last text means: this is all Tony has to say about the matter, and he expects not to have to talk about it again. Bucky’s going to be the mine they’d both have to avoid long after this is over, long after they can see each other again.
He re-reads the older texts and draws those too in the same style as the first Tony sketch.
Tony tinkering with a machine, brow wrinkled in concentration and black grease smeared over his cheekbone, calling out, “Fine. Dandy. Still pining for the man who left me for my parents’ murderer. How’s exile?”
He wishes he had charcoal for the grease.
Tony with a half-full jug of coffee in his right hand and his left hand making a dismissive gesture, his glasses slightly skewed and his hair unruly, saying: “I’m sure you felt the difference every time you came home after running about outside doing whatever it is sad nonagenarians do.”
Steve closes the sketchpad, puts it back in his backpack. He grabs a clean t-shirt and sweatpants and takes a shower then brushes his teeth. Steve looks at himself in the mirror, at the skin that’s unmarred because the serum doesn’t let him keep his bruises even for the brief period of time other people get to have them. The bruises from their fight must still be fading from Tony’s skin now.
He goes to sleep.
In his dream, there is a memory, half-formed and indistinct through a cloud of anesthesia and smothered pain.
“How is he?” says one voice. Burnt golden afternoon light and autumn leaves swirl outside a window.
“He’ll live to do even dumber heroic things in the future.” A pinched exhale, sharp and abrupt. Muffled manic laughter. “I’m sorry.”
Gold, gold, gold.
The other voice says, softly, “Don’t be. I know it doesn’t mean you love me any less.”
How did I get here, he wonders, and is rewarded by a shifting of scenes: a wall of fire opening up in front of him, heat blooming and silent the way blasts can only be in dreams.
An explosion. Steve is thrown backwards, embers whirling all around as crumbling concrete entombs him, making way only for broken pipes spilling water. A voice calling his name. Light comes through and Steve’s hazily aware of cold metal against his skin, a chain of no no no no no—
The darkness takes him. In a doomed plane, Steve is engulfed by the icy sea so the cold wraps itself around him, makes itself his home. Steel gives from beneath him as he looks into an empty sky-blue abyss and he falls into a river, sinking slowly, watching a sluggish stream of red reach for the surface. In traps of metal and fathomless water, the darkness takes him every time.
He wakes up to sunlight. First thing he does is roll over, grab the phone, and reply.
I guess I do kind of miss your yogurt scrambled eggs, he says, because maybe he does. They tasted kind of good. He feels gross just admitting it to himself.
“Hey, Steve.” Steve finds Sam in the living room, drinking some fragrant Wakandan tea that T’Challa introduced him to—Sam hasn’t stopped drinking the stuff since. He’s got a stack of donuts in front of him. “How was the jungle?”
“See for yourself.”
Steve goes back to his room, digs out the sketchpad and opens it to the page with the view from the top of the falls. He hands it over and watches Sam’s eyes widen. He whistles softly, two short lilting notes, and Steve grins.
“Damn.” Sam says this so softly it kind of feels like he didn’t mean to let it slip out.
The first time Tony had seen him draw—a sketch of Sam holding a feather up—he’d stopped in his tracks and Steve had turned to see Tony looking at him, head cocked at the smallest angle to the side, an amused smile on his face. There had been something about the way he looked back then, something Steve couldn’t put his finger on: something private, like it was the smile Tony usually kept to himself.
“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you,” he’d said in that snappy way of his, but there was nothing smug or showy about it that time. Oh, Steve had thought, unbidden. So this is what Rhodey and Pepper see.
Then Sam flips the page before Steve can stop him.
“Damn,” he says more loudly, his face wrinkling as he frowns. He flips again. And again. He looks up at Steve and raises one eyebrow.
Steve shrugs and slides into the seat next to Sam, who offers him a donut. “It’s exactly what it looks like.”
“No. No. I refuse to deal with this from both sides. Don’t tell me you only realized this now. While we’re here. After we left.”
“Actually.” Steve feels suddenly sheepish.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”
“Yeah, it would’ve made a great conversation.”
“What are you talking about, I’m a goddamn counselor. We could’ve had the best conversation. Also, three weeks ago he cornered me and went, real conversationally like it was nothing, ‘You know it kills me that no matter how well we go together when the team is out there doing what the Avengers do, no matter what I do or how much time we spend, I can never make Cap happy about having me instead of having his old war pals.’ You see why I gotta judge the both of you now.”
Steve feels like he’s been hit in the stomach. Tony’s about as subtle as a goddamn reinforced steel and concrete wall and Steve is twice as dense, apparently. Anyway, he thinks, too little, too late.
More gently—probably noticing the look on Steve’s face—Sam says, “What are you gonna do?”
“I’m going to ask T’Challa to send this,” Steve says, pointing at the panorama sketch, even though he knows that’s not exactly what Sam is asking.
He and Sam go out to the capital to buy a nice medium-sized box for the drawings, and Steve tells Sam about how he’s been using the burner phone. Sam stares at him and mutters something about how he shouldn’t be surprised after the whole Winter Soldier fiasco, and Steve laughs so hard the guy he’s buying the box from—a sturdy box made of pale wood, carved with simple designs somewhat reminiscent of the Black Panther suit—gawks at him with poorly-disguised bewilderment.
The phone buzzes just as he’s putting the drawing of the view from the falls in the box. As he places the pouch with the ring in it with one hand, he grabs the phone with another.
Do I detect sarcasm? You do know how badly that comes across over text, right? Just making sure so I don’t accidentally cook any for you during our pending tearful reunion. I’d hate to have to get a robot to clean supersoldier vomit off the furniture.
Steve chuckles. Behind him, Sam groans.
After ripping off the page with his hike drawing, Steve can only see the sketch of Tony telling him about his three strikes. He hesitates, finger pressing the corner of the page so that it curls inwards towards the speech bubble. Thinks of the last time he’d seen Tony, his mask opened up, his arc reactor cracked and dimmed.
Steve rips off the page. He puts it at the bottom of the box, then he grabs a clean sheet of paper and a marker and writes, I’m sorry. Again. Look at this as Olive Branch No. 2?
He closes the box and looks at Sam.
“C’mon,” Sam says. He puts one hand on Steve’s arm. “Let’s get that to T’Challa.”
Three days later, Steve’s washing the dishes with Clint—it’s an oddly therapeutic activity, especially with Clint humming happy tunes under his breath as he spreads suds all over wood and porcelain. Steve dries each glass with a soft cotton cloth.
“Hey, Cap,” Clint says, interrupting his own rendition of ‘Under the Sea’. “What do you think about a game of volleyball-slash-Frisbee tomorrow? Me and Wanda versus you and Wilson. Lang can referee. I spent all day figuring out the rules with him yesterday.”
“I like that idea. T’Challa show you where the nearest park is?”
“Yeah, you won’t believe the statue garden. Wanda went nuts and started moping about how she wished ‘Viz’ were here to see it. I don’t like him for her; he tried to keep her under house arrest. I mean, she can make her own choices, sure. But I kinda object to the choice she’s making, know what I’m saying? What I’m saying is that he held me in a chokehold so she wouldn’t leave Stark Tower. You agree with me when I say that’s kind of a creepy thing to do, right?”
“Clint,” Steve says, grinning as he wrings a damp cloth. “You’re not Wanda’s father. None of us are adopting her.”
Clint grumbles, “I know that.”
When they finish their task, the sun has slipped beneath the horizon and the new blue tinge to everything makes Steve feel a causeless kind of melancholy. From this side of the compound he can see the capital’s skyline—sleek towers carve out dark shapes in the half-darkness and shadows dust the curving patterns etched on some of the façades.
The phone in his pocket buzzes. Steve hasn’t opened it in days. Had no reason to. The screen glows green, and the black pixelated text against it jumps out at him.
Olive branch received. Miss you too, honey. Key’s under the ‘Welcome’ mat. Don’t come home too late. :)
Steve places the phone on the table, tries to picture the Manhattan skyline, the unblinking lights, the motion in the streets below; pigeons taking flight in the milky dawn; slate grey skies, missing stars; the reflection of a face he knows on the glass; breathing in pine-and-cedar air.
See you soon, Tony, he writes back—and means it.