Fundamental attribution error: The dual tendency of observers to underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the influence of dispositional factors on a person's behavior.
“Captain, has anyone ever told you that you were wrong?”
Steve dragged his attention away from the phone in his hand and the newsfeeds he tortured himself with daily, looking over at the king with the soft, open expression of a person caught off-guard. “—Highness?”
The king just looked at him. He had a strange gaze that fell somewhere between a stare and a cursory glance, as if you were at once the center of his attention and yet also a curiosity presented to him without context. They sat side-by-side on the leather couch before the stunning panorama of Wakanda at sundown, silence pervading.
Steve cleared his throat and set his phone down. “Bucky used to tell me when I was being an idiot,” he said like a verbal shrug. “Peggy was always willing to cut me down to size.”
T’Challa kept looking.
Steve frowned at him, unsure. “Are you telling me I was wrong?”
“That is not why I asked,” T’Challa said gently, searchingly. Steve was left to wonder if he had given the king his answer or not. “Why did Sam join you?”
“He disagreed with the idea of U.N. surveillance,” Steve replied frankly.
T’Challa’s brow dipped into a deep frown so fleetingly that Steve wondered if any baseline human would have caught it. “And why was it that he joined you in protecting Barnes?”
“He—” To his dismay, Steve found a knot of hesitation blocking his words. Sam didn’t deserve to be doubted like that, but… “I don’t really know. We never talked about it. He just—”
“Followed Captain America into the jaws of death?” T’Challa asked, sounding wry. His lips curled at the taken-aback look on Steve’s face. “Yes, I watched the cartoons, Captain.”
Steve sighed and shook his head, saying more or less to himself: “Of course they did.” Of course they actually ended up using the line that Falsworth threw out once as a joke when a reporter pressed them for quotes. The Commandos had all given it its proper mocking, and now it was having transcontinental influence? On royalty?
“The Captain Rogers of those cartoons was a rather extraordinary man,” T’Challa continued, finally shifting his gaze from Steve to the omnipresent fog outside the window. “All those who choose to oppose his shield—”
“—Must yield,” Steve chimed in when T’Challa left a slight pause for it. “You a fan, Your Majesty?”
T’Challa subjected the luscious jungle view to his scrutiny for a few moments more, then spoke softly without turning. “I do not care for fictional heroes, Captain. I admired the real Captain Rogers.”
Steve ducked his head in a quick thank-you.
“I acted rashly after the death of my father. I have forgiven myself for this,” T’Challa confided, though the way he said it did not seem like a confidence. He presented the two statements as facts, and Steve waited for the rest of the argument to be presented. “I acted on poor information, and your friend could have died at my hands. I refused to consider the consequences of my actions until it was almost far too late, and I believed the very worst of your friend on the word of others. These are not the traits of a leader.”
Steve couldn’t fail to notice the censure, but he did try to listen to T’Challa’s speech. “What are the traits of a leader, then?”
“You tell me, Captain.” T’Challa finally turned to look at Steve out of a little more than the corner of his eye.
“A good leader is a good man,” Steve said, then amended: “A good person. They listen to the people they lead, and they protect the people who need to be protected.”
“You see yourself as a protector, then?” T’Challa prodded.
Steve’s hand clenched against his will, tightening against the strap of a shield that was no longer present. T’Challa clearly noticed the motion, but kept his silence. He looked at Steve with a question in his eyes, giving Steve the choice.
“I gave it up,” he said through his teeth, then calmed himself and looked out the window at the murky landscape. “I hurt Tony. More than—more than was…. I was angry. I… acted—rashly.”
“I am not trying to lecture you, Captain.”
“You aren’t?” he burst out angrily. “Forgive me, but what are you doing then, Your Highness?”
“I am talking to you, Captain Rogers.”
Steve snapped his mouth shut, wondering if he had ever really been a leader at all. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to know if anyone has ever told you that you were wrong.” Steve grimaced at him, trying to say without petulance that he had already answered that question. T’Challa shook his head slightly. “Not if anyone has teased you about being wrong, or corrected you when you became arrogant.”
“Arrogant?” Steve heard himself saying without an actual thought process behind it.
“You fight, Captain. You are an excellent fighter. And I know that you have spent most of your life fighting simply to be listened to, or to be seen.” Steve swallowed an old lump in his throat. “You were given the opportunity to lead, but you were not given the tools. The serum,” he added, sensing Steve’s protest. “Your strength, all of it is nothing to a leader.”
Not a perfect soldier.
“But people often do not understand the power of weakness,” T’Challa continued, rising gracefully to his feet and slinking over to the enormous window, where he fell into parade rest. “You told me once that Barnes’s return has made you feel like yourself more than you have since you were awoken.”
“What are you saying, Your Majesty?” Steve asked tersely, falling back on the honorific as he was fully aware of how he must otherwise sound.
“That Captain America was found in the ice, but that Steve Rogers was found in James Barnes,” T’Challa said firmly, still gazing out the window. Steve felt like a hand rested on the back of his neck, pulling the hairs there against the grain and leaving behind an imprint of sweat and blood. He slumped forward and linked both of his hands behind his head, rubbing them roughly against his skull, trying to remove the ghostly presence.
“That you were frozen, and rediscovered, and now are frozen again alongside your friend,” the king continued gravely, letting Steve have the dignity of being ignored.
“What do you want?!” Steve shouted finally, slamming both fists down on the leather beside his trembling thighs.
His shout was absorbed by the soft flooring and the gentle acoustics of the hallway. The jungle did not hear him. He and T’Challa existed in the silence of Steve cracking open like the earth around Sokovia, there in the hallway of the wing that had been given over to the five fugitives. T’Challa called them his guests, and Steve wondered if they weren’t more his protected. “Your Majesty,” he finished, overcome with self-awareness.
“Hello, Steve,” T’Challa said, incongruously, and Steve stared mutely at him. “You are awake.”
But a good man.
“You are a protector?” The king asked him again, far more firmly.
Steve shook his head.
“Then why do you carry a shield?”
“I don’t—” He paused to overcome what threatened to grow into a sob. “I put it down. I’m not a protector.”
“Tony—I hurt Tony. I told myself… that I was protecting him. That it didn’t matter now anyway. But I was protecting Buck—myself. I couldn’t think of what—” His words were cut off at the wellspring, a metal fist tightening around his throat. The sound of the shield striking the helmet of the armor, for no reason other than that Steve wanted to see Tony’s face—his pain, his anger, to refuel himself and feel… feel…
Instead, he saw fear. Horror. Wide, bloodied eyes looked up at Steve – the shield came up behind his head and clanged down against Tony’s chest with all the force of Steve’s mutated genetics. Crunching through the armor—and as the arc reactor flickered like it had years ago in New York, Steve felt like he was watching Tony fall out of a portal he had ordered closed while he stood below and watched for the inevitable crash. He felt, in that moment when the electric light first flickered in his eyes, like he had been reborn. But he was still living in the new world that he had made.
“Who do you protect, Steve?” T’Challa asked.
He shook his head. “I can’t protect anyone.”
“Steve Rogers,” the king said, in a low voice. “Who do you protect?”
“The little guy,” he forced out. “The ones who need protecting.”
“And what if they do not wish for your protection? Do you protect them anyway?”
“Do you decide for them that they need to be protected, and do it for them no matter the cost to you, or to them?”
“If they fear you: if they look at you as if you were a monster. If you sacrifice their free will and their right to choose, do you protect them?”
Steve was shaking. His hands clenched against his thighs until he felt his ragged short fingernails press into his palms, but they just weren’t long enough to dig in and draw blood and he clenched them tighter and tighter, looking for the pain, looking for the consequences. Tony’s brown eyes stared up at him in fear, and he did not feel like a good man anymore.
“And what lengths would you go to to protect the people you care for, Steve? Would you die for them? Would you kill for them?” Steve was beyond the capacity to answer. They both knew the answers already. He let T’Challa’s words break over him like waves in a storm. “Would you hate them? Would you fight them?”
Steve looked up, still quaking like an underwater current but with eyes as dry as ice. “I would fight them.”
T’Challa nodded grimly. “Would you tell them that they are wrong?”
Steve nodded faintly, still staring up at T’Challa whose hands were behind his back and whose chest was held up high with pride that Steve had been faking for—for…
“Would you come running if they needed you?”
“I would. I said I would. I said I would come.”
“Would you listen to them?”
Steve had no answer. The answer was obvious, and yet he could not make the words form themselves in his mouth. Of course he would listen to them. If the people he cared for spoke, he would hear them. But would he listen? Had he listened?
“I can’t fix this,” he gasped up at T’Challa, his lungs bubbling with a feeling like asthma, like powerlessness. Nat was right. He had kept both hands resolutely on the wheel and driven their car off the side of a cliff, and now he was left in a ravine with no clue how to rescue himself or his friends. They had followed him. They had trusted him.
“Captain America cannot fix this,” T’Challa agreed. “The man whom his teammates followed into a civil war will never return from here.”
“He’s already gone,” Steve choked out, his vision becoming spotty and he was aware that he was hyperventilating now because his brain remembered asthma but his body did not and his lungs were like bellows beneath a snapping fire, just following orders—
“Stop this,” T’Challa commanded, appearing before Steve with his grey suit and white shirt. He lowered himself solidly to one knee and Steve gasped at him—
“I am king,” T’Challa reminded him absurdly. “I kneel for whomever I choose.”
“Not me,” Steve said faintly.
The king’s hand landed heavy on Steve, with the ring signifying his royalty settling right between his shoulder blades. Steve had dropped his head between his knees so that now his hair brushed against T’Challa’s silk tie.
“You do not order me, Captain,” he said, and his voice was so warm Steve wanted—someone else, violently, for such a long moment that he forgot to breathe, and he wasn’t sure whether it was someone he had fought beside and over… or beside and against.
“Steve,” T’Challa rumbled, and Steve remained slumped against his own thighs, eyes clenched shut. “This is not beyond repair. But you cannot go back unchanged and expect a new outcome. Why do you fight?”
Steve couldn’t answer him right then, but T’Challa didn’t seem to want an answer at all.
“When you know why you fight, you will know who you stand against and who you stand by,” the king continued; his hand still warm through the back of Steve’s shirt.
“Are you going back?” Steve asked, shaking only a little; like the leaf of a tree planted firmly, though it bent and warped in a hurricane of change.
T’Challa looked at him steadily, eyes dark and deep like a river. “I am going to fix this.”
Steve just nodded. He had fought everything. Had fought the whole world. Maybe Peggy had been wrong. Maybe the whole world had been right.
Maybe he had been wrong.
The thought ratcheted around and around in his head like the roaring teeth of a chainsaw. He had always thought that a shield and armor were fundamentally different—that a shield protected others, while armor only protected yourself. He wondered though what use one shield was when the whole world needed protecting, and that saving yourself first might in the end be the only way to save everyone. That maybe you needed to take a hit to the face to prevent the blow to someone else’s heart. He remembered being in an alley with a useless trashcan lid and a bloody lip and a friend who fought for him when he didn’t want it. Bucky loved him—he protected him because he loved him. And Steve…
Steve hated the world that he woke up to. A world where Peggy Carter could die and her life’s work could be contaminated by Hydra and the Commandos were all dead already and Bucky had suffered a fate far worse than death and this world was death and disappointment and he didn’t want to protect it and he didn’t care what it wanted.
He fought because otherwise he would have absolutely nothing remaining. Pretending you could live without a war. He felt horror clawing at his chest, and it felt like two brown eyes wide with fear and surrounded by blood and bruises. So when the world said they didn’t want him to fight for them, he fought his entire world for—what do I fight for? He only realized that he had finally found something to protect when he smashed his shield into an arc reactor and felt like it had been heading for him all along instead, and that the vibranium edge had finally struck his bones. He felt something more than cold determination. He had something to protect. He had a warm, loving embrace in a stone church and a man who deserved better than having people shoot at him for associating with Steve Rogers and a man whose voice broke when he begged Steve not to tear their family apart.
They remained that way for a little while longer, crouched together in silence, but T’Challa could not stay forever. He left Steve and sent Sam and Sam was solid and strong like stone beneath the earth. And Steve asked himself until the words lost their meaning.
Who do I fight for? What do I fight for? When did I forget these answers?
He turned to look at his friend. “Sam…”
But Sam just shook his head. “Still at your side, Steve.”
“Talk to me,” Steve blurted, trying to tell Sam that he wanted to listen, that he knew nothing and that he loved him and that he fought for him and that he would fight to bring him out of exile. But he was only good with words when they came out cold. Words of warmth melted in his throat. His hand scrambled up to grab Sam’s shoulder and hold on tightly.
Sam’s hand rose to grip his wrist, and he was staring at Steve in concern. “Jesus, Steve, how were you hiding this from me?”
Steve barked a laugh, remembering what T’Challa had said. “I’m Steve Rogers. I’m not alright. I need your help.”
Sam’s eyes widened for a split second before he smiled. “Hey there, Steve. I think you need to talk more than you need to listen—”
“No,” he grunted, his fingers spasming on Sam’s shoulder. “I need to hear you.”
“And I need to hear how bad this is,” Sam said doggedly. “Steve, what happened in Siberia?”
Steve closed his eyes and in his mind he heard the phantom screams of a woman he had never met and never seen before. Screaming for a man he had known—a man who had been his friend. He saw Tony flinching back from him and flinching away from two years of silence and cowardice. And he thought, you can’t make choices for other people and tell them it’s for their own good: it’s arrogant and cruel, and it is not protection.
Sam nodded, and Steve realized he had said the last part aloud. “So… you think there’s something to the Accords?”
He shook his head. “They can’t control us. We serve the people.”
“Steve,” Sam said, his mouth twisting with self-recrimination. “You aren’t the only one who… The U.N. is the people.” Steve nodded morosely, finally wishing he could go back to the room where they all sat together. When Tony showed them a young man who had been collateral damage in a conflict so removed from reality and humanity that even Steve had been thrown off by the circumstances weird science had led them to. He wished he had asked a question, any question. He wished he'd cared to.
He imagined the whole world looking at the Avengers like Tony looked up at him in Siberia.
He did not share those eyes with Sam. That was personal. That was Tony offering him concession after option after olive branch after plea and Steve turning to look the other way because he could only think of protecting his world, his old world, his old friend, and even Sam had paled in importance.
“I’m so sorry, Sam,” he breathed roughly.
Sam wore hurt on his face for a few minutes, then gathered himself. “You should not have been on active duty. Or you should have been seeing a counselor. Or both. I failed you there. No, shut up, I did, I should have seen this. I saw you as Captain America before I saw you as anything else, even after all this time.”
“I’m just a skinny kid from Brooklyn,” Steve let out in a small voice, wondering if this is what he’d been all along under his body armor since being pulled out of that wreckage.
“Yeah, you are,” Sam said warmly, laying his arm over Steve’s shoulders and letting his words settle on Steve’s cold skin. “I kinda like that guy.”
Steve summoned a half-smile for Sam but didn’t look at him.
“We’re gonna fix this. We’re gonna go home.”
For the first time in this century, instead of a tiny, grimy flat in Brooklyn in a world that no longer existed, the word home gave Steve a grassy plain and thick rings of trees. A room designed just for him and a glass building filled with people he loved—and people who loved him.
“To our family.”