This is what he will remember later: they’re having roast beef sandwiches in the conference room when T’Challa tells them that Zemo has been sentenced. Steve lowers his drink and sees the straight lines of Natasha's shoulders tense. Wanda stops mid-laugh at a terrible joke Scott had been trying on Clint and Sam.
“Where will he go?” Wanda asks.
“Zemo is being transferred as we speak to an untraceable high-security holding facility by U.N. authorities. Questioning will continue there.”
Steve frowns. “They’ve been holding him for a month and they still have questioning to do?”
“I am not at liberty to discuss the details of the case,” T’Challa says, “but it seems for now that the danger has passed. The worst is over. It is safe to resume standard operations.”
Even without the special emphasis T’Challa puts on the last three words, no one would misunderstand what he is really talking about—Scott stops trying to flick potato chip crumbs at Sam, and Clint’s expression shifts to a wooden seriousness. Steve closes his eyes. Standard operations. For Scott and Clint it will mean going home to their families, and Sam could return to the Department of Veteran Affairs if he wanted—but what of Wanda? Natasha?
The silence is broken when T’Challa pushes back his chair to stand up.
“Well,” Steve says finally. “That is great news. Great.”
“Whenever you are ready, Captain,” T’Challa says, bowing his head to him and taking his leave from the room.
“What does he mean, whenever you're ready?” asks Natasha when T’Challa’s footsteps become too distant to hear.
Steve looks around the table, feels a rush of fierce pride as he studies the friends who had come to him when he had called with a vague request for help. The strangers-turned-family—proof that not all has been lost.
“I, ah,” he starts, then clears his throat. “King T’Challa and I have been planning for the relocation of the Avengers. We’ve been waiting for the coast to be clear before telling you. The sentencing of Vemo was the last piece to fall into place before the authorities could ease up. There's a safehouse prepared for you, Wanda. And you, Nat. Scott, Clint, you can go home to your families. Sam, we reached out to the V.A.—”
“I’m gonna stop you right there, Cap,” Sam says, uncrossing his arms. “Who says I’m going anywhere?”
Natasha laughs a sharp laugh. “And I can’t really see me settling down to join the cult of domesticity—can you, Sam?”
“Well, those waffles you made for breakfast weren’t as black as usual—”
“Didn’t hear you complaining when you were inhaling them, bird boy—”
So one not-so-serious fistfight later, it’s decided that Sam and Natasha will be staying behind at the Wakandan base with Steve.
When Steve pulls Wanda aside to ask her what she wants to do, she gives him a shrug and rubs the scars that the straightjacket from the Raft left on her wrists. When she says in a soft voice that Wakanda is the only safe place left to her, Steve feels something in his gut wrench in two directions. He moves to hug her and she allows the embrace; when they separate she is smiling at him, brittle but real.
“I won’t let this happen again,” he says, looking full into her face.
“I know,” Wanda says, and holds his hand between both of her own.
So Wanda stays, too.
That evening, Clint and Scott join the others in the living room with suitcases in tow and looking solemn. Wanda hugs Scott, and then Clint. Sam finally lets Scott take a selfie with him to bring home to his daughter. Natasha’s expression is carefully neutral and she stands there to the side until Clint opens his arms and she walks straight into them.
When they can’t delay any longer, Clint turns to Steve and grips his hand.
“If it wasn’t for the kids—”
“I know, Clint.”
Clint gives Steve a helpless sort of smile, and the nakedness of the longing in Clint’s expression is such that Steve can’t help but reach out to embrace him. Steve tries to put his wordless thanks into the embrace, and he thinks that Clint must understand because afterward, Clint gives Natasha a last wave and then walks out.
“Mr. Lang,” Steve says as Scott pumps his hand up and down. “It has been an honor.”
“Oh man,” Scott says, “the honor has been all mine, Captain America.”
“If you ever need us—”
“I know who to call.”
Scott gives a final salute to everyone in the room and picks up his suitcase. When he’s at the doorway, Sam calls out, “You didn’t turn out half bad, tic tac!” and laughs, leaning on Steve.
“I will miss them,” Wanda says when the door has closed behind Scott.
“Me too,” Steve says, trying to ignore the way Wanda’s eyes have gone wet. “Me too.”
Months pass. Things are busy, but good.
Sam learns how to make eggs after he spends a week pining over Clint’s spinach scrambles (“Sam, I gave you this number for emergencies only,” Clint says over speakerphone when Sam calls for the recipe) and Natasha’s waffles stop turning out half burnt a few weeks after that. Between the two of them, they manage to keep the group well fed.
Wanda gets used to Scott being gone and then they discover that she has taken up his mantle when she saran wraps Sam’s entire bathroom after one particularly nasty argument over the remote control.
You’ve created a monster, Sam texts Scott. When did you teach her to saran wrap toilets?
wHAT? :D SWEETreplies Scott.
Steve is fine. Busy, but good, he reminds himself. He’s settling into life at the Wakandan compound. Each morning he wakes at five and runs around the grounds that T’Challa had prepared for them. Sometimes Sam joins him and it feels like it did all those years ago when they first met.
By the time he gets back and takes a shower, breakfast is usually being prepared by Natasha or Sam. The Avengers—he is still having trouble not calling them that—take their breakfast together, crowded around a table overlooking the forest. Their friendship is comfortable now, tempered by months spent together learning about each other’s rhythms. Steve grows to take Natasha's wholly unexpected mother henning in stride, and smiles at the way Wanda pushes the grape jelly toward him because she knows he’s partial to it.
When there is a lull in activity he paints, or reads, or visits Bucky. He learns to be happy again in pieces. Sam and Wanda bicker over control of the TV, and the radio, and basically everything else. Steve isn’t concerned. One time he catches Wanda napping on the couch against Sam, who is contorted onto half a cushion, long limbs spilling over the side. When Steve raises his eyebrows, Sam waves a lazy hand and says, “Don’t wake the kid, it’s fine.”
The A.I. system in this base isn’t as sophisticated as the one back at the Avengers Tower (Jarvis, Steve thinks with a pang) but it records all news clips pertaining to any of the old Avengers.
The first time Steve sees Tony on the television it feels like the visceral relief flooding through him is knocking all the breath from his lungs. The high-definition Tony on the monitor looks pristine, haughty, not a bruise in sight. It is such a departure from the last time Steve had seen him—broken-bodied and full of rage—that Steve watches the newsreel three times before he snaps out of the reverie. He drinks in the sight of the freshly pressed Tony winking at the cameras like he has been starved of it, and perhaps he has. The clip is largely unimportant (Tony is announcing his participation in some gala or another) but Steve doesn’t sleep all night, trembling with relief and regret and grief.
After that first time, Steve goes through the recordings on the monitor nightly and keeps up with all of Tony’s press conferences and U.N. council meetings. Natasha keeps him company sometimes, pressing a cup of hot cocoa into his hands and curling beside him on the couch. He learns through five-minute TV spots that Tony is the new poster boy of the clean energy industry, and that he has spearheaded the revision of Accords that now offer full pardons to the past Avengers. Stark Industries stock is booming, and Pepper looks happy and exhausted in the press releases.
Sometimes Steve feels like he is drowning in guilt. He sees Tony’s face in his sleep, twisted in fury, and wakes up feeling sick and broken. He wonders if Tony is taking care of himself without Pepper. If he is missing the Avengers as much as they are missing him. The partner to the flip phone he had mailed Tony is a small lump in his pocket, there at all times. A steady reminder of the cowardice and smallness of the gesture he had sent. Tony would have met with him face to face. Even after everything, Tony would have seen him if he had asked. Steve’s mouth curls bitterly as he imagines the scorn on Tony’s face when he opened the package. Would he have discarded the phone?
The hollowness at the base of his chest shifts uncomfortably when he thinks about how Tony was right—Steve is responsible for tearing apart the Avengers.
During the bad nights, he goes and sits in front of Bucky’s cryo chamber and lets the regret roll over him in waves. He clamps his mouth shut, imagining his muscles tearing with the effort it takes to will the grief away. Natasha finds him there one morning and puts her arms around his broad shoulders, pressing her understanding into him until he clumsily embraces her back, eyes bright.
Missions come and go. Sometimes it’s three countries in one day. Sometimes it’s slow and they only have to fly out twice all week. The U.N. leaves them alone for the most part. They are slower and more cautious than they used to be, and better for it. More and more their missions end in success and they walk out without a scratch on them.
Life goes on.
In April there is one particularly tricky heist mission that ends in an unconscious Wanda carried out by Steve in a fireman's lift. The day after the mission there is a knock on the front door of the compound and Steve opens the door to find Vision on his front step.
“Captain,” Vision says politely, bowing his head.
For several long moments, Steve just stares. “Vision,” he says at last in a failing attempt at a steady voice, wondering where he last set down the shield that T'Challa had commissioned for him.
“How have you been?” Vision continues, voice without a trace of animosity. “I have been monitoring your activities and am happy to see that you are all doing well.”
He does sound happy. Vision looks and sounds sincere.
“Steve, what’s keeping you—” comes Sam’s annoyed voice from the stairwell, but then Sam sees that it’s Vision at the front door and calls for Natasha, who slips out out of some remote shadow to materialize next to Steve.
“Vision,” Natasha says in a measured voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I have been monitoring your activities,” Vision repeats. “I am here because I was concerned about the outcome of yesterday’s mission.”
Natasha steps forward, barring the entrance to the compound now at Steve’s side.
“You expect us to—”
“Where is everyone?” comes Wanda’s voice from the stairwell, then, and Vision’s expression becomes hard as he phases right through Natasha and Steve to appear inside the home.
“Vision,” Natasha and Steve exclaim, in mingled surprise and disgust. “We’ve gone over this,” Natasha starts to say.
When Steve turns around, he sees Vision looking up at Wanda with an expression that matches Clint’s expression on the day he left to be reunited with his kids.
Wanda has gone white with shock. “Vis."
Vision moves until he is on the step in front of Wanda. He tilts his head, studying her head injury and her left arm, wrapped in a sling.
“I was monitoring the Captain’s activities yesterday when I noticed that there had been a complication in the mission,” he says, quietly so that the others have to strain to hear. “The complication resulted in the collapse of the establishment and the subsequent injury of one of his teammates.”
Vision makes a movement like he’s about to reach out to touch Wanda, and then shakes his head. “I am relieved to see that you are well.”
For a moment, Wanda looks as though she’s about to cry.
“Vis,” she says again, “Vis, you can’t just—”
Natasha cuts in, pushing the door closed with a click. “Did you come alone?”
“Yes,” Vision answers, still studying Wanda’s face.
Natasha looks like she’s doing some fast thinking, and then Steve catches her eye too late to stop her from saying the next thing that comes out of her mouth:
“Are you staying for dinner?”
Vision drops by every now and then after that. Steve and Natasha have long, tense conversations about safety and practicality, but Wanda’s obvious happiness at the turn of events eventually softens everyone—even Sam, who finally stops lecturing anyone in earshot of the dangers of allowing known adversaries into a safe house.
Vision doesn’t ask about the details of what they’re doing here in Wakanda, so Steve doesn’t ask if Tony knows about Vision’s visits. The arrangement ends up working out. Vision seems to genuinely miss their company and is perfectly pleasant when he spends time with them (which is when Wanda isn’t pulling him on long walks or into her corridor). From Vision, Steve learns that Rhodes’ recovery is as complete as it will ever be, and that he has regained 95% of his former mobility with the aid of Tony’s mobile aid technology.
“That’s great,” Sam says, giving Vision a genuine smile. “Tell Rhodes how happy I am for him. And how sorry that it happened.”
Vision tilts his head and says, “I do not know if passing the message on to Colonel Rhodes would be wise, as he is yet unaware that we are in contact… but Colonel Rhodes has mentioned that he believes you are not to blame for the accident. He remembers you attempting to save him during the fall.”
Sam drops his head into his hands. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay.”
They are on a routine logistics mission at a Hydra base in a Bavarian nuclear plant when it happens—Steve sees a dark mass pull a lever near the exit that sets off a self-detonation sequence. The alarms begin blaring and the lights flash—“CLEAR OUT,” Steve shouts into the radio just as Sam spits tersely “What’s the plan, Cap?”
At his order, Wanda and Natasha make a dead run for the door from and Sam struggles madly against the Hydra agents who have appeared out of nowhere to flank him. In the flickering light, Steve sees his shield resting a few yards away and lunges for it, nestling it tight to his arm—
Steve is closest to the particle accelerator when it goes off. In the precious moments between ignition and explosion, Steve ducks behind his shield and then it is like the world is rent in two, the noise and heat are so all-pervading. The explosion seems to last for years. Steve is smashed against the wall and the building begins to collapse down on him—he can count on one hand the number of times he has known pain like this before, a kind of agony that pushes every nerve to maximum sensitivity and sends him reeling for air. He thinks blearily that he could call Tony on the flip phone in his side pocket—Tony would come and blast away the rubble—Tony’s suit could withstand the radiation—
The blood is everywhere, running down his face and congealing through his suit. There is nothing but the animal need to escape, and then two arms hook around his armpits and Sam is there, hauling him out and lifting him into the air. He yells in pain, feeling what is likely a few broken ribs protest against the jarring movement—“Sorry, Cap,” Sam shouts—and then there is clear air and the power plant finishes collapsing into itself with a deafening noise.
Steve passes out at some point during the final collapse and wakes up to find himself lying face-up in a green room with some kind of gas slowly filling up the chamber. Terror surges through his system until he feels Sam’s hand steadying him, keeping him down, Sam’s voice explaining that they’re in decontamination to make sure the radiation from the power plant didn’t do any lasting damage.
“Decontamination,” Steve gasps, putting a hand to his ribs, which are doing marginally better but definitely still feel broken.
“Yeah. There’s still a few more minutes to go.”
“Nat and Wanda?”
“They’re in another room being seen by medics. They’ve been cleared already. We’re all fine.”
At this, Steve stops struggling to get up. “Good,” he manages to get out. “Good.”
“Now shut up. I’m pretty sure you’ve got a few broken ribs and that cut on your forehead isn’t looking too hot. Take it easy.”
“Okay,” Steve says, closing his eyes. “That was close.”
“Remind me again why I keep hanging around you?” Sam says, examining a gash in his leg. “You’re an occupational hazard, you know that?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve breathes, and Sam laughs.
After decontamination, the medic sees Steve and stitches up his forehead. Tutting at the state of his ribs, she salves the injury with something that smells like toothpaste and wraps his torso, declaring his ribs broken, but mending on their own.
“No work outs today,” she says warningly. “A week if you can manage it. You hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Steve says.
After he gets out, he joins Natasha in the waiting room. Natasha takes a long look at him and says in a tight voice, “Okay?”
“Okay,” Steve confirms, and Natasha nods before going back to wrapping her quickly swelling ankle. Steve takes the ice pack that he was using on his head and presses it to Natasha’s foot.
Natasha winces. “I’m getting old, Rogers,” she says wryly. “Losing my touch.”
“Said the 31 year old to the 97 year old,” Steve says, and they share a smile.
Unsurprisingly, Steve ends up breaking his word to the medic to lay low this week within 24 hours.
The next day they’re stopping an air raid on a nearby town and the air is thick with dust and urgency. Between the four of them, they manage to evacuate a building but Steve loses a mother and her daughter in the ensuing chaos as they get gunned down by one of the drones before Sam’s projectiles hit their mark. In Steve’s anger, he grows clumsy and takes a hit from a sleeper agent before Wanda is there with a terrible expression on her face, slamming the agent into a nearby slab of concrete. The dust turns the landscape yellow and dry and thick, and when Steve rejoins the others he finds himself gasping for breath.
On the plane ride home, Steve coughs through debrief and thinks about the two lives he lost. Casualties are never easy, but they haven’t lost any civilians in a while and he wonders if the mother and her child could have been saved if he wasn’t still recovering from yesterday’s attack. His ribs ache and he feels like he’s choking still on the dust. Natasha places a hand on his back and he doesn’t look at her until they land.
A week later, there’s still a tightness in his chest. It comes and goes, and Steve spends more and more time with Bucky and wonders if this is another type of grieving.
One morning they’re having breakfast together and watching Tony’s new press spot about the Stark Expo when Steve stifles a yawn that ends in a tight cough. Natasha gives Sam a significant look over the rim of her mug and Sam says in a would-be casual voice: “Cap, are you feeling okay?”
Steve is surprised into looking away from the monitor, where Tony is posing for photographs with a reporter that he has definitely mentioned sleeping with.
“Yes,” he says. “Why?”
Another Look from Natasha. “Well,” Sam says slowly, “You’ve been looking a little off since Bavaria. And you keep coughing.”
Steve’s eyebrows go up.
“I don’t get sick,” he says. “Serum, remember?”
“Well,” Sam says, shooting Natasha a pointed look. “That’s what I said.”
“I haven’t been sleeping much,” Steve says slowly. “Maybe that’s it.”
But Natasha remains unconvinced, and then Steve really does begin to notice signs of illness—in the mornings sometimes he wakes up feeling vaguely sick, and the cough doesn’t leave. He waves it off as exhaustion, and mollifies a concerned Wanda by going to bed early and drinking the turmeric tea she insists on brewing for him.
During a mission in June, his vision goes blurry and he has to stop to remember if he’s incurred a hit to his head. When he shakes his head, it clears up and he brushes it off, but then it happens again when he’s at home reading, and once his vision doesn’t focus back for hours after a mission and Natasha is there, peering at him from the other side of the room with her arms crossed.
Steve feels Natasha’s eyes on him no matter where he is in the compound—it’s unnerving, to have her probing at him from a distance. One time he loses his temper and tells her that her hovering is probably what’s exacerbating the headache, and so what if he is sick with a summer cold?
Finally, Natasha reaches her breaking point during a mission in Malta wherein Steve fails to dodge a bullet that he usually would have with ease and leans against a ledge, coughing sharp and hard. The cough is different—deeper now, and more painful. Natasha whisks to his side and presses hard on the wound to stop the bleeding.
“That’s it,” she hisses, dressing the wound quickly and beginning to wrap it. “If you don’t call Tony now, I will—”
“Tony?” Steve accidentally yelps as Natasha pulls tight on the dressing to fasten it. He can feel his lungs straining with the effort to suppress the cough, but barrels on. “What does this have to do with Tony?”
Natasha levels him with a glare. “Do you think that useless medic T’Challa provided—”
“King T’Challa, Nat—”
“Don’t interrupt me,” Natasha grits. “That medic doesn’t know anything about you or the super serum. Who knows more about Project Rebirth than Tony? Who knows more about dealing with anatomy in disrepair?”
Steve opens his mouth to protest and the cough he was suppressing makes its way to the surface instead. He winces, putting a hand to his chest and holding it there until he stops coughing.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Natasha says, scowling. “Tonight, when we get home.”
“Okay,” Steve forces out, eyes watering a little and breathing hard. “When we get home.”
Steve doesn’t call Tony when he gets home.
It ends up not mattering in the end, because one week later the flip phone in his pocket lights up at two in the morning. Steve is up at the first ring, startled into action. The front display reads “TONY STARK” and he stares at it, just stares. His hands are clammy when he fumbles with the phone.
“Hello?” he says, grateful to find that voice is steady.
“Rogers?” comes Tony’s irritated voice, and the sound of it pools cool and insistent into Steve’s ear and it feels like his chest is swelling (or maybe splitting) with gratitude that the duplicitous and very stubborn Natasha Romanoff is his friend.