“You should go to him,” Wanda says on the flight home.
For three days she’s been MIA, transponder disabled, only to reappear on the radar somewhere outside of Galway like a stray cat or a partier who missed the last train home. It isn’t the first time this has happened in the seven months since they went on the run, won’t be the last either, if the suck marks Steve once spotted against the back of her neck are anything to go by. Seeing that had made him clench his fists until his hands ached, made him want to find a brick wall to punch until his knuckles split and bled for reasons that had nothing to do with Wanda, not even these sporadic disappearing acts of hers.
The field Steve tracked her to was dotted with sheep in the early morning mist, white against dull green. Wanda, sitting on a felled tree near the forest perimeter, was easy to spot in her jeans and black jacket, hair bright as a new penny in the dawning sunlight while the sheep grazed nearby, indifferent. Steve landed the Quinjet hard enough to rattle the teeth in his head and watched the herd scatter.
“I got her,” he’d said to Nat on comms. “All clear--this time.”
“Copy that,” Nat answered with a sigh. She sounded wary. “Go easy on her, Steve. We can have a conversation about shore leave when you guys get back.”
Nat was the one who wanted to come. Sometimes Wanda got back on her own, took a train or a bus if it was safe enough and the team was nearby, but more often than not, Nat volunteered, skirted around Steve about it in what he recognized as her version of tact. Sam, less delicate, joked about conjugal visit duty and being Wanda's literal wingman. This time Steve had beat them both to the punch, waved Nat off with a terse “I’ll do it” and didn’t miss the glance she and Sam shared. They stayed uncharacteristically quiet as Steve roughly pulled on jacket and boots, slammed the door of their house too hard when he left. Subtlety wasn’t the Steve Rogers way, never had been. What use did he have for subtlety now?
“And here I had my lecture all typed up,” he shot back and jammed the butt of his palm against the button to lower the ramp. “You know, the one about how internationally wanted criminals don’t get shore leave.”
“Yeah, because that’s been working out real well for us so far.” Nat paused, then said, “Wanda’s not the only one it’s getting to lately. The isolation. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.”
Steve huffed a laugh; it came out ugly. “Why, you got a secret lover you’ve been itching to rendezvous with too?”
As per usual, Nat didn’t play ball, just said, “Just think about it. No one’s tried to end the world in weeks.” Another pause. “See you when you get back.”
Wanda’s eyes were wet with tears as she came up the ramp, hands balled inside the sleeves of her sweater, red hair hanging long over her eyes. Chin tucked, defensive, and Steve hadn’t even said anything yet. No need, maybe, but the tears weren’t for him anyway.
Steve took one look at her face, misery written plain in her expression, and felt his fists go tight all over again. His neck ached with tension he’d been carrying since Germany. Since before then. Decades. He knew the look of someone who’d had to walk away, who realized it never got easier with practice.
“I’m sorry,” she’d said in lieu of greeting. Sniffled and met Steve’s gaze fleetingly. At least she didn’t bother to lie. “Thanks for coming to get me. Vizh had to--”
“Let’s get underway,” Steve interrupted. He returned his eyes forward, retracted the ramp and prepared for takeoff while Wanda was still fastening herself into the seat next to him. “Last thing I need is for us to get reported to the authorities by an irate sheep farmer.”
That was the last thing they said to each other for a while.
Steve likes Wanda, respects and cares for her, and they’ve always been able to talk as friends, as people who genuinely want to listen to each other, hear what the other person has to say. But to say Steve’s not exactly in a chatty mood right now is an understatement. His grip on the steering controls is hard enough to make the plastic creak, his knuckles white with strain.
But Wanda is, well, Wanda. She gives Steve a few minutes to himself, lets him pretend like flying the jet requires all his concentration, then takes one look at his clenched jaw and reads him like a goddamn book, like tears haven’t dulled her vision, only sharpened it.
“You should go to him.”
They’re somewhere over France already, Europe barely more than splotches of indistinct pinpricks below the clouds. It’s as though they’ve been locked in this plane together for hours, but when Steve glances down at the dash, barely forty minutes have passed since takeoff, the Quinjet moving along at a clip.
At first he doesn’t reply, working his jaw until he tells himself he’s going to crack a molar if he grinds them together any harder. Steve isn’t an angry man. Could be, but he’s not. Keeping his team alive and safe and happy, for a given value of happy, in their current predicament, has always been his main priority. Then Wanda goes and comes back with tears in her eyes and the ghost of Vision’s lips on her skin, and it’s like Steve’s outside of his mind. It’s been months since he had word from Wakanda, and the prospect of someone else’s happiness tastes like ashes in his mouth. The guilt is almost as bitter, because what cause has he got to be jealous of anyone? He’s alive. The people he loves are safe, even if some of them are so distant that they might as well be on another planet.
Steve ignores her suggestion, observation, whatever you want to call it. “You can’t keep running off like this,” he says instead. His voice is tight with strain masquerading as control. “I under--I know why you do it. And I don’t blame you, no one does. But we’ve all had to make sacrifices. On both sides.”
“And the promises we’ve made to ourselves?” Wanda asks. “ For ourselves? Do they not matter?”
Steve swallows. “Not when they put the lives of everyone else at risk.”
Wanda’s quiet for a moment, eyelashes dark against her cheek. When she looks up at Steve again, though, there’s resolve in her gaze. “How many times do you have to save the world before you’ll let yourself put Steve Rogers first? Or if not yourself, then at least B--”
“Ten times on the punch card, and I get a free sub?” Steve interrupts. He snorts, forces down the instinctive feeling of nausea over what she was about to say. He doesn’t need to ask how she knows. She’s been inside his head, a thought as terrifying as it is freeing. “That’s not how it works, kid, I’m sorry.”
“I thought the whole point of going on the run was because you didn’t want anyone telling us how it works, what to do.” Steve isn’t looking at her, but he can feel the force of Wanda’s glare against the side of his face. “It angers you, that I choose to have this for myself.”
He grimaces. “No.”
The lie hangs heavy between them, obvious by the way Wanda makes a derisive noise and curls her lip slightly, snarling with a kind of animal hurt.
Steve tries again. “You deserve to be happy. You may not believe this, but I’m glad you and Vision have what you do. I am. But sometimes it makes me wonder if you remember what’s at stake every time you rush off to be with him.”
“Being with him is how I remember what’s at stake. What there is to fight for.”
She pauses, chews the inside of her lip for a moment like she’s choosing her words carefully. They’ve all been so careful lately. When did they stop trusting each other not just with their lives, but with their secrets, their trust? Or is it just Steve, this unfamiliar man with his tense silences, sadness he hides behind hard eyes and a beard, a shadow where there was once a bright star? This whole time he’s been breaking his back to keep them together, but he can’t help but feel it’s had the opposite effect, instead pushing everyone away. Pushing himself away without a shield to stand behind.
“You’re unhappy, Steve,” Wanda says gently. For some reason that’s so much worse than what she could have said: you’re not happy . Not merely the absence of happiness, but the inverse of it. “The man you gave everything up for… he’s out there somewhere, alone like you are. Waiting. Maybe you need to remember what you’re fighting for too.”
Steve tells them, “I need to leave for a while.” He doesn’t look at Wanda when he says it. The softness in her expression is too much to take, but he catches her small smile from the corner of his eye. “I can’t tell you where, but I’ll be safe, and I won’t be gone long. A week, maybe. I’ll be reachable on comms if you need me and no more than half a day’s flight out.”
Since cutting ties with the rest of the Avengers, they've spent their time rooting out remaining Hydra cells and going after arms dealers specializing in Chitauri weapons, sometimes stolen Vibranium if T'Challa catches wind of something. The last stronghold they infiltrated was in Macedonia, a mob outfit in Skopje. All quiet, mostly, since then, and Nat had a safe house in Albania, or more probably Nick Fury did, close enough to the coast for an easy escape but far enough from major cities to avoid recognition. It’s one of the more comfortable spots they’ve stayed recently, rooms enough for them to have some privacy for a change, hot water with decent pressure, a working internet connection. But now that Steve is ready to go, seed planted in his mind, the urge to get on with it is like a physical itch. His bag is already packed and sitting on top of his bed because if this turns into a negotiation, he’ll lose his nerve. It took enough hand-wringing for him to get this far, repeating Wanda’s words back to himself like a mantra: You should go to him .
Nat stands with her arms folded and her hip propped against the dining room table, looking at him shrewdly. Her hair has undergone a few colour changes while they’ve been on the run, but she’s been blonde the longest, eyebrows dyed to match. It changes the whole shape of her face, startles Steve to see her sometimes before he remembers this is who they are now.
Doesn’t matter what she looks like, though. She’s always got his number, and she levels him with a hard stare. “So I guess we’re having that conversation about shore leave after all.”
Her tone is difficult to decipher, but considering Nat all but told him he’s been getting on people’s nerves lately, there’s an edge to it that makes Steve wish he’d just grabbed his shit in the middle of the night and left a note. But it’s a stupid thought, one not worth having. He doesn’t have it in him to be that much of an asshole to the people who’ve had his back this whole time. The guilt would’ve eaten at him until he turned the jet back around to apologize.
“You said it yourself,” he answers. “Things have been pretty quiet, and we can’t keep going the way we have been, constantly running with no time to catch our breath. It’s driving us into the ground, and more importantly, driving us apart.” He shakes his head and glances at Nat, then Sam, who meets Steve’s eyes steadily. His expression is neutral, open. Letting Steve get it all out and reserving judgement. “I’m sorry I haven’t been more sensitive to that fact. Recently it’s been pointed out to me that we could all use some perspective. A reason to remember why we’re doing this in the first place, because it hasn’t been easy on anyone.”
At that Nat makes a thoughtful sound. “I’m not disagreeing with you, Steve, but I would’ve appreciated a more democratic approach than ‘I’m taking off for a while.’”
“Then let’s have a democratic discussion.”
This from Sam. Steve’s shoulders lose some of their tension just at the sound of his voice, how calm he is, always the voice of reason when one or more of them is ready to fly off the handle. The fact that he always has Steve’s back, even when Steve springs something like this on him out of nowhere. Or maybe Sam’s seen this coming for a while and has just been waiting for the right time to speak up.
Sam shrugs, gestures vaguely. “Realistically speaking, we can each look after of ourselves, and some of us have already been going off on their own.” He holds up his hands placatingly when Wanda gives a noise of protest. “No judgement. But clearly we need to start making decisions about this as a team, being honest about how much we can ask from ourselves and each other.” Though he doesn’t look at Steve when he says it, it’s pretty clear who it’s addressed to, especially the first part.
“So we just go our separate ways and, what, hope for the best?” The skepticism in Nat’s voice seems pretty unnecessary. But if she’s concerned, it isn’t for her own sake. That much seems clear enough to Steve. “Do we draw straws for who gets the jet?”
“I’m not saying it won’t take some figuring out,” Sam answers patiently. He’s been sitting on the arm of the battered couch that came with the house, the only part of it that doesn’t sag slightly, but at Nat’s tone, he gets up, crosses the room to put a hand on her shoulder the way Steve once would’ve.
Every day each of these people seems a little more like Captain America than he is, a little more sure of what needs to be done. Because Nat isn’t worried they’ll die or get caught, Steve realizes. She’s worried if they walk away from each other, maybe they’ll never find each other again by choice. He thinks about Wanda’s tears as she came up the ramp of the jet. If he’d be strong enough to make that walk in her shoes.
Sam goes on, “Look, the whole reason shore leave exists in the first place is to avoid exactly this type of situation. I’ve dealt with my fair share of stir-crazy soldiers in need of a break and a distraction, and no offense to anyone, but I’d take a thousand more years of that than another day of Cap’s bad moods and Nat cleaning her guns like she’s picturing how she’s gonna shoot me with ’em afterwards if she has to put up with another night of my snoring.”
“I only picture that when I’m sharpening my knives,” Nat says, deadpan. Her mouth twitches, but she doesn’t deny that living on top of each other for months has been getting to her too. Steve was under the impression she was the least restless of any of them, but that just goes to show how far up his own ass he’s been lately. He used to notice these things.
Sam snorts and raises his hand. “So I for one am more than happy to take the jet and go somewhere nice, preferably someplace with palm trees and drinks with those little umbrellas in them.” He arches an eyebrow at Wanda and smiles crookedly. “Whaddya say, Maximoff? You ready to leave these OG assholes to fend for themselves, maybe come back when they’ve taken up yoga or laughter therapy or some shit?”
The question earns a smile from Wanda, who’s been pretty quiet since Steve picked her up in Ireland a couple days ago. She’d said nothing further on the subject of him leaving, but when she saw Steve starting to pack a bag this morning, she offered him a smile through the open door.
“In the interest of fairness, I’m the one who should be staying put to let you all have some downtime,” she says and glances at Steve. The rings on her fingers glint as she pushes a lock of hair behind her ear. “Besides, there’s only one reason I have to get away for a while, and he’s got promises of his own to keep at the moment.”
Steve sighs, rubs his hand over his eyes, and everyone looks at him. “If we’re talking about this--” he begins, then stops. His shield might be gathering dust in one of Tony Stark’s vaults somewhere, but he shouldn’t need a Captain America costume to make decisions that are best for his team. They didn’t follow him here to talk things out. “It’s not a good idea for all of us to split up at the same time,” he finishes.
At last Nat smiles at him approvingly, like she’s proud he just got his head back in the game. He should probably apologize for keeping her waiting.
“One at a time is smartest in case somebody needs help or if a situation arises, and there needs to be ground rules,” he says. Checks off his fingers one by one. “Stay close, check in. Don’t take any chances. If you can, let people know where you’re going and when you’ll be back.”
“Seems reasonable to me,” says Nat with a shrug, shifting back to nonchalance so fast that Steve feels like he missed something. “You’ll be back in a week, then.”
"No." Guess they're negotiating. Steve can hear the exasperation in his own voice. “You were right, before. I shouldn’t have unilaterally decided it would be me.” He hooks his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans, glances mournfully at his jacket hung by the door. Bucky always used to rib him over the fact that for all Steve liked to start more fights than anyone else he knew, he could be one hell of a pushover. “No one person is more deserving of a break than another, so I’m willing to wait for another chance if somebody else needs to take a few days to clear their head.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Sam interjets with a laugh. He’s wearing the expression he gets when Steve is being especially thick, and Steve raises his eyebrows at him. “No going off with your whole martyr schtick, Cap. If we weren’t talking about this, we’d definitely be talking about how if anyone needs a break, it’s the guy currently growing a playoff beard. I for one am more than happy to cool my heels for a bit while Captain Sadness over here goes walkabout for a week or two. Unless anyone has any objections.”
“No objections here,” Wanda answers and mimes zipping her lips.
“Contrary to what you might think,” Nat says casually, “I don’t actually mind it here either. But I’d be happy to have a few hours off, maybe take the jet out for a spin. You got a ride, Rogers?” The curl of her smile is decidedly catlike, and Steve realizes with a deep sense of resignation that he’ll never know for sure whether this whole conversation was started in earnest, or if it was just a ploy for her to pry more information out of him about where he was planning to go.
With a shake of his head, Steve looks at the ground and laughs, sees her smile soften into a private smirk when he glances back up at her to acknowledge a hand well played. Even when he was stupid enough to pretend he could just walk out of here with no questions asked, the prospect of actually doing it sat like a rock in his gut, equal parts excitement and dread. He certainly didn’t plan on bringing an entourage, but he’s surprised to feel a lightness in his chest that wasn’t there before. He already sent word he's coming. Steve doesn’t think T'Challa will mind--much--if he shows up with an escort. Plus he always planned on bringing Nat in eventually, addressing the elephant in the room of where he's been hiding Bucky this whole time, if she hasn't already guessed.
“No, Romanoff,” he answers and smiles at her tiredly, but with a quiet gratitude he knows she’ll understand. “I don’t got a ride.”