n. The center of mass of two or more bodies that orbit each other; the point around which those two bodies orbit.
i - sagitta: the arrow
Unpublished Anonymous Interview from 3 March 2052
This telling the truth thing is a real lark, isn’t it? Do you get little tinglies when you tell the truth? It’s just I do it so rarely.
So the city is flying and there’s a very real possibility of global extinction. Tony’s plan to save the world is going to kill the rest of us. And then Cap says to me — did you know he’s from Brooklyn? Normally he’s got this non-accenty radio announcer accent but this time Cap says to me:
“None’a youse is dyin’ today. Not on my fuckin watch. I gotta soulmate down there waiting for me to come home and so do you.”
And he had this look, like he was about three seconds from eating the shield. I’ve never seen someone more determined to survive. He was so — changed. From when I first met him, I mean. Whatever truth there is behind the soulmate thing, it sure does give you a reason to live. And he was right. I did have soulmates to come home to. Did I tell you about that? Hang on, let me go back a bit. So we’re at the farm...
Clint has a big yellow dog called Lucky. The dog has one eye permanently closed, so he looks like he’s perpetually winking. And there’s a white blaze on his chest, shaped roughly like an arrow.
“He’s my soulmate,” Clint says, completely deadpan.
“He’s my soulmate,” Laura says, from the kitchen area of the Barton’s farmhouse. (Her mark, Steve will find out later, is a bulls-eye on her inner wrist, and a perfect match to the arrow on Clint’s inner wrist.)
“He’s our soulmate!” say the two kids as they go running past.
“You’re all wrong,” Natasha says. She’s finally come down from whatever the Sokovian girl did to her, but she’s still pale, and she’s leaning against Clint, sitting on the sofa. “Lucky is my soulmate, and none of you can prove otherwise.”
Clint is rubbing her back, right over where Steve knows her soulmark was. She must have told him about it. She relaxes into the touch the way Bucky used to relax into Steve's touch — and will again, God willing.
Then Laura comes in with sandwiches for everyone. As she passes, she brushes a hand over Clint’s, trailing up into Nat’s hair a little. Nat closes her eyes and leans into her touch too, ever so slightly.
Steve notices. Tony notices. Tony notices Steve noticing and stares hard at him, like he’s waiting for Steve to make a fuss about it, or be scandalized. Like polyamory was invented in the 21st century. Like it didn’t exist just because they didn’t have a nice, clean, sanitized word for it before. Like Steve’s going to be angry or offended. Jesus. Nat’s had the hardest life of anyone Steve’s ever met, and that’s saying something. She deserves all the happiness the world can give her. Steve hopes that she can make things work with Bruce too, with Sam, if that’s what she wants. He hopes Nat keeps going out there, grabbing happiness with both hands, and never, ever stops.
Lucky whuffs happily and rolls onto his back for no obvious reason.
Bucky is stress cleaning. If a forensic team came through right now, they probably wouldn’t be able to find any fingerprints.
A few hours ago he woke up in a cold sweat, his head full of a confused nightmare about a dancehall — or a dance studio maybe. There had been the whistle and scream of mortarfire in his head — the sharp retort of a pistol in his hand, and then—
He hadn’t been able to get back to sleep, trying to sort through the emotions in his chest. How much was his own anxiety? How much was Steve? What the hell was going on? He got up and turned on the news, but there was nothing. Nothing yet.
An hour later, he’d gotten a text from Steve:
On Quinjet. All safe. Going to regroup. Will call later.
When the news started showing footage of the Hulk tearing apart Johannesburg, Bucky figured he knew more or less why Steve said “safe” instead of “OK.”
Hence the cleaning spree. Bucky likes cleaning. Cleaning is soothing. Defined task, with sub goals and strategy and no one bleeds. And yeah, it doesn’t take a genius psychologist to figure out why he might have an affinity for tasks that create literal clean slates. But if the zen-like feeling of peace he gets bleeds through into Steve, well that’s not nothing.
When his phone rings, he doesn’t even have to look to know that it’s Steve. He taps the speakerphone and without stopping what he’s doing (cleaning the stove), he says: “Hey. You OK?”
The beat of silence that follows goes on a microsecond too long. “So he did find you,” says a woman’s voice.
Bucky’s head snaps up. In his head, he’s seeing a little girl, thirteen and slim and deadly as a stiletto. “Natalia?”
A sigh. “If anyone has the right to call me Natasha…”
He’d called her Natashenka more than once, like she really was his daughter, not just his pupil. They’d punished him every time. Bucky leans over to look at the phone where it’s sitting out on the counter. Steve’s number is lit up there. “You stole Steve’s phone?”
“Of course,” she says, flippant. “He just stomped off into the woods so he could call you all sneaky-like. I figure I’ve got about ten minutes before he figures out I’ve got it.” There’s a soft sound in the background, like she’s flopping back on a bed. “You ruined an interrogation, you know.”
Bucky goes back to scrubbing the stove and frowns. “Did I?”
“Yeah. So I’ve got a little HYDRA weasel under my boot, and he was just giving up the location of that base we hit in Sokovia. I’m thinking I can get more, maybe figure out what experiments they’ve got running and suddenly I get the goddamn giggles.”
Bucky wrinkles his nose and pauses in the midst of scrubbing at the rangetop. “The giggles? You?”
“Not my giggles. I don’t have this problem with any of my other soulmates.”
Bucky barks out a laugh. “Yeah, that’s just Steve. He projects his emotions like crazy, the big sap. Superserum made it worse.”
“You got the serum, I never got anything like this from you.”
Bucky puts down his scrub brush. “Yeah, I’ve got better self control. You have other soulmates?” he asks.
“I do,” Natasha says, and provides no further details for a long moment, like she’s debating how much is safe to reveal. “They... take care of me.”
He can hear that it costs her something to admit that, and that she’s trying to say something else. Something harder to say. He cocks his head and tries to sort through the tightness in his chest. How much of it is his own? How much of it is Steve? How much is Natalia?
“Are you OK?” Bucky asks, picking up the phone.
Natalia takes a measured breath. “I’ve been better,” she says.
Bucky turns off speakerphone and presses it to his ear. “Tell me,” he says.
ii - regulus, or cor leonis: prince, or the heart of the lion
Have you ever met a soulmate that wasn’t quite a soulmate? Like, an almost-mate? It’s not the same as a NOPE-mate — those people you instinctively hate on sight — it’s something else. It’s like looking out the window of a train and making eye contact with someone going the other way. A could-have-been.
misssoulmarks. "Near Miss Soulmates." Your Soulmark Agony Aunt. Last modified November 4, 2012.
Tony hardly ever takes his shirt off.
Steve had always figured that there was scarring, and he was self conscious about it. But when they’re chopping wood outside of Clint’s farmhouse, Tony peels off his shirt and Steve sees, for the first time, what Tony Stark is really self conscious about.
His soulmark is a literal black stain, like an oil spill. And it’s huge. It covers his whole chest, spills down his shoulders and over his biceps before fading out above his elbows and just up from his hipbones. The arc reactor (it's not keeping him alive anymore, but he says “where else am I gonna put it?” when anyone asks about it) looks like the light you see from the bottom of a well. Or maybe like the last hot coal in the middle of a burned out fire pit.
Tony glares sharply at Steve when he notices Steve noticing that.
There are a lot of superstitions about soulmarks. Big mark, big heart, Bucky's ma had always said, but then the Red Skull’s mark had covered every inch of him, hadn’t it. And there had been that serial killer with the great big black stains on his hands, in the 70s.
Tony is obviously shy about it. The size, the strangely menacing look…
Steve goes back to chopping wood. It’s none of his business.
The sound of the key in the lock makes Bucky jump. It’s only been 24 hours since Sokovia fell from the sky. Steve’s still doing cleanup, so who—
Bucky pokes his head into the living room and finds the Falcon staring at the stovetop, which is so clean you can see your face in it.
“Hey,” Bucky says softly.
Sam’s head whips around and his eyebrows do a complicated little dance. “When Steve said you’d been cleaning up his messes since 1930, I didn’t think he meant literally.”
“How do you know this isn’t HYDRA training?” Bucky shoots back, then kind of wishes he could snatch the statement out of the air. Is it too early to joke about that? He barely knows Wilson — tangential stalking while he was following Steve probably doesn’t count.
The complicated eyebrow dance resolves into a look of startled bemusement. Then his eyes narrow a fraction, an expression remarkably similar to Steve’s testing the waters face. “The Winter Soldier: cleaning up your mess while he cleans up your mess?”
“Since 1945. I’m a full service assassin,” Bucky confirms. “Extremely thorough.”
Sam chokes a little. “OK, OK, I gotcha.” He cocks his head. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Sam.”
Bucky’s a little relieved that Sam doesn’t hold out his hand, but he knows the guy works with vets. Maybe he can spot a guy who isn’t wild about physical contact from strangers. “Nice to meetcha. James Barnes. Call me Bucky. You hungry? I was gonna make crepes.”
“You were gonna make what?”
Steve has to set down the rubble he’s moving to pull out his phone. The text is from Sam instead of Bucky, but includes a slightly blurry photo of Bucky. He’s in Sam’s kitchen, a little hunched over the stove, and scowling over his shoulder at Sam. Steve can just make out the pan and the bowl of batter on the counter, homely and familiar and completely at odds with the forbidding expression on Bucky’s face. The text beneath reads:
THERE IS A CRYPTID IN MY KITCHEN.
Steve grins. A moment later, another picture arrives, of a fat stack of very thin pancakes, captioned: WHEN DID THE WINTER SOLDIER LEARN TO MAKE CREPES, STEVEN?
Steve smirks. In occupied France. The lemon & sugar ones are to die for.
BUT WILL THEY LITERALLY KILL ME??? ARE THEY POISON??????
Steve’s not sure exactly why Sam is typing in all caps still, but it seems to be something that Future People just do sometimes. If they are, you’ll die happy, he replies. Then, after a moment of consideration, adds a winky face.
He’s just putting his phone back in his pocket when something makes him look up. A moment later the Iron Man suit streaks across the sky, with a rubble haul of his own. Steve frowns, thinking of that mark he saw earlier, the way his whole body lights up when he and Stark get into an argument, the first time he met Stark, blasting AC/DC from a dark German sky without a thinking that maybe the WWII veteran didn’t like loud noises from dark German skies.
That’s probably what it was. He probably heard the suit coming and just didn’t realize it. If he and Tony were soulmates, Steve would know. And their marks are totally different, nothing like what Steve’s got with Sam and Nat or Bucky.
He goes back to moving rubble.
By the time the cleanup is done and Bucky gets the text on my way back now from Steve’s number, it’s been a full two weeks since that first alert. There had been the attack on HYDRA, and then the party afterwards that had turned into the beginning of the Ultron mess, which has then led straight into the whole Sokovia fiasco. Bucky’s barely slept, and he’s sure that Steve is even worse off.
His suspicions are confirmed when the doorbell rings and he finds Natasha standing on the stoop, hands shoved deep in her pockets.
“Hey,” she says.
“Is that Steve?” Sam calls from upstairs.
“Kind of,” Nat calls back. Then, to Bucky: “He’s crashed hard and he’s too heavy for me to move without winching equipment.”
“Lucky I got that permanently attached,” Bucky says, wiggling his metal fingers. Sam comes thumping down the stairs a moment later.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“I got sleeping beauty in my car,” Natasha says, stepping into the house at the same time that Bucky’s stepping out. Natasha’s Corvette is parked right there in front of the house, and behind him, he can hear the Falcon trying to chat up the Black Widow, and that’s comedy gold any day of the week.
‘Crashed Hard’ is a slight understatement. Steve’s face is squished against the passenger side window and his mouth is hanging slightly open. Bucky stares at him and wonders whether the poor mook got any sleep at all while all this bullshit was going down. Sometimes, back in the War, Steve would go for weeks with minimal sleep. The comedown after was always a bitch.
Bucky contemplates the arrangement and then taps on the glass with one metal finger.
Steve doesn’t even twitch.
Going for the nuclear option, Bucky pulls open the door and catches Steve as he slumps out and chokes himself on the seatbelt. This at least does jerk Steve out of sleep with an undignified flail that might have been an attempt at a punch. It swings so wide that Bucky doesn’t even have to block or dodge. Instead he hooks his hands under Steve’s armpits and sets him back in his seat.
“Buh?” Steve says blearily.
“That’s me,” Bucky confirms, reaching for the release on Steve’s seatbelt. Steve tries to help and mostly just gets in the way, but together they manage to get Steve out of the ridiculously tiny car and more or less onto his feet.
Bucky tugs Steve’s arm around his shoulders and Steve sighs happily and plants his face directly into Bucky’s hair.
“Awww,” says Sam from the doorway as Steve and Bucky make their way to the front door. “You gonna carry him bridal style across the threshold?”
Bucky shows him the middle finger on his right hand and realizes when Sam cackles that Steve has done the same with his left hand.
Steve and Bucky’s broad shoulders bump against the door frame and that wakes Steve up enough to mumble a greeting to Sam, but a moment later the words vanish into a bone-creaking yawn.
“Alright, bedtime,” Bucky declares.
“No wait, I was gonna ask Sam somethin’ impo-hortant,” Steve says, the word mangled by another yawn.
“Ask Sam to join the Avengers in the morning,” Natasha says, arms crossed and giving Steve an unimpressed look.
“Ask Sam to do what in the morning?” Sam says loudly.
“Natasha—” Steve starts, but Bucky bends over, grabs him around the waist, and heaves him over his shoulder like he’s still 100 pounds soaking wet. Whatever Steve was going to say is lost in undignified squawking.
Bucky turns around, as stately as one can be when presenting two grownass adults with a view of a supersoldier's backside. "Goodnight," he says, with dignity, before carrying Steve off to the bedroom to the sound of Nat and Sam laughing in the front hall.
Bucky toes the door closed behind him and dumps Steve onto the bed.
Steve giggles. “You’re terrible,” he says, without opening his eyes.
“Christ, Pal. Ain’t seen you like this since the last time you got sloshed. When was that?”
“B’fore the serum,” Steve slurs. “Can’t get drunk anymore.” He makes grabby fingers in Bucky’s direction. “C’mere.”
Bucky comes forward like Steve’s got him on a string, reeling him in, helpless. He climbs onto the bed, over Steve. Steve grabs the front of Bucky’s shirt and yanks, until Bucky collapses over him.
Steve lets out a long sigh. “Perfect,” he mumbles, and immediately passes out.
Bucky means to get up, honestly he does. But Steve’s fingers are still locked tight in his shirt and he just… drifts off to the quiet sound of Natasha and Sam exchanging quips in the front hall.
“So am I really being recruited into the Avengers?” Sam says.
“Yeah,” Nat replies carelessly. “We need more air support. Rhodes works for the government, Wanda’s a teenager, Vision is literally a baby, and Stark’s trying to retire. Soon as Steve’s done sleeping this off we’re going to go to the Compound to start training. You in?”
“I have no idea who Wanda and Vision are but hell yeah!”
“Maybe I should take a page out of Barton’s book,” Tony says, strolling towards his apparently self-driving car. Steve has learned to not be surprised by these things anymore. “Build Pepper a farm, hope nobody blows it up.”
“The simple life?” Steve says. It might be a little teasing. Ain’t nothing simple about Tony Stark.
But then Tony looks at him, with a little too much knowing in his face, even behind sunglasses. “You’ll get there one day.”
Steve thinks of Bucky. Bucky, who is still staying with Sam. Steve’s pretty sure that Bucky hasn’t actually managed to leave Sam’s place since he arrived. He knows that Bucky has to check all the locks on the doors and windows before he can sleep, but he looks so sweet sleeping in a sunbeam with his face smushed into the pillow and hair all over the place.
“Retirement, huh?” Steve looks back to the newly opened Avengers Compound. “Can’t do that while the world’s still in danger,” Steve says.
“World’s always gonna be in danger, Steve.”
“Not if she’s got a solid line of defense.” Steve turns to look at Tony, smiles. “Not Ultron. The Avengers. But… You and me — me especially,” he says with a wry tilt to his mouth. “We’re the old guard now. If I retire, and the next generation of Avengers aren’t ready, then that’s on me.”
Tony nods. “I can help you with that.”
It should be a statement, but it sounds like a question. Steve looks at him and thinks, with one part of his brain, that he’s not sure he can trust Tony. The other part of his brain supplies oh like you’ve never done stupid shit tryna prove something.
That part of his brain always sounds like Bucky.
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve decides. “I’d appreciate that.”
“I’ll see you at the gala later, right?”
He does let Tony talk him into attending the gala at Stark Tower. They’re trying to build back good will for the Avengers. It’s not just about Tony’s new tech and that bottomless well of Stark money. They need to schmooze.
Steve’s not great at schmoozing. His brain is more than 80% on the list of apartments that he and Bucky are working their way through. Bucky’s real particular about where they live, to the point that he’s ready to “arrange” for the right place to “come available” if needs be. Steve has insisted that they use Steve’s reputation and bank account before Bucky tries anything more... Questionable.
So Steve’s not really paying attention to the party, until he turns and—
And that’s the first time Steve sees Pepper’s mark. She’s wearing a backless blue dress, and there is a spray of countless white pinprick spots running diagonally across her back. For a moment Steve thinks they’re scars, but they aren’t. Something in him tells him that they aren’t. It’s hard to look away from it. It starts just over her left hip bone and splashes across her spine, up to her right shoulder. She’s been abroad; her skin is a few shades tanner than usual, so the white marks stand out all the sharper. Like freckles, but also clearly, clearly not.
Tony comes up behind her, put his hands on her hips, and kisses her under the ear.
And suddenly Steve gets it. The white spray of marks — that’s the Milky Way, and Tony’s blackened chest and shoulders — that’s the night sky. The arc reactor hangs like a moon, right in the middle of it all.
Steve resists the urge to scratch at his own soulmark. He thinks of the team — Nat and Clint were always SHIELD agents first, Avengers second, but there’s the four of them who sit at the core of it. Steve’s star, Thor’s lightning, Bruce’s green aurora, and the night sky that lets them all shine. Tony. They can’t shine without Tony.
He thinks of Bucky, and the star between his shoulders. How it's changed, it's different, but they still work. That's the thing, isn't it? They're different, but they work.
And that’s when Steve starts to think that maybe, just maybe, he can really trust Tony.
iii - chara: joy
Hometown Pride: Despite the press surrounding the events in Sokovia, Captain America’s home borough seems more than happy to welcome her favorite son back, after over seventy years away…
Jans, Alexander. “Homecoming: Captain America Returns to Brooklyn.” Brooklyn Eagle. May 18, 2015.
They’re going back to Brooklyn.
Bucky doesn’t quite know what to do with this information. It makes him. Happy?
He walks around Brooklyn and it makes him feel like he’s sinking in, but he doesn’t know whether that’s a good sinking in or a bad sinking in. He tries to talk to Steve about it, but Steve’s just so unambiguously, blindingly happy to have Bucky back that it’s sort of like talking about his feelings to a Labrador puppy. It’s not… unhelpful, it’s just… the Labrador puppy doesn’t exactly provide useful feedback.
He tries to talk to Natasha about it, but she can’t really relate. She’s never gone back to before because there is no before for her to go back to.
“You doing alright, man?” Sam asks.
Bucky kind of jerks back to himself to find that he’s been staring blankly at a spot about six inches over the screen of his phone for… too many minutes probably. He’s… in that long stay hotel room that Steve got and… Steve’s on mission, so… so this is Sam coming to check up on him.
Bucky sighs and rubs his forehead. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I just.” He shakes his head.
Sam sits down across from him at the shitty little table they’ve got. He and Steve really need to get their own place. Although… Bucky’s not sure how he’s going to make that work. Steve’s sure they can. Bucky… isn’t.
“I get it,” Sam says.
Bucky tries very hard, and manages not to roll his eyes at that, but he thinks it must come through anyway because Sam arches a brow and adds: “What, you think you're the only guy who really likes to chill out in places where snipers very conveniently can't get a good angle?”
Bucky betrays himself by glancing at the shuttered windows.
“Yeah man, I noticed. I'm not blind.”
Bucky looks back and finds Sam giving him a very pointed look.
“So I say again: you doing alright?”
“That…” Bucky sighs. “That's a really good question.”
“So tell me about it,” Sam says. “I ain’t here to judge. Not about that, anyway. About your hair choices, yes. About your struggles, not so much.”
“My hair is amazing and Steve loves it.”
“I did not need to know that,” Sam says cheerfully. “And you are avoiding my question.”
Bucky lets his head fall and thunk gently against the table. (Gently now, the last thing he needs is even more brain damage.) “I feel crazy.”
“After everything that happened, I’d be deeply concerned if you didn’t feel crazy.”
Bucky shakes his head, forehead rolling against the wood. “Someone shouted at me in the crosswalk—”
“Ahhh, New York,” Sam muses.
“—and I shouted back, and it was the most normal I’ve felt in a while, and then I realized that the entire conversation had happened in Chinese.”
“I didn’t know you spoke Chinese.”
“Neither did I.” Bucky lifts his head and gives Sam a look. “I feel crazy.”
“Man, tell me about it,” Sam murmurs. “I'm not saying it's the same, but... I was over there for two tours, came back and my favorite shitty diner had turned into this hipster nonsense coffee shop. Everyone was talking about like it’d been there for years. And I just… for like a week I thought ‘maybe there never was a diner’ before I managed to bring it up in conversation all casual-like and everyone was like: 'oh haven’t you heard? They burned that place down trying to get the insurance money.' Which, let me tell you, did not make me feel less crazy.”
Bucky stares for a moment, and then bursts out into strange, hacking, wheezing laughter.
“So you’re not alone, is what I’m saying.”
“So nice to have soulmates as crazy as I am.”
Sam looks comically offended. “How dare you, we are not soulmates. I am platonically soulmated with Captain America and you have got a whole other kinda thing going on with some idiot named Steve. But you and me?” Sam waves his hand back and forth in the air between them. “You are just the asshole who ripped the steering wheel out of my car and we happen to have similar birthmarks.”
Bucky grins. “Fair enough.”
Steve gets his own place after Sokovia. Bucky picks it out; a little brownstone not too far from where they used to live, back in the day. He explains about sightlines and the layout, and exit strategies, and security cam coverage. Steve doesn’t really need to have it explained to him, but he listens, just for the joy of hearing Bucky talk.
Steve moves in with help from Sam and Nat, who are rolling their eyes while they pretend they don't know Barnes is back. Of course they know. Steve's soulbond with them isn’t enhanced by the serum (and nearly a century of knowing each other) but even so, Sam and Nat both knew the instant Bucky came back. Nat had actually scolded him about it, because she started laughing in the middle of an interrogation for no goddamn reason and it had ruined the vibe she was going for.
But no one else knows that Bucky is back, on account of the whole “internationally wanted fugitive” thing. So Sam and Nat are sworn to secrecy, even as they help Steve move a couch that he definitely picked out himself with no input from a man across the street with a sniper scope.
“I hate to think of you rattling around here all alone,” Sam deadpans, as he drops a box with somewhat less care than was called for. “Whatever will you do.”
“You should get a cat,” Nat suggests, looking directly at an apparently empty corner of the room. Steve strongly suspects that Bucky hid a camera up there. “A longhair,” she adds, and narrows her eyes.
Steve is too happy to feel even a hint of annoyance at being ribbed in his own home.
To celebrate the new place, Steve and Bucky go on a date.
Buck’s real paranoid; Steve can’t help but find it endearing. He doesn’t even feel embarrassed when he goes to the park (alone) and buys some gelato (alone) and then lies out on the grass and waits.
His phone buzzes in his pocket. Number withheld. He answers. “Hey.”
“Didja get the cinnamon like I said?” Bucky says.
Steve tips his head back and smiles. He has no idea where Bucky is. He suspects Bucky is also in the park, but Steve won’t go looking. Bucky doesn’t want to risk being seen together in public. “Yeah. S’pretty good. Tastes like cinnamon rolls, you know? What did you get?”
“I,” Bucky pronounces, with grandiosity, “got a Rocket Pop.”
Steve groans. There’s a loud, suction-y slurping sound from Bucky’s end. “You’re the worst person I know,” Steve says, squeezing his eyes shut so as to more clearly imagine whatever obscene thing Bucky is doing to his ice cream.
Bucky pulls off with an audible pop. “Damn right.” He sounds unfairly proud of himself.
Half the guys on Steve’s street have long hair and scruffy faces: Bucky can pop on a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and vanish, like it’s a damn card trick. He calls himself Jason Vincent. Jason prefers Jay. Jay does not appear to live with Steve. He appears to live several streets over, in a little studio apartment. Jay’s studio apartment (basically a safe house) has a (camera free) route (across rooftops) to Steve’s brownstone (if you’re a supersoldier.)
Bucky sets the rules. The rules are these: No conversation outside the apartment except over the secure line Bucky set up. They can get coffee at the same shop at the same time, but only if they pretend not to know each other. Bucky initiates phonecalls. Steve may text whenever he likes. They both have a panic button that goes directly to each others’ phones. Steve swears to use his if he’s badly hurt on an Avengers mission. Bucky uses his when he forgets who he is, or when he thinks Hydra is closing in. That happens less and less as they settle in, but it happens three times the first week.
Bucky never knows what’s going to set him off, and this time, of all the things in the fucking world, it’s the outdated security camera in the bodega down the street. Damn thing hasn’t been replaced since probably 1985 and he glances up at it, sidelong as he’s about to leave with his smokes and finds that he knows that camera. He knows that model, the specs and he knows that there will be a VHS recording all this. He knows. That was the camera that watched him when… when…
The panic is welling up in him already and he’s good at covering this, he knows he is, but the urge to get somewhere with cover is strong so he turns down the nearest dark alley. He’s in the alley, he’s—
—on a road, looking down at Howard Stark’s bleeding face, the light leaving his eyes, and he—
—goes all the way to the back of the alley, the alley, behind the dumpsters, and he doesn’t light the smokes he just bought because he’s—
—walking around to put his fingers around Maria Stark’s throat and he’s—
—fumbling in his jacket pocket. He pulls out his phone, drops it, swears and gets down on his knees in the filthy alley to get his phone, get it open, hit the button, the panic button. He looks up and he’s—
—staring down the camera. His handlers are watching. His handlers are always watching. And he is supposed to take out the camera, go to the recording station, pick up the VHS and deliver to his handlers so they can confirm that he did it right.
So they can reward him. So they can punish him. So they can put him on his next assignment. There will be more assignments, more missions, an endless cycle of going into the ice and coming out forever.
God. He killed Howard. He killed Howard. He didn’t even hesitate. What kind of a monster kills their friend, and his wife, just because someone told him to.
“Come on pal, look at me .”
He will outlive all his handlers, but there will always be more. Cut off one head, and two more will take its place. New faces to thaw him and give him his guns. There is always the next mission, there is always more blood, there is always more, and no one will save him. Howard is dead, who’s left who could? Who would bother to come for him? Who would want to? He killed Howard Stark.
If you want to get out of here, you’re going to have to do it yourself, asshole.
“Come on, Soldier, report.”
A hand falls on his shoulder.
He lashes out. First with the fist, the metal one, and gets to his feet when the handler staggers back. He palms the knife from his boot and comes up ready to slash.
The handler blocks the first jab and Bucky leaves a long red gash on Steve’s forearm.
Bucky makes himself freeze on the spot, calling an all-systems halt.
Steve takes his hesitation as an advantage and retreats a pace, falling into a fighting crouch.
Blood drips from Steve’s arm with a quiet plink plink plink. Steve’s eyes track him, warily. “Bucky?” he says.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Yeah, Steve, it’s me. I’m—”
Steve cuts in before Bucky can apologize. “It’s okay.”
It’s not. It’s really not.
The tears don’t hit until they’re at Bucky’s safehouse, thank God. Bucky-Back-Then had always been a bit of a crier. Un-fucking-fortunately, that was one of the first things to come back when he started to undo the HYDRA brainfuck. Now all it takes is for Steve to look at him wrong and he feels the telltale thickness in his throat. One would think that seven decades of murder might numb one to the need to cry at beautiful sunsets and minor mishaps and light stabbings. One would, apparently, be wrong.
Bucky scrubs angrily at his nose with the back of his forearm and goes back to bandaging the cut on Steve’s arm.
“Honey, it’s okay,” Steve says, for the millionth time.
Bucky slams his open palm against the tile under his knees hard enough to leave a crack. “No,” he says quietly. “It isn’t.”
Steve wisely doesn’t say anything, just keeps sitting meekly on the toilet lid, letting Bucky tape the bandage into place on his forearm. Bucky smooths the tape, creating a seamless seal around the edge of the gauze — not that Steve’s serum-enhanced body needs any protection from germs, but it’s the thought that counts, right? It’s the—
Bucky pulls off the rubber gloves and wipes the tears from his cheeks again.
“You want more protocols?” Steve prompts gently.
Bucky nods. Protocols are good. They help. But it sucks to have to come up with them after the fact. He feels like he should’ve seen this coming. There should already be protocols for this.
“Was it because I touched you?” Steve asks, doing an admirable job trying to hold back his guilt.
“No, it was because of a camera,” Bucky mutters. “Goddamn camera, reminded me of — It was because of something I did.”
“It was because of HYDRA,” Steve says, rubbing the bridge of his nose with two fingers.
“Yeah.” Bucky sits back and stretches his legs out in front of him so his calves are on either side of Steve’s feet. “But you shouldn’t have touched me. That let me know where you were. That’s how I got the hit in.”
“Okay, so no touching you when you’re… like that,” Steve says. “But touch sometimes helps you get back to yourself, you know?”
“Believe me, I do,” Bucky says. “It’s a real bitch of a situation.”
Steve slides down to sit on the tiles in the vee of Bucky’s legs. “You never hurt me when you know it’s me.”
“Untrue, I punched you right in the nose that time in ‘37 when you were being an idiot about that job at the docks.” And he’d fucking cried about it after. Of course he had.
Steve’s eyes go narrow as lasers, because he has never, not once, forgotten an argument, and he never will. “He was a racist, Bucky.”
“He was paying, Steve, and it was the thirties, they were all racists.”
“And they would’ve stayed racists as long as no one stood up to them!”
“I swear to God, Steven Grant, I will break your nose again.”
“See, now I know you’re you. You called me Steven Grant.”
“Your ma called you Steven Grant,” Bucky points out. It’s a joke, but it’s also a code, a pass phrase. See? I remember that.
Steve beams. “Pretty sure you ain’t my ma, Barnes.”
They lapse into quiet for a moment. Steve nudges Bucky’s thigh with his toe. “Maybe if you tell me what it was, then we could—”
Bucky flinches back, feeling a violent lurch in his guts as Howard’s face swims before him, bloody, nose crushed up into his brilliant mind, eyes flat and staring and—
“Or not!” Steve hurries to add. “Hey, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
No, Steve should know, Steve should know what kind of monster— “It was Howard,” Bucky grits out. “It was Howard. I remembered. Him and his wife. I—”
Steve hauls him in and wraps his arms around him. “I know,” he says softly. “I already know.”
Bucky buries his face in Steve’s shoulders. Steve rubs his hands over Bucky’s back, over his soulmark. Bucky feels his shoulders come down from around his ears, that feeling of goodsafehome seeping through his panic, seeping into his bones.
Steve hums, a deep rumble in both their chests. “What if we say… No touching you until you confirm that you know who I am. Sound good?”
“Confirmed callsigns for me are… Steve, Stevie, Steven Grant…”
“Yeah, that too.”
Bucky kisses him. It’s awkward, here on the floor, all twisted around and wrapped up in each other, but Bucky lets himself get lost in the rhythm of it for a while, the give and take, the closeness.
“I got a protocol,” Steve says when they break apart. “Can I make protocols too?”
Bucky looks at him, both brows raised. In the harsh light of their bathroom, Steve looks all washed out, almost skeletal, those cheekbones of his, the sharp angles of his face, that jawline. “Course you can, doll. What’s your protocol?”
“It’s more of a request, or a — a rule. An order,” Steve says, looking more determined by the second.
Bucky thumbs the line of Steve’s cheekbone. “Yeah alright, I’m used to orders from you.”
“Don’t leave,” Steve says, in that determined but calm way that means that it’s important. Beyond important. He’s desperate. He meets Bucky’s gaze, locking Bucky there, in this moment. “Don’t leave me again.”
Bucky swallows. He takes Steve’s face in both hands this time, and doesn’t blink, so Steve can see that he means it, right down to his bones, when he says: “Never, pal. You’re stuck with me.”
Every time Bucky comes swinging in through the back window, after dark, Steve puts on his best radio announcer voice and says: “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”
“You never get tired of that, do ya,” Bucky says, every time, and smacks Steve upside the head before crawling into his lap like a jaguar that thinks it’s a kitten.
Steve puts his fingers in Bucky’s hair and feels the tension drain out of Bucky’s frame. It might be a real pain, all the subterfuge and whatnot, except that the subterfuge is all at Bucky’s insistence. Bucky isn’t ready for the media circus, the inevitable trial, the questions. He doesn’t want that, and Steve doesn’t have it in him to deny Bucky anything.
Steve understands that most people would find Bucky’s rules unreasonable. Most people have never been separated from their soulmate for seventy years. Most people aren’t being actively pursued by both the good guys and the bad guys. Most people don’t fight supervillains and aliens.
They aren’t most people.
Steve, if he is honest, has never been happier. What they’ve got now, maybe it’s weird, but it works. Bucky isn’t the only one who’s happy to have privacy.
The only thing that Steve asks for is this: Bucky in his lap or by his side in the evenings. Bucky in his bed at night, always. Bucky there in the morning, no matter what. Everything else is just bonus material. In the morning, Bucky commutes across rooftops back to Jay's apartment and Steve commutes across town or across state to the Tower or the Compound, depending on the day.
Bucky has been more-or-less living with him for three months now. Steve doesn’t want to rush him, they can keep going like this as long as Bucky wants, but Steve wants to be prepared. The future is always coming, and Steve does like to have a plan ready.
“So I been thinking,” Steve says.
“Uh oh,” Bucky says, but he doesn’t go tense.
Steve takes in a breath. “I think we could talk to Tony. I think we should, actually. I think we can trust him.”
Now Bucky goes tense. “Tony. As in Tony Stark. Howard’s son.”
“My friend , Tony, yeah.”
“Tony Stark,” Bucky repeats. “You know I—”
“You really think he’s gonna help the guy who killed his mother with his bare hands?” Bucky says bluntly. He’s turned into one giant knot of tension, but he hasn’t left Steve’s lap yet.
“I think we’re gonna have a lot of enemies if this all comes out, and Tony’s got the power to move mountains. You can’t win a war without the right allies, Buck. And…” Steve squirms a little. “It’s not right to keep this from him. He should know, he’s…”
“A soulmate, I know,” Bucky grumbles.
“No,” Steve protests, but it lacks conviction. He and Tony aren’t soulmate- soulmates, it’s not like that. Steve would know. Wouldn’t he? Tony would’ve said.
Steve shakes his head. “It’s not like…” He makes a noise of frustration. “It’s just the right thing to do, Buck. You know it is.”
Steve can hear Bucky grinding his teeth. “You know this would all be a hell of a lot easier for me personally if I was in Bucharest buying plums.”
It hurts a little to hear him say it. This would all be a hell of a lot easier if you weren’t my soulmate, is what Bucky means. But Steve just swallows and takes it. He’s taken worse hits. And he’s probably given worse hits to Bucky, over the years.
Bucky lets out a breath. “We gotta be smart about it, though. So I’m calling the shots, yeah?”
The thing is, there’s just no way to prepare for Tony Stark.
“So.” Tony claps his hands together and looks around at the inside of Steve’s apartment. He seems a little frazzled. Steve thinks he might have been drinking. He’s not sure if that’s good or bad, but— “Is this the part where I get to stop pretending not to know that Barnes is back?” Tony sounds a little tired, and extra sharp in that way that means he’s got more than the usual amount of stress.
Steve stares at Tony. They had, technically, anticipated this as a possibility, but Steve hadn’t expected Tony to come out of the gate swinging.
Tony points one slightly wobbly finger at him. He’s wearing a very futuristic looking watch. “I mean, you did know that we all know Barnes is back, right? I know he’s a super spy assassin or whatever, but you very much are not. You went from looking like you were on the verge of crying every minute of every day to a frankly terrifying level of zen-like peace. You literally went from Eeyore to Giselle overnight, like that was not at all suspicious.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” says a muffled voice from the other room. The door bangs open and Bucky comes stomping in. He punches Steve, hard, in the arm. Steve gets out his wallet and hands over the ten bucks he owes. Bucky snatches his winnings out of Steve’s hand. “Honestly. I seen actual literal circuses with better op sec than you.” Bucky then turns to Tony. “Hi. I’m Bucky.”
Tony looks taken aback by this display, and he’s now got an Iron Man gauntlet on his hand. Steve has no idea where it came from. It’s not quite raised, but it’s certainly at the ready.
“Okay then,” Tony says. “Look, I’ll believe that even with Soviet brainwashing, you wouldn’t hurt your soulmate, but if you’re gonna shake hands with that.” Tony eyes Bucky’s metal arm, “I’m gonna shake hands with this.” The repulsor whines a little.
“I ain’t here to shake your hand,” Bucky says, looking a little pained. “I’m here to apologize.”
“Bucky!” Steve protests hotly. They’d argued about this for days. “You got nothing to—”
“Shut up, Steve. This ain't about me and it ain't about you.” He looks Tony square in the face, and Steve's the only one who sees his flesh hand shaking. “You deserve to hear it from me, alright? I’m sorry.” He takes a deep breath in. “Hydra had me kill your parents,” Bucky says, pulling the bandage off in one go. “I didn’t have much say in the matter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I did it.”
Tony’s hand is fully raised now, palm out, and he’s breathing hard. There’s something complicated happening on his face. There’s white showing all around his eyes. Everyone in the apartment goes still. They’d anticipated this, a little bit. Steve had said that Tony’s parents were a real sensitive topic, and as much as he hated it, because it put Bucky at risk, their best shot was to be honest. He’d wanted a chance to talk to Tony a bit first, to explain what happened to Bucky, but… as usual, Tony is too smart to be handled, and too unpredictable to be managed.
Bucky’s got his hands clenched at his sides, leaving himself open to attack, and the sight of it sets Steve onto the balls of his feet, ready to dive between them, ready to—
Tony whirls on Steve. “You knew about this?” All trace of the jokester is gone. There’s something raw in Tony’s face. Raw and vulnerable.
Steve puts as much firmness into his voice as he can. “It wasn’t him. Hydra had control of his mind, he—”
“Don’t bull shit me, Rogers, did you know?”
And oh. Steve miscalculated. He glances at Bucky, sees Buck's eyes widen. They'd anticipated Tony going for Bucky, summoning the Avengers, the FBI even.
They didn't figure Tony's wrath would turn on Steve .
“Rogers!” Tony snaps. “Answer me!”
Steve swallows. He makes himself hold Tony’s gaze. “Yes.”
Tony jerks back like Steve slapped him. But there's this look on his face like of course , like I should have expected this, like I can't believe I fell for it again.
And that’s when Steve remembers what Pepper told him about Obadiah Stane. Howard and Maria aren’t Tony’s only vulnerable spot.
“I’m sorry, Tony,” Steve says immediately. “I didn’t know how to tell you without—“
“Shut up,” Tony snaps. The gauntlet on his hand is powering up and down, like the guy wearing it can’t decide whether he wants to shoot or not. Bucky has gone very still. “Fuck you, Rogers, what the hell, you didn’t—I can’t—” He’s breathing hard, and the transformation from the swaggering asshole who came into the apartment to this… it couldn’t be more dramatic. “You’ve been, what? Playing house with the guy who killed my mom?”
“He’s my soulmate,” Steve says hopelessly.
“So was I,” Tony says, very quietly. His dark eyes are burning with the betrayal, the hurt.
They aren’t, not really, but Steve knows what Tony means. There’s a potential between them, never realized. They could be soulmates, but they’ve never quite managed to be friends. When they first met, Steve had been too raw from the ice and losing Bucky, and Tony was always too confrontational. Like he didn’t really want a soulmate. The connection hadn’t stuck.
Steve’s always been confident that he’d know his soulmates when he met them, so when he and Tony didn’t click right away, he’d dismissed the possibility. He’d never even considered it, not seriously.
Maybe he should have.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says again, and means it.
Tony’s face twists, and he swings for Steve, only to have Bucky’s metal fist catch the gauntlet. Tony turns on Bucky, and fires the repulsor. It’s just a short burst, but Bucky is thrown back a few steps. Steve feels the shock of the hit in his own left arm, sees Bucky pull the metal limb in like it hurts him.
Rage blooms in Steve. He goes to tackle Tony, but at that moment, the window explodes and Tony is shrouded in red and gold.
“Tony, no!” Steve shouts, ready to throw himself in front of Bucky, but Tony doesn’t turn on Bucky, he turns on Steve, repulsors raised, and powering up. For a split second Steve just stares, because this has gone so much worse than they had imagined. He doesn’t have the shield, he doesn’t even have body armor, and he thinks welp, I guess this is where we find out if I can survive a repulsor blast to the face.
And then he’s unceremoniously being shoved down into the curled up cradle of Bucky’s arms. Bucky has wrapped himself around Steve, making his body into a shield, turning his back on Tony, like a mother might curl around her child to protect them from a fire.
“Not this time, goddammit,” Bucky hisses, and Steve’s not sure he’s even talking to Steve. Maybe he’s talking to God.
“Bucky,” Steve whispers, and all he can do is hold on. Like he should have all those years ago.
The repulsors power up, higher, and higher, and—
“Fuck,” Tony says, and even through the modulators, Steve can hear his voice cracking.
The repulsors fire, but it’s the sustained blast of flight mode, not the sharp burst of an attack. More glass shatters as Tony blasts out the window.
“Oh God,” Steve says, pushing Bucky off him. He digs in his pocket and calls Pepper.
This is how Steve discovers that Pepper had literally just left the Tower. Three months of couples’ counseling had resulted in her and Tony taking a break, to see if they could become a little less codependent.
Steve didn’t know. He didn’t know.
While Steve discovered this, Bucky found plastic sheeting and cardboard and covered the broken window, with the kind of stoic plodding of a man righting his furniture after the house blew away in a hurricane. Pepper is now calling Rhodes, and Steve is pacing a hole in the carpet, trying to get in touch with Nat to see if she knows more than she lets on about wherever the fuck Bruce is hiding. His eyes feel like sandpaper, and his face is raw.
Bucky is sitting on the couch. He’s got his metal hand laid out in his lap. The delicate plates of his palm and fingers are blackened, and when he flexes them, they twitch irregularly. The repulsor blast must have damaged something inside.
“She’s not answering,” Steve says, hanging up.
Bucky doesn’t say anything. He looks pale, a little sweaty. For all that the Arm is tough, and doesn’t really feel pain, any damage to it always seems to send him far away, in his head. Steve doesn't like to think where.
“We fucked this up,” Steve whispers, standing in front of Bucky. “We shoulda—”
“I’m not sure I’m worth all this, Steve,” Bucky says, without looking up.
“Don’t you dare,” Steve snaps, “say that to me.”
Bucky lifts his head. His eyes are blank and dull, the way they hardly ever are since he moved in with Steve. “I killed his parents, Steve. I made him an orphan.”
“So he can join the goddamn club,” Steve says, harsh. “Plenty of us got no parents. And you didn’t do it.”
“My hands, Steve.”
“But it wasn’t your choice.”
Bucky doesn’t answer, but he won’t meet Steve’s eyes either. He’s got that listless look that means he isn’t really here.
Steve drops to his knees in front of Bucky. He takes the damaged metal hand and kisses the palm. The metal smells like smoke. Bucky doesn’t look at him. Steve puts the hand back in Bucky’s lap and takes Bucky’s face between his palms. “Hey. You going somewhere?”
Bucky blinks, but those stormy eyes lift and focus, laboriously, on Steve’s face. “No,” he intones.
“Good, cuz you promised me, you know?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “I did, but…”
“No buts.” Steve kisses him, short and fierce. “Come on. It’s freezing in here.”
They go to the bedroom and they sit on the bed, trying to figure out what to do next. But every time Steve suggests that they run, Bucky shakes his head violently. “You can’t start running, not you. You start running—”
“They’ll never let you stop.” Steve drops his forehead to Bucky’s shoulder. It’s the metal one. “You’re right,” he says. “I know. You’re right.”
Bucky curls his fingers — the metal ones — over the back of Steve's neck, then down his spine to lay flat over his soulmark. They’re still a little twitchy.
They don’t sleep, so they’re still awake at 3:30 in the morning when Iron Man breaks off their front door handle, staggers into their chilled living room, and stumbles out of his clanking metal suit. He reeks of bad whiskey and worse decisions. Steve's less ready for a fight now than he was earlier: he’s barefoot and wearing soft pants. And frankly, that's deliberate. They’re not running, and he's not going to fight Tony. He won't do it.
Tony says: “I think I have to tell you guys about the Accords,” in such a fast, drunken slur that Steve can barely understand him.
“No don’t—Don’t talk to me right now. I’m just.” He scrubs his hands through his hair, a frantically fast back and forth motion. The suit is still as a statue behind him, an empty shell, dead without his frenetic energy driving it forward. “You,” he points at Bucky. “I don’t like. And you,” he points at Steve. “I cannot fucking believe. I—” he shakes his head sharply. “We’re not friends. Alright? I can’t have friends like that in my life. But. You two are soulmates. That’s gotta mean something. It’s gotta.”
Tony looks wrecked. He looks raw. He looks the way Steve felt when Bucky was gone.
“I think I have to tell you guys about the Accords,” Tony says again. And then he throws his hands in the air and a hologram projects out from the Iron Man suit, scans of a document with the UN logo at the top.
iv - baten kaitos: belly of the whale
what dril tweet r u based on where ur soulmark is
head/face: awfully bold of you to fly the Good Year blimp on a year that has been extremely bad thus far
chest: me: nobody has to get owned today. please, please put down the keyboard and step back / 9 year old child: Fuck oyu
back/shoulders: fuck "jokes". everything i tweet is real. raw insight without the horse shit. no, i will NOT follow trolls. twitter dot com. i live for this
biceps: another day volunteering at the betsy ross museum. everyone keeps asking me if they can fuck the flag. buddy, they wont even let me fuck it
forearms/hands: the doctor reveals my blood pressure is 420 over 69. i hoot & holler outta the building while a bunch of losers try to tell me that im dying
legs: blocked. blocked. blocked. youre all blocked. none of you are free of sin
General Thaddeus Ross, Secretary of State, has no idea what he’s in for when he agrees to an appointment with Steven Grant Rogers, Captain America. How can he say no, after all? Steve sits patiently in the waiting area, in his dress blues, and makes soft, smiling conversation with the General’s secretary until his turn comes.
“Thank you,” he says, like the polite young man he isn’t, really, and picks up the satchel he brought with him.
He comes into the General’s office, and Ross says: “Won’t you please—”
And Steve says: “No I don’t think I will,” and slams his full, printed copy of the Accords down on General Ross’s desk.
Ross stares at it, for a moment. “Ah.”
“Thought we wouldn’t notice,” Steve says, a grim little homage to the man whose friendship he’s hoping to earn back one day. “But we did.”
“Got a few things I want to go over with you.” The inches-thick document is peppered with red sticky flags. Steve has been over it himself, and then went over it again with their lawyer, Bernie Rosenthal, and then once more with Buck and Nat at his back. He can, if necessary, recite the thing verbatim, thanks to his serum-enhanced memory. “But first.”
He drops the surveillance photos of the half-constructed Raft (courtesy Redwing) on top of the thickly annotated Accords. “We've already sent copies of these to the Times and the Post. You weren’t hoping to keep this a secret, were you? See, I’ve got this problem with governments that run concentration camps. It’s a well-documented pet peeve of mine.”
“It’s a prison, not a concentration—”
“You say tomato. I say fascist.”
“I am trying to save the world from calamity, I don’t have time for your sanctimoniousness.” Ross says. “Like you’re in any position to judge—”
“The position we are in, to be clear, is that I have the high ground, and I am ready to rain hellfire down on your position. Do you understand?”
Ross doesn’t quail, which Steve must grudgingly respect. He is aware that there are nuclear bombs with less forceful personalities than Steven Fucking Rogers. Bucky has told him this. Lovingly. And frequently.
“You have my attention,” Ross agrees, very reluctantly. “What exactly did you have in mind, Captain?”
“A few adjustments.” He flips open to the first sticky note. “Seems like whoever wrote this doesn’t have a real firm grasp on international law, but lucky for them I do.”
“You do? Since when?”
“Since last week,” Steve says. “Now. This shouldn’t take more than six or seven hours.”
Eight hours later, FRIDAY chirps: “Boss, we’ve got an incoming call from Secretary Ross.”
“Yeah, put him through,” Tony says, without looking up from his most recent project. Sparks fly a little, and he pulls back to look at the holographic display.
“Tony,” says Ross. “We have a problem.”
“Ah, please hold,” Tony says brightly.
Tony pokes at the holographic display. Ross’s voice cuts off and a little light starts blinking. Tony turns back to his current project.
Bucky, whose hand is the current project, wonders whether he can say anything without angering Tony further. Steve had gone groveling after three weeks of Bucky dropping things, and occasionally breaking doorknobs and shit. Tony had agreed to take a look, so Bucky had made his covert way over to the Tower and FRIDAY whisked him up a secret back elevator straight to Tony’s lab.
And now here they are.
Tony glances up, and sees Bucky watching him. “What. You’ve never seen someone put the Secretary of State on hold before? You scandalized, old man?”
“Historically I haven’t gotten along very well with Secretaries of State,” Bucky says flatly.
Tony’s mouth twitches, and he goes back to working on the hand laid out on the table in front of him. It’s still attached, but Tony had pulled some plates off and done something above the elbow and now it’s numbed and immobile from mid-bicep down. Bucky is not wild about this state of affairs, but he’s tolerated worse things. He knows how to handle it.
It’s not that he thinks about other things or goes to his happy place, he just kind of voluntarily takes three paces to the left and watches like it’s happening to someone else.
“Did they ever tell you how this got integrated?” Tony asks.
Bucky comes out of that weird checked-out headspace that allows him to get through this kind of shit. “Pardon?”
“I’m trying to figure out how they made the osseointegration and neurointegration work. It could be useful. I saw Steve flinch when this got fried. He feels it through your soulbond, right? Like it’s part of you?”
“It is part of me,” Bucky says.
“Yeah. I’m saying this could advance prosthetics by decades, if we could—”
“You couldn’t do this to a normal person. They wouldn’t survive,” Bucky reports. “I didn’t.”
Tony freezes. His eyes track slowly up to Bucky’s face.
Bucky rolls his eyes. “I know I’m not actually a ghost,” he says.
“Right, of course.” Tony sounds relieved.
“Steve and I had a whole thing about that,” Bucky says, offhand. “We only communicated via Ouija Board for four days while he talked me around.”
“Kidding,” Bucky says.
“Yeah... you’re a riot.” Tony shifts in his seat, looking uncomfortable. “So. When you say that you didn’t survive…”
Bucky sighs heavily. “I mean they worked on me until I died, then they kept working on me like Frankenstein, and then… I don’t know, I think it was forty five minutes before they resuscitated me? I was basically braindead for a while.” He shrugs and looks at the ceiling. “I got better.”
Tony is staring again. Bucky can feel it, even if he won’t look. “That wasn’t in the file Steve gave me.”
“There’s a lot that ain’t in the file.”
“But if you’ve got records of what they did, you should’ve showed me before I started—”
“No,” Bucky says. “Those files were destroyed. But I remember the surgery. They didn’t have anything strong enough to put me under so they immobilized me instead.” Bucky risks a glance.
Stark’s gone pale. “You remember the surgery,” he states.
Bucky’s eyes flick down at the middle of Tony’s chest, where the arc reactor isn’t anymore. “Yeah,” he says. “I remember everything.”
When Steve comes to collect Bucky from the Tower, Tony greets him with a “your boy is having hot chocolate with Bailey’s in the common area,” and leaves. Steve finds a very confused but also not unhappy looking Bucky, bundled in about a dozen microfleece blankets, his flesh and metal hands curled around a huge mug of steaming hot chocolate with marshmallows bobbing around in it.
A nature documentary is playing on the TV. There’s a black and blue… bird?
“Heya Buck,” Steve says, a little bemused.
“Hey,” Bucky says. He doesn't take his eyes off the TV. There’s a little BBC logo in the top, and a soothing narrator that reminds Steve a little of Vision with his accent. “How’d it go with Ross?”
On the TV, the bird is now bouncing around maniacally, making little clicking and screeching sounds.
Steve is having some trouble focusing on what Bucky’s asking him. The bird is very distracting. “Thhhhink we got a good start on fixing the Accords. What, uh…” Steve sits next to Bucky as best he can when he’s got a solid foot of blanket cushioning on all sides of him. “What’s all this about, huh?”
Bucky looks up, his face framed by red and gold microfleece. He looks baffled. “Stark’s kid is really weird,” Bucky tells him.
They all gather in Avengers Tower a few weeks before the signing — even Bucky. He’s not an Avenger, of course, but he is technically still a Howling Commando, and also technically a superpowered employee (albeit an unpaid and unwilling one) of the goddamn US intelligence services. No one ever bothered to fire him, and the Army hasn’t discharged him. Which means that he qualifies as an “enhanced member of a military, paramilitary, or intelligence organization” and if he doesn’t agree to abide by the Accords, he won’t be allowed to continue serving etc etc. Not that he wants to continue serving, of course. But that’s not the point.
The point is that the Accords are not a perfect document, but they've gone three dozen rounds back and forth between the UN and the Avengers, and Bernie is sharp as a damn tack. Bucky really likes her. There’s provisions that make the world marginally safer from superpowered mayhem of the local variety, but still allows for the Avengers to work as a rapid response team. There’s also an “Enhanced Person’s Bill of Rights” which guarantees in no uncertain terms that supers have all the rights they should.
And Steve still won’t sign the damn thing. Bucky isn’t surprised. They won’t ditch the clause about how supers aren’t allowed to just go barging across country borders without an invitation, so of course Steve won’t sign it. Bucky doesn’t quite understand how the others are surprised about this.
Bucky, who hasn’t been surprised about anything Steve does since 1943, leans back in his chair and watches the show.
“If you don’t sign this, you can’t be an Avenger anymore! It’s this or retirement, Rogers!” Tony tells him, waving the sign sheet in Steve’s face before slamming it back down on the table next to the pen.
Steve takes a deep breath in. He lets it out. His shoulders go down and back. Bucky smiles, seeing what’s coming.
“Okay then,” Steve says.
Tony is taken aback by this. “Okay?” he says.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I been on the job for the better part of a century. Past time for me to clock out.”
Bucky ducks his head to hide a smile.
“Then why don’t you just — sign it, and then retire?” Tony says, mustering up more exasperation.
“That’d be dishonest,” Steve says.
Bucky glances up and sees Natasha roll her eyes. Actually roll her goddamn eyes. Tony literally throws his hands in the air. Yeah pal, you still got it, Bucky thinks, and looks at the fingernails on his flesh hand.
“Tony, If I see a situation pointed south, I’m not gonna just ignore it. If it’s important enough for me to come out of retirement to help, then it’ll be important enough for me to face the consequences.”
“I don’t know, Steve,” Sam says, reluctantly. “These restrictions don’t seem unreasonable to me. Listen, man, you missed out on Vietnam. You missed the Iraq War. I’m not sure you really appreciate that sometimes we’re the ones who need to be stopped.”
Bucky (who can very deeply appreciate that point) glances up. Tony waves at Sam and stares at Steve like see? You see my point??
Steve shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s a bad agreement, I just know in my heart that I can’t sign it myself.”
“You make no goddamn sense,” Tony rages.
“I became Captain America because someone in another country was being a bully, and I needed to get there and help out any way I could. If I sign this paper, I’m giving away my right to do what I became Captain America to do.” Steve frowns. “What’s the point of that?”
“The point is to show support for legislation that’s going to make the world a better place!” Tony shouts.
Bucky sighs. This argument is starting to go in circles.
“I’m not asking anyone else to not sign,” Steve says.
“Okay then,” Bucky says, before snatching up the pen and scrawling his name at the top of the sign sheet. James Buchanan Barnes in his old-fashioned cursive. He looks up and finds everyone is staring, even Steve. He’s the only one who doesn’t look surprised. He’s got a little smile on his smart mouth, because he gets it.
Bucky has been pretty fucking adamant about the clauses stating that no enhanced person may be impelled to serve in the armed forces because of their enhanced status. He and Nat had a lot of input on the sections about coercion, brainwashing, and mind control.
Bucky caps the pen, drops it back on the page, and stands up. “Good to go?” he asks Steve.
“Yeah,” Steve says.
“Alright, old man. If you’re retired now, you got no business in Avengers Tower.” Bucky holds out his hand to Steve.
Steve takes it. They leave together.
“I think it’s good,” Sam says, the next day. He agreed to meet with Steve at the Avengers Tower coffee bar because anywhere else, people start staring. Of course, here it seems like the baristas are under strict instructions to write Captain Dumbass instead of Steve, but Steve can understand Tony's irritation.
“You signed,” Steve says.
“Yeah, I did,” Sam agrees. “But Wanda didn’t. Clint didn’t. None of Pym’s people did.” Sam sips his latte. “I think it’s good,” he says again. “There should be other options, you know? If you’re a super, you want to be a hero, it shouldn’t be a case of ‘join the Avengers or go to prison.’ There should be a middle ground there. Something other than the Avengers.”
“Vigilante justice?” Steve says.
“I was thinking more good Samaritan,” Sam says. “You planning to put on a cape and run around the city punching bad guys?”
“I am not planning to put on a cape,” Steve says, very carefully.
“Man, Barnes is a braver dude than me.” Sam shakes his head, laughing a little. Then his expression turns more serious. “What about the shield? Gonna hang it on your wall? Keep the suit in your closet? Just in case?”
Steve’s brow furrows a little. “No,” he says firmly. “No, I’ve been thinking about that.”
“Uh oh.” Sam sips his coffee
Steve rolls his eyes. “The shield isn’t mine, you know? It belongs to Captain America.”
“Steve, I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, but you are Captain America.”
Steve gives Sam a flat look. “I’m really not,” and his tone is apparently serious enough that it makes Sam stop kidding around and listen — really listen to what Steve is saying.
“What do you mean?” Sam asks. “When you say you aren’t Captain America — if not you…”
“It’s not like you and Falcon. Falcon is Sam Wilson’s codename. Cap is kind of his own thing.” Steve tries to explain. “He’s got his own life. When Steve Rogers died in 1945, Captain America kept going, you know? It’s incredible, the way he kept going, the way people looked up to him.”
“They look up to you, Steve.”
“Maybe, but that’s not…” Steve sighs. “They look up to Captain America because he’s always gonna stand for freedom, against tyranny and fear. He’s always gonna stand up for the little guy. He’s always gonna work hard and he’s always gonna help people who need help. He’s everything good about America. But he’s never gonna vote. He’s not a citizen. He’s never gonna endorse a candidate or — god forbid — run for office. He’s never gonna get married, he doesn’t have a soulmate, he’s never gonna be off duty. Because he’s not a person. ”
“Ah,” Sam says, getting it.
“I’ve been Captain America ever since I woke up. And it was good at first, it gave me something to do, but…”
“You’re ready to be Steve again?” Sam says.
Steve swallows, and nods. “It’s not just that, though. I became Captain America because I wanted to help people. I went to war to help people. But that war is over, and I think… It feels like I’m not helping, because I’m Captain America.”
“You help,” Sam says, angry on Steve’s behalf. “You help so much, Steve—”
“Not as much as you could.”
Sam opens his mouth. He closes it. He opens and closes it a couple more times before he manages to squeak: “What?”
Steve sips his coffee. “You heard me.”
“You are shitting me,” Sam says. “Please, tell me this is an elaborate joke.”
“I never joke,” Steve lies.
“You were literally just going off about what a shitty gig it is and now you’re asking if I want it?”
“If you don’t want it, we’ll come up with something else. Retire the name maybe. I’ll give the suit to the Smithsonian. Fake my death, whatever.”
“Bucky would love that, wouldn’t he,” Sam says.
“Don’t think he hasn’t suggested it, I think he and Natasha have a whole plan for how to do exactly that. But I’m serious, Sam. Do you want to be Captain America?”
Sam stares at him for a long moment, mouth opening and closing. “I don’t want to be a cliche here, but... why me?”
“You can do so much more than I can,” Steve says. “I mean I already know you’ll be good at saving people. You’re pararescue, you’re already better at that than I am. And having a non-enhanced superhero running the Avengers in this day and age? It sends the right message. And Sam…” Steve scratches his chin. “I think I’m right about this… you’ll do so much good just by standing there. Won’t you?”
There’s something very complicated happening on Sam’s face. Steve wouldn’t recognize it except that he’s extremely familiar with every single permutation of Captain America-related emotion. The fact that he and Sam have a soulbond doesn’t hurt either. At first Sam looks like he already knows the answer is yes — which implies that he has looked at his good friend Steve, and thought I should be doing that. And then he looks guilty — Steve’s still Catholic, so he knows what that looks like. And then the full weight of it visibly hits as Sam actually thinks about what it will mean to say yes. He’s been the Falcon, he’s already an Avenger, but Captain America is a whole other level of pressure and scrutiny and responsibility, and Sam knows it because he’s watched Steve carry that. Sam opens his mouth, then closes it and swallows.
“Take your time thinking about it, it’s entirely up to you,” Steve assures him. “You can say no. Part of me hopes you will, it’s not exactly something I’d wish on a friend. But, for my money, you’re the only one I’d trust with it.” Sam kinda looks like he might cry, and if he starts, so will Steve and Steve can’t have that. He takes a deep breath. “You’ll lift so many people up.”
Sam’s mouth quivers a little, but then his brows come together, like he’s thinking that through. Wait.
Steve’s mouth twitches.
Sam’s expression goes from deeply touched to deeply horrified in one second flat. “That was the most atrocious dad joke I’ve ever heard. Lift people up? Are you shitting me?”
Steve grins, eyes wide and innocent. “You’ve already lifted me up tons of times, pal.”
Bucky doesn’t read Steve’s statement until the morning after the press conference.
He couldn’t handle actually going to the press conference. All those cameras and eyes give him anxiety like no one’s business. But Sam and Natasha were both there with Steve, so Bucky knew Steve would be fine. He came back from the conference fine, a little antsy maybe. Everyone said it went fine, but Steve was twitchy and weird all evening. Natasha (playing impromptu publicist) had put him on a strict news and social media blackout until the hubbub died down. Bucky figured Steve had just been chasing himself in mental circles figuring out all the ways people were misrepresenting his words.
So, to try and keep Steve distracted, Bucky doesn’t even think about reading the statement until the morning after the conference. Early dawn light is creeping through their curtains, filling their bedroom with a soft glow, and Steve is sleeping with his mouth open and his arm under Bucky’s pillow when Bucky pulls up the transcript of Steve’s statement on his phone.
Good afternoon. I wanted to make a short statement.
“You pompous, dramatic ass,” Bucky murmurs. Steve snorts and starts to snore.
A lot of people have asked why Captain America won’t sign the Sokovia Accords. I don’t want to be misunderstood. I have worked hard with my colleagues on this document, trying to make it the best it can be.
The Avengers have put in protections for enhanced persons, and in exchange accepted limitations, and that’s good. If the Avengers can’t accept limitations, they’re no better than the bad guys. I have faith that this document will be good for the world. I don’t want anyone to think otherwise.
“Brief statement, he says. You liar.”
Steve makes a vaguely questioning sound and rolls over, throwing his arm over Bucky’s middle. Bucky rubs Steve’s arm and Steve sighs happily against Bucky’s collarbone and starts snoring again.
Bucky keeps reading.
But before I was an Avenger, I was Steve Rogers, and despite my reputation, Steve Rogers is just a guy who never really belonged anywhere. I grew up an outsider: poor and disabled and the child of immigrants. I joined the army trying to find my place and then discovered I didn’t quite fit in there either. As any one of my commanding officers will tell you, I’m not great at following orders. Which is probably why I’m still a Captain after seventy years of service.
I’m just a guy, and in working on this document, I learned that I’m the kind of guy who can’t accept the limitations laid out by the Accords. I’m not special, and I am not exempt from the rules. Anyone who can’t accept limitations has no business being an Avenger.
People call me the First Avenger. But the Avengers are bigger than me. Captain America is bigger than just one man. Maybe Steve Rogers can’t sign the Accords, but I assure you, they have the full support of my good friend, Captain America. I could not hand the title to a better successor than Sam Wilson.
Bucky turns off his phone screen and sets it aside. He turns his head a little and presses a kiss to Steve’s forehead.
“Proud of you,” Bucky whispers.
“Mm?” Steve’s still not really awake.
“Nothin’,” Bucky says, smiling. “Go back to sleep.”
A few days later, Steve brings the shield in to the Tower and offers it to Tony. “If I’m not going to sign,” he says, “then this doesn’t belong to me anymore.”
“Ugh,” Tony says. “I hate being handed things.”
“Tony,” Steve says, exasperated.
“No, I’m serious. Keep it. It’s an antique. It’s obsolete. I’m already making a new one because someone has more refined taste than you. So what would I do with that? Hang it on the wall?” Tony shudders dramatically. “No thanks. Now, if Barnes ever feels like donating his arm to science, then come talk to me.”
“Tony,” Steve says, his exasperation increasing.
“I know, I know, don’t mess with your boo, it makes your brain short-circuit.” Tony doesn’t even look up from the incomprehensible piece of machinery he’s working on. “I know how the soulmate deal works.”
The spot between Steve’s shoulders prickles a little. Pepper and Tony are still “taking a break” but Tony’s been taking positive steps towards becoming a more functional human. He hasn’t had a drink since that day at Steve’s. He’s been seeing an actual therapist instead of just hanging out on Bruce’s still empty floor. Instead of going to parties, he’s got some kind of internship program running with the local high schools. Steve keeps bumping into this kid called Peter running errands around the labs, along with some very bored-looking girl called Michelle and an even younger kid called Miles.
And Steve and Tony are on speaking terms, at least. But things are still raw, between them. They haven’t talked about that night, about what was said, and the things they haven’t said.
Something sparks under Tony’s hands. He doesn’t even flinch. “You need something else, Cap?”
“We have matching marks,” Steve blurts.
Steve can feel the flush creeping up his neck “Or. We did. Bucky and me. Perfectly matched.”
Tony looks up at him with one brow raised. “Tell me, Captain, are you familiar with the concept of TMI?”
Steve looks at a spot several feet over Tony’s head. “I’m trying to explain. When we were kids, we found out we had the exact same mark, in the exact same spot. I don’t know what the odds are on that—”
“Astronomical,” Tony tells him.
“Yeah, I figured.”
“So was there a point to you sharing this incredibly personal detail that I absolutely did not need to have?” Tony asks. “Or are you just trying to figure out what will make me uncomfortable, because let me tell you—”
“I’m trying to say that there are soulmates and then there are soulmates, and I know that you all have lots of different categories here in the future, but it doesn’t matter to me. I know soulmates. And if I didn’t realize sooner, I’m sorry about that.”
Tony’s expression goes guarded but he doesn’t say anything.
Steve grimaces a little, because this is turning into a Speech, but it can’t be helped now. “For the record, I think you and Pepper will work things out. I think you’re meant for each other. But even if things don’t work out… you’ve still got me. And… after all the blankets and repair work, you’ve got Bucky too.”
Steve can see that Tony is putting it together. Because if he and Steve are compatible, and Steve and Bucky are a perfect match — A=B and B=C, so…
“Why Steven,” Tony says, and Steve can tell that Tony is moved despite himself, because he’s about to say something really horrible to cover up the fact that he just had a feeling about it. “Are you suggesting a three way?”
Steve’s face goes beet red. “Tony!”
“Because I’m not un interested, per se—”
“That is not what I meant and you know it! I meant friends , I meant—”
“—but when I said I wanted to get a closer look at Barnes’ arm, I didn’t mean like—”
The Avengers all go to Vienna for the signing. Steve (who is no longer an Avenger) and Bucky (who could be an Avenger, but currently has no interest in becoming one) watch the coverage from home in Brooklyn. Not exactly thrilling TV, but they let it play in the background while they go about their daily. Steve wants to watch Sam’s speech.
They’re eating popcorn when he takes the stand.
“We are here today with the same goal. No matter where we’re coming from, or where we’re hoping to go, this much at least, is common ground: we want to make the world a better place.”
“Speak for yourself, I don’t give a shit,” Bucky mumbles and gets poked in the ribs. He elbows Steve without looking.
“Two years ago, I was just... a normal guy, minding my own business, doing my usual morning run when this complete idiot comes belting past me going about 900 miles an hour on his own two legs.”
Steve throws a piece of popcorn at the screen while Bucky laughs and laughs and laughs.
“Two days later, I was on my way to becoming an Avenger. Just a veteran with a some specialist training and a can-do attitude you know? I’m no supersoldier. Can’t shoot lasers outta my eyes or shrink myself, or talk to birds or anything. Just a guy and his jetpack. People call me a superhero, I don’t know about that. People tell me I’m an Avenger, which I guess I am now. But before any of that, I was just a guy, making friends with this really weird dude called Steve.”
“Yeesh, him too, huh. You’re like a vortex pal, pulling in poor bastards like us and spitting out superheroes.”
“Hush,” Steve says.
“The point is that anyone can be an Avenger. Superheroes aren’t other. We’re not the enemy. We’re just coming from a slightly different place, hoping to make the world a little better. And I think — I genuinely believe that with this document, we’re taking a step in the right direction. I know my friend Steve agrees with me. And wherever he is, I hope the old man is enjoying his retirement.”
Bucky tackles Steve then, and misses the rest of Sam’s speech to a slap fight that turns into a wrestling match that turns into a makeout session. At some point they hit the mute button and they’re just kind of lying across the couch, Bucky stretched out on Steve because he really is a cat. “So. Retirement, huh?”
“Yup,” Steve says, popping the p and completely failing to hide his burgeoning panic at the idea.
“I’ll walk you through it,” Bucky assures him. “One step at a time.”
“Till the end of the line?” Steve says, grinning.
“You corny bastard. I can’t even look at you right now, you’re disgusting.”
Eventually, they turn the sound back on just in time for the King of Wakanda to make a speech.
That’s when the UN building explodes.
v - homam: the high minded man
You are a good man with a good heart. You carry the mantle of a king on your very skin, but it is hard for a good man to be king.
- King T’Chaka
Sam chases down the bastard responsible in twenty minutes flat. He’s got a new shield Tony made him strapped over the wings, and he looks real sharp in the red, white, and blue. He takes a damn good photo too, as he’s bringing the guy in with no casualties and no stress to the local authorities.
The terrorist’s name is Zemo, and he’s Sokovian, because it seems like the Avengers will be carrying that albatross for a good while yet. Still: the first post-Accords Avengers mission goes so smoothly it might as well be on rails.
Bucky is. Disgusted.
What kind of plan was that? Blow up the UN summit, pin it on Bucky. Then what? Did he really think that Bucky — the Winter goddamn Soldier — wouldn’t have an exit strategy? Barring some Steve Rogers level superhero interference, there’s no way that the police would be able to corner Bucky. And even if, through some incredibly catastrophic series of events, they did catch Barnes, so what? Like there was a cage in the world that could hold Bucky if he didn’t want to be held. And Zemo thought he could take down the Avengers with a plan like that?
Amateur hour. Jesus.
He could forgive the guy for not realizing that the Winter Soldier wasn’t in Europe. Nat’s been laying a pretty convincing trail for him all across Romania. The facial prosthesis was okay, but that story just isn’t going to hold up if Steven Grant Rogers calls you on the phone and says: “No, Sir, your Majesty, it definitely wasn’t him. He’s been here in Brooklyn with me all day.”
It’s just a shame that a good man had to die like that, all for nothing. Bucky can see from the set of Steve’s jaw how much he hates it, how much he wishes he could do something to make it better. Bucky knows there’s nothing to be done.
After the very awkward phone call with the soon-to-be King of Wakanda, Steve calls Tony to check in with how things are going because he has never, not once in his life, been able to help himself, but he doesn’t want to bother Sam, who’s busy doing actually important things like cleanup.
“No,” Steve is telling Tony. “You could not do cleanup.” He casts a glance sideways at Bucky. It’s his patented save me from the Starks look. Bucky hides a smile behind his tablet. Those two may be soulmark-compatible, but it’s a compatibility built on how different they are, not on how the same they are.
“Ton—” Steve pauses, and pinches the bridge of his nose and waits for Stark to finish whatever mile-a-minute ramble he’s on. “T’Challa is not actually a cat, and Sam is not actually a bird, they’re gonna get along fine.” Another pause. “Well if you know that then why do you keep being a—”
Then Steve’s brows come together sharply. Bucky feels a twinge of suspicion that isn’t his and gives Steve a questioning look. Steve takes the phone away from his ear and hits speakerphone.
“Say that again,” Steve says, cutting Stark off mid-word. He sets the phone down on the kitchen island and Bucky gets up from the couch to join him there.
“Geeze I thought the serum would keep you from losing your hearing in your old age. I said,” and Stark draws the word out for several syllables, “that I could have taken the meeting myself if it weren’t for family histories, you know? His granddad, my dad, it’s all very Montagues and Capulets. Maybe Tesla and Edison? That’s not really a good comparison. There isn’t really a good comparison. Azzuri and Stark, it should be its own thing.”
Bucky frowns at Steve, who frowns back. He didn’t know that Howard even knew the previous king of Wakanda.
“What do you mean by that?” Steve asks.
“Vibranium doesn’t grow on trees, Steven,” Tony says. “Where did you think dear old dad got it?”
Steve and Bucky exchange a look across the kitchen island. They’d never really thought about that, neither of them. It was war. All they cared about was how the vibranium worked.
“Tell me,” Steve says, in that dangerous voice that means he already doesn’t like what he’s about to hear.
“He started buying up every piece of vibranium he could find when he was 21, right after Hitler yoinked Austria. He didn’t want the Nazis getting their hands on the stuff. Trouble is, official policy of Wakanda is that all vibranium outside their borders is considered stolen vibranium. They’re pretty intense about that. Before the whole Klaue/Sokovia situation, we were pretty sure that dad had gotten every scrap of vibranium in the world. So, Azzuri came to him in… ‘42? ‘43 maybe? And said ‘hey that’s mine’ and Dad said ‘finders keepers’ and freaking kept it.” Tony makes a tsking sound. “There was a very nice protest poster from the 70s with a picture of Howie boy with the Wakandan thief brand splashed across his face.”
“How did I not know this before?” Steve blurts out angrily. His hands are in fists on the countertop.
“Hey,” Tony says, just as sharp. He doesn’t respond well to people snapping at him, and Steve is nothing if not snappish. “You never asked. I assumed you knew. Dad didn’t tell you?”
“We were a little busy at the time,” Steve says. “Hitler was yeeting bombs at London, so.”
Tony barks out a laugh. “Ohhhhohoho that’s weird. Never say that again.” There’s a thunk on the other end of the line. “Listen, I gotta go do Avengers things, and since you’re not an Avenger anymore?”
“Yeah sorry, thanks for the updates, Tony.”
The line clicks off. Steve leans hard on the counter and looks up at Bucky, his eyes all blue and huge and his jaw set…
Bucky sighs, knowing exactly what’s coming.
“I need to go to Vienna,” Steve says.
“Yeah I figured,” Bucky says. He feels a little jealous. Steve can get rid of his. Bucky flexes the fingers on his metal hand. “You sure about this? He just lost his father, he probably doesn’t want to see anyone.”
“I can call and ask, right?” Steve says.
“Sure. Just respect his answer if the answer is fuck off.”
“God, Bucky of course, but…” Then Steve casts Bucky an agonized look that says I don’t want to leave you alone but you can’t come with me because you need to be where people know you are and I hate that.
Bucky rolls his eyes. “Me and Pepper will have a sleepover at the Tower, paint each other’s toenails. It’ll be fun. Don’t worry about me. Go on, do the right thing. You always do.”
T’Challa agrees (via a personal secretary of some kind) to meet with Steve the day before he is due to return to Wakanda for his father's funeral and his own coronation. He arrives at the hotel early, and gets sent right up. Outside the King’s rooms, a woman with a shaved head and a stance that reminds him strongly of Natasha gives him a cold look and says: “Who are you?”
For a minute Steve is thrown. “Steve Rogers, Ma’am. I have an appointment with King T’Challa.”
“Coronation is next week,” the lady says. She looks down at the case in his hands. “What’s in the case?”
Steve looks down at the very large and very round case in his hands. Does she not… know who he is? He opens the case and shows her. She looks extremely unimpressed. “You planning to take that in there, Captain?”
Of course she knows who he is. She’s a royal guard, she’d have been briefed even if she didn’t know him by sight. Steve nods, a little embarrassed. “Yes Ma’am. If you don’t mind. I know it’s a security risk.”
She gives him one slow, cat-like blink and smiles at him like he’s real cute. It occurs to Steve that this woman is fucking with him. He likes her. “You can leave the case.” She jerks her head at the door. “He’s expecting you.”
Steve goes on in.
The Crown Prince is standing with his back to the door, looking out at the Vienna skyline. He turns at the sound of the door opening and Steve feels an immediate surge of liking. A sense of connection —
It reminds him of the time he’d first seen Sam — and then Steve sees T’Challa’s brows go up, and Steve just… he just knows that T’Challa had the exact same reaction just now. That recognition. The connection.
Steve would not expect to have a reaction like that from anyone whose senses weren’t enhanced by, oh, say, the superserum. Or something similar.
“Captain Rogers,” T’Challa says, recovering. “It’s an honor.”
“Honor’s mine, Your Majesty,” Steve says, not quite sure whether to bow or not. He settles on a respectful little nod. “I was sorry to hear about your father. He seemed like a good man.”
“Thank you. He was,” T’Challa says. “He may not be here, but he is still with me. This I believe.”
Steve wishes he still had faith like that. These days he just misses people, and it gets no easier the older he is. “I’m glad for that,” Steve says. “I won’t intrude, but I wanted to return this,” he says, and—
He swings the shield up, holding it out between them so the battered paint and dull sheen catches the light.
“Oh is this mine?” T’Challa asks, mild but with a… certain tone. It reminds Steve of the guard out in the hall, and he wonders if he’s being fucked with again. There’s a challenge there, but there’s also amusement lurking in the corner of the Crown Prince’s mouth. “It must have been missing for some time.”
Steve ducks his head, a little sheepish, then looks up. “I don’t mean this as an excuse, but when it was given to me, I didn’t know where the vibranium came from. Now I know.”
T’Challa’s expression has gone serious. “It was war. People did things they had no business being proud of.”
“That doesn’t make it okay, but you know that. Anyway.” He takes a little breath and says: “It doesn’t seem right for me to keep it. I know this isn’t gonna make us square or anything but…” He doesn’t know how to say this. No one seems to understand. “The shield doesn’t belong to me. Not really. Sam’s got his own thing, it’s not like he needs it, or wants it. If you don’t want it, I’m sending it to the Smithsonian. But I thought… it deserves to go home?” He winces a little at how sentimental that sounds. It’s a shield. “It should be somewhere it belongs.”
T’Challa considers him, brows furrowed and brown eyes wise beyond his years. He hesitates only a moment longer before taking the shield. The weight lifts out of his hands and Steve lets out a breath.
“Thank you, Captain.”
Steve winces. “Call me Steve, please.” He clears his throat. “Well, thank you for seeing me, Your Majesty, I’ll just…”
“I am curious,” T’Challa says, as Steve starts to turn away. Steve feels caught, and turns back to find the king smiling at him, curiously. “You say the shield should be where it belongs. Where does someone like yourself belong, I wonder.”
And well. Ain’t that a kick to the head. “Huh,” Steve says, with a half smile. “Well, your majesty, in my case it’s not so much a where as a when. ” He shrugs one shoulder. Such is life. “Luckily it’s also a who with.”
T’Challa smiles and nods. “I see. And how is Sergeant Barnes?”
The surge of protectiveness that Steve feels is… not unexpected at this point. “As well as can be expected, under the circumstances,” he says, a little wary.
The king lifts a hand. “I do not mean to pry. But I was curious. You see, for many years now, my people have been having a debate. About whether we ought to join the world. This was what brought my father to the UN summit. Investigating the possibility.”
Steve feels his eyebrows go up. “I didn’t know that was on the table.”
“Nothing has been decided. It’s a complex issue. This,” he lifts the shield, “has come up on both sides of the argument.” Carefully, he lays the shield aside. It rings slightly when he places it on the coffee table. “‘Oh the vibranium will be used to make weapons of war!’ and ‘Oh, the vibranium will be used to make the world a better place!’ It’s a real conundrum.”
Steve frowns. He must be talking about the Sokovia vibranium — the vibranium that Klaue stole. Right? Does Wakanda have more vibranium than that? “I... can see how it would be, especially after Sokovia.”
T’Challa turns back to Steve. “Since long before then.” He folds his arms and regards Steve. “Since 2014, your friend has come up in that argument as well.”
“Oh?” Steve says. And then, alarm blooms in his chest. Panic. “ Oh. You know he can’t give the arm back,” he says, rapidly. “He would, if he could, but it’s wired into his spine, and he can’t—”
“Peace,” T’Challa says soothingly, lifting his hands. “That is not what I meant.”
Steve’s shoulders relax slightly. He believes this man, and he’s pretty sure he knows why.
“What I meant was, my people have been going around in circles for centuries, having this conversation with ourselves. I have been considering whether or not it is time to bring a few trusted outsiders into that conversation. Advisors, if you will, to give us new perspectives on the world we are considering becoming a part of.” He gives Steve an expectant look.
“Oh,” Steve says. His eyes widen. “ Oh. I’d be honored to help any way I can,” Steve says at once. “I’m sure Bucky would too, but I don’t know about… what exactly are you proposing, your Majesty?”
T’Challa rubs his chin. “In the bluntest terms? I am looking for people I can trust. My own people, I already know. But outside Wakanda? No one. You...” T’Challa’s expression goes canny, almost calculating. “You I trust, I think. My general would be furious to hear me say so, but I would like to invite you to come to Wakanda. More than your shield, I would appreciate your judgment. And your friend’s, as well. Between the two of you, I believe you have seen the best and the worst of what the outside world has to offer.”
Steve stares, unsure. His gut instinct is to say yes. He finds that he trusts this man too, but he’s not sure he should. And on top of that, he’s only just retired, he’d been thinking he’d have time to relax. And maybe he’d been dreading that a little, living in fear of having nothing to do, but he’d also been looking forward to it, before… well, before this whole mess happened and they had to reveal that Bucky was staying with Steve.
“Do not answer right away,” T’Challa says. “I have much to attend to in my own country, and you have much to discuss with Sergeant Barnes.”
“Yes,” Steve says. “Thank you. I’ll think about it.”
By the time Steve gets back to Bucky and Brooklyn, it’s gotten out that he’s been sheltering the Winter Soldier. Bucky’s signature on the Accords means that they can’t convict him for the crimes Hydra committed with his body, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hydra committed some pretty awful crimes with his body, and he’s gotta live with that.
He’s also gotta live with reporters outside of Steve’s door morning, noon and night.
The headlines are vicious. Of course they are. It’s not like the 21st century invented muckraking, Bucky knew this was coming. They jumped straight from “Winter Soldier is James Buchanan Barnes” to “Captain America Harboring Soviet Assassin” to “Rogers and Barnes: Soulmates?” and the inevitable “Captain America Trapped in Soulmate Bond with Violent Traitor!”
And hell, at least it’s not the queer thing — or at least now when someone brings up the queer thing a whole wave of very vocal supporters come out of the woodwork. Bucky’s not sure how he feels about all that. There’s a whole separate branch of discourse because people in “the LGBT community” are pretty disappointed that he and Steve aren’t the shiny perfect WWII Queer Icons they would’ve wanted.
It’s not his fault that HYDRA swallowed him whole. It’s not his fault that he came out the other end of it bloodsoaked but still unfortunately alive. He’s just gotten himself around to being glad that he didn’t die in that fucking ravine and now there’s all these people on both sides of the argument wishing he had.
Fuck them, honestly.
“Come on, Buck,” Steve wheedles. It’s late. Maybe it’s early. Bucky’s been awake too long to be sure. “You gotta sleep, pal.”
“I can hear them,” Bucky hisses. He’s sitting on the couch with his head in his hands, hair hanging lankly down. That’s the thing about being who and what they are: soundproofing doesn’t do much for them.
“I know. They just want pictures, and a story. They ain’t gonna hurt you.” Bucky hears him come a few steps closer to the couch. He also hears someone outside laughing.
“You don’t know that,” Bucky says, without looking up.
Steve sighs. The couch dips as he takes the seat next to Bucky. “Okay, fine, I don’t know that. But I know they’re gonna have to go through me to get to you.”
Bucky huffs. “Other way around.” He leans against Steve, then turns his head to press his face into Steve’s shoulder. “I hate this,” he mumbles.
“I wanted more time with you,” he complains. “Just us.”
“Me too,” Steve says.
The bitch of the situation is that there’s nowhere they can go where they aren’t going to be hounded by reporters. It’ll probably be months, maybe years before the frenzy dies down. And even then, it’s never going to be like it was. They’re always going to be newsworthy. Steve was Captain America. Bucky was the Winter Soldier. That’s never gonna change.
Steve puts his hand over the space between Bucky’s shoulder blades. The calm spreads through Bucky, thick and warm like taffy. He fumbles his hand up and puts it over Steve’s mark, too. They slump into each other. Steve’s chin rests on top of Bucky’s skull, and Bucky breathes in the smell of Steve’s skin.
Before the war, in Brooklyn, when Bucky touched Steve, he had said it felt like someone slowly turning up the volume under his skin, until the buzzing became unbearable and he had to do something . Bucky hadn’t really gotten that until after Azzano. After Azzano, it had been the reverse, Steve had been carrying so much — when Bucky touched him he could take a load off. And Bucky had been like a cat, only able to stand being petted for a little while before needing to go off and prowl.
For the first time in a hundred years, it feels like they’re on the same page, settled into the same groove. Despite the mess, despite the reporters, it feels like they’re both finally home, at the same time, in the same place.
“It’s worth it,” Steve says. “Isn’t it.”
“Yeah,” Bucky mumbles with his face still more than half mashed into Steve’s shoulder.
They’ve been without long enough. Bucky will put up with any amount of bullshit if it means he gets to keep Steve Rogers.
So of course Steve’s phone goes off the next goddamn morning, and that’s when they get the news about Peggy.
After the funeral, Steve drags himself into the bed at their hotel room and doesn’t drag himself out again for twelve hours. He lies there long after he’s woken up, staring at the wall and feeling like he’s waking up in 2011 all over again.
She lived a full life, he tries to remind himself. She wasn’t afraid to die, she never had been. She had her regrets, she made her peace with them, she moved on. Why can’t he? What would he have done differently? What could he have done, with more time?
He can’t help thinking back to his meeting with T’Challa. He is still with me. With Peggy, all Steve can feel is the absence.
The bed dips behind him and the covers pull back. He hears the thud of a pair of boots hitting the floor by the bed, and then a moment later, Bucky’s warm weight at his back.
“What time is it?” Steve asks.
“Doesn’t matter,” Bucky tells him. “You hungry?” he asks.
“Okay.” A gentle kiss presses against Steve’s shoulder. “You still gotta eat though. Twenty minutes until the soup is done. I can bring it to you, but you’ll feel better if you get out of bed and eat at the table. Don’t know why that works, but it does.”
Steve turns his face into the pillow. If Bucky weren’t here, would he be stuck here alone? Morbidly, Steve tries to imagine what that would be like. Would he just wallow here?
No, he knows himself. He can only allow himself to be this weak because Bucky’s here to carry him.
Steve reaches around and grabs Bucky’s metal hand, pulls it around his waist and up to his chest so Bucky has no choice but to curl in behind him. Bucky’s face nuzzles the back of Steve’s neck. Steve sighs and goes even more limp when Bucky presses a soft kiss to the back of Steve’s shirt, over his mark.
“Twenty minutes?” Steve repeats.
Steve closes his eyes and lets himself be weak for twenty more minutes.
As bad as the paparazzi in New York were, the photographers in London are a thousand times worse. It’s such a relief to be on the plane. At least there Bucky doesn’t have to be constantly tracking a dozen men with cameras clicking like cocked pistols.
But then they get back to New York and find that it’s like the American reporters have upped their game to match. They get out of the car and are immediately swarmed as they try to get to their front door.
“Captain Rogers, Captain Rogers, what did Peggy Carter think of you and Sergeant Barnes?”
“What do you think of the Senators pushing to withdraw from the Accords so they can put Sergeant Barnes on trial?”
“Captain Rogers, given the unrest in Wakanda—”
“The unrest in Wakanda?” Steve snaps, his head coming up and honing in on the reporter who had shouted that particular question.
Bucky grabs his arm before he can do anything stupider than that and pulls him into their building. He locks the door. He hears the gentle chime that means the extra security measures he and Stark installed are engaged and giving the all clear.
“What happened in Wakanda?” Steve asks.
“Internal unrest. Rogue US intelligence agent playing at being a pretender to the throne. T’Challa was supposed dead for like, six hours, maybe twelve. He took care of it.”
“What?” Steve shouts.
“T’Challa took care of it,” Bucky repeats, in a soothing voice. “He’s fine, they’re all fine.”
Steve chews his lip. “I’d have liked to help,” he mumbles.
Bucky puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder and squeezes. “Funerals are one of those times you get to call in sick. Plus? He really didn’t need your help, pal.”
In the moment of silence that follows, they both hear the paparazzi outside clicking their cameras, hoping to get a lucky shot. Bucky knows he’s going to pay for that in the morning. There will be pictures of him dragging Steve inside on every tabloid in the country. “Ex-Captain’s Abusive Lover” or something like that. Not that he and Steve have confirmed or denied anything. They just want to be left alone.
Fat chance of that.
Bucky pinches his nose and listens to the reporters outside talking excitedly.
“Sorry,” Steve says. “I know we’re not supposed to engage.”
“No, I should’ve warned you about the Wakanda thing. I just… Didn’t think any of them were smart enough to use that to get a rise out of you.” He can feel a headache building.
Steve’s palm slips into Bucky’s free hand. He squeezes gently. “Sort of hoped retirement would be more… restful.”
Bucky shakes his head. “Ain’t nothing restful for us. Makes you reconsider coming out of the ice, doesn’t it.”
It’d be funnier if it were less true.
The morning after, a small and unassuming man who is very clearly an agent of some kind knocks on their door and asks if they wouldn’t mind coming with him. Bucky looks pale as they get ready to go, but he doesn’t stash any guns or knives on his body. Steve watches him to make sure.
Before they go down to join Agent Ross, Steve grabs Bucky, reels him in for a hug, and then kisses him square on the mouth, holding his face between his two big hands. “The Accords protect us too,” he says. The protections apply to everyone equally, whether they signed the thing or not. The Avengers agreed to enforce those protections, that’s part of the deal.
“And more importantly, we’ll kill anyone who tries to separate us,” Bucky adds.
“Yeah, and that,” Steve agrees.
But Agent Ross just brings them to a nice hotel suite and it turns out that T’Challa is there, looking a little tired, but pleased to see them. “I hope you will forgive the subterfuge, Captain, Sergeant. I am told that I need to get better at keeping a low profile.”
In the background, Steve sees Agent Ross make a face as he lets himself out.
“It’s fine,” Steve says.
Bucky is standing just behind Steve, and his eyes are scanning all around the apartment. He doesn’t say anything, but that’s not exactly unusual.
“I hear you had some trouble in Wakanda?” Steve says. “The reports were a little confused. I’m glad to see you’re alright.”
“Yes,” T’Challa smiles thinly. “The reports of my death were somewhat premature.”
Steve elbows him, because he’s a king, Bucky, geeze.
“Sorry,” Bucky says. “Welcome to the club, though,” he adds, because he’s a little shit.
Steve adores him.
T’Challa is already laughing. “You—you I like,” he says to Bucky.
Bucky is actually smiling, which is pretty unusual for Bucky. It makes Steve just that little bit more sure, but there’s no point thinking about it right now. He’s always had to let this stuff play out naturally.
“Did the Captain tell you about my request, back in Vienna?” T’Challa asks.
“He may have mentioned something about it, yeah. I’d be happy to give my two cents on what people do with vibranium…” He flexes the arm a little. “I gotta tell ya, I’d give you the whole damn arm back if I could—”
“We could help you with that,” T’Challa says, very calm and confident. “If you want.”
Bucky stares. He and Steve exchange a look. Wakanda is a mysterious place, yes, very remote. He’s sure it’s lovely, but if all of Stark’s horses and all of Stark’s men couldn’t get Bucky’s arm off, he’s not sure what a nation best known for their skill with textiles could do…
T’Challa lifts a finger, like he knows what they’re thinking. “Come to Wakanda with me,” he says, smirking a little. “I think we will surprise you.”
He ain’t wrong about that.
vi - lupus: the wolf
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies, the soulmarks we all carry were written with ink brewed in the hearts of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
- Carl Sagan
“Holy cow,” Bucky says, when they get on the little plane that’s quieter, faster, and more invisible than a quinjet.
“Holy cow,” Bucky says, when T’Challa brings them through the dome to fly over Birnin Zana.
“Holy cow,” Bucky says, when their tour ends in a lab run by (yet another) tiny genius.
“We don’t have any of those,” Shuri tells him. “Only Holy Panthers, Rhinos, Crocodiles, and Gorillas. If you want holy cows, you’re going to have to visit the Fulani.”
Bucky looks more than a little in love. It takes about two minutes for Shuri to offer him a job as a lab assistant. Steve has to hide his smile.
Meanwhile, Steve’s got a job of his own.
He spends more than half his time sitting and listening in on council meetings, and never speaking until the moment when all of the council turns to look directly at him and someone asks a question about the UN, or America’s history, or what he thinks of the current state of political affairs. Sometimes Steve gets a little moment of vertigo where he feels 5 foot 4 again, but then it all rights itself and he speaks. After working on the Accords, he really is an expert on international law now, with an unofficial specialty in how the law interacts with enhanced persons. Turns out that’s a real hot commodity here in Wakanda.
Agent Ross is frequently there, but he does still work for the US government, and sometimes they want him somewhere else, so Steve ends up being the main consultant for the Wakandan throne as they negotiate the terms of their joining the world.
Before they know it, Steve and Bucky have an apartment in Birnin Zana. There’s a little park by the lake where they like to go jogging and then splash their feet in the water. Bucky’s made friends with a lady who lives next to the park and has really unmanageable goats.
Bucky gets to be really good friends with Shuri, and through her, Ramonda, which leads to Steve and Bucky getting an invite to the King’s wedding when he and Nakia decide to tie the knot.
Steve’s just about to start panicking because he doesn’t have anything nice to wear when Ramonda pulls him aside and explains that Wakandan weddings aren’t like that. There will be a formal event eventually, so the people of Wakanda have a chance to celebrate with their king and new queen. This is just a personal celebration, for family and friends, and it’s all very informal.
Wakandans (like the Ancient Egyptians, according to Bucky) don’t have a wedding ceremony in their religion; a couple is considered to be married when they move in together.
After moving the eighth heavy box of the morning, Steve begins to suspect that he’s been invited for his muscles more than his closeness to the royal family.
T’Challa and Nakia are having an extremely fond argument about where the new sofa should go when Steve notices a stranger standing in the doorway, holding a box from the moving van. His hair is short on the sides and back, longer on top with locs falling across his forehead. His skin is a shade or so paler than Nakia’s, but he also has the unmistakable air of someone who’s been ill. Very very ill. Steve knows the look.
There’s something about the way he stands that makes Steve’s brain go threat, but there’s something in his expression that reminds Steve so viscerally of Bucky that he kind of unconsciously seeks Bucky out with his eyes. Bucky’s with Shuri, who has a panel on his arm open. Again.
Then T’Challa sees the newcomer, breaks off the argument and practically vaults over the couch. Steve sees Bucky go a little tense, feels himself go a little tense, sees Okoye go very tense, but T’Challa’s scolding voice is full of concern, not anger.
“What are you doing?” he says, taking the box. “You should not be carrying things, I didn’t think you were even allowed out of bed yet!”
“Nah I’m good,” New Guy says, his accent clearly American. “Didn’t want to uh. Miss things. Hi,” he says awkwardly to the rest of the group.
Some of them say hi back.
Many of them do not.
“Nephew,” Ramonda says, a little frostily.
So this is N’Jadaka — the infamous usurping cousin. The one who nearly killed T’Challa. The one T’Challa saved from the brink of death, much to the dismay of Okoye. Steve still doesn’t know why T’Challa did that. Mercy is great and all, but it’s something else entirely to invite the guy who tried to kill you to your wedding.
He doesn’t look much like a trained killer. He just looks tired. And sad.
“Hey auntie,” he says, very quiet and subdued. “T’Challa, Nakia. Just wanted to uh. Stop by and say congrats and all.” He waves vaguely to the door with a heavily implied and now I’ll be on my way sorry for making this awkward.
“Stay,” T’Challa insists.
“Stay,” Nakia adds, from the other side of the room.
Okoye visibly Does Not Agree but says nothing.
“Come, cousin, meet my friends.”
T’Challa pulls N’Jadaka into the room, towing him along. Poor kid looks deeply uncomfortable as T’Challa makes introductions with one hand on his shoulder. He keeps fidgeting, pulling his sleeves down over his hands and hunching his shoulders in.
“What’s he thinking?”
Steve jumps. He didn’t hear Bucky coming over, but there he is, right at Steve’s side. “Jesus, Buck, what the hell?”
Bucky’s icy pale eyes are on the newcomer. “Keeping him alive is a rookie mistake,” he says, low and quiet.
Steve shakes his head. “It’s a show of faith.”
Bucky gives him a sidelong look. “It’s something you would do,” he adds.
Steve returns the look. “Think I did, soldier.”
Bucky scoffs and rolls his eyes. “Like I said. Stupid.”
Steve hooks an arm around Bucky, and Bucky makes that wet-cat face that he always makes when Steve is affectionate in public. He likes it, secretly, Steve knows. But he has to make the wet cat face otherwise folks will forget that he’s the world’s most deadly assassin. “It’s different though,” Steve muses.
Bucky makes a grumpy, questioning sound.
Steve watches N’Jadaka trying to make himself smaller, standing between T’Challa and Nakia with his hands shoved way down in his pockets. He looks uncertain, which doesn’t exactly match up with what Steve’s heard about the guy.
Is this the same guy who single handedly destabilized and took over the most technologically advanced nation in the world with a plastic bag full of dead criminal? What the hell happened to him to turn him from that guy into this guy with his shuffling steps and his wary eyes? That guy had been tireless, relentless, focused, convinced that he was doing right, and well… that’s the thing, isn’t it?
Steve tips his head from one side to the other. “He's dangerous, but he wasn’t wrong, either.”
He can practically feel Bucky cringing a little at that, because they both know that’s the big difference. What Bucky was made to do, all those years, it wasn’t his fault, but it was still wrong. Fact that it wasn’t his fault makes it more wrong. Steve squeezes Bucky’s shoulders a little.
“His methods were pretty shitty,” Bucky says.
“So were some of ours,” Steve points out. “Even back in the day. It’s not like the Howlies were beacons of fair play and righteousness. Guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines doesn’t exactly lend itself to—”
“Yeah, but we were making those choices with everyone else, not for everyone else.”
“I know some Nazis who’d probably disagree with you, if they were alive,” Steve says mildly. “I’m pretty sure we didn’t consult with them before we made the choice to shoot them.”
“Asshole. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” Steve does, and squeezes a little, pulling Bucky in under his arm. With everyone else, for him and Bucky, meant the Howlies, and Peggy. Their soulmates — their first soulmates. Every time Steve thinks he’s done missing them, he’s wrong.
But that’s not the point — the point is that when he was staring down the barrel of a difficult decision, he had more than his own moral compass to consult. He could check his findings with someone — with a whole passel of someones that he trusted. It wasn’t a unilateral decision. And with the Avengers later, it was the same thing, even before he knew that they were soulmates. And on an even grander scale, that’s what the Accords are all about. Trying to ensure that people are making decisions with each other, not for each other.
Steve shakes his head a little. “Doesn’t change the fact that he had a point. He knew it. T’Challa and Nakia know it too.” Steve’s getting to see firsthand the kind of aid that Wakanda can give, the kind of good they can do now because T’Challa and Nakia were wise enough to recognize that N’Jadaka had a good point.
“That doesn’t make it less of a rookie mistake.” Bucky gives him a Look. It’s his Your Ideals Are Very Nice But We Live In The Real World Look.
“I’m sure T’Challa has good reason to trust N’Jadaka,” Steve says stoutly. Even if he can’t quite figure what they are just now.
They go to the formal, royal wedding too, a few weeks later — and N’Jadaka is there too.
Bucky gets a haircut — or, well, he gets Steve to cut his hair, like they used to back in the thirties, because no one around here knows what to do with hair like Bucky’s. Bucky wasn’t sure about it at first, but the thought of going to a royal wedding with his Winter Soldier hair felt wrong. And something feels right about watching the long locks falling to the tiles.
Steve’s face goes from intent concentration to an achingly sweet nostalgia as Bucky’s hair goes back in time. The sap spends a long time just running his fingers through the shorter locks. Bucky allows it, patiently, even though every minute Steve fiddles with his hair is another minute Bucky’s going to have to spend wrestling with products to get it looking halfway respectable.
And then Steve says Buck… in that sweet, soft way he gets sometimes, and they get… a little distracted. For… a while. They’ve still got time to make time. So why not?
After that, Bucky borrows Steve’s razor and gives himself an extra close shave, and then the two of them put on their three piece suits and hurry down to the front of the palace, where the ceremony will be held.
Steve’s hair is a little mussed in back from having Bucky’s metal fist in it. He discreetly smoothes it a bit.
There’s a huge open space in front of the palace doors, a courtyard area like an amphitheater. Crowds are gathered at the edges, the people of Wakanda singing and dancing in a way that Bucky’s never seen before. The rhythm makes him want to tap his shoes. Steve catches him doing it and grins, but they don’t dance. They don’t know the steps, after all.
They stand to one side with Ross and the other guests who aren’t quite Wakandan. They’re situated behind and off to the side of the amphitheater area. Closer in are the royal families of the other tribes — even M’Baku and the Jabari are there, taking the place of honor recently vacated by the Border Tribe.
The ceremony is presided over by Ramonda, and a young fella Bucky doesn’t know who’s apparently “Uri, Son of Zuri.” The whole thing is long and involved and Bucky doesn’t speak enough Wakandan to really follow it.
But at the culmination, the King and his new Queen stand before the doors of the palace — now their home — and shrug off their mantles.
Bucky sees, for the first time, why they both seem so fond of high-necked robes. Nakia’s soulmark is a huge stormcloud across her shoulders. It’s a shade darker than her dark skin, heavy with the hope of rain. She looks like she’s carrying in on her back, like the weight of it might hold her down, but she stands tall and easy under the burden.
T’Challa’s soulmark is also a splash of black across his back and shoulders, speckled with paler spots, like a panther’s pelt—
Or like a night sky smeared with stars. And at least one of those spots is between his shoulders.
It occurs to Bucky that that’s what he’s seen peeking out from Shuri’s undercut when she wears her hair up: a darker mark, speckled with lighter patches, all across her scalp.
Stars, like Steve’s. A whole field of them, like Stark’s night sky, like Pepper’s galaxy, like…
Bucky wonders how far it goes. Back in his and Steve’s day, the odds of finding even one soulmate were pretty slim. It was weird enough to find the Howlies. And now Steve’s got all these people, a network of folks all around the globe. More soulmates than Stevie will know what to do with.
It makes Bucky smile to himself. He glances over at Steve and exchanges a look. Steve jerks his chin a little, raises his brows.
Bucky follows his look and sees N’Jadaka standing there with Shuri — a place of honor, for family, and close friends. He’s wearing Wakandan style robes, and for once his arms are bare.
His mark is like T’Challa’s — the dark smear and the lighter spots, but marred by small, precise scars that look ritualistic to Bucky. Instead of carrying it across his shoulders, it’s on his forearms, rising up to cover his biceps too.
Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve.
“Runs in the family, huh?” Bucky says softly, as T’Challa and Nakia kiss and T’Challa’s cousin stands by, watching.
“Guess so,” Steve says, sounding a little dazed.
Bucky wonders if Steve is thinking back to their childhood. Steve had always been a little sore about how he and his ma had such different marks. Some families had soul bonds tying them as well as family bonds — though Buck figured that was probably as much curse as blessing. There was no hiding from your soulmates and sometimes you wanted to be able to hide from your family.
Steve shakes his head a little, wonderingly. “I guess that’s why he’s got such faith in the guy, huh.” Then he frowns.
So maybe Steve is thinking about how N’Jadaka had tried to kill most of the people standing around him now. Maybe he’s wondering what it would do to you, trying to kill a soulmate, thinking — however briefly — that you’d succeeded.
It’s not just like killing a part of yourself. It literally is murdering a piece of yourself. That’ll change you in ways you don’t expect.
Bucky doesn’t have to wonder about that. He knows.
“I guess so,” he agrees.
One day Steve gets out of a council meeting and goes looking for Bucky, as usual. He finds him in the lab, chatting — not with Shuri, but with N’Jadaka.
Bucky’s got his arms crossed over his chest, and he’s wearing his Serious Talking and Listening face. (Despite what one might assume, Steve learned that face from Bucky, not the other way around.) N’Jadaka is shaking his head, face twisted up in a way Steve recognizes. Steve backpedals, not wanting to intrude, and tries not to listen in, but… well. His hearing is real good.
“Yeah but you've seen it,” N'Jadaka is saying. “What it's really like out there. You know. All this… talking, and outreach, it's Band-Aids, man. It doesn't change shit.”
And now Steve listens a little harder, worried despite himself.
“Maybe not,” Bucky says, in a voice that’s… borderline Winter Soldier in how emotionless it is.
“That’s it?” N’Jadaka says, not doing much to hide his outrage. “Jesus, why the fuck did I even—”
“Hey. You came to me, pal,” Bucky says mildly. “So what if you’re right, maybe the talking won’t change anything, but maybe it will, and if it does, no one has to die. Killing someone is about the only mistake you can never take back. I know you know that.”
Another long silence. They all know that N’Jadaka is plenty experienced with killing people. Steve’s seen the Dora all but hissing at him as he passes. If they were any less dedicated to the King, N’Jadaka wouldn’t have lasted a week. Shuri still only barely tolerates his presence in her lab. Barely.
“But if it changes things, ain’t that worth it?” N’Jadaka says, which makes Steve’s whole body go a little tense with wariness, but...
Steve’s heard a lot of Villainous Declarations in his time. From Red Skull’s ‘ we have left humanity behind’ to Ultron’s ‘peace in our time,’ Steve knows the sound of a fella about to give global domination a whirl. N’Jadaka doesn’t sound like any of them. He just sounds… tired.
“Oh yeah, killing changes things alright,” Bucky says, and there’s a bitterness in his voice that Steve’s never heard before. “Changes the whole fucking world. I changed the world for seventy years. It was a real gas.” Steve picks up the faint rasp of Bucky scrubbing his metal palm over his stubbly cheek. “Mostly it just changed me.”
Steve puts his fist over his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut.
Bucky sighs. “You should talk to T’Challa. He’s your soulmate, right? He’s family.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, slow and dawning, like he’s getting it. “That’s why you came to me. Because he’s a good guy… And there are things you don’t want him to know.”
Bucky sounds like he understands that particular line of reasoning from personal experience, and doesn’t Steve feel that like a knife to the heart?
A mumbled yeah, so quiet even Steve can barely hear it.
“Well, believe me, I get that,” Bucky says.
And for the first time Steve finds himself wondering — hard as it was to be Captain America, how hard was it to be Captain America’s soulmate? It was a hell of a standard for Steve to live up to, but it’s never occurred to Steve that it had to be a hell of a standard for Bucky to live up to. How many times has the sticky tar feeling of his own inadequacy been shared? How long have they been passing that feeling back and forth between them, with no end in sight?
N’Jadaka’s voice, hushed and urgent now: “I don’t know how to talk to T’Challa about this shit.”
“There’s no how about it. It’s gonna suck, but you still have to do it. Even if you say it wrong, he’ll understand.”
“I don’t know enough about this shit to give you good advice on how to win this fight. If you need me, if the King needs me, I’ll be there, but I’m old man, you know?” That self deprecating twist, familiar. They aren't as old as their birth certificates say — except when they are. “I’m kinda done with fighting.” A pause. “Ain’t you done fighting, kid?”
“I don’t know,” N’Jadaka says, and Steve remembers answering a different question the same way. N’Jadaka sucks in a breath, slow, and lets it out fast. “How do you know? If the fight’s not over, I should be out there, right? Atonement or redemption or whatever, I gotta—”
“Kid,” Bucky says. “That kind of thinking is just another thing to carry. You’re carrying enough.”
Steve backs away further, and wonders how many times Bucky has told that to himself.
Later, over dinner at their apartment in the city, Steve asks: “So how’s N’Jadaka doing?”
People sometimes forget that Bucky is just as quick on the uptake as Steve is. He makes a face. “Ah. So. You did come by the lab today.”
“I didn’t want to intrude,” Steve says.
“So ya eavesdropped instead?”
“How’s he doing?” Steve repeats, refusing to be shamed for this. Eavesdropping hurts no one, and he wouldn’t have listened at all if he hadn’t heard the phrase ‘it’s Band-Aids,’ which gave him chilly flashbacks to Alexander Pierce — and actually that kind of made sense, given that Pierce had run the CIA for a while.
Bucky puts a chunk of Wakandan lamb in his mouth and chews for a long time, thinking. Steve knows better than to interrupt.
“He’s been trying to make it up to Shuri,” Bucky says. “For, you know, throwing her brother off a cliff, and almost killing her, and… the rest of it. She’s not making it easy on him. And he’s trying to help T’Challa and Nakia with the mission, but they’re… you know. Together. And disgustingly happy. And he’s in a foreign country. He speaks the language, he knows the customs, but it ain’t home. Yet. Given the givens, he’s doing real well.”
“Should we be worried about him?” Steve says, and he can hear that he’s got the Captain America voice on, a little. So sue him, there’s an ex-rogue-CIA-agent in the palace and Steve is protective of all his friends, and T’Challa is one of those friends.
“Nah,” Bucky says. “I mean, yeah, but not like you mean. Trying to kill a soulmate really takes it out of you.”
Steve’s heart twists, just a little. He’s remembering the feeling of that fist in his face, but also that feeling — even before he knew it was Bucky — that killing the Soldier would be killing a piece of himself. “Takes it out of you?” he says, a little wry.
Bucky nods. “The fight,” he clarifies. “It takes the fight out of you.”
N’Jadaka is actually a real smart guy, which makes sense to Bucky. He and Shuri are related after all — soulmates, in a tangential kind of way. He’s got a way of coming at a problem like a charging elephant until he hits something he can't move. Then he turns into a real snake.
It reminds Bucky of The Soldier, and Bucky means that in the nicest way he can. When the Soldier got a target, he would find a way to kill it, and if it didn't work, he would try to find another way to kill it, and if that didn't work, he would find another way until something stuck. N'Jadaka has a similar kinda philosophy.
So when Bucky gets stuck on a project he’s helping Shuri with, he goes looking for N’Jadaka to bounce some ideas off. It's an engineering project, prosthetics work. N'Jadaka has his own engineering degree, and they're both real familiar with the ways that Vibranium interacts with human biology.
He's thinking about how to solve the feedback problem when he knocks on N'Jadaka's door and doesn't immediately get an answer. He’s pretty sure N’Jadaka is in there, but…
“Griot?” Bucky calls to the ever-present palace AI.
“Yes, Sergeant Barnes?” it replies.
“Is N'Jadaka…” Bucky pauses, trying to think how to phrase it. “Okay to receive guests?” Bucky's well aware that some days you just don't want anyone to bother you. Some days you just can't have people in the room.
There's a moment of pause as Griot processes this. “I believe he just didn't hear you, Sergeant.”
“Will you let him know I'm—”
Before he can finish that sentence, the door to N’Jadaka's quarters open. The kid himself is standing there, wearing a—
“Sorry man, I was watching the game, I didn't hear you.”
“Is that a baseball jersey?” Bucky asks, staring at the shirt.
N'Jadaka looks down at himself. “Yeah.”
“You're watching a baseball game?”
N'Jadaka shifts his weight, then shrugs. “Yeah?”
“Who’s your team?” Bucky asks, scrunching his nose in query at the bright yellow shirt with it’s green embroidered A. The Philadelphia A’s logo had been like that, but white and purple—
“The A’s,” N’Jadaka says, then clarifies: “The Oakland Athletics.”
“The Oakland Athletics?” Bucky sighs in exasperation. “Why can't teams just stay in one fucking place.”
N’Jadaka’s eyebrows go up. “What?”
Bucky ignores this. “Are they any good?”
“Honestly?” N'Jadaka raises a hand, wobbles it in the air. “Not as good as they used to be. But not bad either.”
“Alright. Stay put. I'm gonna go get Steve.”
“Hold up. What?”
“Unless you don't want company, but there's no way I'm missing out on the chance to watch baseball with someone who actually cares about baseball. Do you know how rare that is in this century?”
“Way to make me feel like an old man.”
“Welcome to the club.”
By the time the next inning starts, they're all three parked in front of the projected game. The Oakland A’s are playing against the Yankees, which just makes it better. Bucky and Steve still hate the Yankees. It’s the kind of feeling that doesn’t go away easy.
Bucky stares at N'Jadaka and Steve arguing strategy and statistics and batting averages and yeah, it's tempting to just roll with it, to just let it be, and pretend that they’re in some alternate universe version of 1938 but he has to ask:
“Seriously though, I thought nobody under the age of 50 liked baseball anymore.”
“It's a perfectly good game!” Steve protests.
“I was not asking you, Steve,” Bucky says.
N'Jadaka chuckles and shakes his head. “Baseball’s not always my thing, but I like the A's. I remember watching the ‘89 World Series with my old man and my mom? It's one of my earliest memories, and the A's won. Beat the Giants. It was a big deal. I think it was the first sports thing that I really got into, you know? I was like four, barely had any idea what was going on, but I still knew it was important.”
Bucky nods, then kicks Steve. “You remember that game we went to in... God, whenever it was. We snuck in, and it was the Dodgers versus the Yankees, and—”
“God,” Steve groans. “We got our asses handed to us, and after all that talk about how that was gonna be our year. The shame of it.”
Bucky laughs and nods. “Yeah, that’s the one.”
“—Start a fight with some Yankees fans? You sure did, pal. And after they beat us fair and square."
“They had all the money, what’s fair and square about that?”
N’Jadaka is grinning, and looks more relaxed than Bucky's ever seen him. “How disappointed were you two when you woke up in the future and found out about the Dodgers?”
Bucky and Steve groan in unison, clutching their hearts.
“Fury took me aside and explained it personally,” Steve says. “Frankly that was the only part of me waking up that they handled well.”
“I still haven't recovered,” Bucky admits. “I can't even — fucking L. A.? Seriously?" He groans again, letting his head fall back. “What a travesty.”
“Brooklyn's got a basketball team now,” N’Jadaka says. “The Nets. But they used to play in Jersey.”
Steve and Bucky make identical stinkfaces.
“You might like them!” N’Jadaka protests. “We’ll watch it when the season starts. Who knows, maybe you two can learn to like a more modern sport."
“What about hockey?” Bucky says. “I like hockey.”
“I know. It's not your fault,” Steve says soothingly. “You were brainwashed by Russians.”
When the game is over and they part ways, N'Jadaka says: “Hey, you two... thanks.”
“You're the one who let us watch baseball on your TV,” Bucky points out. Steve pushes his hand over Bucky's face.
“He means you're welcome. And thanks, N’Jadaka. It's been a while since we've had anyone to talk baseball with.”
“Call me Erik,” the kid says. He makes a face. “At least, when we're watching baseball.”
“Sure,” Bucky says. “No problem.”
They wave and part ways. The door closes behind them.
They’re halfway down the hall when Bucky nudges Steve with his elbow. “Good?” he asks.
Steve nods. “He's kind of a fish out of water here, too, isn't he.”
“Not really Wakandan, not really American...” Bucky shrugs. “It's a tough way to live.”
“We should do Thanksgiving this year,” Steve blurts. “Is that too corny?”
“C’mon, Thanksgiving wasn't even a thing when we were kids.”
“It was a thing when he was a kid.”
Bucky considers. “Do they even have turkey here?”
“Eh, we’ll figure something out.” Steve elbows him. “This is good, right?”
“For him to have someone to talk to? I mean, aside from T’Challa and Nakia and the rest of ‘em…” Bucky shrugs. “Probably.”
“I mean for you.”
“Yeah, sure,” Bucky says, shrugging his shoulders unevenly. “I mean you can't be the only one of us with bonus soulmates, right?”
It takes Bucky a few seconds to realize that Steve has stopped dead in the hall. He turns back to face Steve and gives him a quizzical look. Steve is already giving him an equally quizzical look.
“What?” Bucky asks.
“What do you mean?" Steve says.
Bucky shrugs again. “I mean, you got a lot of soulmates. Even by modern standards, I think. You got, what... all of the Avengers. You had all the Howlies. Now there's T’Challa and Nakia — I know you and her have a standing coffee-and-social-justice-issues friend-date.”
“We don't drink coffee, the coffee industry is bad for the environment.”
Bucky sighs. “Of course you don't.”
“They're your soulmates too, Bucky,” Steve insists.
Bucky scoffs. “No they're not. Sam, maybe, but—”
“Yes they are,” Steve insists. “You and I have the same mark, Bucky. And if we do, then you've got the same potential with all of them that I do.”
“Potential isn't a bond, though,” Bucky says. “It's not just the mark that matters, you've got to put in the work. I barely know most of the Avengers.”
“Potential matters too. If the potential is there, then... then you're not alone.”
Bucky can’t quite meet Steve’s eye. “I know I'm not alone.”
Steve gives him a narrow look, like he's deciding whether or not to believe that statement.
“I know,” Bucky repeats, more firmly. “I've got you.”
“You've got other people too. If you think Natasha wouldn't kill for you, you're fooling yourself.”
Bucky scoffs again. “She'd kill for a good plate of nachos. I don't take it to heart, you know?”
“A good plate of nachos is hard to come by,” Steve says loftily.
Bucky elbows him, and Steve hits back, punching Bucky in the bicep. They tussle the rest of the way back to their rooms.
Steve finds Erik hanging around more and more as time goes on. It’s odd, but not unwelcome. The kid’s got more issues than National Geographic, and for some reason, Bucky is the one he feels he can talk to about it. They’ve maybe got some similar stuff on their consciences. Sure, Erik wasn’t brainwashed by Nazis, but Bucky has hinted to Steve that his HYDRA “training” bears some horrifying similarities to the “training” Erik got.
That information had filled Steve to the brim with formless, senseless, protective rage. Not just that people had hurt Bucky, he already knew that, and had plenty of rage about it too. This was rage on Erik’s behalf. And it wasn’t even just that he’d suffered at the hands of the American Government. Heck, Steve had suffered at the hands of the American Government. Bucky certainly had.
No, this was different. It was like—like someone had come after his—his kid or something. Which, upon reflection, is a little embarrassing, since Erik is — biologically at least — only three years younger than Steve.
Except that Erik is much younger than them. Not in years, but in his… journey, for lack of a better word. Steve doesn’t want to say it’s like having a kid, because Erik isn’t their kid, obviously, but there’s a definite… mentor-student dynamic developing between him and Bucky.
Which isn’t to say that N’Jadaka can’t talk to T’Challa and Nakia. Whatever stumbling block was keeping him from talking to them, he seems to have gotten past it. Even Shuri and Ramonda are less frosty towards him. They’re working it out. Of course they are. They’re soulmates. They’re the people he can talk about his future with.
Bucky’s the guy Erik can talk about his past with. In the end, Bucky and Erik both two kids from the wrong side of town who got chewed up and spat out by war. They’re both learning how not to default to violence. They both saw things they shouldn’t have seen and did things they wish they’d never done.
“It’s kinda nice,” Bucky admits one day as they’re getting ready for bed.
Steve can’t answer because he’s brushing his teeth, but he gives Bucky a questioning look in the mirror. Bucky quirks half a smile.
“He’s got a long way to go before he can get home, right?”
That’s what they’d been talking about when Bucky went all quiet and thoughtful. The long way home from war, and whether N’Jadaka is going to be able to make it. In some ways, he’s been at war as long as they have. Longer, probably. The street fights in 1930s Brooklyn ain’t got nothing on the shit that happened in 1990s Oakland.
Steve nods, says “mhm?” as best he can around his toothbrush.
Bucky’s still smiling. “So it’s nice to look back and help someone on the same road. Nice to see how far I’ve come too. I remember when I was as angry as him, you know? Well, I guess you do know.”
Steve chuckles and nods, then freezes. He catches his own eyes in the mirror. They look wide, alarmed. The feeling bubbling up in him shows on his face before he can name it. Surprise.
Steve realizes he can’t remember the last time he felt angry. Not that he hasn’t been angry on Erik’s behalf, but it’s not like it used to be. Not at all.
Bucky is laughing at him like he knows. Since Steve can feel Bucky’s amusement creeping in at the edges of his own chest, there’s a good chance that Bucky does know what Steve was thinking.
Steve spits out his toothpaste. “Ha ha ha,” he grumbles. “So I guess this isn’t the first time you’ve done this song and dance huh?”
“Figure it won’t be the last.” Bucky leans in and presses a kiss against Steve’s temple, then turns and leaves the bathroom. Steve watches his back, the red star there between his flesh shoulder and the metal one.
But the thought sticks with him as they keep getting ready for bed.
When did he stop being angry? He’d been angry from the time he was born. He was angry long after he met Bucky, long after the serum too. Anger had been the fire that kept him from staying down, he’d thought. Righteous fury is kind of his hallmark.
When did it drain away? And if he isn’t angry anymore, then what’s left? Why doesn’t he feel empty?
Bucky spoons in behind him and Steve pulls his arm up like a favorite stuffed animal. Bucky’s sleepy breaths huff against the back of his neck. Steve basks a little in the feeling, like he’s wrapped up in Bucky. He doesn’t think he’d ever be able to be this vulnerable with anyone else, but this…
Maybe he’s just happy now. Maybe he can just be happy. Maybe he doesn’t have to be anything else.
Still. The thought keeps him awake, chasing itself around his skull and making him fidgety long after Bucky’s breaths have evened out and he rolled away.
Who is Steve Rogers without his anger? Who is he when he’s at peace? It feels weird to be happy, just happy, with no imminent threat hanging over their heads. Steve doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, without the background hum of when will the next mission be? hovering on the edge of his consciousness.
It’s the first night of many like that.
“Come on, Steve,” Bucky mumbles into his pillow, reaching out in the dark and smushing his palm over Steve’s face. “You gotta sleep, pal.”
They’re lying in the dark but Steve’s not sleeping and Bucky can tell. Steve’s had insomnia off and on all their lives, but it’s been particularly bad lately.
Steve tugs Bucky’s hand down and kisses it. “Sorry. M’I keepin’ you awake?”
“I swear sometimes I can actually hear you thinking.” He can’t — even a bond as strong as theirs doesn’t really work like that — but Steve’s insomnia is an antsy feeling that doesn’t belong in Bucky’s head.
Bucky sighs heavily and turns his face. He only has one eye open, glaring balefully at Steve. “You just what,” he says flatly.
Steve blinks at him, eyes wide and pale in the dark. “I just… I keep thinking, what’s gonna happen next?” Steve says.
“Well hopefully at least one of us will get some damn sleep,” Bucky grumbles.
“But then I think…” Steve swallows and fixes his eyes on the ceiling. If Bucky didn’t know better he’d say Steve was scared. “What if the answer is… nothing, you know?”
“What a tragedy,” Bucky says. “No disasters. No life threatening catastrophes. What will we do. Oh no.”
Steve’s throat bobs. Bucky feels the tiny edge of anxiety like it’s curling through him, but it isn’t. He picks his head up, pushes up onto his elbows.
“Shit,” he says, marveling. “You actually think that, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry.” Steve gives him a miserable kicked-puppy look. “I know you don’t—”
“You seriously telling me that you can’t sleep because you’re scared there won’t be another apocalypse?”
“I feel like they’re putting me on the shelf, Buck.”
Bucky squints so hard his eyes squeeze completely closed. “You put yourself on the…” He frowns, shakes his head, and fails to come up with a better, less rhyme-y way to end the sentence. “...shelf.”
Steve glares over, all defensive and prickly like he’s 5’4” again. “This isn’t a joke.”
Bucky groans and drops his head, face down. “It’s the damn apartment all over again,” Bucky tells his pillow.
“You know what I mean, Buck—”
“Puttin’ me on the shelf he says,” Bucky mumbles. “Like it wasn’t his choice to put the shield down, like it wasn’t his decision—”
“—Am I supposed to just do nothing? Just keep doing nothing—”
“—Like it wasn’t the best damn idea he’s had since 1937,” Bucky continues, a little louder, talking over him.
“—doing nothing indefinitely?” Steve says, finishing his thought. His voice is finally showing the shrill edge of panic that Bucky already feels from him.
Bucky picks up his face. “Would that be so bad?”
“Come on, what’s the point of all this—” he waves expansively at himself, the breadth of him, the heroic bulk, “—if not to help?”
Bucky scoffs in disbelief. “Oh I don’t know, pal, enjoy the sunshine? Pick flowers to put in your soulmate’s cute fucking hair?” Bucky waves at his head, where his hair is just starting to get long enough to braid again. “Just turn air into CO2?” He glares. “Are you seriously asking me what’s the point of being healthy if not to throw yourself under a bus?”
“Well when you say it like that it sounds stupid,” Steve mumbles, looking down at his big hands fiddling with the embroidery on the blanket.
“That’s cuz it is stupid, pal. Jesus.” Bucky pushes up and twists around to sit properly. “Steve—”
“I became Captain America so I could right wrongs, if there’s anything we’ve learned from being here — from T’Challa, from Sam, from Erik, it’s that there’s still a helluva lot of wrongs in the world that need—”
“—fixing,” Bucky agrees. “You’re right, but not from us, not like that. Look, If you’re on the shelf, it’s because you don’t use a chainsaw to put in a nail. Bringing you to every single battle is like… breaking up a bar fight with a bazooka. You’re just gonna make things worse.”
Steve sighs. “I know.”
“I know you know. This is why you gave Sam the shield. Stepping back is doing something, sometimes.”
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yeah.”
Bucky stares at him for a moment, debating. Then, he pulls out the big guns. “You think that shit about me?”
Steve looks sharply up at him, big brows coming together in confusion. “What?”
Bucky nods at him. He knows that Steve doesn’t but... “You heard me. You think I’m wasting my fucking talents puttering around in Shuri’s lab?”
Steve goes a little pale. They both know that Bucky’s talents lie solidly in the range of murder. “No,” Steve says firmly. “You’ve earned whatever rest you want, pal.”
Bucky raises his eyebrows. “And you haven’t?”
“It’s not…” Steve trails off, but Bucky already knows.
He sighs heavily. “...what you want. Of course it’s not what you want.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, even more miserably. “God, this place is a paradise on earth, and you’re here, and I got a good job. I like helping with the negotiations, I feel like I’m doing good that doesn’t revolve around violence for once. I don’t know why I can’t just be happy.” He throws up his hands. “I can’t sleep because there might not be another apocalypse. What the hell is wrong with me?”
“Oh honey,” Bucky says, condescending as shit because he can’t help himself sometimes. Steve can be so stupid sometimes. “There’s always gonna be something else. Fuckin’ aliens or whatever. A truly bazooka-worthy situation. I’m sure the next disaster is already on its way.” Bucky reaches out and puts his hand on Steve’s cheek. “If they need you, you’ll be there.”
Steve looks at him, and Bucky can’t quite tell if Steve’s just emoting extra hard, or if he’s feeling it through their bond, but he can just tell that this thought makes Steve feel better. He can also tell that Steve feels guilty as hell for feeling that.
“It’s just the peace between wars, pal. You’re not obsolete, we still need you. You’re just on sabbatical. Take the rest while you can,” Bucky tells him, and Steve visibly, guiltily relaxes. Bucky pats his cheek. “Now get some fuckin’ sleep, you don’t want to be all tuckered out when the next apocalypse arrives.”
Steve leans up for a kiss before letting Bucky pull him into the position of little spoon.
They both sleep better.
And lo and behold Steve isn’t at all tuckered out when the next apocalypse rears its ugly head.
vii - thabit: fixed star
Sonnet 116: The Soulmark Sonnet
By William Shakespeare
Let me not to the mark of a twinned soul
Admit impediment. Love plants its sign,
We grow together. All the parts made whole
May never break asunder nor resign.
O no! It is an ever fixed star;
A compass needle that may ne’er be bent
From off its course. Though men may seek to mar
It, all is vain, for marks are heaven sent.
They do not lie, but neither do they tell
Of what they know. Their language never heard
and never writ, but felt like how the bell
Doth feel the clapper strike the final word.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
“It wasn’t even a good plan,” Bucky complains, when all is said and done, and Thanos is defeated. “Kill all the soulmates? How the fuck would that work? You’d kill half the population. And what about the people with more than one soulmate? Kill all but one? What was his plan after that? It’d be chaos.”
“How is losing your soulmate supposed to make you free?” Steve says. He’s building up a head of steam about it now. They’re back at the guest quarters, and it turns out Steve’s anger wasn’t gone at all, just in hibernation, because it’s out in force now. He sits down hard on the bed, in just his uniform pants and undershirt, and starts pulling at his boots with sharp movements. “One jerk with a bad soulmate taking it out on everyone else just like that!” Steve snaps his fingers.
“Hey,” Bucky says. Steve feels him sit on the bed beside him. “As a jerk I find that offensive.”
“As someone who lost their soulmate, I find the whole idea pretty fucking offensive.”
Bucky’s hand presses against the side of Steve’s face, turning his head. Steve’s glare softens only slightly at the sight of Bucky, smiling up at him. He’s got that dopey look on his face, like he always does when Steve’s hand is swiping across his back in steady, even strokes. Now, sometimes, he has it even when Steve isn’t touching him. His hair is still a little clumpy with blood or ichor or whatever comes out of an alien with four arms, two legs, and more teeth than anyone knows what to do with. Make a necklace, maybe.
That's not the point. The point is that one of them could've died today, because of one raisin-faced asshole with more power than sense. The point is that Steve is mad as hell about it. The point is that Bucky is smiling at Steve like he hung the moon.
“What?” Steve says, trying to hold onto his rage in the face of this soft smile. He's not being very successful. He thinks about Bucky, leading N’Jadaka away from all his anger with patience and humor. He thinks of N’Jadaka and Nakia fighting at T’Challa’s side. He thinks of Pepper in her Rescue suit out on the field, fighting side by side with Tony and a kid dressed like a spider, for some reason. The reunion with Tony had been rushed, but heartfelt. Healing. And just when Steve thought things couldn't get better (or weirder) Thor and Loki had come blasting out of the sky with a talking tree and honest-to-God raccoon, and...
Steve's heart is still soaring. They're all here again, all of them at his side. All his soulmates. Whatever else they were, and even if what he and Bucky had was more and deeper, that didn’t change facts. He knew his soulmates when he met them and he’d met them on the field earlier today.
He thinks of Nat coming out of nowhere with blue blood on her face and blocking a slash that might have taken his head off otherwise. He thinks about Sam falling out of the sky, and the way Steve had felt the juddering impact in his own bones, and had gone running to the downed red-white-and-blue wings. Sam is fine, but it’s enough to remind Steve that he’s supposed to be angry.
“What?” he says again.
“Nothing,” Bucky says.
“Don't do that,” Steve says gravely. “One of us coulda ended up dead today. No point letting things go unsaid.”
“You're a real ray of goddamn sunshine, you know that, Rogers?” Bucky doesn't stop smiling.
Steve gives him a look. “Serum made me bigger, not nicer.”
“Don't I fucking know it.”
He's still smiling. What is he thinking about that's making him smile like that? “What?”
“You're pretty when you're pissed off.”
“Oh my god, you asshole—”
“I love you,” Bucky says, almost before Steve’s sentence is fully out of his mouth.
It shouldn’t mean anything, at this point, should it? After everything they’ve done, everything they’ve been through. They’ve been together for almost a hundred years. They're soulmates. It's on their skin. It isn’t a surprise. It’s just that they don’t talk about it. It never needed saying.
Bucky is staring at him, still smiling that big, dopey smile. “You gonna say it back, punk?”