Five months into the search for Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes—formerly declared MIA, then presumed KIA, now POW, AWOL, DUSTWUN, whatever they want to call him—Steve Rogers is bone-tired.
“Captain Rogers to the command center, Rogers to the command center,” a neutral voice announces over the intercom. Steve sighs and levers himself out of his chair, knee popping uncomfortably. He should have probably gone to the physical therapist that Natasha recommended after the last time it got completely blown out by a magic laser, or whatever. He is going to the emotional therapist that Sam recommended, though, and that seems like enough assisted healing for the year, or possibly the millenium. The knee will get better, or it won’t.
They called him up for a Bucky sighting, of course. Steve used to get an enormous thrill with every Bucky sighting, and it kills him a little that they’re becoming routine. There are only so many raised hopes and blurry satellite images and unsuccessful raids and dashed expectations he can suffer through, though, so he bears the leveling-out with something approximating grace. He still trudges up the stairs to the command center for the umpteenth time this week, because it’s Bucky, and because each time they’ve sighted him for the last few weeks he’s been getting closer, and the sightings have been getting—stranger.
The command center is filled with members of Tony’s geek squad, their heads bowed over their keyboards. There’s an undercurrent of frantic noise, a combination of furious typing and incomprehensible muttering into headsets. The still images are projected larger-than-life across the monitors lining every wall. Everywhere he turns, Steve sees Bucky staring back at him.
“What is he doing?” Sam asks from somewhere over Steve’s shoulder. He’s peering up at the monitors too, much less irritably than Steve himself is.
Tony spins around in his chair with great relish. It is Steve’s private opinion that he is getting far too much enjoyment out of having promoted himself to Head Geek of the operation, but he hasn’t mentioned this to Tony. He needs his help too badly to piss him off. “No idea. Seriously, none. Is it possible he’s had a stroke? Some kind of seizure?”
“I don’t think so,” says Bruce. “But I can’t know for sure. Too many variables at play here—nothing medical is going to look the same on him as anything I’ve ever seen before. I would repeat my suggestion that we get a real doctor in here to consult, but—”
“No,” says Steve. “No one else.”
“—I suspected Steve would say that,” Bruce finishes.
“It’s the same thing in Canberra, Mumbai, Beirut, Lisbon…” Natasha says, flicking her fingers to get the photos to zoom across the front wall in a way that Steve has yet to master. He watches larger-than-life images whoosh past him like train cars in the subway platform, Bucky’s contorted expression trapped behind the glass of each one. What are you doing with your face, Steve wonders. If Mrs. Barnes had been alive, she would have told him it would freeze that way.
“Well, one thing’s for sure,” Tony says. “Entry through the Port of Miami, then Jacksonville, Richmond, D.C., and the New Jersey Turnpike.”
“Miami?” says Steve, hard-earned placidity immediately forgotten. “To New Jersey? Why didn’t you let me know as soon as he made landfall in the US?”
“We didn’t want you to do anything stupid,” Natasha says. “And look, that’s turning out super well for us. You’re welcome.”
“He’s heading straight for New York,” Sam says.
Tony nods grimly. “This time, we got him.”
For Steve’s last meal as a full member of the Avengers, ostensibly a joint celebration of his semi-retirement, Sam’s promotion to Captain America, and Bucky’s promotion to certified not-sleeper-agent and individual stable enough to live outside the most secure building in Manhattan, Tony throws a party. The party is, for once, less than fully ridiculous—Steve didn’t even have to intervene on his own or Bucky’s behalf, although he was prepared to. Tony, he suspects, has been mellowed out by the past couple of years. They all have been. Instead of dodging showgirls, senators, or a combination of the two, Steve gets to hang out with his team and drink good wine.
Steve is proud of his friends. Natasha, never one to be afraid of responsibility, has settled into his old leadership role with the same grace he’s been depending on for years, and he hasn’t once second-guessed passing command authority to her. Tony is using the suits’ autonomous capabilities more and more, in a way that Steve thinks is both extremely healthy and long overdue. The new kids on the team are getting along nicely, coming up under a lot less pressure than Steve’s cohort did. They have more time. It feels like a gift. Steve is—happy, he thinks.
And this dinner. As much as Steve is excited to leave—as much as leaving has been the object of his obsessive focus for the past two years—their last meal while living together under one roof feels very final. Since he got out of the ice, nearly every meal he’s eaten has been with some combination of these people, in these now-familiar spaces. As much as it’s exactly what he wants, leaving this bubble of companionship feels a bit like coming untethered from the earth. This dinner is what he needed, he thinks. What he’s needed at every stage of his life when leaving was imminent, and never actually gotten before. He can feel Natasha in the alcohol, Sam in the music, Clint in the food, and Tony in the strange mood lighting. And Bucky—
Steve can feel Bucky where his hand is migrating slowly up Steve’s inseam under the table.
“Steve’s trapped in his own head again,” Bucky announces to the room at large, where everyone's attempting to pull themselves together after Natasha snorted vodka out of her nose laughing at her own joke. Sam, whom Tony had spent the last three hours getting deliberately and comprehensively drunk on the pretext that the last weekend before he was Captain America was also the last weekend it was acceptable for him to spend too hungover to physically function, had fallen all the way out of his chair.
“Isn’t that more your area?” Tony asks, dodging a bit of caramelized onion that Clint flings his way.
Bucky flips him off, and it’s a testament to how far their relationship has progressed that Tony laughs. Ignoring the way Steve kicks him under the table, Bucky says, “I’m thinking it’s our sign that we should head out soon. But first, Wilson, Steve and I got something for you.”
“I let you live in my home for years, and this is the thanks I get?” Tony complains. “A present for Sam?”
“Our present to you was that we gave Bruce those blood samples,” Steve points out.
“It’s true,” Bruce says soberly. “You were almost disgustingly happy that they gave me their blood.”
“I really was,” Tony muses.
“Anyway,” says Bucky, holding out a shiny paper bag with a grin. “Sam, this is from us. Congratulations, Cap.” The CONGRATULATIONS, BIRTHDAY BOY! written on the side of the bag has been modified to read CONGRATULATIONS, BIRDDAY SAM!, and the teddy bear has been given wings and a beak.
“That is an extremely dubious pun,” says Sam. “And I can tell the one of you who can’t draw did this illustration.”
“Shut up and open it,” Bucky says.
Sam rolls his eyes and tosses aside the tissue paper from the top of the bag. The martyred expression melts off his face as soon as he gets a good look at what’s inside. “Aw, Steve,” he says. “Shit, man. Y’all really gonna make me cry right here at the dinner table?”
“Share with the class,” says Natasha, and Sam pulls out a jacket. The jacket, rather. Steve had it made special—well, Steve had the idea to make it special, and then Bucky took over completely because he had no faith that Steve could be trusted with the details. The end result is that the cow the leather came from got some kind of special Swedish massage every single day of its life, and it’s going to fit Sam down to the centimeter, according to the measurements Tony sent over from when he was reworking the Exo-7. The patch on the left shoulder is the shield. The patch on the right shoulder is the Howling Commandos unit patch. The fraying at the tip of the wing is the only imperfection in the whole jacket—Bucky got it from Gabe Jones’ granddaughter, who had required only the strong reassurance that Sam was the kind of man who took good care of his clothes. Clint whistles low, and Sam looks up at Steve, struck by emotion.
“It’s yours,” Steve says, slightly appalled to find himself choking over the words. “You’ve— more than earned it. And I just wanted to say— we wanted to say— thank you, for—”
“Man, now’s not the time to try to learn to use your words. Get over here and give me a hug,” Sam says, getting up to meet him halfway. He flings both arms around Steve before saying, “You too, Barnes, get over here. I know you had a hand in this.” He hugs Bucky slightly more gingerly, and, pulling away, says, “It’s possible I should be slightly nicer to you.”
“When?” asks Bucky, confused.
“Just in general,” Natasha says, loudly. “I get a hug before you go too, right?”
With that, the floodgates open. There’s a generalized chaos as drunk adults try to rearrange themselves and their chairs, and Steve finds himself on the receiving end of a deluge of physical affection.
“I might need you one day,” Natasha murmurs, kissing him on the cheek. “I want you to know that now.”
“I know,” Steve says.
“When that day comes, you can say no,” Natasha tells him, holding eye contact.
“I know. But I won’t. We won’t.”
“I know that too,” she tells him, and goes to disentangle Bucky from Clint, who’s sprawled across him like an amorous jellyfish while telling him earnestly, “From the bottom of my heart. My man. My brother. I am so glad your face did not freeze like that.”
“Like what?” Bucky asks.
“Ignore him,” Natasha says. “He’s pretty drunk.”
“Can I have Happy drive you home?” Tony asks, cutting in to shake Steve’s hand and clap him on the arm.
“Uh, no,” says Happy, looking at the cocktails he’s holding in each hand.
“Thanks, Tony. But we’ll take the subway. You’ve done— more than enough. More than I could ask of you.”
“But you did ask,” Tony says. “And I delivered.”
“You did,” says Steve. “You’re a superhero.”
“I am,” Tony grins. “C’mere, hug it out,” he says, wrapping both arms around Steve with little skill but great determination. As soon as Tony releases him, Bucky crowds Steve out the door.
“Enough dramatic goodbyes, everyone, we’ll see you next week,” he grumbles.
“Bye, everyone,” Steve grins, letting himself be guided into the elevator. He’s met with a chorus of farewells and one “Remember, someone is always watching!” followed by a round of laughs just as the door closes.
“What are they up to?” Bucky asks, selecting the button for the lobby.
“No idea,” says Steve. “But something, for sure.”
“Meh, we’ll find out when we find out. Now, c’mon, let me make out with you in this elevator.”
Steve lets Bucky make out with him in the elevator. He also lets Bucky make out with him under two different streetlights, the gently-falling snow glowing around them, and in the subway car after the only other passenger gets off, the F train rattling all the way out to the end of its line. He kisses Bucky as they cross over the threshold of what is, for the first time, officially their home, backs him up against the wall of their entryway and kisses him as he strips his coat off. He kisses Bucky all the way up until the moment Bucky fumbles in the dark for the light switch, flips it on, and then freezes entirely, the urge to flee evident in every single muscle of his body. Steve pulls back immediately.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, trepidation building in his gut. Please, he thinks wildly. Please let there be no one else in our house. Please don’t let us have missed something, please no more triggers. Please don’t panic and leave me when you’ve just come home. Bucky’s mouth is moving soundlessly, and he looks absolutely stunned. “Bucky?” Steve asks, searching his face for a sign of what’s happening in his mind. He’s about to start in on their emergency protocols when he realizes that Bucky’s face is framed on all side by photos. Photos of Bucky. Photos that Steve recognizes. Steve takes a step back, baffled.
“Steve?” Bucky asks, still facing out onto their living room.
“Yeah,” says Steve.
“Do you see our wallpaper?”
Steve turns around. The situation in the living room is the same as the situation in the entryway. “Yeah.”
“Have you seen the photos. On our wallpaper. Before?”
“Yeah,” says Steve, the rising panic into his gut transmuting into something equally difficult to suppress.
“Oh,” says Bucky as Steve starts to lose it, his laughter echoing off walls covered floor-to-ceiling with photos of Bucky’s contorted face. “Oh, no.”