Steve doesn’t know how long he spends just sitting there in the clean brightness of the medical facility, slumped and staring at Bucky’s motionless body. It takes a long time for the freezing process to be complete, but most of it is visible only by the way the ice slowly encroaches from the edges of the glass. Bucky has been unconscious since the beginning, he knows. He had closed his eyes readily and calmly, and at the time Steve had given a twisted little half smile at the thought that Bucky was going to sleep, getting the rest he had so long deserved.
Now, he looks more like death, and it hurts.
However awful it was to know that he had let Bucky fall, however much it killed him inside to learn that Bucky had survived in a tortured, ghoulish form of himself, however much he had ached knowing that Bucky was halfway across the world and running from him—
Steve had never had to see his body cold, quiet, still as the grave. He had been spared that particular pain, until now.
There are all sorts of new pains, now.
That relieved sort of agony on Bucky’s face as the technicians filed the ragged metal of his shoulder smooth. That little quirk of Bucky’s mouth as he said for everyone. That pointed glance in Steve’s direction. That willing submission to the ice.
For everyone. What was that supposed to mean? It leaves a sour, angry taste in Steve’s mouth. How is this better? How is anything?
He doesn’t want to be angry with Bucky, so he shoves the feeling down. He puts it away in a little box, the place he puts everything that’s too big or too awful to deal with. It helps, most of the time. He put his confusion and frustration with the future into that box, and he fought the Chitauri with his team and won. He put his fear and horror and disappointment about Hydra into that box, and his pain and betrayal when Tony and Bruce kept Ultron a secret, and Wanda and Pietro’s selfish manipulation of the team, and so many other hurts and rages. He filled that box up with everything that got in his way and he locked it tight and he won and won and won, every time, even when it was hard, and so he kept doing it. It felt like the right thing to do, at the time.
The box is starting to strain its hinges, and Steve is starting to wonder if he should’ve gotten some of those feelings back out before now.
Eventually, he finds the willpower to get to his feet and walk out of the room. Even as he goes, it’s like there’s a string tied somewhere under his ribs, a tugging in his guts that points him back toward the place where Bucky still lies. He pushes that down, too.
There’ll be time to deal with that and everything later. Won’t there?
The first thing Steve wants, almost immediately, is to go back to America.
It’s because of the friends— the friend— he left there, like a second string tugging at his ribs, it’s because of the life he had started to build, the space he had carved out for himself in this new future. It’s because it’s the country he grew up in, his homeland, and it’s because he loves his country to his core even if he doesn’t always like it. It’s because the A on his head stands for something, and it’s something he wants to get back to.
It’s definitely not because he’s running.
It’s definitely not because he’s gotten himself caught up in some kind of terrible cosmic irony where he finally catches up with Bucky just to want to run as far away from him as he can get because maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t prepared for what he found, wasn’t prepared to lose him again. It’s definitely not because of that tug under his ribs that he can feel no matter what he does or where he goes, even though T’Challa has been gracious enough to open up almost all of his palace to Steve and his little band of friends.
Anyway, Steve wants to go back to America. He says as much, and T’Challa doesn’t laugh in his face, but probably only because he’s a dignified warrior and king and that isn’t his style. He doesn’t laugh in Steve’s face, but his carefully measured response, about political responsibility and international pressure and the value of trust and boundaries in international relations, makes it clear enough what he thinks of an attempt to smuggle the most recognizable man in America back into the country when it so clearly doesn’t want him back.
Eventually, T’Challa concedes that later might be an option. Might.
In the meantime, Steve explores. He’s done his fair share of travel, both in the War and with the Avengers, but he’s never been anywhere quite like Wakanda. It’s beautiful, and unfamiliar, and such an interesting mix of magic and technology and tradition that it keeps him endlessly guessing. He sticks out like a sore thumb, of course, and it’s uncomfortable at first, but he puts that into the box too and makes himself get over it. After a while, he’s able to wander the city and look at art and architecture and the wildly different natural world, more or less ignoring the double takes and sideways glances.
Ever since the serum, Steve has been an object of scrutiny for all kinds of parties with all kinds of interests— romantic, military, and otherwise. He wonders if it’s just his guilty conscience that makes him feel like they’re judging him rather than approving him now.
Steve has a good head for languages, partly because of the serum’s gift of neuroplasticity, and it isn’t long before he’s got enough Wakandan under his belt to try talking to people who aren’t dignitaries or English students. That, too, is uncomfortable at first, but the people he meets are usually tolerant of his pronunciation, and that improves over time anyway. He talks to the Wakandan people about everything and nothing, the weather, that new plant he’s never seen before, that tradition he doesn’t understand.
After a while, he’s brave enough to ask them about politics.
A few of them are on his “side,” though he hates to think of there beings sides, especially given who that puts on the other “side.” They agree that the UN has been minimally helpful at best, and that Steve and the other Avengers ought to have been left free to operate at their own discretion.
It’s a very few, though.
Mostly, they seem confused as to why the Avengers ever thought they should operate at their own discretion. Steve tries to talk to them about personal liberty, and about shifting the blame, about how he tries to use his failures to better himself and his team, to do better in the future. He’s surprised how many of them just give him unimpressed looks when he mentions his feelings of guilt, like they don’t believe him. Like it isn’t enough.
It’s a woman he’s never seen before in a shop far from the palace who says something Steve writes down immediately, so that he doesn’t forget it. No, that isn’t quite true. His memory is eidetic. He writes it down so that he can’t shove it into the box and ignore it.
Steve Rogers is a free man. Captain America is not a man at all.
It’s not a new idea to him, really. From the very first time they shoved him into tights and thrust him on stage, the first time he realized he was just the press’s dancing monkey, he’s known that Captain America and Steve Rogers are not quite the same person. Captain America is something more, he’d always thought. An ideal, something to strive for, something to put on to inspire other people. Bucky had been even better at making the distinction; he loved Steve too much not to resent the Captain at least a little bit, he always said.
Steve had never really considered whether an ideal should have the same freedom as the man who wears it.
“Let me help,” Steve asks one day. A message has come to the palace, too quickly spoken for Steve’s rudimentary Wakandan to parse; something is happening near the border of Wakanda. An emergency. Possibly an Emergency with a capital E, the kind of thing the Avengers used to deal with. Sam is in training and Wanda is in school and Scott is off… somewhere, doing God knows what it is he does all day… but Steve can get them together. They can suit up, they can—
“No,” T’Challa says flatly.
“But I can—“
“No,” T’Challa says again. It’s unequivocal, and it makes Steve feel like wringing his hands in frustration. “I think you mistake my hospitality for an agreement with your politics, Captain. You forget that it was my father who brought the Sokovia Accords into being, and that it was I who maintained their implementation after his death. You are welcome to stay in my city. You are not welcome to insult myself and my Dora Milaje by intruding where you are not wanted or needed.”
And T’Challa leaves. He doesn’t come back until the next day, battered and bruised, and one of his warriors is laid up for days in the same medical facility where they’re keeping Bucky. T’Challa goes to visit her every day to ensure that her recovery is going well, and one day Steve is even brave enough to come along.
She is bandaged in many places and one of her arms is in a cast, and there is a deep cut on one side of her face that makes it difficult for her to speak, but she looks at Steve with proud, clear eyes nonetheless, and she tells him it was my choice.
Steve looks over at Bucky, still nearly standing and frozen still at the other end of the wing, and he feels a little of his anger dissipate. He needs Bucky, and he always has, but this is Bucky’s choice. He doesn’t agree with it, but he can’t stop him from making it. Steve thanks the warrior and leaves the room, trying desperately to calm his whirling thoughts.
His box is breaking open.
It’s not long after that that Steve leaves Wakanda. He’s come to love the country, not as much as his homeland, but no small amount either, and it’s not easy to go. Still, this feels like something he has to do. He offers the others the chance to come with him, but they turn it down. Scott doesn’t want to go anywhere except America, and Wanda doesn’t want to interrupt the focus and control that she’s learning to maintain from one of the most experienced of the Dora Milaje. Sam looks the most regretful of the lot of them as he tells Steve that he’s not ready to be done being settled just yet.
So Steve goes alone. He takes a duffel of clothes and some money, but he leaves his uniform there in the room T’Challa provided for him. On his way out, T’Challa makes him a present of a facial disguise technology not too different from what Natasha used to take down Pierce. It feels like a whole lifetime has passed since that fight.
T’Challa doesn’t agree with Steve on every point, but he doesn’t want him to get caught and thrown in a hole somewhere, either.
Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth, but I don’t want to see you gone, Steve hears under his words. We need you, he hears, and the memory wrings his heart like a sponge, drawing out so much old buried pain that his breath hitches.
Steve thanks T’Challa for everything, puts the disguise on, and leaves. It’s time to see a little more of the world, he thinks.
Steve travels a lot. He walks and hitchhikes and takes public transportation. Sometimes he lets himself fall into an old marching rhythm, and it feels more homely than he thinks it should. He goes to Nigeria first, and it’s not until he finds himself in a bustling marketplace that he realizes he’s retracing his steps. Here, the place where Natasha fought her men; here, the place where Sam perched on the edge of the building; here, the place where Steve’s mistake cost so many lives, caused so much trouble. The building that was destroyed in the explosion is still under construction—there must have been some damage to the integrity of the main infrastructure, he thinks, not just the walls and windows.
He gets himself hired as a construction worker for a few weeks, and he keeps his head down and does what he’s told. He gets a little bit of a reputation for his strength, and his appearance still sticks out, but T’Challa’s disguise works. No one knows that he’s Captain America.
It’s very freeing. For a while, he doesn’t have to think or worry about all those tangled, painful feelings tucked back behind his ribs. He can just lift things, ease them into place, hammer and screw them down and then step back and see that he’s building something, he’s part of a group of people who are doing just what he is, and between their joint efforts, the building goes back up. For a while, he’s not even really Steve Rogers. He’s just a man, one out of many.
He hasn’t been that since he was small, he thinks.
Of course, it can’t last. He isn’t, in fact, just one out of many. The serum makes that impossible. Maybe Steve himself makes that impossible, he doesn’t know for sure.
Steve is walking back to his very, very small apartment after the shift one day when he hears the familiar sounds of fists on flesh. Someone is being hurt. When I see a situation pointed south— he thinks to himself, and it still holds true. Steve saves the young man from the other three, older and taller, who had been hurting him, and then he leaves once he’s sure the young man is safely away. It feels good, if he’s honest. He pulls his punches, he has to because they’re only human, but it still feels like a more tangible good than anything he’s done working to rebuild the hospital. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush. Or maybe Ultron was right about him.
It felt good, because it’s what he was made for. Violence. War. Even in Brooklyn, he’d spent half his time getting himself beaten down trying to beat somebody twice his size.
Steve goes back to the tiny apartment with the very thin walls and the very small cot, folds himself into the smallest ball he can manage, and cries with his mouth pressed to his knee to keep him quiet. He cries for himself, for the fear that he’s never been anything more than violent, for the friends he’s lost and the friends he’s hurt, and for the friends who hurt him. He cries and cries and it’s like the hinges have finally burst on his little carefully locked box, and everything he compressed and tangled and shoved inside it is coming streaming out, filling up the space behind his ribs until he can barely breathe with it. Steve trembles and bites his wrist to keep back the sobs, eventually rolling onto the floor to keep from shaking the rusty springs of his cot and waking the neighbors.
He doesn’t go to work the next day, and that’s how he learns that he did wake the neighbors. Or one neighbor, anyway. It’s a little girl with tight, bushy pigtails who knocks on his door the next day. She’s very small compared to Steve’s bulk, and he can see in her eyes that she can feel it too, so he tries to make himself smaller. It doesn’t really work. The little girl hands him a piece of folded paper quickly and scampers off looking bashful.
Steve opens it carefully and finds a child’s drawing in red and yellow, something he can immediately recognize. Someone, rather. Someone near the very top of the list of things Steve had been trying not to think about, and maybe even higher on the list of things that kept him crying so long the night before.
Tony Stark falls right at the intersection of Steve’s biggest and most persistent aches: I waited too long, I lost everyone I love, I wasn’t good enough. In the drawing, he’s flying and punching a big, blue blob that Steve at first takes for some kind of jelly monster, until he realizes that it’s labeled your sad.
Steve’s eyes sting, and he’s not even sure if this little girl’s drawing is making him feel better or worse.
It takes him a minute to realize that his hand is covering up a painstaking inscription in the corner.
He saved everybody
Steve goes to Romania, next.
He goes to the quiet little plot of earth where they laid the officers who fell trying to take Bucky in. He doesn’t know how many of them are there because of him, or Bucky, or T’Challa. He’s not sure he wants to know. He still thinks it was right to save Bucky’s life, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a cost. He should acknowledge that, he thinks, and suddenly he feels so old and heavy he can barely move.
The thought of facing the families of people he killed by accident in trying to help his friend is more than daunting, it’s terrifying.
Steve’s letting himself think of Tony, now, and he almost wishes he weren’t. Charles Spencer, that was the name he had given the Avengers at that useless, aborted discussion. How had Tony known that name in particular? How would he have even found out about an American kid doing service work in Sokovia? Two options come to mind, and Steve isn’t sure which is more horrible.
The first is that Tony had been trawling the lists of the dead.
The second is that Charles Spencer had family, and that family came to Tony.
It makes Steve feel a sick kind of shame to realize that Tony might not have had a choice but to deal with the families of the people he killed by accident. He can’t put it off because it’s daunting, or because it makes him feel every year of his life like a stone on his shoulders. He has to just push through and hope that the weight doesn’t crush him.
He’s so strong, Steve thinks.
He’s thinking about Tony now, so the admiration comes flooding back, an old awe and wonder smoothing over the jagged edges of mutual betrayals. Steve sinks to his knees in the grass and lets himself drift back to an older time, when this new world was bright and loud and just a little terrifying, when Tony had slowly become Tony rather than Stark, and Steve had seen all the bright neon lights of the new world reflected in his eyes. Tony was the future, he had thought then, but he wasn’t frightening at all. He was bright and wide-open with possibilities, anything you could imagine, and a thousand things you couldn’t. Steve thinks about Tony and what it was like to look at him and think maybe someday, and he cries again. It’s a softer thing this time, quiet by nature and not by stifling.
It’s awful to think that all those futures he saw when he looked at Tony are cut off at the root, now. It’s awful to look at the graves and think that all of these were futures, too, to their wives and husbands and children and friends, but Tony doesn’t get a choice and Steve—as much as he wants one—shouldn’t have one either, then.
I’ve got no right to do any less than him, he thinks. It’s what he’s always believed.
Germany is easier, because he speaks the language well. Here, it’s easy to feel the difference between the two ethereal strings under his ribs, one south-going and one west-going and both of them taut and aching. They’re always there, background noise to everything Steve does as he explores. There are fewer tourists, because the airport still isn’t what it was, but that’s okay. It’s not the tourists Steve wants to talk to. He takes up the habit he had developed in Wakanda, of wandering and asking questions, talking about everything and nothing and, when he feels brave, asking about politics.
In Germany, there are a more people who agree that the Avengers shouldn’t be controlled by the UN, but there are also more that want to see them punished for the destruction they did within the city itself. The fight at the airport grounded a lot of planes and ruined a lot of jobs, and on top of that the whole area was under the tightest, most panicked security for weeks until things could return to a semblance of functionality. Tony, he comes to understand, has paid for most of the damage himself.
In the months since the event, the entire political issue has become very charged. After accidentally starting a bar fight with a poorly timed question, Steve learns to hold his tongue around the people who’ve already had a little too much. It was bad enough seeing the issue of the Accords dividing his friends, but now that he’s seeing it divide total strangers, inciting them to inebriated violence and sending a few of them to the hospital, it feels… realer. It isn’t just about superheroes anymore.
He thinks about Natasha, talking about sacrificing some of their personal freedom to keep them together, and he thinks that she didn’t just mean them.
He thinks about Tony, coming to him with compromise after compromise to minimize Steve’s end of the sacrifice, just to keep them together, and he thinks about exploding at Tony and storming out because of Wanda’s treatment. He thinks about staying in T’Challa’s palace for a few days while the media storm quieted down before he was allowed out into the city, and he wonders if it’s really so different.
Steve goes to France, just because he hasn’t seen it since the war and it feels familiar. It hurts being here without Bucky this time. It’s not his home, not really, but it’s a place he’s spent time, and one that hasn’t really changed too much in the places that weren’t battlefields. It’s cleaner, maybe. The west-going string under his ribs loosens, here.
He goes to art museums, trusting T’Challa’s technology to fool the cameras, and he goes to the Opera even though he doesn’t have the ear for it. He imagines that Tony would hate it too, and he tortures himself with half formed fantasies of sitting in the back together and being united in the wry wish to be elsewhere.
Steve’s getting low on money, so he gets a job. His French isn’t perfect and he’s got almost no experience with baking, but the aging proprietress of the patisserie really just needs another pair of hands, and his seem to suffice.
It’s a totally different kind of work from the construction he did in Lagos. It’s concrete, in the same way, but it’s more delicate. The timing is important, and the soft touch of his fingertips and the gentle movement of his hands. It’s almost therapeutic like art, in a way, but he hasn’t drawn in months and he’s almost not sure he still can. He still carries the little girl’s drawing in his pocket, and it’s creased and soft with wear.
It reassures him more than he wants to admit.
Eventually, Steve sees his chance to get back to America, and he leaves France. The old woman is sad to see him go, but he finds her another pair of hands to replace his, a young woman who seems more like the kind to stay than he had been. She mentions a lifelong desire to run her own business, anyway, and a love of cooking instilled by her father when she was very small. She’s talkative and trusting, but a good sort, he thinks. Steve lets himself daydream, just a little bit, about coming back in twenty years and finding her there, still running the little shop and smiling graciously at the tourists’ attempts at French.
It’s difficult to get back to America, because his country doesn’t want him. It breaks his heart to think about it. He starts to push this down like he used to do with everything else, but he remembers how awful that night in Lagos had been, and he doesn’t. He lets it hurt, turns it over in his head and his heart, feels the ache as it fills him up. It eases the more he lets it happen, and he thinks it’s like dilution. It’s hard going back, too, because the more the west-going string under his ribs loosens, the more the south-going one tightens. He sees Bucky behind his eyelids, still frozen still as death.
Still, he manages to get back home. Between his disguise and his all-American attitude, as Tony had described it, he isn’t stopped. It isn’t exactly fair, but Steve isn’t in a position to complain.
It’s easier to get at money here, where he already had accounts and—child of the Depression that he is—more than one cache of money where he didn’t think anyone would find it. He travels around a little bit here too, going up and down the East Coast and spending a few days looking out at the Heartland’s amber waves of grain, but then he always finds himself gravitating back home to New York.
Not to Brooklyn, though.
Steve keeps finding himself in Manhattan.
He never lets himself get too close to the Tower that used to be the Avengers Tower, because if anyone’s surveillance could see through a facial disguise, it’s Tony’s, but he lets himself look at it from a distance and feel homesick. He still doesn’t want to be controlled and kept from helping people the way he’s best at, but he’s starting to wonder if getting a few compromises in return for the ones that he’s willing to give might turn out to be worth it after all.
Steve wanders the city. He talks to strangers. He looks at whatever improbable thing is being shown off now, and he asks questions, but not about politics anymore. He listens to street musicians and pays for the pleasure when he has money on him. He walks into a bookshop because it seems like a nice little shop, and he comes out with a sketchbook and a new set of pencils. For a few hours they just sit on the table in front of him at a cafe. It feels like they’re staring back at him, like they’re daring him to do what he wants to so badly.
It feels like as soon as he opens the sketchbook, the blank white page will pull him into the future again. He isn’t sure if he’s ready to go.
Finally, he finds the strength to open the book and start drawing. He looks up and finds that he’s drawing Stark Tower and has to stifle a hysterical laugh. He’s come full circle.
It’s a few pages later and he’s drawing Tony from memory when a waitress walks by to refill his coffee and peeks over his shoulder. She makes a startled sound of recognition, and Steve looks up to see whether she’s recognized him, but no— she’s just looking at the drawing. He asks her, politely, what the matter is, and she tells him that she hasn’t seen Tony Stark in weeks.
Somehow, Steve’s random wandering happened to bring him to the one coffee shop Tony apparently frequents. He wonders if he’s reading too much into that.
The waitress’ surprise sets off something of a chain reaction. Suddenly, whenever Steve mentions Tony in public, somebody’s saying how long it’s been since they’ve seen him. He shows up for press conferences, everyone knows that, but here, right within a few blocks of Tony’s home, where he used to wander and poke his head into the shops because he knew the owners, no one has seen Tony.
One woman tells him that the last time she saw that much concealer on one person’s face was a girl she brought into a shelter a few weeks back.
Steve really, really hopes it’s just the exhaustion, but truthfully—he’s come to know Ross much too well for that by now.
Steve has wandered and worked and talked with people, he’s thought about responsibility and compromise and choice and influence, but in the end it isn’t any of those pretty abstract thoughts that brings him home. No, what brings him home is the concern and love he’s always had for his friends, and a few whispered words from a woman with deep worry lines.
He goes back to his tiny apartment and throws the sketchbook down onto his bedside table, and then he gets the well-worn drawing out of his pocket. He knows the shapes and colors so well by now that he could probably retrace them stroke for stroke if he wanted. Steve wonders if the girl could have known just how powerful it would be for him, or if she was just doing the best she could. It was sweet of her, either way.
Steve sits and looks at the image of Iron Man fighting back his sad, and he wonders if there’s anyone there to fight back Tony Stark’s sad right now.
He picks up the phone.