Steve never let go of the phone.
Even when Barnes was still with them and Steve devoted all his time and energy to the man, the phone never left his hand. It was a flip phone, nothing like the sleek models that the rest of them were using, nondescript and always, always tucked in Steve’s pocket. Sam had thought that it was because Steve still preferred something less modern, especially now when everyone had ditched their personalised Stark Phones and were back to using the average mass produced commercial product.
Then, Sam had learnt that Steve did have another phone, a more modern one, and that as nondescript as the flip phone was, it was made of military grade materials, closer to the equipment that could withstand fire, water and being flung to the floor by panicking super soldiers – because Sam had been there when Steve had accidentally swept the phone off his bedside table in the throes of a nightmare, he had still been there when Steve had checked every nook and cranny to ensure that it still functioned and he had been there when Steve had heaved an intense sigh of relief when it was clear that it was still alive after the whole fiasco.
Sam was a smart man, and he put the pieces together.
‘You could just call her, you know,’ he said, after watching Steve flip the phone open and close for the umpteenth time since Barnes had retired for the night.
Sam cleared his throat as the other man stared blankly back at him in response to his remark. ‘The agent, I mean, Sharon Carter.’
Steve laughed – choked and strangled rather than the sheepish embarrassment Sam was expecting. ‘We’re criminals, Sam. She’s already risked enough for me as it is.’
Sam raised an eyebrow. ‘She probably misses you, man, as much as you miss her.’ Steve stiffened. ‘I don’t want to cause her any more trouble than I already have,’ he answered, and Sam would’ve pushed harder if it weren’t for the note of firm finality he could hear in Steve’s voice.
He shrugged. ‘Suit yourself.’ At least he had already given Steve something to stew over.
And Steve tucked the phone back into his pocket.
After their conversation, Sam noted that Steve still fiddled around with the phone as much as ever, but he was a lot more discrete about it; often hastily keeping it when Sam, Wanda or any other person happened to walk in on him doing so.
Then, Barnes decided to go back to cryo, and without anything, anyone, to distract him, Steve went right back to his habit fiddling with the phone while staring into space. Sam hadn’t known how bad Steve had gotten until one night he had been forcefully awoken from his sleep – Riley, Rhodes, Riley, Rhodes falling, falling, falling – and he had stumbled on Steve in the living room, the phone on the table in front of him, just staring.
And Sam had had enough.
At any other time, he would’ve crowed with delight at making Steve jump the way he had, but Sam was done, just done, with everything, including the way Steve seemed to hold himself back from even that tiny splice of happiness when he had already sacrificed so much.
‘Call her, dammit, and I’m not leaving until you do.’
Steve looked back at him, features haggard with exhaustion, blue eyes haunted. ‘It’s not Sharon, Sam.’
Rhodes falling, falling, falling.
Sam was a smart man, and he wondered how he could’ve been so blind. ‘Stark,’ he breathed, ‘That phone connects you to Stark.’
Tony Stark, who had not planned on fighting them, who planned on going easy on all of them even when they had been blinded by their misplaced anger and even more misplaced sense of betrayal.
Because Stark had only wanted to protect them, still believing the best in them, even as they had lashed out at him, believing the worst of him.
Tony Stark, who had allowed Steve to break them out of The Raft and who had turned a blind eye when they had chosen to seek refuge in Wakanda because everything he had done had been to protect them.
Because Stark had signed the Accords to give the superheroes a voice and a choice in a regulation that was going to be forced on them whether they liked it or not; because Stark was trying to give them back their freedom and restore their reputation by regaining the trust of the people that they had lost.
Tony Stark, who had risked his life and safety to help the very people who had turned on him when he realized that there was more at stake than he had initially been led to believe.
Because when Stark had given the chance to make a choice, he had immediately chosen to admit he was wrong about Barnes and he had chosen to make things right.
Because Tony Stark wasn’t perfect and just as human as the rest of them.
But he had given them a chance when they had given him none.
And Sam, Sam had made the wrong call.
‘I’m sorry man.’
‘For what?’ Steve’s question was weary.
‘We should’ve told him about the Winter Soldiers.’
About Barnes’ innocence.
Steve shook his head. ‘That’s not on you; you didn’t know him.’ The unspoken, ‘not as well as I did’, hung in the air between them. Steve buried his head in his hands, knuckles white against his forehead as he clutched at the phone, tightly, desperately. ‘There were so many things I should’ve told him,’ Steve whispered.
It was only because Steve had confided in Sam that Sam knew about what really happened in Siberia. He had initially been furious at Stark – because he had trusted Stark when Stark had promised to go to Steve, alone and as a friend – but Steve – and Barnes – had told him what really happened, and all Sam’s righteous anger had left him, left him hollow and empty.
‘I feel like such a hypocrite.’ There was a hysterical edge to Steve’s voice. Sam could only wait as Steve struggled against the outpouring of emotion; this had been a long time in coming.
Sam had always thought that Barnes was the only person who could push Steve Rogers, the boy from Brooklyn, forcefully to the surface as demonstrated by Steve’s actions that had led them to where they were. It was now clear that Tony Stark was the other.
‘I was angry, you know, so angry when he kept Ultron a secret from all of us.’ Steve’s laugh was an ugly sound. ‘I was so mad at him. Even though Bruce was also involved, I could forgive him. Even after I found out that it was Wanda who had pushed Tony into such desperate measures through her mental manipulations, I still forgave her. But Tony, I was still so angry with him. Something that big, I trusted him to tell me about it. Instead, he kept it from me, lied to me and only told me the truth when it blew up in our faces.’
Steve looked straight at Sam and Sam had to hold himself still from flinching at the bleeding wound in Steve’s eyes. ‘He didn’t think that we would listen; that we would understand. Sam, he only wanted to protect us.’ Although Steve’s next words were soft, they rang in Sam’s ears. ‘I only wanted to protect him.’
Steve hadn’t wanted to push Stark to have to choose between the Accords and Steve Rogers.
‘And I wanted to protect myself.’
Because Steve would always choose to defend Barnes – and Sam understood; Barnes was innocent – but he was also afraid of giving Stark the chance to choose against him, and telling Stark about his parents’ death? The chances of being in direct conflict with Stark was very, very high.
They had their ideological differences, they bickered and they fought, but Sam was beginning to see Steve and Stark had always believed that where it mattered, they wanted the same thing; to do the right thing, to protect the people they loved.
Even with the Accords, they had still wanted the same thing, but when it came to Barnes, when it came to Stark’s parents, it was a chance that Steve had been unwilling to take.
‘I lied to him, Sam. After all the grief I gave him, even though I understood how much it would hurt, I still lied to him.’
And it was that lie, not the Accords, that now still drove Steve and Stark apart.
‘So call him.’
‘Call him and apologise. Tell him what you just told me.’
Because Sam might not have known Stark very well, but he did know that if Stark had wanted Barnes’ head on a platter, they would not be sitting here talking about this while Barnes lay in a peaceful cryogenic sleep.
‘I wrote him a letter.’
Sam gaped at his friend. ‘You wrote him a letter?’ he echoed disbelievingly, ‘You wrote him a letter and what? You told him to call?’
The look on Steve’s face was all the answer that Sam needed. ‘The ball’s in his court. I’ve learnt my lesson. I-I won’t force his hand.’ Steve was resigned. ‘If Tony wants to speak to me again, he’ll call.’
Sam loved Steve, he really did, but right now, he just felt like strangling his friend.
‘When it was Barnes, you were so determined to get him back that you still went after him even when he tried to kill us, but with Stark, you’re just going to let him go?’
‘I’ll be there when he needs me, but I won’t force him to make nice with me unless he wants to! I’m giving him a choice, Sam!’
‘No, Steve, you’re running away.’
Because Sam understood, more than anyone else Sam understood. He understood what it was like to have someone precious to you ripped away from you when you could not do anything but to watch helplessly as they fell.
If Barnes had been Riley, if Riley had come back into his life the way Barnes had come back into Steve’s, the world be damned, Riley would’ve been Sam’s highest priority.
Because Sam understood how easy it was to focus the person you had lost; to focus on the second chance that the heavens had suddenly thrown at you to protect the person you had not been able to protect before.
Because if Sam had been given the same chance to save Riley the way Steve had been given the chance to save Barnes, he would’ve taken it; selfishly, he would’ve taken it, not only because it meant that he could save Riley, but because it meant that he could make up for not saving Riley the first time around.
And Sam knew how easy it was to take for granted the person who you knew would always be there, especially if they had always been there no matter how much you fought, no matter how life had tried to keep you apart.
Because Barnes had been taken away from Steve, but Stark, from what Steve had told him, from what the Avengers had told him, especially Rhodes, Stark had always been there.
Heck, even now, when they were both separated by pain and lies, by distance and regulations, Stark was still there.
Unlike Barnes who hadn’t been given the choice of whether or not he had wanted to leave Steve, Stark did have the choice; the choice to reject Steve the way Steve had seemingly rejected him. By sending a letter and leaving it up to Stark to call, Steve had once again neatly sidestepped the conflict that had prompted him to lie to Stark about his parents in the first place.
And Sam was not going to stand idly by while his friend continued cower in his cowardice. The Steve Rogers he knew wasn’t a brave man because he was Captain America; the Steve Rogers he knew was Captain America because he was a brave man.
‘Steve, Stark is not likely to call you when the last time you saw each other, you left him, injured and alone, in Siberia.’ Steve flinched, opening his mouth, but shutting it almost immediately with a snap when Sam waved him into silence. ‘You may have sent him a letter, but a letter is not enough, and deep down, you should know that. No, you do know that, but you’re still reeling over what happened in Siberia and you’re terrified he still is too. This way, you can pretend that everything’s alright between you, that the only reason he hasn’t called you is because he’s handling things and he doesn’t need you for another superhero emergency. But, Steve-’ Sam gestured at the phone that Steve still held tightly in his grasp. ‘-you can’t spend your life waiting for a call you’re not sure is ever going to come.’
As Steve’s gaze drifted down to the phone, Sam waited for his words to sink in before adding, ‘Think about it man, it’s been a month since you’ve sent that letter and it hasn’t yet been returned to its sender.’ With that, Sam turned his back to his friend, pretending not to notice Steve’s eyes drilling a hole into the back of his head, and left.
Lingering in the next room, Sam closed his eyes and breathed, trying to calm his own nerves, which were still twanging from his nightmare.
Rhodes falling, falling, falling.
But not dead.
And Sam was gratified to hear Steve’s voice breaking through the silence he had left in his wake.