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Head of the Heartbreak Brigade

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Really, Steve should have known it was only a matter of time before he found himself in another pathetically codependent roommate situation. Especially considering that one of said roommates was, in fact, the same roommate as last time — sans charm, approachability, or any hope of maintaining a social life.

Not that Steve had any right to throw stones at that particular glass house.

He should have been relieved to be home, to have a semblance of a normal life. It was stupid to miss being on the run. Stupid to miss the disasters that called him to fight with the Avengers, to miss chasing the Winter Soldier, to miss the war, the Depression — and yet Steve Rogers lived a life punctuated by crisis, and without it he did not know if he could stand on his own legs. Sam felt it too, at least in part, judging from what he’d said about returning from Afghanistan. Bed too soft, bones too idle.

Truth be told, Steve was still spoiling for a fight from the relative ease of bringing Bucky home from Wakanda. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Fury, the scattered handful of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most loyal agents, the best of Wakanda’s medical specialists, or even Wanda’s vague and impatient explanation of “They say I can undo it. Unfuck his mind. At least, somewhat.” But sitting back wasn’t what he was made for, and so, in the meantime, he’d planned. The likelihood of Tony Stark swooping in to raise a ruckus was high, but Steve could take Tony. In another life, Tony had been his friend, his teammate. In this life, Steve picked apart Tony’s weaknesses with exploitation in mind, not defense. He was ready. Everything in him tensed, coiled and eager for the fallout.

It shouldn’t have disappointed him when it never came down to that.

It was just — what else could he do? He was the war wrapped in a man, and he could not restore what they’d lost: the ease of Sam’s smile, his shield, that familiarity of falling in with a team, knowing exactly where he stood, Sam’s wings, or the sense that everything was pushing forward to something good, something whole. He could not bring back what was lost but he could do what he was made to do and at least, then, have done something.

But just as he lay cold on the ground and did nothing while Tony cleaved Bucky’s arm from its socket, the day that Tony returned to infect their home was like falling back through the ice, bitter and helpless.

“Even I thought you were smarter than this, and I’ve seen you do some pretty dumbass shit, Rogers,” Tony had said after letting himself in. The lock on their apartment’s door was nothing more than pretense, but the unapologetic power move gnawed at Steve’s principles nonetheless.

“Ooh,” Sam had said, falling into place at Steve’s side, outwardly calm as ever. “This is kinda awkward. Man, I hate to be the one to bust out the pot/kettle scoreboard, but in terms of dumbassery—”

“Oh, drop the high school zingers. I’m not here to be cute, this isn’t debate team,” Tony said, checking his phone while he spoke as though to demonstrate how in-demand he was.

He cast a quick, cursory glance around the sitting room, taking in Steve, Sam, and Wanda, who was nearly hidden away, sitting with one leg tucked beneath her in a club chair behind the television. She picked at the tab on her empty pop can, an agitated click-click-click that filled every silence; a rattlesnake’s rattle. Bucky was nowhere in sight but Steve could hear him in his room, footsteps too soft for ordinary hearing to pick up, and Tony seemed to grow bolder in his absence.

“I pulled a lot of strings for you three. A lot. Like, pretty much a whole craft store’s worth.” A note of hurt crept into Tony’s voice, grating against Steve’s last nerve. “But there’s a line, okay? This is harboring a fugitive, Steve, he’s not just your best buddy from the good old days here to crash on your couch.”

Sam started to say something, but Tony pressed onward, cutting him off.

“He’s a fucking serial killer. And he murdered my family, which, whatever, you’ve made it so very clear how much you don’t care, but I’m not about to throw my support behind the guy who killed my parents and ruined my life. So you’re just gonna— what, hide him in the back room ’til ET can phone home? Hope the neighbors don’t gossip?”

“I gotta say, if the neighbors have noticed anything, they’re handling it like real New Yorkers,” Steve said, slow and easy.

A floorboard creaked in the hallway, and every head turned.

“I was just in my room, you coulda said something,” Bucky said, tying his hair in a knot at the back of his head as he rounded the corner. “Pretty rude, talking about somebody like they’re not even there when I’m, y’know, right there.”

Steve couldn’t know what Tony saw as he looked him up and down, but Bucky looked as far from threatening as Steve had ever seen. His pants had flowers printed on them, his t-shirt a soft gray — one of Sam’s, advertising a high school production of The Music Man. His new arm, Wakandan tech and better than anything Tony could dream up in three lifetimes, was the off-white color of buttermilk, smoother than skin and nearly as warm.

“Cute pants,” Tony sneered. “Flower power. They almost make me forget how you ran my parents’ car off the road, dragged my dad out by the hair–”

Wanda laughed, a dry, humorless sound like the crackle of a flame. Tony stopped cold.

“Don’t be a hypocrite,” she said, standing.

“It’s not— ” Tony fumbled, “he was there. It’s not the same. He was there, and he could have done something, and he didn’t. I mean, come on, we all know why Steve’s still kicking, you know the sob story. Because throwing yourself into the Potomac to fish out 220 lbs of dead weight is so much simpler than just not committing homicide.”

“You really don’t think I would’ve?” Bucky asked, and he didn’t even sound angry. Weariness dripped from the slump of his shoulders. “I mean, fuck, I don’t have everything, y’know, ironed out straight in here,” he made a wild gesture toward the side of his head. “It’s all kinda jumbled, lotta years to get through, but things have been coming back. Things have— not always in the right order, but Howard? He had this, he had this silver comb just for his mustache, right? Stupidest thing I ever saw, first fancy thing he bought for himself, and I remember, I always gave him hell for it but it had this handle, it folded like a pocket knife, and the handle had his name drilled into it, Stark, like he knew his name was gonna be everywhere, like he was promising himself— ”

“So you really were friends,” Tony said, like that was worse, and Steve reached for Bucky, the useless half-gesture of seeing someone fall across the street, knowing they’re too far away, and instinctively reaching out to catch them anyway.

Sam closed a hand around Steve’s wrist.

Tony took a deep breath and Steve almost felt sorry for him, looking as pared down as he did. “But what, the power of friendship is a limited edition special?” he asked, and that would have been enough for Steve, who had words, who had righteous vehemence fueled by the suffering of those he loved most, but Wanda yanked the rug from beneath his feet.

“I don’t think you understand,” she said, her voice deadly, “how easy it is to turn someone against their own self-interest.”

Tony fell uncharacteristically silent as Wanda advanced toward the doorway, stopping a few feet away from him. And it dawned on Steve, as Tony remained still, as Wanda planted her feet shoulder-width apart and stared him dead in the eye, that he was not doing so willingly.

“Sam,” she said, her voice conversational, “there is a letter opener on the coffee table. Could you hand it to me?”

He did so without a word, without interference.

Wanda tested its sharpness against her thumb, eyes still locked with Tony’s, before tossing it in front of her. Tony caught it one-handed, terror radiating from his face. It was easy to forget, with the suits and the bravado, that Tony Stark was not a particularly imposing man, only just taller than Wanda.

“You don’t want to hurt yourself. I can feel it, how much you don’t want to hurt yourself. But oh, what’s this?” she asked, as Tony raised the point of the blade to his throat. “Are you fighting it? I think you are. I think you are, but it’s not enough.”

Bucky looked at Sam, who looked at Steve, and Steve shook his head. He trusted Wanda, and soon enough the tautness of her shoulders relaxed, and Tony’s arm dropped to his side as he breathed heavily, shifted his weight, stared, stared. Shock ran pale in his face.

“I think you owe me this,” Wanda said softly, as though there weren’t three other men in the room hanging on her every word. “At the very least, if not out of kindness, or friendship, consider it a debt repaid.”

A muscle worked in Tony’s jaw.

“I’ll talk to my people,” he said at last. “I can’t promise everything’s gonna be peaches and cream for soldier boy over there, but. Yeah. You win. I’ll do what I can.”

Wanda arched one eyebrow, disbelieving, before extending her hand to shake.

“Pinky promise,” Tony said. “It’s more binding.”

They linked pinkies, and Tony left without another word.

~~~

Steve worried, initially, when Wanda left that Bucky would retreat back into himself. They were good for each other, conspiring in Sokovian and commiserating, forgetting, together. Bucky — the Bucky that had existed before the Winter Soldier, before Steve was pumped through with vita-radiation and reborn — had always been a compartmentalizing caretaker, gladly shucking his own tragedies to submerge himself in another’s. Steve and his paper bones, his heart palpitations and his shitty, shitty lungs had propped Bucky up through poverty and winter’s chill, through starvation and the Depression and war. Whether it was selfless or selfish or some confused, ignorant combination of the two, Steve couldn’t fault the logic; living off others’ suffering meant never coming up short, never starving. The Winter Soldier carried within him decades’ worth of horror — torture and abuse both inflicted and received — and Bucky Barnes laid his agony down at Wanda Maximoff’s feet in order to better to shoulder her burden. It had been a temporary shelter, a structure not built to last.

Wanda was just a kid — they were all kids, really, but Wanda, especially, needed more stability than Steve and his cadre could ever hope to provide. And so they had hugged their goodbyes and she had left with Clint on a spring morning, cursing the pollen in the air as though it were responsible for her running nose and red eyes. And it wasn’t really goodbye, not in this version of the present, since she’d set up some kind of texting limbo, a collective messaging space where the four of them could gripe at each other back and forth through their phones.

Bucky had moped, but not a great deal more than Sam or Steve, and soon enough began to express interest in relearning the surrounding area.

“You think I could get a bike?” he’d mused one evening, unprompted, as Sam and Steve grappled over the television remote.

“Oh!” Steve said, yielding at last to Sam’s abiding love for The Bachelorette. This, at last, was something he could fix. “My bike’s down in storage. I don’t mind if you borrow it.”

“Nah, I wasn’t thinking a motorbike; I meant one of the ones with, like, pedals and shit.”

“And a little white basket for your paper route?” Sam suggested, grinning.

Bucky cocked his head to the side, as though considering it. It was still hard, sometimes, to tell when he was joking, but he was getting better. “I don’t think the tactical disadvantage is worth it, y’know — nobody could ride on the handlebars.”

“Oh no, never again,” Steve laughed, before growing thoughtful. “Yeah, I got more than enough of that back when, uh, when I was— ”

“Back when he was just a snack wrap,” Sam supplied helpfully. “Before they turned him into a Big Mac.”

Steve snorted, swatting at Sam with the back of his hand, but he was grateful. It was difficult, with Bucky back, not to sink into nostalgia, to lose himself in melancholy.

“Yeah, we’ll get you hooked up,” Sam promised, settling back into the sofa. “Family outing. It’ll be fun.”

And it had been nice, the three of them sharing a goal for the afternoon. It had been nice, but it tripped something in Steve’s chest to be both home and not home, himself in a body that was not his own, with Bucky at his side but also not, not quite. Steve had spent his youth hovering at the edges of life; resigned, restrained, consistently on the verge of death, while those around him lunged ahead in full vitality, surpassing him at every turn. And having overcome death itself, plucked from everything he knew and loved, the gap between himself and those around him widened to encompass seventy years. It was destiny, or penance, he supposed, to be flung far and wide, to continue to land on his feet, and yet never find the place where he fit.

~~~

The bike, a green 7-Speed christened “Old Shelley,” would legendarily become the catalyst for multiple and varied shenanigans, the most important of which took place on a muggy June morning as Sam and Steve recovered from their 9 a.m. run.

“I’m just saying, worse things could happen than Sharon wanting some space,” Sam was reasoning as Steve fixed himself a post-workout glass of Ovaltine.

“Like?” Steve prompted, ever the novice when it came to maintaining a love life — at which Sam was, apparently, a virtuoso.

“She could’ve, well, she could’ve framed you for murder and then split with the family valuables. Or collected hair and blood samples while you were sleeping so she could make a creepy little Cap clone. Or! Dumped you right before your Stats final, which is some straight-up twisted shit right there; that is actual GPA sabotage and I'm still pissed about it."

It was hard to imagine someone breaking up with Sam. It seemed counterintuitive, somehow.

"Sorry about your GPS," Steve said just so Sam would fix him with the expression he liked best, half-assed disdain with affection bleeding through, fondness tugging up the corners of his mouth.

“Okay, but forreal.” Sam continued. “Not that Sharon’s not, I dunno, nice.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I like Sharon,” he insisted. “But listen, man, that was some Back to the Future bullshit and we both know it. There’s another timeline where you’re, like, her uncle. You’re married to Peggy and Sharon’s your niece. On holidays you send her Hallmark cards with money in them, and you comment stupid old-people shit on all her Facebook posts.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Steve said, mild.

Sam flailed his arms. “Yeah, ’cuz you haven’t, and it’s fucking weird!”

“Weird things just kind of— happen. To me.”

Sam’s face grew soft. “Yeah,” he agreed, and he walked around the kitchen table to put an arm around Steve. “Yeah, ain’t that the motherfucking truth.”

The front door rattled, and Steve jerked away from Sam as if they’d been doing something illicit. Which— well, Sam almost certainly wasn’t, but Steve. Steve wondered if maybe he was overcorrecting.

“Holy shit, dude,” Sam exclaimed, delighted, when Bucky walked inside missing roughly ten inches of hair.

“Well, look at you!” Steve agreed, heart colliding painfully with his stomach. He didn’t look the same, exactly, as before, but close enough to perhaps have been an older version of the James Buchanan Barnes he grew up with, one who had never fallen from that train in the Alps.

Bucky rubbed at the back of his head, more pleased than self-conscious. “You like it?”

“You look good, man, you should’ve done this, like, six months ago.” Sam leaned forward, both hands on the kitchen table. “Can I touch it?”

“Yeah, it’s soft as shit,” Bucky agreed, crossing the living room to let Sam run his hands through what was left of his hair.

Steve cleared his throat, feeling suddenly, awkwardly out of place.

“I’m gonna go, uh, read. Something,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the direction of his bedroom.

“You sure?” Sam asked, looking inexplicably disappointed. “You don’t wanna hang out?”

“Well, it’s just that, y’know, the hobbits are stuck in the Old Forest and, between you and me, I think something big’s about to go down.”

“Oh, you should’ve said!” Sam exclaimed, perking right back up. “No, okay, you go read, but you live-text me all the way to the end, okay?”

Steve clapped him on the shoulder, careful not to maintain contact for too long.

“Yeah, deal.”

~~~

“You’re at home, right?”

Natasha’s voice came tinny through the speaker on Steve’s phone, overloud in the silence he’d grown accustomed to now that Sam and Bucky were spending all their time together, adventuring and mischief-making and God only knew what else. He’d wondered, idly, if he should get a job. He didn’t need one, but it’d be something to keep him occupied instead of sitting around feeling sorry for himself.

“Don’t you have super secret spy gadgets to figure that out? Seems kinda old-fashioned, just asking.”

“Rogers.”

“Yeah, I’m at home.” He could hear— Steve wasn’t sure what exactly it was he could hear in the background, but he didn’t like the sound of it. “Are you alright? Where are you?”

“So, there might be a situation. Do you still have your helmet?”

Steve reached for the TV remote to turn on the news.“What situation? Where?”

“Your helmet, Steve, do you still have it? Try to stay with me, here.”

“Uh, yeah, still have the whole suit, actually. If that helps.”

“It doesn’t, but the helmet still has— fuck, hang on,” he heard her grunt, the sound of heavy breathing and fists making contact with bodies. “The lining,” she grated out, and then the call dropped.

Steve was momentarily thrown. As far as he was aware, there was nothing of value hidden in the padding of his helmet, unless Tony or Natasha had stashed something there without Steve ever hearing of it.

His phone buzzed again, and Steve scrambled to pick up.

“Stevie Wonder!” Clint’s voice rang out. “So, Tasha and I happen to be in the neighborhood— ”

“Is that a— is that thing alive?” Steve demanded, eyes riveted to the TV screen as what looked like an enormous floating skull loomed over Brooklyn Bridge Park.

“Whatever it is, the locals are not happy,” Clint grunted. “So, 411. Giant creepy hovercraft shows up outta nowhere, things are already not off to a great start, that Superman guy from, like, Delaware or wherever rolls up all ‘This is my responsibility’ so we were like ‘Great, great, she’s all yours’ except, when has my life ever been that simple, right? Like, I should’ve known—”

“Clint. Get to the point.”

“The bow and arrows are kinda useless against mind-controlled civilians, is the point! Like, I would love to not accidentally murder anyone today but oh my god, hand-to-hand is, like, not my specialty—”

There was some muffled shouting, and Steve tucked his phone between his cheek and shoulder to hastily lace up his shoes.

“A pregnant lady just tried to kill Superman, what is this fucking day?!”

“Clint,” Steve said, in the tone of voice he usually reserved for hysterical old ladies or panicked officers. “Natasha said something about needing my helmet, do you know what that’s about?”

“DO I FUCKING— ” there was a noisy pause, after which Clint seemed to have collected himself somewhat. “Yeah, Steven, it’s about getting you and your tin foil hat and your all-American abs up in this bitch, like, pronto!”

“So that’s a formal invitation?” Steve asked, like he wasn’t already about to dash out the door. “Because I still haven’t signed the Accords or anything, y’know? I’m off rotation.”

“Yeah, well, it’s your lucky day — like, the good part of all the sports movies. ‘You’re off the bench, kid, it’s finally time.’ ‘Gee, you really think I’m ready, Coach?’ and then— ow, Jesus, that was my head, you jackass!”

Steve swallowed down a laugh. God, he’d never admit it, but he’d really fucking missed Clint. “I’m on my way,” he said, and ended the call. Clint could probably do without the distraction, anyway.

~~~

When Steve arrived at the park, Clint was locked in a full nelson by a gentlemen who might’ve been someone’s grandfather while Natasha attempted to wrestle two screaming children into a fireman’s carry.

“Did you run here?” Natasha panted. “What happened to your bike?”

Steve hurried to take one of the kids from her, a little girl who promptly bit his arm before screaming in his ear. “I was in a rush, I didn’t think.”

“That much is obvious.”

There was a thud as both Clint and the old man hit the ground, scuffling.

“You have a plan, right?” Steve asked. He could just make out the ship in his peripheral vision, looming larger in the distance.

“Not exactly, but you’ve missed the worst of it. Whatever that thing is, it has limited range,” she said, hoisting the remaining child over her shoulder. “We’ve been attempting to establish a perimeter, but these idiots keep wandering in and going all— homicidal.”

As if to demonstrate, the small boy in her arms began pounding his fists against her back. She adjusted her hold, jostling him a little. It was most likely intentional.

“But it's leaving you and Clint alone? That seems pretty convenient,” Steve said, wary.

“Foresight,” Natasha corrected, “not convenience. Loki rattled S.H.I.E.L.D. pretty badly, so a certain number of us had these chips implanted— ”

“In your heads?” Steve was not ordinarily the type of person to consider himself squeamish, but something about the admission sent a chill down his spine.

Clint whirled on him. “You,” he huffed, comically furious, “do not get to be judgey about career-driven body mods, Captain Plastic.”

Natasha ignored him. “And this is why yours is in your helmet. You're welcome for that, by the way.”

When the children were safely deposited outside the perimeter and the old man adequately subdued, Steve took a moment to assess the spacecraft in the distance.

“The big metal tentacles weren’t there before, were they?”

“Oh my god,” Clint said, burying his face in his hands. “This fucking day,” he said, voice muffled.

“Anyone know what it’s here for? Aside from making park-goers try to murder us, I mean. Is there someone inside? Multiple someones?”

“He said he had it handled,” Natasha said, pointing up.

There was a man in the sky.

Steve Rogers, accustomed now to space travel and social media, to flight-enabling metal suits and biomechatronic limbs and alien invasions, was still taken aback at the sight of this man hanging in the air, arms folded across his chest as though waiting in line for a cup of coffee.

He was yelling something, high up enough that even Steve couldn’t pick out individual words. The ship let out a loud mechanical whine and a silver tentacle shot up toward the man, who dodged it by free-falling several dozen yards. Super serum enhancement aside, Steve thought his nerves might very well explode with tension.

“It’s just that it doesn’t look like you’re leaving me with any other options here!” the man shouted, clearly picking up from where he’d been interrupted.

“Do you think he needs help?” Natasha asked, far calmer than anyone within the city block had any right to be.

Red beams of light shot from the man’s eyes, cleanly slicing off one of the ship’s tentacles. It fell to the ground in a heap.

“Fuck,” Clint breathed, awed, and Natasha made an appreciative noise.

“I think he’s doing alright on his own,” Steve said, assessing the damage.

“Why spend all that time arguing with it when you can do that?” Clint demanded, and Natasha shrugged.

“Maybe they’re old friends.” She gave Steve a pointed look.

“Hey, don't look at me like that, I’m— ”

As if granting a wish, a silver radius glowed forth from the ship, immediately drawing all attention away from Steve.

“This is completely unacceptable,” the man in the sky admonished, in a tone much more suited to talking down a disobedient child.

He dodged a silver tentacle only to be ensnared by another, which tossed him halfway across the park like he weighed nothing.

“On second thought, he could probably use a hand,” Steve said.

“Or eight,” Natasha supplied helpfully.

As they ran toward the ship, Steve could hear Clint say to Natasha, “Man, and I thought Steve was bad, but at least he’s never tried to give the ‘I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed,’ talk to a giant killer robot skull.”

Something warm kindled in Steve’s chest. It was good to be back.

A tentacle swung out at the trio, flailing and clicking. “Clint,” Steve called out, urgent, “I hope you packed your trick arrows.”

Clint fired two glowing projectiles into the joint where limb met ship, and the tentacle dropped to the ground, motionless.

“Nice job. Now let’s see if we can do something about that glowing silver beam. It doesn’t seem like it’s doing anything yet, but that makes me nervous.”

“I’ll handle it,” Natasha said, coming up on his left. “You don’t have your shield, and knowing you, your entire plan consists of just going in there and throwing punches.”

Steve, whose entire plan had definitely consisted of going in there and throwing punches, motioned for her to run ahead of him toward the bottom of the ship.

“What’s she doing?” a voice called from above Steve. Their flying friend had returned.

“We’re trying to disable that light; what the hell does it do?”

“From the bottom? That’s not going to— ”

“SUPERMAN,” the ship bellowed, a deep synthetic bass so loud Steve could feel the vibrations in the soles of his shoes. “YOU HAVE THWARTED MY MISSION FOR THE LAST TIME. ALL SHALL REMEMBER TODAY AS THE DAY I PLUCKED THE MAN OF STEEL FROM THE SKIES.”

A flurry of motion punctuated the end of this brief speech and Steve hit the ground and rolled, dodging snapping metal pincers.

In lieu of warning, he heard a yelp and “Incoming!” before a pair of strong arms wrapped around his chest and the ground disappeared from beneath his feet.

Steve squeezed his eyes shut and reopened them, taking in a deep breath. A fall from this height wouldn’t hurt him, but not even super serum granted immunity from motion sickness.

“Hey, you’re doing great,” the man — Superman — said in a tone that was maddeningly similar to Steve’s calming-down-hysterics voice. God, no wonder Clint had snapped at him earlier. “Seriously, excellent job of not struggling. Not that I’d let anything bad happen if you were! I can’t stress to you enough how much you don’t need to be worried right now.”

“I’m not worried. I’m Captain America,” Steve said, harsher than was probably necessary.

“That’s the ticket!” Superman said, and Steve found himself wishing he really would drop him. The guy was like a living, breathing children’s cartoon.

Far beneath their feet, the silver beam from the ship began spreading in a slow circle like it was taking measurement of the space around the park.

“Can you tell me what’s going on with that thing?” Steve demanded.

Superman exhaled slowly, sounding far more exasperated than anything else. “So that down there’s a ship, which you’ve probably gathered by now, piloted by a delusional Coluan calling himself Brainiac who’s got this idea in his head that if he can steal enough cities from other planets he’ll end up with an entire population to rule over.”

Steve blinked. “He wants to— he’s gonna steal Brooklyn.”

“Well, he’s gonna try,” Superman said, sounding remarkably calm to Steve, who had already lost one Brooklyn and was not overly keen to lose another. “He hasn’t managed yet, but you’ve gotta admire that level of persistence. Now, watch your head!” he commanded, and another wave of red fire shot from his eyes as the ship made a grab for them. Steve’s skin prickled from the residual heat, and he took a steadying breath. A man who could level a building just by looking at it was carrying him around like a rag doll.

All in a day’s work.

“You said Natasha wouldn’t be able to get in from the bottom, was that right?” Steve asked, shoving down the minor existential crisis he knew he’d have to deal with later.

“Yup. The escape hatch is in the top, and— oh, fuckwagon, okay,” Superman swerved mid-air to miss a flying metal pincer, “these are actually doing a decent job of keeping me away from it.”

“Keeping you away from it, sure,” Steve said, wheels turning.

“Ah. This sounds like the preamble to a bad idea,” Superman said eagerly, and alright, Steve was starting to warm up to the guy.

“Well, as long as I’m here I might as well make myself useful,” he said. “How would you feel about dropping me from an outrageous height while you keep your alien pal distracted from up here?”

“I’d say the landing’s gonna be hard on your knees, but I think I heard somewhere that you were Captain America so I guess that won’t be an issue, huh?”

Superman held tight as they streaked across the sky, faster than anything Steve had ever experienced.

This was even better than being back with the Avengers.

~~~

After one adrenaline-inducing fall, a handful of minor explosions, and several long streaks of swearing ranging across human and alien lexicons, a small crowd began to gather around the park to witness the aftermath of an Avengers team-up.

Natasha, running on a low bar of patience after securing yet another megalomaniac armed with alien technology, glowered as she tied her hair back with an elastic.

“Well, he has a handle on the baby-kissing routine if nothing else,” she said, inclining her head toward Superman and a family of park-goers engaged in animated conversation. “It’s bad enough when Tony does it, but at least he’s upfront about wanting to be lavished with praise. Flyboy’s gonna come back around with the ‘golly gee’ modesty routine, just wait.”

“I dunno,” Steve said, squinting his eyes. He could catch snippets of sentences here and there, and they seemed to be talking about, of all things, their favorite places to get milkshakes late in the evening. One of the formerly homicidal children was trailing after him, having grabbed hold of the end of his cape to flap it up and down like wet laundry. Superman didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. “I think he might just really like people.”

“Ooooh,” Clint said, because he was Clint. “Tasha, I think Steve’s got a crush.”

As if he could somehow hear that they were talking about him, Superman picked that moment to turn around and wave back at the three of them. The tips of Steve’s ears burned.

“Doesn’t he live in an ice castle in the Arctic or something? That’s one hell of a long-distance relationship,” Natasha mused, as though either of them had any idea what she was talking about.

“I think I’ve had enough of ice for a while,” Steve said drily, and Natasha snorted and punched his bicep.

“Were you not just recently complaining about how impossible it is for you to find somebody with shared life experience?”

“As far as rebounds go,” Clint chimed in, “you could definitely do worse than a guy who could fly to Taco Bell for you in the middle of the night.”

“That seems like a highly specific scenario to base a pretty big decision around,” Steve said.

“I’m just saying,” Clint muttered. “I bet Sharon never brought you a Crunchwrap Supreme at one in the morning.”

“She’s not really a night person,” Natasha said automatically, cutting off Steve’s similarly worded reply.

Steve raised an eyebrow at her and pursed his lips. He knew Sharon and Natasha had been working together more often recently, but he hadn’t realized they were friends. She hadn’t mentioned that to him.

“Oh, don’t give me your disappointed authority face,” Natasha said, far more defensive than Steve felt the situation really called for. She ran her fingers through her ponytail, suddenly on edge. “I would’ve mentioned it earlier but as it turns out, you’re one of the few people around here I actually like, so I didn’t want you to be angry with me. But I’ve kissed you too, haven’t I? And then you kissed Sharon, so then of course it was really only to be expected that— well.”

The bottom of Steve’s stomach dropped. “Wait, hold on, what are we talking about now?”

Natasha tilted her head, confused. “Is this not where this conversation was steering toward?”

Dude,” Clint said, gleeful. “Oh my god, forget the giant alien robot skull, this is actually the best day of my life. It’s like the real housewives of Brooklyn. Natasha totally kissed your ex.”

“Sharon?!” Steve asked in a voice far more high-pitched than he’d ever given it permission to be. He couldn’t breathe, suddenly.

“No, Peggy,” Natasha fired back sarcastically. “Yeah, of course it was Sharon. And if it’s going to be this whole big deal, let’s just forget I said anything”

“For work purposes?” Steve asked, flashing back to the circumstances surrounding Natasha kissing him. “Or,” his voice dropped to a horrified whisper, “for fun purposes?”

Natasha grimaced, shrugging her shoulders in a complicated series of movements. “It sort of— started in the first territory and spread to the latter,” she said, reluctant, as Clint doubled over laughing.

“Everyone’s having fun over here, I missed out,” a voice said from behind Steve, because of course, of course this would be the moment Superman decided to walk back over and bear witness to Steve’s humiliation.

“Oh!” Clint said, trying to save face but still laughing. “Oh, we were just. We were in the middle of, we were talking about— ”

“Paperwork,” Natasha cut in, having regained her composure entirely. “Coming up with more and more outlandish excuses not to do it. Our last suggestion involved hiring an enchantress to conjure our paperwork into penguins and release them into the wild.”

Superman grinned. “You have to do homework? Kinda takes all the glamour out of crimefighting, huh?

“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Clint yelped.

“Guess you don’t have to answer to anybody out in the Arctic,” Natasha observed, and Superman shrugged.

“Pretty much. It does get kinda lonely out there though, so. Positives and negatives.”

“Aw, no big afterparty?” Clint asked, and Superman laughed and tucked his chin, surprisingly self-conscious for someone who could do the things he did.

“My version of an afterparty involves listening to rock music while I scrap that ship for parts,” he said, gesturing toward the sad remains of Brainiac’s hovercraft. “Not exactly paperwork, but pretty close.”

Clint narrowed his eyes. “How are you getting that all the way to the Arctic? Who’s your team? Are you working for somebody or do you have people working for you?”

“I manage pretty well on my own, actually,” Superman said with a ‘watch this’ grin on his face as he approached the ship.

“Hope you haven’t been padding your muscle suit,” Steve called after coming to the dizzying realization that he was about to simply lift something that was the size of a small house.

Superman braced his shoulders against the ship and leaned his weight into it, edging it off the ground. “If that’s a ploy,” he grunted, “to get me out of the suit, I gotta say I’m really more of a third-date type of guy.”

In his peripheral vision, Steve could see Natasha level him with a studying look and Clint’s eyes boggling practically out of his face. There was something oddly satisfying about it, especially in light of their previous conversation. He liked to think he still had it in him to exceed their expectations.

“Did this count as the first?” Steve called back, just to see the look on Clint’s face morph into something nightmarish. He laughed, feeling lighter than he had in weeks.

“It wouldn’t normally, but I heard a rumor that you’re Captain America so I guess I’ll make an exception.”

The ship creaked, and with one final push Superman lifted it from the earth, supporting the bottom with one arm like it weighed nothing. It was impossible to tell whether he was showing off or simply so accustomed to his own strength it didn’t occur to him to hide it. Both scenarios were equally plausible.

“If our paths cross again, I hope it’s under more pleasant circumstances,” he said in lieu of farewell, and winked at Steve before lifting off. Natasha, Steve, and Clint watched in silence until he was nothing more than a speck in the distant skyline.

Clint turned to Steve, awe written across every feature of his face. “You’ve gotta tap that, dude.”

~~~

Days slid back into routine, and weeks passed before another game-changer appeared, this time in the form of one Peter Parker eagerly wringing his hands on their doorstep.

“Steve!” Sam called from the front room. “It’s the Arachna-kid, says he’s got ‘business’ to take care of or whatever.”

Sam grabbed Steve’s arm when they crossed paths. “If he’s selling popcorn,” he advised solemnly, “don’t buy. That boy scout shit is nasty.”

“Noted,” Steve agreed, bewildered.

Peter, still on the porch, was practically bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet when Steve got to the door.

“Is something wrong?” Steve asked, unable to come up with a single plausible scenario as to why Peter would need to talk to him. He hadn’t even been aware that Peter knew where they lived — though, he did seem to be in contact with Tony, which was a harrowing thought.

“I dunno, you tell me!” Peter exclaimed, thrusting a plain, worn envelope into Steve’s hand. He lowered his voice. “But it totally looks like top secret superhero business, doesn’t it?”

Steve, having no real impression of what ‘top secret superhero business’ could possibly resemble, shrugged as he turned the envelope over in his hands. It was addressed to Peter Parker, with a handwritten request on the flip side to deliver the letter to the household of Steve Rogers.

“You’re gonna open it, right?” Peter asked, suddenly very, very close. The kid did not have much awareness of personal space, that was for damn sure. Steve took a step back, resisting the petty temptation to tell Peter the adults could handle this and send him on his way.

“Maybe, but first I gotta ask,” Steve said. “Did Tony send you here to do this?”

Peter’s ears went red. “Uh,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, “sort of? I mean, indirectly. Well, I got your address through Tony, so. Sure. But if you guys are still, like, not speaking to each other or whatever, um, that’d be— That wouldn’t be a problem. That’d be, like, the opposite of a problem.”

The fact that a hyperactive teenager with unstable superpowers could pull a fast one on Tony like that probably should have been cause for alarm, but Steve found himself fighting the urge to laugh. Tony had absolutely invited this. He could figure out what to do about it on his own.

Steve tore the envelope open and scanned the contents. “Huh,” he mused as he read. “This is pretty mundane for all the effort it took to get to me.”

“Lemme see!” Peter made a grab for the envelope before realizing what he was doing and freezing, abashed.

Steve handed the letter over, rolling his eyes affectionately. It had probably taken all of Peter’s self-control not to open the letter on his own before bringing it over. “Just some reporter asking for an interview. I guess he figured I still haven’t gotten a handle on email or something.”

“Wait, you have an email address?” Peter asked, answering that question. Steve clearly needed to be more diligent about passing along his contact information. “Oh!” Peter exclaimed, eyes tracking the page, “this is Clark Kent! Oh my god, he’s so cool. Well, he’s cool on Twitter. I’ve only read a few of his Daily Planet stories, they’re fine, but his tweets are, like, on fire. One time I tweeted at him and he tweeted me back and I died.”

“I’m happy for you,” Steve said cautiously, not wanting to crush Peter’s idolization. “But don’t you think it’s kind of suspicious how he knew there was a connection between you and me? How’d he know to send a letter to you and that you’d get it to me?”

“Oh, all the Stark interns got ’em,” Peter said, waving a hand dismissively. “Didn’t have anything to do with me. That happens sometimes — people have stuff they want to get to Iron Man and think we’re the weak links just ’cuz we’re new.”

“So, you’re telling me a stranger encouraged you to get ahold of confidential information and you just— you just did it? Did you at least make sure you weren’t followed?”

“Well it didn’t even turn out to be a stranger,” Peter huffed. “Clark Kent. From Twitter — I just told you. And no I wasn’t followed, I’m not stupid. I didn’t bike here.”

Right, Steve thought. Arachna-kid. He felt kinda sorry for him in that moment. The kid had unbelievable superpowers and was clearly itching to use them at whatever opportunities presented themselves, no matter how trivial.

“Think I should take him up on it, then?” Steve asked, just to make Peter feel important for a moment. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to do it, but Peter didn’t need to know that.

“Uh, yes?! Oh my god, do it and tell him to follow me back on Twitter. That’d be so sick.”

“I’ll think about it,” Steve said, which was not untrue. “Need anything else? Do you think you can make it home alright, or— ”

“I’m Spider-Man,” Peter huffed. “I don’t need a babysitter. But, uh, one more thing before I go. Does that, uh, that one girl still live with you?” He gestured with his hands, a half-hearted imitation of Wanda.

“Why?”

“Maybe I have official superhero business with her too,” Peter said, schooling his face into a solemn expression that clashed horribly with the redness flooding to the tips of his ears.

“Not on your life,” Steve grinned.

~~~

Doing an interview was out of the question. Steve knew this. The last thing he or Sam or Bucky needed right now was to be thrust into the public eye. And yet, he was curious about Clark Kent. The way Peter described him had piqued Steve’s interest, and the fact that his convoluted method of getting in contact had actually succeeded was worthy of at least a little merit, in Steve’s mind.

And so Steve dutifully typed his name into a search browser, expecting to find some mildly entertaining reading material for the evening before moving on with his life.

He hadn’t expected to like the guy’s writing so much.

It wasn’t that Kent was opinionated — he wrote for Features mostly, with the occasional column now and again. The topics he wrote about were not earth-shattering. He reviewed entertainment, covered public events, discussed celebrities and fads. And yet, he made them appealing and accessible even to Steve, who’d just assumed he would never be caught up with pop culture at the rate he was going. Kent never seemed disdainful of the topics he covered, even when they were fairly frivolous. There was something kind of admirable about that.

But what particularly caught Steve’s attention was a column titled “From the Desk of the Editor: A Metropolis View of the Sokovia Accords.” He’d gone into it cautiously, knowing it was likely to shed light on Kent’s interest in speaking with him. And what he encountered was measured, impartial, and deeply thoughtful. The man had clearly put a lot of thought into the ethics of vigilante justice, as well as the intersection of morality and civic justice when corruption was taken into account. He discussed the Accords in relation to Metropolis’s beloved Superman, and whether his self-imposed limits left too great a risk factor for the population of the city.

Steve found himself wishing he could talk to the guy.

Well, maybe that wasn’t quite right. Reading the articles made Steve desperately aware of how little he was connecting with his friends recently. They all seemed to be developing new relationships or seeking out different opportunities, carving out new spaces for themselves where Steve no longer fit. He’d never been much good at making friends, but he hadn’t realized how much more difficult it was keeping friends after making them.

He missed having a group of people to explain pop culture to him, to watch silly movies and accompany him during everyday tasks. He missed serious late-night discussions and long phone calls, and while he knew reading impersonal, professional writing from a man who didn’t even know him was a poor substitute, it was at least something.

Steve opened his email in a new browser without really thinking about it. Before his conscience could catch up with him, he copied Clark Kent’s email address from the top of his letter and began composing a reply.

He consoled himself with the thought that he never lied outright — Steve claimed in his reply that he was interested but undecided when it came to the Daily Planet’s offer, and would be happy to meet though he couldn’t promise anything would come of it. It wasn’t lying, really. And it wasn’t pathetic, Steve reassured himself against his better judgment, just the next step in building up a network of useful contacts. And if he hoped Clark would make for good conversation when they eventually met up, well, wasn’t that all anyone hoped for when meeting new people?

~~~

“That’s a cut above your usual,” Bucky said, giving Steve a once over as he tried and failed to unobtrusively make his way out the door. He hadn’t gone all out, not by any stretch of the imagination, but Steve had wanted to look professional. His shirt was clean, his pants were made of something other than denim, and, alright, he’d styled his hair — but only because he hadn’t had time to cut it recently and he’d wanted it to look semi-neat.

Sam sidled in behind him. “Ooh, hot date?” He asked, and Steve rolled his eyes skyward. God, grant him patience. The one time he wanted to be left alone, and he was finally the center of attention.

“It’s just lunch,” Steve said lamely, and Sam and Bucky exchanged a knowing look. Steve had never really been a fan of being the subject of knowing looks.

“Yeah, but lunch with somebody?” Bucky asked, and Steve shrugged, purposefully evasive. There wasn’t really an acceptable way to admit to taking advantage of a professional’s time just so they’d pay attention to you. “Somebody we know?”

“No, and look, maybe it won’t amount to anything at all, so it probably won’t even matter,” Steve said, trying not to snap at him.

“Aw, c’mon, don’t talk down on yourself like that!” Sam said, crossing over to Steve and placing both hands on Steve’s shoulders. “You’re a goddamn catch, and fuck whoever makes you think you’re not, alright? Tell us about it or don’t, but you don’t have to protect your lunch date’s honor and act like nothing ever happened if they’re a jerk and dump you, okay?”

Bucky snorted.

“If it goes well, it goes well, and if it doesn’t then come back and bitch about it with us, but you don’t have to carry it all by yourself, man,” Sam insisted. “You know that, right?”

Steve could feel himself blushing. This was — well, this was a lot for him to hear considering recent motivations for his actions, but there wasn’t much he could do about that now.

“Thanks,” Steve said, somewhat stiff, and Sam beamed at him, pulling him in for a hug.

“Don’t mention it. Now go get ’em,” he said, patting Steve on the shoulder and sending him on his way.

~~~

The overlap of occasions where Steve had time to read his book and actually had the foresight to bring his book with him was a sad, small number, Steve reflected mournfully as he waited for Clark Kent to arrive at their designated meeting location. Though it wasn’t like he had an easy time reading in public anyway, and cafés were especially bad. The serum had made him an ideal soldier — perfect vision, enhanced hearing, heightened responses to stimuli — but none of these things made it particularly easy to lead an average, civilian lifestyle. Being out in public was exhausting. Everything was too much and too loud.

Across the café, a baby started crying. Nearer to Steve, a woman rooted around in her purse, searching for a tin of lip balm that her companion kept asking for. Silverware rattled against plates and grease sizzled in the kitchen. A light in the corner was flickering, and a fly buzzed near the door, unable to escape. Through the window, Steve watched a man trip on the sidewalk and another man stop to help him up.

It only took a moment for Steve to recognize the second man. He was wearing the same shirt he’d worn in his professional headshot, checkered green plaid with about four pens tucked into his breast pocket, and his socks were red. His hair was a mess, semi-styled dark curls tugged completely out of place by the day’s breeze.

Steve could feel his pulse starting to race. Maybe it was the red socks.

Kent shook hands with man he’d helped up, patted him on the arm and turned to walk into the café. His gaze slide over Steve in the window before doubling back, eyes comically wide, and he grinned and waved.

“It’s you!” Kent said, breathless, after barreling through the doors. He tossed a messenger bag onto the table and edged his chair back without looking, collapsing into it like he’d been involved in some highly taxing activity beforehand.

“It’s me,” Steve agreed, taken slightly aback but not unpleasantly so. Kent was not what he’d expected in the slightest. “It’s nice to meet you in person, Mr. Kent. I’ve read some of your pieces and they’re great.”

“Clark,” He corrected, reaching over the table to shake Steve’s hand. “Call me Clark, everyone does. And I’m glad you think so! I’ll have to tell my mom that, she thinks you’re just the bees’ knees.”

Clark’s handshake was weak, which was surprising for someone of his build. He was nearly as tall as Steve and in excellent shape, though it took a moment to register that due to his frankly terrible posture. He held himself like he was trying to take up the smallest amount of space that he possibly could — like he was self-conscious.

“I’d like to apologize for my cryptic, third-party letter, first up,” Clark said, looking far more amused than contrite. “Still kinda can’t believe that worked, but I was always a go-getter when I was an intern, so I thought — I dunno, maybe. I was surprised when you emailed! I wasn’t sure you had an email address.”

“You and everybody else,” Steve said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly.

“Hey, no offense, but your social media presence could use some work,” Clark said, which was something Tony and Rhodey used to badger him about, but this was the first time a near-stranger had actually worked up the nerve to complain to him about it. It was kind of nice.

“I used to have a PR team for handling that sort of thing,” Steve confessed. “And now— well, I’m laying low. So it hasn’t really been a problem until now.”

“Why now, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Steve must have looked stricken, because Clark put up a reassuring hand.

“I’m not— this isn’t for the piece. I wasn’t thinking that would happen today, I just thought it would be handy to negotiate the details with you while I was in town.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, it was never really about the timing,” Steve admitted. “And I’m still pretty on the fence about this whole thing.”

“Yeah? I’d say you’re well within your rights to be,” Clark said agreeably. “There’s no rush. I want this to be on your terms.”

Relief flooded through Steve’s veins. In due time, he thought, he might actually be willing to sit through an interview with Clark; he just wasn’t ready to do so right away. But if Clark was willing to wait, Steve might very well relent to making plans for some future date — meaning today wouldn’t just be a colossal waste of Clark’s time after all.

“I might need some time, then,” Steve said. “And I really appreciate your patience here. You’ve gotta be the least pushy press representative I’ve ever met in my life.”

“Aw, c’mon, we’re not all bad. Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch, journalists are people too!” Clark exclaimed, straightening up out of his slouch in his fervor. After a moment he seemed to regain his bearings and deflated, sheepish. “Sorry,” he laughed. “I have a whole rant about that, but it’d probably be best to save that for another day, huh?”

“Some other time,” Steve agreed. He liked the sound of that, of doing this again sometime soon.

Clark ordered coffee when their waitress came over, something frilly with whipped cream and caramel overflowing from the top, and unselfconsciously dumped two packets of sugar over the top when it arrived. Steve raised an eyebrow — this was bordering on ludicrous, Clark had to be aware of that — but Clark leveled a blank stare back, unruffled. It didn’t seem to occur to him to get defensive.

An aching sensation of fondness settled in Steve’s chest. He wondered if he was getting in over his head.

Steve’s phone vibrated, the screen lighting up with a message from an unfamiliar number.

‘ARE YOU WITH CLARK KENT? HE TWEETED SOMETHING BUT IT WAS VAGUE I CAN’T BELIEVE UR HOLDING OUT ON ME LIKE THIS’ the message read, signed helpfully ‘ –Peter (Spider-Man).’

Another message followed within seconds. ‘i’ll forgive u if he follows me back on twitter ok’.

“How did you get this number?” Steve texted back, and looked up at Clark, who was smiling at him.

“Sorry,” Clark said, looking down at his hands and then back up at Steve. “I wasn’t trying to stare. You were just laughing at your phone, and it was really— I dunno, just really normal?”

It usually annoyed Steve when people said things like that about him. Just because he’d fought in a war didn’t mean he wasn’t also a human being, who petted cats and liked desserts and listened to music, but this one instance didn’t bother him so much. He liked the idea of Clark measuring up what they had in common. He liked the idea of having things in common with a man like Clark.

“Our mutual friend at Stark Industries wants to know if you’ll follow him back on Twitter,” Steve explained.

Clark’s head tipped back when he laughed, knocking against the chair. “Very enterprising,” he said, effusive in his delight. “What’s his Twitter handle?”

Steve picked up his phone. ‘He wants to know your handle?’ he texted back, and received a reply almost instantly.

‘linkinparker96 omg omg omg ur my favorite avenger’

‘tell tony that please’

‘i will BUT SELFIE FIRST?’

“He asked for a selfie?” Steve relayed to Clark, who was, predictably, delighted.

“Here, let’s do it on my phone and I’ll tweet it to him,” Clark offered, coming around to Steve’s side of the table. He put an arm around Steve to snap the picture, and the warmth of his touch seemed to seep through Steve’s shirt right down to the bone. “And what’s his handle?” Clark asked, keeping one hand on Steve’s shoulder to read Steve’s phone screen. “Oh, I recognize that. He’s in my mentions all the time.”

“I’ll tell him you said that. He might just rapture straight to heaven.”

Clark laughed his full-bodied laugh again, regretfully pulling his hand away from Steve’s shoulder. It was like a cloud drifting in front of the sun, losing that point of contact.

“Alright, so,” Clark said, pulling Steve out of his reverie with blunt professionalism. “I wanna go back to what you said earlier about this not being about the timing. You said you’re not quite ready for more publicity just yet, but you’re here with me anyway. Why?”

“It was, uh,” Steve faltered, “it was you, really. Well, your editorial. I just— I liked it. So I figured, y’know, one of these days when I’m ready to get back into the old routine, you’ll be a good person to know.”

“I’m really honored to hear you say that,” Clark said, solemn. “I almost didn’t write it. I was so worried about overstepping.”

“What made you finally do it?”

Clark shrugged. “Superman, I guess. You can’t really live in Metropolis and not relate everything back to him. But I was thinking about him, and about you, and how Tony Stark can always take off the suit and walk away, but people like you and Dr. Banner and Wanda Maximoff — and, well, and Superman — don’t get to do that. So regulation would ultimately mean something very different to him than it would to people like you.”

They were interrupted once more by a phone vibrating — Clark’s this time.

“I should take this,” he said, apologetic. “Coworker.”

Clark made his way over to the empty space by the restrooms and leaned against the wall, giving Steve a thumbs-up with his free hand.

Steve, to his credit, tried not to eavesdrop. He really did.

Steve could pick up the sound of a woman speaking on the other end of the line, though even his serum-enhanced hearing couldn’t make out what she was saying. Whatever it was, Clark didn’t look thrilled to be hearing it. He chewed his lip, anxiously fiddling with his glasses.

“Nah, just a selfie,” he said into the phone. “He has a lot on his plate right now, that’s the impression I’m getting. We shouldn’t push.”

There was an annoyed-sounding response, to which Clark responded, “Sorry, Cat.”

Whatever she said next made Clark square his shoulders. “C’mon, don’t make me start quoting the SPJ Code of Ethics here. There’s more than one way to be a bad journalist.” Another pause, and then “I’m not trying to! But I am a little surprised right now, I’ll be honest. You know, I’ve always really admired your instinct for reading situations and your sensitivity, so this isn’t a conversation I expected to be having with you.”

That seemed to do the trick, and Clark’s posture relaxed once more. “I just think he could use some people in his corner right now. So yeah, I am serious. Don’t push.”

She said something that made him smile.

“Always for you, Cat,” he said, fond. “Bye.”

Steve occupied himself with straightening out his silverware as Clark walked back over. He wasn’t sure he could trust himself not to project every bit of warmth he was feeling toward Clark if he made eye contact with him.

“Trouble at the mill?” Steve asked.

Clark made a face. “Just workplace gossip, you know how it is.”

“Oh, do I ever,” Steve said, and before he knew it he and Clark had launched into an extensive cataloguing of bizarre Avengers conspiracy theories.

Not nearly enough time had passed before Clark began discreetly checking his watch, but Steve dolefully admitted to himself that he should probably start heading back as well.

“I’m probably keeping you,” Steve said, and Clark actually did look self-conscious at that.

“Maybe just a little,” he said, “but believe me, I wish I could stay.”

As they made their way out the door, Steve said “I’ll let you know about the interview, whenever— you know, when I’m up for it.”

Clark looked at him but didn’t say anything, his expression suddenly intense.

“Because it’d be nice to, um, it’d be nice to see you again, also,” Steve tacked on, mentally berating himself as soon as the words left his mouth.

“I’m starting to think,” Clark said, slowly as though he were choosing the words carefully, “that when you interview with the Planet, it shouldn’t be with me, personally.”

Steve’s stomach lurched. Oh, he’d fucked up. He’d fucked up badly.

“Oh don’t— that came out wrong,” Clark added in a rush. “Jesus H. Christ, you look like I just kicked your dog.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’m doing this all wrong, aren’t I?”

Steve, having put his foot in his mouth enough for one day, said nothing.

Clark’s hand fluttered, settled on Steve’s upper arm for a moment before dropping back to his side. “It’s just that I’m thinking I’d actually really like to take you out?” He said, so quickly Steve had to play it back in his mind before he understood what Clark had just said to him. “And I’d love to not get dragged into Perry’s office for the conflict of interest talk, so.”

“What, like dating?” Steve asked in disbelief, and Clark laughed, a frantic little sound.

“That was sort of the idea, but— ”

“Should I give you my phone number?” Steve cut him off, not wanting to listen to Clark dismiss himself. “That’s part of the whole process, right?” He asked, and Clark’s laugh was far closer to his regular laugh this time.

“That would probably help,” he said, hand lingering over Steve’s when he reached for Steve’s phone to put his number in. “I’ll call you tonight, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve said, feeling a bit dazed.

As it turned out, he actually would have something to gossip with Sam and Bucky about when he got back after all.

~~~

Steve had expected a fair amount of teasing and friendly protectiveness when it came to telling his friends about Clark. What he hadn’t expected was a near-baffling level of caution, as though Clark were some kind of live wire. Like Clark’s respect for their privacy wasn’t the entire reason Steve was comfortable being with him like this.

Sam mostly just doled out advice at first, and Steve had genuinely appreciated that. Sam was never really inclined to mince words around Steve, meaning Steve trusted his judgment above most people’s. And Sam’s concerns had been rational — at least, they began that way.

“I know it’s not, like, long-distance, but it’s still sort-of distance,” he’d warned Steve at first. “That’s not gonna be easy.”

But Clark was in the neighborhood often enough with work, and it wasn’t as though Steve had a jam-packed schedule to navigate around, so Steve wasn’t overly concerned.

Sam had also found it unusual, and Steve had mostly agreed on this front, that Clark was still very good friends with his ex-girlfriend. Steve had raised an eyebrow when Clark had introduced his ex, Lois, as “my best friend,” but his concerns subsided a bit after slowly gathering that this was how Clark introduced just about any friend he’d had more than four conversations with. It was still unusual, but less alarming than he’d initially perceived.

The next of Sam’s concerns was too personal to bring up during their one of their runs, leading to a tentative knock on Steve’s bedroom door one evening before Sam settled, cross-legged, at the foot of Steve’s bed.

“Listen, you don’t have to— disclose anything, like, personal, or anything like that,” he began, and Steve felt his emotional walls ratchet up a notch. “It’s just that you’ve never really brought this up before, so if Clark is — if this is the first time you’ve ever been with a man, I’m just saying you might wanna take things a little slower and also, uh, also let him know. About that.”

Steve crossed his arms, as though the motion could deflect attention from how furiously he was blushing. Sam, he noted with relief, was also flushed.

“I mean, he seems nice!” Sam added, a bit frantic. “Like, I so don’t get the impression that he’s gonna be a dick about anything — just, you know, expectations. Can be different. If you don’t talk about them.”

“Duly noted,” Steve replied, for lack of anything better to say. The part of his brain that was always looking for trouble began to wonder if he’d screwed up an interaction with Sam somewhere along the line, leading Sam to believe Steve had trouble discerning the lines between friendship and flirtation. The idea that Sam had picked up on Steve’s messy, yearning feelings for him, especially now that Steve was fairly certain Sam didn’t return them, was too much for him to think about just then. He shoved the thought to the back of his mind.

Awkward as it was to talk about, Steve knew that Sam had a point. Fortunately, the conversation with Clark went much more smoothly.

He had gone up to Metropolis to spend the day with Clark, to get to know the city and gain a better grasp of Clark’s day-to-day life. They’d packed their morning with park and museum visits, saving the end of the day for a symphony performance when they’d both be tired and ready to sit awhile.

It was around mid-afternoon that Steve broached the subject. They were strolling through the central part of the city, unhurried, when a group of students rushed past them and Clark instinctively took Steve’s hand.

Steve must have tensed, because Clark made a little soothing motion with his thumb. “This alright?” He asked.

Steve rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand, buying himself a moment of time to pull his thoughts together.

“I’m still getting used to a lot,” he began, and Clark nodded, seeming to understand exactly where this was going. “And we might — it might be better for me if we go into this kinda slowly.”

“Just because it’s new, or are there things we’ll need to work through?” Clark asked, inquisitive as ever.

Steve sighed, rolling his shoulders. “I might have a,” he trailed off. “There might be some, I dunno, leftover Catholic guilt.”

“Ah,” Clark said, his brow furrowing. “Of the Hell variety?”

“Nah, that doesn’t play into it as much as you’d think.”

Steve paused again, knowing this was going to sound ridiculous.

“It’s more about disappointing people, really,” he clarified at last. “God, Jesus, Mary, all the angels and saints, Father William, Sister Margaretta, old Mrs. MacCawley who brings you leftover fish every Friday during Lent, you get the drift.”

“Wow,” Clark said, finally, but to his credit he did not laugh. “And you can’t just— all the people you worry about letting down, are they all, um, inaccessible? It’s not anyone you could talk to?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, quiet. He’d never really pulled this feeling out to examine it closely before. It made him feel small again; vulnerable in a way he was no longer used to.

“Do you know other gay people?” Clark asked, gentle as though he were worried Steve might startle. “Aside from me, obviously.”

“Yeah,” Steve said slowly, not wanting to reveal too much but not wanting to keep everything bottled up either. It was nice — frightening, obviously, in addition, but ultimately it felt good to open himself up bit by bit. “A lot more these days, of course, but there were a few, uh, before, too.”

“And you don’t feel like those people have let you down, do you?”

Well, no,” Steve said, knowing where this was going. “But— ”

“Do you hold yourself to a different standard than you hold your friends to?” Clark asked.

“No,” Steve ground out. “I don’t, but people did talk. People I cared about, sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Clark said, thoughtful, rubbing his thumb over Steve’s again. “Yeah, I’m sure. I mean, I know how it goes. Sometimes you can write ’em off entirely for something like that, but not always.”

Steve nodded, not sure where Clark was heading with this.

“Something,” Clark said, and then paused, as though carefully selecting the words from a menu within his mind. “One thing that helps me, and you can take this or leave this, but something I like to remind myself of is that taking things out of context almost always sets you up for failure.”

“You lost me.”

“The way someone acts, or the things they think in one time and place don’t always translate to another, you know? So, for example, your fish lady? You don’t actually know how she’d feel about you if she knew the things you knew and had seen the things you’ve seen. All you’re able to do is extrapolate from what you do know of her. So you take a piece of her personality out of context and apply it to a new setting, right? But that leaves so much up in the air!”

Steve’s mouth was dry. “Is this something you think about a lot?” He asked.

Clark sighed, seeming to grow smaller. “My dad died when I was pretty young.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said automatically. Clark didn’t seem to register it.

“There were some pretty fundamental things we disagreed on,” he continued, “but I don’t know if those opinions would have changed if he’d had the time to keep thinking about them. And I spent a lot of time beating myself up over it, but in the end? I’m never going to know. There’s all this context I’ll never have. But I know what I think is right based on what I’ve experienced, and that’s what matters.”

Steve bumped his shoulder against Clark’s. “Thanks,” he said in response, because that was all he could muster.

“Anytime,” Clark said faintly. “And don’t worry, we can take things as slowly as you like. But I don’t want you to be guilting yourself over me, not if there’s anything I can do.”

Steve squeezed his hand. “I think you’ve done just enough,” he said, and smiled.

~~~

Steve had thought, somewhat naively, that getting involved with Clark would iron out the strangeness cropping up within his interactions with Sam and Bucky. The two of them were almost certainly together — neither had said anything, but starting from the day Bucky had cut his hair, it began to grow fairly obvious. They’d been growing more and more tactile, but would occasionally shy away from one another when Steve was in the room, as though they’d been caught out. He’d come home to the two of them watching a movie together, the couch clearly disarrayed from them shuffling apart at the sound of his keys. He was reasonably sure that Bucky no longer slept in his room, but he never worked up the courage to acknowledge it.

Steve didn’t know why they couldn’t just tell him, or why he didn’t just ask. He wasn’t sure who he was more frustrated with, himself or them, but the fact that it was a secret made him wonder if their friendship was more tenuous than he’d previously imagined. If this was going to turn into a fight, he was not certain they would be able to weather it.

He wasn’t sure exactly what he’d expected. That maybe seeing him in a relationship would ease their worries about leaving him out? That they would be able to relate to him better now that he was no longer single? Whatever it was, they continued to skirt around him, growing cagey in matters that involved Clark as though it had been him that had altered the dynamics of their friendship, not Sam and Bucky’s little whatever-it-was.

The one dinner Clark managed to make it to with all three of them had gone rather poorly. Sam’s charming tendency to ramble, something Steve had grown used to relying on in social situations, deserted him completely, leaving him awkward and stilted. Clark, used to taking charge of conversations, was not deterred. He seemed to have an arsenal of getting-to-know-you questions up his sleeve, and that might have worked out fine if Bucky hadn’t eventually cut him off with “Are you writing a book or something? Jesus.”

It was as though Clark could do nothing right in their eyes, Steve thought to himself later. Letting Sam and Bucky steer the conversation had not worked, taking charge of the conversation had gone disastrously, and even apologizing for doing so had not won the two of them over.

“Guy’s got a spine made of rubber,” Bucky complained after Clark left, and Steve opened his mouth to argue only to be cut off by Sam.

“He’s got a point. Kinda hard to trust somebody whose whole job is to be likable.”

“So trust me, then.” Steve objected.

It was impossible to tell what their problem was. None of their other friends and acquaintances had reacted this strongly.

Wanda had texted Steve a cell phone candid from a gossip site followed by multiple eye emojis, then “You seem happy” and a little red heart.

Natasha had texted “welcome to the lollipop guild,” followed by a picture of a rainbow — he’d asked Sam “Is this something people say nowadays?” to which he replied, “I have no fucking idea.”

Clint advised Steve to prove Clark’s devotion by asking for Taco Bell at one in the morning.

Banner had sent another candid with the caption “You know Clark Kent?”

Peter mostly seemed thrilled to have orchestrated it all.

Coming out was mostly just the slow process of letting people reach their own conclusions, and Steve was alright with that.

Their first kiss had been caught on camera, something which would have rattled Steve a lot more had he known about it while it happened, but by the time it came to his attention all he could think was that at least it was fairly self-explanatory.

They’d been in something of a hurry, grabbing lunch at a deli in Metropolis, when Clark had spotted a familiar face and gone pale.

“Try not to stare, but, uh, is the woman behind me in the wheelchair wearing a pearl necklace?”

“Yes?” Steve said, bemused.

“Excellent,” Clark replied, in a voice which conveyed the exact opposite. He buried his face in his hands. “This is just perfect,” he said, his voice muffled.

Steve looked from Clark to the woman behind him. She was very pleasant-looking, with glossy dark hair that contrasted nicely with her bright yellow shirt. Her companion said something to make her laugh and she threw her head back, reminding Steve very much of Clark.

“What’s wrong? She seems nice.”

She hasn’t done anything,” Clark said, still covering his face. “But I sure did. And lemme tell you, it was a fucking doozy.”

“What, did you date and then break up with her right before her Stats final?”

Worse,” Clark hissed, finally uncovering his face, which was bright red. “We dated for a few months my senior year of college, and then I ruined it when I proposed.”

Steve blinked. “Is that all?”

“You don’t understand,” Clark said urgently. “She was in the middle of breaking up with me.”

Steve laughed, more startled than amused. “So how did that timing work out?”

“I don’t even know what I was thinking! I just, I dunno, I panicked. It was during senior seminars; I hadn’t slept in, like, four days. Not that that’s an excuse for anything! Jesus Hemingway Christ, I never thought I’d run into Lori again.”

“Well, hey, at least you ran into her while you’re on a date,” Steve suggested. “So you kind of won. Or at least came out of it fine, in any case.”

Clark made an inarticulate, miserable noise.

“If it helps, it looks like she’s on a date too. Or maybe that’s her brother or something.”

“That’s not reassuring.”

The woman, Lori, caught Steve’s eye the next time he glanced over at her, and she gave him a friendly wave. Steve waved back.

Clark smacked Steve’s shoulder. “Don’t draw attention to us,” he insisted, anxious, but it was too late. Lori was already pointing at him and mouthing to Steve, “Is that Clark Kent?”

Steve shrugged, nodded, and Lori said something excitedly to her companion.

The man, a very imposing, bearded man with a scar through one eyebrow, stood and began making his way to them.

“Cal,” he called out to Clark, who leapt to his feet so quickly Steve’s vision seemed to blur.

“Uh, Clark, it’s Clark,” he babbled, “just got a few letters turned around there, which happens, I’ve actually got— ” he motioned for Steve to stand, gestured frantically toward the door. “Business. You know, business,” he emphasized, backing toward Steve. He made some sort of apologetic gesture toward Lori before turning to face Steve, corralling him toward the doors.

“Are we leaving?” Steve asked under his breath.

“We’re running,” Clark replied, voice low. He picked up his pace when they set foot outside. “Just ’till we’re out of their line of sight,” he said before breaking into a run.

Clark was fast, but Steve had been built for moments like this. Rather than pacing to keep up, he put on a burst of speed to overtake Clark, grinning at the indignant noise he made in response. But as it turned out, Clark had little trouble keeping pace, even with a super soldier, and soon they were racing, having forgotten the encounter entirely — running and running and running the way Steve could only usually do alone. His feet slapped joyful against the pavement, heart thundering in his chest, and Clark was next to him and Clark was laughing and the two of them flew through the city like gods, like giants, like they were the only men in the world.

Clark tripped him as they sprinted across the Met U Quad, and both hit the ground laughing. Steve, flushed with exhilaration, had no misgivings about leaning up on his elbows to taste Clark’s laughter, to lean into his warmth and take some for himself.

“Jealous?” Clark asked after pulling away, raising a brow to try to look something other than self-satisfied.

Steve grinned. “Nah, but I guess this means we have to get married now.”

Clark laughed, head tipping back against the ground. “You know, you’re a lot meaner than the history books led me to believe.”

Steve almost didn’t blame whatever student snapped their picture, unleashing it upon social media with the caption “is that captain america PDAing on the quad.”

Because Steve’s contact information was still relatively unknown to the public, Clark fielded most of the media attention with aplomb and disinterested assurance. For what it was, it went over rather quietly. He’d have to address it himself someday, but he could wait until he was ready. For that, Steve would always be grateful, no matter how the rest of their relationship turned out.

~~~

Knowing that Sam and Bucky felt lukewarm about Clark made confiding in them almost impossible. They reacted strangely, off-kilter somehow, to good things. Steve did not want to see their reactions to his relationship woes. They’d probably be delighted, the jerks.

And it wasn’t as though there were any real issues, anyway. Clark was funny, patient, kind, and extremely passionate about changing the world for the better. Steve knew he was lucky to have found him.

It was just — well, Sam had been right. Distance was difficult. Particularly when Clark cancelled plans last-minute, which was something he was doing more and more of. He’d spend long hours at work and return late, then sit up half the night tapping away at his laptop anyway, abandoning Steve and the warmth of his bed for his significantly less-comfortable desk chair.

It gnawed at Steve a little to know that all the time Clark spent at work was time spent with Lois, whereas Clark seemed to get tetchy whenever Steve talked about Sam or Bucky — which was difficult, considering one or both of them had been present for most of the major events of his life. The prospect of moving in together came up once and then never again, clearly something neither was ready to negotiate just yet.

It bothered Clark when Steve argued with strangers, and it bothered Steve that Clark seemed to fold at the slightest resistance in almost any given conversation. Steve had formed an impression of Clark around his phone call with Cat that first day in the café, and had been rather disappointed to discover this was not the norm. When pressed, Clark had sighed, and it was a sigh that held too many things to simply be rooted in this conversation. Clark sighed, and the atmosphere of the world shifted.

“I don’t like getting into fights,” he’d said, “because once I do, the fight stops.”

Steve had attempted to argue with him about it some more, about how choosing one’s battles was a mighty fine luxury, but Clark, unsurprisingly, buckled. “I completely understand how this must look to you,” he’d begun, and Steve had waved him off before he could even finish.

He wished Clark could understand that resolution too easily earned felt undeserved. He wished sometimes that he could just start a fight with Clark and know that he cared enough to fight back.

~~~

It was some kind of dark irony that by the time a real fissure emerged in Steve and Clark’s relationship — something Steve wished he could take to Sam immediately, awkwardness be damned — he knew he could never share it with anyone.

Steve had startled awake to an empty bed, an occurrence so oft-repeated Steve had begun to question why he even bothered staying nights at all. He had observed, bleary and annoyed, that Clark was not at his desk either, then rolled over to go back to sleep before the realization hit him that something wasn’t right. Something had woken him up.

He stumbled into the living room, noting that everything seemed still, before practically jumping out of his skin when a figure stumbled in through the glass door leading out to the balcony.

“Hey, hey, it’s just me,” Clark’s voice reassured him, but something was wrong— something in his voice was tight and clipped and terrible.

That was about when Steve flicked the light on. He flicked the light on, and, and, and—

Superman was standing in the middle of Clark Kent’s living room. In the middle of his own living room, because Superman was also, apparently, Clark Kent. Because Clark Kent was Superman.

Trying to reconcile it in his mind was like attempting to force two repelling magnets together.

“I didn’t actually want you to find out like this,” Clark said with a weak grimace. “But I kinda need a hand here, so,” he trailed off.

After his shock had subsided a bit, Steve began to process what he was seeing. Suit and cape and general air of magnificence aside, Clark looked wrecked. He was pale, his skin a sickly grey-green that made his veins appear alarmingly prominent. The entire left side of his face was scraped as though he’d been dragged across a rough surface. Worse still, one arm was clearly out of alignment, the ball of his shoulder pressing up against the skin in a way that pained Steve just to look at.

“Jesus. Okay. Lie on your back,” Steve directed, calmer now that he had a clear role to play in this madness.

“It hurts,” Clark said in a feeble little voice that was almost childish, as though he didn’t know that pain could feel like this.

“Yeah, looks like it. Just lie down and we’ll get you sorted out, okay?”

Steve took hold of his arm with practiced ease, planting his foot against Clark’s side while attempting to ignore the little gasp of pain that contact elicited.

“Try not to tense any of your muscles or this’ll only take longer,” he instructed, and Clark huffed an annoyed little breath as though to say Can’t you see I’m trying? Steve half-wished he’d just say it out loud, though a disagreement right then wouldn’t be particularly convenient.

It took a few minutes of steady pressure, of Steve eyeing the line of Clark’s shoulders to try to match the angle and reassuring him “You have no idea, it’s so much worse having to do this outdoors, especially with a stranger,” before the socket slid back into place, and Clark sighed so heavily it was nearly a sob.

Clark was just lucid enough to help Steve assist him out of the suit before dropping face-first into their mattress and burrowing down.

“You’re calling in sick to work tomorrow,” Steve called after him, still holding on to the suit like it could somehow supply him with answers. A sadistic part of his brain willed Clark to protest, but perhaps he agreed or perhaps he knew a longer conversation was forthcoming. Perhaps he was simply tired and in a great deal of pain, willing to say anything to earn some quiet.

“Yeah, probably for the best,” he murmured, so soft that Steve barely caught it, before drifting off to sleep.

~~~

Clark’s face had healed almost entirely by morning. He woke slowly, slipping back into consciousness as Steve trailed two fingers along his cheekbone with something like reverence.

“So you aren’t human?” Steve asked, and Clark groaned a little, swatting his hand away.

“It’s too early to be getting all existential.”

Steve knew a little about Superman — more after they’d met that day in the park, because of course he’d gone home and conducted what little research he could. He knew that Superman was from another planet, a planet that no longer existed. He knew that his name was Kal-El. That he lived in an Arctic base called The Fortress of Solitude. That he was alien, isolated, untouchable.

He matched this against what he knew of Clark. Clark Joseph Kent, from Smallville, Kansas. He had a job, friends, family, a dog. A life. Steve had spoken to Clark’s mom on the phone — she was nice. Ordinary. Clark was ordinary.

Except when he wasn’t.

Steve had figured it was an effect of working in journalism, the way Clark always seemed to be half-occupied. There was always something going on, always new things to acclimatize to, and it was Clark’s job to keep them all in order. Steve had found it somewhat charming at first, flattered to be slotted in amongst so many other important things occupying Clark’s time. But there had always been little oddities, things that didn’t quite make sense which Steve had attributed to an absent-minded personality or exhaustion or nerves.

Clark would startle sometimes, mid-conversation, as though he’d heard something on a frequency no one else was attuned to. He was somehow constantly distracted while remaining the most well-informed person Steve had ever met. He’d seemingly drop off the face of the earth for an afternoon, for days, even, but not have missed a single piece of newsworthy gossip. He seemed to know about major catastrophes as they were occurring, before anyone could speak to a source.

He knew about them, Steve was beginning to realize, because more often than not he was there.

It made sense. It explained all the vague cancellations, the disappearances, the cagey behavior. It explained how Clark could be so genial, so friendly and likable and warm, yet somehow not constantly surrounded by friends. The group of people he was closest to were still kept at arm’s-length. And then Lois— of course Lois knew. And it was only natural that they would stay close, even after breaking up.

Steve leaned back against the headboard and sighed, taking it all in.

“I should’ve told you earlier,” Clark said.

“Yeah, well, you didn’t,” Steve replied, contrary. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was angry about — being lied to, sure, but it ran deeper than that. Clark had said something to him, back when they’d first met, a lifetime ago, about Iron Man being able to step out of the suit and return to his everyday life more easily than Superman or Captain America ever would. And yet here was Clark, balancing two separate lives — not perfectly, exactly, but well enough, while Steve limped through civilian life like a puppet with its strings cut.

“So did you think you were — what, protecting me or something?” Steve asked, hating the petulance in his voice. “Like I wouldn’t understand?”

“I don’t think I was really thinking at all,” Clark said, sounding utterly wrung-out. “It’s just kind of second nature to keep it locked down, I just. I don’t know.”

Something like rage crested in Steve’s chest, disdain so strong he could practically taste it. He was so passive. This was Kal-El, Metropolis’s champion, brimming with power yet holding it all back, gingerly picking his way through life like he was afraid of himself — afraid to discover what he was capable of.

Steve swung his legs over the side of the bed, one foot seeking out where he’d kicked off his pants during the previous evening. “I’m gonna— I need some space. Think it’d be better if I just, y’know, head back.”

“Mm. Text me when you get home,” Clark said, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. If he’d just— argue, get defensive, swear Steve to secrecy, anything. Anything would be better than this boneless cordiality.

“I will if I feel like it,” Steve said, knowing he sounded like a child but not quite able to bring himself to care just yet.

~~~

“So you’re pretty pissed off,” Bucky said the moment Steve got home, and Steve rubbed a hand over his face. He did not have the tolerance for this right now. Bucky’s laugh was sharp, a knife in his ribs. “Trouble in paradise, huh?”

“Not really in the mood, Buck.”

Bucky rolled his eyes so melodramatically his entire head shifted with it. “When are you in the mood for anything nowadays? You’re always off with Clark, or before that you were off moping or whatever.”

“Gee, Buck, congrats on branching out. You actually noticed something that wasn’t Sam, good for you!”

“What are you, jealous or something?” Bucky asked, crossing his arms, and white-hot panic shot through Steve like a lightning strike.

Sam poked his head around the corner. “Someone say my name?”

“No,” Steve and Bucky chorused in unison; like they were children again, the two of them against the world.

That was enough for Steve to calm down a little, for the emotional high he’d been riding to begin to subside.

“Wait,” he said as Sam began to retreat, and Bucky gave him an odd look. “Could we do something today? The three of us? It’s been— I’ve been away, and distracted, and. I miss you guys.”

Sam and Bucky exchanged a look, though whatever it communicated was lost on Steve.

“Yeah,” Sam said, gentle. “We missed you too, buddy.

~~~

In Steve’s defense, attending the Queen Industries Charity Gala as Clark’s plus-one had not been his idea. In Clark’s defense, Steve really should have had a handle on attending events like this, being Captain America and a former friend of Tony Stark’s and everything.

It had all started innocuously enough.

Steve, still not eager to draw attention to himself but not quite willing to admit that his relationship with Clark was less than fine, did what he could to stay out of the spotlight. He lurked around the edges of the crowd, making occasional small talk but mostly just watching Clark in his element.

Clark was good at this. He seemed to recognize just about everybody from somewhere, something — except no, he didn’t need to, Steve realized slowly, he could overhear just about every introduction that took place in this room. Oh, how easy it was to forget he wasn’t human with him looking so vulnerable in his discounted suit, surrounded by people gleaming with excess.

He still carried his glass of champagne — though he did not drink — gripping it with all the delicacy of a man holding a hummingbird, gentle and controlled. Someone bumped him and he stumbled, as though any human being could possibly have the power to move him. His chest rose and fell with orchestrated breaths.

Steve tried to picture the child he must have been, having to spend every waking moment layering himself beneath this house of cards, these suffocating disguises and restraints, and he thought back to the child that he was, spreading himself so thin just to try to keep up, struggling and failing to bury his vulnerabilities with none of the aplomb Clark had at feigning having them.

Fleeing so forcefully in opposite directions, it struck Steve as shocking that they ever managed to meet in the middle.

He was torn from this line of thought when another guest, some corporate giant from Gotham, signaled to the entire room that he’d had too much to drink by abruptly passing out, taking an entire table down with him.

“Someone explain to me how anyone that careless gets to be put in charge of anything,” Steve said to no one in particular.

“It’s Bruce Wayne,” came a voice near Steve’s elbow. “That’s the whole explanation.”

Steve turned to see a teenage boy slouched against the wall, playing a game on a ludicrously expensive-looking phone. His suit probably cost more than Steve’s apartment, though the effect was ruined by a pair of battered red sneakers. In some other context it might’ve been humanizing, but here it just grated against Steve’s patience. Something about it seemed so condescending.

“And that doesn’t bother you?” Steve asked and the kid shrugged, indifferent.

“I dunno. He’s, like, super miserable all the time, so maybe it’s good that he’s finally chilling the fuck out.”

Steve snorted. “Oh I’m sure, I’ll bet it’s just so hard being so rich.”

The kid looked up from his phone, narrowing his eyes at Steve. Maybe the criticism hit home for him too, and good riddance if it did.

“I mean, he did watch his parents die, you know?”

“That’s pretty awful.” Steve agreed, but he still dug in his heels. “But a whole lot of people lose loved ones, and most of us don’t get to use that to justify acting like brats.”

“Okay, now I gotta ask,” the kid said, sounding livid. “Do you even know who the fuck I am?”

“What, am I supposed to?” Steve asked, not bothering to moderate his disdain.

The kid took in a huffy breath. “I’m Jason Todd, you asshole,” he said, as though that meant anything to Steve. God, what was with these rich people, always thinking they were so much more important than they actually were?

Clark appeared very suddenly at Steve’s side. “Jason,” he said warmly, clearly having overheard the last leg of the conversation and angling to diffuse the situation. “Why don’t you go check on your dad?”

“Dick’s handling it,” Jason muttered, sullen.

“How about you give him a hand anyway,” Clark insisted, and Jason rolled his eyes before slinking off.

Clark’s mouth drew into a tight, thin line. “Do I want to know why you were you picking a fight with a fifteen-year-old?” He asked, but when Steve opened his mouth, Clark cut him off. “You know what, I don’t want to hear it.”

“Why, because then you might actually get angry about something for once in your life?” Steve prodded. “Yeah watch out, or soon you might end up caring about things and, god forbid, having emotions like a fucking person.”

Clark shot him a look that was equal parts hurt and disbelief, and oh, it was possible he’d interpreted that more harshly than Steve had intended. He didn’t say anything for a moment, but when he did, Steve’s memory jumped unhelpfully back to a conversation from a while ago: “I don’t like getting into fights,” he’d said, “because once I do, the fight stops.”

Clark exhaled slowly, uselessly, and leveled Steve with one blow.

“I think we should break up.”

~~~

When it came down to it, being single again was not actually as much of an adjustment as Steve might have predicted.

If anything, he was less lonely now that Sam and Bucky seemed to have made it their personal mission to cheer him up.

“The last thing you want is to look like you’re pining over getting dumped,” Sam said, and vindictively assisted Steve in setting up an Instagram account. Following this, he and Bucky took Steve to the farmer’s market, a concert, a nature walk, some art exhibitions, and several other events where they took photo after photo to show off how much fun Steve was having.

In what may have been an unfortunate coincidence or may have been an impressive gesture of pettiness, Clark wrote a feature covering Bruce Wayne’s home life and ended up interviewing both of his sons. He posted a video on his Twitter account of the three of them lip-syncing a song by the Spice Girls. Peter Parker retweeted it.

Steve sent Mrs. Kent a card and earrings on her birthday. She sent back a heartfelt thank-you note.

Life moved on, almost without Steve noticing.

~~~

Running into Clark for the first time since their breakup was uncomfortable, but not as painful as Steve had been anticipating, and he’d been anticipating it all day. Some antiques collector in Metropolis had recently passed away, leaving behind a vast assortment of World War II posters and propaganda which his children donated to the Metropolis history museum. There were some old Captain America comics and promotional materials thrown into the mix, so naturally Steve had been invited to the exhibit’s opening, which also promised dinner and drinks.

“I think you should go,” Bucky had told him, his voice solemn, and because Bucky was the one person who could actually relate to Steve over matters like this, he went.

It was harder to skirt along the edges this time, being so fundamentally tied to the premise of the exhibition, but Steve was saved from being the complete center of attention by the latest piece of celebrity gossip. Bruce Wayne, apparently, was seeing someone new, leading to wild speculation over the poor guy’s identity.

“I’m telling you, it’s a publicity stunt,” some older man insisted to Steve early in the evening. “It’s all just a part of the craze to stay politically relevant. Bruce Wayne’s a ladies’ man, through and through.”

“I dunno,” Steve replied. “I mean, that’s what everybody always said about Howard Stark, too. But that didn’t mean anything.”

He left the man gaping, and laughed to himself.

“I’ll bet this is weird,” Clark said in lieu of greeting when they crossed paths, generously sparing him the awkwardness of small talk.

Steve laughed a little. “Yeah, tell me about it.”

Except Clark probably could, Steve realized slowly. Clark was the last of not just a generation, but an entire species, and probably spent more time than Steve could ever imagine feeling homesick for a home he’d barely known.

“There’s actually, uh,” Clark shuffled, casting his eyes away awkwardly, “There’s someone here I want to introduce you to. I think you’d like her.”

The solidarity Steve had just been feeling toward Clark subsided into frustration. He wasn’t some mess Clark needed to return to and clean up. His love life wasn’t any of Clark’s business anymore.

Before he could say anything, Bruce Wayne rather forcefully inserted himself into their conversation.

“Now I remember why I keep you around,” he said, plucking the untouched glass from Clark’s grip and downing half its contents in one go.

“Whoa, hey,” Clark said, his voice gentle. He placed one hand on Wayne’s forearm with easy familiarity. “Don’t lose track of yourself, there.”

“You’re no fun.”

Clark smiled, warm with affection. “Poor you,” he said, and Wayne rolled his eyes and walked away.

Steve had no idea what his face was doing, but it couldn’t have been anything good judging by the way Clark flushed when he turned back to face him.

“So that’s, uh, that’s something, huh?” Steve supplied, for lack of anything better to say.

“It’s— yeah,” Clark said, rubbing the back of his neck. “It sure is. Something.”

“Well, hey, I bet the lunch dates are real fancy now. Well done”

Clark’s expression tightened. “Don’t,” he said, and Steve put his hands up in mock surrender.

“Hey, look,” he began, but Clark put up a hand to silence him, his expression suddenly very intense.

“Something’s wrong,” he said after nearly thirty seconds of silence, and Steve strained his ears to try to pick up whatever it was Clark was hearing.

Clark touched a finger to his ear — to an earpiece, Steve guessed — and muttered “We’ve gotta get everyone out of here,” moments before an alarm started reverberating throughout the museum. “Good,” Clark affirmed, and then seemed to remember himself. He touched Steve’s shoulder. “You should probably go,” he suggested.

What followed was something that could only happen in Metropolis. The exhibits seemed to fold in on themselves, sealing up inside the floor and walls or possibly some larger storage space far beneath their feet. The guests began to evacuate with very little fanfare or panic, though some glanced about with thinly disguised interest, clearly anticipating some excitement.

Said excitement crashed through the ceiling a few moments later.

“WHERE IS THE ONE WHO CALLS HIMSELF SUPERMAN?”

“Jesus Horseradish Christ, why does this keep happening to me,” Clark griped, and tore away his dress clothes in one swift motion.

The being in the center of the now-vacant exhibition room was yellow, purple, and around the size of the Hulk, which was reassuring in an odd way.

“If you wanted my attention, there are easier ways,” Clark said, hovering so that he was eye-level with the creature.

“You inferior specimens are barely worthy of my disdain, much less my attention.”

“Well that’s no way to make friends.”

“And you’re meant to be the champion of this planet?” The creature swung at Clark, who launched himself up and out of reach. “Overtaking you will be effortless, and then I’ll take hold of this world.”

“I’m not the champion of anything,” Clark said. His eyes glowed red. “I just help out every once in a while.”

Clark’s laser vision yielded no damage, but while the creature was distracted Steve barreled into one of its legs, knocking it off balance. A large hand grabbed him around the waist and tossed him against a wall, but Steve had weathered pain far worse than this and picked himself back up.

“MONGUL,” an unfamiliar voice cried out, and a woman dropped through the hole in the ceiling, carrying a bolt of lightning in her hands. “This world is under my protection,” she declared, and god, Steve had never felt more protected in his life. He recognized her when he was able to catch a glimpse of her face — she’d been a guest at the event, though in rather different attire. Now, clad in some type of ancient warrior’s armor, she looked more like one of the statues risen to life.

“Kal,” a voice rang out from behind Steve, and he turned around to find himself face to face with the Gotham bat, because this day just hadn’t been wild enough already. “Why am I standing behind a civilian?”

“Stella!” Wonder Woman shouted and the Bat saluted her with two fingers, clearly some inexplicable inside joke between the two of them.

Clark, locked in combat, grated out “Don’t they teach you history over in Halloweentown? That’s Captain America, he’s helping.”

“Is he?” He somehow managed to pull off looking unimpressed, even with half his face covered.

More than you are.”

The Batman seemed to take this as a challenge and pulled a handheld laser cutter from an impressively stocked utility belt and set to work.

Even against the four of them, Mongul continued to hold his own. Steve, who always prided himself on never backing down from a fight, was alarmed to find himself beginning to tire. However, it was the Batman, not Steve, who ended up being the first to go down.

The Bat was already limp before he hit the floor, something black and red and wrong protruding from his chest. Steve, well aware of his own limitations, did not have to be told to go after him.

Steve nearly cried out with relief to find Batman still breathing— the thing, a plant of some sort, was wrapped tightly around his torso but hadn’t impaled him as Steve had initially feared. He tugged at one of the vines and it wrapped around his hand, alarmingly tight. He yanked his hand away.

“Don’t touch it!” Wonder Woman cried out from somewhere above him. “It can get to you too, it will render you useless.”

“How do I kill it, then?” Steve shouted back.

“It’s psychological.” There was some commotion, the sound of Clark yelling in the background. Steve took a steadying breath, concentrating on the task at hand. “It shows him something he wants, leeches off his dreams. He must become distressed enough to shake it off or he will die.”

Annoy an unconscious person back to reality. That was straightforward enough.

Steve pinched, hit, shouted, shook the Batman’s shoulders. “Hey, Mr. Darkness!” He yelled, growing desperate. “You’re letting the team down!” He shook him again, harder. It didn’t seem to help in the slightest.

“Time is of the essence, Captain!” Wonder Woman yelled, which— yeah, Steve had kind of gathered that. Panic seemed to grab hold of him by the throat, making it difficult to breathe.

Without stopping to think it through, Steve yanked the Bat’s helmet off and backhanded him across the face, rocking his head back.

Bruce Wayne’s eyes popped open as the plant ripped away from his chest with a noise like a drain unclogging. His eyes were wet. With no small amount of guilt, Steve recalled the almost-argument he’d had with Jason Todd.

A moment passed.

“I gather you have questions,” Bruce said weakly as all the blood drained from Steve’s face.

“I— You— Don’t you— don’t you have kids?” Steve posited faintly, though he supposed now wasn’t really the time.

“Let’s not get into that right now,” Bruce responded, as though reading Steve’s mind. Maybe he was; it would hardly be the strangest thing to happen all day. “Where’s … ?” He glanced around. It took Steve a few seconds to realize what he was looking for.

“Oh, I kind of, uh, threw it.”

Bruce exhaled heavily through his nose. “Of course you did,” he said wearily, and began patting different sections of his belt.

“Don’t tell me you have— ”

Bruce triumphantly held up what looked like a black knitted sock, before pulling a ski mask over his face.

“Diana!” He called over to where Clark and Wonder Woman were still holding their own against Mongul.

“Stella! You’ve returned to us!” She crowed happily. Clark’s eyes were still shooting red, illuminating her from behind like a goddess of fire.

“I have a theory,” he shouted back, and over-exaggeratedly crossed his arms out in front of his chest. “Now, Kal— ”

“YES,” she cried, and it was a testament to how attuned the three of them were to each other that Bruce did not need to elaborate further.

Steve flinched when Clark leveled his vision at Diana, but she seemed to simply absorb it, the metal bands around her wrists burning red-hot.

“TELL ME AGAIN WHO IS INFERIOR,” she challenged, but did not wait for Mongul to answer. She burned, blazing with rage, and it was only a matter of moments before the space where he stood no longer contained anything at all.

Steve slumped against Bruce in relief. “Oh my god,” he said, a laugh bubbling up in his chest. Maybe he was hysterical. He probably was. But hey, they were all alive, and that counted for something. “That was some party, huh guys?” Maybe they should all go get shawarma, and wouldn’t that be something. Post-battle dinner with Wonder Woman, his ex, and his ex’s billionaire boyfriend.

“I can’t believe Batman snatched my ex,” Steve muttered to Bruce, who frantically cast an eye to where Diana and Clark were conferencing with one another as though he didn’t want them to hear.

“Don’t say anything to Clark, please,” Bruce said, his voice clipped. He made a face. “He’ll fuss.”

When it clicked into place, the force of Steve’s laughter had him doubling over. Bruce Wayne, who was Batman, was currently dating Clark Kent, who was Superman. And neither one had any idea.

“Do you require medical attention?” Bruce asked, sounding displeased.

“No, trust me, I’m better than I’ve ever been. I’m grand,” Steve insisted, nearly crying from laughter. “But okay, okay there is one thing you can help me with. I’m dying to know.”

Bruce made an annoyed noise.

“Why does Diana call you Stella?”

“Something about a bat and a children’s book. I’ve never really gotten that either.”

“Stell-laaaa” Diana trilled as she and Clark made her way over to the two of them. “Your ears are gone,” she said sadly, holding her fingers up on either side of her head.

Bruce shoved Steve. “This one threw the cowl away and slapped me upside the head. I’ve lost all my faith in American heroes.”

Clark laughed his deep, booming laugh and it reverberated throughout the room.

“Sorry to disillusion you,” Steve grinned. “So I guess it’d be out of line to ask for a selfie, then?”

“Damn right.”

Clark and Diana were more accommodating, immediately crowding in behind Steve, and Bruce finally slunk in when Steve said “It’s for Wanda, I think she’d get a kick out of it.” Diana made bunny ears behind Bruce’s head, and Steve captured the photo just as Bruce rolled his eyes at her.

“If that’s Wanda Maximoff you were referring to,” Bruce said a moment later, his voice serious, “would you tell her my protégé is a long-time admirer?”

“I think she’d appreciate that,” Steve said.

“Oh, hey,” Clark interjected, “While you have your phone out, Diana was the one I wanted to introduce you to earlier. Hey, Di, you should give him your number.”

“I have stories for you, Steve Rogers,” she said happily, plugging her contact information into Steve’s phone. “And I expect to hear many from you in return.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Steve bumped Clark’s shoulder, lazy with affection. “Hey, sorry I was a jerk earlier. I thought you were just trying to set me up with somebody you wanted to get rid of.”

“Oh my god, no,” Clark said, appalled down to his polite Midwestern bones. “I’ve seen your Instagram posts; I would never infringe like that. I’m actually really happy that you three could finally get that sorted out.”

“Yeah,” Steve said absently, and then processed what he’d just heard. “Wait, get what sorted out?”

Clark’s brow furrowed. “You and your roommates, are you not— ”

For the second time that evening, something in Steve’s mind finally, finally clicked into place.

“Oh my god, I have to get home, like, now,” he said urgently.

Clark’s grin was manic. “Need a ride?”

~~~

Taking down a monster who wanted to declare himself conqueror of the earth began to look relatively simple to Steve; and it certainly was in comparison to revealing to his two best friends that he was in love with both of them.

“Son of a bitch, Steve, how’d you manage to pick a fight at a museum exhibition?” Bucky asked, incredulous, the moment Steve walked through the door. Sam’s face communicated about twelve different emotions at once.

“Would you believe me if I said this one wasn’t my fault?”

“I dunno,” Sam said, “you’re wearing your ‘I’m in trouble’ face and that usually means you fucked something up.”

“Well, I might be about to do that now, actually,” Steve said with a grimace. His palms were sweating, and he wiped them on his dress pants.

“So, I talked to Clark at the exhibition tonight— ”

“You did not get back together,” Sam interrupted. “Oh the fuck my god, Steven Grant.”

“We didn’t! Listen, I might be dumb, but I’m not stupid.” He swallowed. “Or, well, maybe I am. But not about that. But he said something about, um. About us. The three of us.”

Bucky leaned forward a little, encouraging Steve to continue.

“I don’t really know if this is— if it’s okay. Or if it’s normal. Because I know you guys have your— ” he stopped, closed his eyes for a moment. “You’re happy with each other and maybe it’s selfish of me to— ”

“Steve,” Sam said, voice cracking a little. “You’re not selfish.”

You are stupid though,” Bucky said.

But in that moment it didn’t matter, because the both of them were on their feet, were making their way over to him and Sam didn’t even hesitate before kissing him, like he’d been waiting for this for so long and maybe he had, and Bucky took hold of Steve’s hand and, and, and—

If Steve’s heart grew any fuller his chest wouldn’t be able to contain it.

Sam pressed his face into the curve of Steve’s neck. “God, we gotta send Clark like a fruit basket or some shit.”

“Stick a ‘we didn’t actually hate you, you just got in the way of our master plan’ note in there, with the lettering all fancy,” Bucky agreed.

“There was a master plan?”

“We had a whole timeline,” Sam said. “Clark set us back, like, months.”

Steve trailed his hand along Bucky’s jaw, feeling sloppy with affection. “You dumbasses, why couldn’t you just say something?”

Bucky’s eyes widened defensively. “You had a Catholic guilt thing! I can real dramatically remember your Catholic guilt thing — I am not the one at fault here.”

“Figures that’d be the one thing you remember from 1937.”

“Shut up,” Bucky muttered, and kissed Steve’s cheek. “We got around to it in the end, that’s what matters.”

“Feel kinda bad for Clark though, he really got a bum deal,” Sam said.

“Clark’s actually doing better than any of us,” Steve said, gleeful and ready to impart the evening’s gossip. "Well, except maybe Bucky."

“Do not tell me he rebounded already.”

“He rebounded already. He and Bruce Wayne are an item right now.”

“You’re shitting me,” Sam said, deadpan.

“Hand to god.”

“Who’re we talking about?” Bucky whined, and Sam and Steve simultaneously launched into explanations, rapid-fire.

“You two gotta slow down, Jesus Christ. Is this what it’s gonna be like all the time?”

Sam’s smile was like nothing Steve had ever seen.

“I fucking hope so.”

~~~ ~~~ ~~~