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What the Desert Will Let Him

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Sam watches Riley go down in a burst of flames and he barely has time to even scream his best friend’s name before there is another RPG headed for him and he’s following Riley, hurtling toward the ground so fast he can’t breathe, and the only thing he can think is at least he doesn’t have to live without his wingman.

The universe is not so kind.

Sam wakes up, and he is surrounded by light so blinding that he cannot even open his eyes, and a voice he’s certain is disembodied is speaking to him, telling him that there is someone still who will need him in this world, and so Sam cannot be done yet.

Sam begs and pleads because he is tired. He is done, he wants to be done, why can’t he be done?

The disembodied Voice tells him that he needs to stay, because he is needed. Sam cannot imagine anyone needing him so much. The Voice does not care.

He wakes up in the blazing desert heat with half a dozen fractured ribs, blood on his face, and  Riley’s body two hundred yards away, and a pair of glowing wings sprouting from his back where the Falcon Exo Suit used to be. Sam drags himself over to Riley’s body, and he cries out whatever the desert will let him, and then he sits and panics about the wings he’s grown, and he tries to will them away.

The wings do not leave him. But they do shift and twist and ache and then suddenly, they look like his Falcon wings, and when Sam moves experimentally, they move just like his Falcon wings too.

They fold away the same as well, only when these wings fold, they disappear, though Sam can still feel the uncomfortable scrape and grind of his body learning to accommodate new joints it shouldn’t have.

He carries Riley’s body to their extraction point, through the excruciating pain of broken ribs and what might be a cracked skull.

He is honorably discharged from the Air Force. He is given medals and awards and honors. He is sent home.

Riley’s body is sent home too.

Sam stands beside Riley’s husband in the receiving line at the wake, and stands beside him at the funeral, and drinks beside him after, and they go home alone.

Sam’s sister comes to him a week or maybe it’s a month later, he can’t tell and he doesn’t care. She cleans his house and makes his favorite dinner from when they were kids and tells him that their mom wants them to go up to New York City to visit her soon, because she misses her babies, and Sam makes a sound that might be agreement and also might not be and he doesn’t eat, and he screams himself awake that night, because he can’t stop dreaming about Riley’s body and the disembodied Voice that wouldn’t let him fucking die.

Two days later, his sister barges into his house again, and packs him a bag and manhandles him into her depressingly gray Prius, and Sarah Wilson is a force of nature, so Sam doesn’t argue. They drive the four and a half hours to New York through rush hour traffic with only mild complaint and road rage, and when they get to their mother’s house, their little brother comes tearing out into the driveway to greet them, waving a letter wildly in the air.

Gideon tells Sam and Sarah that he got accepted to Columbia on a near full ride, and he got into their computer science program, and Sam actually feels something other than hopelessly, helplessly empty for the first time since he lost Riley.

He forces a smile to his face and hugs Gideon, and tells him that he’s proud, because he is, the little flicker of hope that Gideon will have a better path in life than Sam or their father, is the greatest thing Sam can imagine. Gideon will go to school and he’ll actually do something with it. Maybe he’ll get out of the city, or at least to a nicer part of it, and he’ll get himself a good job and he won’t fall to guns and gangs like their father, won’t wind up mourning his best friend in the middle of the fucking desert with fucking wings clawing out of his back and just wanting everything to stop, to be over, to end, end, end, end, end--

Sarah shoves him into the house and out of his own head.

Darlene Wilson is smiling at her children when they all come crashing into her home, and she has a plate of cookies waiting for them on the kitchen counter after Sarah and Sam put their bags away in their old rooms.

She tells Gideon to get the pitcher of iced tea from the fridge, and she hugs Sarah, and she hugs Sam, and then she smacks Sam on the back of the head and berates him for waiting a month after his return to come visit his mother. Sam looks appropriately cowed and apologizes in a quiet, quiet, quiet voice, and his mother immediately forgives him.

Sam shifts the conversation to Gideon, and his college acceptance, and things become less… less, then.

Sam spends a lot of the weekend shifting the topic of conversation off of himself.

The night before they leave, Sarah takes Gideon out to get dinner, and Darlene sits Sam down, and talks. She says things that sound like they demand an answer, but she does not pause as though she’s expecting one.

She tells him that she knows what he saw must have changed him.

She tells him that she knows he must’ve done unspeakable things.

She tells him that she doesn’t care.

She tells him that no matter what he saw or what he lived or what he did, he is still her baby boy and she loves him more than he’ll ever be able to comprehend until the day he has children of his own, and that she’s upset that he took so long to come see her, but she understands and she’s so sorry that he lost Riley.

She tells him the only thing she’s really, really upset about, is that it seems like he’s lost his sense of way, and that he seems like he’s floating with no direction.

And Sam breaks, and he clings to his Mama, and he cries, and cries, and he tells her that he died and he doesn’t know why he came back and Riley didn’t, because they both died the same, but Sam didn’t stay dead, he had to come back and he has to face this world knowing that now and he hates, hates, hates it.

He tells her how he doesn’t know why he is the one who came back, when Riley was the one with the husband and the child on the way.

He tells her how he feels like he should’ve stayed dead in the desert with his wingman because Riley was the better of the two of them, and if Riley stayed dead he should have too.

He tells her how he’s not so sure he really wants to be alive anymore, when this is all he can think of.

He tells her, and she listens, and then she holds him tight while he cries until he feels wrung dry. His not-completely-healed-ribs ache and burn and he ignores every protest his body makes in favor of clutching his Mama tight because this is the only thing that feels safe.

He does not tell her about the wings.

Sarah and Gideon come back and they sit and they cry too, because Sam as good as raised them, while their Mama was working overtime to give them everything they’ve had, and seeing him so shaken breaks their hearts.

They sit there until the food gets cold, and then as Sarah’s dishing out dinner, Darlene tells Sam she’s done some research on PTSD, and seen some of the men and women who come through the hospital she works at, and she knows that it can’t be easy, but she thinks he should look for a therapist, to help him work through everything he’s feeling, and then they put on some cheesy cartoon as though they’re not all grown, and they eat dinner quietly.

When Sarah and Sam return to DC after that weekend, the very first thing he does is book an appointment with a therapist. He may not be all too invested in staying alive for himself, but he’ll be damned if he lets his Mama down.

He makes sure he eats at least one full meal a day and tries desperately to remember to eat more than just that, and he tries, tries, tries to sleep through the night.

He mostly fails. But he’s trying. He really is.

He goes reluctantly to see the therapist.

He is a disinterested man that says just the wrong combination of things that sends Sam into a spiral that has him shaking by the time he leaves the office.

He never goes back there.

But his mother asked him to, so he tries again, two weeks later.

He goes to see this woman for two months and stops abruptly, because he hates it.

He gets a recommendation from an old military buddy.

He sits down and immediately thinks that the little blond woman in a black pencil skirt and bright red top is too cheery, and the office is too stuffy, and the windows are too big and the couch is too stiff, and oh, Sam thinks.

He starts to consider that maybe the issue here isn’t really that he didn’t like the last therapist, because she’d been perfectly fine, now that he’s really thinking about it.

He thinks, maybe, he is the issue here. Maybe, just maybe, he’s looking for reasons it won’t work without the therapist having even uttered a word.

So he folds his hands in his lap and he ducks his head, and when she asks him to talk, he actually does.

He tells her what happened to Riley.

She tells him about survivors guilt.

Oh, Sam thinks.

He goes back the next week.

He tells her he can’t sleep because he keeps dreaming about it.

She tells him that trauma can do that.

This is what therapy is supposed to be like, he thinks

He’s still going there at the end of the next month.

He tells her he doesn’t want to kill himself, but he doesn’t really want to stay alive either.

She tells him that she’s glad he’s being honest with her, and that she will help him find reasons to want to live again.

He wouldn’t mind finding reasons to live, he thinks.

He’s still going there at the end of the next year.

He tells her that he feels like it’s a visible weight that he’s carrying around with him, that’ll scare off anyone good who comes near him.

She tells him that the guilt and trauma will stay with him, but it is his choice how he deals with it, whether he carries it with him in luggage dragging in the dirt behind him, or in a little purse, slung over his shoulder, hardly weighing him down, even if it’s still definitively there.

He understands, now, why his mother told him to go in the first place.

He leaves his appointment, and he smiles, and he goes on a run, and he calls his mom, and he tells her he’s figured out what he’s going to do with himself.

He goes into the bathroom, and for the very first time, he unfurls his wings and looks at them in the mirror and he doesn’t flinch away from his reflection in disgust.

Maybe this is it, maybe this is the help that The Voice meant, maybe this is what he was saved for, he thinks.

He gets his head on straight and he gets his certification and he marches himself down to the VA with his head held high, and before he knows it, he’s giving out advice to people who are where he was, two years ago. He stands in front of groups of people, a success story, a winner of the battle they are fighting and he tells them, if they are willing to try, then he is willing to help, and that together they’ll figure out how to get them all to better places in life, whatever that looks like for each of them.

He is helping people, and he knows that this is what he is meant to do. Something still feels wrong. Off, somehow. He has the distinct unshakable feeling that there is still something integral to his being missing.

He has been working at the VA for a year, and it is the day after his sister’s wedding when the news story breaks about Captain America waking up after nearly seven decades on ice, and Sam can’t help but feel a little camaraderie with this man he’s never met, with this living legend. And then he feels a little like he’s gonna be sick because he is so hungover, and his thoughts of Captain America mostly fall to the back of his mind.

Months pass and aliens invade New York City and Sam spends hours and hours and hours waiting and worrying about his mother and Gideon. Sarah comes to his house with her wife, Shea. And the three of them sit in front of the TV and watch the news coverage and Sarah and Shea pray to a god that neither of them have really believed in in years.

Sam, after too long deliberating, prays to The Voice.

Or maybe it’s not so much praying as it is screaming into the void that The Voice better not have brought him back and made him suffer so long just to tear his Mama and his baby brother away from him just when he’s starting to feel his life is back on track.

He screams and he shouts and he begs and pleads with The Voice, and The Voice does not answer him, of course, but as the dust is settling and the battle is won and New York is not in dust, even if it is in pieces, Sam gets a phone call.

It’s spotty service at best, but Sam can clearly hear Gideon’s voice over the line, and he can hear his mother in the background, and as soon as they hang up, Sam grabs Sarah and Shea and doesn’t let them go for a long, long, long time.

After the Battle of New York, Sarah and Shea move back to New York City.

Sam stays in DC.

It’s where he’s needed, and there’s an uncomfortable drag under his skin and a pinch in his wing joints whenever he thinks of moving back home.

There’s an itch at the back of his mind, that tells him to stay and he thinks maybe this has something to do with The Voice and why he was thrown ass over tea kettle back into this world when he desperately wanted to stay dead.

So he stays.

He works.

He sees vets enter and exit the program.

Sometimes they exit the program by exiting life, and Sam hates that, hates that there are people that slip through his fingers, that he can’t help, that he can’t save. On the nights after he hears about one of the vets passing, he goes to sleep and dreams of Riley and The Voice and falling, falling, falling, and he screams himself awake.

Luckily those nights are few and far between, but he still has a restless feeling in his bones the morning after that doesn’t fade until he goes to see Riley’s husband and the child Riley never got to know who is now his goddaughter. He brings her candy her dad doesn’t let her have because it has too much sugar and he takes the two of them out to lunch and they all catch up, and she gets food all over herself and everything around her and Sam ends up in the crossfire more often than not, but she’s three, he’ll allow it.

He misses being able to do impromptu lunches like this with his sister and Shea, and he’s even more sorry that he can’t do this with them now that Shea is expecting, and he’s going to be an uncle, but the drag under his skin and the little voice in his head and the bone deep feeling are all still there, so he stays in DC.

He stays.

He stays.

He stays.

Two years after the Battle of New York, it’s still there, but after a particularly memorable morning run, the little voice in the back of his head starts sounding less and less like a reverberating  nightmare, and more and more like a smug, “On your left.”

No fucking way, Sam thinks.

There is no way that the reason he came back is Captain-Fucking-America.

It turns out he is right.

Because the man that shows up at the VA is not Captain America.

The man who shows up on his doorstep with the Black Widow is not Captain America.

That man is Steve Rogers.

And Steve Rogers, it turns out, needs someone there for him, more than anyone Sam has ever met.

It also turns out Sam’s wings can stop bullets, who knew. They still look like the Falcon wings, when he’s not alone, and it still makes Sam want to cry, but he muscles through it because he has the distinct feeling that it is very important he get involved in this mess.

“You don’t have to come with me,” Steve says.

Sam just asks when they start, and it turns out the answer is immediately.

Sam leaves on go on a jaunt around the world after the Winter Soldier, cause why not, and the drag does not keep him in DC, and he knows, then, that this is why he is here.

He is here, because he is needed.

Looks like The Voice was right.

Fuck.

They travel around almost all of Europe, and a considerable amount of Asia too, before Steve listens to Sam’s pleads to take a break. They head home.

Tony almost makes a deathbot. They stop it. Sam becomes an Avenger. He moves back to New York City with Steve, and they end up sharing an apartment because the rent is too damn high. They each have floors in Avengers Tower, too, but there’s something about a small apartment that’s just theirs that feels much more comfortable for living full time.

Steve wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, one night. When Sam goes to check on him, he’s barely aware of where he is, and he grabs Sam by the neck and uses him to crack the door jamb. Sam doesn’t really appreciate that, but he doesn’t blame Steve. He can see the terror written plain as day in Steve’s eyes. It takes a while to calm him down, and when he does, he releases Sam with a painfully sad look.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry, Sam, I didn’t… Fuck, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he gasps out, and Sam just holds up one hand to stop him, while he gently curls the other around his rapidly bruising neck.

He tells Steve that even though this was far from okay, he doesn’t blame him, because he’s well aware of how hard it is to live with PTSD when you don’t have any healthy coping mechanisms.

They don’t sleep the rest of the night.

Hours later, in the light of day, Steve approaches him, and scratches at the back of his neck self-consciously, and very, very, very quietly asks, “Do you think you could give me a recommendation for a therapist that specializes in vets with PTSD?”

Sam knows he was not mistaken when he decided to follow Steve Rogers to the ends of the Earth.

He finds Steve a good therapist, and tells Steve that he’s proud, and then to celebrate Steve taking this step decides on a nice lunch out, and then, just cause he can, Sam invites Sarah and Shea and Gideon out to lunch with him and Steve. They don’t know that Sam and Steve are celebrating anything, but that doesn’t matter. Sam wants to see his nephew, and he wants Steve to meet his siblings.

Gideon is crazy excited to meet the Captain America. Sarah and Shea are less impressed. Their son Jody throws up on Steve’s face, but he’s barely a year old, so no one can really blame him for that.

Sam still thinks it’s the funniest goddamn thing he’s ever seen.

Lunch goes great after that, though. Steve loves Sarah and Shea, and Gideon is delighted to answer every question Steve has about the job he’s just gotten with Google after graduating at the top of his class from Columbia.

They spend way too long in their little corner booth, Steve tucked away where he won’t be seen, because he has a noticeable face nowadays, but it’s the most genuine fun that Sam has had in a very long time. Sarah and Shea leave with a lot of pictures of Steve with Jody. Gideon leaves with a Captain America signature on his laptop, because of course Gideon had his laptop with him, the nerd.

Jody leaves knowing he’s the only baby to ever throw up on Captain America’s face.

He looks smug about it, the little punk.

Steve insists on paying for all of them, and smiles a private little smile to Sam when they thank him and they all part ways promising to do this again soon.

“I like your siblings,” Steve says, once they’ve all gone, and Sam and Steve are walking back to their apartment. “Shea said that she and Sarah want to marry me. I declined, and then they said that at the very least I should be a sperm donor the next time they have a kid. Then Gideon asked me to marry him, too. But I had to decline him as well. I think I’m a little old for all of them,” Steve jokes.

Sam sighs, and tells Steve that both of his siblings are bisexual Disasters, complete with the capital D and Steve laughs, a full body laugh that makes his shoulders shake and his eyes crinkle, and he claps a hand to his own chest and grabs Sam’s shoulder with the other.

“Well, at least we know I fit in with them,” he says, and Sam almost trips over his own feet at that admission. “Huh. That feels really good to say out loud. I’ve never really… I mean it wasn’t allowed, back in my time, and since I’ve woken up, it’s never… I’m really glad I said that.”

Sam smiles broadly back at Steve, and tells him he’s happy for him, and that he knows the feeling, it was kind of freeing when he came out to his family for the first time, too. And then, just for good measure, he jokes about his siblings stealing his thunder not long after.

And then he’s mostly silent as they walk home, because he’s thinking about a couple of other confessions he might like to make to Steve.

He doesn’t say anything.

Secretary Ross tries to place restrictions and regulations on the Avengers, and Steve and Tony get into it and very nearly tear an airport apart in their dispute, but in the end, Ross’ truly evil plans are pushed into the light and the Accords are tossed out and they get Bucky back at the end of it all.

Bucky rents a little shoebox apartment across the hall from Sam and Steve, and something deep in Sam’s gut that he hadn’t even realized was agitated settles.

And, oh no, Sam thinks.

The longer this goes on, this disgustingly domestic little routine that he and Steve and Bucky have worked themselves into, the more certain Sam is that he’s in love with Steve Rogers.

It takes a long time for him to admit that to himself.

Takes him even longer to work up the courage to admit that to Steve.

But he does, because it’s eating away at him, because, he realizes, he’s really been in love with Steve since the very second Steve showed up on his doorstep, caring for his friend and ready to lay down his life to save others from HYDRA, yet again.

So he finds himself in the living room of their apartment after dinner with Bucky and Sam’s siblings, and Shea and Jody and Gideon’s new girlfriend. Sarah had called it family dinner, and Sam had been struck by how much he had really, desperately wanted that.

So here he is.

“I need to tell you something,” Sam says softly, and Steve looks up from where he’s sketching a picture of Jody for Sarah, and cocks his head to the side. That’s probably because Sam’s not wearing a shirt. Oh well. He wants Steve to be able to really see this. “Well, two somethings, actually. That kind of relate to each other, I think? But mostly they’re both just really important and I want you to know them.”

“Is everything okay, Sam?” Steve asks gently and Sam lets out a laugh that’s just this side of hysterical, and doesn’t answer Steve’s question cause he’s really honestly not sure.

“When you first came to visit me at the VA in DC, I told you I lost someone. But I didn’t tell you the whole story.” Steve just nods, puts his pencil down to focus fully on Sam. “Riley got knocked out of the sky by an RPG, and so did I. I went down seconds after him, and I was dead. Full stop, dead on the ground next to him. And something, some higher power or god or something, something sent me back, and I woke up with some broken ribs and a tiny crack in my skull and that was it.”

Steve’s eyebrows furrow. “Lots of people who have near death experiences have stories about seeing a bright light or seeing heaven or something like--”

Sam interrupts Steve, cuts him off by rolling his shoulders and unfurling his wings. They look like his Falcon wings, still, but he wills them to soften, and as he speaks, they shift and twist and fade into the glowing, ethereal wings that he’d woken up with in the desert.

“No, Steve. I was dead. I died, and woke up floating somewhere so bright I couldn’t open my eyes, and there was this disembodied voice, and The Voice told me I wasn’t done. I had more to do, because there were people who were going to need me. And I begged it to let me follow Riley, but next thing I knew, I was lying next to his body in the dust, and I had these growing out of my back. Little bit of will power makes them look like my old EXO-7 suit. When Barnes grounded me during the incident at the Triskelion? He didn’t damage a suit. He damn near tore my wing clean out of my back.”

Sam turns, and in the illumination from his wings, the scar at the base of one of his wings can be seen clear as day. He hears Steve inhale sharply.

“When I got home, at first I was lost, cause I didn’t know why I’d come back and Riley hadn’t because Riley had a husband and a little girl on the way. And I finally found people who needed me, working and the VA, and I loved it, I loved helping those people so much, but there was always this feeling that I was waiting for something else, or that I wasn’t in the right place yet, I hadn’t found the purpose The Voice meant. And then I met you. From the second these damn things sprouted from my back, the joints have itched like crazy. Like bone deep. And whenever I thought about leaving DC or changing what I was doing in a way that would really change my life, the itch just got worse. Like someone was telling me what path to follow. And then you and your stupid ‘on your left’ the day we first met…. Steve, the second I heard you speak that first time, the itch went away. And it hasn’t been back since you showed up on my doorstep with Natasha.”

“You were sent back because of me?” Steve breathes, putting it together himself.

Sam nods, and purses his lips, and tries not to let his emotions overwhelm him, cause he thinks he’s probably on the verge of crying.

“At first, before I even knew that you were the reason, I hated it. I spent so long wishing I’d died with Riley, and I hated this mystery person I’d been saved for, because why were they more important than what I wanted?”

“Sam I’m--” Steve starts and Sam snaps at him, giving him a pointed look. His wings flare a little, where they’re still spread behind him.

“Shut up, I’m not finished. I don’t want no damn apology, because I’m not upset. Not anymore. Jesus, Steve, after two seconds knowing you, I agreed to follow you to the ends of the earth, not just because I’m your guardian angel or whatever. I followed you because of who you are and the way you act so selflessly, and how you trust and love so freely even when you live in a world that’d chew you up and spit you out for it. And I didn’t get it until recently, but Steve, I’m not upset, because I love you. I get why I was saved, and I wouldn’t have it any other way because you are that important. Next to my family, you are the most important person in the goddamn world to me. I couldn’t be upset anymore if I tried.”

Sam’s tearing up by the time he stops talking, and Steve’s just staring at him, a little in shock, a little in something else.

“Sam, do you really mean all of that?” Sam nods, bracing himself for disappointment. Steve stands, and Sam almost flinches, but then he says, “Stop me if you need to,” and he crosses the room to Sam in one broad stride. Before Sam can even open his mouth to question it, Steve’s got Sam’s face in his hands, and he’s kissing him like the fate of the universe rests on this moment.

Sam kisses back with just as much desperation.

There are eight years of feeling put into this one kiss, and Sam wouldn’t have it any other way.

A knock at the door startles Sam’s wings into folding away, seconds before Bucky steps into their apartment.

He eyes up Sam, and then raises an eyebrow at Steve, who flushes a little, but doesn’t look away.

“Steve invited me over to watch a movie, but I see I’m interrupting something. I better not be able to hear you two going at it. We have thin walls,” Bucky grumbles, and then he turns to go back to his apartment across the hall, but not before tacking on, “If you hurt him, Wilson, I’ll have your head,” and then he’s gone.

Sam drops his head to Steve’s chest, and Steve gently traces the pads of his fingers over the uneven planes of Sam’s back, bumpy in a way no one else’s is, because of his wing joints. Those don’t go away, even when the wings are hidden away.

Steve kisses the top of Sam’s head, and Sam can’t even bring himself to mutter even a slight complaint about Bucky’s interruption.

He spends the night in Steve’s bed, and the both of them get the best rest they’ve had in years.

Two weeks later, the morning after an intense battle with some incredibly irritating Doom Bots, a really pretty impressive picture of Sam and Steve kissing atop a pile of rubble makes the front page of every American media outlet, and a few international ones as well.

Sam posts the picture on Instagram.

The call he gets from his mother, demanding to know why this is how she finds out about her son’s boyfriend, is more terrifying than any backlash they might face from anyone for this.

And there isn’t a doubt in his mind that this is all worth it. His only regret is that Riley isn’t there at his side, but he knows that Riley would want him to be happy, and he is.

He really, really is.