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Bird Set Free

Chapter Text

“Take that!” the Enchantress screeches, blasting Thor with a bolt of green light that turns into a lance mid-air.

“Surrender, witch,” Thor bellows back, using Mjolnir to bat the lance aside.

“Where is my back-up?” Steve demands as he dodges the weapon, which promptly disappears, of course.

He has no idea how she escaped. They caught her last night stealing a mystical diamond from the Met, supposedly in a misguided attempt to woo Thor, and locked her up, but now she’s loose, and making a real mess of things on the roof of Avengers Tower.

“Black Widow and Hawkeye are en route,” JARVIS answers, his voice as calm and collected as ever in Steve’s earpiece.

“Fucking magic,” Steve mutters, as another jet of sizzling energy zings past his ear. “What’s their ETA?”

“Three minutes, Captain,” says JARVIS.

“Good.” Steve starts to say more, to ask for JARVIS to pass along some instructions, but his voice cuts out. He tries to move, to signal to Thor that something’s wrong, but he’s paralyzed. He can’t move.

The Enchantress’s scepter comes into Steve’s peripheral vision, uncomfortably close to his throat. “Release me,” she orders, “or suffer the consequences of the one I serve!”

Thor responds with more lightning — Steve would have advised against that if he could — and then all Steve can see is green light, blinding him.

It doesn’t hurt; it’s like a shower that’s gone cold. Steve can feel every millimeter of his skin tighten. He can’t move, but his stomach is swooping like he’s in a falling elevator. From a distance, he feels the shield become immensely heavy before it clunks off his arm. His uniform goes loose on him and falls, like someone cut the strings on a Captain America puppet, while Steve himself feels light. He’s rising, drifting up, heading for the crowded New York sky.

For dying, this isn’t half bad, he thinks, just before he disappears completely.

When he wakes up, the world is extremely bright. There are so many swirls and flashes of color that he closes his eyes again, taking a second to breathe, to settle, to try and slow the heart that’s skipping in his chest. He needs to focus, figure out what the hell is going on.

He opens his eyes again, once he feels calmer, and notices that he’s looking down on a busy park scene. People come and go, their jackets flashing in the sun. The grass below him — wait, how high up is he? He turns his head — the movement is strange, somehow sharper than usual — and catches sight of a mass of dark green foliage, interspersed with clumps of small, shiny things.

Seeds. He’s suddenly hungry. Ravenous, in fact.

He tries to reach out, but his arm is folded strangely. Then he realizes he can’t see his legs, or feel the tree branch under his ass. Why is he sitting in a tree, and why does he want those damn seeds so much? With an effort he pushes away the hunger and tries to look down, to bend his head forward.

He overbalances somehow, tipping forward and falling. The weird, sparkling ground is spinning up to meet him. Too fast, much too fast. He spreads his arms instinctively, anything to catch himself, and—

—and he’s flying.

His wings beat the air on either side of him, lifting him back until he can see another branch, lower than the one he left a second ago. He tries to sit down on it, but then he runs into the no-legs situation again, and he hits the branch with his belly awkwardly. He flaps his wings again, wiggles his toes, and tries again. This time he manages to grip the branch with his feet, though he almost falls again because his wings don’t stop moving in time. He stills them with an effort, and they tuck back behind him in a movement that’s strange because it feels so natural, like the first time he threw the shield.

He looks around again, this time without moving his head. His eyes are better, he notices. Not that they were terrible before, but his field of vision is downright impressive. Not to mention that he can pick out tiny spots of reflected light — food, his stomach cries — from a distance. There’s one large clump on the ground over there, and a handful of birds is crowding around it, pecking and eating and... talking.

He has no idea how he hasn’t noticed before — the voices are everywhere, a roar of noise like he’s stepped into a crowded room. He can’t make sense of them; no one is talking directly to him. Someone is talking about him, he thinks — “Did you see that guy almost fall a minute ago? Think he found some fermented berries?” — but most of the voices are incomprehensible: explanations of where the best sticks are, fearful descriptions of cats, and boasts about sexual prowess. There’s a lot of that last one. 

Steve shakes his head, or he tries to at least. Fucking magic.

“Hey, watch where you’re flying, jackass!” someone shouts, and Steve swoops without thinking, narrowly avoiding a pair of starlings that let out a string of curse words as they pass over Steve’s head.

“Bagel mine, bagel mine, bagel mine,” chants a voice to his left, and Steve feels himself buffeted by a strong wind as a fat, fluffy pigeon dives for the ground.

“Best seeds over here,” calls a sparrow, zooming past him.

With a flutter, Steve manages to land near the pigeon. The piece of crumbling dough between them smells amazing, and Steve is still starving. He hops forward, irresistibly drawn, and the pigeon fixes him with a beady stare.

“Bagel mine,” he reminds him. “Seeds over there.”

Steve looks — it’s taken some practice, but he’s finally able to remember that he has to turn most of his body to do so — and sees the sparrow who passed him a second ago, crunching shiny seeds along with a bunch of other birds.

He hops over, too concerned with filling his stomach for the moment to think about anything else. The man throwing the seeds, for example, is a complete afterthought. Steve notices an enormous shoe near his precious seeds as he eats, but he doesn’t pay any attention to it until it moves.

He shoots up into the air on instinct, because big things that move fast are terrifying — and he hears a rustle of wings that tells him he started a little panic, that the sparrows he was eating with have also scattered.

Good, he thinks, we’re safe now.

Steve settles on the edge of a water fountain, and soon finds himself fascinated by the sparkle of metal and the few droplets clinging to the drain. He would really like to take a bath, he decides. Then maybe he can find a stick. Maybe a lot of sticks. He doesn’t know why he wants to do that, but it seems like a very good idea.

A sound unlike the other voices makes him cock his head. It’s a low murmur behind him. He hops in place to turn around, notices the man sitting on the bench with a bag of bird seed, the one who startled Steve a moment ago. His lips are moving, Steve realizes, and that’s the source of the strange sound. It’s like words in another language; Steve concentrates, tuning out the noisy yelling of the other birds, but he can’t understand it at all.

Steve stares at the man helplessly, his heart sinking in his chest. If he can’t understand what people are saying, how is he going to be able to tell his friends what happened to him? How is he going to get his body back? Is he doomed to be a bird for the rest of his life?

At least it won’t be a long life, he thinks with black humor. Living in New York — in both the 1930s and the 2010s — Steve has seen a lot of dead birds. Now that he is a bird, he’ll probably get hit by a car or fly into a skyscraper window. Or maybe a stray cat will get him. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be quick at least. That cat would never know that it had done what HYDRA and the Nazis never could. And his friends... well, they probably already think he’s dead, so, no harm, no foul. They’ll have a funeral; maybe the president will go. If he remembers, Steve should try to find a perch outside a restaurant in a few weeks and watch the broadcast.

He returns to the seeds and starts munching them morosely, still wrapped up in his dark thoughts. Suddenly, a click to his right makes him jump in surprise, setting off another chain reaction of fluttering wings. He hops around until he can see what made the sound. It’s a camera, held by someone whose hands smell like—

Steve hops closer. The seed he’s crunching tastes bland and dry compared to the fresh-baked scent that the photographer is emanating. The man’s camera clicks again, and then, like it’s coming from underwater, Steve hears the man made a sound that could be laughter.

He lingers near the man, hoping, and sure enough, he scatters some food. Steve picks at it with his beak right away, savoring the way the dough seems to dissolve in his mouth, sweet with nuts and dried fruit.

The pigeon abandons his bagel and saunters over. “Muffin?” he says. “Muffin mine?”

“Muffin mine,” Steve snaps back without meaning to, and the man with the camera makes another laughing sound.

“You tell him, little buddy,” he says, and Steve is so preoccupied with staring down the pigeon that he doesn’t realize at first what he heard.

Once he does, he jerks his eyes up, but the nice-smelling man is already walking away. Steve takes off at once — “Muffin mine!” he hears the pigeon yell triumphantly — and swoops to a low-hanging branch ahead of the nice-smelling man.

He doesn’t seem to notice Steve. He keeps walking, tucking his camera into the bag that hangs from one shoulder.

Steve has to catch him. He flutters from branch to branch, following him as closely as he can. But the nice-smelling man soon joins one of the main branches of the park path, which is crowded with people. Steve flies a little higher, trying to get a better look, but this is a mistake — with his hyper-colorful vision, the details of the nice-smelling man fade. Steve thinks he sees him, and takes off, but when he gets closer he realizes he’s wrong; this man doesn’t smell right at all.

Steve lands on a fence post and looks around some more, but he has no luck — the nice-smelling man is gone. He flaps his wings in annoyance, and a robin on the ground cocks his head up.

“What are you looking at?” Steve growls at him.

“A rude little bird,” says the robin haughtily, and he shows Steve his tail feathers.

Steve wishes he could roll his eyes. Instead, he settles for taking off again, following the sound and smell of running water. Maybe he can make this worth the trip and get that bath he wanted after all.

He does. Steve drinks and splashes and eats his fill of the bugs that swarm close to the water’s surface. He takes great delight in ignoring the human who flaps his arms to shoo him away, and when the opportunity comes for him to shit on that guy’s shoulder a few minutes later, Steve flies over the concrete and does just that. 

The people below make a lot of noise, and Steve can’t help snickering as he settles on a curved piece of wrought-iron, warm from the sun.

“Well done,” calls a flashy green-headed grackle from the grass below him. His voice is accented unlike any of the other birds that Steve’s heard today, but at the same time, his voice is familiar. Steve can’t think why.

“Thanks,” he answers anyway. He cocks his head to look down, and when he does, he realizes abruptly that he recognizes his surroundings.

He’s in Central Park. Perched on the curved top of the Vanderbilt gate, which is even older than him. He vaguely remembers coming here once as a child, seeing the mansion with its enormous glass conservatory. Now the gates are all that’s left, and Steve comes here often to clear his head after Avengers business or sometimes if Tony is getting on his nerves. The Tower is just a few miles southwest of here, so if he can get himself pointed in the right direction, maybe he can—

“Hey, that’s my nest!” cries a voice from up in a nearby tree.

“We’ll see about that,” replies the grackle who just complimented Steve on his aim.

“My eggs are in there!” the first voice yells, and Steve sets himself in motion. He takes in the scene as he lands: an irate woodpecker in front of a hole in the tree where she’s obviously made a home. The grackle has already started to tear it apart — bits of twigs litter the branch they were on. 

“What’s going on here, ma’am?” Steve asks her.

“I suggest you stay out of it, finch,” the grackle warns, which of course makes Steve all the more determined to get into it.

He puffs his chest out. “I think you ought to leave this nice lady alone,” he counters. “Build your own nest.”

The grackle lets out a cackling laugh. “Really? You want to fight me?”

Before Steve can answer, the grackle spreads his wings. He seems huge — Steve doesn’t know much about birds, but if he really is a finch, then the grackle has to be two or three times his size. That’s never stopped him from taking on a bully before... but he’s also never been magically transformed into a bird before, either.

Well, he’ll just have to strike first.

He flits up, beating his wings to gain some momentum, then dives, aiming for the grackle’s eye. The grackle laughs again and rears up as well. Steve, his attack misaligned now, feels the grackle’s foot connect with his beak, forcing him down and away. He manages to land safely on the branch in front of the woodpecker, who’s shouting encouragement while also climbing back into her nest.

The grackle lunges, aiming his black bill at Steve’s throat. Steve is thrown back by the attack, and feels the never-pleasant sensation of his feet coming out from under him. His wings flail uselessly, the feathers catching on the edges of the branch, while above him the grackle is coming in for the kill. Steve feels the pinch of talons on his chest, and his clear vision is completely blacked out by the glossy feathers of the grackle’s wings. Steve has about a second to regret every decision he’s made that had led him to this point, but then the grackle lets him go.

“I was just trying to distract you,” the grackle tells him, “but now that you’ve given me the opportunity, I may as well enjoy this.”

If Steve were in his other body, he’d get to his feet with a snappy comeback, raise his fists and make the grackle eat his words. But, just like he flew away when the man on the park bench moved without warning, Steve is now driven by a deep survival instinct.

So, for the first time in his life, he runs — or, rather, flies — away from a fight.

He’s back beside the fountain by the time his senses catch up with him, and he swivels his head up, trying to see what became of the grackle and the woodpecker. But he can’t remember which tree they’d been in, or which branch. It doesn’t matter, really. Steve’s hungry again, and a bit tired, and the sparrows around him are splashing and having a good time, stirring up the bugs. He joins them, then settles in a tree after eating, picks an itch under his wing, and bends down to swipe his beak on the branch and clean it.

He spends the rest of the day hanging out in the trees, sheltered by the foliage and able to hop down to the fountain whenever he needs more food. He avoids any grackle he sees, just in case, but the bird who attacked him earlier seems to have disappeared, or maybe he has a bad memory, too.

As it starts to get dark, he glances around this corner of the park. The world looks different from this perspective, but he knows the cardinal directions. He turns southeast and looks, but he can’t see... what’s he trying to see again? In the fading light, everything beyond his immediate range seems to blur out, but he knows that there’s something he needs over there; maybe he should just start flying and see how far he gets?

That seems like a lot of work. The park is safer, and he’s getting tired. He nestles himself into a dark corner of a tree, tucks his head under his wing, and goes to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sam wakes up before his alarm, which, unfortunately, isn’t unusual. He blinks at the darkened room, thinking as he often does that maybe he won’t go in today. Maybe he’ll just stay in bed, leave the bakery closed, and take it easy.

He can’t actually do it, of course. The bakery, Tout de Sweet, is important; it’s just that the 3AM wakeups get a little old. Of the two of them, Riley was always the early bird.

Sam’s lips twist up at the old, familiar joke. Riley was one of only three people who knew about Sam’s special ability, and sometimes Sam misses his cheesy bird jokes more than anything else.

His eye drift closed, and he thinks about Riley, imagines the warm trace of him in the bed, remembers the smell of his body wash, the touch of his calloused hands. He smiles, feels sleep pulling at him—

—and in a flash, it happens again. The trail of smoke, a cut-off scream, a casket.

Sam shakes himself and gets out of bed.

He spends a few minutes in front of the open window, looking out at the shadowy street. New York is the city that never sleeps, but its birds do. For a little while, at least. In an hour they’ll start up again, but for now, it’s quiet, quiet like Sam never experiences during the day. Only a few owls arguing over their territory and comparing rat sizes. Periodically, Sam hears a peregrine falcon, but that’s rare. Mostly, the nights are empty of bird noise. He treasures these moments when he can find them.

He yawns and stretches and rolls his shoulders, then heads to the dresser to find something to wear. One great thing about running Tout de Sweet is that Sam’s in an apron all day; he can wear band t-shirts or even workout clothes, and no one notices. Today, he decides on his Avengers shirt. It was a gag gift from his sister when he came home from overseas, something about rooting for the home team. It’s comfortable, if thin, and he pulls one of his old Air Force sweaters over it to keep him warm until he gets the ovens on.

Then he has a bite to eat in the kitchenette, makes a cup of instant coffee to chase away the last of his fatigue, and heads downstairs to start his day.

Another reason he loves the bakery? His regulars.

“Sam, my man,” he hears Luke boom from the front counter. “You in there?”

Sam grins and emerges from the kitchen, wiping his flour-covered hands on his apron. Luke stops by Tout de Sweet just after 7 every morning on his way to pick Claire up at the end of her shift in the ER, and he always gets the same thing. Sam grabs the croissants while Riri, his only employee and Riley’s 20-year-old stepsister, puts together Luke’s coffee order: two large dark roasts, one with a shot of hazelnut syrup. That one’s for Claire, and Luke always asks Riri to leave lots of room for cream.

“You’re late, you know,” Sam tells him, jerking his thumb at the clock behind the counter. “What’s Claire gonna say about that?”

“It’s not my fault,” Luke protests, and his grin fades a little. “They’ve got a bit of a situation at the hospital, so Claire’s shift ran long.”

The smile drops off Sam’s face at once. “Is everything okay? Was there a— a shooting, or—?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Luke says quickly, and Sam breathes again. “No, it’s just the thing with the Avengers, you know? They’re searching all the emergency rooms in the city.”

Riri brings the coffees over and sets them on the counter beside Luke’s croissants. “They haven’t found him yet?” she asks, in an uncharacteristically serious voice.

“No,” says Luke, shaking his head.

“Wow,” Riri says under her breath, and she turns away again.

Sam is completely lost. “What— who?” he stammers. “What are you two talking about?”

“You didn’t hear?” Luke asks, his eyebrows shooting towards the ceiling. “Dude, where have you been the last twelve hours? It’s all over the news!”

“I was sleeping,” Sam replies, a little defensively. “And working here, making you and your girlfriend fresh croissants.”

“Which we truly love and appreciate, please don’t ever stop,” Luke says hurriedly, which makes Sam chuckle. “But seriously, man. Captain America’s missing. The Avengers put out this statement last night, asking anybody with information to come forward.”

Sam blinks, needing a second to absorb that. “Whoa,” he murmurs. “What happened?”

“They didn’t say,” Riri replies, looking up from measuring coffee beans into the grinder. “But you know it’s gotta be bad when they put something like that on TV.”

Sam nods in agreement. With the exception of two tours in Afghanistan, he’s lived in New York his whole life, and this is the first time he’s ever heard of the Avengers doing something like this.

“Hard to believe it makes their job any easier, going public,” Luke sighs, picking up his coffee and croissants. “But, hey, I’m not an Avenger, so what do I know?”

Sam chuckles with him. “Me, neither. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Say hi to Claire for me,” he adds as Luke turns away.

“Absolutely,” Luke nods, and he waves one-handedly before heading to the milk station for Claire’s cream.

A group of business students comes through the front door then, and Sam nods at Riri before heading back to the kitchen. He knows this group’s order, too, and he’ll be out of blueberry muffins in a minute. He has to get another batch in the oven ASAP, then probably some more chocolate chip, too.

He takes one second, though, to turn on the kitchen radio before he washes his hands and gets back to work. The news will be on in a few minutes, and he doesn’t want to miss it.

Since it’s Saturday, Riri stays till after the lunch rush, and once Sam has cleaned up and re-stocked, he spends the rest of the day working on orders for tomorrow. He has three more to go, and they’re all baby-related cupcakes: three dozen blue velvet, decorated with green candy tractors; two dozen vanilla with pink buttercream swirls; and another two dozen vanilla with purple buttercream, arranged in the box with ribbon to look like a dress. The purple is an unusual choice, but at least it’s not a gender reveal cake; Sam hates himself a little every time he has to do one of those.

It’s late afternoon by the time he’s finished, and as Sam locks the front door behind him, he realizes that he’s starving. Pizza, he decides, and he walks down the block to grab a couple slices.

The usual cacophony of bird voices meets him as soon as he steps outside the door, but he mostly manages to tune it out — though taking his food to the park is a bad idea. Pigeons swarm him, begging for scraps, and there’s even a green-headed grackle hanging out nearby on a low-hanging branch, staring at Sam with beady, hungry eyes. Sam soon finds himself wishing he brought his iPod.

That’s probably why he doesn’t notice right away that there’s a small voice trying to get his attention. He’s so used to ignoring them that it takes three repetitions of “Hey! Over here! On your left!” before Sam turns.

A small house finch is perched on the garbage can beside Sam’s bench, staring at him intently. Sam frowns, takes another bite of his pizza. He moves the slice away from his face a bit, just to see, but the little bird’s eyes don’t track it.

“Finally,” the bird says. “I thought you’d never come back.”

Sam glances around cautiously before he answers — he hates being the crazy guy in the park who talks to the birds. Thankfully there aren’t many people around tonight.

“Come back?” he repeats. “When was I here before?”

“Yesterday, remember?” the bird snaps. “You took my picture!”

“Oh, right,” says Sam. He almost forgot about that. He came through the park on his way home last night, with his camera because he was doing photos for Tout de Sweet’s Instagram, and he thought it’d be relaxing to do some nature shots, too.

“Sorry,” he adds politely, but then he realizes what’s weird(er than usual) about this conversation. Birds, at least as far as Sam can tell, don’t usually remember anything day-to-day. Also, they tend to be pretty simplistic in their reactions to technology; he doesn’t think he’s ever met a bird who knew what a camera was, or what it did.

“You remember,” he says, “and you understood what I was doing.”

“It’s fuzzy, but yeah,” says the finch. “Look, I need your help, okay? You’re the only person who can understand what I’m saying.”

Sam feels himself relax again. This, at least, is familiar. “Sorry, buddy, but I’m not getting involved in your love life. If you can’t find a mate, that’s your problem.”

“What?” the finch squeaks. “Find a mate, I don’t— although....” The little bird flutters his wings a bit. “I should get some sticks,” he says determinedly.

“There you go,” Sam agrees, leaning back on the bench. “Bitches love sticks.”

The bird cocks his head, looking somewhat affronted, and Sam reminds himself that the finer points of internet humor are generally lost on birds.

“No, I—” The finch hops up, flutters to Sam’s knee. Sam’s eyes widen in surprise, but he holds still, trying not to startle the little guy. “I need your help. Please,” the finch insists.

“Okay,” says Sam, sympathetic despite his vow not to get involved. “Tell me what’s going on.”

The finch flicks his tail feathers, he hops around Sam’s leg. “You smell so good. Like bread. You have bread?”

Sam smiles slightly at that. He’s read the science about how birds have small olfactory glands and therefore don’t smell very much, but he’s also had enough conversations with birds to know that the science is only half the story. They might prefer their eyes, but birds definitely have a sense of smell.

“No bread,” he tells the finch. “It’s not good for you anyway.”

“Muffin?” the finch guesses. “Muffin, please?”

Sam sighs. This is quickly becoming like most of the other conversations he’s had with birds in the park. “Okay. Last chance, little buddy,” he says. “What do you need my help with?”

Other than bread, he adds silently — somehow he imagines that saying it out loud would be too much of a distraction for the bird-brain.

The finch cocks his head again, blinks. “My name is... Steve!” he cries, like he’s just remembered.

Sam frowns. He doesn’t think he’s ever had a bird introduce himself before, and certainly not with a human name.

“I’m not— supposed to be here,” the finch goes on emphatically, like the words take some effort to get out. “I’m stuck. You gotta help me.”

“Stuck... in the park?” Sam guesses, wondering if maybe the bird was somebody’s lost pet. House finches aren’t sold as pets, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to raise them.

“No,” says the finch, but he doesn’t sound very sure of himself anymore. “I don’t... think so. It’s fuzzy,” he says again.

Sam watches the bird hop around, nosing hopefully at his fingers. He certainly seems domesticated, this little guy, and if he was raised in captivity, then he isn’t going to do too well out here in the wild. Sam can’t just leave him, knowing that.

He still has the cage from when Riley had zebra finches, it wouldn’t be hard to take this bird home and set him up for a day or two while he gets in touch with Doreen. She works at a wildlife rescue, and she’s the only person Sam’s met who has an ability like his. She’ll know what to do.

He nods to himself, content with this decision. Now he just has to convince the bird. “How about you come stay with me for a little while, until you get your head on straight?”

“And have bread?” the finch demands at once, fluttering his tail feathers again. “You smell good. Like bread. Want bread.”

“Sure,” says Sam, resigned. “You can have some bread. Now, come here, I’ll need to carry you. We’re going a little ways.”

“Okay,” the finch chirps happily, and he jumps up into Sam’s palm, letting Sam tuck him into one of the roomier pockets on the inside of his jacket.

Sam looks around furtively, hoping to hell that nobody notices him stealing a bird from Central Park. The grackle is still watching him, but no one else seems to see. The little finch stays surprisingly quiet, and only wriggles a few times in Sam’s pocket, more like he’s bored than trying to escape.

When he gets home, Sam lays some junk mail on the table, then sets the finch down on top of it. He immediately starts hopping and fluttering, chattering about how nice it smells and could he find a bath, and where are the sticks, please? Sam shakes his head and turns his back, circling the apartment to be sure that all the windows are sealed tight. Then he digs the cage out of his closet and sets it on the table next to the finch.

“Inside?” the finch asks him.

“Inside,” Sam repeats. “Just gonna hit the pet store before they close, get you a few things.”

The finch makes approving noises as he hops through the open door, and immediately flies up to the highest perch.

“I’ll let you out again as soon as I come back, okay?” Sam says, but the finch clearly isn’t listening. Sam closes the cage door, picks up his keys again, and heads for the stairs. All the while the finch’s monologue carries on behind him, chirping about how this new tree smelled, about being hungry, about wanting a bath.

Sam just shakes his head again. At least nobody could accuse him of having an ordinary life.

Chapter Text

Steve wakes up in the dark. He isn’t outside anymore. He’s in a cage, with food and water like he’s somebody’s goddamned gerbil. He has to get out, he has to get to the Tower, find his team, tell them what happened. He tried to fly there yesterday, but he got tired so quickly, and the Tower was so far. And his brain isn’t retaining information that well. He barely made it back to the park before he forgot what he was doing.

He hops around in the half-light coming through the sheet that’s been draped over the cage. After a minute of looking, he finds the door, examines the latch on the other side. If he hits it with enough force—

It hurts, and the cage rattles, but the door doesn’t budge. Steve hops back, ducks his head, and rams it again.

No luck. Desperately, he grabs at the bars of the cage with his feet, flaps his wings as hard as he can, pulling, pushing, swearing.

“Come on, you piece of— fuck—”

Light pours in on him suddenly, and Steve looks up to see a familiar, if enormous, face peering in at him.

“What are you doing?” the man asks. “You’re gonna hurt yourself. If you want out, you just have to ask.”

Steve remembers that this man can understand him, but little else. “Where am I?” he demands. “Who are you?”

“I’m Sam, we met yesterday at the park,” the man explains patiently. “You told me you needed help, so I brought you here.”

Thank God, Steve thinks, like a prayer. “I do,” he says, fluttering up to the lowest perch in the cage. “I do need your help, Sam. I’m losing it, I don’t remember things very well.”

“What kind of things?” Sam asks, sinking into a chair so they were more or less at eye level. Steve appreciates the gesture.

“It’s easier when I first wake up,” he tries to explain. His wing itches; he picks at it absently. “Later, I’m all... fuzzy.”

He isn’t sure if this makes sense, but Sam nods. “So what are you losing?”

“Myself,” Steve says, letting the despair creep into his voice for the first time. “I’m not a bird, Sam, I’m—”

He stops, blinks. Hungry. He’s hungry. He turns— there. Seeds. Crunching and munching. Water, too. Nice water.

Nice Sam. Maybe he should bring Sam a stick.

He shakes stray droplets from his feathers and jumps up to the middle perch. Nice tree. Smells weird. Good, but weird. He clicks his beak, stretches one wing. Very nice tree.

“Steve?” says a voice suddenly, and Steve comes back to himself.

“Yes,” he cries, flying down to look the man in the eye. “Yes, it’s me, it’s Steve. You understand me?”

“Yeah,” the man replies. Sam! That’s his name. “Tell me what happened,” Sam says, “as best you can.”

“Magic,” Steve snarls. “Fucking magic, I hate it.”

“Um,” says Sam. His mouth moves for a second before sound comes out. “Okay. Can you be more specific?”

“Not really,” Steve admits, thinking back. “We were up high, and there was light— I don’t know,” he concludes. “Sorry. I don’t remember much.”

“That’s okay,” Sam says. “How do you know it was magic?”

“I... I don’t know,” says Steve. This part is crucial, but the facts are slipping away before he can get the words out to describe them.

“I see,” says Sam. He raises his hands, and the sudden motion — Danger! Danger! — startles Steve back up to the top perch. His tiny heart races. The off-kilter pattern of heartbeats is disconcerting — for a moment, he thinks he’s back in his frail body, and then he remembers he’s even more fragile now.

“Sorry,” Sam tells him. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Well, you’re kind of a big fella,” Steve replies, and then he gets distracted again. Sam smells very good.

Sticks. Steve needs sticks. Where can he find sticks in this place?

“Steve,” says the nice-smelling Sam.

Steve shakes out his feathers, tries again to concentrate. “I need to go south,” he says, as clearly as he can. “There’s somewhere... important. I have to go. Can you take me?”

“How far south?” Sam asks.

“Not far,” Steve answers him, but he isn’t sure if that’s actually right. “I just need to go.”

He turns in the cage, finds the right direction. The urge to fly is overwhelming. He wants to be outside, to move, to stretch and take off into the sky.

He hops to the highest perch, notices something shiny — so shiny. Steve moves closer, pecks at it. The sound it makes is wonderful.

“Ring,” says Steve in awe, and he pecks it again. “Ring, ring, ring, ring—”

“Okay,” says Sam. Steve tears his eyes away from the bell and notices that Sam is farther away now. When did he move?

“Okay,” says Steve, even though he can’t remember what he’s agreeing to. “Muffin?” he adds hopefully. He’s hungry again.

“Sure,” Sam replies. “I’ll bring you up some muffin crumbs.”

“Muffin,” Steve repeats happily, hitting the bell again. This is a fine tree, with its bell and its seeds and water. And soon there would be muffin. Maybe sticks, too. Sticks for Sam. 

It takes a lot for Sam to leave and go about his routine at Tout de Sweet like everything’s normal. The work is distracting at least, requiring enough concentration to get him out of his head, letting him put off worrying about Steve-The-Finch, as Sam has begun to think of him.

He closes up at 3, early even for a Sunday, and as he locks the door, he notices a black bird taking off from the bus stop sign out front. In the rain, its feathers are glossy and almost green. Sam watches till the bird is out of sight, then heads back to the kitchen to get the finch his promised muffin.

Steve is hopping around the cage like crazy when Sam returns, but at least he isn’t ramming his head against the bars again. Sam opens the door to let him out and scatters the muffin crumbs on the table.

“Hungry,” says the finch, gobbling up the raisins first. “Best muffin, so tasty.”

“Good,” says Sam. Weirdness aside, he can’t help but smile at the little guy, happy to see him so happy. He’s loved feeding and caring for birds since he was a kid.

But Steve isn’t his pet, Sam reminds himself, just as his phone chimes in his pocket. He pulls it out to check, and sure enough it’s Doreen. She’s out front, she says, and promises that she didn’t bring her pet squirrel.

Sam blinks down at his phone, somewhat alarmed that he hadn’t considered that a risk until right now.

“Bell?” asks Steve.

“Yeah,” Sam replies, shaking himself into motion. “I’ll be right back.”

The muffin does its job, distracting the finch while Sam opens the door and climbs down the stairs to the street.

Doreen has the same gift Sam does, except that for her it’s squirrels instead of birds. He texted her this morning, while Steve was ringing his bell, on the off-chance that she was in town, and got lucky. She’s leaving tomorrow morning for Massachusetts to consult on a housing project that might threaten a bog turtle. Or something like that. Sam wasn’t really paying attention, what with the news that his feathered friend believes himself to be the victim of a magic spell.

“Sammy!” Doreen exclaims when he opens the door.

“Hi, sweetie, thanks for coming,” Sam says, giving her a hug. “How are you?”

“Good, good,” Doreen replies, following him up the stairs. “Tippy-toe says hi. He’s upset that I couldn’t bring him, but I think he’ll understand. He just gets so moody sometimes, you know how it is.”

“Sure,” says Sam, though he really doesn’t. Most birds, he can only assume, aren’t as self-aware as squirrels are, because he’s never had an exchange nearly as in-depth as those that Doreen seems to have regularly.

“So, this is Steve?” Doreen says, when they reach the kitchen. She puts out a hand for the finch to smell, but Steve flutters to the top of the cage and clicks his beak at her.

“Who is this?” he demands.

“Steve, this is Doreen. Doreen, Steve,” Sam says, deciding to answer both their questions at once.

“Hi, birdie,” says Doreen. “Can you understand me?”

Sam waits, but Steve doesn’t speak. “I’ll take that as a no,” Sam says after a moment.

“Well, it was worth a try,” Doreen says, not sounding put out in the least. “Never been able to talk to any animal except squirrels, but I’ve also never come across an animal who says he’s not an animal.”

“What’s she saying?” Steve pipes up. “Sam, I don’t understand.”

“I know,” says Sam. “It’s okay, buddy, she’s a friend.”

“Is he scared of me?” asks Doreen, sounding worried.

“I don’t think so,” says Sam. He pulls out a chair for her, and gets them both a Coke from the fridge. “He’s just confused.”

“I would be, too,” Doreen says. “One day you wake up, and suddenly you’re a bird. Wouldn’t that be something?”

“So you think he’s telling the truth?” Sam asks, sinking into the chair beside her. Steve hops down from the cage to nose at his fingers, like he’s sure there’s more muffin crumbs that he’s hiding.

Doreen shrugs. “You’re the expert. You ever had a bird lie to you before?”

Sam thinks about it as he opens his soda, takes a long drink. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “Maybe a crow once or twice.”

“Crows would,” Doreen says wisely.

“The weird thing is that I’ve never seen a wild finch act so calm around people,” Sam goes on. “Normally they’re pretty skittish, but this guy... I really think he was somebody’s pet. Somebody’s illegal pet,” he adds a second later.

“He does seem pretty happy here,” Doreen agrees. “He could be your pet. He’d need a better name, though.”

“You ever had a squirrel tell you its own name before?” Sam asks. For anyone else, that question would sound like nonsense, but for him and Doreen, the nonsense is normal.

“No,” says Doreen without a moment’s hesitation.

“And you’ve never met a squirrel who talks about magic?”

“Definitely not.”

“But you think it’s possible?” Sam asks.

Doreen takes a thoughtful swig of her drink, watching Steve hop back inside the cage and splash around in his water dish. “Anything’s possible,” she says. “I mean, look at us. What explanation do we have?”

“True,” Sam concedes. “But the question is, what am I gonna do about it?”

“I think you should take him south,” says Doreen. “He says he needs to go, so why not take him?”

“Okay, but what if his internal radar thing is all fucked up and he thinks he needs to go to Florida or something?” Sam protests. It’s a concern that’s been in the back of his mind since this morning, and it feels good to voice it out loud, and it’s a comfort, as it always is, to be with Doreen, who knows he’s not crazy.

“I’m sure he doesn’t want to go to Florida,” Doreen says, then she chuckles. “Nobody wants to go to Florida this time of year.”


“Has he talked about migrating?” Doreen presses, cutting across him.

“No,” Sam admits.

“But he said it was a long journey?”

“No,” Sam says again. “The opposite. He doesn’t think it’s far at all.”

Doreen shrugs again. “Well, then, I think you should take him. First thing tomorrow morning. Tout de Sweet is closed on Mondays, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” says Sam. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course I am,” says Doreen, flashing him a bright grin.

Sam chuckles. “Can you look him over, though, make sure he’s okay?”

“Sure,” Doreen says. “Anything for you, Sammy.”

Sam gets Steve some more treats to distract him while Doreen inspects him. He doesn’t seem to notice her at all, pecking at the sunflower seeds and peach pieces that Sam provided for him. He eats out of Sam’s hand at one point, commenting again about how good Sam smells and how much he really needs to find Sam a stick.

Sam feels his face flush. He’s never had a bird talk like that to him before, and he’s never telling anyone, not even Doreen, about what he thinks it might mean. 

“No sign of injuries,” Doreen reports. “He’s eating a bit much, considering he hasn’t been expending a lot of energy in the cage all day, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem unless you plan to keep him. I’d be more worried if he wasn’t eating.”

Sam nods in agreement.

“No ring, obviously,” Doreen goes on, “and I don’t see anything to indicate that there ever was one. Nothing on the wings or tail feathers, no sign that he’s been studied at all.”

“So he’s just a normal bird,” Sam summarizes. He’s not sure if that makes him feel better or worse.

“Not exactly,” Doreen says. “Here, look at this—”

“Hey!” Steve cries out, as Doreen takes hold of him.

“It’s okay, Steve,” says Sam quickly. “She’ll let you go in a minute.”

“I’ve never seen a house finch with this color pattern before,” Doreen explains. “Most of the time their head is all red, but this guy’s got a white mark above his eyes, you see?”

“Oh yeah,” says Sam, looking at where she’s pointing. “Kinda looks like a star.”

“That or the anarchy symbol,” Doreen jokes, and when Sam squints he can sort of see what she means — the lines against the red almost form an off-kilter ‘A’.

“Huh,” he says. “What’s it mean?”

“Probably nothing,” says Doreen, but she takes a picture with her phone, a sleek black device that Sam has never seen before. “It could be a sign he was bred a certain way, maybe in captivity.”

She lets the bird go, and he immediately flies to the top of the cage and starts picking at his wings, muttering about how messy his feathers are now. Sam smiles, watching him, and Doreen notices.

“He’s cute,” she says. “If I were you, I’d keep him.”

“Says the woman with how many pet squirrels?” Sam teases.

“So rude,” Doreen answers dismissively. “Let’s just see if I ever do you another favor.”

They laugh together, and talk a little longer, not about the finch — not really about anything — and Doreen heads out a half an hour later.

“Let me know what you’re going to do with him,” she says, hugging Sam goodbye at the bottom of the stairs. “Because if you’re not gonna keep him, I’ll see if they want him at work.”

“Thanks,” says Sam seriously. “I mean it.”

Doreen winks. “What are friends for?”

She opens the door, letting in the New York noise and a strong breeze that smells like rain. Sam thinks he sees something else come in with it, a shadow or something, but he decides after a second that it’s just his imagination. He waves at Doreen as she walks away, then shuts the door and heads back upstairs.

Steve-The-Finch seems happier now that it’s just the two of them. He flies around the apartment, very kindly not shitting all over it, and flutters onto Sam’s shoulder when Sam throws together a salad with chicken and strawberries for dinner.

“You’re like a dog,” Sam tells him, laughing. “Begging for scraps like this, who raised you?”

“My mother,” says Steve quickly. Then he cocks his head. “Strawberry?”

“Sure,” Sam says, tossing a piece onto the table. Steve takes off at once, his tiny claws scraping Sam’s skin slightly through his t-shirt, and Sam follows him, sits down with his fork and his food. He turns on the TV a few bites in, and is startled a second later when Captain America’s face fills the screen.

“—leading some to speculate that it’s nothing more than an Avengers publicity stunt,” the news anchor says. “With more on this, we turn to our guest panel this evening—”

“Publicity stunt,” Sam repeats, lowering the volume. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Don’t think what?” asks Steve from the top of his cage. “Hey, who is that?” he adds before Sam can answer.

“That’s Captain America,” says Sam. “He’s missing.”

“Missing,” says Steve, and he makes a trilling sound that Sam supposes is laughter. “That’s one word for it.”

“You— what do you mean?” asks Sam, confused.

Steve hops down and pecks at the table. “Where’d those seeds go?”

“Steve,” says Sam. The bird looks up. “What do you mean?”


“About Cap being missing,” Sam prompts, frustrated.

“I— I don’t know,” says Steve. He sounds more human now — Sam is getting good at recognizing the differences in his voice. “Did I say something?”

Sam sighs. This is why he hates having conversations with birds. “Never mind.”

“Okay,” Steve says brightly, and he goes about his business of tracking down sunflower seeds.

Sam finishes his meal, muting the TV after it becomes clear that there’s no real news on the Captain America situation. He wonders why the Avengers haven’t said anything more, or put out a picture. They’re the only ones who know what Cap looks like under the mask, after all, and if he’s been kidnapped or something, Sam can’t imagine he’s walking around in full uniform. Wouldn’t it be helpful for the public to have more details?

But then again, maybe not, Sam thinks, as he gets up and starts washing the dishes. The Avengers probably get enough weird news tips as it is. Riley, for instance, used to try to talk Sam into going to them whenever birds told him about shady business. Not that the birds knew it was shady, but still. They’d tell each other — and him — about the things they’d seen, and Riley always thought that Sam should report it.

“You just want an excuse to meet Colonel Rhodes,” Sam would tease him. Rhodes, AKA War Machine, was the only Avenger with a public identity, and he had massive star power in the eyes of enlisted guys like them.

“I do not,” Riley would always protest, but his ears would always go pink, which only happened when he was lying.

God, Sam misses him. Even after all this time, Sam still thinks sometimes that he’s gonna come home, push open the bedroom door, and find Riley sitting up in their bed with a book and a cup of green tea. Or maybe—

“Sam,” a voice interrupts, yanking him out of his thoughts. The finch is hopping around the countertop, his talons clicking against the surface. “Sam, Sam, Sam!”

“What?” Sam asks, watching him with some concern.

“Sam, I need— out,” he cries, and he takes off, fluttering up to the top of the cupboard. “Out, out! Hurry!”

“What the hell—?” Sam starts to ask, but a crack and a flash of light cut him off. Sam turns, thinking that maybe a summer storm blew in really fast, but to his surprise, there’s now a man in his living room. A tall, thin man in a suit, with long black hair and bright green eyes.

“Well, isn’t this my lucky day,” the man says, a slow grin spreading across his sallow face. “Two birds, one… me.”

“And you are?” Sam asks, forcing back his fear.

“Fucking magic,” says Steve-The-Finch, and that’s the last thing Sam hears before the world goes dark.

Chapter Text

When Sam wakes up, he feels... different. He isn’t sure how or why, but something’s off. He’s very warm, and his body aches. It’s almost like the morning after a really tough workout, except that he can’t recognize any specific parts of him that feel strained. More like... they’re missing.

Like his fingers. And his nose. What happened to them?

“Hey,” he hears someone hiss, and he blinks his eyes, realizes that he’s been staring at a roughly-hewn stone wall for over a minute now. It’s dark, but Sam’s vision is sharp and clear — he tilts his head, watching the glint of a water droplet slide down the stone.

“Huh,” he says out loud.

“Hey!” the voice whispers again, and Sam turns, trying to locate it. He sees a tiny finch in a cage, hung close to the ceiling. Inexplicably, his stomach rumbles.

He clicks his beak. Very tasty little morsel that finch would make.

“Hey, please, talk to me,” the finch says. “Don’t you remember? I’m Steve, you’re Sam, you were trying to help me?”

Abruptly, Sam remembers, and he feels a bit nauseated. He remembers now — he made friends with a finch, and then some scary-looking guy showed up in his living room.  

“Steve,” he says, and the finch exhales in relief. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know,” says Steve, fluttering his tiny wings. “Underground somewhere. Loki took us.”

“That was Loki?” Sam repeats incredulously. “You mean that crazy alien guy that summoned monsters to attack New York a couple years ago?”

“The very same,” says a new voice. At once, a green flame springs up in each corner of the room — torches, Sam realizes, in iron brackets. The black-haired man steps into the room, a wide smirk on his lips. “Hello again, Samuel. I hope your new form pleases you?”

“My—” Sam cocks his head down, sees the spotted white chest, the thick legs, the yellow talons tipped with black, razor-sharp claws. Which means— “What did you do to me?”

Loki raises his eyebrows in surprise. “A better question is what you did to me.”


“I’ll answer for you: you interfered.” Loki’s green eyes narrow as his mouth twists into a sneer. “No one was supposed to find him. Captain America was supposed to die, isolated and alone, in Central Park, and no one, not even he, was supposed to know who he was or where he went.”

“Captain—?” Sam stammers, but Loki continues as if he hadn’t spoken.

“And then I would appear, showing his broken body to the world, and the Avengers would be broken as well,” he says. “One by one, I could eliminate the rest. My brother was going to be next, and I must say the Enchantress is very disappointed that you’ve spoiled her fun.”

Sam shuffles his feet, clicks his beak again. “What the hell are you talking about?” he manages finally.

“You’ll never get away with it,” squeaks Steve. The cage rattles as he lunges in Loki’s direction. “We’ll stop you.”

Loki laughs. “You’ll be lucky if you remember your name in five minutes,” he says. “The only thing preventing my spell from taking over completely was your new friend here, and now that he’s gone—”

“I’m not gone,” Sam protests. “Not even close.”

“Not yet,” Loki concedes in an indulgent tone. “But you’ll both forget, soon enough. And then you’ll get hungry, Samuel, and I’ll get my way.”

“Why not just kill me yourself?” Steve demands, and Loki chuckles.

“I almost did,” Loki answers. “But I decided I’d rather not get my hands dirty if I can help it.”

“So you’re getting me to do it instead?” Sam chimes in.

“Oh, Samuel,” Loki laughs. “I like you. Not a magical bone in your body, and yet you have this ability. Once Captain America is gone, I think I’ll keep you as a pet.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Sam spits out.

“Hm,” says Loki, completely unconcerned. He turns away, then spins back. “Oh, I almost forgot. One thing left to do.”

He waves a hand at the cage that Steve is sitting in, and the bars melt away. Steve, in free fall, flaps his wings, and manages to flutter to the ground next to Sam. Without his permission, Sam’s eyes follow him closely, and his stomach rumbles again.

“Have fun, you two,” Loki calls over his shoulder. “Farewell, Captain America. Samuel, take your time. I’ll be back for you at sunrise — not that you’ll remember me by then, of course, but still.”

Sam looks around for the door, but Loki doesn’t use one. He shimmers slightly, and then he’s gone.

“Fucking magic,” Sam says.

Steve doesn’t reply. He’s hopping around the stone floor, his head bobbing. Sam watches him move, thinking back to the frustrating circular conversations they’ve had over the last twenty-four hours, and it hits him that Loki is right. By the time they were taken, the instinct had almost completely taken Steve over already; what chance did he have now?

Sam clicks his beak without meaning to. What chance did he have?

So Sam decides to talk. Language grounded Steve earlier, maybe it can work for both of them now.

“Steve,” he says. Clearly, deliberately. “Have I told you about Riley?”

“Who’s Riley?” Steve asks. “Can he get us out of here?”

“In a way,” Sam replies. He ruffles his feathers. Steve stops hunting for food and watches him, wary.

“Riley was my partner,” Sam begins. “He was in the Air Force, too. We were pararescue.”

“I always admired PJs,” says Steve. He sounds more human than he did a moment ago. “During the war, they’d go places nobody else could get to.”

“Right,” says Sam, remembering that his new friend Steve is actually Captain America, which means he’s almost a hundred years old and lived through the Second World War. It boggled his mind— even without the bird brain.

“What was he like?” Steve asks.

“Exactly what you’d expect,” Sam says. He knows that he can’t smile, because he’s a falcon, but he can feel warmth in his chest like he’s smiling, and that’s just as good. “Brave, strong, dedicated. We were part of a special project, and — get this, they called us Falcons.”

Steve laughs. 

“I know,” Sam agrees. “Believe me, there was no end to the bird jokes he would make at my expense.”

“He knew?” Steve asks. “About your ability?”

“He knew,” Sam confirms. “Him, Doreen, and my mother. They’re the only ones who know about my gift.”

“And now Loki,” Steve adds, bitter. “I’m sorry, Sam, this is all my fault.”

Sam is about to reply, to reassure him, but he’s distracted by a weird moment of wooziness — he can’t remember what the finch is talking about. The hunger is back; it’s all he can think about.

“Sam?” he hears Steve say, from a distance.

“Get away from me,” Sam says, because he wants to pounce.

The smaller bird flies up, grips the side of a stalactite. Out of reach for now. The urge to hunt, to dive down and grab something small and struggling, it’s strong. Once the prey drops down again—

“Riley,” says Steve, and Sam comes back to himself.

“Riley,” Sam echoes. “Right.”

“Who is he again?”

“My partner,” says Sam, and he has to laugh a little at Steve’s lapse in memory. Now they’re both having conversations with birds.

“He always wanted to run a bakery,” Sam tries again.

“Bread,” says Steve.

“Bread,” Sam agrees. “The guys in our unit, they’d give him a hard time about it, but he never gave up on his dream. Any little bit of money he had, he’d put away, save up for a deposit. But then—”

There’s a tempting flash of wings above him. Steve has moved from the stalactite to the cave wall, his talons gripping the rough stone. So tiny, Sam thinks, watching him pick at his wing. So small and delicate. Tasty.

Sam shakes himself out of it. “He fell,” he says, knowing it’s blunt, but it’s true. “And the Falcon program was eliminated. I got my discharge, came home, and a few months later, his mother wrote me a check. She gave me his death gratuity, all of his savings. She said she wanted me to make his dream come true. He couldn’t leave it to me legally because— well—”

“Right,” says Steve, and Sam’s not sure if he’s following the topic, let alone picking up on the subtext. Sam’s struggling with that himself, talking slowly and deliberately, straining to remember.

“Finding real estate in New York was hard,” he goes on. When Steve doesn’t answer, Sam adds, “Was it that bad before the war?”

“The war?” Steve clicks his beak. “Right. Yes. In Manhattan, at least. Out in Brooklyn it was a different story.”

“Tell me about it,” Sam prompts him, and he lets Steve lead the conversation for a few minutes, telling him — in fits and starts — about the time a new landlord bought his apartment and raised the rent so much that nearly every tenant had to leave. Steve has trouble telling it, and Sam has trouble following it, but Steve’s voice anchors him, keeps him feeling almost human.

“And here I thought gentrification in Brooklyn was a new thing,” Sam says, when Steve runs out of words.

“Nope,” says Steve. “It’s older than I am.”

If Sam could, he’d shake his head, again, at everything that’s happened since he met a finch in Central Park yesterday. Who knew—

“Seeds,” Steve announces suddenly, letting go of the wall and dropping down. Sam’s wings fold out without him telling them to— he wants the sky. He wants to look down at the finch from above, use the white mark on his head for target practice. He wants the rush of wind as he dives, the satisfaction of the kill.

“You want seeds?” the finch asks.

Why is his prey talking to him?

“Seeds, Sam,” says the finch, and the falcon recedes. He’s Sam, and the finch is Steve. His friend. An Avenger.

“We’re in serious trouble,” Sam says.

“Seeds,” says Steve again.

Sam blinks down at the stone floor. The bright spots that Steve’s munching, those weren’t there a minute ago. Where did they come from? He turns his head, the movement smooth and sharp, and looks around the cave.

There. A tiny shimmer in the corner — he probably wouldn’t have seen it with his human eyes. It’s magic, or the remnants of it, anyway. Loki conjured those seeds to lure Steve down from the ceiling.

Which means he was lying. He doesn’t have all the time in the world to wait for Steve and Sam’s instincts to take over. He’s on a tight deadline, and he’s nearby. Watching, waiting. He needs Sam to kill Steve as soon as possible.

All at once, Sam has a plan. It’s a bad plan — it’s reckless and dangerous — but there’s no other way they’re going to get out of here.

“A pigeon told me about this guy,” he says, and Steve looks up, cocks his head like he forgot Sam was there. Sam sees the instinct to flee ripple through him — it’s tempting, to chase that instinct — but then it passes.

“Oh?” says Steve. Cautious, curious. Oblivious.  

“Yeah.” Sam takes a step forward, fumbling a little until he figures out how to work his new feet. “She said he gave her bagels everyday.”

“Bagels?” Steve hops a little closer, too.

“Yes. But he smelled like death,” Sam explains. Steve seems to shrink a little. “His name was Wade, and he had cancer. I bought Tout de Sweet off him a week later, he gave me a deal.”

“Very nice,” says Steve, but he doesn’t sound certain. He’s lost the thread again. Good.

Sam looks up. He spies a crag, a place where the rock juts out, just enough to make him a perch. It shimmers as well; it wasn’t there a moment ago. He stretches his wings, and it’s hardly any effort to take off.

Steve bolts, a panicked, delicious flapping of wings that ends with him perched on the opposite side of the cave, clinging to a stalactite again. Sam glances at the shimmer in the corner, noting that it’s almost human-shaped.

“Seeds,” is all he needs to say, and Steve hops down again, noses at the rock floor, crunching up the bait.

Sam watches him, reminding himself with every second that the finch is not food. He takes a breath, feels his heart thump in his chest. He needs to make this look real, but he can’t actually kill him. His plan, like Loki’s, relies on illusion. He just needs to scare the finch — Steve! — enough that his instincts will take over.

God, he hopes Loki doesn’t know that much about birds.  

He drops, dives for the finch with his talons outstretched. His aim is perfect: he lands just a fraction of an inch away, and it’s enough. It works.

Steve-The-Finch, terrified, drops onto his back, playing dead with his beak open, his eyes closed. Sam struts around him, turning his tail feathers to the shimmer where he hopes Loki is still hiding, and noses at the supposed corpse like he’s about to dig in. Steve doesn’t move, so Sam carefully grabs him with his talons and takes off for his perch.

He doesn’t get there, though, which is exactly what he was hoping for. There’s a bright green light, and suddenly the tiny bird in Sam’s talons gains at least two hundred pounds. Sam has no choice but to let him go, then lands on his perch. He turns to look, and— yep, that’s a very naked Captain America hitting the ground, ass-first. Not that Sam has ever seen Captain America without his uniform, but given his size, muscle mass, and jawline, Sam’s pretty sure he’s got the right guy.

Cap’s startled blue eyes land on Sam, and Sam hopes to hell that his tactical mind is everything it’s cracked up to be.

Thankfully, his chin dips in a barely perceptible nod, and then his eyes close again. Sam exhales, relieved, and notices that he left a few scratches on Cap’s torso. It doesn’t really look like a falcon kill, but hopefully it’s enough to fool Loki.

Sure enough, a second later, the shimmer in the corner of the cave expands, dissolves smoothly into a person. Loki is grinning, his green eyes fixed on Cap. Sam pretends to clean his beak, picks at his feathers, waits until Loki’s back is turned, and then — like they planned it — Cap and Sam strike at the same time.

Sam’s talons cut deep into the back of Loki’s neck, while Cap kicks up, knocking Loki back. Sam dives again. Cap is a blur, and the next time Sam looks he’s got Loki on the ground, his arms and neck are wrapped up in the black suit jacket he was wearing. The back of his white collared shirt is red and sticky with blood now, Sam notices with some pride.

“Slippery little bastard,” Cap grunts. “Nice moves, Sam.”

“Thanks, Cap,” says Sam, but Cap just frowns at him. “Can you understand me?” Sam asks.

“Are you saying something? I can’t hear you,” says Cap, which pretty much answers that question.

Sam sighs and turns to Loki, bound and gagged on the floor. “Think you could change me back? And maybe conjure us up some pants?”

Loki’s eyes are smirking. Sam kind of wants to scratch him some more.

At that moment, there’s a crash, and one of the walls collapses. Startled, Sam takes off, but there’s nowhere for him to fly, and he ends up just circling the ceiling once before he settles again.

Blue-white light comes through the hole, and Cap shifts into a fighting stance — Sam’s not looking at what that does to his dick, nope — but he relaxes a second later when two robot men clamber over the pile of rocks.

“T— Iron Man,” says Cap. “War Machine. Boy, am I glad to see you.”

“Same here,” says War Machine. “Though I kinda wish there was less of you to see.”

Steve’s face goes pink, and a tinny laugh comes through the Iron Man armor. “Never a dull moment, huh? Come on, Thor’s outside. He wanted to blast this place with lightning, but I talked him out of it.”

“Thanks for that,” says Cap, handing Loki to him.

Iron Man does something fiddly with his hands, and the next thing Sam knows, Loki has proper shackles on his wrists. “There. Ready for an all-expense-paid trip back to Asgard.”

Loki glares at all of them. “How did you find us?” Cap asks.

“Enchantress talked,” War Machine explains. He’s about to say more, but then he looks up into Sam’s corner. “Whoa,” he exclaims. “That’s a peregrine falcon. What’s he doing in here?”

“That’s my friend,” says Cap, giving Sam a smile that’s warm and pretty. “Sam. You should thank him, he’s the one who got Loki.”

With a whir, Iron Man’s head swivels between Cap and Sam. “Your friend is a bird?”

Captain America laughs and claps Iron Man on his metal shoulder. “It’s a long story.”

Chapter Text

Steve steps into the shower and hears himself make an almost indecent sound as the hot water hits his back and shoulders. He thinks back to the first time he got this body, the moment he emerged from Erskine’s machine almost a foot taller and without any pain. Back then, he told himself never to take it for granted, and he tells himself the same thing now.

It feels like forever since he was clean — he checks, but the water isn’t running dark with dirt. He thought it would be; in the last two days, he’s taken at least half a dozen dust baths, plus God only knows what kind of gunk is in the Central Park fountain water.

Well, he thinks with a shudder. He’s been a bird for two days, he knows some of the gunk. Hence the shower.

On the other side of the apartment, Sam is doing the same thing in his guest bathroom. Loki turned Sam back into himself under threat from Thor, and he also magicked them some clothes. Which was good, since it was awkward when they were both naked. Not that Steve didn’t like the view, but Sam was a relative stranger — he called Steve “Cap,” for crying out loud, or he did, until Steve told him on the way back to the Tower to knock it off.

“After what we’ve been through, I think we’re on a first name basis,” he said firmly, and Sam laughed.

He likes Sam — likes his smile, his practical attitude, the care and compassion he showed when Steve asked him for help. He doesn’t know what might have happened to him if he hadn’t found Sam in the park. Loki seemed pretty convinced of his plan, and, thinking back to the dark thoughts that plagued him right after the transformation, Steve thinks that maybe Loki was right. New York City isn’t exactly kind to its feathered friends, and with no one to turn to for help, Steve probably wouldn’t have survived.

But Sam found him, listened to him. Took him home and protected him. Came up with a plan when the chips were down, and saved him.

Rhodey was right; Sam’s a hero, Steve concludes, shutting off the water. He just hopes that Sam wants to stick around.  

He sighs and steps out of the tub, grabs a towel to dry himself off. He puts on fresh, non-conjured clothes — he wouldn’t put it past Loki to have engineered some kind of time limit, and he does not want to find himself naked in the middle of his briefing downstairs — and swipes away some of the fog on the mirror to check on his hair. It’s wild, and no matter how much he fiddles with it, he can’t seem to get it tamed.

Still, the smile doesn’t leave his lips, and he finds himself humming as he exits the bathroom. He feels warm inside, like he’s swallowed sunshine. Then he gets to the living room and remembers why.

Sam’s at the window, if it can be called that. It’s more like a wall of glass, and, not for the first time in his life, Sam’s glad that he’s not afraid of heights. He thinks idly about flying, wonders what kind of heat turbulence he’d get over the city this time of year. He’s calculating flight vectors, imagining the adjustments he’d have to make.

It’s hard, and his brain soon gets tired, but he’ll do anything to put off thinking about the events of — god, has it only been two days? Was it yesterday that he’d woken up early, that he’d lain in bed and thought about Riley? It feels so long ago, but he checks his watch and finds that not even forty-eight hours have passed.

At least it’s quiet. Between the sleeping birds and all the closed windows, the only sound is the water running in the master bathroom, where Captain — where Steve is showering off the residue of his adventures as a finch.

Sam’s heart speeds up in his chest. Two days ago, he never would have imagined himself here, on the 89th floor of Avengers Tower, on a first-name basis with the lead Avenger himself. He’s struck by a giddy notion to text his sister, or maybe send her a selfie with the whole city in the background, but it passes. It’s almost one in the morning, and he doesn’t want to worry her.

Plus, what if he’s supposed to keep silent about this? What if they want him to sign an NDA or maybe — do the Avengers have memory-erasing technology? Is he about to be Men-In-Blacked?

Behind him, the shower shuts off. Sam takes a breath, looks to the horizon to level himself, the same way he would when he and Riley were flying. There’s no need to panic, he reminds himself. He’s safe. Arguably, he’s in the safest place in New York City, supervillains notwithstanding.

And there’s the giddiness again. He faced off against someone who levelled a good chunk of Manhattan a few years ago, and he lived. Who does that? And what’s gonna happen to him now?

“Sam,” he hears, and he turns to find Cap — Steve — smiling at him.

“Hey,” Sam says, forcing his panic aside and trying to smile back. “You feel better?”

“Much,” Steve replies vehemently. “You?”

“Sure,” Sam lies. His heart thumps in his chest, and he suppresses a nervous laugh when he wonders if Steve, with his superpowers, can hear it.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but Steve frowns, unconvinced. “Are you okay?”

Sam nods tightly. He has to get hold of himself. And soon. “Yep.”

His new friend may not look like Captain America in a black long-sleeved tee and jeans, but the tilt to his head, the skeptical lift of his eyebrows, has Sam confessing, caving to his interrogation tactics.

“I guess it’s just kinda sinking in,” he explains. “Everything that’s happened.”

Steve nods, and Sam remembers that he’s a soldier when he says, “Adrenaline crash.”

“Yeah,” says Sam. That’s not all of it — not by a long shot — but it’s enough.  

There’s a somewhat awkward silence. Sam gets the impression that Steve is waiting him out, seeing if wants to say more. He doesn’t. He likes Steve well enough in theory, but they don’t know each other. Not really. This is only the second conversation they’ve had where neither of them was a bird.

“So, are you ready to head downstairs?” Sam asks him instead.

“Sure,” says Steve. It sounds a lot like Sam’s lie from a moment ago, and Sam doesn’t know what to do with that.

Then Steve catches Sam’s arm as Sam goes by him on the way to the elevator, and Sam doesn’t know what to do with that, either.

“Sam,” he says again. Is it weird that Sam’s heart trips when he hears his name in Steve’s voice?

“Yeah?” says Sam, feigning casual.

“Thank you,” Steve tells him. “I know you didn’t ask for this, and I feel terrible for dragging you into it.”

“No,” Sam replies, rushing to reassure him. “It’s nothing. You needed help.”

“I did,” Steve acknowledges, holding eye contact. “And you threw yourself into danger for me. You risked your life, you risked everything. That’s not nothing.”

“It’s fine,” Sam tries to insist, but it comes out high-pitched and strange. Manic.

“Sam,” Steve says, and the third time must really be the charm, because Sam’s walls crumble into dusty piles at his feet.

“Look, I don’t know how I do what I do,” Sam tells him in a rush. “I was born with this ability, and I spent years — decades — hoping it would go away. And when it didn’t, I just tried to get on with my life and hoped to hell it wouldn’t get me in trouble.”

“You’re not in trouble,” Steve interjects, like he can’t help it.

Sam laughs again. It’s hollow and wrong. “Aren’t I? You’re Captain America, and I’m in Avengers Tower, and now there’s an alien supervillain out there who knows my name!”

“But that’s my point,” says Steve, and Sam can’t figure out why he’s smiling. “You belong here, Sam, you’re a hero, and it was an honor to fight by your side.”

Sam feels the ground tilt under his feet. There’s an absurd split-second where he thinks there’s an earthquake, and then an even scarier moment where he’s sure that it’s Loki blowing up the building, but Steve’s warm hands catch him, hold him steady, and Sam realizes what happened.

“I think I better sit down,” he mutters, blinking spots out of his eyes.

“When was the last time you ate something?” Steve asks, guiding him to the sofa.

Sam shakes his head, shrugs. He literally has no idea. The last thing he remembers for sure is the Coke with Doreen.

Steve tsks — it’s adorable, the way a beefy superhero can sound exactly like his mother — and goes to the kitchen. Sam hears him rummaging through the fridge, and he returns a moment later with a small bottle of orange juice and a dinner roll.

“Not the finest cuisine,” he admits. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Sam nods and accepts it gratefully. He takes swig of juice and a big bite of the roll. Then something occurs to him, and he practically chokes with laughter.

“What?” Steve asks, the concern evident in his tone.

“Bread,” Sam says, his mouth full, and Steve bursts out laughing, too.

“The funny thing is,” Sam says, a little later. “I didn’t care until we got here.”

Steve finishes his text to Tony — Ten minutes, I promise — and puts his phone away again. He’d been perfectly content to ignore Tony’s messages, but then his Avengers ID started buzzing, too; the impatient jerk had sent out an Assemble Alert, when he knew full well that all of them were in the building.

“Didn’t care about what?” Steve asks, turning to face Sam, who’s screwing the lid on the empty juice bottle thoughtfully.

“This,” he explains, with a wave of his hand. “All of it. The magic, the supervillain, the— you,” he concludes. “Up until I got my body back, it was— I was kinda having fun, taking on the bad guy with you. Is that weird?”

Steve gives him a wry smile. “Sam, I punch tanks for a living,” he reminds him. “I’m probably not a good judge on whether that’s weird or not.”

Sam chuckles. It sounds more natural than it did a moment ago. “Fair enough.”

“But, for what it’s worth,” Steve goes on. “I was kinda having fun, too.”

“It was scary,” Sam acknowledges. Steve watches a slight shudder move through him. “For a minute there, I really thought we weren’t gonna make it.”

Steve nods fervently. The last couple days are kind of a blur, but he remembers the primal fear that flooded him when Sam-The-Falcon dive-bombed him, and the relief he felt when Loki ended the spell and he realized that Sam’s plan had saved him.

“Still, though,” says Sam. “It was almost fun. Until now.”

“Because now it’s sinking in,” Steve summarizes, and Sam sighs heavily.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “Nothing’s ever gonna be the same, is it?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Steve counters. “We could set up a surveillance team, check in with you until Loki leaves town, pay you a visit whenever there’s a threat. You could go back to your life, I could go back to mine. Things could go back to normal. More or less.”

“But...?” Sam prompts.

Steve takes a moment to consider, mentally flicking through his scattered memories and coming up with another smile. He reaches out again, and feels a tiny thrill of joy when his hand lands on Sam’s arm.

“But I’m kinda hoping you won’t,” Steve says. “Because I’m glad I met you. As crazy as this situation was, I’ve really liked having you at my side these last few days.”

He feels his cheeks flush as he finishes his sentence. He knows it sounds corny as hell, but it’s true, and after everything he’s been through since 1942, he’s learned the hard way to speak up before it’s too late.

Luckily, Sam doesn’t almost faint again, and he doesn’t look like he thinks Steve is corny. “So what are you proposing?” he asks.

“Well,” Steve says slowly. He’s surprisingly nervous. “For starters, I’m proposing that you come to the briefing with me. And then...”

“And then what?”

Steve hesitates. For all his bravery, this is a risk — a huge risk. If word got out that Captain America was bisexual....

But who would Sam tell? Sam was partners with a fellow airman, for crying out loud. In Steve’s day, that kind of relationship would get you dishonorably discharged, and, from what he’s heard, the rules about that only changed recently. Besides, the public doesn’t know Steve’s real identity; it’s not like he’d be out with Sam in uniform, unless—

—but he’d promised Rhodey that he could ask Sam about that at the briefing.

He makes up his mind, takes the plunge. “And then maybe I could take you out for dinner?”

Sam’s face undergoes a rapid transformation — from worried to surprised to pleased and back to worried again. “Like a date?” he asks.

Steve half-shrugs. “It’s just dinner,” he reassures Sam. He’s hopeful, but he’s not gonna push. “I want to get to know you. In a non-bird capacity,” he adds with a sly smile.

Sam is looking surprised again, but he chuckles. “Okay,” he says. “You can take me to dinner.”

“Okay,” Steve echoes.

His heart skips a beat when Sam’s eyes linger on him, his expression goes soft. Then Sam grins, ruining the moment.

“But if your idea of a meal is sunflower seeds and a bundle of sticks, we might need to reassess where this whole thing is going.”

Steve laughs out loud again. It’s so easy to do that with Sam. “No seeds, I promise.”

“Well, all right then,” says Sam with another warm look.

Steve’s hand is still on Sam’s arm, and he squeezes slightly. Sam looks down at it but doesn’t pull away. Steve finds himself fascinated by Sam’s eyelashes; Steve would swear they’re long enough to cast shadows.

Then Sam looks up, catches Steve looking, and his lips twitch with a suppressed smile. Steve leans in, attracted like a magnet. He goes slowly, giving Sam plenty of opportunity to pull back. The sofa springs creak, but Sam doesn’t move. Steve’s almost there, Sam closes his beautiful eyes, and—

“Captain Rogers?” JARVIS interrupts from the ceiling.

They both jump. It’s only a miracle that their heads don’t collide. Steve flops back against the couch cushion and sighs, while Sam eyes the ceiling suspiciously.

“Yes, JARVIS?” says Steve pointedly. “What can I do for you?”

“Your presence is requested downstairs,” the AI says, unfortunately oblivious to Steve’s icy tone.

In the background, he hears Tony’s raised voice, and JARVIS adds, “Urgently.”

“Tell him we’ll be right there,” Steve says, shaking his head as he hears another grumble from Tony before the speaker cuts out.

Sam is still watching the ceiling like he’s not sure what just happened. “Come on,” Steve says, getting to his feet. “There’s some people I want you to meet.”

Even after the craziness of the last few days, Sam still feels like he’s dreaming when he walks into the room and meets the Avengers face-to-face. It doesn’t help that he can feel Riley’s jealousy from beyond the grave as he shakes Col. Rhodes’s hand.

When the introductions are done, Cap — Sam knows that he wants to be called Steve, but it’s an Avengers meeting, so too bad — sits in the middle of a big boardroom table and gestures that Sam should take the chair on his immediate right. Sam hesitates, lowers himself slowly, just in case he’s misreading something, but no one stops him, and Steve’s still got that warm look that he was giving Sam upstairs. The one that led to an almost-kiss, which gives Sam squirmy, happy feelings in the pit of his stomach, and Sam really can’t think about that right now, because he’s in the same room as the Avengers.

Steve starts, giving the team a run-down of everything that led up to their meeting in the park, and then Sam takes over. Dr. Banner — who must be a behind-the-scenes Avenger, since Sam’s never seen him on the news wearing a cape — is very interested in Sam’s gift and asks a lot of questions. Unfortunately, there’s not much to tell. Sam has no idea why he can talk to birds, and he doesn’t have any other magical prowess.

“But I’m not the only one,” he adds, because Dr. Banner is starting to look disappointed.

When everyone in the room, including Steve, gives him a curious look, Sam realizes what he said and feels a wave of panic threaten to wash over him.

“Um,” he says, stalling for time. He doesn’t want to tell them about Doreen, in case they think she’s a threat, but if Loki saw her leaving Sam’s apartment, she could be in danger.

“My friend, Doreen Green,” he says finally. “She can talk to squirrels.”

“Oh,” says the Black Widow suddenly. “Squirrel Girl.”

Sam watches with wide eyes as the rest of the Avengers nod and relax. “Right, right,” says Thor from one end of the table. He’s taking up the whole side by himself.

“Squirrel Girl?” Sam repeats, offended on his friend’s behalf. “That’s kinda rude.”

Black Widow — Natasha — shrugs. “It’s what she wants to be called. We never knew her real name.”

“She works for us,” says Iron Man, AKA Tony Actual Stark. “Sometimes.”

Sam stares at him. “Subcontract,” Steve clarifies in a low voice, like that helps.

“She actually helped save you, Cap,” Col. Rhodes chimes in. “She sent us this photo.”

He waves a hand, and Steve-The-Finch’s head comes up on a screen hovering above the center of the table. Sam recognizes his tile floor, blurry in the background, and remembers Doreen taking that picture. He blinks, his mouth gaping like a fish, while the others carry on as if he’s not there.

“She noticed the A on the bird’s — well, your head,” Col. Rhodes goes on. “She thought it was probably nothing, maybe just a coincidence, but Thor said it seemed like something the Enchantress would do.”

“Indeed,” Thor agrees. “As soon as I saw it, I guessed that she was working with Loki. She wouldn’t have been able to achieve such results with her powers alone.”

“It was the best lead we had, so we took it to her and used it as leverage,” Col. Rhodes concludes.

“How?” Steve asks.

“Nat went in, acted like she knew the whole story,” says Hawkeye. His name is Clint, apparently, and he apparently likes chewing on toothpicks, because he takes a mangled one out of his mouth and replaces it with a new one — his fourth since the meeting began ten minutes ago.

“So, basically, business as usual,” Steve summarizes, and a ripple of laughter rolls around the table.

“Wow,” says Sam, still reeling. “My friend’s a superhero.”

Steve nods. “Too bad I’ve never seen her out of uniform,” he says. “I might have recognized her when you brought her by, Sam. JARVIS,” he adds in the direction of the ceiling, “send her an alert, will you? Just in case Loki decides to send some minions after her in Massachusetts.”

“Already done, sir,” says the ceiling.

“I thought she was consulting about bog turtles,” Sam protests. The hits just keep on coming. “She’s in Massachusetts because she’s working for you?”

“For us,” Steve corrects him mildly. Then he gives Sam a wide smile and turns to Col. Rhodes. “Which reminds me. Are we ready for your presentation?”

“I think so,” says Col. Rhodes, getting to his feet. He waves his hands again, and brings up some very familiar schematics.

“Hey,” Sam exclaims, before Rhodes can get a word out. “That’s classified information.”

Col. Rhodes smirks at him, and then, incredibly, he winks. “I present this to the group,” he says, twisting his wrist to make the images move. “EXO-7, the Falcon program, trained select pararescue airmen to fly these rigs. They’re stealthier than a chute, smaller and quieter than a chopper, and—”

Sam tunes him out — he knows his own story — and studies the designs, watching them overlap until they form one picture, and he’s looking at his wings.

With a stab of yearning, he corrects himself. They were weren’t just his. They were Riley’s wings, too. Falcon’s wings.

“Now, Tony and I have been studying these ever since we met you, Sam,” says Rhodes, drawing Sam’s attention back.

“So, a couple of hours, then,” Natasha mutters.

“And we’ve concluded that we can replicate them.”

“Don’t be modest, Rhodey,” Tony scoffs. “Replicating them is easy. Using them as a starting point, now that’s the fun part. Check this out.” 

He stands up beside Rhodes and swipes the designs aside. With another gesture, he brings up new blueprints that crisscross and merge into a suit of armor. It’s not as complete as his or Col. Rhodes’s suits — no helmet, just eye protection, and wrist guards instead of gauntlets. Then Tony wiggles his fingers, and Sam gasps as wings sprout out from the back. They’re beautiful and complicated, loaded with parts that expand and contract, showcasing an arsenal of weapons and even a drone. Tony twists his wrist, and the wings fold into various defensive and offensive positions.

Sam’s completely wowed. He’s not even listening as Rhodes talks them through it, he’s just so jealous of whoever would get to wear this and fly. He wishes Riley were here to see it.

As such, it takes him a few minutes to realize that the room’s gone silent, and everyone is staring at him.

“What do you think?” Col. Rhodes asks.

When no one responds, Sam realizes that Rhodes was talking to him. “Oh,” he says. “Uh. They’re... very nice?”

He glances at Steve for guidance, but Steve’s no help: he’s smiling serenely up at the display.

“They are,” Rhodes agrees. “You want to wear them?”

Sam blinks. He couldn’t have heard that correctly.

“So, are we voting on a new member today?” asks Dr. Banner. Sam’s glad he’s not the only one confused.

“If said new member wants to join,” says Steve, looking at him at last. “It was a hell of an audition, Sam.”

“Aud— I—” Sam splutters. “I’m not Avengers material!”

The superheroes around the table exchange skeptical glances. “I’m not,” Sam insists to Steve, because he’s in charge around here. “I had no idea what I was doing! I was— you needed help, and I was there, and— I was just reacting.”

Clint takes another toothpick out of his mouth. “What do you think the rest of us do?”

There’s a murmur of laughter around the table at that, and some of them exchange glances like it’s an inside joke. Steve, though, he beams at Sam.

“Exactly,” he says. “You’ve earned a place on this team, Sam, if you want it. You showed compassion, and bravery, and quick thinking in the face of almost insurmountable odds.”

“Ooh, Cap’s breaking out the five-dollar words,” Natasha mumbles to Dr. Banner.

“Nobody can resist that,” Dr. Banner agrees in an undertone.

“I meant what I said before,” Steve concludes. “You’re a hero, and I want you on my team.”

“We want you on our team,” Tony corrects him.

Sam glances up at the design schematics again, thinks about how proud Riley would be if he were here. He looks around the table, sees the faces of heroes, of people, like him, who’ve known loss. But they get up every day and face it in whatever way they can, and he would be honored to be among them.

“These things we do...” Rhodes begins quietly.

“So that others may live,” Sam finishes. “When do we start?” he asks.

Steve’s grin is answer enough for now.