The place is huge, but the night is so dark, Sam can’t see most of it. There’s a sense of massiveness, though, like standing at the edge of a canyon. Ahead, there’s a hulking façade, and every instinct Sam has left is shouting at him to be aware.
But he’s so damn tired, and there, at the foot of that blackness, a door opens up, beaming warm yellow to the toes of his shoes. Steve grips his arm and hoists his pack higher, ushering Sam into the light.
It’s much too bright to make out the features of the person darkening the doorstep, coming in from the night as they are. Sam doesn’t bother trying: Steve can see, and if Steve is alright with it, then they’re fine. Sam gets inside and their host shuts the door behind, shuts off the outside noise with such a finality that Sam does stop, does look up, and shivers.
It’s just as huge inside as the blackness promised, but here there are yellows and browns, light beaming artfully across facades to illuminate every corner of the… mansion. Steve had said it would be, but—man. Standing inside it is wholly different. And this isn’t even the primary property; this one is the afterthought, the summer home in the woods. Sam almost lets his pack thump onto the likely priceless carpet, but remembers and grabs it up again, fights for the strength to hold onto it.
But someone lifts it from him. Sam lets the strap go with a hand that is going numb, and then Steve’s voice comes from behind, a sigh and a thump as his own pack hits the floor. “Sam. Meet Tony Stark.”
Tony… Stark, hello, the Tony Stark, drags Sam’s pack up over his own shoulder. He stretches out a hand to shake, and Sam does so dazedly, almost too foggy to notice the constant track of Stark’s eyes back to Steve. Like he’s looking for a cue. “Sam…?”
“Uh, Wilson. Sam Wilson.” He shakes Stark’s hand firmly—the man’s grip just asks for it, and how could it not? This guy doesn’t have a fear in the world, healthy or otherwise.
“Well, Sam Wilson.” Stark gestures up the stairs. “It’s godawful o’clock, you’re America’s most wanted, let’s skip the drinks, huh?”
“No tail that we could see,” Steve says, following them up the stairs. For all its size, the place is quiet. Its ability to house about a hundred other people seems to have slipped right under the universe’s radar. Sam trudges on up behind the mansion’s owner, and is beyond relieved when he veers off at the first landing rather than ascending further.
“Trust me,” Stark says, “no one followed you. J would have nailed them the second they thought about crossing the boundary.”
Steve just nods, and Sam wonders who this J is. Bodyguard? One of Steve’s teammates? Maybe it’s the archer. For all the time he and Steve have spent in each other’s back pockets lately, they haven’t discussed this. Sam honestly doesn’t know much about the Avengers aside from Natasha Romanoff, and he’s so tired right now he can barely remember her name.
Oh. And there’s an alien on the team. Which is so very fantastic when Sam’s in a good mental space, but at the moment the idea is overwhelming.
All the same, he wonders where they all are.
Stark opens a door onto a room that—okay, a set of rooms that just goes on and on and on. As in, the sconces by the doorway don’t illuminate even half of it. “J, lights,” Stark says, and hey, there’s the rest of the room, and the bedroom beyond, and what has to be a bathroom except it could probably house a small elephant. It’s got tile, though; ergo, bathroom.
And what is J, a computer?
“AI,” Stark answers.
“So. Bed’s made fresh, towels by the tub. It’s a Jacuzzi if you really want to go wild. This place locks down tighter than a Swiss vault, so feel free to sleep all night. Hell, sleep all day, too. Wander around if you’d rather do that, I’m open-minded. Food’s all yours, JARVIS’ll help you find it.”
“It would be my pleasure,” says a disembodied British voice.
Sam feels like he should have jumped a little. Yeah, definitely should have. All things being equal, he just nods and says, “High five, J.”
“Oh, I like him,” Stark says. And… that’s really the last thing Sam registers until the moment he surfaces from his opulence-induced haze and discovers he’s the only one in the room. The door’s shut, Steve and Stark are gone. The place is quiet.
Sam takes a long hot shower under multiple drumming showerheads and the water, oh, he could just fold down onto the floor and sleep here, thanks. Even that lush bed he walked past can’t compete, and for one harrowing moment, Sam sways, leaning further and further toward the wall in preparation to melt against it.
He shakes his head, shakes it again and opens his eyes purposefully under the stream to wake himself up. He might be just about dead, but he’s still a guest, and he owes his host as profuse a thanks as he can manage. Before he makes use of that gargantuan mattress. Besides, not a night has gone by since they started this crazy campaign that he retired without checking in with Steve first. Helps sort the both of them out. Re-stitch any loosening threads.
It’s almost a compulsion now, to find Steve and make sure he’s still there. Not that Steve would ever up and leave him, not without a damn good reason that would probably have to do with keeping Sam alive or some other Steve-ish insanity; it’s just, it’s hard to articulate the fact that, as tired as he is, he won’t be able to sleep until he scratches this itch.
“Like checking the doors one last time before going to bed.” Sam nods, turns off the shower and stumbles around in a bathroom that costs more than his entire house trying to find his towel. Used to do that all the time, check the locks, give the windows one final circuit.
He knows Stark will have put them both on the same floor. Doesn’t know Stark from Adam, but he knows Steve pretty well by now, and he’s already got this fuzzy idea in his head of who Tony Stark will turn out to be. Anyone Steve trusts enough to throw in all his cards for, to turn his back to the door and close his eyes and rest, that’s someone to whom Sam can give the benefit of the doubt.
He traverses the hall outside his room, bare feet shuffling along sinfully thick carpet, the hems of his sweats tripping up over his toes. The paintings look really damned expensive, too high to tempt touch, thank goodness, because Sam’s always wanted to paw at a da Vinci, and he thinks that might be what that one on the right is. The suites are so big that the next door is a good long way down the hall, but it’s open a crack, more golden light inside. Sam picks up the timbre of Steve’s voice before he hears the words, and something in his gut settles right down. He stops in the hallway, nods to himself, and then shakes his head at his nerves.
Godawful o’clock and all is well.
It’s not just Steve in there; Stark speaks next, a brief murmur, and Steve answers. Still too quiet to make out, but regular, a conversation like friends have, unassailable by time or space. It’s comforting, knowing that Steve has a friend like that, and that by default, so does Sam. Someone else they can both rely on. There are far too few of those in this SHIELD-less world.
He reaches for the doorknob and then Stark says, just loud enough to make out:
“You know you are.”
And it’s the tone that stops him, the context foreign, but... there’s weight there, words he missed, an answer to some crucial question. Sam falters in the hallway, instinct sharpening his ears. He just met Stark, but that tone would indicate some sort of pain in anyone’s voice.
Steve sighs, long and tired like air releasing from a balloon. “I’m sorry. Think I just… needed to hear that out loud.”
“The second they shut down, my door has been open,” Stark says after a moment. “You leave, it’s still open. You could turn around. Walk right back in.”
Sam has the sense of ground he hasn’t cleared, that cold hum of not knowing what kind of skirmish he’s landing on top of. He peers through the door where it stands ajar. They’re both sitting, in armchairs next to one another. Steve is deep back, both arms on the armrests, but Stark is a little forward, leaning with his elbows braced against his knees. It’s not a fight, no thread of tension. No voices raised.
And still that hum.
“You’re in trouble, you call me,” Stark says. The word ‘call’… breaks? Maybe it’s a trick of Sam’s overwrought hearing. “I’ll fix it, and if I can’t—”
Steve’s head turns suddenly, and he catches Tony’s elbow. Just a simple reach, they’re close enough. “I should have,” Steve says, and lets it settle. He hasn’t changed, hasn’t showered. Still dirty from the road, hair dull. “But it was nothing you could fix.”
Stark huffs. It’s weary, for show. Steve’s fingers trace up, just a little, and back down again.
“No one could, Tony.” He smiles very slightly.
Stark doesn’t answer, but it’s the way Steve’s expression shifts that cranks Sam’s blood: surprise, and a peculiar sort of dismay Sam’s never seen before. Steve’s hand tightens where he’s still gripping Stark’s arm.
“Don’t,” Stark murmurs, not a rebuke but a condolence. He passes a hand over his face. “World’s shit.”
“We can fix it.”
Stark looks up then, meets Steve’s eyes, and Sam ends up studying his hands because he’s never been comfortable with staring.
“I’ll find him for you, Steve.”
“Yeah.” It’s choked, just a little, and so simple, so obvious. Steve clears his throat. Sam can imagine him tucking his chin down, frowning with his jaw set. Trying not to think of Barnes when it’s all he can think of, and all Stark had to do was say those words like it’s already been done, bam.
“Sam’s a good guy,” Stark says.
“Great guy,” Steve answers, and then nothing, nothing and nothing, and Sam looks up, ready to walk in at last, and finds Stark’s hand clutching Steve’s nape, Stark kissing Steve like it’s all he’s ever wanted to do.
Steve tilts into Stark, their body language in conversation. And this is no inauguration; the way Steve plies Stark’s mouth, rubs both thumbs up along the rim of Stark’s jaw, it says he’s been here before, but it’s—it’s been a while, a long aching while. Sam gapes, not breathing, not thinking, realizing ten things at once, watching light spill over his friend in a whole new way. This kiss isn’t a release of tension, it’s a gathering of it. A hundred hours of forced silence.
He…should get out of this doorway.
Stark pulls Steve closer, lips skipping apart just long enough for—
“You call me.” The final word gets crushed into another kiss, Stark’s arm finally sagging into a loop over Steve’s shoulders. But the tendons are tight in relief where his wrist turns, Steve’s shudder full-bodied, and Sam backs out into the hallway.
Quiet again, that all-encompassing stillness. The door before him stands between worlds with its sliver of gold light. Suddenly Sam’s exhausted, not certain he’ll make the trek back, wondering where Steve finds the energy, oh god, Steve. Sam’d had no idea at all, none.
It’s all shapeless and shifting gently behind gauze. Sam nods. He’ll sleep, he’s safe here; he’ll sleep and he’ll figure it all out in the morning, and it’ll make sense then, having turned over in the washing machine of his head for the night. When it coalesces, it won’t be a shock, and Sam will get it, and then he’ll check in with Steve and touch down on even ground.