It’s Steve’s eyes that do it.
Sam didn’t really have the time to take a good look at him during the battle, or during the aftermath. After the literal dust had cleared, he’d immediately headed home, like most of the human, Avenger-adjacent folks. He got dropped off in Atlanta an hour later and spent the week between then and the funeral with his family.
He’d have shown up to Tony’s funeral even if he wasn’t asked to because it would’ve been the thing to do, but it felt even more important after getting a call from Rhodey, who hadn’t been asking so much as confirming that he’d be there.
The service itself was short and sweet, and that much more bearable with Bucky by his side, but the ease and comfort Sam had felt went out the window after the funeral, the moment he spotted Steve and properly looked at him.
He’d known, consciously, what had happened, what Steve had traded to get Natasha back. He’d known what it would and wouldn’t look like, how he should and shouldn’t react considering he was a goddamn counsellor.
Sam just hadn’t know what it would feel like.
The breath isn’t knocked out of him so much as it leaves his lungs slowly and steadily. Like his heart had panicked, not really understanding what he was seeing, but his brain had slowed it all down, knowing that this wouldn’t ultimately change a thing. Not between them, anyway. Not in a way that matters.
What truly calms Sam down though, what lets him push insecure and worried thoughts to the side, is Steve’s eyes.
They’re the only thing that hasn’t changed, and they’re on him as soon as he steps into view to sit next to Steve on the bench, warm, ocean blue, and comforting.
Loving, Sam thinks, which is how he knows he’s rattled. He rarely ever lets his delusions about Steve go that far.
“You came back.”
“Told you I would,” Steve says with a small smile. “You thought I’d lie about something like that?”
“No,” Sam says, “no, I— I don’t know what I thought,” he explains, because it’s true.
“It wouldn’t have been right,” Steve says. His eyes are on the horizon, his voice is far away. He’s speaking to himself, mostly, Sam thinks, at least until he says, “and I had quite a lot to come back to. To come back for.”
Sam smiles, even as his heart twists in his chest. “I wouldn’t quite call Barnes that,” he lies, “but you know. To each their own.”
There those eyes are again. Inquisitive, searching Sam’s face. Steve must’ve found what he was looking for, because he settles back on the bench, moves closer to Sam and reaches for his hand.
“I knew I had a lot to come back for,” Steve murmurs. His thumb is stroking Sam’s knuckles, and Sam’s not sure what gets to him the most: the unfamiliar feel of boney fingers and dry skin, or the fact that those fingers are touching him in a way they only do after a mission, when they both need to be out of their heads. “But I needed— I need to figure out how to do it. How to come back.”
Sam nods. He’s not quite sure where Steve’s going with this.
“I can still help, I can still... do some good in the world. Just not like I used to, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It just means that this part of my life is over. For me.”
“Okay.” Sam nods. He’s still confused, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be supportive. “I’m happy for you, Steve,” he adds, and means it.
“Thank you.” Steve looks down like he’s gathering his thoughts, then takes a deep breath. “But what I did, what it was about— that doesn’t have to be over for good.”
Sam frowns. “You trust Shield 2.0 with that?”
“I trust you.” When even a pointed look doesn’t help clarify anything, Steve eyes his shield, then looks back up at Sam. “It’s yours, if you want it.”
“I—Steve. Steve. What?”
“No one else is more suited. Or worthy. Despite the ups and downs, that legacy deserves to live on, Sam. I see no one better to carry it.”
The world feels quiet around them, and Sam tries, best as he can, to focus on the mild breeze that had been rustling tree leaves, the faint tweeting of birds. Anything to get his brain in gear again, and to get his heart to slow the fuck down.
It’s not like Sam hadn’t thought about…about legacy: it was kinda forced on him when the news that he was the Falcon broke out. He’d been hyper visible as a Black superhero, even more so after coming out, and there wasn’t a day he hadn’t thought of what being in the public eye meant. What being the Falcon meant.
But this? The shield? Steve’s shield?
Captain America’s shield?
“Here,” Steve says. The gentle smile on his face is one Sam has seen a hundred times, and it feels like time is running its proper course again. He pushes the shield towards Sam. “Try it.”
Without thinking about it, he turns towards Bucky before actually lifting the shield off the ground, and finds him leaning against a tree, arms crossed over his chest. At Sam’s look, he smiles, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and nods.
Up to him, then.
The shield is both heavier and lighter than it looks. Sam gets his shaky hands to cooperate and moves it along his body, watching the sun glimmer over the white star. He’s seen this shield more often than he’d seen his own mother over the past few years, and even held it a few times, often handing it back to Steve. But holding it this way, like a lot of things today, feels different.
“How does it feel?” Steve asks.
Sam laughs, shakes his head and looks up at the sky. “Like someone else’s.”
Steve nods like he understands, which Sam’s not sure he does.
“That won’t last long. And I’ll be there to help.”
Sam puts the shield back down as gently as he can, placing it so it leans on the bench, the same way Steve had, and sits back down.
“What do you mean? I’m still not sure I understand any of this, Steve.”
Steve takes his hand again, though he keeps his head down. Sam can see a faint blush make its way across Steve’s face and chest, and has to resist the urge to tip Steve’s head up so he can get a proper look.
“This means you get the shield, if you want it. We work together, you, me, Buck, Nat, do what we did before it all went south. It means…” Steve clears his throat, and his blush deepens. “It means me, and you, and Bucky, together out there, and um, together, too.”
“Like...living together?” Sam’s frowning again, and seriously, he’s usually not that obtuse, but today feels like every other word Steve is speaking is in another language. They’d lived together already: he and Steve first, then the three of them, then he and Bucky. Why is Steve making a big deal out of this?
“Sure. I mean definitely—if that’s what you want. But, I’d want more than that. We could be together, too.”
Sam finally gets it, and he wishes he didn’t.
“This...it won’t look good,” Sam says, quietly. He can see how this’ll all turn out clear as day, the possibilities, the gossip, the headlines unfurling in front of his eyes.
“I can’t take it,” Sam says it then and there, quickly, so he’s not tempted to do something else. “I can’t take the shield.”
It’s the right thing to do. He’s pretty sure he just heard his own heart breaking, and isn’t it ridiculous for him to be upset over something he was offered a minute ago, damn it, but he is.
“You can’t?” Steve crosses his arms over his chest and looks over at Sam. He’s in investigative mode again. “Or you don’t want to?”
“I can’t. If I take the shield and we live together, it’ll look like you’ve given it to me because—” Sam looks down at his hands. It already feels like he’s said too much.
Because we’re friends.
Because we’re friends who fucked a few times.
Because we’re friends that have fucked a few times and I’m the fool who caught feelings. For my friend. Who fucked me a few times.
“Because of our, ah, relationship. Because you—”
“Because I love you?”
Sam raises his head so fast he feels an ache in his neck.
Sure Sam knows Steve loves him. As a friend. As a partner. As someone who has his back. This...this sounds different though.
Steve’s looking him directly in the eye, even as his face is deeply flushed.
“Are you afraid I’m giving you the shield because I’m in love with you?”
Leave it to Steve to get right to the heart of it in so few words and make the situation worse all at once.
“I mean, I don’t— I wouldn’t have called it love in the first place, but yeah. How do you think it’ll look? To other superheroes? To the public?”
What do you think it looks like to me?
Steve grabs both of Sam’s hands and squeezes them in his. “I...maybe I could’ve been clearer. I definitely should have taken the time to tell you out loud, but, we’ve had a lot on our plate the past few weeks. Hell, the past few years. After tracking Bucky, it was the Accords nonsense, and after that we were heading to Wakanda, and I could see you and Bucky starting something of your own. I didn’t wanna disturb that. But Sam. You’re incredibly strong, and you don’t let your own strength or skills get to your head. You’re one of the most level-headed people I know, but you value people, not because of what they bring, but because of who they are. People. With strengths and flaws of their own, which you happen to be incredible at perceiving. You—”
Steve swallows hard, and his blush is back. “You’re beautiful. Seriously, one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen. Why do you think I wore that shirt at the Mall?”
“‘Cause you’re a show off?”
“Also that,” Steve says with a grin. “But mostly because I had to put all the odds on my side, make sure I got your attention.”
Sam has to smile at that, even though his heart and brain still haven’t fully recovered. “I think it worked.”
“Good. I think so too.” Steve’s smile softens a touch. “I don’t— I don’t think I could ever really finish listing all the reasons I love you. I don’t think I even wanna try. I don’t need to. But some of those reasons on that list also happen to be great reasons for you to carry the shield, and that’s okay. It’s just the way things are. Anyone who has a problem with that can come see me.”
After that last sentence, Steve’s chin is raised high, his eyes taking in a hard glint. Sam finds he has no trouble at all seeing the Steve Bucky grew up with. More importantly, he has no trouble seeing the guy who lapped him at the Mall. Seeing the guy he’s in love with.
Speaking of which.
“I— I love you too, Steve.” Steve grins again, his entire face lighting up. “And...” Sam says, taking a deep breath. What he needs to say next is life-changing. But so was meeting Captain America, and Sam doesn’t regret where it’s brought him. Couldn’t if he tried. “And I’ll take the shield.”
Soon as the words are out, Steve jumps into his arms and kisses him, hot and sweet all at once, his hands clutching Sam’s collar to keep him close.
“First Barnes wearing jeans at a funeral,” Sam says once he has his breath back, “and now us making out. You two don’t know how to act at all, huh?”
Steve huffs out a breath and smiles. “And you love us anyway.”
“I do,” Sam says, and it feels just as tentative as the shield in his hands, just as precious, but just as right. “I really fucking do.”