Steve keeps both hands gripped around his shield after the battle. He hopes it makes him look – patriotic, maybe, or like he's ready to leap back into the fray again the second a Chitauri corpse shows signs of stirring.
Mostly, he hopes it looks like anything but what it is: a desperate attempt to stop anyone from noticing the way his hands won’t stop shaking.
“You got somewhere to go, Cap?” Stark – Tony, Steve reminds himself – asks, looking like he passed exhaustion half a day ago.
Steve nods. “SHIELD have an apartment for me.”
He tries to keep his voice neutral. He feels so ungrateful; he lived in a half-condemned building before the war, and then in cheap barracks and the occasional tent during it. It’s not that he hates the new apartment; it’s warm and clean and secure. Everything he needs.
It’s just so -
Tony looks at him, and Steve tries not to imagine what he’s seeing. “I own a few buildings around Manhattan,” he says, in the kind of throwaway tone someone might use to say I own a few pairs of shoes. “They're secure. Maybe even more than the Tower, since no-one knows I own them. It'll be like a superhero sleepover.”
Steve blinks, trying to force his thoughts to catch up. He’s been trying to process so many different things at once since he woke up. Even his enhanced mind can’t seem to cope with every thread it’s trying to stitch together into some kind of tapestry that might make sense.
Nothing makes sense anymore.
Not since -
“Come on, Cap.” Tony says. “We're going to head to one on the Upper West Side. It's massive, you won't even have to see me. You’ll have to see Jersey, course. Think your Brooklyn heart can handle that?”
Steve tries for a laugh, misses it by several miles. “Alright,” he says, feeling too numb for proper gratitude. “I'll just – pick up my things, and head over.”
Distantly he wonders how he’s going to get across town in his costume without people shouting at him. He’ll figure it out, he guesses. Not like he has any other options. He’ll figure all this out, because he has to. He has to keep going. What else is there?
Tony rolls his eyes, and flips his faceplate down. “I have people for that, Rogers,” he says in Iron Man’s voice.
Tony has people for everything, Steve learns over the course of the next few days. People or - robots, or artificial intelligences, which takes him much less time to get his head around than Tony seems to think it should.
Bucky would have loved Jarvis.
Steve doesn’t flinch away from that thought. It hurts, of course it does. But it’s not the kind of hurt he wants to leave behind him. There are times when the absence of pain would be so, so much worse than its presence.
If anyone was destined to be carried through time to the future, it should have been Bucky. He’d always been fascinated by his science-fiction books. He used to read them out loud to Steve, sometimes, when Steve’s eyes were acting up, or when he couldn’t find a position to sleep in that didn’t make his back ache, or just when it was cold and they needed something to distract them.
And now half the things they used to dream of are old news, obsolete in the same way Steve feels when his mind goes quiet. This new world is filled with things they hadn’t even thought to imagine.
Almost everything Steve sees makes him want to tell Bucky about it. He catches himself close to talking aloud, now and again, but every time he manages to stop before the words actually leave his lips. He doesn’t know what kinds of monitoring might be in place - he isn’t naive enough to wonder whether or not there’s any at all.
Steve doesn’t even know how many people are in the building with him, he realises. It’s a safehouse, of sorts, he’s been told. As safe as it can be, at least, in the middle of Manhattan.
He’s glad it’s on the West Side, rather than the East. Even though Bucky would kick his ass for thinking it: he’d rather look out the window at Jersey than at Brooklyn.
Probably he should go say hi to someone, he decides a couple of days later. Human contact is essential for psychological well-being, or whatever his SHIELD-appointed therapist had told him.
He heads to the floor reserved for Tony’s back-up labs. He knows he’s technically allowed to go to most places in the building; he’s got clearance, but it still feels wrong to walk around without explicit permission.
The labs are occupied, he realises when he steps off the lift and glances through the nearest door. But not by Tony.
He’s about to step away when the man inside glances up, probably drawn by the sudden movement.
Steve waves through the window set into the door, feeling awkward - and like he’s in the way, even though no-one else is even in sight.
The man makes a very obvious gesture for Steve to step into the lab, so he does.
“Sorry,” he says, hovering just inside, wincing when the door closes too-loudly behind him. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I was just looking for Tony.”
“He’s in Malibu.”
Oh. Steve can’t quite take in how casually that had been said - they’d travelled fair distances during the war, of course they had, but it had taken them days rather than hours, and he knows Tony had been in New York yesterday morning, because Jarvis had mentioned that Steve should avoid the third floor after a particular experiment he’d been conducting.
“Right,” Steve says, trying to think of the politest way to leave. Then he realises he hasn’t even introduced himself yet - his ma must be rolling her eyes at him right now. “Sorry, I’m - Steve Rogers.”
Captain had never felt quite right. He’d always known that it was an unearned promotion, no matter what Colonel Phillips and Peggy had said.
“I know,” the man says, smiling a little, and Steve feels himself blush. “Colonel James Rhodes. Pleasure.” He wipes his hands on a nearby cloth, and holds one out to Steve.
Steve takes it, glad that he hadn’t used his own rank. He wonders where Rhodes had served. He’s been catching up on modern warfare, though it makes him sick to his stomach. He’d fought in the war that followed the war to end all wars. Reading about twentieth-century history has just made him more certain than ever that they’ll never truly eradicate it.
“How’re you settling in?” Rhodes asks, turning back to whatever machine he’d been tinkering with before Steve had interrupted. Steve feels himself relax slightly, now that Rhodes isn’t paying so much attention to him.
“Pretty well,” he says, trying to sound cheerful.
Rhodes laughs quietly. “That was convincing.”
Steve lets himself smile, since no-one’s watching. “I guess you know a little about - well. Settling in.”
Rhodes waves his hand in Steve’s general direction. “Pass me that screwdriver?” Steve glances around the messy workbench and spots what he hopes is the right one, grabs it and hands it over quickly. “Thanks. And I don’t know if anyone knows exactly what you’re going through, Rogers, but yeah. I’ve been there, minus the being frozen in ice for decades part.”
“How did you deal with it?” Steve finds himself asking, drawn in by the conversation without really wanting to be.
Rhodes hums to himself, a noncommital sound that’s probably not even conscious. Not everyone thinks over every single action they take, Steve’s pretty sure. “SHIELD lined you up with a therapist team, right?”
Steve doesn’t dislike the main counsellor assigned to him. She’s very nice, and clearly experienced. He still hasn’t quite managed to talk to her, though, and he can’t help but feel bad for wasting her time.
“Hang on - fuck, why does Tony never put things back in the place he finds them.” Rhodes fiddles around with a few cables, twists them together neatly into pairs, and then slots them back inside whatever he’s working on. “That better work now. Anyway, yeah, I was saying. If you want to just chat to other people that know a bit about what you’re going through, I’d recommend going to some VA meetings. Veterans Administration. Nothing against therapists, I got one myself, but sometimes you just want to sit and listen, you know?”
Steve tries to figure out how to respond to that. “Thanks,” he goes with, hoping it doesn’t come across as rude.
“There’s one at East 23rd and 1st. No pressure. Just an idea. Here, hold this.”
Steve reaches out automatically, taking the unrecognisable tangle of metal and wires and holding it very carefully.
“I'm not -”
Steve breaks off, wonders what he'd been about to say.
“Not what?” Jim glances at him. His eyes are kind, understanding, and all Steve wants to do is turn away from them. “A soldier? A vet? You're a lot of things, Rogers, but you’re those too.”
Steve doesn’t realise until later than Rhodes hadn’t called him Cap. Not once.
Steve goes to the VA building two days later. He’s fifteen minutes early for the meeting; he’d looked up the schedule online. There’s a coffee shop across the road; he could wait there, he tells himself, or he could just walk around the block a few times.
He stares at the building for another minute.
Then leaves, and hates himself every second of the long walk back to Tony’s safehouse.
“You check out a meeting yet?” Jim asks him a week later, when they run into each other in the kitchen. He looks nothing but casual, in jeans and a sweater with the letters MIT on the front. He’d insisted on Steve calling him Jim at their second meeting, claimed Rhodes made him feel like he was back in the forces.
Steve clears his throat. “Not yet,” he says, feeling vaguely guilty and then irritated at himself for the feeling.
Jim doesn’t look surprised, or - or disappointed, which Steve realises he’d been worrying about in the back of his mind. “Alright then,” he says, pouring coffee into a flask that’s definitely seen better days. “Hey, you want to come help me take apart a couple of Tony’s cars? Could use a car jack that actually does what it’s told for once.”
Steve takes a moment too long to reply, caught off guard by the subject change. “I’d love to,” he says honestly. “I don’t know anything about cars, though. First time I drove anything it was a beat-up old tank.”
Jim laughs at that, which makes Steve feel unreasonably proud of himself.
“You can tell that story when we’re in the garage,” Jim says, . “And I want to hear literally everything you remember about Gabe Jones, fair warning.”
Steve nods and smiles, without mentioning that he doesn't need to remember. It was only last month that he was sketching the way Gabe's face relaxed in sleep, last month that they were swapping stories about New York and Georgia, after all.
Steve actually goes to the next meeting. Doesn’t talk, slips in half a moment before it starts and pulls his chair a little way back from the circle, but he’s there.
He notices halfway through that about six other people have also pulled their chairs back, so that they’re almost at the point of forming a new circle anyway. Maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but he doesn’t bother trying to think it through.
Some things are different than they would have been in - in his day. Well, a major difference is that they wouldn’t even have had meetings like this at all, of course. But even when he ignores that, there are certain things that stand out. The five women in the room, for one thing. He’d never doubted Peggy’s capabilities, but he has to admit he’d never thought of her as a soldier, exactly.
He tries to make a mental note of everyone that speaks, even when they just say their names. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, except right at the end of the meeting, when a man who the counsellor leading the session had called Sam glances at him for half a second.
Steve doesn’t meet his gaze long enough to notice if there’s anything other than mild curiosity there.
No-one’s asked him his name yet, except for the receptionist when he’d signed in. He’d told her Steven Conway - SHIELD have given him a fake ID to back that up - and he’s planning on going with the same lie if any of the other members ask.
He isn’t sure if he’s grateful or disappointed when no-one does.
Steve keeps going to the meetings. He isn’t sure if they’re helping him or not. But it’s good to get out into the city, for a reason other than helping to clear the rubble left behind by Loki’s attack. He still hasn’t ventured over the East River, but he’s glanced across it and found that it didn’t hurt much at all to look over.
Of course, he’d always seen the view from the other side. It’s an odd thought, but the skyline where he lived all his life isn’t the one that’s familiar to him.
“I won’t be here next week,” Sam says at the end of one meeting. It’s the first time Steve’s heard him speak, other than his name. “Visiting my grandpa in DC. He’s been in hospital for a month and he’s bored as hell.”
“That’s good of you,” Jo-Ann, the counsellor leading this particular meeting says, smiling at Sam.
Sam shrugs, looking uncomfortable - because of her words, or because everyone’s looking at him now? “No hardship,” he says, glancing down at where his hands are twisted together in his lap. “He’s a great guy. Real old-timer. Still thinks the Dodgers moving to LA is the worst tragedy to hit New York.”
Steve tries very hard not to make any noise. “Anyone told him about the fuckin’ alien invasion?” one of the regulars, a guy called Frank, asks, and Steve is abruptly torn between mourning - LA, what on earth possessed them - and a sudden panic that a discussion about the aliens might lead to talk about the new Captain America.
Well. The man who everyone assumes is a new one, anyway.
Steve glances over at Sam, who’s staring hard at the floor. Steve wills him to look up, to make eye contact, and isn’t sure if he’s sorry or glad when nothing happens.
He doesn’t know why he’s drawn most to Sam, out of everyone in their group. It doesn’t make any sense. Sam’s barely spoken; Steve has no idea what he’s actually like.
But Steve’s had this feeling before. When he met - when he met Peggy, he’d wanted to know more about her within a few minutes.
So maybe he does know why.
He doesn’t want to acknowledge it, though, so he looks down again and resigns himself to twenty minutes of heated discussion on whether the Avengers are vigilantes or heroes - or both.
After a few weeks, Steve and Sam are the only regulars who’ve still barely spoken up. No-one pushes them, but Steve still feels bad about it - he’s taking up a spot that could be reserved for someone else, someone who needs this more than he does; surely the least he can do is actually contribute to a discussion?
He plucks up every bit of his courage after one meeting - far more than it had taken him to fight an alien army, which should maybe worry him - and asks Sam if he wants to get a coffee at the Starbucks across the road.
Sam’s eyes widen with something that Steve really, really hopes isn’t panic.
“Shit, sorry,” Sam says, glancing around the room quickly. “I’m still half in DADT mode, I swear.”
Steve’s very grateful for those times he kept a running list in his head of things mentioned during meetings that he wants to look up when he gets back to Tony’s building.
Back home, he guesses, but it’s still hard to think of it that way.
“It’s been repealed,” he says, knowing that it won’t be new information to Sam, unable to stop himself from saying it anyway.
It’s beyond unbelievable to him. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would have been unbelievable. The fact that it had existed and that people had still found it oppressive enough to overturn - he isn’t sure he’ll ever take it in.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “And I’m not re-upping, so it wouldn’t even matter. Just. Old habits die hard, you know?”
Steve still expects to find himself coughing half the times he takes a deep breath. “They do,” he says quietly. “So - was that a no, to the coffee?”
His heart is racing. He hadn’t actually meant for the invitation to come across as a - date, or whatever Sam might be thinking. He knows he isn’t ready for that yet, but he can’t bring himself to take the words back.
Sam shrugs. “Not like I’m going to sleep tonight. Might as well blame the caffeine instead of my fucked-up brain.”
It doesn’t become a tradition, exactly, but every few meetings they end up walking out together, and some of those times they end up in Starbucks again, in the corner with the best sightlines of the street.
“I’m really glad Jim told me about the meetings,” Steve admits to Sam one time.
It had taken him by surprise at first, how easy he found conversation with Sam. He’d half been expecting Sam to be as silent as he was in the meetings, but nothing had been further from the truth. Steve sometimes finds himself wanting to ask Sam how much he knows about Captain America, but he resists. Sam’s smart, maybe smart enough to put two and two together.
“Oh, Jim - James Rhodes.” Steve’s about to give a bit more background than that when he notices Sam’s expression.
“You know Colonel Rhodes?” Sam asks, much louder than necessary. “Holy shit. Can you introduce me? No, wait, I'd just fanboy all over him. Shit. How the hell do you know Rhodes?”
Steve hopes his panic isn’t showing on his face. Why would an Army Captain know an Air Force Colonel?
“I’m - friends with Tony Stark,” he says, and immediately regrets it - that’s just going to invite about a hundred more questions, and he’s never been the best liar. “Sort of friends. I know him.”
Sam cuts himself off, shaking his head. “You know what, tell me on your own time.” Steve takes in what feels like his first breath in minutes. Sam points his coffee stirrer at Steve. “You’re introducing me to Rhodes one day, though. I’m holding you to that.”
Steve and Sam are usually the last to leave the meeting room, these days. They’ve become the unofficial chair-stackers - when Steve’s focusing on something Sam’s talking about, he has to be extra careful to make sure he doesn’t lift a stack of ten chairs like they’re feather-light.
It still takes him by surprise, every so often, the way he has to be careful to appear weaker than he is. He’d spent so long trying to project an image of strength onto a frail body; having to do the opposite will never not be strange to him.
Today’s a cold one, even inside the VA. Steve wonders what their heating budget is; wonders if there’s a way he could anonymously donate some of his backpay to them.
He doesn’t even want to think about the amount of money that’s going to belong to him once all the paperwork gets sorted out. It doesn’t feel real.
Too little, too late, isn’t that the saying?
In Steve’s case it’s too much, but he still can’t help but feel like it’s too late. At least if he donated it someone might get some benefit from his -
“Penny for your thoughts?”
“What?” Steve looks up from the chair stack, which he’s just realising he’s been holding for way too long. Sam’s leaning against the wall, hands in his pockets, looking a little amused - and Steve notices that the rest of the room’s clear, and that he has no idea how long he’s been standing there.
Steve puts the chairs down against the wall, looking weirdly embarrassed. So many things give him that look, and Sam has no idea how to even begin working out what they are.
Doesn’t really want to. It’s Steve’s business, and it’s not like Sam’s in the running for perfect mental health poster-boy.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, because he knows that if he pushes Steve’s just going to make something up that they both know is a half-truth at best.
Today hasn’t been a bad day, and Sam would really like to keep it that way. This past month his good days have been few and far between.
They leave the VA together, as always, nodding goodbyes at everyone they pass.
It’s cloudy, still, but not actually raining. Sam puts his hood up anyway; there’s a chill in the air. Then wonders if he should take it down - last thing he wants is for a stop-and-frisk to ruin what’s most likely the only decent day he’s going to get this week.
He’s probably safe enough with Steve. The guy looks like a Nazi eugenicist’s wet dream.
“You always look up,” Steve says, glancing sideways at Sam.
Sam blinks, caught off guard without knowing quite why. “What?”
“When we – when you go outside. You look up at the sky, just for a second.” Steve looks embarrassed now, his shoulders hunched over like he's trying to make himself look small.
Sam doesn't know how to answer that, not without revealing a lot more of himself than he's comfortable with.
More of himself than he’s allowed to reveal, as well. He hasn’t forgotten about the shedloads of paperwork and non-disclosure agreements he and - he and -
That he’d had to sign before being allowing within a hundred feet of an EXO-7 test pack.
“Guess I do,” he says, non-committal, hoping Steve won’t push.
“Like a sunflower,” Steve says, clearly trying to lighten the mood without knowing why it had turned darker in the first place.
Sam looks up again, this time consciously. “Not much of a sun,” he says, taking in the waves of grey clouds that blanket the sky from horizon to horizon. The gaps of them that can be seen between the buildings, at least.
Steve smiles, a quick movement that Sam wouldn’t even have seen if he hadn’t looked down at the exact moment Steve’s lips turned up at the corners. “A skyflower, then,” he says, quiet enough that Sam barely hears the words.
Not anymore, Sam thinks, digging his nails into his palms. “You’re a fuckin’ poet,” he says out loud, and Steve laughs in that embarrassed little way he has, as though he doesn’t want to take up too much space in the air around him, and -
And Sam looks up once more, doesn’t care that Steve’s watching him.
You hear that, Riley? Fucking skyflowers, that’s us.
Sam doesn’t think twice about inviting Steve round to his place to pick up a Berry Gordy Jr. biography he’d promised to loan him. He doesn’t live far from the VA, and his apartment is small and a bit mildewy, but it could be a hell of a lot worse. He’s been half-thinking of moving to D.C, but hasn’t found a good moment to mention that idea to anyone yet.
At least, he doesn’t think twice about his invitation until Steve’s actually there, glancing round at the few possessions Sam has on display with an unreadable expression.
Sam tries looking at the room with a stranger’s eyes, and finds he doesn’t want to look too closely. He wishes he’d planned this. Could have hung up a picture, or something. He wonders why he even cares what Steve thinks, then decides to stop that thought before it gathers any momentum.
He’s been doing that a lot, lately.
“So,” he says, and it ends up sounding way too loud in the stillness. “You want a drink while you’re here? You can sit down; the couch is fucking ugly but it won’t bite you.”
Steve does sit, but his movements are awkward, the motions of someone who’s far from sure of his welcome. Sam bites his lip hard, trying to focus himself.
“You can switch the TV on,” he says, going over to the fridge - it’s a three-room flat: living room, bedroom, bathroom. He’d never thought a kitchen would be a luxury. He still hasn’t invited his family over here, and he wishes he could pretend it was for some reason other than embarrassment.
About a minute later, he hears the TV switch on. Some game show, it sounds like. He walks back over to the couch, carrying a couple IPAs. He’d bought them because he’s never liked them, and he’d been half-worried that if he’d bought beer he actually liked he’d end up drinking it all at once.
At least he’s self-aware, he tells himself. He isn’t sure if that’s a blessing or a curse, some days, but it’s what he’s got.
He flips the cap off one with the edge of the coffee table - it’s a piece of crap; he wouldn’t trust it to hold a book - hands it to Steve, then does the same with his.
“Cheers,” he says, and tries not to look at the way Steve’s throat moves when he swallows.
Sam doesn’t mean to tell Steve about Riley. But he wakes up after they’ve fallen asleep in front of a Parks and Rec marathon with a hoarse throat and Steve’s eyes carrying a worry that hadn’t been there before Sam had fallen asleep.
“Morning,” he says, voice sounding even rougher than he’s feeling. He sits up, ignoring the way he’d been pressed up against Steve’s side. He moves over to the other side of the couch, leaving the blanket with Steve.
“It’s one am,” Steve says, probably for lack of anything better to say.
Sam raises his eyebrows. “That’s morning.”
“True.” Steve looks - unsure, which is far from an unfamiliar expression on his face, but something about it right now makes Sam want to turn away. “I - I can go?”
Sam shakes his head before he’s even finished processing the question. “I’m fine,” he says, the lie easy and automatic as always.
Does it even count as a lie when Steve knows it’s one?
Steve opens his mouth, closes it again. “Who’s Riley?” he asks, after a too-long pause.
Steve’s lost people. Sam had known that from the first meeting they’d been at together. Steve hadn’t needed to say a word for it to be written all over him, in the way he’d reacted to the stories of grief shared by the group members, in the way he’d flinched away from sharing his own.
“None of your business,” Sam says, too harsh. Regrets it half a second later, but doesn’t take it back.
“My best friend - died, in the war,” Steve says, and his gaze has turned to something far, far away. “He fell.” Sam flinches, and Steve doesn’t notice. “I used to hate that euphemism, you know? Fallen soldiers, they called them all. And then he - he really -”
Steve shakes his head. Sam can’t tell if he’s crying. He doesn’t look too closely.
“Riley fell too,” he says, not caring about how terrible he must sound right now. He doesn’t offer up anything more, knows that Steve hadn’t shared his story as the first half of an exchange, and they sit in silence until the first half-light of dawn finds its way through the window.
Sam lets a couple more weeks go by before he brings it up again. And when he does, it isn’t just to Steve. He doesn’t mean to say anything when Jo-Ann asks him if he has anything to share with the group - clearly not expecting a positive answer - but he finds himself nodding before he can catch himself.
“Oh,” she says, recovering quickly. “Go ahead, Sam. In your own time.”
She glances fiercely around at the rest of the group, but none of them look like they’re going to hurry Sam into speaking. It’s been a quiet meeting, the kind that says more in the silences people leave between their words than in the words themselves.
Sam’s going to change that, if he speaks.
“It would have been Riley’s birthday, next week,” he says, not bothering to give them any background on who exactly Riley is. They’ll know what they need to, just from the tense Sam’s using. “I keep seeing the calendar and thinking I should get him something, just for a second.”
Sam doesn’t look at Steve. He looks across the circle until he meets Mikita’s steady gaze.
Mikita, who’d lost her girlfriend three weeks before the end of what had been going to be their final tour. They’d been planning on getting married soon as they could, and she talks about Beth being her wife with a defiant look in her eyes that almost - but not quite - masks the pain there.
“I bought myself a present on Beth’s last birthday,” Mikita says, with a bitter little twist to her mouth. “Gas-station vodka. Treat yourself, and all that bull.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Sam says, knowing she’ll take it the way it’s meant - an acknowledgment, of the things they share and those they don’t.
“Were you and Riley - were you together?” Steve asks later, as they’re stacking the chairs.
Sam doesn’t glance over. “No,” he says, concentrating on making sure all the chair legs line up with each other. “We were friends.”
God, he hates when people say we were just friends. As though losing your best friend must surely be less devastating than losing a partner would be. As though it can’t rip you open, leave your heart a gaping wound that you aren’t sure you want to be closed.
Some wounds would be worse for their absence, he thinks, and buries the thought in the back of his mind.
Sam doesn’t know for sure whether or not Steve understands, but he’s almost certain that he does.
It’s not something he feels the need to ask.
Steve ends up at Sam’s apartment at least one or two nights a week. They order takeout - Steve eats an absurd amount; Sam wonders if Steve might be welcome at the Wilson family Thanksgiving dinner, then promptly decides to ignore that very domestic thought - then end up sat together on the couch, neither of them acknowledging the gradual way they move towards each other as they half-watch whatever show happens to be on.
Sam has no idea why he finds it easier to fall asleep when he’s curled against Steve, his arm numb from leaning on it too long, than when he’s tucked up in the quiet comfort of his actual bed.
Maybe he does know. He’d rather not look at those thoughts too closely, though. He isn’t sure if he’s ready for - for whatever they might be building up to, and he knows that there’s still so many unvoiced secrets that lie between the two of them.
Steve knows things can’t go on this way. He has to tell Sam. He has to.
He’s almost made up his mind when the decision’s taken out of his hands. Tony gets a call that there’s been a leak somewhere within SHIELD; the proof of the original Steve Rogers being alive is about to be released to the general public, complete with too-graphic photos of him being slowly defrosted.
And then, just as Steve’s hovering his thumb over Sam’s name in his phone, a city-wide alert goes out.
“Avengers assemble on the helipad,” Jarvis says, in that mild voice that’s doing fuck-all to calm Steve down right now.
It’s someone called Doom, which Steve feels is a much too on-the-nose name for a supervillain. That’s the kind of thought he could have shared with Sam, and he wonders how far the news of his identity has spread.
He goes to Sam’s apartment after the battle, after they’ve received the confirmation that there were no fatalities. He doesn’t know what else to do.
Sam answer the door within a few seconds. Steve wonders if he’d been waiting. His eyes go wide as he takes in the shield, the costume – Steve wishes he could get out of the habit of thinking of it as a costume, rather than armour, but some things are too ingrained by this point.
“So,” Sam says, very quietly. “That's how you know Colonel Rhodes.”
Steve laughs, a short, humourless little thing. He has no idea where things are going to go from here, doesn't know if Sam will be angry at him for hiding such a big secret, or if he won't want to deal with the potential media attention, or -
“Stop thinking so loud,” Sam is all says, rolling his eyes. “I'm trying to process. A lot of things just made sense.”
Steve’s hands are shaking. He grips the shield tighter.
He can live without Sam. Of course he can. He’s lived without -
Without other people before.
“Come inside,” Sam says, holding the door open. “We can figure the rest out from there.”
They’re sat on the same ugly couch, yet everything else is different. “I can’t believe I cuddled with Captain America,” Sam says, still trying to take everything in.
It had been his sister who had given him the news, and she hadn’t even meant to.
holy shit bro you had a massive crush on him and he’s back from the dead??? had been the text Sam had woken up to, after a lie-in caused by not actually getting to sleep until past three in the morning.
He’d clicked on the link, still too sleepy to be anything other than confused, and then his brain had started yelling at him in a way he feels like it’s been doing all the hours since then.
It hadn’t helped that he’d switched on the TV in time to see the newsreader’s account of the Steve Rogers miracle, as they were calling it, be interrupted by a city-wide alert about the Avengers responding to another attack.
About Steve responding, fighting - avenging, whatever the hell he wanted to call it.
That was Steve out there.
And now he’s in Sam’s living room, the way he has been so many times before.
Sam doesn’t know how long it’s going to take for this to sink in.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, sounding quietly miserable.
Sam kicks Steve’s ankle, gentle enough that it wouldn’t hurt even if Steve was a regular human. “Don’t be fucking sorry. I get why you couldn’t tell me, I just -”
He just what?
There’s a lot more dimensions to this thing they’re maybe-doing, now, and Sam isn’t even sure he’s thought of them all. It hasn’t escaped his notice that the two of them together would have been impossible for more than one reason back when Steve had grown up, for one thing.
“I understand if you don’t want us to see each other anymore,” Steve says, and Sam rolls his eyes again.
“I got secrets of my own, Steve,” Sam says, changing his mind at the last second and going with Steve rather than Cap. He thinks of his wings. He knows where they're stored; he’s known since three weeks after he got back stateside. “I’m not mad at you.”
Steve looks hopeful, and Sam realises he’d made his decision already. Long before today, maybe. This doesn’t change anything. He isn’t sure why he’d thought it might.
“Come here,” he says, keeping his voice soft.
An hour before Steve had been wearing Captain America’s uniform, and Sam hadn’t even been able to imagine kissing him.
Now he’s freshly showered, wearing a spare pair of Sam’s sweatpants and an old Air Force t-shirt - the shoulder seams won’t ever recover; Sam’s pretty sure - and he’s sitting on the couch the way he’s done so many times before.
Sam maybe isn’t sure how he feels about being in love with Captain America just yet.
He leans in, and Steve ends up meeting him more than halfway, so their lips touch a heartbeat before Sam’s expecting them to.
Yeah, Sam knows exactly how he feels about Steve.