“Without a sign, his sword the brave man draws, and asks no omen, but his country's cause. ”
Sam blinks and elderly Steve seems to have merged into thin air. He stares at the vacant space beside him on the bench, knuckles clenched around the edges of the heavy case. Its circular shape is familiar, and yet entirely alien to him. He stays that way for a minute, ten minutes, maybe. Bucky, probably still gazing forlornly at the platform, or the bench, doesn’t approach. Banner mutters under his breath about five minutes, just five and pushes every button on the keypad with furious fingers.
Silence falls amongst the group, save for the quiet sound of Bucky trying and failing to privately cry. He said he was gonna miss him. Sam thinks, and looks away from the dejected face of the man who is slowly but surely becoming his friend. His tamped down sobs sound loudly in the empty space, the only other background noise the rustling leaves in the wind. Then, all at once, the portal whirs to life and a figure forms from millions of sparkling atoms in a nanosecond. Steve gapes at them all: Bruce’s wide, open-mouth (also green inside), the shock shining in Sam’s expression, the way Natasha seems to shrink a little behind him. Bucky looks as though he’s been slapped across the face, and his cheeks glisten.
“Oh, hey…” Steve steps in, forcing down the urge to fling his fists around. He can't fight this, the source of those tears. He’s the cause. He’s made Bucky cry . His fingers brush them away. “I know I promised to knock the lights out of anyone who hurt you, Buck, but I already wrestled myself once and I just got back.”
Bucky chokes on a watery laugh, and claps Steve on the back a little too hard. “Fuck you, Rogers. Seriously.” His hands slide down his shoulders and curl tightly around his hips. “I can’t believe you did that!”
Steve’s pelvis seems to gravitate closer to Bucky of its own accord. “What, you really thought I’d leave you? I told you what I was doing!” His fingers card through the hair falling just before Bucky’s eyes. “End of the line. I’d never go back on that.” He adds seriously, getting his own grip on Barnes’ waist, thumbs swiping over the outline of his hip bones.
“But… You were late.”
“Only by a few minutes. Turns out Schmidt was still alive, sort of-”
“ Yes! And no one thought to tell me that the Guardian of the Soul Stone was my fucking wartime enemy?” Steve throws his hands up, shooting a glare at the rest of them. “Good thing I know how to piss him off already, it came in handy getting Tasha back.”
“Yea- How did you…” Bruce cuts in, but he falls quiet when Natasha, finally unspooked, throws her arms around him.
“I thought… I thought you really did it. Went back to Peggy with the extra particles.” Bucky sniffs, and hugs him tighter.
“Uh- what?” Bruce lifts his chin from Natasha’s hair.
Steve shakes his head, once, firmly. “I did. Got that last dance. She showed me pictures of her wedding, her kids, her “husband,” her new flame who’s a movie star. Hell, Buck, she won an Oscar, and she knows how to make pasta from scratch! How would I have lived up to that?”
“You’re right. You burn toast, Rogers.” He says it so lovingly, though, that Sam, who’s been inching closer to the portal, feels like he should take another step back and give them some privacy. Damn.
“Captain America. War material yes, domestic husbandry material, no.” Steve agrees with a sigh. “Anyways, it was tempting. To-to stay. I mean, it was familiar, it was Peggy… But after everything that’s happened- I’m just not the guy she fell in love with anymore. She’ll always love me. The me she knew. And I’ll love her as I remember her. But she’s moved on. She wanted me to do the same. And that time, it wasn’t any more familiar because I slept through it. This is home now.” He meets Bucky’s eyes with a shy, soft smile. “So I completed my mission. Returned every Stone to its proper place. The only thing I really changed was Nat.”
His shoulders square, and he raises himself up to his full height, imposing against some unseen challenger. “I returned the Stone, and the one who paid for it, nor the recipient were the one to use it. Tony-” Steve’s voice still breaks a little on the name. “He took a free ride. Clint didn’t. And I brought it back, which is more than Thanos could say. So… It was only fair.” Steve preens a little as Bucky laughs incredulously and socks him in the arm. Leave it to America’s Most Righteous Ass to figure out how to best the very order of the universe.
“So- You didn’t tell Peggy where you… were?”
Steve’s smile twists into something more delicately sad. “No. I figured… Better to leave things as they are, rather than wishing for more I could never have. We don’t trade lives. Maybe Cap was supposed to come back when I did, to save all those people when they needed me. He could have done a lot of good in the last century, but then who’s to say what would have happened when the time to assemble came around? If we weren’t all together… Maybe nobody gets saved.”
“So OG Cap’s still frozen?” Bruce confirms.
Steve nods, growing a little uncomfortable. Sam’s temples throb with an oncoming migraine. He’s still dumbly standing there, holding the shield. He averts his eyes, shifting the case under one arm to wave a hand in front of their starry eyes.
“Wait…” Sam cuts in, with an unimpressed expression. “So, if you came back here… And you didn’t wake up yourself in the ice...”
“Uh huh…” Steve nods, sounding lost.
Sam shakes his head, running an hand across his forehead and down to rub at the back of his neck. “Then who the hell was that old guy, man?”
Steve falters, his bemused expression going from blank to rigid. His back stiffens and his hard eyes scan the area, fists balling at his sides. “What old man, Sam?”
Sam’s eyes go wide. “Oh. Uh… The old dude. He was just here. And he was, well, he was you . But like, ancient as hell.”
“Right.” Bucky cuts in, one hand still scrubbing over his wet lashes. “ I figured it was you, Stevie. I mean he looked just like you… and he had the shield.” The disappointment in his voice is gone as quickly as it came, replaced with the bright surprise of having Steve, his Steve, in his arms again.
“He had my shield ?”
“Shiny and new, doesn’t look a year over 1945.” Sam replies, unzipping the case to flash the vibranium. All three men have become pictures of tension.
“What the fuck?” Steve breathes, staring around at the empty grass before them. Back behind them, Bruce and Nat look as equally lost standing by the portal.
“Uh, guys, is everything okay?” Bruce calls out. “Because, seriously, I’m pretty intelligent and I have no idea what the hell is going on right now.”
“Let me get this straight.” Sam starts, holding up a hand, and laughs a little at the irony of the statement. “Did you give me the shield, this shield-” Sam lets it fall to the pavement with a sturdy thunk. “To become the next Captain America or not?”
Steve’s eyes nearly pop out of his head. He clutches Bucky as though to hold himself up with one hand, and his chest with the other, like he still has arrhythmia. “What? No!”
A wounded look flashes across Sam’s face, and then Steve slips into further panic. “No, no! Sam!” He backpedals. “You’d be a great Cap. Honestly, I think that would be a great idea… I haven’t wanted to be him for a while now, being truthful. What I meant was that definitely was not me who told you that before.”
“Then who the hell was it?” Natasha chimes in, already sounding on the alert and back to her old self.
They all hear the off-kilter and slightly over dramatic giggling as it echoes around the trees, sending at first a cold shiver down their spine, and then a spike of dread through their veins. Steve just feels tired, honestly. He sags a little against his best friend, whose confounded face, void of recognition, still peers around the vacant park. The laughter gets louder, and a golden helm flashes through the branches of one of the trees.
“I always was good at impersonating you, Captain, but I think this was my best yet!”
Sam looks down with a scream; a thick white snake slithers around his arm, the empty case unzippered at his feet, kicking up dust where it fell.
“Loki…” Bruce growls, clenching his huge teeth.
The god in question flashes them a cheeky grin, vanishing in a spark of blue light before any of them can draw a weapon. Well, Bucky throws a knife with one hand, but it hits the tree behind where the trickster squatted a moment before and lodges itself into the rough wood.
“God, was he always that annoying?” Steve barks, and Natasha rolls her eyes with a shake of her head.
“ Ugh . Yes. I call not having to deal with that particular loose end. I died already.” She tosses a tiny grin at Steve, a secret smile of a moment shared between them upon her return.
“I thought you’d do anything for family.” He quips back, pulling her into another hug, one arm around her, the other draped over Bucky’s shoulders.
“Yes. But I’m hungry as hell right now, and exhausted. I want a peanut butter sandwich, and Clint, in my bedroom at base immediately. He can tell me the story before I take a nap.”
Bruce whistles like it pains him. “Yea… We sort of lost the complex.”
“It blew up.” Sam helpfully supplies in a deadpan, waving his arms, sans snake, in the motion of a large cloud.
Natasha, to her credit, doesn’t seem very surprised.
“I know.” Natasha stops Bruce, laying a hand on his meaty forearm. “Steve told me. I’m sorry I missed the service.”
“We’re just glad to have you back.” Steve says quietly, muscling her into the waiting car. He knows this isn't the end, that it's going to kick in soon. Natasha’s alive, everyone’s alive, thanks to the Iron Man’s sacrifice. And he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do… To baffled Bruce, to Scott, to Hank Pym. But for now, his friend needs to eat. He wonders if that old place still has shawarma. They could get it in Tony’s honor.
Later, when everyone’s stomachs are sated, and Natasha’s curled under a heavy blanket on Sam’s couch after a much longer processing session by all, with tears and curses and happy shouts of elated disbelief (everyone hugs Natasha about a hundred times, including Clint, who shows up immediately, and won’t let go), Sam and Steve are out on his porch, watching the cars lazily snake down the streets in the golden glow of the setting sun. He’s got a glass of sweet tea, an old addiction he picked up from Riley, in hand. The cool frost on the glass trickles down his fingers.
“Did you mean it? About me… Taking the mantle?”
Steve eyes him for a moment in contemplative silence. “Yes. I can’t think of anyone more deserving, or capable. You did much more for me when I came back than just fight in my battles. And that’s what really proved you were right for the job.”
Sam seems a little stunned, or flattered, or both. He ducks his head with a slightly crazed chuckle. “Well, I’ll be damned. Sam Wilson, Captain America. What’ll you tell the world?”
“I gotta tell ‘em anything? Maybe they’ll just think I died… I know I’m good at speeches, but I’m a little tired of my every other word being a monologue for someone else’s sake.”
Sam nods, knowing it’s not his decision to challenge. “But you’ll be around… In case-”
“In case the world needs me? I’ll be around. I’m not actually gonna die. But I was a wanted man… And the lack of a shield or a star spangled suit didn’t seem to stop me from helping others.”
“No, man. In case I need you.” Sam’s voice goes serious, vulnerable.
“To what? Kick your butt on a race course?” Steve smirks, nudging him with one shoulder. “As your mentor, you don’t need me. You’re doing a pretty good job on your own. As your friend, always. I’ll be here for a long time it looks like.”
Sam thinks back to when he lost Riley. He can’t imagine losing him twice, but Steve did, with Peggy. With Bucky too. With his actual timeline. Given the chance, he turned away from a do-over in his life, forced himself to face his problems head on. Sam’s pretty sure he’d make the same choice, but he knows it couldn’t have been easy. Maybe that’s what Steve sees in him. But before he was Cap, he was Cap’s friend. His best friend, maybe, besides Nat and Bucky. So he gives the hand beside him a quick squeeze. If Steve wants to talk about it, he knows Sam’s there. But if he doesn’t, he won’t push him. So that’s why what he says next is: “And what about the… Shield and all that?”
“Well. New Captain America. Means new shield, new suit. New incarnation. Seems best to leave it up to you to decide.” He looks Sam in the eye. “You get to define the mantle now, bud. Don’t let it define you like I did.”
Sam nods, a little bit overwhelmed with emotion. He’s already thinking about plans for a new shield. Maybe still using vibranium, but ethically sourced, not smuggled, this time. He thinks maybe if he works it out, T’Challa and Shuri would be more than happy to provide. And wings… He thinks he might miss those if they weren’t worked into the design. Steve beams at him, happy to see him already losing himself to his thoughts.
“Happy daydreaming, Cap .” He murmurs, with one last squeeze, and the sound of the screen door sliding open again as Steve Rogers heads back inside.