Chapter 1: 1943
He went to the Barnes house every Saturday for dinner. Even now, with Bucky off at war, he was expected to show up presentable and with whatever small offering he could find. Usually it was fruit nabbed from the still life object collection at school. He went for the citrus because it kept longer.
So he had two oranges in his bag that day, and a tiny flask of the anise liquor his elderly neighbor kept giving him. He suspected she brewed it herself. It sure did clear the sinuses. Hell, standing in the same room as the bottle with the cap off cleared the sinuses.
He walked because it was nice out. He looked forward to this more than he’d admit; the Barneses were his second family. Well, they were his only family now that his mother was gone. They had always treated Steve like he was their own. That feeling of unconditional belonging was something he sorely needed, and more than that, they usually had letters from or news about Bucky.
Bucky sent him letters, too, but they didn’t say much of anything. Even now, Bucky was trying to shield him from the war. It irked him a little. So what if half of what he wrote would be redacted if he was honest? It was an old fight between them; Steve wanted Bucky to stop treating him like he was made of glass, and Bucky insisted Steve took too many risks because he felt he had something to prove. He’d said it that last night at the Expo, in front of the recruiting station.
He didn’t want to get lost in the spiral of thoughts that went along with that memory, but the shame ran deep. He had tried five times, and every time they rejected him. He was too small, too sick, not good enough to defend his own country or fight alongside the man he loved. Not that they knew anything about that last part.
It still nagged at him. He was getting by, though. Without Bucky there to distract him all the time, he had been able to focus on his art and even managed to sell a few pieces. Just last week, he got a magazine contract. He was making rent on his own with a little leftover to save. That felt good.
Bucky would be proud when he got back. He didn’t know how much longer it would be, but Steve would be here waiting patiently. Maybe, he thought, he’d borrow the Sumpter kid’s little red wagon for when he picked Bucky up. It would make Bucky laugh, then shake his head and smile at the same time. Same old hellion, he’d say.
Before he knew it, he made it to the building where the Barneses lived. Steve tromped up the stairs - only one flight, thankfully, or he’d be a wheezing mess - and knocked on the door. It was slow to open, but he figured Winnie just had her hands full and had to wrangle someone else to answer the door.
But it was Winnie who stood there when the door swung open, and everything was wrong. The apartment was silent. There were no dishes on the table. No rush of cooking smells met him. Her face looked puffy and tired and so did everyone else’s.
“Steve, honey,” she started in a fragile voice, and that was when it hit him like a train.
“No,” he choked out. “No.”
Her eyes welled, probably for the thousandth time that day. “We got the letter this morning.”
No, not Bucky. Not Bucky. This couldn’t be happening. He was coming back. He was supposed to come back.
“I know,” she said, enfolding him in a hug. “I know.”
He clung to her, shaking with the sudden, decimating grief.
He didn’t know what time it was when she came in. He only knew that he was in Bucky’s bed. The first place they ever kissed. The only place that was safe enough to cry his eyes out after his mother died. A place he hoped to stay forever.
Winnie tiptoed to the bedside and sat down. She held herself very straight. Moonlight hit the gray hairs at her temple.
“I know you loved him,” she whispered.
She didn’t know the half of it, and it made Steve’s eyes prick with tears. Her hand sifted through his baby fine hair. Steve closed his eyes, allowing himself the ritualistic comfort.
“I used to…” she started, her hand stilling for a moment. “I used to ask myself what I’d done, to have my boy turn out an invert.”
Panic welled up in Steve’s chest, and the instinct to deny was so strong even though it didn’t matter anymore. He sat up and wiped the snot from his upper lip. Maybe he could save her some small part of her son.
“No, Winnie, he wasn’t—it wasn’t—”
“Steven,” she said firmly. “I know.”
His lower lip trembled. He never felt ashamed when he was with Bucky, but now, facing his mother, all of it came back. The doubt, the self-loathing, the fear.
She touched his cheek and he dared to look up at her.
“He was such a beautiful boy,” she said. “And you made him happy.”
God, it hurt, every word, every conscious use of the past tense. The pain blocked up his mouth. It kept him from listing the hundreds of ways Bucky made him happy. He couldn’t confess that sometimes Bucky was the only thing that made him happy. Now there was nothing left.
“Maybe he was an invert, but he was a good boy, and it blessed me with two sons.” Her voice wavered. “You’ll always be my son, Steve. Always.”
“Thank you,” he gasped, not realizing until that exact moment how much he needed to hear that. The feeling of being alone in the world was dizzying and perilous, and he knew it would be worse outside this room. He never wanted to leave and Winnie was telling him he didn’t have to.
She opened her arms and he crashed into that soft space. There was a small voice in the back of his mind that said he should be doing this for her, that a mother’s loss was so much more than his, but all the fight that had propped him up for so many years was gone. He wallowed there.
“Promise me something,” Winnie murmured.
“Try to find a nice girl who understands.” Her fingers were carding through his hair again.
Of course that was the one thing he couldn’t promise. He wasn’t what women wanted. That was made abundantly clear on the disastrous double dates of their teen years, before he and Bucky fully understood what they felt for one another. Besides, he believed it was dishonest to pursue someone to whom he couldn’t give his full heart. Both parties deserved better.
Steve thought numbly that Bucky was the best he’d ever get. There was no one better. So he wouldn’t try to find a nice girl, though he’d tell Winnie he would. He also wouldn’t even attempt to replace Bucky. He didn’t want to; it wasn’t possible. This was it for him.
“Okay, Winnie,” he said softly, and pulled away.
Well, if she wasn’t a sight for sore eyes.
Sam leaned against the railing of the ferry and stared at Lady Liberty. The war had been over for almost six months and only now was he getting home. He should have been happy to finally be here, but beholding her in all her oxidized glory, it felt anticlimactic.
He was tired. It felt like he hadn’t slept real sleep in decades. No part of him knew how to relax anymore. It had kept him alive in the madness of the Pacific theater, but New York Harbor in February was pretty far removed from that clear blue water, rain forest, and blood-soaked sand.
He didn’t mind the cold, though. It meant entire days without sweating. Months where he might not have to be surrounded by heat-induced body odor. It would get old fast, he was sure, but so had the tropics. This, at least, was home.
He breathed it in. The sharp, crisp air, briny and a little garbage-y. Yep. Home.
Fort Greene was the same. Well, except for the white boy who was walking in front of him, cruising down Fulton Street like he belonged there. Sam walked behind him for a time, studying him. He seemed to know where he was going.
It fascinated him more than it should have. He thought in the Army that they wouldn’t care who he rubbed elbows with while defending the United States, but he’d spent most of his time at war in the company of other black men. Hell, he’d spent more time in the company of the people of Papua New Guinea than he had among white people. So it was strange, this man, walking in his neighborhood.
Sure, there were white folk in Fort Greene, but they didn’t come down here. Or had that much changed in his years away? Sam didn’t think so. This pale visitor was the only one he saw.
He was a slight thing, the kind of person whose shoulders sat in front of his chest. The canvas bag strapped across his body was heavy and Sam could hear the wheeze in his breath as he walked. He was blond. And, well, if he was silently observing, Sam could admit that he had a nice ass. Small but pert. He probably walked a lot.
He blinked, realizing that he was home and discharged and could actually go out. He could drink. He could dance. He could kiss people. More than kiss them. Hot damn.
He was cheered by that and walked with a little bounce in his step. Until the white boy turned, went up eight steps, and walked into the building where his family lived. Sam frowned. This was how people got in trouble, white and black. He was probably calling on some girl, getting a little taste only to up and leave like they always did. Sam’s lips thinned into a hard line.
It only got more surreal when the blond huffed his way up the stairs and stopped at his apartment. Mr. Nice Ass White Boy knocked at Sam’s door and waited. No fucking way he was here to see his sister, Sarah had never gone all doe-eyed on anyone who wasn’t bursting with equal shares of muscles and stupidity. Maybe Sam was asleep on the ferry and this was all some weird dream.
Not a dream; his mother opened the door.
“Oh, hi, Steve!” she said, impossibly warm. Then she glanced into the hallway and let out a squeak. “Sammy! Sammy, you’re here!” She bustled right past Steve and threw her arms around Sam. “Paul. PAUL!” Sam cringed at her volume. Jesus Christ, she was as loud as artillery fire. “Get out here, your son is home!”
So Steve owned a print shop up Dekalb Avenue, and it turned out he was making a delivery.
“Your father started a church newsletter while you were gone,” his mother said. “Steve prints things for black folks…for everyone, really. No fuss. Good prices, too.”
“How kind of him,” Sam said. He didn’t mean it to sound as flat as it came out. He was just tired. Tired, tired, tired.
Darlene looked at him sideways. “You know, he started delivering when he found out you were away at war. He’s Catholic, but he would sit with your father and say a prayer for you every time he stopped by.”
Sam barely kept himself from rolling his eyes. “I get it. He’s a saint.”
“Well, I don’t know about all that,” Darlene said, ever the realist, “but he’s a nice man.”
Later on, Sam frowned and asked the question that had been nagging at him.
“Ma, why aren’t you at work?”
In her letters she wrote about her job in a factory. He’d smiled many times when it seemed impossible because he could feel her enthusiasm leaking through her block letters. She was fascinated by the machines. She was good at it. They put her in charge of a wing of the factory and her efficiency numbers were the best in the borough. His mother, who until the war had never been able to find a job that wasn’t cleaning houses or minding a rich white woman’s children.
She looked up from her sewing. When she saw his expression, she set it down altogether.
“The war is over, dear. They don’t need women doing men’s jobs anymore.”
“That’s bullshit,” he said, before he could stop himself.
“Now, Samuel, I know you’ve been away in the worst kinds of places getting your head shot at, but that is no excuse to talk like that in front of your mother,” she responded sharply.
“Then tell the truth. Those white boys came back home and they gave your job away. Probably pay them more just for breathing.”
Darlene sighed and looked skyward. “Maybe they do, but what exactly am I supposed to do about it?”
“It isn’t right,” he said. He could feel the rage simmering under his skin. The same rage that had been simmering since Christmas time, when a boat that could have fit his division refused to take them home because there was no way to keep them separate from the whites. He lived in fucking New York, not Alabama, but they sailed away with empty berths, leaving men who had been away from their families almost 3 years to wait for another boat. Men who had fought and bled and risked their lives for their country, same as the ones with lighter skin. “You’re better at that job,” he seethed. “And they won’t let you keep it because we’re second-class citizens. War’s over, back to our menial jobs that no one else wants. Back to doing all their hard work for them with peanuts to show for it. Guess I better pick up a mop, that’s all I’m good for!”
Sam didn’t realize he was on his feet and shouting until his mother catapulted out of her chair with her hands balled into fists. She was five feet of fury on a good day but the set of her jaw made her a giant. He sat back down because he did know what was good for him, thank you very much.
“My son ain’t gonna mop no floors!” she thundered. “My son is going to college.”
“Mama, that bill isn’t going to help me, I already talked to a bunch of people who tried to sign up and never heard squat,” he ground out, pendulum swinging back to the unending fatigue. “They’ll only take me at a black college, anyway, and they’re all down south. I’d rather sail back to New Guinea.”
“There are two in Pennsylvania, one in Delaware, and two in Washington, D.C.,” she retorted. “And it doesn’t matter if the bill pays for you or not. They might have given my job away, but they paid good while I had it.” She marched over to the kitchen and fished a coffee can out of a seldom-used cabinet. She dropped it in his lap. He grunted; it was like having a brick deposited on his thighs.
He pried off the lid and stared. The can was stuffed full of the most money he’d ever seen in one place, and that was just the bills on top. With the change, there had to be—
“That’s three hundred twelve dollars and thirty seven cents.”
Sam goggled at his mother.
“Ma,” he said, strangled, “you can’t keep this in the house, God, if someone broke in—”
“If you live with your Uncle Leroy in Washington,” she interrupted, “that’ll put you through the first two years, at least.”
“Ma,” he repeated, stunned. After a few minutes of gaping like a fish on its side on a dock, his brain restarted. “What about Sarah? She should go, too.”
“If you can convince her, then you split the money and work your tail off to pay for the rest.”
Sam closed the coffee can, set it on the floor, and hugged his mother so hard that he lifted her clean off the ground.
Try as he might, he couldn’t convince his sister to go to college. It made him angry - what didn’t these days? - but it was her life. If she wanted to pile all her hopes on some man and ignore her natural gifts, that was her choice.
“No man wants a girl who’s smarter than him. If I go to college I’ll end up an old maid. Is that what you want for your sister?” she demanded, horrified that he’d even ask.
“I want you to live up to your potential,” he argued.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “You sound just like Mom.”
“Mom is right.”
“I’m not going to college, Sam,” she said. “Take the money and go pretend you’re better than us.”
He and Sarah got along when they were kids. But now? He wasn’t sure if he ever wanted to talk to her again after that conversation.
Uncle Leroy was more than happy to have him, and anywhere else he’d have to pay room and board, so Sam focused on Washington, D.C. Howard University seemed the obvious choice. The entrance exam and interview were terrifying. He walked out of there with no earthly idea whether he would get in or not.
But three weeks later, he got a letter. His mother nearly fainted, and his father, who hadn’t been able to attend school past sixth grade, cried happy tears. Sarah just rolled her eyes. Sam himself felt a little stunned. In one month home, he’d gone from believing he would spend the rest of his life doing some kind of blue collar labor to college acceptance.
The letter encouraged him to apply for veteran’s benefits to help cover the cost. He did so grudgingly. The bill didn’t explicitly prohibit blacks from receiving the same benefits as whites; it was just that no one was in as much of a hurry to give said benefits out to darker-skinned people, if at all. But he had two years’ worth of money for school, so if they got to him in two years, it might be worth it.
In the meantime, he was going to work. He wasn’t going to stay in his parents’ apartment and not pull his weight. His mother suggested he go down to the print shop and ask Steve if he needed any help; as far as she knew he did all his work alone and he had mentioned that business was booming since the war ended. Sam liked Steve well enough, what little he knew of him from the ten minutes he stopped by every other week, but he still felt suspicious of his apparent disregard for the racial lines everyone else liked to draw in the sand. Sooner or later, every sympathetic-appearing white person he’d ever met showed their true colors.
So he went to the Navy Yard instead. He took as many hours as he could. It was tiring work, but he made sure he found time and energy at least once a week to go out. If nothing else, the war had taught him to appreciate his youth - hell, his life - while he had it. Carpe diem.
It was one of those nights, a rare cool evening in early July. The rain was still shimmering on the pavement and the city smells had been washed away. Sam was buzzing, content, and wrapped up in a very sexy man named Marvin. For once, he felt like nothing could burst his bubble.
He got up to get another drink. While he waited, he devoted some time to fervently hoping that Marvin had his own place. He sure as hell couldn’t bring him back to his.
Sam turned, the cool weight of a pint in his hand, and that was when he saw it. A flash of blond across the bar. He could have sworn it was Printshop Steve. In the blink of an eye the crowd closed around him, swallowing any chance of ever knowing for sure, because Sam wasn’t going to go looking. If Steve was here, if he ran in these kinds of circles, well, that was his own business. That was how it went.
He pushed it from his mind and turned back to Marvin. Tonight he chose the simplicity of a cold beer, good music, and a gorgeous man.
In fact, he chose that most nights, until August was drawing to a close and he had to leave for D.C. He said goodbye to Marvin, who had known the whole time that Sam would be leaving so it never got all that serious. It was harder to say goodbye to his family. He had missed them so much in his three years away; these last six months weren’t enough.
This time, at least, he wasn’t going to war. Except maybe he was. In four years he would be an educated black man, and he fully intended to use that education to better the lives of anyone who had ever felt the sting of discrimination. He made up his mind. No more watching the ships sail away. No more fighting and dying for half the share, or less.
Sam arrives back in New York in February of 1946. The stories of African American soldiers being left behind because there was no way to segregate them from the white soldiers on the boats are absolutely true. Many had to wait months longer than necessary to get home for that sole reason.
The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known at the G.I. Bill, provided veteran's benefits including tuition and living expenses for college or vocational/technical school, low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business, and unemployment compensation. In theory, it was open to all vets who were on active duty at least 90 days and weren't dishonorably discharged. In practice, racism still dictated who got what benefits when, if at all. Not surprisingly, African Americans were routinely denied mortgages and loans, and in many cases were turned away even from black colleges because there just weren't enough schools or resources to handle the influx of veterans looking to pursue an education. So, with that in mind, know that Sam had to be pretty stellar to get into Howard, with or without G.I. Bill benefits, and the long wait for approval was not unusual.
The $312.37 Sam's mother saves is roughly equivalent to $5400 today. In 1946, minimum wage was $0.40 an hour. Yearly tuition to an Ivy League school was around $450. Public universities and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) were significantly less.
Let's not talk about what this crap costs now. D:
Hope you guys are enjoying the ride! More tomorrow!
A long-awaited day had come, and Becca’s wedding turned out to be as beautiful as she was. The entire Barnes family was enthusiastically in attendance. Steve said hello to more people than he knew what to do with, some he’d met before and some for the first time. They were all happy, and he was, too, but there in the church and later on in the hall, Steve realized he had never felt so apart from them.
He still went to dinner once a month, and he could afford more than stolen oranges and bathtub spirits these days. The Barneses were warm and kind and welcoming without fail. He was as much their adopted son as he had ever been. The fault, he thought, was in him. They had found a way to move on. He couldn’t.
He watched Becca walk down the aisle and felt a pang that Bucky wasn’t there to see it. His eyes watered when he realized how much Bucky would have wanted to spin Becca around the dance floor at her wedding. Steve had to excuse himself when he was blindsided by a memory of one of the Barnes cousins’ wedding in 1941; Bucky had cornered him in an out of the way spot while the band played a slow song and they swayed together.
It hurt. It physically hurt. He still ached, and everyone else, they forgot. Bucky was just another bright young man lost to a war that everyone wanted to put behind them.
He was in the midst of this brooding when Winnie sat down next to him. He found a smile for her.
“Becca looks so happy,” he said, reaching out to squeeze Winnie’s hand.
“She does,” Winnie agreed, squeezing back. “When am I going to be able to dance at your wedding, Steve?”
It was only a matter of time before she asked. She made sure to inquire if he had any nice dates lately at every dinner he attended, and among the flurry of hormones and emotions at a wedding, he had no chance of avoiding the topic.
They don’t let us queers get married, he wanted to say, but Winnie did not and would never deserve that kind of attitude. She and her family had been there for him when he had nothing. Steve knew she meant well. She only wanted to see him taken care of, instead of facing the world alone as he so often did.
“You’ve got the shop and it’s doing well. And you’ve filled out a bit,” Winnie observed, not hearing what was said in his silence.
That much was true. Running the shop and manning the equipment was hard work, not to mention lifting the gallons of ink and huge reams of paper. Add the deliveries on top of it, which he made to about a quarter of his most loyal customers, and he had actually managed to put on some muscle. Steve looked and felt better than he ever had. He would never win any contests, but it seemed like the work he’d never been permitted to do when he was younger agreed with him. Strange how that worked out.
“Are you trying?” she asked softly.
“Yes,” he lied, “but the shop keeps me busy. I can’t get out much.”
Winnie seemed to accept that. She wasn’t done, though. “Becca has a lot of friends. A few of the girls here are single. Any one of them would be lucky to have you. There’s one in particular, Lorraine, the blonde there—”
“Winnie,” he interjected, because he couldn’t, not when the band had just started to play the song he and Bucky danced to nine years before. “Not today. Please.”
Her face softened. Winnie reached out to touch his cheek.
Sam sat in his uncle’s apartment in numb shock. He was three weeks away from graduation and the ducks he’d lined up in a row had just been scattered all to hell. He thought he was going to stay here, find a place with Riley, start working in the neighborhoods to do his part…but this morning Riley dropped a bomb on him.
“I’m moving back home, Sam,” he said.
Home was Jackson, Mississippi.
He loved Riley. It wasn’t like the thing with Marvin; that had been for fun. This was the real deal. He met Riley three months into the first semester and fell hard. He thought Riley felt the same way; he said the L-word, same as Sam. They made plans. Jackson, Mississippi was in none of those plans.
Sam could not and would not move to the Jim Crow south. Things were bad enough in the Northeast, where segregation was quietly state-mandated but drinking from the arbitrarily designated Whites Only fountain wouldn’t get you lynched. Arrested, maybe, but not strung up. He’d dipped his toes in the city pool and no one shut it down because it was too goddamn hot for that foolishness. But he would get himself killed faster than a steer in a slaughterhouse if he moved to Mississippi.
If there was one gripe he had about Riley, it was that he wasn’t as invested in improving the plight of colored people as Sam wanted him to be. He preached like he was, but when the time came for action, he always tried to talk Sam out of it. Maybe it was indoctrinated in him, that keep your head down mentality. It wasn’t his fault. Where was the anger, though? Where was the rage that people thought they could treat him that way? Sam had come home with it, and it never faded. It just got stronger and stronger the more he saw. The more he learned.
He couldn’t do it, and that was tearing him to shreds. All he wanted to do was lay down and implode. But he had class in a half hour, and he’d be damned if he screwed it up now, so close to the end. Sam Wilson had not come to college for love.
The lecture hall was less sedate than usual, everyone whispering in small groups, the professor not even in the room. That was strange because Professor Clark was a hard-ass. He locked the door when the class started and didn’t let stragglers in. Lord help you if you hadn’t done the reading or had side conversations in class. For a fleeting second, Sam seriously wondered if the man had died, because he gave the impression that that was the only acceptable excuse for missing a day.
“Lock the door!” someone called out when it hit 1 o’clock. Just about everyone snickered. Even Sam felt his lips twitch. He’d never been locked out, but that would be justice. No one was ballsy enough to do it, though. In truth, Clark was a good teacher who graded fairly; the general sentiment was more concern than anything else.
Professor Clark blew into the room a full fifteen minutes late. If that wasn’t shocking enough, his tie was loose and he was sweating like he’d run there. They goggled at him.
He dropped his satchel with an unceremonious thump.
“Apologies for my tardiness. I was witnessing history.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped at the sweat on his brow and upper lip. “Today, Howard’s own Thurgood Marshall prevailed. The Supreme Court has ruled that institutes of higher education cannot discriminate against colored people for graduate and law school programs. All of you can legally apply and be accepted to any advanced study program you want, anywhere in this country.”
He paused, choking up with emotion. Sam was sure it wasn’t quite the same one that was rising in his own chest, but probably pretty damn close. Clark brought his pointer finger down on the lectern, voice cracking out of him with enough force to send chills up Sam’s spine.
“Today, the United States government publicly acknowledged that separate is neither equal nor constitutional!”
The classroom erupted in cheers. Sam found himself on his feet, electricity running through him. This was it. It was happening. He wasn't naive enough to believe that the good old boys at the white colleges wouldn’t simply turn people away under the guise of the applications not being strong enough, but the fact remained that it was legal to apply. At some of the northern universities, people might stand a chance.
And that brought him back around to Riley, the wicked ache in his chest sharpening. What would he say if he was here? Something like why do you want to go to their schools anyway, isn’t it better to be around your own? The fervent answer was that Sam ought to be able to go anywhere he damn well pleased. Anyway, this was just a drop in the bucket, one tiny victory where so many more were needed.
He sat, listening to his classmates chatter around him. Clark had abandoned his lecture for the day in favor of open discourse. The people around him were smart, passionate, and deserving of all the same things as their white counterparts. Today, the law had finally sided with them.
Sam stood up suddenly, knocking his book to the ground. The noise drew every eye in the hall, including Professor Clark’s.
“Something to add, Mr. Wilson?”
Sam blinked, embarrassed that he’d made a scene. But he did have a question.
“Oh. Uh…how many years is law school?”
Professor Clark just smiled. “Three.”
It was a long time to be in school, he thought. Would it be more beneficial for him to be out now while things were gaining steam, helping people with his social work degree? Or would he be more useful to the movement three years from now as a lawyer?
Sam counted and re-counted the money in the coffee can. The GI Bill had come through for him his third semester and covered the majority of his costs since then. He didn’t know if it would also pay for graduate school. He still had a good chunk of his mother’s money, plus what he’d added that summer at the Navy Yard and all the time since, working for Uncle Leroy’s repair shop. Graduate school - law school - had to be more expensive, right? And more difficult, which would cut into how many hours he could work.
He chewed his lip and tried to listen to his instincts. In his heart, it had already gone from an idea to a need. As a social worker he could help people on the ground, and that made a huge difference, but if he studied the law there was a chance he could influence that law and help people everywhere. They always did say at the NAACP meetings that the way forward lay in challenging the legality of racist practices, carefully and methodically chipping away at the structures of oppression. Maybe it was slow, and maybe not as satisfying as toppling a statue, but today a brick fell from the wall.
Sam exhaled. He was going to apply to law school. It wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to breaking up with Riley, though it sure helped that he’d have nowhere else to be, now. He was going to law school even if he had to pay for it himself, every cent.
He put the coffee can up and went to talk to Uncle Leroy.
The court case referenced here is Sweatt v. Painter.
It was times like these Steve wished Bucky was there to talk to. He still missed him like he might miss his own hand if it got lopped off, but sometimes it was worse than others, and this was one of them. He set the newspaper down.
He couldn’t believe the headline when he saw it that morning. Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty. It had to be a joke, but it wasn’t April Fools; he was compelled to read it, if only to figure out the gimmick. But, it seemed, there was no gimmick. A soldier born male had taken hormones and had surgery in Europe to become female. He - no, she - went by Christine now. Christine Jorgensen. And she was a beauty.
Of course Steve knew people who liked to blur the lines. Men who dressed like women, women who dressed like men. Hell, his friend Marcelo looked better in makeup than most of the girls on the block. But none of them were on the front page of the Daily News.
Envy hit him, swift and crushing. He ached for that kind of courage. He thought he had it, actually, but…
He rubbed his hands over his face. Winnie hadn’t asked, lately, if he was going on any dates. She had figured out that he couldn’t keep his promise. He still got his dinner invitations and he still went, but he could feel her giving up on him, at least when it came to that.
Steve thought he had given up on himself a long time ago. But this newspaper article sparked him up somewhere that hadn’t seen heat in ages. There hadn’t been much fire in him since the day of the Expo, and even less after Bucky’s death. Most people he knew said he’d calmed down; Bucky would have said he shut down. And Bucky’s ghost had the right of it.
He looked at Christine’s face again. This was a wake-up call. She was out there fighting, and she didn’t need muscles or guns to do it. There was so much wrong in the world still; it was simmering, but soon enough it would crank up to a boil. That he felt in his bones.
Steve put the paper down and went over to his safe. Inside, beneath the actual work-related things, was a lockbox. It was where he kept anything that could be considered questionable, like the nude drawings he’d done of Bucky. He never looked at them because it seemed too much like self-flagellation, but he couldn’t get rid of them. He also kept his letters from his friends out West in there, and the Tijuana bibles he drew when he needed extra money.
He still didn’t touch the drawings of Bucky. He might never. But he smoothed open the latest letter from Ronnie and read it again.
Ronnie went to California two years ago, sick of the cold. Things were happening out there. People aren’t afraid, he wrote. There was something called the Mattachine Society, a homophile organization that operated freely, right out in the open.
They hold discussion groups, Steve, where you meet and talk to other people like us, men and women, and they plan how to make things change, how to make them better. They run a newsletter, too, that they put in a box by the other papers once a month and people actually stop and take it! In plain sight! Couldn’t dream of that in New York. Not in daylight hours, anyway, and not outside the Heights.
That was true. But even in the dark in the Heights was better than nothing. In some places there were no bars, no safe havens; just the walls of your own mind. And that made him think…
For a person who ran a print shop, it took him far too long to find some paper for a response. He wrote sloppy and fast.
California sounds amazing. Guess I ought to visit someday. But till then, could you mail me a copy of that newsletter? If the people who run the Mattachine Society are okay with it, do you think I could reprint it here in New York?
A letter came from Ronnie three weeks later. Folded into the envelope was the newsletter, four pages front and back.
They are more than okay with it, they said print as many copies as you want! They’re trying to get chapters started in cities besides L.A. You do gotta be careful, though, Steve. The Society is pretty involved with the Communist Party and the government ain’t so fond of that these days.
They’re hoping to make the newsletter into an actual magazine next year. Can you imagine? Going to the corner and picking up a glossy magazine all about being queer?
Goddamn right, he could imagine it. He could imagine a lot of things. Energized, Steve spent the next two hours setting the press to reprint the newsletter. And then, while it printed, he sat down to draw a very different kind of Tijuana bible.
Steve stood at the corner trying to catch his breath. He’d just finished a late delivery of the Wilsons’ church newsletter. He was caught up in reprinting the next Mattachine offering and didn’t want to leave it out or running. Odds were low that anyone would find his shop interesting enough to raid, but if someone went in there and saw that, he was toast. So he had to wait for it to finish, and by then it was almost eight in the evening. He apologized probably a dozen times to Mrs. Wilson (“Steve, call me Darlene, dear, how many times do I have to tell you?”), vowed to do better next time, and left after finishing the glass of lemonade she insisted he drink.
It was appreciated. It was warm even with the sun gone down, and he was late for a friend’s birthday now, too. He took a breath and got moving again. Steve was hustling so fast that he almost missed it.
Even with twenty other things on his mind, he knew the sound of struggle. In the alley up ahead, someone was in distress. He had never been the type who could just walk by, even if it was the smarter thing to do. Steve dropped his bag against the side of the building and peeked around the wall to assess the situation. He’d learned at least that much from Bucky; you couldn’t fly in blind.
It was a man trying to rough up a woman. She was far outweighed but fighting, gasping out no, pink-painted fingernails gouging at the man’s cheek. As Steve looked for something, anything to use against this would-be rapist, the man drew back and slapped her. Abruptly, something in him burst like a spark reaching the end of a fuse. He was dangerously, combustibly angry in a way he hadn’t been in a very long time, and his feet were moving.
Somewhere in his mind he was aware that there was no Bucky to watch his back, not anymore, so he needed the element of surprise and for it to be over fast. He grabbed the man’s collar with both hands and yanked him backwards with all his strength. Admittedly, that wasn’t a lot, but it was more than it had ever been before and the guy wasn’t expecting it. He stumbled backwards, hand ripping the fabric of the woman’s dress, and fell onto his tailbone. In the second of surprised pain, Steve swung at him like he was Duke Snider trying to slam one out of the park.
For the first time in his life, Steve Rogers knocked someone out cold.
He didn’t really register a coherent thought until he was back at the Wilsons’ door, the woman in tow. She was at the point in sobbing where it was mostly hard hitches of breath. Paul, apparently returned from his card game, looked from her to Steve and back, and then beckoned them in.
With the telepathic conversation skills that some married couples had, he and Darlene decided what to do. Darlene took the woman and led her into the washroom, and Paul directed Steve to the living room.
“Darlene said you just left out of here fifteen minutes ago,” he said. “What happened?”
“Some lowlife was trying to take advantage of her. I knocked him out.”
To his credit, Paul just raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah, I know,” Steve sighed, very aware of how unrealistic it sounded. “Even featherweights can have a mean right hook.”
Paul smiled. “Wasn’t doubting you, Steve. Why’d you bring her here, though?”
“She couldn’t tell me where she lives, and I knew she’d be safe here.”
The other man was looking at him like he was a rare species at the zoo. Steve fidgeted under the preacher’s gaze until he realized, sans adrenaline, that his hand was throbbing. He looked down with a feeling of resigned dread. It was swollen out by the pinky knuckle.
“Boxer’s fracture,” Paul said, following his gaze. “Had a few when I was young and stupid.”
Steve was asking himself if he could really still be considered young at 34, pushing 35, when realization slammed him.
“I haven’t been in a fight in ten years,” he exclaimed.
“Doesn’t seem like it was a much of a fight, thank the Lord.”
“No - you don’t - you don’t understand,” Steve stammered. “I used to get in fights all the time. I didn’t realize—”
How long I’ve been hiding.
How much those 4Fs took out of me.
How afraid I was to do anything, without Bucky.
None of those were things he could say to Paul.
“I don’t condone violence, Steve, because the Lord doesn’t, except in times of crisis when there’s no other option. This was a crisis. God put you there to protect that girl.”
“I just happened to be walking by,” Steve said, uncomfortable.
There was a long pause as Paul considered him. “You still go to church?”
“Not often enough,” he admitted. “I…lost someone.” Like that excused or explained it; his mother would be disappointed. Still, it hurt. “I lost everyone.”
“Something tells me,” Mr. Wilson began, “that when you find your way back, He won’t be too angry.”
He wished he could explain it to him. It wasn’t just the loss, it was everything. The way he had to lie about who he was, the things good people like the Wilsons endured for no reason, the fact that all he ever wanted to do was be useful and that had always been a struggle. Speaking of useful…
“I ought to go down to the police station and file a report. If that creep is still laid out, the police might be able to pick him right up off the street.”
Paul’s face changed then. He stopped being a preacher and became an everyday man.
“They won’t do nothing for her.”
“But he tried to rape her, I saw it—”
“You’ll know if you ever have a daughter or a wife. Somehow that type of man always makes it the woman’s fault. She looked too pretty, she was askin’ for it, she’s promiscuous. Whatever poor excuse he’s got in the moment, and the other men that are like him, believe him. The lily-white First Lady could accuse someone and get dragged down through the mud all the same.” Paul gave him a sidelong glance. “Do you have any idea what they say about black women?”
Steve’s hands clenched into fists automatically and he winced through an expression of fury. He had one and a half working ears, he knew what they said.
“That’s bullshit,” he blurted, forgetting he was talking to a man of God.
Paul just laughed. “You’ve got to meet Sam when he gets back. You two’ll get on famously.”
He had met Sam, the one time. It was hard to forget someone so easy on the eyes, or how simultaneously glad and jealous Steve felt in that moment that he got to reunite with his loved ones. Sam was standoffish that day, but Steve took no offense; he’d just gotten home from the war and he knew from talking to others who were lucky enough to make it back that the transition wasn’t easy. Some people were never the same.
Still, they came back.
Some part of them did, anyway.
He didn’t want to think about Bucky right now, but he couldn’t stop himself. He hoped Bucky died clean. Fast. No time to think, to suffer, or to pick up and carry the burden he saw in other mens’ eyes. He’d never know, but he could hope.
“When does he finish school?” Steve forced himself to ask. He had to get back on topic or he would cry.
“Another month. Then he’ll be a lawyer.” Paul practically beamed.
Man, Steve would’ve cut off his arm for those GI Bill benefits. Art school tuition wasn’t tenable once he lost his roommate and love of his life to the draft. He was a dropout who never quite seemed to be able to scrape together enough to go back. He’d made the money for the shop by working himself to the bone at two jobs and then coming home to paint pieces to sell until he couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore. A few years of that made him enough to buy a cheap place with a storefront on a street most people thought was too close to the Negros, heaven forbid. Steve hadn’t looked back since, and he was making a decent living with the print shop, but he could never seem to save anything substantial; the machines always needed repairs or upgrading, and when it got busy he had to hire help. He wasn’t going to pay peanuts like some people did. If someone was working for him, he was going to make sure they got a living wage. Some paydays Steve went hungry, but that was nothing new.
Darlene emerged, breaking the mutual bubble of contemplation they’d lapsed into.
“How is she?” Steve asked, sitting up straighter. He hadn’t really been able to take a good inventory of her injuries; while he could hope that all she had to endure was that one slap, who knew what had happened before he got there.
“She’s shaken. She’ll be all right, though.” Darlene sighed. “I put her in one of Sarah’s dresses and gave her a little whisky. After she calms down we’ll walk her home. Thank you, Steve.” Darlene reached out to take his hand, and he didn’t miss the way she hesitated for the slightest second before making contact, as if giving him the chance to pull away. He took her hand and squeezed.
“What’s her name?” he asked. “I never got it.”
He nodded. That was a pretty name. Tentatively, Steve held out his other hand to Paul. “Should we…” he started, then cleared his throat and tried again. “Remember when you used to say a prayer?”
“Of course.” Paul reached out with both hands, linking them into a small circle. “You lead, Steve.”
He swallowed. “I don’t…I don’t know if I can.”
“Just think it. He’ll hear you.”
That he could do, if he could figure out what to ask for. He was out of practice. Steve bowed his head and closed his eyes. It took a moment, but it wasn’t as hard as he thought it might be.
Please help me figure out how to help people. All people.
Show me a way to fight without fists or guns.
I want to make it better.
It was strange to be leaving Uncle Leroy’s for good. He’d been there seven years, seven. At times it seemed not enough, and other times he felt so homesick for New York that it physically pained him. He got up there most holidays, if he could catch a bus or a ride from a friend, but this was a sense of impending permanence he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Sam wouldn’t be coming back to D.C. At least, he didn't think he would. The government was here but it was too close to the South, and New York was the center of things. That was where he needed to be to help the movement. Once he passed his Bar exam, anyway. He tried not to grimace at the thought of how much studying he had to do in the next few months.
It was funny, though. For the first four years of school, he socialized, made friends, and went out as much as he could around his coursework. Law school was different. He’d fallen so far down the rabbit hole that he forgot to eat some days, let alone go out. The friends he’d made went along with their lives and Sam found that he wouldn’t miss the majority of them. In fact, he’d probably miss the guys at Uncle Leroy’s shop, and Uncle Leroy himself, more than anyone else.
He figured it was just the universe’s way of telling him that New York was where he was meant to be. Sam wasn’t going to fight it. It felt a little like coming back from the war, that first glimpse and whiff of New York after so long. There was nothing like it. Nothing in the world.
Bar the fact that his father had half taken over his bedroom, things were the same in Fort Greene. God, had he missed it.
“Oh, I’ll move all that stuff tomorrow,” his father said, with a vague gesture at the pile of junk that told Sam he’d better find a place for it because it wasn’t going anywhere. He smiled. Uncle Leroy was the same way. They were brothers, after all.
“Sam? You didn’t take your shoes off yet, did you?”
“No, Mom,” he sighed, knowing exactly where this was going.
“Go on down to Steve’s for me. He was supposed to be here two hours ago.”
“Who?” Sam asked, stymied. He didn’t know a Steve.
His mother looked impatient. “Steve. The nice young man who prints your father’s newsletter, you’ve met him before. He’s got the shop on Dekalb.”
It took a long moment of mental digging, but Sam got there. Those memories right after coming back from the Pacific were foggy and rage-tinted. It was too easy to forget the one minute introduction to the skinny white guy. Though the more he thought about it, the more he remembered; cute butt, seemingly color-blind, maybe a queer.
He bit down on the questions he wanted to ask - he’s grown, why do I gotta run after him, why do you care if he’s late? His mother usually had Reasons. Sam just grabbed his key and resigned himself to being back in the land of Do This For Your Mother.
As he walked up Dekalb Avenue, it suddenly became crystal clear why Steve was late. The front window of his shop was completely busted out. Sam frowned. This wasn’t an area where kids would be playing stickball or anything else that could do that accidentally; the street was too busy. In a spot like this, it had to be intentional.
He accelerated without realizing it and stepped into the shop. It was a mess inside, glass everywhere. He saw no sign of the owner.
“Steve?” he called out.
A blond head popped up from behind huge pieces of printing equipment. He looked whole and unharmed, hair sticking up like he’d pushed a hand through it in frustration too many times. Sam felt suddenly awkward, because none of his admittedly meager memories of this person included attraction. But Steve was…maybe it was just the moment, the flush in his cheeks and the way he had pulled his suspenders back up over just his undershirt.
“Can I help you?” Steve was asking as he wiped his hands on a rag. His thumb was bleeding.
“Uh,” Sam said, and good God, what the hell was happening to him. “I’m Sam. Wilson. Darlene and Paul’s son. They were worried.”
“Oh, shit,” Steve said. He tilted his head back and took a deep breath. When he made eye contact again, it looked like he’d purposefully shrugged off the disaster he was standing in the middle of and put on his friendly business face. “I knew you looked familiar. Welcome back. And congratulations.”
“Oh. Thank you,” Sam replied automatically. Did his parents talk to Steve about him? Well, his mother would talk about him to anyone, so it wasn’t that unusual, he supposed.
“Luckily I finished the newsletter before,” he gestured roundly at the mess, “but I should have thought to send someone.”
“No, man, it’s fine. They just wanted to make sure you were okay.” He looked okay, physically, but the shop…this was his livelihood and a window was replaceable, but at cost, and if his machines were damaged… “Do you need any help?”
“I couldn’t—” He stopped himself. Did that little self-check again. Then he smiled at Sam. “Maybe just with all the glass. Already cut myself twice.”
It was after a solid hour of cleaning up more broken glass than he ever thought possible that Sam remembered to ask what happened.
Steve considered him for a long moment. Then he went over to the desk, reached into a drawer, and set a brick down on the tabletop between them. A series of slurs that made Sam's blood boil were written on the brick in bold white chalk.
“I joined the NAACP last week,” Steve said. “I guess someone saw me.”
He didn’t look scared or regretful or cowed. He actually looked grimly satisfied that someone had been offended enough to put a brick through his front window. What an idiot. Exactly the kind of idiot Sam liked.
He didn’t get home until almost midnight. After the glass cleanup he’d gone with Steve to buy plywood to cover up the window. It seemed like his equipment had been spared, mostly, though he lamented that he’d be picking tiny bits of glass out of everything for weeks. As if to prove the point, he leaned forward slightly and ruffled his hair. Minuscule shards of glass rained out, catching in the fading light like glitter.
And he smiled.
Sam had a sudden vision of Steve being in the path of the brick as it flew through the window. It was half memory from the war, watching people near him get brained by shrapnel or blown apart by mines, and half something else.
“Were you standing right there?” he asked, oddly breathless. He hadn’t had a flashback like that in a while.
“Close enough. But nothing really hit me, thank God.”
And he felt it, the words welling up on his tongue, but he ordered himself to a full stop. That was something Riley would have said. You should be more careful, they’ll hurt you if you keep up with this damn fool thing. He would not be that person. He wouldn’t tell Steve not to fight in his own way, even if it endangered him. There was nothing to be gained in this without risk.
“Thank God,” he agreed softly.
“I thought I was going to have to send out a search party!” his mother shouted. “It’s midnight. Midnight!”
“You told me to go over there and I did, and he needed help!” Sam returned, holding his hands up. “Here’s the newsletter.”
“Wait, what do you mean he needed help?” she demanded, newsletter forgotten. His father had wandered into the room, too, and was looking at him expectantly.
“Someone put a brick through his storefront. I helped him clean up.”
Darlene looked ready to break bones. She breathed through her nose, crossed herself, and said, “Lord, help me to not throttle the ignorant.”
Paul laughed, kissed the top of her head, and for good measure, kissed Sam on the temple.
His father took up a collection for Steve’s shop window at church that Sunday. People gave readily, even if they only had pennies. It wasn’t much, but it was the thought that counted, and if they kept it going for enough Sundays, he’d have a new storefront in no time.
However, when Sam walked down afterwards in his Sunday best, dispatched once again by his mother, he stopped short. Steve was out front on a step-stool painting the plywood. Not roughshod, actually painting. Making art.
He stood and watched for a few minutes. He’d never really seen an artist at work, at least not on this scale. Plus, it meant he got to surreptitiously check out Steve’s behind. It was as cute as ever.
After a while Steve stepped down to take a sip of water from a coffee cup. His eyes landed on Sam and he did an honest to goodness double-take. Internally, Sam preened.
“Yeah, I clean up pretty good,” he called, grinning.
“I’ll say.” He smiled, and no, the other day had not been a fluke. Sam had a legitimate thing for him. Interesting.
“They took up a collection for you at church,” Sam said, strolling toward him. He stayed clear of the paint; this was his best suit, and he’d need it for lawyering. “And here you are painting your own window.”
“You pulling my leg?” he asked, stunned. “Sam, I can’t take people’s money.”
“They gave because they wanted to. Don’t worry about it, man.”
Steve accepted the envelope as if under duress. He’d never before seen anyone so upset to be handed money.
“Sam,” he said, very seriously, “I…I have a thing about…” He stopped and sighed. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I can’t take this. I was kind of a charity case growing up, and a lot of people helped me out after my Ma died. I promised myself I’d never have to lean on others like that again.”
“Well, good luck trying to get the church ladies to take it back.”
That got Steve to laugh. There was still a furrow between his brows, though.
“Look, whatever you do with that after I go is up to you. Donate it back to the church if you’re torn up about it,” Sam offered.
“I might,” Steve said. He put the envelope in his pocket and nodded. “Thank you. It’s more than I deserve.” He picked up his coffee cup and held it out. “Want some?”
Sam caught a whiff of whatever was in that glass. It wasn’t water. It smelled like licorice.
“That the stuff the Greeks and Italians like to drink?”
“I don’t know what my old neighbor is, but she makes this stuff in a tub and gives it to me for free. I guess I just got used to it.” Steve flashed another grin. “Doubles as a cleanser.”
“I bet it does.” Sam took a sip and grimaced. That was some powerful stuff. Kinda like getting hit in the face with a snowball. “You might lose some fingers in those machines if you have too much of this.” How much could a slight guy like Steve take before he got falling-down drunk?
“It’s Sunday, I’m closed.” Steve had a particular quirk to his lips, like he knew what Sam was thinking. Like he’d been underestimated before.
“Then why are you here?”
He pointed up, to the second floor. “I live here.”
“Oh. You own the whole building?”
Steve shrugged. “Such as it is.”
Sam filed that away for later. He didn’t mind staying with his parents for now, but once he passed the Bar Exam, he would need space of his own. Maybe Steve had a room he could rent.
He looked back at the plywood. Steve had painted it to look like the front of a diner or a soda shop. He was a hell of an artist; it looked real, like his actual window and the shop within, a carefully crafted illusion. It wasn’t finished, though.
He declined his head toward the picture. “What’s it gonna be?”
“You’ll see,” Steve replied with an enigmatic look. He waggled his brows and sipped his bathtub cocktail. And, well, Sam couldn’t help it. Even though he shouldn’t because it was Sunday, he wound up with his own coffee mug and a chair and he sat and distracted Steve while he was painting for hours.
He did, in fact, see the final product two weeks later. Sam could only shake his head. Steve had painted a counter, territory of white folk only, jammed elbow to elbow with every kind of person under the sun. Old, young, black, white, male, female, Latinos and Italians and Chinese and Irish and half a dozen others Sam couldn’t even identify.
It was amazing. And he’d be lucky if it lasted a week.
Steve shrugged. “So they vandalize it. I’ll just paint over it and start again. I’ve got plenty of ideas. By the time I save enough for the actual window, they’ll be so fed up they’ll never put a brick through it again.”
Sam tried not to think of the other things that could happen. It was tempting to believe Steve might not know how this could escalate and what harm could come to him, but Sam knew better now. If he’d learned anything about Steve so far, it was that he was smart, and he didn’t do things by accident. His window was deliberately provoking. Then again, so was a brick scrawled with racial slurs.
Sam had gone funny and quiet after Steve revealed his master plan for his lack of window. This wasn’t the same fella who came into his shop a little under a month ago. There was a certain look returned soldiers got from time to time, and Sam was wearing it now.
“You start working again?” Steve prompted gently, trying to bring him back.
Sam blinked, refocused on him. “No. I can’t work and study at the same time.”
“Oh, right, your big lawyer test. When is that?”
“End of July.”
Sooner than it seemed. “Need help?”
“With the test?” Sam asked.
Steve snorted; that was cute. “You don’t want my help with that. With studying, I mean.”
Sam put his forehead down on the table and stifled a groan. “If you can find a way to help me, I accept.”
Steve was nothing if not a tactician. It was borne of years of having to do things differently than everyone else because of his size, his health, his income, and whatever else the universe had not seen fit to bless him with. If he wanted something, he had to plan, because it wasn’t just going to land in his lap.
He helped Sam break down the tremendous amount of material he had to study by several categories, compile the most important theories, points, and cases around each topic, and make it all into one organized avalanche of information. It forced Sam to learn the material while he was writing it all out into its respective lists, and then Steve could use said lists to play quiz show in the evenings while his last orders for the next day printed.
“How are you not deaf?” Sam shouted over the din of the presses one night.
“I am,” Steve replied, gesturing at his left ear. “Is it too loud?” He’d never even thought about it. They'd been going out to the park to study because the weather was nice, but today it was pouring down rain and they were stuck inside.
“It’s loud as hell,” Sam replied with a laugh.
“We could go upstairs. Might be better.”
Sam nodded, then picked up his papers and followed him up the rickety steps. It was all one room upstairs, high-ceilinged, with worn wood floors that sloped slightly. It was the biggest place Steve had ever lived in. Consequently, it was an absolute bitch to heat, and in the winter he had to sleep practically next to the little pot-bellied stove with about ten blankets. But the summer was good; the big warehouse windows let in more air than he’d ever had anywhere else. It was nice not to feel like he was trapped in a sarcophagus in the middle of the jungle.
Belatedly, he realized that he’d never once had a guest up here. There was nowhere for Sam to sit. There wasn’t even any way to make privacy for the toilet; it was just open to the rest of the place. He met Sam’s eyes, a little mortified at that and the mess of art supplies and half-finished pieces that occupied the far corner, but Sam just said,
“This is great.”
Steve pushed hair out of his face. “It’s a mess. Let me go downstairs and get the desk chair for you.” That would make two chairs, his one chair at the little table where he ate his meals and the desk chair.
Sam waved a hand. “I’m good with the floor.” He looked ready to drop right down to the wood, but Steve insisted on at least getting some blankets and a cushion.
Two hours passed with impossible speed. That was how it seemed to go with Sam, lightning fast and effortless. He'd aced the day’s study material and they both felt a sense of accomplishment. Steve put some tea on and they sat sipping and listening to the rain.
“You’re a real artist, huh?” Sam asked. He was eyeing the canvases. Steve's eyes, on the other hand, kept drifting to Sam; to his full lips, his muscular shoulders, the soft line of demarcation on his palms where his lovely dark skin paled a little. The more time they spent bent over Sam's books and study guides, the more Steve noticed. From his warm brown eyes that were as depthless as they were kind, to his absolutely infectious gap-toothed smile, Sam was gorgeous. He would have liked to draw him.
“I can draw and paint," Steve acknowledged, trying to refocus. "I don’t know if that makes me a real artist.”
“I think it does.”
Steve smiled. Sam was a sincere person, someone who meant what he said, and Steve appreciated that. It reminded him of Bucky.
“I went to art school for a bit,” he murmured. “Had to drop out when my roommate got drafted. The tuition money went to rent after that.”
“Couldn’t get another roommate?”
“Didn’t want to. I thought I was going to follow him into the Army, anyway, so it wouldn’t have mattered.” He stared into his tea. “But they didn’t want me.” That still hurt, but it wasn’t the great well of shame that threatened to swallow him like it was before. Now it was just a nagging sort of ache.
Sam put his cup down and laid back on the blankets. He stared at the ceiling for a long time before he spoke.
Steve snorted. “Lucky to be a burden to others, too weak to serve my own country?”
Sam turned his head and looked at him. “I don’t see anyone I’d call weak in here.”
“Gotta get your eyes checked.”
“Think you got that backwards, pal.”
Something locked up in Steve at those words. It was something Bucky would have said, and this dynamic, this ease, it felt a lot like what he'd had with him. He’d been trying not to think about it, to just let things happen. It had been a long time since he had a close friend. He wondered if he would ever stop feeling like he didn’t deserve one.
Steve cleared his throat so his voice wouldn’t shake. “Yeah?”
“Anybody can pick up a rifle. You don’t have to be special. It doesn’t make you more of a man, or a better one, I promise you that.” Sam paused, considering his words. “But standing up for oppressed and abused people? Defying the rules to do what’s morally right? That is a kind of strength that not a lot of people have, okay?”
Steve ducked his head and nodded, blushing to the tops of his ears. They were quiet for a long moment, the only sound the lash of the rain outside. At last Steve said, “I don’t understand how people can pretend it isn’t wrong.”
“Some people don’t mind being wrong as long as they’re comfortable,” Sam pointed out.
“My comfort isn’t worth someone else’s suffering.”
Sam smiled from his spot in the blankets. “Welcome to the minority.”
Steve smiled back, rueful. If only Sam knew.
I’ve been here all along.
Steve’s plywood window got vandalized over and over again, and every time Steve doggedly repainted it to show something else that would tick off the racists and status-quo cowards. He lost business over it. Some customers didn’t like what he stood for, and others didn't mind but were too afraid to be seen at his place lest anyone see them and think they shared his opinions (even if privately, they did). Sam had a special level of scorn reserved for those people.
There was a corresponding uptick in business from the poorer, colored neighborhoods bordering Fort Greene but Steve had a wonderful and terrible habit of only charging them what they could pay. It didn’t make up for the difference, and for a few months his income suffered. Steve tried not to show it, but Sam knew. He got a little thinner, caught a cold he couldn’t kick. Worst of all, he ran out of paint and couldn’t afford to buy more.
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling. “Still got charcoal.”
It washed away if it rained hard and wore down in the wind, but he kept at it.
At some point he had to face it; Sam was in love with Steve.
He saw him every day now, and if he didn’t, he missed the guy. He always seemed to find something new to appreciate about him. Like today, he’d noticed there was a little bit of green in the blue of his eyes.
Not a day passed that Sam didn’t think about leaning over and kissing him.
He could go on forever if he was going to list the things he liked about Steve. He was so much smarter than he gave himself credit for. He laughed without restraint. Treated everyone like they were important. He’d even started to treat himself that way, with no small amount of prodding from Sam. Funny, how someone so fiercely enamored of other people’s worth could be so blind to his own.
He wasn’t perfect. He was fucking stubborn and you had a better chance of seeing a pig fly than changing his mind once it was made up. His regard for his own safety was chronically low, too. Sam had figured that out the first time Hazel Green’s ex-boyfriend jumped him. He just limped home all bruised and bloodied and went about his life. Didn’t change the routes he walked in the neighborhood or the times of day he walked them. He argued when Sam told him he should carry a knife.
“I’m not going to stab anyone, Sam,” he sighed.
“If it keeps him from killin’ you, you will!”
Steve shook his head. “Long as he’s beating on me, he’s not going after Hazel.”
And honestly, how could he stay mad at him after that?
Sam had taken care of it. Hazel had three brothers who were very aware of the way Steve had watched out for their sister, and they were more than happy to issue a pointed message to leave that guy alone.
Still, in October when Steve missed an NAACP meeting and then didn’t answer his door, Sam couldn’t help but assume the worst. He let himself in - he had a key by now - and found Steve grimly setting something to print, wheezing and covered in blood. He was white and stooped with pain and jumped out of his skin when Sam approached, stupidly, from the left side where Steve couldn’t hear him.
“They burnt it,” he said, furious, more upset than Sam had ever seen him. “They took it and they burnt it.”
‘It’ being a queer newsletter he printed on the sly. Sam had seen it out in the bars and never realized Steve was the one who put it there. Now that he thought about it, he was pretty sure the incredibly beautiful and sexy nude drawings you could buy at those same bars were Steve’s, too.
He’d been on his way to drop off the most recent newsletter when a group of men looking to teach a fairy a lesson intercepted him. Thank God he didn’t have any drawings on him. He’d probably be dead.
Steve refused to sit down until he finished resetting the machines to print replacements for everything he’d lost. Once it got going Sam convinced him to stay still long enough to take off his shirt and wash the blood off his face. There was a footprint on his ribs.
Sam could have murdered someone.
Steve reached out and grabbed him, linking their fingers together and lifting their joined hands.
“It ain’t just about this for me,” he said fiercely. Defiantly, even. “You get it?”
Sam could see fear behind the anger. Fear that the confession, vague as it was, would mean an end to their friendship.
“I get it,” he said, squeezing Steve’s hand. In that moment, he wanted to kiss him more than ever, but Steve’s lip was split and it would hurt him. And he had no idea if his feelings were reciprocated.
Steve cried a little, then. Relief, mostly, Sam thought, but probably pain, too, and he was all too familiar with the way the direness of a situation caught up to you once the adrenaline passed. He’d spent a lot of hours during the war trying not to think about the ways he almost just died. They were both aware of the fact that those men could easily have gone too far.
“Well,” Sam said, when Steve calmed down, “some good things happened at the meeting.”
“I got us both jobs.”
His blond brows went up, stretching his swollen left eye open. “What kind of jobs?”
“They’re looking to increase the circulation of The Crisis, and I stood right up and said that you’re a printer and will churn out some more issues to cover Brooklyn. And they will pay you handsomely and you’ll let them because you need a new window if you’re gonna be printing for the NAACP, do not argue with me.”
“Oh, the lawyer thinks he can outmaneuver me,” Steve said, but for the record, he didn’t argue. “Thanks, Sam.”
“Speaking of lawyers,” Sam continued, unable to hide a smile. “They, uh, hired me on to help with the reargument of Brown v. Board of Ed.”
“Are you serious?” Steve shouted. “Sam!” He shoved him hard enough to tilt Sam off his stool. “That’s amazing!”
“Yeah,” was all he could come up with in the face of Steve’s enthusiasm and his own excitement. Finally, he could do something useful with this law degree he’d spent seven years of his life on. Steve was constantly talking him down from teeth-clenching frustration that he hadn’t been able to find anything but paralegal work since passing the Bar - you’ll get there, Sam, it’ll happen, be patient, pour your everything into this and they’ll take notice, and if they don’t, MAKE them notice. This qualified.
“I’m so proud of you!” Steve said, grinning. God, his poor face. Yep, Sam was so in love with this fool that Steve saying that almost meant as much as his mother and father saying it.
“I’ll have to spend some time in D.C.,” he mumbled, hardly able to look at him because if he did he would blurt it out. “It goes back to the Supreme Court in December.”
“You’ve got this.” He stood up, euphoric. “Oh, Sam. I’m so happy for you. This calls for a toast.”
“Don’t you dare get that licorice shit,” Sam called out, but Steve was already up the stairs. Sam thought about following him. Really thought about it, about tumbling him onto the blankets he knew were piled up there and kissing him and taking off his clothes piece by piece. He even started towards the stairs, but then he remembered the footprint on Steve’s ribs. This wasn’t the time. Never mind that he still didn’t know if Steve felt that way about him.
Sam didn’t even want to think about that. He just took that terrible liquor Steve was somehow always getting from his old neighbor lady and drank a toast, and then made Steve drink more so he’d feel less pain, and eventually tucked him in to sleep in his den of blankets upstairs.
His dad was awake when he got home around one in the morning.
“Steve okay?” he asked around a yawn. Sam had stopped in earlier to let them know the good news and mentioned that Steve missed the meeting.
“He got roughed up in the Heights. Looks like hell, but he’s fine.”
Paul made a curious face. “He told me once he used to get in a lot of fights. I guess he’s back to his old ways.”
“He didn’t start it. Just defended himself from a coupla numbskulls. Sometimes people think he’s…” Sam looked down at his hands, wishing he could elaborate. He didn’t think there was a way to do so without Steve losing the esteem of his parents. Knowing what he did now, that Steve was alone in the world as it related to family, Sam was desperate not to do that to him.
Hell, if he couldn’t explain himself to his parents, he had no right to try to explain Steve. Sam always wondered what they would do if they knew. He was a 33-year-old bachelor, and school was a good excuse not to be married or dating seriously, but now he was done and home and he was certain the pressure to settle down would start soon. What on Earth would he tell them?
“Well,” his father said, “I’m glad he’s all right. You two really hit it off, huh?”
Sam nodded. There was no denying that. “I was thinking that when things settle down with this case, I might see if I can room with him. Get out of your hair.” Yeah, he’d been thinking that since about five seconds ago, and it was either a great idea or the worst one he’d ever had. He could just be setting himself up for a lot of temptation and heartache.
He’d seen Steve out that one time and his eyes weren’t the only ones that followed him. Steve wasn’t traditionally good looking, but he was cute, not to mention smart and spirited. For all Sam knew, Steve had a lover, or two, or five. If he made love like he drew other people making love, he ought to have a line out the door. But if there was someone, wouldn’t Sam have met him by now? Maybe not, if Steve was worried about Sam finding out he was queer.
Speaking of which, why hadn’t Sam just told him, earlier? Why’d he let the moment pass? It was the perfect opportunity to let Steve know they shared something, that maybe they could be more than friends without actually risking rejection. But he clammed up.
“That’s a good idea,” his father said. He wrinkled his nose. “Why do you smell like licorice?”
Sam had to laugh, and as he did, he consciously decided to stop worrying. He’d see Steve tomorrow, and he’d keep on seeing him after that whether it was as a friend or anything else. In six short months Steve had become one of his favorite people. However it ended up, it was going to have to be enough.
Steve lay in his blankets for a long time. His body was one big bruise. He was sure he had a broken rib or two because it felt like hellfire every time he breathed. His swollen eye seemed to have gone down, at least, because he could see out of it.
The beauty of having his own shop was that he could close it if he didn’t feel up to working. He almost never closed, though. Only when he was delirious with fever or couldn’t stand up. The only movement he planned to do today was go downstairs and put out the sign and the day’s orders, and after that, the occasional trip to the toilet.
Steve dragged himself downstairs, stooped over like an old man. The beatings Hazel’s ex-boyfriend laid on him were nothing compared to this. He was just one guy trying to hurt him but not kill him. Last night was three men who definitely wanted to hurt him and didn’t care if they killed him. Steve hated to play dead, but in a situation like that, the sooner he stopped moving the sooner they gave up.
He let out a soft curse when he realized what he’d left on the printer last night. He tried never to leave a job out, but especially not that job. Sam’s fault for distracting him.
He hoped he hadn’t dreamt it all up. The job printing The Crisis, Sam helping with the Brown case, his admission to Sam and Sam somehow not walking away in disgust - it all seemed too good to be true. Especially that last part.
He hadn’t connected with anyone the way he connected with Sam since…well, since Bucky. They just clicked. They never ran out of things to talk about, Sam gave as good as he got, and it was impossible for Steve to mope with him around. More than that, Sam listened to him. Took him seriously.
Where Bucky had been overly protective of him, Sam seemed content to let him do what he needed to do. Maybe Steve was smarter now than he was then, or maybe he’d just been independent for so long that he figured out how to make better decisions. Regardless, Sam never doubted him. Never tried to tell him what to do. Except that one time with the knife, but he dropped it as soon as Steve made it clear it wasn’t happening.
He really, truly missed Sam when he wasn’t there. The building felt like it had an empty space that only Sam could fill. It was wonderful and dangerous to know a person like that. Dangerous because that held the potential for loss.
Last night, hurting and angry and in no state to keep secrets, Steve risked it all. And Sam had looked him in the eye and supported him. For a moment, he thought maybe…Sam was looking at him a particular way and it had been a long time but he thought he remembered that look…
“No,” he said out loud, shaking his head. Sam wasn’t queer, he was just a good person. Steve wouldn’t do him the disservice of projecting something onto him that wasn’t there.
It was surprising that he wanted to. But maybe not; for all that he tried not to notice, there was no denying that he found Sam very, very attractive in all the ways there were. It was a little frightening to realize that after so many years with nothing but work on his mind.
He was a human being with feelings and needs, sure, but Steve held firm in the belief that Bucky had been the one for him. There was no point in pursuing anyone, and he gently rebuffed the few misguided souls who made a pass at him over the last few years. It got a little lonely sometimes, yeah, but he had the shop and his art and his causes. And now…Sam.
If he was ever to take up with someone again, it would be someone like Sam. But he knew well enough how rare people like Bucky and Sam were. He would just be grateful that he had a friend who understood, and hope that whenever Sam slowed down enough to find a woman that he wanted to marry, he still had time for Steve once in a while.
I am way too tired to do proper end notes now, but will post them tomorrow. Only a few more chapters to go!
“So when do you find out the ruling?”
“I dunno,” Sam said, pacing. He had extra energy after being stuck at his aunt’s for nearly eight hours, barely able to move because of how many people she liked to stuff in her house the size of a shoebox. He’d been back for two days and officially rang in the New Year with his parents last night. However, since he’d missed Christmas (and everyone wanted the scoop on his case), the family held off on gathering without him. Today was the Wilson family Christmas, a week late.
He was ecstatic to see his family as always, but he was keenly aware of the fact that over the holidays, Steve had no one. His parents knew that, too. It was no secret where he would go as soon as it was acceptable for him to slink out of his aunt’s house. With that in mind, his mother packed a big bag of food and some small gifts for Steve.
“You don’t know?” Steve asked.
“It took them seven months to decide that they needed to rehear the case. Could be a while before they issue a ruling.”
“Why would it take that long?”
Sam blew out a breath. “Well, the justices have to bicker and decide which party and interest groups they side with. We heard, too, that whatever they decide, they want it to be unanimous. I think at least half are on our side.”
“What’s to decide? It’s the Constitution!”
“C’mon, Steve, you know it’s open to interpretation, just like the Bible. And we have the burden of proof.”
“I know,” Steve grumbled. He’d paid special attention to that section of Sam’s Bar Exam study guide; Steve probably knew it as well as Sam did.
“Mr. Marshall did say that the government is giving them some pressure, though, about how segregation looks for foreign policy. We gotta be better than the Soviets, you know?”
“Is that why we should do the right thing,” Steve responded, deadpan.
“Look, if it gets us the result we want, I don’t care.”
It was clear that Steve did, but he let it drop. “Who made this ham?”
“My Aunt Cecilia.”
“Aunt Cecilia is a great cook.”
“She sure is.” Sam picked at the food alongside Steve even though he was so full he felt like he needed a nap. Uncle Leroy was great, but a chef he was not, and Sam wasn’t any better. “Was it okay?”
“You know. Spending Christmas by yourself.”
Steve tilted his head. “I didn’t. I went to the Barnes’s.”
“The who?” He’d never heard of these people.
“My old roommate’s family. We grew up together. They’re kind of like my second parents.”
“Your roommate that got drafted?”
Steve nodded, then abruptly looked down at the plate. Aw, shit. Sam had that cold, clenching feeling of realization in his gut. If he’d grown up with the guy, and was still close enough with his family to go for Christmas, but Steve never mentioned the guy himself and Sam never met him…
“He didn’t make it, did he.”
Steve shook his head. His teeth closed over his bottom lip and he fought it, he fought it so hard, but his eyes watered anyway. A second realization hit Sam on the heels of the first: sometimes ‘roommate’ was a euphemism for something else in the queer community. And even if it wasn’t like that, this had obviously been one of his best friends.
“Steve, I’m sorry.” He reached for him, but even as he did it, Steve was pulling back, pushing the tears from his eyes with precise fingertips. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. Happened to a lot of people. I ain’t the only one who lost someone.”
“Doesn’t make it hurt less,” Sam replied, knowing for himself the fullness of that truth.
“No,” Steve said, forlorn. “It doesn’t.”
Try as he might, Steve couldn’t dig himself out of the pit of sadness that had come with talking about Bucky. It was saying something, though, that he even had the strength to bring him up. He didn’t talk to anyone about Bucky. Not even his family.
Christmas dinner with the Barneses had been fine. Winnie hadn’t asked whether he went on any nice dates lately, which was a relief. But he could feel something clipped in the interactions that was entirely new, and it didn’t take much thought to figure out what it might be. George and Winnie didn’t agree with the rather public stance he’d taken on civil rights, or at the very least, they didn’t like the risks inherent in what he was doing.
At the end of the night, when she had a second away from the baby, Becca pulled him aside.
“Mom and Dad don’t approve,” she said in a low voice. “But I do, Steve, and I know Bucky would.”
Sometimes, he wondered just how much Becca knew about him and Bucky.
But that endorsement carried him through to the new year, fighting the loneliness that always hit him around this time. They’d never had much, him and his Ma, but she had always managed to make Christmas feel special. It didn’t get easier to spend it without her, or Bucky.
He was looking forward to Sam coming back. Now he’d spoiled it. He couldn’t stop thinking about Bucky with the curtain pulled back from the part of his brain that hid things. That was grief, he supposed - concealed, but never fully gone.
After two hours of trying to sleep and getting nowhere, he got up. Maybe what he needed was to just let it run its course. Steve went downstairs to the safe. For the first time in a very long time, he took out his drawings of Bucky.
It was amazing, how much he still remembered of a person who had been absent for nearly a decade. Steve could remember the feel of his skin under his fingers, the cadence of his breathing while he slept, his smell. The feeling of security that came from knowing he’d always be there.
His fingers traced just above the pencil and charcoal lines of his face. His body. The dip of his chin, the jut of a shoulder, the hollow of the muscles on the side of his hip. There were so many little things he’d loved about Bucky.
Steve stared at his last drawing for a long time. In uniform, Bucky was the embodiment of American youth and potential. Attractive, confident, educated, put-together. But those caricatures so often left out things like kindness, work ethic, and internal compass. Bucky had everything. He was the full package. He would have gone somewhere, done something with his life. Instead, he was born under the shroud of one world war and died in the suffocating torrent of blood that was the second.
It made Steve so angry he could cry. Lord knew he had. The well was dry now, though. He had no more tears to give at this altar, because none of them would bring him back.
Through it all, he had never stopped wondering what Bucky ever saw in him. He had always been so needy. Not in an emotional sense, except maybe when his mother died, but Steve’s wallet and his health back then would have made most people run for the hills. Not to mention his temper.
It had occurred to him that maybe Bucky was just the type of person who liked to be needed. Right then, it also occurred to him that he would have gone on letting Bucky take care of him, as long as they lived. Was that fair? To either of them?
He put the pictures back in the safe. He’d never had a thought like that before. It was jarring.
Sam had bought him a nice bottle of gin for Christmas, though Steve wasn’t fooled; it was probably more for himself, so that there was something at Steve’s place besides the godforsaken licorice tonic. But for the sake of ceremony, Steve opened it and poured a bit. It probably wasn’t meant to be drunk like this but he’d never been much of a bartender. Anyhow, it was good on its own.
He sipped gin while he thought and his mind unspiraled in the long January dark. Before he knew it the sky was trying for an uninspiring shade of winter morning gray and he had consumed way more gin than he ought to. But he reached a painful, if necessary, conclusion.
Half of what had hurt him so bad about being rejected by the Army was that Bucky didn’t think he could do it. It wasn’t just him being protective, wanting to shield him from war, though that was undoubtedly part of it. It was him thinking Steve had no business being there alongside him.
He wanted to believe what Becca said to him at Christmas. He knew without any hesitation that Bucky would be on the right side of the Civil Rights debate, if you could even call it that, because what the hell was there to debate, people were people. Bucky had always treated everyone with respect unless they gave him a reason not to, and it was part of what Steve liked so much about him. But he couldn’t deny the certainty in his gut that Bucky would not have been happy with Steve putting himself at risk for the movement. Hell, he’d said it once, after Steve’s third attempt to enlist.
There’s stronger people than you to fight this fight, let it go.
He thought it was about Steve trying to prove himself, to feel validated. But Bucky had never spent one minute of his life knowing what it was like to be invalidated. Firstborn son, adoring family, hale, healthy, beautiful, smart. Even as a queer he was the kind that could pass. He didn’t look it, didn’t act it - whatever it was - and he could flirt with the girls with the best of them. He had everything and it came to him with ease, so he just didn’t understand the ardor that existed inside Steve after fighting all his life to have anything.
It had never been about proving himself. It was always about doing what was right.
His faulty ears told him that someone was coming up the stairs. It was no mystery who; only Sam had a key. Steve didn’t move. There was no point trying to pretend this was anything other than what it was. He didn’t have the energy, and it was hard to lie when you were halfway through a bottle of gin.
“Oh, Steve,” he said softly, “I didn’t mean to make you think about him.”
It crushed him, then, the gratitude he felt for the privilege of meeting and knowing Sam. He smiled at him, wobbly with the collision of grief and exhilaration.
“Thank you,” he whispered, “for believing I can do this.”
Sam blinked, but then smiled back, and Steve had to be imagining the level of fondness he saw there. Gin hallucinations.
“You can do anything you want, Steve Rogers, and anyone who tells you different doesn’t know shit.” He picked up the bottle of gin and screwed the cap on. “Now, you can finish this bottle, I ain’t your mama, but I don’t recommend it.”
“Guess I oughta leave you some, it’s for you anyway,” he accused with a tired grin.
“Not my fault you need to branch out,” Sam replied smoothly, with an even bigger grin. It faded after a second into something more serious. “Hey, were you planning to open today?”
Steve shook his head and regretted the rapid movement. “It’s dead after Christmas letter season, until people start wanting to send out thank yous. Not much to do for a couple days.”
“You eaten anything since last night?”
“Don’t baby me, Sam,” he warned, Bucky’s coddling fresh in his mind.
His eyebrows went up. “It was just a question. I’m not gonna be the hungover one. But if you want to wallow, be my guest. I’ll let myself out.”
Oh, God, he was perfect. And destined to be someone else’s.
“No,” Steve said, fighting tears borne of so many things. “Stay.”
Steve slept for a straight six hours. Sam probably spent at least one of those hours just staring at him. He thought maybe a little break from Steve would settle some of the emotions that had started to become unmanageable, but Sam knew how wrong he was.
A month in Washington, D.C. hadn’t cured him. He was still in love with Steve. If anything, he was more in love.
He couldn’t move in with him. He’d fuck it up. He’d already fucked it up, making him think about his friend or ex or both. Clearly that was a deep wound; he’d never seen Steve drink like that. He sipped at the licorice concoction on a nice day. That was a far cry from half a bottle in one night.
Steve wouldn’t wake up anytime soon, but Sam didn’t want to leave him. He was the one who put him in this state. He had to be there when he opened his eyes. Still, there was nothing really to do except let his mind run in the same circles - what will the verdict be, what could I have done to guarantee our results, what will happen if they rule in our favor, will things really change, I want to kiss Steve, I want to do more than kiss him, but he’s still hurtin’ over someone else, boy do I know what that’s like, can’t push it, can’t rush him, there you go assuming he even feels that way about you—
“Hey,” Steve mumbled from his bed, or rather, his mattress on the floor that resembled a nest of soft blankets. “What’re you doing?” His eyes were sleepy and his hair mussed.
“Driving myself crazy,” Sam admitted.
“It’s catching.” Steve stretched and then wiggled over, making room. “C’mon.”
Sam eyed him. It was an innocent offer, not a sexual one, and it would be a bad idea to accept if he couldn’t sort out his intentions. “What happened to ‘don’t baby me’?”
Steve’s lips curled into a lazy smile. “You’re feeling all guilty for no reason, so I’m babyin’ you.” His eyes opened, fixing on Sam, and goddamn, they were beautiful. “You gonna change your mind and tell me I can’t do what I want?”
“Hell no,” Sam said.
“Well, whether you get in here or not, at least let me in on what’s driving you crazy.”
You. Lord have mercy, it’s you.
“It’s the case,” he started, from where he sat. It was only half a lie.
“Tell me everything,” Steve said.
He didn’t move in with Steve. But he did keep on spending time with him because he was a glutton for punishment.
Steve’s new window went in, along with a pull down metal gate that would prevent anyone from smashing it again. The NAACP insisted. They liked to protect their own.
“It’s a bit much,” Steve said, ambivalent. “It’s not like there’re diamonds behind that window.”
Sam couldn’t say out loud that what lived behind that window was way more impressive and important than diamonds.
The winter was cold but started to mellow out in March, and so did Steve. The melancholy left him. Sam had done his best to make him smile and laugh over the last few months, with spotty success, but now he was back to easy humor.
The winter, he said, was hard for him. It was when he remembered Bucky the most. This one was particularly bad because he began to understand some things that weren’t simple to grasp when you were young and in love. All he would say beyond that was that no relationship was perfect.
He wasn’t over it, per se, but Sam could see Steve waking up. Becoming less restrained. He went out more, released the reins of his talent for biting sarcasm, spoke up in NAACP meetings, painted in bolder, stronger strokes, and he even started going to church at Sam’s father’s parish. He was the only white person there, but nobody cared less about that than Steve, and the congregation loved him long before he ever set foot in the church courtesy of his work on the newsletter and Paul’s unwavering praise.
Somewhere along the way Steve taught Sam how to work the presses, joking that if he was going to be there all the time he might as well have him do some of the work. Sam was more than happy to do something physical after boring tax law paralegal work all day. It was May, almost a year to the day since Sam got home from law school. Sam was setting part of the next issue of The Crisis when someone pounded at the door of the shop.
“Steve! You there? Is Wilson with you?” a voice shouted.
Steve set down the invoices he was tallying and unlocked the door to admit a sweaty, excited guy by the name of Charlie Ford. He was one of their friends from the NAACP.
“Yeah, he’s here,” Steve nodded. “What’s up?”
Charlie waited for Sam to make his way over and then held up a newspaper, looking like he was about to burst from excitement. “We did it!”
“Did what?” Sam demanded, groping for the paper. He snapped it open and laid it on the table. He couldn’t believe what he was reading.
“Sam, you won,” Steve breathed.
“Everyone won,” Sam corrected. He was shaking a little with adrenaline.
Steve let out a whoop, and Charlie followed suit. Sam was too stunned to add to the ruckus. He just blinked, reading the words on the front page over and over. The next thing he registered was Steve touching his shoulder.
“A toast for the man of the hour,” he said, pushing a cup into his hand and lingering there. Surprisingly, it didn’t smell of licorice, nor of gin. It was…
“Steve. You bought champagne?”
He shrugged like it was nothing, but his cheeks were pink. “I knew you were going to win. Figured I should be prepared.”
Sam was aware that they were having a moment in front of Charlie, the kind that could be misinterpreted, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from Steve’s face. Steve was the one who had some sense. He busied himself with pouring a glass for Charlie.
“To justice and to victory,” Steve said, raising his glass. Sam and Charlie followed suit. “May there be more of both.”
“Here here!” Charlie said, and their glasses rung together.
Sam was still in a daze after Charlie left. Steve was babbling, as wired as a kid on Christmas morning.
“Shit, Sam, you have to go home, tell your parents, they’re going to freak. I’ll put the rest of the champagne in the fridge. We can drink it later. Sam. Sam?”
He snapped to attention. Steve was standing right in front of him in a moment of perfect clarity.
“You with me?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sam said. And then, because he’d lost his mind, he reached out, tugged Steve in, and kissed him.
At first Steve kissed back reflexively. Sam’s whole body went warm at having him so close, feeling his dry, smooth lips against his. But once Steve’s brain caught up with the situation, he pulled away. There wasn’t any force to it; he stayed right where he was, otherwise, their knees touching and Sam’s pelvis against the lower part of his belly. Perplexed, Steve stared hard at him, that crease between his brows.
“Sam,” he said slowly, “are you…?”
“Yes. I don’t know why I didn’t say it.” Yes he did, he was petrified that Steve wouldn’t reciprocate his feelings. His breath grew short, robbed by a sudden burst of panic. What had he done? “I’m sorry, I didn't mean to, I can’t assume you— if you’re not interested—”
This time Steve pulled him in, and he was stronger than he looked. He pressed his lips to Sam’s with authority, coaxing his mouth open, giving him the slightest graze of tongue - making him want - before he retreated. Sam’s brain stopped altogether. All he could do was gape at Steve.
Steve did up the top two buttons of Sam’s shirt, very much in control of himself. Something about it was incredibly intimate. Sam’s skin prickled, oversensitive, aching with the awareness of Steve’s light fingers at his throat
“Go home and share the good news with your family,” he said, soft but commanding. “I’ll be here when you’re done.”
Like he could concentrate after that.
His parents were thrilled. For him, for his part in winning such an important case, and for the victory itself. Fortunately, they didn’t seem keen on making him linger.
“Go on out and celebrate,” his father said with a broad smile. “You deserve it.”
“Just be careful,” Darlene added. The old compulsory mom warning.
“Don’t worry,” Sam heard himself say. “I’ll be with Steve.”
Steve was upstairs when he got back. Sam felt suddenly shy. He stood there among the printing equipment for too long, frozen by the feeling of standing on the edge of a cliff having made the decision to jump over. Around him, the presses were quiet, either finished whatever job was running when he left, or shut down for the evening by Steve. Might’ve been smarter to leave them on. Noise was always good when you were trying not to be heard.
Steve materialized from among the machines.
“Hey.” His hand brushed Sam’s. This time of year, his hands were actually warm. Sam still remembered the first time Steve pranked him by sticking an ice-cold hand up the back of his shirt. Obviously an old favorite. “You get lost on your way upstairs?” Steve chided gently.
Sam breathed a laugh. “Just thinking maybe I hallucinated all of it.”
Steve stepped in close. Sam’s skin buzzed at the proximity like it had earlier, electric with his nearness. They fit together perfectly, he noticed, the crown of Steve’s head just high enough for Sam to kiss, his nose on level to nuzzle Sam’s neck. He did exactly that, drifting a kiss across a day’s worth of stubble. A shiver danced through Sam.
“That makin’ it more real for you?” he whispered.
“Come on up. There’s more champagne.”
Steve didn’t make him talk while they drank the rest of the bottle, but Sam talked anyway. Maybe out of nerves. Maybe just because it was easy; always had been, with Steve. And when he stalled on things to say, the radio was on to fill in the gaps.
The champagne was good. Dry, with a hint of sweetness and bubbles that made his mouth tingle. He could taste it on Steve’s lips when he kissed him.
Boy, that Roy Hamilton sure could sing, and Steve Rogers sure could kiss.
He slid into Steve’s bed-nest willingly this time. It smelled like him. Like ink and paper, and a surprisingly strong musk that seemed impossible to have missed all these months. Sam was happy to drown in it.
Time seemed irrelevant as they kissed. There were a thousand ways to tease lips against lips, tongue and teeth and flesh, and Steve’s breath got a little rough but he never pulled back. Sam was the one who had to surface because he felt disoriented, like he didn’t know what day it was, which way was up, or if anything else had ever mattered.
Steve took this as hesitation. Sam could hear a slight wheeze in his voice when he said,
“We don’t have to rush things.”
No, they didn’t. But he’d never seen Steve like this, pink-cheeked and blissed out, drunk on touch. Was it possible that…that no one had touched him since…
Sam put his hand against Steve’s collarbone and drew his fingers gently down his chest. Steve’s eyes fluttered shut. His lips parted and a shaky breath escaped him. That told Sam everything he needed to know.
Ten years. Ten years.
He slipped the buttons on Steve’s shirt, pure reversal of earlier when Steve buttoned him up to go see his parents. Steve’s eyes were depthless when they sat up to push the collared shirt away. Sam made sure to lay his palms flat against Steve’s skin when he inched his white undershirt up; Steve lifted his arms but couldn’t stop himself from leaning in for a kiss the second the fabric cleared his face. Sam gave it, but didn’t let it linger. He wanted to look at him.
Steve was gorgeous. He had pale, soft, unblemished skin smattered with freckles. Sam only knew a few people with freckles, and he’d never seen them anywhere but on someone’s face. Steve’s collarbones were as defined and delicate as any movie star’s. Same for his neck, but that was where the delicacy ended. Though he was slender, small in stature, there was muscle on him, and a fine dusting of blond hair across his chest and down his belly to go with his tiny, flat nipples that were only a shade or two pinker than his skin.
People might accuse him of being a fairy, but altogether, Steve was one of the most masculine men he’d ever known. Steve squirmed, and Sam realized he’d been staring at him long enough for Steve to veer into self-consciousness.
“I know I ain’t much—”
Sam cut him off. “Can’t a guy admire a fella without all the chatter?”
Steve smiled, unfettered, and it was like sun peeking out from behind storm clouds. Then his gaze went hazy with want. It was the only warning he had before Steve arched up to capture his lips again and tug him down on top of him.
Steve was alive beneath him, legs twining around Sam’s back to press their bodies together. Sam could feel the shape of his bones. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed this; there had been nothing serious after Riley, and only the occasional fling during law school. Nothing meaningful. Nothing even close.
He realized, belatedly, that half of Steve’s squirming was an attempt to turn them over. He couldn't manage it from the position they were in, or maybe he was just too distracted by all the friction. Sam sure was.
“What?” he asked breathlessly.
“Do I get to do any admirin’?”
Sam chuckled. “I suppose.” He settled his full weight on Steve - he knew he could take it - and sat up to remove his own shirt. Steve worried his lower lip between his teeth, unabashedly turned on. Sam understood his self-consciousness a minute later. He’d had his fair share of lovers, but this - a white man - was a first for him, and he suddenly felt all the things that might be new or different to Steve’s eyes. All the things he’d been made to believe made him inferior.
“Have you ever…with someone like me?”
Steve tore his gaze away from Sam’s chest. “Someone brilliant and gorgeous and way out of my league?” He raised an eyebrow, daring Sam to contradict him. Sam didn’t care to. “Once. But only in my dreams, lately.”
“Not anymore,” Sam replied, something fierce welling up inside him. He went for Steve’s belt, and even though he could see how excited he was, his cock a surprisingly sizable prisoner in his clothing, Steve protested.
“You’re the one we’re celebrating, Sam, lay back, I wanna—”
The way Steve was breathing already, just from kissing and petting, made Sam wonder how the hell the guy ever managed a blowjob. Same way he managed everything, Sam guessed; sheer force of will.
“You wanna what?” He could see what Steve wanted to do in his eyes well enough, but Sam wanted to hear him say it out loud. Steve flushed but didn’t back down.
“I wanna get my mouth around your dick and make you forget all that fancy lawyer shit.”
Sam tilted his head back and belly-laughed - it was so easy to laugh with Steve.
“You’ll get that chance,” he said. “Tomorrow.”
Steve accepted it, reluctantly. Sam stripped him naked among his blankets, pressed little kisses to his angled hip bones. His smell was stronger up close and personal and Sam loved it. There were a lot of things he wanted to do, but there would be time. Time to torture those little nipples, now tight and pebbled. Time to lick into the dip of his navel. Maybe he’d see if he could pick him up and put him against a wall still sheathed inside him. Fuck him that way.
Sam was tormenting him, sat there breathing on his erection while he let his mind drift into endless permutations of the things they could enjoy. Steve did not deserve to be tormented. Sam cupped his balls, rubbed a palm up the underside of his cock. Steve gasped like he was dying.
Oh, he was going to enjoy this.
He tugged gently, exposing the pink head of his cock, touching his tongue to the bead at the slit. He had a sharp, salty taste, distinctive, him. Sam gave in to the urge to swallow him whole and started to work his lips over his shaft. Steve shuddered and tried to paw at his hair, but it was too short for him to get a grip, so he settled for Sam’s ear.
“Jesus, don’t do that, unless you want me to come in five seconds!”
Sam surfaced and was immediately fascinated by the gleam of his saliva on his cock. He licked another stripe onto the hot, silky flesh and said, “Just want you to feel good.”
“That’s guaranteed,” he sighed, the muscles in his thighs twitching as Sam kept up his attentions. “Fuck, that feels amazing. I just won’t…I can’t…”
Sam understood what he was trying to say. It had been a while. Longevity wasn’t in the cards tonight. He couldn’t care less. Still, he wanted Steve to enjoy himself, even if he knew there were going to be a lot more opportunities. Before the sun rose, if Sam had any say in it.
“Okay,” he said softly. “I’ll slow it down.”
And he did, for a little while. Sam teased his balls, sucked and tongued the head, used his hand loosely. It was incredible how thick and red and angry Steve’s cock became. In time, that flush spread up his chest and neck, standing out on his cheeks. His eyes were impossibly bright. Couldn’t keep them open, though; they kept rolling back. He was breathing like he’d run across all five boroughs. Sam had him right where he wanted him.
Steve didn’t complain this time when he picked up the pace. He pressed his head into the bed and bit back his moans. A part of Sam still couldn’t believe this was even happening, when this morning he was resigned to never knowing if Steve felt anything for him beyond friendship. Steve’s cock throbbed in his mouth even as he thought it. Definitely more than friendship, though it wasn’t just this, either. In his gut he knew that.
He eased up on his elbows, giving Steve a little room to thrust. After a glance to check in and a nod from Sam, Steve pulled one foot underneath himself and gave a tentative roll of his hips. Sam’s eyes watered as he tried to relax his throat against the invasion.
“Okay?” Steve asked, his voice strangled. Sam nodded and slid a hand beneath his hip, gripping the small but firm globe of his ass. He wanted this, had thought about it before; less than two weeks ago he’d indulged in the little fantasy of going down on Steve while he was working, stood behind one of those big printing machines while the door was unlocked and the security gate up so anyone could see in. He had a good imagination. The look Steve wore in that daydream was pretty close to the look he wore now, and as self-induced orgasms went, that one was a ten.
Sam pressed upward with his hand, raising his pelvis. Go.
He didn’t go hard or fast but he did go deep. Soft blond hair tickled Sam’s nose as Steve’s cock found the back of his throat in a slow, steady rhythm, letting his lips feel the slide and giving him time to breathe. He was watching, Sam realized, feeling the prickle of eyes on him. He opened his, found Steve’s scalding, half-undone gaze—
“Oh God,” he choked out, and it really sounded like a prayer. “Sam!”
That was it. He came, hips jerking, a shout imprisoned in the tight clench of his jaw. Sam felt lightheaded, torn between letting his mouth flood with the taste of him and actually seeing him come. In the end he went for a bit of both. The result was that he was sure he had a little bit of semen on his chin, but he really wasn’t in any state to care.
He watched Steve wind down, chin resting on his forearms where he’d draped them over Steve’s thigh. For long minutes, he was boneless and stupefied. Sated. Exactly how Sam had dreamed of seeing him.
His cock gave a powerful twitch at the thought, and he became aware that he was so turned on that it hurt. The pressure had to be relieved. Sam turned over slightly to ease his trousers open - much better - and in that instant Steve came back to life like Nosferatu rising from his coffin.
He pushed Sam back so they were upside down on the bed and licked at his chin before kissing him. Steve’s tongue twined against his as if he was trying to commune with Sam’s very soul. Thought became impossible under the onslaught. Sam knew nothing until he realized Steve had him naked and he was sucking hard little love bites down his belly. The nip of his teeth sent tendrils of pleasure sparking down to Sam’s toes.
“Hey,” he said, hoarse and entirely unconvincing, “I said tomorrow.”
Steve lifted Sam’s arm to show him his own watch. “It is tomorrow.”
By four minutes, the impertinent little shit.
“I can stop,” Steve said, faking a bored look.
“Don’t you dare.”
Steve smiled, and then went to work.
It turned out that since Steve and breathing didn’t always get along in regular circumstances, he had much less of a need to do it when he was giving oral sex. The hot pressure of his mouth was relentless and so, so good. Sam barely made it three minutes before he was coming so hard he almost blacked out. Fancy lawyer shit definitely forgotten.
Ordinarily he might have been embarrassed, but there was no need for that with Steve. Steve curled up next to him, fingers tracing light little shapes on his chest and belly until he fell asleep. Sam had forgotten that he worked all day. Sam had, too, but his job tended to be a little more sedentary than Steve’s.
He closed his eyes. Steve was a pleasant weight on his right side, one thigh draped over his, one hand on his belly. Sam dragged a light blanket over them. He hoped that in the morning, nothing was different. He hoped they would wake up just like this…but more.
He slept in. As he drifted awake, he could hear the sounds of Steve moving around the apartment. The smell of coffee hung in the air, along with a hint of humidity that promised rain later.
“Morning, handsome,” Steve said after a few minutes.
“Why’re you up?” he asked, bleary.
Sam woke up fast, then, because it was Tuesday, for fuck’s sake, he was supposed to be at work. Steve was there in a second, hand on his chest, guiding him back down to bed.
“Easy. This came, too.” He held up a piece of paper. “Your mom dropped it off.”
It was a telegram offering him full time employment with the NAACP legal team.
“My mom—” His mother, here, while he was naked in Steve’s bed—
“We stayed downstairs. I told her you were sleeping off a hangover.”
Sam relaxed and blinked up at the ceiling. Obligingly, Steve reached over and gave him a little pinch.
“It’s real,” he said. “No more tax law for you.”
“Oh, thank God.”
Steve smiled and laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling. All Sam wanted was to wake up to that face every day for the rest of his life.
“I was thinkin’ we could go to the diner for breakfast.”
“Champagne and now the diner? You’re spoiling me, Rogers.”
Steve laughed again. “More like I don’t have anything to feed you here. Was gonna go to the grocer this morning before I opened up, but I had this beautiful man laying on top of me.”
“Yeah? What’d you do to deserve that?”
It was meant to be a joke, but Steve’s face changed, tears coming to his eyes. “I don’t know.”
Needless to say, it took them a long, long time to make it out of bed after that, and even longer to get to the diner.
Chapter 7: 1955
This is the chapter with the AMAZING ART by Katharoses. The first phenomenal piece was the one she created for the Reverse Big Bang, and the second is an absolutely gorgeous bonus.
He had been in a foul mood for over a week. It was as bad as it had been in August, and worse. It still enraged him that those men beat that Till boy to death, and now they’d been acquitted by a jury of their all-white peers. The rumor mill said they were going around town boasting that they murdered that boy and would do it again. Of course as a lawyer Sam knew they couldn’t be retried on the same charges. He imagined no one down south was going to work too hard to find something new to charge them with, so they got away with it.
It was the latest in a string of events that seemed designed to infuriate him. Things had been utterly stagnant since the Brown case. Even though the law said separate schools weren’t equal, nobody said anything about how or when to change the current system. Many states were simply refusing to desegregate and the government sat there with its collective thumb up its ass. It felt like all Sam’s work was for nothing.
Then the Till murder, then Sarah losing her baby to a miscarriage, then the state trying to shut Steve’s shop down for distributing lewd materials, and now this horse shit verdict in the Till case. He didn’t know how much more he could take.
“Looks like they’re going to do a bus boycott down in Montgomery,” Steve was saying as he reviewed the content of the next installment of The Crisis. He tapped a pencil against his lips. “I’d like to meet that Miss Parks, wouldn’t you?”
He would, but he didn’t have the energy to say so. At his silence, Steve looked up, then frowned.
“Baby,” he said softly, pushing away from the table. “Baby, c’mon.” Steve’s arms wrapped around him from behind.
“I’m sorry,” Sam mumbled. “I just don’t know how you always keep going.” He really did; Steve was indefatigable, always planning, always decisive, never accepting less than what was right.
“What’s the other option?” Steve asked.
And he was right, as always.
He watched Sam. He’d been down, lately. It was understandable. It felt like they had so much momentum last year, only for it to fizzle out in the face of the government’s unwillingness to actually enforce its highest court’s ruling. At least until that poor Emmett Till. Things were changing now, moving away from the academic, methodical approach the NAACP liked to use. Now people were taking to the streets and taking it to state and local governments and organizations.
Yeah, things were brewing. He and Sam were in it for the long haul. Didn’t mean there weren't going to be ups and downs, though.
He sat down on the loveseat next to Sam and gave his thigh a reassuring squeeze.
“We don’t have to go,” he said. “It’s okay, really.”
“We’re goin’,” Sam replied. He reached for Steve’s other hand and brought it to his lips, kissing his knuckles. Steve didn’t put up any further argument - Sam wasn’t a waffler - and they lingered there, just sitting together, for as long as they could before they had to get up to change into their good shirts and jackets and head out to dinner.
George and Henry, God bless ‘em, assumed Steve meant business partner when he introduced Sam as his partner at Christmas Eve dinner. Winnie was tight around the mouth for the entire meal and Becca kept smiling into her napkin. Little Katherine took an immediate liking to Sam and monopolized him as only a child could; she had him on the floor building Tinkertoy castles with her before dessert.
Steve didn’t try to avoid her, so it was no surprise when Winnie cornered him in the kitchen.
“Steven,” she said in a long-suffering tone.
He lifted his head and met her eyes. He knew what was coming.
“I can find a way to live with you insisting on taking up with men,” she said, and closed her eyes briefly, as if searching for strength. “But a Negro?”
“Don’t call him that,” Steve responded, calm but sharp. “And don’t say that word or any of the others in front of Katherine, ever.”
She gaped at him, mouth open. He had never spoken to her that way in his life.
“That’s how people become racist and homophobic, you know,” Steve went on. “They learn it from their families before they’re old enough to think for themselves. It’s exactly the kind of thing Bucky went to war for, and died to stop.”
Winnie blinked at him like he'd grown three heads. Steve picked up one of the pies from the counter and inhaled; blueberry. She really was a magician, when it came to baking. He smiled and carried the pie out to the table.
“What,” Sam said later, when they were walking home, “did you say to that poor woman?”
Winnie had been pale and silent all through dessert, and eventually excused herself.
“Nothing she didn’t need to hear,” he replied. He took Sam’s hand and held it while they walked. They could only get away with it because it was Christmas Eve and the streets were deserted. Even so, it made Sam nervous.
“Anyone ever tell you that you’ve got balls the size of watermelons?”
Steve flashed him a toothy grin. “Sounds painful.”
They were in the kitchen later that night, radio on, when the song changed and Steve went very still. Sam remembered this one with the clarity that all people would, when it occurred right before a world-changing event - in this case, Pearl Harbor and the start of the war. That, and Helen Forrest had a beautiful voice that wasn’t easy to forget.
But Steve looked sick at it, so Sam reached to turn down the radio.
“No,” Steve said. “Leave it.”
“Why, if you don’t like it?”
Steve swallowed. “It was…it was our song. Me and Bucky.”
Sam didn’t know what to say to that, or to the obvious pain that Steve still felt. There wasn’t any jealousy, though; from what Steve said about Bucky, Sam was sure he would have liked the guy, and anyone who laid down his life in that monstrous war had Sam’s eternal respect and gratitude. He just wished that Steve didn’t have to hurt anymore.
He took his hand and squeezed.
“Whatever the next song is, that’s our song.”
Steve looked up at him, still sad but with a hint of a smile on his lips. “That’s a gamble.”
“I know,” he acknowledged. It really was. It could be anything. It could be the Ballad of Davy Crockett, for heaven’s sake. He could be consigning them to years of groaning every time the song came on.
“You really wanna do this?”
“Okay,” Steve said, and chewed his thumbnail.
It was another minute or so before Helen was finished singing and Harry James done playing the horn. They both held their breath. And then—
Oh, come on. Sam looked up at Steve. Steve was valiantly trying not to laugh, lips trembling with the effort. But when he took in Sam’s expression, he lost control. He laughed so hard he had lean against the counter and hold his belly.
That Old Black Magic.
Of course it was this song.
Well, at least it was a good song. He had no complaints about Sammy Davis Jr. And if you actually listened to the lyrics…
You are the lover that I've waited for
The mate that fate had me created for
And every time your lips meet mine
Baby down and down I go.
It was the truth.
Sam grabbed Steve, spun him into a dance, and less than twenty minutes later he had him naked underneath him, pressing his lips to the curve of his spine as he thrust home to paradise.
He was tired today. Then again, Steve supposed he was tired every day. That happened when you were ninety-nine years old.
Tired or not, he’d make it to a hundred. He’d go farther, too, if he had to. Increasingly, it was looking like he would.
A light flashed on his wrist to alert him that someone had come in the door. His ears were shit these days. He had the hearing aids in so that he might stand a chance of conversing with people today without forcing them to yell at the top of their lungs.
“America?” he called out.
“Yup, it’s me!” she called back. A minute later she bounced into view. Steve never could help the way he smiled when she came around. Her energy made him feel young.
“You look nice today.” He meant that. She was very pretty to begin with, with caramel colored skin and long, wild brown hair that she’d sprayed with silver glitter. She dressed for her namesake today, in a shirt made up of two flags; the stars and stripes on the right and a rainbow on the left. “How’s Lisa?”
“She’s good. She had to work, or else she’d be here.”
He nodded and readjusted the blanket over his legs. It still shocked him, sometimes, how gnarled his hands had become.
“Did you take your pills?”
Steve nodded. He’d double-checked fifteen minutes ago; the Thursday midday compartment of his pill box was empty.
“Got a sweater in case it gets cold?”
He nodded again. It was tucked in the wheelchair next to his hip.
“Did you eat?”
“America,” he said as patiently as he could.
“I know, I know,” she replied, apologetic. “I’m a professional mother hen, it’s hard to break the habit.”
More accurately, she was a home health aide working her way through nursing school. Steve met her the year before when he took a nasty fall and broke his ankle. Since then he’d recovered well enough to be in assisted living, and a good part of that was thanks to America.
He didn’t need her much anymore, unless he was having a really bad day with his back. It was his spine, not his ankle, that kept him in the wheelchair. He could walk with a walker in the apartment, but out in the world it hurt too bad and he ran out of energy quick. Getting old was for the birds.
He had connected with America, though. She came to visit him a few times a week outside of work. Steve got the feeling that sometimes the young aides and nurses listened to him talk out of sympathy; America listened because she was interested.
It started when she asked about the pictures. First about the one of his mother in her nurse’s garb. Then Bucky in uniform. From there, it was Sam in a suit at his desk with the nameplate. Steve and Sam at the March on Washington in 1963. Steve and Sam kissing at the first Pride parade in 1970. And the most recent one, Steve and Sam in 2015, getting married at City Hall at the ripe ages of 96 and 94, respectively.
“I went to a museum exhibit last week,” America said as she packed some sandwiches. “It was all about the Civil Rights movement in New York City. There was a part about local heroes. You and Sam were in it, Mr. Rogers.”
“Well, I am old enough to be a museum piece.”
She made a face at him, but she was used to his sense of humor. “They had pictures of your storefront and a recreation of one of the paintings. There were a bunch of your leaflets for the NAACP and CORE, too.”
“It talked all about how he was a Civil Rights lawyer who fought for people in Brooklyn and Harlem, and nationally though the NAACP.” She smiled. “It also said the two of you were LGBT pioneers.”
Funny, how refusing to be made invisible made you a pioneer. He still remembered telling Sam we’re not done when victory was declared in the late sixties. Apparently, he still wasn’t done.
“That’s nice. Sounds like a good exhibit,” he said. He always ached a little when he talked about Sam. They barely had a year to be married before Sam passed in his sleep. Of course, marriage was just a political statement and a piece of paper. Sam had been his partner for a blissful 62 years. Steve considered them lucky to have been gifted with so much time. Many weren’t so fortunate.
But on the subject of time, he really never imagined he would be the one still standing after all these years. The universe had a sick sense of humor.
“It must have been scary sometimes,” America reflected.
“Let me tell you something, America. There’s nothing scarier than injustice, especially when good people turn a blind eye to it.”
She nodded, sobered. Then she picked up their signs. “Are you ready?”
“Bring it on.”
There was a man in the elevator, elderly but younger than Steve, who kept staring at them. Steve didn’t say anything. He needed his energy for the protest.
Before they made it out of the lobby, the man spoke up.
“Excuse me? That picture,” he pointed, “the man on the left on your sign. Is that James Barnes?”
Steve’s mouth fell open. He looked to America for confirmation that he’d heard correctly; she nodded.
“Yes, it is,” he replied around an unexpected swell of emotion. “Did you know him?”
He nodded. “Oh yeah. Are you…are you on your way out?”
Most likely, Steve thought to himself, wry.
“Yes. Going to protest this ridiculous military ban.” He couldn’t help but sniff in disgust. “This buffoon in the White House is really putting me through my paces.”
The other man laughed and put out a hand as gnarled as Steve’s. “I’m Gabe. My wife and I are in apartment 1A. If you’re up to it, you should stop by when you get back.”
Steve shook his hand. “I’m Steve. And I’ll do that.”
Something unguarded flickered across Gabe’s face, but he tamped it down in a second.
“Good to meet you, Steve.”
His sign had pictures of his old hero Christine Jorgensen, Bucky, and Sam on it, under bold letters that declared LGBT SERVICE MEMBERS ARE NOT A BURDEN. Beneath Christine and Sam, it said ‘Fought For Your Freedom’. Under Bucky’s picture, it said ‘Died For Your Freedom.’
America’s sign, which was far more impactful in Steve’s opinion, listed a selection of anti-Jew propaganda from the 1930s and 40s on one side and past and current anti-trans propaganda on the other. They were terrifyingly similar. She and Lisa, her girlfriend who happened to be trans, had made it together.
Sometimes Steve worried for the younger generations. They seemed aimless, apathetic, too stressed to function even though it was an entirely different stress than what he’d known in his youth. Who would’ve thought there was stress in having everything at their fingertips. Of course, it wasn’t that simple.
But when he met people like America and Lisa, he wasn’t worried anymore. They were dynamic and compassionate and smart. They gave him hope that one day he could retire from fighting and the world would be in good hands.
“You okay, Mr. Rogers?” America's voice was raw from shouting.
“I’m just fine, America, dear.”
He was bone tired after the protest even though America had done all the work, pushing him around in his wheelchair. Even so, he was determined to go talk to Gabe. He had America leave him outside apartment 1A; he’d suffer through wheeling himself back later, and call an aide if he got stuck.
Gabe answered the door when he knocked, stepping outside. “Hey,” he said warmly. “You made it.”
Steve nodded. “I might fall asleep here in the saddle, but it’s not every day you meet someone who knew your best friend.”
“I sure did.” He glanced toward the door, then back at Steve. “You should come in. It’s just…” He sighed. “My wife, Peggy, she has Alzheimer’s. She’ll introduce herself to you ten times, ask you all the same questions. Just go with it.”
“Got it.” She wasn't the first person he’d known like that, for whom the world reset every ten minutes because their brains couldn’t store memories anymore.
Gabe smiled, thankful for his patience before he even had to exert it. It couldn’t be easy, caring for her, but Steve could already see how much he loved his wife. He opened the door and beckoned Steve in.
Peggy was a beautiful English woman, her lips perfectly red and her hair curled in silver waves. Steve knew she must have been stunning in her youth because she still was today.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Steve,” she said in that crisp accent. “You’re a friend of Gabe’s?”
“Actually,” Gabe said, returning to the living room with a few glasses, “Steve knew Sarge.”
“Sergeant Barnes?” she asked.
“That’s the one.” He gave Peggy a small measure of gin on the rocks, and sipped the same. Steve declined a drink on account of all his pills. It wasn’t worth the headache.
“How did you know him?”
“We grew up together in Brooklyn. He was my best friend. We roomed together until he got drafted.”
“Oh,” Peggy said, genuinely sad, “you must have been so upset to lose him.”
“It was difficult,” Steve acknowledged. “Very difficult. How did the two of you know him?”
Gabe spoke up. “He saved my life.”
That sounded like Bucky, all right.
“Both of our regiments were defeated in Italy. The survivors were taken to a POW camp in Austria. The Nazis put us all in together, these big holding cells in the basement of a huge warehouse. And not just Americans; there were English and French soldiers there, too, all mixed together. It was interesting, to say the least.” Gabe looked into the middle distance, falling into the memory. “Sarge was in my cell. He was the highest ranking officer so he took charge of us. A lot of those guys, they didn’t want to be near me, were mad they’d been put in a cell with me. Sergeant Barnes didn’t care. He didn’t treat me any different, told the other guys to fuck off with that bullshit and try to find a way to escape.”
That sounded even more like Bucky.
“You see, it was a work camp, but sometimes they took individual soldiers away and they never came back. We figured out that they were probably performing human experiments. When they got to our cell, I was first in line. I was black and therefore disposable, according to the Nazis.”
Peggy gave a derisive snort that easily conveyed what she thought of that. Gabe broke off, looking down at the floor. Steve had an idea of where this was going.
“Sarge wouldn’t let them take me. He risked getting shot. But they must’ve seen something they liked, because…”
“They took him instead,” Steve finished, eerily certain.
“Yeah,” Gabe confirmed. “They took him, and we never saw him again. His last words to us were ‘take care of each other’.”
Oh, Buck. Noble to a fault. Steve had wished for so long that he had an easy death. Now he knew otherwise, but it was something he chose. Something he did to protect others.
“Everyone else in our cell survived. Peggy and the SSR came and liberated the work camp.”
“SSR?” Steve asked. He’d never heard of it.
“Strategic Scientific Reserve,” Peggy supplied. “It was a joint effort between the United Kingdom and the United States, sort of like a combination of NASA and Homeland Security. We would have been there sooner, but it was so far into enemy territory that the Allied governments refused to risk military planes. We had to wait for a civilian crazy enough to agree to the flight, and a team crazy enough to accept the mission.” It was obvious that she had been the first in line for that mission. What an incredible woman.
“We looked for Sarge,” Gabe continued. “But you know how the Nazis liked to burn things they could no longer keep secret?”
“They set the factory on fire. We ran out of time to find him, alive or dead.” Gabe sighed. “I’m sorry, Steve.”
He could tell that Gabe was still torn up about it, even now, so many years later. Survivor’s guilt.
“I know you did everything you could.”
They sat in silence. Steve was wishing for that drink a little bit. After a few minutes, Peggy spoke up.
“I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Peggy.” She held out her hand and Steve clasped it like the last thirty minutes never happened. For her, they hadn’t.
“Steve Rogers, ma’am.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Steve. You’re a friend of Gabe’s?”
He looked over at Gabe; he was nursing his drink, staring into that middle distance again.
“Yes, I am.”
Steve stayed for dinner. Afterwards, when Peggy went to bed, Gabe waved him out onto their little balcony. This time Steve accepted a drink.
“In that cell,” Gabe said after a while, “the guys would talk about their sweethearts. I didn’t have one at the time, so I had nothing to say, and Sarge tried not to chime in ‘cause he was the boss and he was trying to keep it professional. But once in a while he’d talk about his Stevie. Smart little blonde waiting for him back home.”
Steve hummed noncommittally and savored a mouthful of whisky.
“I always thought it was a cute nickname for a girl.”
Gabe fixed him in a sideways look. “It was you he was talking about.”
Steve huffed a little laugh. “I sure hope so.”
His host cracked a smile at that. Then he shook his head. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe we met. There was always a part of me that wanted to find Stevie and apologize.”
“You got nothing to apologize for. Bucky spent half his life taking lumps for me, and you wouldn’t have talked him out of it. It’s just who he was.” Steve fiddled with the blanket where it lay over his legs. “Truthfully, I’m glad that it meant something.” Worse than Bucky dying was the idea of it meaning nothing at all, because Bucky meant so much to him.
Gabe sighed. There was a long, long silence. In the absence of other noise, his hearing aids picked up the small enclave of crickets chirping in the wooded area across the street. He’d lived in the city so long that he still wasn’t used to that.
“He worried about you,” Gabe said at last. “Said you got sick a lot, and that you were feisty and needed someone to balance you out or you got yourself in trouble.”
“He wasn’t wrong.”
“He loved you so much. We could see it in his eyes and his body language, everything. The boys made fun of him for it a little.”
“If they only knew…” Steve mused.
Gabe took out a pipe and began to clean it ritualistically. Steve watched his hands, listened to the scrape scrape scrape as he prepared the pipe and packed the tobacco.
“The longer you’re in war, the more you realize the world needs love. All kinds of love.”
Gabe lit the pipe, and the smell hit him. It brought him back to the Barnes household in the early thirties, George having an after-dinner pipe, Winnie washing up, Becca pestering him and Bucky while they tried to read their comic books or do schoolwork.
“Amen to that,” he murmured, and closed his eyes.
He woke up sometime later, when the aides came to collect him and wheel him back to his own place. He nodded off out on the balcony with Gabe, comforted by the white noises of night, the smell of pipe tobacco, and the lull of good company. Gabe offered a wave and a smile as a big guy named Aaron accompanied him out the door. It was less a goodbye than it was a see you tomorrow, because they both knew he’d be back.
Usually he didn’t let the aides help him get ready for bed, but today he was just too tired. Aaron was quick and pleasant and respectful. Steve liked him. He paid attention to details. He made sure Steve had the blanket Darlene had crocheted for him and Sam a thousand years ago, put the urinal next to the bed so Steve wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the bathroom if he woke up in the middle of the night, and then dusted the row of photographs that sat on the dresser. No one had done that since the last time Aaron helped him.
“Need anything, Mr. Rogers?” he asked.
Oh, a new body, the ability to travel through time, world peace. Small potatoes.
“No, thank you, Aaron.”
“Okay. Ring the desk if you need anything. I’m here all night.”
“I’ll do that.”
Aaron left him with a wave. Steve fell into a half-doze quickly, exhausted as he was, but his mind was slower to rest than his body. It spun on a bit longer, trying to process everything. But like most nights, the thing that dominated his thoughts was how much he missed Sam. His warmth, his light snuffling snores, just the shape of him on the other side of the bed.
“2020, Sam,” he said out loud, around a yawn. “After the election. Long as they pick the right one.” Steve folded his old bones onto his side, sighed, and fell asleep.