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The Road Toward

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When Sam reached out to Steve, after Steve approached him, he’d done it because they’d seemed to hit it off right away. He’d done it because he thought he might know a bit about what Steve had been through — not the Captain America stuff or the frozen for seventy years stuff, of course, but the soldier stuff — Sam was pretty sure he could relate to that. He’d sort of thought that’d be it there on the Mall — Sam could relate, sure, but Steve was Captain America, and their encounter that day ended with Steve climbing into a Corvette driven by a gorgeous woman and driving off. Sam’s shared experience only went so far — but Steve took Sam up on his offer anyway, showed up at the VA, and they hit it off then too.

“What makes you happy?” Sam had asked. It was a question that he asked people a lot when they sought him out there. It was a question he’d had to ask himself a lot over the years too.

“I don’t know,” Steve returned.

It wasn’t an uncommon answer, but Sam stood there for a long moment trying to decide where to go with it next. He knew where he should go. He knew professionally what he should say, but Steve Rogers had approached Sam on the Mall and Steve had approached Sam at the VA and Sam was pretty sure Steve hadn’t approached because he was looking for Sam’s professional advice.

“You know what?” Sam asked. “How about this; you ever decide you want help trying to figure that out, you let me know, all right?”

Steve smiled, looked down at his feet, and then he squinted at Sam and said, “Yeah, all right. What are you doing right now?”

“Whatever you want, man,” Sam had returned, his smile wide. “Whatever you want.”

He didn’t think that spending an afternoon lounged in a booth at a dark bar was doing much to help Steve Rogers figure out what made him happy in the long-term, but they talked a lot, sat back and relaxed over a few beers. It was just like it’d been on the Mall, bouncing off each other, easily falling into a comfortable rhythm, a nice give-and-take. Steve didn’t seem to want to talk about himself much. He turned most of Sam’s small-talk questions back around on Sam, and that was fine. If that’s what Steve wanted for now, then Sam was cool with talking about himself for a while. Steve listened as Sam talked about growing up in Harlem, about his parents and his brother and his sister. They talked about New York, about the things that were the same and the things that were so completely different. Finally, Sam downed the last sip of his beer and nodded toward Steve.

“So what else’ve you got on your list?” Sam asked. “If you don’t mind me poking around in your business, that is.”

“I don’t mind,” Steve said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the little book, tossed it across the table toward Sam.

Sam picked it up. “I better make sure there aren’t any glaring gaps in this new education of yours.”

“You’re looking out for me now?” Steve joked, leaned back against the bench of the booth.

“Yeah,” Sam snorted. “You look like you need it.”

The items on the first few pages had all been crossed off, big ones that Steve probably would have found relevant; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, V-E Day. These were mixed in with Vietnam, The Beatles and Chernobyl, the Cold War, 9/11, and Martin Luther King. Later pages got more specific, smaller scale. There were movies and books, albums and more historical events, but even smaller things too. Sam recognized the names of a few restaurants in DC, and the —

“Is this the name of the panda cub over at the zoo?”

“Yeah,” Steve said.

“You’ve never seen a panda before?” Sam asked.

“Actually I have,” Steve said. “At the World’s Fair in ‘39. The Bronx Zoo had — I just made the note to look into it is all. Something to do. I saw it on the evening news. It’s free.”

“Oh, I know it’s free,” Sam nodded. He turned a page. “What’s this? A grocery list?”

“All right,” Steve laughed and leaned forward again, his arms leaning on the table, one hand out, palm open. “If you’re going to make fun of it, you can give the book back now.”

“I hope this is a grocery list,” Sam pressed. “Don’t tell me someone has you researching eggs, bread, and apples.”

“The book is really a catch-all,” Steve explained. “I use it for notes, lists, directions, and then yeah, the things people tell me I should look into.”

“I’m just picking on you. Calm down,” Sam laughed, though Steve didn’t seem like he was actually getting worked up at all. A little exasperated, maybe, but he was smiling, so even that seemed mostly for show, like it was part of whatever game they had going here.

Sam closed the book and tapped it down on the table, pressed his fingers to the worn cover. He took a moment just to study Steve, the set of his shoulders and the way that his throat worked when he took a sip of his beer.

Steve caught his eye and they stared at each other, frozen there until the corner of Steve’s mouth started to pull up into a smile and Steve shook his head and said, “What is it now?”

Sam pressed his lips together. “I have a few of these movies in here on DVD. You wanna go back to my place? Get one or two of them crossed off your list? I mean, if you don’t have anywhere else you need to be.”

“Sure, okay,” Steve said almost immediately. “I have time.”

Sam slid the notebook back across the table toward Steve and wondered what the hell he was thinking. He could have suggested they walk up to the zoo, check out little Bao Bao the panda, or he could have offered to accompany Steve to buy his damn groceries, but he didn’t do any of that. Instead he invited the guy home with him. He wasn’t sure they were even on the same page here. He thought he knew what was happening, but then —

“Okay, I’m just going to say it,” Sam said. “Just, you know, throw it out there, get it all out in the open and see where we stand. This here, what we’re doing — this is flirting, right?”

Steve’s brow furrowed and he looked down. Sam was learning that Steve did that a lot, looked away, looked down, broke eye contact for just a moment, sometimes smiling a little crooked while he did so. Steve wasn’t smiling now, though Sam thought he looked a little flushed, and when Steve looked back up, he said, “Yeah, I, uh —"

Steve cleared his throat, started to trail off. The bar was pretty dark, even in the middle of the afternoon, but yeah, Steve was definitely a little flushed.

“Because it feels like flirting," Sam explained, decided he better keep talking and give Steve some more time to process the direct nature of the question. "It’s felt like flirting since you first sped by me, but sometimes I misread these things, you know. It can be hard to know sometimes, so I just want to throw it out there before it goes any further and I do something that’ll scare you away and make me feel pretty stupid.”

Steve thought about Sam’s words for a moment longer and then he nodded. He still wasn’t making direct eye contact with Sam, but when he spoke again, he didn’t stumble. “Before you do something pretty stupid like what?”

“Like what do you think?” Sam returned, his tone dry, barely missing a beat. Steve's question was pointed, leading, and Sam took the bait, knew right then that he'd received his answer.

Steve let out an audible puff of breath, almost a laugh, and then he nodded again. And then he finally looked back at Sam, his gaze steady.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “This is flirting.”

Sam spent a few seconds trying to control his face. It was a battle he was bound to lose, so he gave in, surrendered and let his smile stretch wide. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Good to know.”

Steve made the first move. He waited until they were alone at Sam’s place, just barely through the front door, and then he leaned in and kissed Sam, his touch tentative, his mouth pressed carefully against Sam’s. Sam reached up, his fingers sliding around the back of Steve’s neck, holding him close, kissing him back. That seemed to startle Steve and he felt Steve freeze against him for a moment, like he hadn’t thought this through and he was unsure what he was supposed to do now that he’d started it.

Steve kissed like — well, not like Sam expected. Not like a national icon, a fucking Greek god who must have women literally chasing him around the National Mall. Steve Rogers kissed a little like he spent the last ninety years playing video games in his parents’ basement, like he hadn’t really believed that anyone would try to kiss him like this at all.

Sam opened his mouth against Steve’s and Steve responded, let out a shaky breath against Sam’s lips. Oh, this was good. Steve Rogers like this — this was very quickly climbing the list of the sexiest moments of Sam’s life, and he leaned closer, kissed Steve’s lower lip, pressed it lightly with his tongue.

Steve started, stepped back and away, stood there and stared at Sam. Steve’s mouth was open just a little, and Sam wanted nothing more than to step in and kiss him again, but Steve’s actions were pretty clear and Sam wasn’t about to ignore that retreat, so he stood where he was and he waited.

“You okay, man?” Sam asked. He was breathing a little heavy, could hear it in his words when he spoke.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Steve admitted. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“Well, I don’t know about what you should be doing,” Sam said, and it was going to sound terrible, lame and cheesy, and he was sure he was trying too hard, but he said it anyway. “And maybe we didn’t figure out what makes you happy today, but this is making me pretty happy, I can tell you that much.”

Steve let out a breath. “I had a nice afternoon,” he conceded.

“Oh, we’re — you sure?” Sam asked. He took a step back toward the front door. “I mean — I’m not trying to be that guy, but you did literally just get here.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. He crossed his arms over his chest, screwed up his face a little. His body language was mocking, trying to show Sam that he realized his own actions were maybe a little ridiculous. “I’m sorry.”

Sam shrugged. So maybe they went too fast. They’d known each other less than twenty-four hours, maybe they needed to slow things down. It was a valid reassessment. There was no reason for Steve to feel like he should apologize for that. And frankly, if slowing things down might lead to another kiss like that — that was probably something worth waiting for.

“Maybe we should do it again sometime,” Sam offered. “Maybe actually watch that movie, go visit little Bao Bao at the zoo or something, you know. I saw you had sushi on that list. I wouldn’t mind being there when you decide to cross that one off.”

Steve smiled politely.

“I should’ve stopped talking after the part about the movie, right?” Sam asked, laughing a little at himself. “I just kept going and now you think I’m a little too eager, maybe kinda desperate.”

Somehow Sam’s self-deprecating remarks seemed to be the right thing to say because Steve relaxed a little and then nodded, one eyebrow quirked at Sam. “Yeah, because following you home and then kissing you right away didn’t seem eager or desperate at all.”

Sam smiled wider, pleasantly surprised by Steve’s quick return. “Well, as long as we’re both on the same page here, I guess maybe we’re doing pretty good. The same page of eagerness and desperation, I mean.”

Steve laughed.

“Yeah, maybe,” he agreed. His arms unfolded from across his chest and he reached out a hand toward Sam. Sam accepted it; a nice firm hand-shake. “We should definitely do it again sometime. I’d like that.”

**

Sam stood beside Steve in front of an apartment that was still a mess, barricaded behind far more police tape than was probably necessary. Steve had just been released from the hospital, looking much better than he had any right to, all things considered, and he stood there frowning at the web of yellow tape.

“I’ve got the spare bed,” Sam offered, plucking at the tape with his fingers.

Steve sighed and wiped a hand over his face. “I don’t know. I don’t want to — “

“You aren’t imposing if you accept,” Sam pointed out, seeing right away where Steve was going with that. “Last year my pal Danny crashed with me for six months while he was down here working a contract position. What’s the point of having that extra room if it isn’t there for a friend in need?”

“Sure, I get that,” Steve agreed. “But you’ve already had to put up with an awful lot from me.”

“I’ve had to put up with an awful lot?” Sam repeated.

It’d gone like this: Steve Rogers approached Sam on the National Mall. Maybe Sam had — all right, so there was that misstep at the beginning when Sam brought up the whole defrosting thing and Steve started to shut down and back out of the conversation. It’d been the wrong thing to ask, or at least the wrong way to ask it, but Sam recovered from that pretty quick, and it turned out the flirting between them was mutual. Steve approached Sam on the Mall and then Steve approached Sam at the VA and then Steve kissed Sam. And then two days later, Steve Rogers approached Sam again, knocked at Sam’s back door with Natasha Romanoff at his side and asked for Sam’s help. And since then… well, Sam’s — let’s just put it this way: no one would be surprised to hear Sam say that it wasn’t really how he’d imagined the last few weeks going is all. Signing on to help Captain America, getting back in the sky after all that time, standing at Steve’s side as Steve’s world started to crumble and collapse around him, and then helping Steve bring down SHIELD, saving the world like Sam Wilson was some kind of freakin’ superhero. And then, after all that, then nearly losing Steve just a few days after they first met.

Sam crossed his arms over his chest, smiling. “Yeah, I guess that’s one way to describe the last week.”

Steve smiled now too and then looked away. “It’d be a shame if I managed to scare you away now after all that.”

“Oh, I see. You think that a few days of you using my towels and eating my food is going to be the last straw for me,” Sam laughed.

Steve shrugged. He was playing his hesitation off as a joke, but he hadn’t looked at Sam as he said it and he wasn’t looking at Sam now. Sam couldn’t help but think there was probably a little truth there too. It was a little surprising, considering everything else they’d been through, but truth nonetheless.

“Look, if you’d feel more comfortable in a hotel, then okay, go book a room over at the Marriott, but I wouldn’t be offering if I didn’t mean it. There’s a bed at my place and it’s yours if you want it.”

It wasn’t like Sam didn’t have his own life here. He’d been living in DC for a few years now. He had his job and a small but solid group of friends. He had his family, though they all lived a good distance away. But the fact was, Sam had spent most of the last four days at the hospital, so it seemed pretty clear, at least to him, that he was ready to make room in that life for this too, whatever this turned out to be.

“I’ll find out how much longer they need,” Steve conceded, finally. “Maybe just a few days.” He started pushing aside the tape, trying to create a gap that he could fit through.

“I’m just going to grab a few of my things. My toothbrush and...” Steve trailed off as Sam watched, still smiling. Sam leaned back against the wall of the corridor, watched as Steve contorted himself through a gap in the tape, nearly falling over when his foot got caught, until finally he stumbled through and into his apartment. He turned back toward Sam, shook his head and straightened his shirt.

“Graceful,” Sam said. “Looks like your friend Natasha could teach you a thing or two.”

Steve laughed. “Stealth isn’t really my — “ He gestured toward the door. “I usually just push right through. Are you coming?”

Steve was being modest. He might not be a super spy, but Sam had seen Steve in action, and Captain America was well ahead of the curve at both stealth and grace. Sam let it go, nodded toward Steve.

“Go ahead, man, grab your stuff. You just let me know if you need a hand in there.”

Steve gave him a look. “Not exactly graceful either, I take it?”

Sam snorted, tipped his head at Steve, eyebrows high. “You should see me in the sky.”

“I’ve seen it,” Steve said. “Wouldn’t mind seeing it again sometime… different circumstances would be nice.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “You and me both. Too bad the pack’s in pieces at the bottom of the Potomac.”

“Too bad,” Steve agreed. He smiled at Sam one more time, shrugged, and then disappeared into his apartment.

**

In the seven days since Steve moved into Sam’s guest room with a knapsack of belongings, Sam had learned a few things. Some of them were things he’d already guessed, some were new, and some of them had more to do with himself than they did with Steve Rogers.

The first thing Sam learned was Bucky Barnes. Steve had told Sam fragments of what had happened on that helicarrier as Sam sat beside Steve’s hospital bed. He’d heard a little more about the history of their friendship, not a lot, but a few pieces here and there. After that, Sam had guessed right away what Steve intended to do. Natasha showing up with the file the same day that Nick Fury summoned them to a cemetery to check out his shiny new headstone was merely confirmation.

“So where should we start?” Sam asked. The Winter Soldier file sat open on Steve’s lap. The light in the guest room had been on when Sam had got up to use the bathroom at 3 AM. Either Steve had passed out without getting up to turn it off, his cheek pressed to the stack of papers, or he’d been up most of the night poring over those pages.

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted. “New York, maybe.”

Sam reached across the couch, slid the file from Steve’s lap, flipped the pages back toward the front. He studied the pictures of Sergeant Barnes; the small one from 1944 where he looked human, like a real complete person, and the larger one where he appeared much less so. Sam remembered the man on the bridge, on the helicarrier, and he worried that there might be no coming back from that, that they were going on a mission that would end in Steve being forced to permanently stop his best friend. How would Steve get through that? Would he even be able to go through with it? What if it came down to Sam? Sam didn’t even want to contemplate — and really, what did he know about any of it? Sam wasn’t there with Steve at the end. Sam hadn’t seen Barnes start to crack.

Whichever way it went — helping Barnes or stopping him — Sam had offered to be there to get Steve through it. Sam had meant it and intended to follow through.

“You think he went home?” Sam asked.

“Maybe,” Steve said. He’d leaned closer to Sam, was looking at the photos of Barnes now too, but after a moment he sighed and shook his head, sat back. “No. That was my first thought, but I’m not so sure now. I think he’s still here.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I think I got through to him,” Steve said. “Or I was starting to. I remember falling from the helicarrier and I felt — I don’t know — but I was done. I was sinking. And Bucky pulled me out of the river and left me there on the bank.”

It was the first Steve had really talked about that part, about how he’d ended up lying there on the edge of the Potomac. Everyone had sort of assumed that Steve had fallen or crashed with the carrier, had made it to the shore from there on his own. He was out when they found him, unconscious, but he couldn’t have been lying there long. Sam had spotted Steve first, screamed for Fury to turn the helicopter around, to go back, Natasha pushing Sam’s shoulder aside so that she could get a look.

Sam listened quietly as Steve continued.

“I opened my eyes, saw the light at the surface getting dimmer as I sank, and then Bucky’s hand reaching for me.” Steve paused for a moment and then he shook his head. “I’m sure of it.”

Steve’s face seemed carefully still, passive. Sam watched Steve for a long moment while he tried to pull everything together, get his head around it.

“So you think, being that you’re probably the only person that he knows at all, he’ll stick pretty close for a while.”

“I don’t know if I know him well enough to say for sure, not anymore, but that’s what my gut is telling me.”

“I haven’t known you that long, but from what I’ve seen, your gut tends to be a pretty good guide,” Sam said.

The second thing was Peggy Carter. Steve went to see Peggy most mornings following his run (Steve had resumed running ridiculously long distances at a ridiculously fast pace as soon as he escaped the hospital. You know, pretty much what you’d expect from a super soldier who’d been shot a few times and had the shit beat out of him, both physically and emotionally, less than two weeks earlier. Apparently).

“I don’t want her to feel lonely,” Steve said, but Sam guessed it was more than that. Sam guessed it was about Steve’s loneliness too. There weren’t many around who had known Steve Rogers before he ended up in that ice. There was Peggy Carter and somewhere out there there might be Bucky Barnes, but that was it. That was all Steve had left. Sam liked to think that Steve had him now too, but he knew it was different. Whatever they were building was still new and undefined. You couldn’t expect to grow roots overnight.

And then there was the third thing.

Sam leaned against the counter, listened as Steve shut off the water in the shower down the hall. Eventually Steve came to join him in the kitchen. His hair was sticking up, like he’d run a towel over it and then forgotten about it, and the smell of Sam’s soap was strong on Steve’s skin, damp and clean.

It was funny, Sam thought. You used something every day, your nose adjusted and you just stopped being able to smell it at all. But then you opened a new bottle or a new bar or whatever and the smell hit you, brand new. Someone else used the same thing, it was like you were smelling it again for the first time.

He nodded toward the mug of coffee on the counter. It was sitting right next to the file on Barnes.

“I made coffee. I’m guessing you could probably use some,” As far as Sam could tell, it was another mostly sleepless night for Steve.

“It smells good,” Steve noted with a nod. He smiled at Sam, that crooked fucking smile.

“Yeah? So do you,” Sam quipped before he could catch himself.

It was fine. It’d probably earn him a smile and a smart remark from Steve in return, but Sam was worried about coming off as too forward, too blatant. Sam had promised himself that he’d pull back, give Steve some time, let Steve have some space.

He opened his mouth to deflect, but just then Steve looked up. The smile pulled a little wider and he shrugged.

“Well, it’s your soap, so if I smell good, I guess it must be because I smell a little like you,” Steve returned. He said it so matter-of-fact, like he didn’t even — but the way he was smiling at Sam, that damn dopey expression on his face. Yeah, Steve Rogers was just as bad as Sam, a blatant flirt, and Sam shook his head, laughed.

So there it was: the third thing. The third thing was that Sam was more than okay with Steve’s presence in his house. The third thing was that there was no chance that Steve using Sam’s towels and eating Sam’s food was ever going to drive Sam away. No chance in hell. Sam wasn’t spending a lot of time thinking too hard on that, but he didn’t really need to. It was all pretty damn obvious, wasn’t it? Eager and desperate, yeah, right from the start.

That was the thing of it though. An afternoon with Steve Rogers followed by some kissing, maybe some messing around; that was one thing. A few weeks ago, if that was all it was — some fleeting afternoon fling with Captain America, one night of comfort, a quick release before Steve’s focus settled entirely on Barnes — a few weeks ago, yeah, Sam would have been on board for that. He’d have been on board for anything with Steve, really, but now — they’d been through a lot together. Steve had things to work out, had Bucky Barnes to find. And Sam — Sam could admit it; the longer he knew Steve, the more Sam wanted from him. The third thing was that Sam was falling hard and fast.

**

He liked to mix up his morning runs. Sometimes he ran the Mall, sometimes he ran the Rock Creek Trail up past the zoo, and sometimes he ran the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac and back. The morning he found Bucky Barnes (...okay, the morning that Bucky Barnes found him) Sam was jogging on the Rock Creek Trail north of Q Street.

He’d left his house at the same time as Steve, but Steve was out of sight before Sam had made it two full blocks. Sometimes Steve circled back around, liked to come up behind Sam like he had that first time on the Mall. He seemed to be trying to turn it into a running joke — ‘running’ joke, get it? — and frankly, it was pretty damn cute. It never failed to get a smile or a retort from Sam, and it was a nice reminder that Steve hadn’t forgotten how this all started, a nice reminder that eventually, maybe they’d even get back there.

Running jokes aside, the truth was that at this point, Sam wasn’t entirely sure where any of this was going between them anymore. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting himself into. And the truth of that was that when you got down to it, maybe it didn’t matter, because just about any direction Sam thought it might go with Steve, Sam was willing to go with it.

It wasn’t a morning for coherent thinking and Sam tried to clear his head, focused on his feet hitting the gravel path instead. It could wait. It would all fall into place or it wouldn’t. And if it waited too long, let’s face it; it was probably only a matter of time before Sam addressed it all head on. Sam was comfortable with honesty, with just being forward about the whole thing. He just didn’t think he should push it yet. Steve had a lot going on; he didn’t need Sam there hovering all, “hey, just so you know, if you ever feel like kissing me again… “

Actually, that could probably work. At the very least, it might earn him a laugh, and if Sam was really lucky —

Damn, okay, so yeah, obviously Sam had it pretty bad. That much was clear. Look at him, so into Steve Rogers that he was running around Washington trying to convince himself that he wouldn’t be crushed if that first kiss was a fluke and Steve really just needed a friend.

A bead of sweat slid down the side of his forehead and he reached up to wipe it away with his arm.

The trail ran along the highway for a while, but eventually dipped below it, just the path and the small gorge cut out by the creek, DC up above on either side. You could still hear the drone of traffic, but the trail seemed quiet somehow despite that, a little secluded, just Sam and the satisfying crunch of the gravel beneath his feet.

That feeling of seclusion was partly why Sam liked to run there. It helped to clear his head, yeah, but he also liked to keep a presence on the trail, keep an eye on things. A wooded bicycle path running through the center of a major city, once in a while things happened. He liked to think things were less likely to happen the mornings he ran through.

He’d just passed the intersection of Q Street when Sam saw movement in the trees off to his left. He turned his head, and yeah, okay, there was a guy in the woods, keeping time with Sam, weaving through the trees. The leaves rustled under his weight and a branch snapped as he snagged it, but the guy kept moving. Sam slowed his pace and the figure slowed too.

Sam stopped on the trail.

“Hey, man,” he said. “You okay in there?” The patch of forest got wider here and he was pretty sure there were a couple more trails off that way somewhere, but this guy didn’t look to be on any trail.

The figure kept moving forward when Sam stopped, but he’d slowed down considerably, and once Sam spoke, he began making his way onto the path.

The guy was wearing a dark blue sweatshirt, a baseball cap, and Sam frowned, confused. Was he about to get mugged here?

The guy shifted and when he did his left hand caught Sam’s eye. It was poking out of the sleeve of his sweatshirt and as Sam watched, the man flexed his fingers, and Sam froze at the flash of metal.

“Shit,” Sam said, suddenly realizing his situation. A mugger he could handle, the Winter Soldier — “Shit, okay. Are we gonna do this then? Right here and now?”

Barnes didn’t say anything. He started moving toward Sam and Sam tensed, fight or flight, but Barnes didn’t attack. Instead he moved past Sam and took a seat on a bench at the edge of the trail.

Sam stood his ground at the center of the trail, just stood there and stared at Barnes. Barnes seemed to be settling in, didn’t look to be standing again anytime soon. Sam looked up and down the trail. There was no one else around and after a moment he moved to take a seat on the bench beside Barnes.

“So…” Sam started. He trailed off and then turned to look at the Winter Soldier’s profile. Barnes had his mouth set in a petulant looking frown. He stared straight ahead as Sam studied him and then finally he tilted his head, turned and looked Sam in the eye.

“What’s your name?” Barnes asked and Sam started, surprised. The last two times he’d encountered Barnes, he’d definitely been no-talk-all-action. Barnes’ voice was different than Sam would have guessed. It sounded younger, a little rough.

“Sam Wilson,” Sam returned.

“Should I know you?” Barnes asked.

“No,” Sam said. “Not beyond, you know, trying to kill me a couple times.”

Barnes nodded. Yeah, bet you remember that, Sam thought. Barnes smelled like wood smoke, sickening and sweet, like he’d spent a good amount of time standing in front of a burning fire.

“Do you know who I am?” Barnes asked next.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “A guy throws you off a helicarrier, you don’t tend to forget him that quick. James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky, right? Yeah, I know who you are. How about this: you planning to attack me here?”

Barnes thought about it for a moment and then he shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so,” Sam repeated. He smiled. He couldn’t help it. “That’s great, man. Comforting.”

Barnes was quiet beside him.

“Listen,” Sam said. “I know you pulled Steve out of that river. You also beat the shit out of him and shot him a couple times, but you pulled him out of the river, and he’d probably be dead if you hadn’t, so I want to thank you for that.”

Barnes still didn’t respond, but he looked like he was processing what Sam was saying. One side of his mouth pulled back in — not quite a smile, but some sort of expression. He looked kind of pained.

“Are you looking for Steve?” Sam asked, figured that it must have been Steve’s name that had pushed Barnes to register an emotion. “The, uh — the guy from the helicarrier? Is that why you’re here?”

Barnes shook his head, shrugged. “I’m here because I wasn’t sure if I knew you.”

“Well, you do now,” Sam said. He pulled out his cellphone. “How about I give Steve a call. Let him know you’re here and you’re okay?”

**

Steve stood on the trail, hands on his hips as he squinted into the sun. “You’re sure it was here?” he asked.

Sam sat down and pressed his fingers to the bruise that was quickly forming on his cheek.

“Yeah, I’m sure it was here,” Sam answered, a tone of indulgence leaking in. It wasn’t fair of him. He got where Steve was coming from. He understood Steve’s frustration. Too late to take it back now though. Steve heard it, sighed, and came to sit with Sam on the bench.

“Stupid question,” Steve guessed.

Sam snorted. It had only been a few hours since Sam had been sitting in this spot beside Bucky Barnes. It’d only been a few hours since he reached for his phone and Barnes attacked him, crushed the phone in his metal hand and then punched Sam in the face. Sam had fallen back, his knees hitting the pavement hard, and when he got back to his feet, Barnes was gone.

Steve leaned over, his elbows propped on his knees as he stared into the trees.

“He just wanted to know if he knew you?” Steve asked.

Sam had already told Steve the story twice, once at his place right after Steve got home from his visit with Peggy Carter, a second time on their way back to the trail.

“That’s what he said,” Sam confirmed.

“Why would he…?”

“I don’t know,” Sam admitted. “I think it’s probably safe to say that you were right. You were getting through to him, so he’s sticking around. He’s been watching you, saw the two of us together and wondered if I was someone he was supposed to remember too.”

Steve nodded, turned toward him on the bench. Steve was still squinting in the afternoon sun. The super soldier serum hadn’t seemed to help much when it came to light sensitivity.

“I’ll book a room at a hotel tonight,” he said.

Sam shook his head. “You don’t need to do that.”

Steve gestured toward Sam’s face.

Sam shook his head and smiled. “Yeah, he punched me in the face. Dude, he’s been souped-up with super strength and a metal arm. He could’ve done a whole lot worse than that if he wanted to. He told me not to call you and I started to do it anyway so he crushed my phone and punched me in the face. I don’t think he’s planning to come after me and attack me in my sleep here. I don’t think he’s planning to come after you anytime soon either, for the record.”

“You don’t need to get involved in this,” Steve countered, leaning toward Sam.

“Yeah, I know,” Sam agreed. “You already told me that. And I told you that I’m in. I’m not changing my mind now just because I ended up a little bruised.”

Steve sighed and settled back on the bench. He stared back into the trees.

Sam’s thoughts turned to the file on Barnes. He pictured Bucky’s face the way it looked back in 1944, the way it looked this morning staring into the woods just like Steve was now. He hadn’t read the file, wasn’t sure he wanted to know the whole story, but Steve had told him a little. He knew enough.

“Once whatever’s happening settles out,” Sam started. “However this works out, we’re eventually going after Hydra, right? If there are more of these guys out there —”

“We’ll get in touch with Nick and we’ll help them go after Hydra,” Steve confirmed.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. He sat back against the bench. “Good.”

**

Sam stood on the Arlington Memorial Bridge and stared out over the wreckage in the Potomac. Helicopters hovered and a few boats navigated through the mess. Pieces of the helicarriers stuck out of the water at odd angles. Once they actually started trying to clean it up, it was going to take months to deal with, probably longer. As it was now, those were still rescue boats out there. Sam guessed there were probably divers beneath the surface.

Somehow they’d managed to keep Sam’s name out of the papers on this one. No one was saying a thing about Sam Wilson stealing wings from Fort Meade. No one had placed him at SHIELD that day at all. Sam could go right back to his life if that was what he wanted. He could have walked away from Steve entirely, gone right back to work, pleaded sick, blamed the accident that totaled his car. He had the bruises; it didn’t feel like a lie.

Sam didn’t want to walk away from any of it, least of all Steve Rogers. He was grateful that he wasn’t being called in to talk to anyone. It made it easier for him, but it wasn’t enough to send him back. Instead he’d taken temporary leave from work, ready for whatever came next.

He hadn’t really expected this, filling his days with Netflix and Steve Rogers, but he wasn’t exactly complaining either. It was probably better. After all, the wings were gone and that left Sam as just another guy with a gun. He’d help Steve as best he could moving forward, but he didn’t know that he had a whole lot to offer. He was a soldier, not some superhero.

Sam looked up at the tower and he felt his heart speed up as he remembered running from the carrier as it crashed into the side of the building, throwing the weight of his body at the window and praying that the glass would break. It had; Sam was lucky. He remembered dodging bullets, swooping around the edges of the helicarriers. He remembered seeing Steve hurtling toward the ground, catching him, the weight of Steve’s body a shock that he was surprised he could still handle. He remembered the fear he felt when the Winter Soldier kicked Steve back over the edge and stopped Sam from going after him, tore off his wing and then sent him flying.

“Hey,” someone tapped Sam on the shoulder. Sam jumped. He’d been leaning on the bridge railing, head propped in his hand and eyes closed. He looked up to find an older couple looking at him. They looked like they’d been standing there a while too.

“You all right?” the man asked.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “I’m okay, thanks.”

The woman nodded toward the river. “Quite the mess,” she said.

“That it is,” Sam agreed.

“Could have been worse,” the man noted. “That’s what I hear anyway. If those things weren’t a wreck in the river, it would have been a lot worse.”

“That’s what I hear too,” Sam agreed. He nodded toward the couple. “Well, I better get moving. Thanks for stopping to check on me.”

“Stay hydrated!” the woman called after him, a reminder to Sam that it’d been too long since he’d called his mother.

**

Sam caught sight of Steve just as he passed beneath the intersection of Q Street. It was the third morning in a row that Steve had skipped out on their morning jog, had chosen to spend the early hours of the day sitting on that bench waiting for Bucky to reappear instead. He was out of the house that morning before Sam had even rolled out of bed, and Sam was up with the sun, so he guessed Steve had been sitting here before that.

Sam slowed to a stop in front of him. “Still nothing?” he asked. He tossed Steve the bag he was carrying.

Steve had a baseball cap pushed down low on his forehead. He looked up at Sam, forced a smile, and then shrugged.

“Not yet,” he said. He held up the bag. “What’s this?”

“Bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel,” Sam said, still breathing heavy. “Bottle of OJ.”

Steve nodded. “You made this?”

Sam sat down heavily onto the bench beside Steve. “No, I didn’t wake up early to cook for you. I stopped at a deli a couple blocks from here. Might still be warm. I thought about bringing you coffee. Then I imagined spilling it all over myself as I was running and thought better of it.”

Sam sat there until his heart started to slow a little, then he clapped Steve on the back, rubbed a little, his hand maybe lingering more than it should, though Steve didn’t say anything about it, just smiled over at Sam, the smile less forced this time, more real. It was probably wishful thinking, but it felt like Steve leaned into his touch, just a little. Sam pulled his hand away.

“How long are we gonna do this?” He shifted on the bench, stretched his arm out across the back.

Steve frowned. “Well, my place isn’t a crime scene anymore. I have contractors coming in tomorrow. They said it’d take them a week or so.”

Sam snorted. “You’ve been sitting on this bench three days and you really think I’m asking you about how long you’re going to be crashing at my place? No, man, how long are we gonna do this?” He gestured toward the bench and the trails. “I’m just asking because if it’s going to be a while, I’m thinking this bench could use some cushions. Maybe get a portable television out here or something. We should upgrade the joint.”

Steve let out a little breath of a laugh and then shook his head.

“I bet you could find someone to deliver us a pizza down here,” Sam noted, taking in their surroundings.

“All right,” Steve conceded. “I get it. You think I’m wasting my time.”

Sam shrugged. “We’re all waiting for something. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do,” he said. “I get that.”

“But you do think I’m wasting my time here,” Steve repeated, pressed.

“You aren’t wasting your time,” Sam said. “But it’s like this, right; either your friend knows you’re here and he has his reasons for why he’s not reaching out to you, or he’s moved on and he has no idea you’ve signed a 12-month lease to this bench.”

Steve shot Sam a look. “It hasn’t been that long,” he said.

“I know,” Sam agreed.

Steve sighed and sat back.

“I don’t want him to think that he’s alone,” Steve said.

Sam nodded. There were things that he wanted to say. He wanted to say that he couldn’t imagine how hard it was, couldn’t imagine losing everyone the way that Steve had. It had been hard enough for Sam losing the people he’d lost: his father, Riley — but Steve — Peggy Carter in that nursing home, and Bucky Barnes out here somewhere, neither of them exactly who Steve had left behind. That was a different kind of loss, painful and in-your-face. Sam wanted to tell Steve that Steve wasn’t alone either, that Sam was here with him, beside him. It wasn’t the same, couldn’t be, but Sam hoped that he filled just a little of that emptiness. Steve had filled in just a bit of Sam’s own.

“He knows you’re here,” Sam said, gently. “You don’t have to sit on this bench to show him that.”

Steve was quiet beside him. He unwrapped the breakfast sandwich and took a bite, chewed it thoughtfully.

Sam’s hand curled on the back of the bench, the tips of his fingers accidentally brushing against Steve’s back again. He pulled his hand back, pressed it flat to the back of the bench instead.

“How’s the bagel?” Sam asked.

Steve nodded, held the sandwich out toward Sam. Sam waved it away.

“Nah, I eat that, I’ll get a cramp and won’t be able to finish my run.”

Steve considered this, shrugged. “How about this: you skip the rest of the run for today, I give you half of this sandwich. Once we’re finished, we get off this bench and walk back to your place.”

Sam smiled. “How about that,” he said.

Steve screwed up his face, shifted on the bench. “Some cushions really would improve things here,” he admitted.

Sam laughed and accepted half of Steve’s sandwich

**

There was nothing quite like flying. When they were first learning, they tried to find things to compare it to, but it wasn’t long before they ruled out just about everything. It was better than roller coasters, better than sky-diving, better than hang-gliding. Better than chocolate cake or fine wine. Riley had protested when Sam had said that it might even beat sex, but he later amended, and they came to a compromise. It was better than a lot of sex, maybe even most; better than all but the very best sex.

“I don’t know,” Riley said, going back on the decision after thinking it over for a while. “I’m pretty good at sex.”

“No, you aren’t,” Sam snorted, countered immediately.

“How would you know?”

“You think I can’t tell just looking at you?” Sam laughed. “No way in hell I’d choose sex with your pasty freckled ass over flying.”

Riley leaned back, shrugged. He ran a hand over his head, scratched his fingers through is hair. Eventually he seemed to realize that keeping quiet might make it seem like he would choose sex with Sam over flying, so he nudged Sam’s shoulder and said, “No way I’d choose sex with you either.”

“You had to think about it for a while first though, didn’t you,” Sam grinned, his eyebrows high. “You really had to weigh the pros and cons of that decision. That’s what I mean, man, you can tell just looking. I take one look at you, I’m like ‘eh.’ You take one look at me, you know it’s probably gotta be pretty good.”

“Wow,” Riley laughed. He reached over and shoved Sam. “That’s the craziest bullshit I’ve ever heard come out of your mouth, and I’ve heard a lot of bullshit from you the last couple months.”

They’d laughed about it for a long time after that.

It was true though, if you removed the war, the danger and the horror, flying really was the most freeing feeling there was. Jesus, Sam loved it. The smell of the air, the wind on his face, the strength of the wings and the push from the pack. He imagined himself soaring over fields, between buildings at sunset, then coasting through the night sky, the lights below his only guide.

And then he heard it: shots going off all around him and he moved fast, turned left and then swooped right. He couldn’t see where the shots were coming from, couldn’t see anything at all and he dove and then turned quick, climbed higher. And then another round and this time there was a noise behind him, the grunt of impact and then Riley’s shout just before he started to plummet toward the ground.

Sam started awake.

The living room was dark. They’d been watching a movie and Steve liked to recreate the feeling of being in a movie theatre. He must have felt Sam’s sudden movement beside him because he reached out, a warm hand firm on Sam’s arm.

“Hey,” Steve said. “You okay?”

Sam wiped a hand over his face. There was a breeze coming in through the open window. Steve had A Beautiful Mind paused on Jennifer Connolly’s face.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “It was — you know that thing that happens where you’re nearly asleep and all of a sudden you feel like you’re falling, like your muscles all relax?”

Steve nodded, but kept watching Sam. The room was quiet except for Sam’s breathing, which sounded loud and labored to his own ears.

“You don’t have to do that,” Steve said eventually, seeing right through Sam’s explanation.

Sam exhaled, shook his head. He was usually the one saying those words.

“All right,” Sam said. “It’s just getting back up in the sky, you know. It brings things back.”

Steve’s hand pressed firm to Sam’s arm. His thumb swiped once over Sam’s shoulder and then his hand fell away. He stared blankly at the television for a moment and though Sam had only known Steve a short time, it was easy to guess what he was probably thinking. Sam got back up there because of Steve, for Steve. If that was bringing things back now, then maybe that was Steve’s fault.

“Do you know how long I’d been dreaming about getting my hands on that pack?” Sam asked.

They’d made breaking into Fort Meade seem like breeze. No one had been hurt. No one had even known it was happening until it was over and done with. Sam had spent a good year of his life day-dreaming about that break-in, about getting those wings strapped on his back. Steve and Natasha; they stood there, thought about it for a whole thirty seconds, and then they got it done. If not for, you know, Hydra and the helicarriers and the Winter Soldier, it would’ve been a dream-come-true moment for Sam.

“Will you miss it?” Steve asked.

Sam shrugged. “I always miss flying,” he said. “There’s nothing like strapping on a set of wings and getting up there.”

“If there was another pack out there somewhere…?”

“What, like break into another government facility and steal it?” Sam asked. He tsked. “Captain America.”

“But if there’s another way —“

Sam shook his head. “That was it,” he said. “The pack at Fort Meade was the last one.”

Riley was gone, the wings were gone, and Sam was here, grounded. And frankly, it wasn’t all bad, grounded here on his couch beside Steve Rogers, even if there was someone out there recommending movies to Steve that put Sam to sleep.

Steve hadn’t unpaused the television, was still just sitting there watching Sam.

“What you said about my gut last week…”

“Yeah, what about it?” Sam asked, trying to remember the conversation, what exactly he’d said.

“My gut’s usually a better guide when it has input from someone else’s gut.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam asked. His face twisted a little as he tried to translate that sentence, to remember the context of the original conversation. He looked over at Steve and shook his head. “Wait, your gut — what? Sorry, I wasn’t — you going back and doubting your gut now or are you proposing we conduct a test of my gut? Or is this about someone else’s gut entirely at this point?”

“What?”

“Or maybe you’re just hungry,” Sam suggested. “If you’re hungry, there’s a bag of pretzels on top of the fridge with your name on it. There’s popcorn in the cupboard.”

Steve laughed. “I’m not hungry. I’m trying to thank you. You were right about the bench.”

“Ah,” Sam said. He pressed his lips together. Now that he’d started it, he wanted to run with this for a little while longer before he cracked. “See I’d never have gotten that. You might have been proposing ritual sacrifice for all I could tell.”

“Ritual sacrifice,” Steve repeated. “Really.” He was smiling at Sam now like Sam was the most ridiculous person Steve had ever met. It was pretty much exactly what Sam was going for. He imagined Riley there with them, nudging Sam the way he always did when he had something to say just between them, something that he didn’t want anyone else to hear.

“What do you think?” he would have asked, his voice low. “Better than flying?”

Sam wasn’t sure, but he definitely wouldn’t mind a chance to find out. He pushed the thought aside.

“Well, yeah,” Sam said, continuing with his stupid joke. “Your gut needs input from someone else’s gut? Like, I don’t know, maybe that’s one of the effects of this serum they gave you. Every month on the full moon, Steve Rogers must ingest the stomach of a worthy virgin, right? The complementary gut of some fine upstanding citizen. I’m no virgin, so I’m feeling pretty safe right now; I’m just saying, I’m not helping you with any ritual sacrifices. I have to draw the line somewhere and that’s where I’ve decided it’s getting drawn.”

Steve was looking at Sam like Sam had completely lost his mind, but he was still smiling, his mouth tugged to the side like he just couldn’t help himself.

“A few minutes ago we were having a serious conversation, and now you’re accusing me of sacrificing virgins.”

“Yeah. You’re smiling though, aren’t you,” Sam said. And beautifully at that. “Look at you.”

And there it was, a nice pink flush that crept up Steve’s neck and across Steve’s cheeks

It just might be up there with flying.

“Okay,” Steve said. He cleared his throat and made a visible effort to try to get himself under control. It sort of worked, though he wasn’t entirely successful at suppressing the smile. “It helps a lot being here with you.”

Sam wasn’t even trying anymore. He was smiling right back at Steve, probably a bit ridiculously. “Good. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. My gut’s here to help your gut out anytime you need it.”

“Is that you saying ‘you’re welcome’?” Steve asked.

“Yes, that’s me saying you’re welcome,” Sam said. “Anytime. It’s also me saying thank you.”

Steve was quiet for a moment and then he said, “What if it’s the upstanding citizen requirement that’s important rather than the virgin thing? You wouldn’t feel so safe then, would you?”

“No,” Sam said. “But I did just help break into Fort Meade, steal property from the U.S. military and use it to help take down a government agency, so I guess that depends on whose definition of upstanding citizen we’re running with here.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “I guess maybe we’re pretty safe either way.”

**

The next time that Sam ran Rock Creek, there was Bucky Barnes, sitting on that bench in Steve’s place.

Sam stopped in the center of the trail, bent, his hands on his thighs. A drop of sweat slipped off his forehead and hit the gravel at his feet. Sam shook his head, paced in front of Barnes for a moment, shook out his legs, and then sat down with Barnes.

“You really don’t want to talk to Steve right now, huh,” Sam concluded.

Barnes was quiet beside him.

“Yeah,” Sam grunted. “Great. You aren’t planning to punch me in the face again, are you?”

“No,” Bucky returned. The word sounded hoarse, a little like a frog’s croak.

“Good,” Sam said, even though Barnes had had a pretty similar answer the last time they met. Sam just hoped he actually meant it this time.

Barnes looked… he actually looked a little better than the last time Sam saw him. He was wearing different clothes. He had gloves covering his hands. His hair still looked a little — well, who was Sam to judge? — but it was pushed behind his ears and mostly covered by the baseball cap he was wearing. His chin was covered in scruff, but it wasn’t a full beard, maybe just a day or two of growth. Sam no longer smelled smoke clinging to Bucky’s skin or clothes.

Sam sat on that bench with Barnes for a good hour, not really talking much, just sitting there together. Sometimes Sam spoke; he talked about the weather and food and the trail. Bucky sometimes nodded, shook his head, but didn’t say much of anything, just a few words here or there.

Eventually Sam sighed. “All right,” he said. “I should get back. Tell you what, how about we start meeting up like this regularly. You know, planned and on purpose, just you and me. We don’t have to talk or anything, just check in with each other, let me know you’re okay. Would that be all right with you?”

No answer.

“Okay,” Sam nodded, continued as though Bucky had responded. “How’s three days from now sound? I’ll be here, same time as today. You can either be here or not.”

Sam started to stand and just as he did, Bucky moved beside him, shifted. Sam froze, hands up, defensive, but Bucky didn’t grab him. He stood from the bench, waited until Sam stood too.

“Thanks,” Barnes said.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Anytime.”

**

Sam watched Steve beat the shit out of three bags before finally Steve’s shoulders slumped and he came to sit beside Sam.

“Damn, Rogers,” Sam said. He’d finished his own workout and showered before Steve had started in on the second bag. There were a few people staring, but no one said anything, no one approached Steve. No one except for Sam anyway.

Steve didn’t take the news all that well. His face had fallen immediately. He’d paced Sam’s living room, sat on the couch only to change his mind and move to a chair, then one of the chairs in the dining room instead. Finally he announced he was going to the gym. When Sam offered to go with him, he expected Steve to turn him down, but after thinking it over for a minute, Steve had nodded and said, “Come on.”

Now Steve sighed beside him. His shoulders were damp with sweat. Sam caught himself wondering how Steve’s skin might taste under his tongue, that salt on his lips, and yeah, it still wasn’t the time or the place for that. He stood up quick, maybe a little too quick, because Steve looked up at him, his brow a little furrowed and a question in his eyes.

Sam grabbed a towel and tossed it to Steve.

“Okay,” Sam said. “Go shower. We’re going home, ordering Indian food — that’s on your list, right? If it isn’t, it should be. There’s a good restaurant right by my place that delivers. We’re going to drink a couple bottles of wine, and then we’re calling it an early night.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said. His mouth pulled up with the hint of a smile. He looked pretty grateful, really, and Sam, thinking just a moment ago that maybe agreeing to come to the gym with Steve was a mistake, was suddenly sure that he’d made the right decision in offering Steve the company.

**

“Can’t sleep?” Sam asked. It was four in the morning. Sam had been lying awake in bed, just staring at the ceiling and thinking about getting up and going for his run a little earlier than usual, when he heard the door to the guest room open, heard Steve pad down the hall toward the kitchen. He listened for a while longer but when Steve didn’t head back to bed, Sam got up to check on him.

“Did I wake you?” Steve asked. He was standing in front of the living room window, just staring out at the street. His arms were folded across his chest, his t-shirt bunched around his waist. His legs actually looked pretty scrawny where they emerged beneath his loose shorts.

“Nah,” Sam said. He moved the throw pillows to one end of the couch and then stretched out on his back, one arm folded behind his head. “I was up.”

Steve didn’t respond, but his arms fell to his sides and he turned to look at Sam.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Sam offered. “I’m really asking here, not just some lip-service. I’m here if you think it’ll help.”

Steve shook his head, smiled at Sam, and Sam was sure for a moment that Steve was going to shut down, turn the conversation toward something else. That wasn’t how it went though, not this time. This time Steve studied Sam’s face and must have found something that confirmed what Sam was saying, because after a moment, Steve’s brow furrowed and then he nodded.

“I feel… useless,” Steve admitted, with a shrug and a smile. “And a little lost.”

Sam nodded. “A lot has changed.”

“When we were standing there in that cemetery with Nick, I thought I — I don’t know what I thought,” Steve admitted. “I thought I was heading toward something, I guess. I had my mission. I was going to go find Bucky, save him, help him, whatever it took. I wouldn’t say that it felt good, but it felt familiar, and I had you with me, and that was starting to feel familiar too.”

“And good, I hope. I hope that part, at least, felt good,” Sam cut in, couldn’t help himself.

Steve shook his head, but his glance was warm, and he said, “That part felt pretty good.”

“Good.”

Steve’s face grew serious again. He swallowed. He seemed a little embarrassed to be admitting any of this to Sam, but he didn’t shut down. Instead he came closer, sat down on the edge of Sam’s coffee table and shrugged. “Since then, I don’t know. It all feels a little like… limbo.”

“I get that,” Sam said. “But if you step back and look at it, you’ve made progress. Your mission, if you want to call it that, is on track. It’s only been, what? A week or two? And Bucky’s here. He’s been found. And you are helping him.”

“I know,” Steve said. “I know. I know it’s selfish to feel this way; it’s my pride talking and I’ve always been… I know. But it feels a lot like rejection from the one person who always — It feels like judgment.”

“Steve —“ Sam sat up, reached out, and hand on the table beside Steve.

“I know,” Steve said for a fourth time. “You don’t have to tell me that it isn’t my fault. I couldn’t have known, but now that I do, why am I just sitting here?”

“You aren’t just sitting here,” Sam said. “This is important for you too, you know. Think about it, you woke up, right, and then what? How much of a break did you have before everything went down in New York?”

“I don’t know,” Steve sighed. “Ten days?”

“Ten days,” Sam repeated. “Man, I thought it was longer. So you’re awake for ten days and then you’re back in a war. And you joined up with SHIELD right after that?”

“Yeah,” Steve returned.

“You’re a soldier,” Sam said. “I get that. I’m a soldier too, but sometimes we’ve gotta stop and figure out who we are outside of the war, you know? We can get lost in it otherwise. I’m on leave from work and you’re on leave from your war. Use the time and let this ground you. Let yourself start to grow some roots.”

**

“Have you got some place to stay?” Sam asked. It was raining, a fine drizzle, but Sam had told Barnes he’d be back in three days, and Sam was damned if he wasn’t going to keep that appointment.

He half-expected to spend the morning sitting on that bench alone, a repeat of Steve’s last week, but when he arrived, Bucky was already there, an umbrella on the bench beside him, though it wasn’t open. He’d shaved recently, had his gloves on and his hair pushed back behind his cap. Sam looked him up and down, wondered how Bucky Barnes was spending his days.

Bucky apparently didn’t feel like filling Sam in on that. He merely shrugged in response.

“Yeah, okay,” Sam said. “I don’t know what this — “ he paused here to mime Bucky’s shrug “— means. That’s all I’m gonna get from you on that today though, isn’t it.”

Nothing from Barnes.

“You don’t trust me not to drop by uninvited,” Sam guessed. “That’s it, isn’t it. You think I’ll stop by, eat all your food, sit on your couch, slouch and belch and just generally crowd the place. Something like that, right.”

Bucky was staring at him and Sam cleared his throat, shrugged. He wasn’t sure exactly what Barnes was getting out of this. He guessed that Sam made a good bridge between Steve and Bucky. It kept Bucky connected without actually having to face Steve, but Sam wasn’t sure and Bucky wasn’t saying, so guesses were really all Sam had at this point. Either way, he thought it was important to talk to Bucky like he would anyone else, even if Bucky said nothing in return.

“What are you talking about?” Bucky asked then, surprising Sam. His eyes looked a little harder than Sam would have preferred, and he definitely wasn’t smiling, but he was speaking, and that was still something.

“I can only hold one-sided conversations for so long before it all starts to go downhill,” he admitted. “Looks like we’ve hit the slope here.”

Bucky still wasn’t smiling, but he continued to eye Sam. Sam shrugged and continued.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here anyway. I wasn’t sure with the rain. You seem to be prepared though. Got your umbrella, found a razor. I was going to say we could help you out with that, set you up in a hotel, or at Steve’s apartment once the contractors are gone if you’d rather. If you don’t have it taken care of, I mean. It sort of seems like you might have that taken care of.”

They were back to nothing. Bucky stopped looking at Sam, turned away to stare down the trail.

Well, either way, it didn’t seem to Sam that Bucky was sleeping under bridges. That was good. That was definitely a good thing, and knowing it would probably help Steve sleep better at night too.

“It’s okay, man,” Sam said after a long stretch of silence. “You don’t want to talk, you don’t have to talk. Like I said, I’m just glad you’re here.”

**

“Today’s the day, huh,” Sam asked as he approached Steve. They were standing outside the entrance to the zoo. “Today’s the day we come to visit little Bao Bao. In the rain.”

He’d felt the buzz of his (new) phone in his pocket while he was on the bench with Barnes, but he didn’t want to alarm Bucky, nor did he want to risk getting punched in the face, so he let it go until they’d parted ways with a promise to reconvene at a later date.

The message was from Steve asking if Sam wanted to check out the zoo and maybe grab lunch (not worded quite like that, but that was the gist of it anyway). Sam shot a message back as soon as he and Barnes parted letting Steve know that he was on his way.

“It’ll be less crowded,” Steve said, squinting up at the sky. “It’s only raining a little.”

Steve didn’t head straight for the pandas. They entered on the opposite side of the zoo and took their time walking through the big cats and the apes and the elephants. Steve was quiet, only really spoke up to make comments about the animals or the size of the enclosures. Eventually he asked the question that Sam had been waiting for.

“Did you… Was Bucky there?”

“Yeah, I saw him,” Sam said. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and shrugged.

Steve took a deep breath.

“Good,” Steve said with a nod. “That’s good.”

“I think so,” Sam agreed.

“How was he?”

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “He didn’t say much. Quiet, frowning. I talked and he might have listened. He didn’t look bad though. He had an umbrella. I think he’s found some place to stay. I told him I’d see him again next week and I think he plans to be there.”

“If I come with you, you think that’ll —“

“I promised I’d come alone,” Sam said. “I don’t think we should try to go back on that now.”

They’d reached the panda exhibit. The park was quiet. It was raining and a weekday, but there was still a short line outside the exhibit. They moved to take their places at the end of it. Steve pulled his cap a little further down on his forehead.

“How was Peggy today?” Sam asked. Steve hadn’t told him a lot, but he knew enough about Peggy’s situation to guess that it accounted for some of Steve’s quiet. Steve didn’t talk about Peggy much and it felt a little forward of Sam to ask, but he felt it was important to reach out, even if Steve chose to push him back.

“All right,” Steve said, and then he stood there, stared ahead at the line of people. Sam figured that was all he was going to get, and he nodded, shifted his weight on his feet. It was a day of having to work at conversations, apparently. First Bucky, now Steve.

The line moved a little and they stepped forward.

“Her kids were visiting,” Steve said.

Sam had been staring at the pavement, but he looked up, surprised that Steve wasn’t trying to change the subject.

Steve’s face twisted a little beneath the hat and then he shrugged and said, “I say kids, but they’re — they’re older than — well, than I look. They have kids of their own. Peggy didn’t recognize them.”

“That’s rough, man,” Sam said. His grandmother had had Alzheimer’s toward the end. It was painful to watch. It was heartbreaking. Sam wasn’t sure if that was Peggy’s diagnosis, Steve hadn’t specifically said, but it sure sounded like it.

“She thought they were SHIELD agents, people that she used to work with. She kept talking about getting a project off the ground. Operation Over Under or Operation Under Over. Something.”

“Sounds… Australian,” Sam said. It earned him a brief smile from Steve. Just a brief smile though. Sam watched Steve swallow, shrug.

“She recognized me. I guess I go far enough back. I look the same. She always recognizes me, but she doesn’t always remember that it isn’t the first time I’ve come to see her. Almost every time is the first time in 70 years all over again.”

“Shit, Steve. That’s — I’m sorry,” Sam breathed. That had to be enough to make a man wish he could drown his sorrows in a couple glasses of whiskey, Sam guessed. Or head to the zoo to visit a panda cub, in Steve’s case.

Everyone’s mood seemed to match the weather that day. It wasn’t until they were standing in front of the pandas, watching little Bao Bao (who didn’t look all that little, except when compared to her mother) eating a seemingly endless supply of bamboo, that Steve seemed to brighten up a little. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket, tilted his head toward Sam. When Sam looked over at him, Steve shrugged and then turned back to watch the bear.

“She’s cute,” Steve said.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “She’s pretty cute.”

**

Sam shifted on the couch, aware that Steve was watching him again. Steve had been doing that for a while now, turning away from the television to stare at Sam instead. Sam couldn’t tell if he should be flattered or paranoid. Finally, Sam gave in, turned toward Steve, giving Steve his full attention.

“Okay. Watching me watch the Nats lose on television can’t be that interesting, so come on. How about you just come out and say whatever it is you’re over there thinking about?”

Steve hesitated for a moment, pressed his lips together, and then made up his mind and nodded.

“The contractors are finished in my apartment,” Steve said. “And I think I’m going to try to get in touch with Nick. If there’s anything I can do to help… “

“Okay,” Sam said when Steve trailed off. “You know whatever you need me for, I’m in.”

Sam remembered his thoughts on the bridge, shook his head and chuckled.

“What?” Steve asked. He glanced back at the television, like maybe the Nats were losing so badly now that it’d taken a turn toward hilarious.

“You wanna talk feeling useless?” Sam asked, going back to their conversation from the other day. “Just wait until we start going after Hydra. Then we’ll talk about useless. I mean, let’s face it, I’m not much good to you without the wings, am I?”

“From what I saw, you’re pretty good with fists and guns too.”

Sam held up his hands. “I’m not saying I can’t hold my own. I know I’m good in a fight. But we aren’t exactly talking regular soldiers here, are we? Most of Hydra, sure, but what about after that?” Sam could think of quite a few people more equipped to fight the good fight beside Captain America.

“Probably not,” Steve conceded. “Either way, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have on my team.”

Sam paused. Okay, he hadn’t actually been fishing for compliments, but if Steve was handing them out, Sam would gladly take them. He liked the sound of that.

“I’m your guy, huh,” Sam rephrased.

Steve smiled, quirked an eyebrow. “You’re my guy.”

“Can’t think of anyone else?” Sam pressed. “Not even, oh, I don’t know, Thor?”

Steve’s head tipped back and forth as he pretended to consider. Sam laughed at that, loud and abrupt, and Steve broke out with a little laugh of his own in response.

“Thor’s pretty good in battle,” Steve admitted.

“Easy on the eyes too,” Sam returned, eyebrows high. “Admit it, dude. Come on, you have to admit to that.”

“Thor’s good looking, sure,” Steve said, and here came the smile. The crooked one, Sam’s favorite. “I don’t know though. I think I’d rather look at you.”

“I’d rather look at you,” Sam repeated, nodding. “That’s — wow. And here I’ve been worried I’d scare you away if I was too frank. What is this? Flirting or flattery?”

“Neither,” Steve said, completely unconvincing. “Just the truth.”

Sam nodded. “Just the truth. All right. So what you’re telling me right now is that you’d rather look at me than at a literal god. He is actually a god, right? That was my understanding from the news coverage.”

Steve shrugged and then amended. “Well, okay, the truth and a little flattery and a little flirting.”

Sam laughed. “There we go. Are we back to this then?”

“They say it’ll get you everywhere,” Steve continued, not really answering Sam’s question. “And look at me now. Free food, free room and board.”

“That it will, my friend,” Sam agreed, playing along. He squinted at Steve. “So now that the contractors are out, when are you moving back to your place?”

“Oh, you’re kicking me out now?” Steve laughed.

“Free room and board, free food, and what do I get? Just a little flattery? You can do better, Rogers.”

Sam reached out and clapped a hand on Steve’s shoulder, still laughing a little. It felt good flirting with Steve, even if they weren’t necessarily planning to take it anywhere.

Whatever this was, wherever it was going, Sam figured that was up to Steve. Sam would keep up the jokes and the flirting, sure, for as long as Steve seemed willing to shoot right back, but Sam wasn’t planning to make any kind of move. A lot of things had changed. Bucky was back and Steve talked about him sometimes, but it always felt to Sam like there were things maybe Steve wasn’t saying. Maybe things Steve wasn’t ready to talk about. Bucky was back and Steve sat by Peggy Carter’s bedside every morning and Sam wasn’t about to interfere with any of that. That was Steve’s life long before that first ‘on your left.’ Sam had no real business there. It was up to Steve to decide if he had room for Sam too. If Steve needed a friend, then Sam would be that friend. If it was a partner Steve was after, that’s what Sam would be. Now that he’d had him for a bit, Sam wanted to keep Steve Rogers in his life in whatever capacity Steve might allow.

Sam wasn’t going to make the first move, but he did think they should talk about it. This relationship had started with a kiss and that had been eclipsed by everything that had happened after, but it wasn’t erased. They should talk about it. He’d been waiting for the right time and the right place. He hadn’t found it yet, but they had things started with Barnes now. Or well, nothing had really been started, but they had contact and that was something.

“Listen,” Sam said. He gave Steve’s shoulder one last squeeze and then removed his hand. “We don’t need to hash this all out right now, but at some point I think we should sit down and, you know, discuss…” he waved a hand between them. Steve caught it, squeezed it in his own.

“— whatever this is. What’s going on, man?” He asked, though from the look on Steve’s face, he thought he might be able to guess, and then Steve confirmed it, glancing at Sam’s mouth and back up toward Sam’s eyes.

Sam remembered that first kiss, how Steve had reacted, how new it had felt. He’d been trying not to think about it too much, unsure they’d ever manage to get back to that place, but shit, suddenly here they were and Steve was leaning in toward him, his movement a little stilted, a little hesitant, and Sam had promised himself that he’d wait until Steve made a move, but this was pretty clearly a move, so maybe it’d be all right if Sam helped Steve out a little.

Sam pulled his hand from Steve’s grasp, brought it up to touch Steve’s face instead, his fingers light on Steve’s neck and then his cheek, and Steve paused at Sam’s touch. Sam waited patiently until Steve focused on Sam’s mouth, and when Steve did, Sam started to smile. He didn’t mean to do it, just couldn’t seem to stop himself. It worked though. Steve let out a little laugh, and then he leaned the rest of the way in and pressed his mouth to Sam’s.

If Riley had asked Sam who he thought would win out, Steve Rogers or flying, and all Sam had to go by was what he’d read in books and what he’d seen on the news, Sam would have chosen flying every damn time. If Riley had asked Sam after that first meeting with Steve on the Mall, Sam would have wavered a little, intrigued by the spark he’d felt between them. If Riley had asked Sam after the first time Steve kissed him, Sam still wouldn’t have been sure. Now though, now that Steve was kissing him again, Sam thought — Sam thought that Steve had the potential to give flying a pretty good fight. Which wasn’t to say that — Steve still wasn’t what anyone would call skilled, but damn, Steve kissed him and Sam thought he could do this forever and never grow tired or bored by it. Sam kissed Steve and he felt Steve’s whole big body shake a little beneath his fingers in answer.

“Shit,” Sam breathed, smiling. “You know I was kidding, right?”

Steve pulled back, just slightly, his brow furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned down in a frown. His forehead smoothed out as soon as he saw Sam’s face though, felt Sam’s hand, still cupping Steve’s jaw, Sam’s thumb caressing his cheek.

“Oh, you were?” Steve asked, his face pulling together to indicate that Sam was probably the biggest liar he’d ever met.

Sam laughed. His fingers slid further back, pushing through the short hair at the back of Steve’s neck.

“Yeah, I was kidding” Sam confirmed. “I won’t actually kick you out if you don’t put out. I’m not that kind of guy.”

“I’d probably put out before you kicked me out anyway,” Steve admitted quietly, hardly missed a beat.

Now it was Sam’s turn to pull away, his hand falling from Steve’s neck. His eyebrows were high and Steve took one look at Sam’s face and laughed.

“Oh, so you’re that kind of guy?” Sam asked, both surprised and delighted by the sudden turn the evening had taken.

“I don’t know,” Steve shrugged, considering. “You know, I think I might be.”

Sam nodded, smile wide, so completely into all of it. “Dangerous admission, Cap. Dangerous admission.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Well, I’m moving back to my place tomorrow, so I’m feeling pretty okay with it. That’s the other thing I was going to say before.”

Sam nodded. He’d assumed Steve would want to go home once his place was fixed up. “You know you don’t have to rush out of here.”

“I know,” Steve said. “I think I should be there though. Just in case.”

“You think Bucky might remember it,” Sam guessed. Steve had mostly accepted it, but it still clearly bothered him that Bucky had chosen to reach out to Sam instead of Steve.

Steve looked down, shrugged. “It’s taking some getting used to. It always used to be me refusing Bucky’s help.” He smiled that smile Steve used to talk about sad things. “I guess now I know how that felt.”

“He’s been through a lot. He’s still going through a lot, but he’s trying to stay connected to you. I mean, that’s why he’s talking to me, right? I’m one step from you, removed just enough, but still a connection. You just have to give it time.”

“I don’t know,” Steve said. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I usually am,” Sam nodded seriously. It worked; it earned him an eye roll and a smile.

“So are you planning to put out before you leave me then?” Sam asked. He didn’t mean it, just wanted to see where they'd take the joke next. Truth was, he didn’t really want to rush this; he really did think they should take their time.

Steve looked like he was actually considering the question.

“Well,” Steve said, eventually. “I said I’d probably put out before you kicked me out. But you didn’t kick me out, did you? I’m choosing to leave.”

Sam squinted at Steve. “So you’re getting me with a technicality? That’s what you’re saying?”

Steve shrugged, his face a little cocky. “It looks like I am, yeah.”

“All right,” Sam nodded. “I guess that’s it then. You’re on the street tonight. Right now, Rogers. Pack your bag.” He reached for Steve and started pushing at him, a half-hearted shove toward the edge of the couch.

Steve laughed and twisted away from Sam’s hands. He shifted and then leaned back in and kissed Sam on the mouth, light and chaste, like they’d been together for years and they did that, just leaned over and kissed each other, casual and familiar, the three-hundredth time instead of the third.

Well, familiar and casual until Steve started to pull back, only to pause, close enough that Sam fell for it and started to lean in for more. Steve chose that moment to continue his retreat, stood and smiled down at Sam. He shook his head, his eyes shining. “Too slow, Sam. Too late.”

“Oh?” Sam asked, nodding. His arms spread wide across the back of the couch. He craned his neck trying to get a look at Steve as Steve walked off in the direction of the guest room, still smiling.

Okay. Yeah, Sam could admit it: he was impressed with Steve Rogers’ game.

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” he said aloud to the empty living room.

Chapter Text

Riley sat down heavily beside Sam. “I’m gonna say something and you have to promise you aren’t going to laugh.”

Sam looked up from the book he was reading, shook his head. “You come over here, start out like that, it’s like a guarantee I’m going to laugh at whatever comes out of you next, dude.”

Riley smiled and after a moment he shrugged and tipped his head toward Sam. “I think I might have thought of something else that’s better than flying,” Riley admitted.

Sam groaned, closed the book. It was starting to get too dark for reading anyway. “It’s not gonna be better.”

“Hey, just hear me out,” Riley laughed.

“All right. What is it? What have you got?”

“Love, right?” Riley said, spreading his hands out in front of them to showcase the idea. “Love’s gotta be better.”

“Oh,” Sam said, accompanied it with another groan. “Man, you’re coming at me with love? Did you just get a big ol’ stack — like two months of Hallmark cards from your family or something?”

“I’m serious,” Riley said, his arms falling back into his lap. He was still smiling, but yeah, he did look pretty serious.

"Okay, and how would you know?" Sam snorted. He swatted Riley’s leg with the edge of his book. "Who've you ever been in love with? Jenny?"

Jenny was Riley’s high school sweetheart. They were together three years, broke up shortly before Riley first joined up.

Riley shrugged. He wiped sweat from his forehead, his hand leaving a brown streak of dust behind, barely visible in the fading light.

"I thought I was in love with Jenny when we started out, yeah," he admitted.

"So you're just guessing," Sam concluded.

"I'm not just guessing," Riley shook his head. "I'm telling you, I'd choose love over flying."

"Even without really great sex," Sam qualified. "If you're going to go this route, we’ve gotta separate them."

"Even without that," Riley agreed.

Sam squinted at him. "You met someone you aren't telling me about? Forget the Hallmark cards. You’ve got someone sending you love letters? Emails or something?”

Riley laughed. "Nah. You know everyone I know."

“Is it Brenda? I saw you two laughing together this afternoon.”

“No,” Riley said. He pulled a face. “Brenda? Come on.”

Sam shrugged. “All right, whatever. Brenda’s an attractive woman.”

“Brenda doesn’t — This isn’t about Brenda,” Riley insisted. “What? So you’re saying you don't agree with me here?"

Sam didn't want to say that he didn't agree. He didn't want to say that he definitely didn't agree, but none of Sam's relationships up to that point were better than the feeling of those wings strapped to his back.

"I don't know," Sam conceded. “I guess, maybe.”

"Okay," Riley said, he leaned in closer to Sam, crowding him a little. "Well, how about this then. Say something happened. Say it was you and me and something happened and you had a choice: me or the wings. What are you going to choose, Sam? You're really telling me you'd choose flying over our friendship?"

"Oh, come on. You're changing the question now," Sam said. He shoved Riley back a little.

"No, I'm not," Riley pressed. "What's the difference?"

"It's a different question," Sam insisted. "Anyway our friendship is all kinds of tied up in flying to begin with."

"Well, fine, all I'm saying is I'd choose you," Riley stated with a shrug. He leaned back away from Sam.

"So what does that mean? What you just said, it sounds like you’re saying you’re in love with me," Sam concluded. "You see the logic you're using here?"

Riley shrugged again. He wasn’t really looking at Sam anymore, was just staring straight out at nothing.

"So you’re in love with me?" Sam pressed. The whole thing was a joke so Sam wasn't sure why he felt his heart speed up as he waited for Riley's answer.

Finally Riley seemed to deflate a little. He stood up, kicked at the dirt.

"No," he said. "That's not — I'm just saying if it came down to it and I had to choose, I'd choose you. That’s all I meant."

“Okay,” Sam said.

“I’ll let you get back to it,” Riley said, nodding toward Sam, and then he walked away, leaving Sam sitting there alone in the dark with his book.

**

Sam glanced over at the clock. It was still dark, but the birds were chirping outside, so he knew before he looked that it had to be getting close to sunrise.

It was four thirty.

Sam sat up, kicked his feet over the side of the bed. Steve had moved back to his place the day before and the door to the guest room was standing open when Sam stepped into the hall. He hadn’t changed the bed sheets yet and he contemplated lying in Steve’s bed for a while; not long, just until the sun came up.

He made it to the doorway before he caught himself and forced himself to turn around. They weren’t there yet. It’d been less than a day since Steve left. Pressing his face into Steve’s pillow now wouldn’t help. It’d just leave Sam feeling desperate and pathetic.

He’d received two messages from Steve since Steve moved home. His phone beeped just a few hours after Steve had left and Sam picked it up, laughed when he saw the message:

“Miss me yet?”

“Sounds more like you must be missing me,” Sam joked back. “You find you can’t handle it over there, you know the guest room’s still yours.”

Steve’s response: “Oh, you’re already inviting me back? Wow, I guess you really are missing me.”

“Admit nothing,” Sam returned.

Standing in the hall of his empty place at 4:30 in the morning, Sam could admit it. Yeah, it’d been less than a day and he was already missing Steve.

He also thought that Steve moving out was probably a good thing. Sam really didn’t want to rush any of this. He thought they could use the distance. As it was, he’d just about ignored everything else since he’d met Steve. He was still on leave from work, though since they weren’t actually leaving town, he was thinking he’d go back earlier than he’d told them. The nice thing about his job was that helping others tended to help him too. Since this all started, he’d been sleeping less, dreaming more. Overall, he’d been doing okay since the battle, but he was definitely feeling it.

So yeah, Sam was away from work, and it’d been weeks since he’d spoken to his friends or family. He’d just recently received an irritated message from his mother chastising him for being so out of touch. He had emails from Leila and Danny that he needed to respond to, and his nephew's birthday was coming up fast. He was toast if he forgot that.

His mother was first. He started out vague. He’d had a rough couple weeks. He’d been in a car accident, his phone was smashed. He had a friend in the hospital, and then staying with him for a while.

“A friend moves in and everything else becomes unimportant,” his mother summarized on the other end of the line. She was pretending to be irritated, but he caught a hint of what he could only describe as ‘knowing’ there too.

“Everything else didn’t become unimportant,” Sam said.

“And?” she pressed. “Is there more to this that you aren’t telling me? You’ve always been a terrible liar.”

Sam laughed. “Yeah, there is. The friend is Steve Rogers.”

“So there is more than what you’re telling me?” She pressed, totally missed what he was trying to say.

“No,” Sam said. “I mean, he’s Steve Rogers.”

Silence on the other end of the line.

“Ma?”

There was another long pause and then she said, “He always looks so stiff on the television reports.”

“He isn’t stiff,” Sam assured her.

“That’s not where I thought this was going,” she admitted. “I thought you were dating someone and didn’t want to tell me about it.”

“Well, I’m kinda hoping… maybe, eventually —“

“Eventually,” she repeated. “Oh, honey, please don’t do this to yourself again.”

“That isn’t — we’re just taking it slow. It’s been a crazy couple weeks.”

It took him a long time to get her off the phone after that. She had a thousand questions. When Sam said car accident, was it something Captain America got him involved in? Was he there when Captain America destroyed those three helicarriers? That was the last time he’d spoken to her, right after the battle, in the hospital room beside Steve’s bed. He’d been pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing then, just wanted to make sure she knew that he was all right. Now he told her everything, answered all of her questions.

So Sam caught up with his friends and relatives, went out for drinks with Leila, and heard nothing more from Steve for a full day. Sam texted Steve just once more, said, “So how does it feel being back in your place?” He’d expected Steve to come back with something sarcastic, either pro or con, but he got nothing but silence from Steve. Well, nothing but silence until the early hours of the morning when Sam heard his phone vibrate from his bedside table.

The message said, “Are you awake?”

Sam was awake, had been for a good hour. He started to type back, then changed his mind and called instead.

“Sam,” Steve said, answering right before Sam was about to give up. He sounded strange, like he didn’t actually expect that Sam would want to talk with him right then. “Hi.”

“Hi yourself,” Sam returned carefully. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “You were up?”

“That’s why I called. What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “Actually, I just wanted to let you know, I’m, uh — I’m in Philadelphia.”

“Okay,” Sam said after a moment’s pause. “What are you doing in Philadelphia?”

Steve was quiet on the other end. Sam could almost imagine the face he made when he said, “Well, it’s kind of a long story.”

He didn’t seem like he planned to start telling it.

“Okay,” Sam said again. He squeezed his eyes shut, ran a hand over his face. He’d thought — “Listen, is this something that’s going to happen every time you kiss me?”

Steve paused. “What?”

“I mean, is this a kiss-related thing,” Sam said. “The first time you kissed me, you backed out of my place real fast afterward. I thought we were just moving too fast, you know. I get that; you were right, we were moving pretty fast that day. But now — I’d say we’re taking things nice and slow now. I thought we were in a good spot, and yet you’re telling me you kissed me, moved out of my place, and now you’re in Philadelphia.”

“No, of course — Sam, no! No, this isn’t a kiss-related thing.” Steve actually sounded pretty hurt that Sam would come to that conclusion.

“All right,” Sam said. He relaxed a little, let his arm drop back against the bed beside him. “You gotta admit, it seemed a little — you can’t blame a guy for wondering. I guess you got in touch with Fury?”

“I did,” Steve said.

“You should have said. I could have come with you,” Sam paused and then amended. “But if you didn’t want my help, I wouldn’t have pushed too hard.”

“I — “ Steve stumbled. “Don’t think — I meant what I said the other day, but you’re right, I don’t want your help with this. I’ll tell you why, but I don’t want to do that now. I will if this is upsetting you. If you want me to, of course, I’ll tell you, but I don’t — I want to wait until it’s finished.”

It was sometimes hard to visualize a person’s expression when you were talking to them on the phone, but Sam felt like he could see Steve pretty well. He listened to what Steve was saying and he could see the way his mouth was turned down in a frown, the earnestness in his expression and the tightness in his forehead.

“I’m not upset,” Sam said. “I was worried that you might’ve been upset. I’m not going to make you tell me anything you aren’t ready to say. Just don’t get yourself killed, all right?”

A long pause on the other end of the line. “Is that an order?” Steve returned, and Sam could tell the light had returned to Steve’s eyes. They were back to banter.

“You’re damn right that’s an order, Cap,” Sam shot back. He couldn’t help himself. He was smiling.

“I’ll be back in town tomorrow,” Steve laughed, which Sam hoped was a good sign that Steve wasn’t actually doing anything that might land him back in a hospital. “Why don’t you come to my place tomorrow night? I’ll make dinner. Or order something for dinner. I don’t know. We’ll eat dinner.”

“Like a date,” Sam clarified.

“Whatever you want to call it.”

“I’m calling it a date,” Sam said. He was grinning now.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. There was a pause. “Okay. Yeah, like a date.”

“You sound nervous,” Sam laughed.

“Well, I am a little nervous now,” Steve admitted.

“Good nervous, or ‘I’ve just decided to stay in Philadelphia permanently’ nervous?” Sam asked.

“No,” Steve laughed. “No, it’s good nervous.”

“Good.”

**

They were meeting more-or-less weekly now. As usual, Bucky was already at the bench when Sam arrived. Sam had stopped for coffee and he held out a cup for Bucky to take. Bucky accepted it and Sam sat down beside him, shoved a hand in his pocket and pulled out a couple packets of sugar and some cups of creamer.

“I wasn’t sure how you took it,” Sam explained as he set the packets on the bench between them.

Bucky held the cup of coffee in his hand. He didn’t move for the sugar or the cream. Sam glanced over at him, then paused and looked a little closer, squinted.

“Did you — “ He leaned in toward Bucky. “Is your hair all tucked up in there today, or did you get a haircut?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. He set down the coffee cup, removed his cap and ran a hand through his hair.

“Wow,” Sam said. He leaned back so that he could take in the whole picture. Bucky looked… he looked really good. Sam tried to imagine Bucky Barnes walking into a barber shop. Did he go alone? Did he speak to the barber? More than he was speaking to Sam? Did he cut it himself? If he cut it himself, he did a pretty good job by the looks of it.

“Damn, dude, you clean up good,” Sam concluded. He whistled and Bucky huffed a little, shrugged.

Sam took a sip of his coffee. It was clear that Sam looking at Bucky was starting to make the guy uncomfortable so Sam turned away, stared into the trees instead.

“Okay, so, uh, what’s new with me since the last time we saw each other,” Sam said, trying to decide what he should talk about. The first thing that came to mind, as usual, was Steve. Sam wasn’t about to talk about Steve kissing him — he still wasn’t sure where things stood with Bucky — but Steve moving back into his own place; that seemed like a good thing to bring up. Steve seemed to want Bucky to know. “Well, Steve moved out of my place and back into his. So, you know, if you want to get in touch with him, that’s where he is. Except probably not right now as he’s been out of town the last couple days.”

“He left?” Bucky asked, frowning over toward Sam.

Okay, that was new, actually asking questions about Steve.

“Not left left,” Sam clarified. “He skipped town for a couple days, told me he was in Philadelphia. I don’t know the details, but he’ll be back later today.”

Bucky thought about that and then nodded. Sam wondered if Bucky would keep meeting with Sam if it turned out Steve was gone for good. He wasn’t about to ask, decided on a different route instead.

“You know, Steve really would love to be sitting here with you.”

Bucky shrugged. Sam thought that was all he was going to get, but after a moment Bucky followed that up with words:

“My head’s a mess,” Bucky admitted. “A lot’s come back, but they programmed something in there. I had a mission and I didn’t complete it and I — I think I need to give it some time.”

Sam nodded. “We’re talking now?”

“You started saying something worth responding to,” Bucky returned, barely missed a beat.

Sam laughed. “Ouch, man.”

It was the first time — other than in those old video reels at the Smithsonian — that Sam saw Bucky Barnes smile. With his hair cut, his face shaved, and the hint of a smile on his face, Sam guessed he probably looked a lot like the Bucky that Steve remembered. He guessed Steve would probably give just about anything to be here in Sam’s place. Sam would never wish Bucky’s fate on anyone, let alone Riley, but he knew that if it was Steve and Riley sitting here on this bench, it’d kill Sam knowing that Riley felt safer talking to a stranger than he did to Sam.

“You could talk to someone,” Sam suggested. He knew it was reaching, but it didn’t hurt to throw it out there. “There are counselors trained to help people who’ve been through — I can give you a list of names. I could help you make an appointment, go with you, sit in the waiting room, you know?”

Bucky sat silent beside him.

“Or Steve would go with you. Whatever you want.”

The smile had slipped from Bucky’s face.

“You don’t have to do anything right now. It’s just something to think about,” Sam said. “There are people to help with this.”

Bucky stared off into the woods for a while and then turned toward Sam.

“The second day that he sat here waiting, I was over there,” Bucky nodded toward a dense patch of trees, “with a gun pointed right at his head.”

It wasn’t what Sam expected and he sat there and took in the information, turned it over.

“He was my best friend,” Bucky said. “That guy — of everyone I’ve ever known, Steve’s always been…”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed when Bucky didn’t continue. “That’s scary, I know. It’s terrifying, but listen to what you’re telling me. You didn’t do it. You walked away and instead of hurting him, you’re sitting here with me.”

Bucky shrugged. “Yeah,” he echoed. “That’s hurting him too though, isn’t it.”

Sam shook his head. “You need to do what you need to do. Steve’s fine. Don’t worry about that.”

Bucky smiled again, huffed a little and shook his head.

“Can I ask what you did with the gun?” Sam tried after a few more minutes. “Do you still have it?”

“No,” Bucky said, tipped his head toward Sam. “I had four, but after that day I threw them in the river. I’d already blown up the rest.”

**

Sam stood in the middle of Steve’s apartment, turned in a circle. It still smelled vaguely like fresh paint and wood varnish, but other than that it looked nice and finished. It looked lived-in. It looked like Steve had a surprising amount of stuff for someone who’d slept through most of the last several decades.

Steve had shelves full of books. There were stacks and piles on one corner of the floor. Behind them were a bunch of framed maps and old photographs.

“Are you running a black market bookshop out of your living room? The Steve Rogers Library?” Sam asked.

Steve laughed from the kitchen.

“I like going to flea markets and book sales,” Steve explained. “Have you been over to Eastern Market?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “I’ve been once or twice.” He’d dated a girl for a while who loved to spend Sunday mornings perusing tables of jewelry. There was a pretty good butcher inside from what Sam recalled.

“There’s a guy there on the weekends with a nice collection of old maps,” Steve said. “There’s a good used bookstore over there too, and another one a couple blocks south of here. I’ve spent a lot of time in there.”

“Well, judging by your floor, I’m guessing they must love you,” Sam said. Not that Sam was one to judge. Sam might not be big on used bookstores or framing old maps, but Sam spent a lot of time on wine and music. And – oh wow, okay, Steve was apparently collecting albums as well.

Sam was crouched down beside the shelves of vinyl and cassette tapes when Steve came back into the room carrying two glasses from the bottle of wine that Sam brought over with him. He handed one of them to Sam and Sam took it, barely looking up from the titles.

“You can put something on if you want,” Steve offered.

Sam laughed. “And here I was thinking you needed my music recommendations.” It was a pretty decent collection Steve had started for himself. There was a lot of older stuff from the 40’s, but a lot from after that too, Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen. Sam pulled out a Miles Davis album (one of three in Steve’s collection) and got it started, then came over to sit on the couch with Steve.

“Still nervous?” Sam asked.

Steve smiled and looked away.

“No, I’m okay,” he said, but he was looking into his wine when he said it and he’d looked pretty stressed when he opened the door to let Sam in. The first thing he did was admit that he didn’t trust his own cooking and had just put in an order for Chinese instead. It was pretty flattering that an evening in with Sam had Steve flustered, especially considering how many evenings they’d spent together the last few weeks just lounging around on Sam’s couch in front of the television.

Sam wanted to lean in, turn Steve’s face toward him and kiss him, but that could come later, after they ate. They had some things they should probably talk about first.

“Everything all right in the City of Brotherly Love?” Sam asked. “I didn’t see anything on the news, so whatever happened, you must have done your job well.”

Steve smiled, tilted his head. “Philadelphia was fine,” Steve said.

“But we aren’t talking about it yet,” Sam guessed.

“I just need another week or two,” Steve admitted. “I might have to go to New York for a few days.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “So I guess we’re done talking about you then. It was good catching up. Really interesting stuff.”

“All right,” Steve laughed. “Let’s talk about you.”

“Not a whole lot to tell you about me,” Sam said. “How about we talk about Bucky instead. He started speaking to me a little more. He showed up with a haircut. It looks good.”

Steve looked up, his smile slipping a little. “What did he say?”

“He said the big reason he hasn’t reached out to you is because he’s worried that he might try to kill you again. He said Hydra gave him a mission and he didn’t complete it.”

Steve shook his head. “Bucky isn’t going to kill me.”

“He might try,” Sam pointed out. “The way he tells it, he came pretty close when you were sitting out there on that bench.”

“He didn’t do it.”

“No,” Sam agreed. “He didn’t do it, but there’s something else. Remember how I told you Alexander Pierce’s house burned down while you were in the hospital? We all assumed it was what was left of Hydra covering their tracks.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Steve frowned.

“I’m pretty sure that was Bucky,” Sam said. “The first time I met him on that trail I could smell smoke on him. Today he told me he was holding onto four guns that he threw into the Potomac. He only had four to get rid of because he’d already blown up the rest.”

“It was a fire that destroyed Pierce’s home,” Steve said. “Not an explosion.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sam agreed. “But I looked into it this afternoon and two days after the fire there was an explosion at a bank in Columbia Heights.”

“You think that was Bucky too,” Steve guessed.

“Might’ve been,” Sam agreed.

“But he’s…”

Sam shrugged. “So far he seems to be doing a pretty good job of working through some things on his own, yeah.”

Steve thought about this, nodded. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything you’ve done since we met. I —”

“You don’t have to thank me.”

Steve stared down into his wine. His mouth was open a little, like he might say something more at any moment, but just then the buzzer rang and Steve looked up, surprised.

“You want me to get that?” Sam asked.

Steve shook his head. He smiled at Sam. “I spent all evening painstakingly preparing that food for us. I can go get it.”

Sam laughed. “All right. You do that then.”

**

They’d just started clearing the table when Steve stopped Sam, a hand to his shoulder. Sam was still holding a container of lo mein when Steve leaned in and kissed him. He could tell that Steve intended it to be casual, just a brief press of lips before they went back to what they were doing. Sam could tell that that was what Steve planned, but just as Steve started to pull away, he paused, his eyes on Sam, and then he moved back in for more.

Sam smiled against Steve’s mouth.

“You keep doing what you’re doing,” Sam said. “I’m just gonna put this down right here.” He held Steve close with his free hand as he leaned over to set the container back on the edge of the table. Steve stayed where he was, his forehead pressed to Sam’s, waiting patiently for Sam to finish.

“Good idea,” Steve said once the carton was safely back on the table, and then he kissed Sam again, slow and careful.

Steve still wasn’t that good at this and Sam just loved that, couldn’t help but find it strangely refreshing and wonderful. Steve Rogers was good at everything, but somehow this was the thing that had slipped through the cracks. Steve Rogers could jump from a plane and survive the fall, could stand there, on the spot, and make a speech that could rouse the hearts and minds of an entire organization, but he couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to do with his hands once he started kissing someone. They started at Sam’s shoulders, his fingers curling light and unsure, but they stayed there for only a moment before they fell away only to reappear briefly at Sam’s elbows.

Sam contemplated taking control of the kiss, pushing a little. He imagined pressing Steve back, the way Steve’s fingers would tighten on Sam, the way his face might flush as Sam pressed close. He didn’t do it; didn’t actually want to push Steve. Instead he cupped Steve’s face, his fingers brushing lightly at the back of Steve’s neck. Steve’s hands fell away from him again. Finally they settled on Sam’s waist and stayed there, holding on tight.

Sam loved that he could feel Steve experiencing this, learning it, thinking about it and responding. Each time Steve kissed Sam it felt a little different, a little more sure. Or Sam thought it did until Steve reached up and his hand covered Sam’s, pulled it away from Steve’s face as Steve leaned back, his forehead furrowed.

“We should probably slow down,” Sam agreed, a little breathless. When Steve’s face didn’t smooth out, Sam continued, “Are you — What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just — When I kissed you the first time, before all this,” Steve said, gesturing to the room as though it contained everything to sum up the last few weeks, “Did it feel like it was the first time I’d kissed anyone since 1945?”

No, it didn’t feel like the first time Steve had kissed anyone since the forties. It felt like it might have been the first time Steve had kissed anyone ever.

“Was it the first time you’d kissed anyone since 1945?” Sam returned.

“Well, yeah,” Steve said. He wiped his hands on his pants, picked up Sam’s abandoned container of lo mein and headed into the kitchen. “I was pretty busy until recently.”

Sam grabbed the rest of the containers and followed.

“Was it the first time you’d kissed anyone?” Sam amended, couldn’t help himself, suddenly really wanted to know. He leaned back against the counter, watched as Steve rinsed out their glasses.

Steve looked up. “No! You thought it felt like — ?“ Steve trailed off, nodded and then, unable to look directly at Sam, concluded, “So that’s it then; I’m a terrible kisser.”

“Whoa, hold up, I definitely didn’t say that,” Sam said, pushing away from the counter.

Steve shot him a withering look, and Sam laughed. He stepped closer to Steve, pressed his mouth to Steve’s back, the fabric of Steve’s shirt warm beneath his lips. His hand slid around Steve, settled on the firm muscles of Steve’s stomach. After a moment, Steve covered Sam’s hand with his own.

It all felt more intimate than anything that had come before it and Sam shut his eyes. He allowed himself the moment, just breathing in Steve’s warmth, Steve’s hand holding him close. It was Steve who moved first, turning beneath Sam’s hand until they were facing each other, Sam’s palm pressed low on Steve’s back instead. Sam kissed Steve’s frowning mouth.

“I didn’t say that,” Sam repeated. “You think kissing someone — being kissed by someone like you — and then afterward wondering if you’re the first person that guy’s ever decided to kiss — you think that’s something that could feel terrible?”

Steve was so close, just looking back at Sam. Sam wanted — he had to look away. He looked down, watched the rise and fall of Steve’s chest as Steve breathed. He removed his hand from Steve’s back and pressed it to his chest instead.

“You aren’t the first person I’ve kissed,” Steve insisted. The frown was gone. Now there was a small hint of a smile playing at his lips.

“All right,” Sam said. He pulled his hand away, took a step back. Steve was still smiling and Sam felt like he’d run out of breath, felt like he wouldn’t mind if Steve pushed him to the floor right there and — Sam shook his head, shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled back at Steve. “First person you kissed since 1945 then. I’m good with that. I can definitely work with that.”

**

“What’s this?” Bucky asked, taking the book that Sam held out to him.

“Steve made you a list,” Sam said. He sat down beside Bucky and wiped his palms on his shorts. The temperature had been climbing all week. Despite that, Barnes was still fully covered, gloves over his hands. He didn’t look like he was breaking a sweat.

“You aren’t overheating in all those clothes?” Sam asked.

Bucky looked Sam up and down. “I’m all right. What’s the list?”

Sam nodded toward the book. “He’s been keeping a book like that since he woke up, you know, stuff that he missed in the last seventy years; stuff he should look into. He’s been trying to catch up and he thought, well, so are you, so he had some suggestions. The Marvin Gaye album on there was mine though. I added that.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. He looked down at the book in his hands, but didn’t open it.

Steve had gone through his own list carefully, sorting out the things he’d crossed off, adding the ones that he thought might help Bucky. He added everything that he hadn’t crossed off himself yet, right down to his list of local restaurants.

“He thinks you should go to the zoo one of these days,” Sam pointed out when Bucky still didn’t make a move to open the book. “There’s a panda cub over there.”

“What — that black and white bear we saw at the fair in ‘39?” Bucky asked. “Jesus, Steve loved that thing.”

“Yeah?” Sam asked.

“He spent weeks trying to draw it from memory in this pad of paper he was always carrying around with him,” Bucky said.

He stopped talking and stared down at the book in his hand, like he was only just realizing this was maybe a little similar; something that Steve had put together with his hands. Eventually he opened it and scanned the first page.

“His handwriting’s the same,” Bucky noted, his tone dull.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “I guess it would be.”

Bucky closed the book and set it on the bench between them. Sam watched Bucky and waited, but Bucky didn’t look back at him. He sat there for a long moment, not saying anything, just sort of staring off into nothing. Eventually his whole face twisted. He squeezed his eyes shut, leaned forward, his head in his hands and his elbows pressed to his knees.

Sam carefully reached out and set a hand on Bucky’s back. Bucky didn’t flinch or react negatively to Sam’s touch so Sam left his hand there, hoped that the press of his palm was helping to ground Bucky a little.

“It’s okay, man,” Sam said, his voice low so that Bucky heard it, but it didn’t feel too much like an intrusion. “Let it out. We’re okay here.”

Bucky sat there for a while, his palms pressed tight over his eyes. Finally Sam felt him relax a little, some of the tension easing beneath Sam’s hand. When Bucky sat up, Sam pulled away. Bucky exhaled, smiled, shook his head. It wasn’t a good smile. More the kind of smile that someone smiled because it seemed a better option than any of the others that came to mind. Bucky leaned back against the bench.

“Shit, would you look at us?” he asked. He tilted his head toward Sam. “How the hell did we end up here?”

**

The lighting in Steve’s living room was dim. Billie Holiday was singing about a fine romance from Steve’s record player. Sam sipped his wine, sank back into the leather cushions of Steve’s couch and shut his eyes. He listened to Billie, to Steve moving around in the other room. It had been a long time since Sam had felt this comfortable or content. He wanted to freeze the moment, hold on to it, live right here for a while.

“If you’re going to fall asleep like that, set down the glass of wine first.”

Sam opened one eye to find Steve leaning against the wall on the other side of the room, just watching him.

Okay, nevermind. Forget that last moment. Sam would rather live in this one. Let him freeze this moment instead.

“You should stay tonight,” Steve said. His shoulder rose and fell against the wall as he shrugged.

Sam smiled. “You’re already itching for a roommate?”

Steve shook his head, smiled. “Not a roommate, just you.”

Sam made an exaggerated show of considering Steve’s proposition. Steve laughed.

“Okay,” Steve said. He rolled his eyes and pushed himself away from the wall.

“Smooth,” Sam concluded as Steve held out a hand for Sam’s glass. Sam handed it over and Steve set it down on the coffee table. He rested his knee on the couch beside Sam, leaned over, one hand on the armrest to Sam’s left, the other pushing at the cushions on Sam’s right, and then he moved in and pressed a light kiss to Sam’s mouth. Sam kissed him back and then continued talking: “That was really smooth.”

“Are you done?” Steve asked, still leaning over him.

“Oh, I get it,” Sam said. “Mood lighting. We’ve got a little Billie going. It’s hard not to want to be a little smooth.”

Steve shook his head, smiled down at Sam, all warm eyes and long eyelashes, that lower lip. Sam watched as Steve broke eye contact to glance down at Sam’s mouth, then back up at Sam. He did it once more and when Sam caught Steve’s eye and raised his eyebrows, Steve’s smile pulled a little wider.

Forget everything he said before. This moment; this was the moment he’d choose.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Like I was saying. Smooth.”

He reached for Steve, brought him down to kiss. Steve was still smiling, just a little, and when Sam pulled back, the happy warmth of Steve’s expression set Sam’s whole chest aching. His throat felt tight and he pushed forward and kissed Steve again. He kept moving, pushing up from his slouched position on the couch. Steve moved with him, turned and sat down, and Sam followed close behind until he was the one crowding in over Steve, his kisses growing more insistent. This time Steve’s mouth opened easily beneath his. Steve didn’t start or pull away now when Sam’s tongue dipped in for a taste; Steve just held him tighter, tasted him right back.

They were starting to get pretty good at this now. Sam thought there was really something to be said about taking things slow here. Making out on Steve’s couch with wine on their tongues and Billie Holiday as their soundtrack. They’d been pretty good at taking it slow, keeping the tone light in an attempt to keep it in balance with everything else that was happening, but that lightness felt a little like an act at times. Sam looked at Steve looking back at him and he thought, yeah, this was it. He was in this. If he let himself, he’d fall all the way. He’d fall so fucking hard.

But then he stopped. Sam caught himself and before long he was thinking of Bucky on that bench breaking down after one look at Steve’s handwriting. Steve said he wasn’t looking for a roommate, but that probably wasn’t entirely true — Sam knew that Steve would move Bucky into his place in a heartbeat if Bucky was willing. Which wasn’t to say — Sam wouldn’t have it any other way. Sam had offered Steve’s place to Bucky himself, after all. Hell, Sam would offer Bucky the guest room in his own house at this point if he thought Bucky might actually take him up on the offer. The roommate thing wasn’t the point, but it didn’t change the fact that Bucky was a question mark for Sam. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t wondered exactly how close the story of Steve’s loss was to Sam’s own. Sam and Steve both lost people in war, they both watched as someone fell, unable to do a damn thing about it. They’d both lost love, but what did that mean for Steve? Did that mean Peggy? Was it Bucky? Was it both?

For a while he thought maybe that was why Steve was holding back. He’d kissed Sam when he thought that Bucky was gone, and then to find out that he was back, maybe there was something to that. But here they were and Steve was kissing Sam again, had initiated it and once he started, didn’t seem all that inclined to stop. So maybe Sam was way off. Maybe the situation wasn’t what Sam thought at all.

Maybe he should stop wondering about it and just ask Steve instead.

Sam pulled away, sat back. He pressed his lips to the back of his hand for a moment to collect himself.

“Can we talk about this? Sam asked. “As much as I’m all for what we’re doing here, I think it might be good to talk about what we’re getting ourselves into. I don’t know about you, but I think I need to know.”

Steve leaned in and pressed another kiss to Sam’s mouth, lighter this time. “Okay.”

“You know, I spent a lot of time wondering if we were ever going to get back to this,” Sam admitted. “I mean, it seemed like maybe we had something starting there, but then a lot of things changed, so... “

Steve swallowed, leaned back. He frowned, thinking it over, and then said, “Are you — you still think Philadelphia was kissing-related?”

“No, I’m not talking about Philadephia,” Sam said. “I’m talking about —”

“Oh,” Steve interrupted. “You mean Bucky?”

“I mean everything,” Sam said. “It was an intense few days. But yeah, Bucky. I thought maybe you, I don’t know, had a history. I mean, look, I see you and then I go and I talk to him and I don’t really know what it is I’m going between. I get that it probably doesn’t feel like it right now, but eventually Bucky’s gonna be ready to let you in. I’m not saying I want to stop what we’re doing here — I definitely don’t want to stop what we’re doing — all I’m saying is, let’s go full disclosure, all right? I don’t want to let myself get too deep in this if there’s a chance that —“

“No,” Steve cut in, shook his head. “This is never how it was with Bucky. Sam, you’ve got it all wrong.”

“No?” Sam asked. “I thought, maybe — “

“You think I’d be — Me and Buck, we’ve practically known each other since we were kids. He’s my best friend; my only friend for the longest time. I’d do anything for him, but it wasn’t like this.”

“Did you ever want it to be like this?” Sam asked, gently.

Steve smiled, shrugged. “Yeah, of course I wanted it to be like this. It just wasn’t really Bucky I was picturing.”

Before Sam could ask Steve who it was Steve pictured (Sam was pretty sure he could guess), Steve reached for him and said, “Do you know who I’m picturing now?”

Sam felt heat rise to his face, felt something in his chest shift a bit. So far they’d been so good at keeping things light, taking things slow. Sam swallowed and then he guessed:

“Thor?”

**

Bucky still had the book with him the next time he met with Sam. For a moment Sam thought Bucky was going to try to return it, but he didn’t hand it back to Sam, just held it tight in his fingers.

“I remember a lot more than you think I do,” Bucky said, nodding toward the book.

“I didn’t think anything,” Sam said. “You’d already heard that album, then?”

“No,” Bucky admitted.

Sam shrugged. “See.”

Bucky set the book aside. He twisted his hands together and then began pulling at his gloves. Once they were off he stared at his hands, one flesh and bone, the other metal. He flexed then, curled his fingers, watched them move.

“I’m a good listener,” Sam offered. “If you want to talk about it.”

Bucky pushed the sleeves of his shirt up on his arms, leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees.

“I’ve been thinking about Steve a lot lately,” Bucky admitted, turning to look at Sam over his shoulder.

“Yeah?” Sam asked.

“Yeah,” Bucky nodded. He clenched his hands into fists, then slowly stretched them open again. “I — When Steve first showed up after he let them give him that serum, I didn’t want to look at him. I didn’t want to look at him but I couldn’t stop staring, you know?”

Bucky didn’t wait for Sam’s answer before he continued.

“It seemed horrible to me at first,” Bucky admitted. “It took me a while to get past it — Hydra’s guy, he lost his entire face, but Steve… It wasn’t just more muscle. He was taller. He carried himself differently, walked different. His jaw was different, wider.” Bucky leaned forward, touched his own jaw as he spoke. “I spent a lot of time just cataloguing all the things about him that had changed, all the ways he wasn’t the same guy I knew anymore. And after a while you start to realize what you’re doing, you’re realize it’s stupid, and then you turn that on yourself. I wasn’t the same guy either, but the thing was, with Steve it was just physical stuff, just — what’s that word? — just the outside.”

“Surficial,” Sam suggested quietly.

“Yeah,” Bucky nodded. “With Steve it was all surficial. He was exactly the same guy he always was where it mattered. You could look at him for five seconds and still know that. Me on the other hand, I looked the same then, but I wasn’t. I knew I wasn’t. I don’t think Steve ever understood that. I don’t even know – and now, I’m — Does he get that now? I’m not —”

“War changes all of us,” Sam offered. “Sometimes those changes are physical, but most of the changes aren’t. I can’t speak for Steve, but my guess is he understands that more than you might think.”

**

Steve was in New York and Sam was once again sitting on the Rock Creek Trail beside Bucky Barnes. Steve told Sam where he was going a full day before he left this time, though he seemed odd about it, fidgety and excited.

“What’s all this?” Sam asked, gesturing in Steve’s general direction. “You seem pretty excited to get out of here.” Sam paused. “Wait, is Thor gonna be there?”

Steve stood there confused for a long moment, and then said, “I’m never introducing you.”

“Oh, you’re feeling threatened?” Sam asked. He folded his arms across his chest.

“A little,” Steve admitted.

Sam looked Steve up and down. “Yeah, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Steve smiled at that, one shoulder pulled up into a small shrug. Sam meant it; he joked about Thor because it was easy to joke about a god, but when Sam thought about Steve, more often than not, Sam just worried that he wanted too much.

“I better get going,” Steve said. His smile slipped a little and then he leaned in and carefully kissed Sam. It was a quick kiss; a little too quick. Sam didn’t even have time to unfold his arms to let Steve get closer before Steve was already pulling away.

Now Sam sat on the bench beside Bucky. He’d been trying to make small talk, but his mind kept wandering, so they’d mostly been sitting in silence.

“I don’t think I know any other bench in DC quite as well as I know this one,” Sam was saying, but he trailed off when Bucky didn’t respond.

Sam couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d just stood there in Steve’s apartment, arms folded across his chest. He had no problem making jokes about Thor, but then he didn’t follow it up with truth, with action. He just stood there until Steve gave in, awkwardly kissed him good-bye.

Despite that hesitation between them before Steve’s departure, Steve called him that night and everything felt nice and natural over the phone.

“We should plan a weekend,” Steve said. “You and me here.”

“What, like you show me your old neighborhood, I’ll show you mine?”

“Maybe,” Steve said. “Yeah, sure, why not?”

Sam was still smiling after they’d ended the call, but now, the next morning, he was hung up on that kiss.

“Yeah, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Sam had said, and Steve had smiled at him, that little one-shouldered shrug, and that was supposed to be Sam’s cue. It should have been Sam’s cue to kiss Steve, but he’d just stood there, worried that he might overstep, worried that he might push things too hard.

Sam turned to look at Bucky. Bucky’s mouth was set down in a frown. He felt Sam watching and turned to glance back at Sam.

“Hey, uh, can I ask you a question?” Sam asked. “It’s a pretty random one.”

Bucky shrugged. Sam took that to mean Bucky was willing to let Sam ask anyway, even if he had no intention of answering.

“What would you say if I told you I’ve been thinking about kissing Steve?”

“Kissing him,” Bucky repeated, still frowning.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “You know, if I told you I’ve been thinking maybe I might want a relationship. With Steve. What would you say if I told you I think I want to put the moves on your friend?”

Bucky stared at Sam for a moment longer, long enough that Sam thought he might have to keep translating, but just then Bucky’s face broke and he began to laugh. Sam was surprised by how light and earnest it sounded.

“That’s funny, huh?” Sam asked. He nodded, smiling. “Okay, yeah, fine. I’m serious, but you go ahead. Laugh it up.”

“You should definitely do more than just think about that,” Bucky said. He reached out and clapped his hand — the one that wasn’t metal — on Sam’s back. Sam jumped at the unexpected contact. As Bucky continued, his hand slid over to grip Sam’s shoulder, shaking him a little for emphasis.

“Okay, you got me,” Sam conceded. “I’ve already been doing a little more than just thinking about it.”

“Yeah?” Bucky asked. “Good. It’s about fucking time that guy saw some action. Jesus. Take him dancing. He’ll love it. He can’t dance — or at least he couldn’t, who the hell knows now — but put up with him tripping all over himself and I can almost guarantee he’ll follow that up by falling all over you.”

“Really,” Sam said, glancing at Bucky’s hand where it still sat on his shoulder.

“He’ll fall all over you,” Bucky repeated with a nod and another squeeze to Sam’s shoulder.

“No, I mean you’re really supporting me here?” Sam clarified.

Bucky looked at him for a long moment before he answered with another question. “You’re looking for my permission?”

Sam shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I am, not that I’d — I just don’t want to step on any toes, you know. I asked Steve, but — I don’t know. I guess I still wasn’t sure if I’d be stepping on any here. I’d rather not set myself up to have my heart broken if I can help it, though if you wanna know the truth, I already feel like I’m in this deeper than I should have allowed myself to get. So yeah, I guess I’m asking for your permission. Are you giving it?”

Bucky squinted at him. His hand fell away from Sam’s shoulder and he just sat there, his frown back and his eyes unfocused. When he looked back up at Sam, his eyes were a little wet, but his smile looked real.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m giving it.” And just like that, Sam felt the last of his excuses fall away.

Sam’s excuses. That’s what they were, weren’t they? It was all just excuses.

“Don’t do this to yourself again,” his mother had asked. “If you keep waiting for eventually, you know there’s a good chance it’s just going to turn into never. How many times have you told me how hard it was to learn that lesson?”

It wasn’t Bucky or Steve holding them back; it was Sam. It was Sam standing there waiting for Steve to kiss him, promising himself he wouldn’t make that first move. It was Sam keeping everything at a light flirtation, a tease, a game. It was Sam, who’d worked so hard for so many years, but still found himself too afraid of holding on to someone too tightly just in case they were yanked away.

Take this slow, he told himself. Be careful not to touch, and if you do, don’t linger. Don’t push. Brush off that invitation to stay the night.

Sam had just said it aloud. He was already in this deeper than he should have allowed himself to get, but what did that mean? Why shouldn’t he allow himself to fall for Steve? It seemed ridiculous suddenly. Steve was everything Sam wanted, more than Sam dared to ask for, and the way Steve sometimes looked at Sam, Sam knew, would have to be blind to think — and yet here Sam was, still questioning Steve’s motives, still questioning Steve’s interest in him.

It was bullshit and worse; it was insulting to Steve. Steve had told Sam what he wanted. He was making it pretty clear, had been for a while now. Sam was the one holding back, and if he kept holding back, if he kept assuming that it was Steve running away from him, that it was Steve who wasn’t ready, that it was Steve who needed to find room in his life — if Sam kept telling himself that maybe he didn’t have a chance, then where would they end up? Did Sam want this or not? What the hell was he waiting for?

Sam cleared his throat, shook his head. “Dancing, you said?”

“That’s what I would have said before all of this,” Bucky shrugged. “Isn’t dancing still… ?”

“No, yeah,” Sam agreed quickly. “Dancing is a good suggestion. Dancing it is.”

Steve had made his move. He’d made plenty of moves; it was Sam’s turn now.

“How is he?” Bucky asked then, a genuine question, one that Sam hadn’t expected to hear. Bucky was asking after Steve, wanted to talk about him, might even want to talk to him eventually, and Sam looked over at Bucky and thought, yeah; this all might actually work out okay.

**

“I have something to show you,” Steve said as he opened the door to let Sam into his apartment.

“Okay,” Sam returned. He stepped inside past Steve. “I’ve actually got something to show you too.”

Steve leaned forward and kissed the corner of Sam’s mouth. Sam turned into it, his hand coming up to curl around Steve’s neck. He felt Steve smile into the kiss just before Steve pulled away, held Sam by the shoulders and said, “I just need to finish one thing.” Steve released Sam and disappeared down the hall and into his bedroom.

“Okay,” Sam said again, this time to the empty room. He kicked off his shoes and then set the backpack he was carrying on the table before he went straight for the record player in the corner of the living room.

He’d been thinking a lot about Bucky’s advice.

Sam had been falling for Steve since the moment they met, but he was showing it through light-hearted flirting, with kisses that he made sure stayed on a low simmer, by waiting for Steve to make every move. It was Sam’s turn. He’d run out of reasons to hold Steve close while making sure to keep himself a safe distance away.

He pulled out the John Coltrane album that he’d given Steve two weeks earlier and set it playing, the sounds of Coltrane’s saxophone filling the room, slow and smooth.

Steve returned just as Sam was standing up.

“Hey,” Steve said from the doorway.

“Hey,” Sam smiled. “Welcome back.”

Steve didn’t move, just stood there looking at Sam, a small smile playing at his lips.

You’re my guy, Steve had said. I’d rather be looking at you. You know who I’m thinking about now? Jesus, Steve was better at this than Sam was. Sam might be the first person Steve had kissed since 1945, but Steve was so far ahead of the game here.

“You’ve been waiting for me to catch up for a while now, haven’t you,” Sam guessed.

“What?” Steve asked. He took a step closer to Sam and Sam reached out for him. Steve looked down at Sam’s hand and then took it in his own.

"What I mean is, I've been talking a lot about taking things slow, keeping it light," Sam said, pulling Steve closer as he spoke. "And I told myself I was doing that for you, but truth is, it was me that needed to get my head around it all. I spent some time doing that and I'm here. So I'm just letting you know; whenever you're ready to speed things up a little, I'm ready too."

Sam wrapped his arm around Steve, pressed his hand to Steve’s back.

"Okay," Steve said. His hand gripped Sam’s a little tighter. "I'm ready."

Sam laughed. "All right. See, you were waiting for me to catch up, weren't you."

"Well, yeah," Steve admitted. "I thought I’d been laying it on pretty heavy, but I don't really — I figured you knew what you were doing."

"I'm starting to think you might be better at this than I am." Sam began moving slowly with the music. Steve glanced down at his feet, but his focus stayed on their conversation.

"I don't know about that," Steve shrugged. He looked back up at Sam, seemed a little embarrassed. "For a while there I was convinced that I'd screwed things up enough with that first kiss that you wouldn't want anything to do with a second and I should just count myself lucky that you were sticking around at all."

Sam nodded. "Yeah, okay. I know I told you before that your instincts are usually good, but man, you were so far off on that one."

"I’m glad to hear it," Steve sighed. Whatever tension he was holding onto seemed to drain out of him then and it felt a little like he’d melted in Sam’s arms.

Sam grinned and held Steve tighter. "So what I'm getting from this conversation is that we've both been unnecessarily insecure and foolish."

Steve laughed. "Yeah, I guess that's about it."

"How about we try to stop that," Sam suggested. He began to slide his hand up Steve’s arm, his fingers sliding up into the hair at the back of Steve’s neck, pulling him down into a kiss.

"Yeah," Steve murmured, just before their mouths met.

And then Steve stepped on Sam’s foot.

“Sorry,” Steve said. He pulled back from Sam’s kiss, looked down at his feet again, and then back up at Sam. “Are we – you want to dance?”

“Is that okay?” Sam asked. He leaned in, pressed a kiss to Steve’s shoulder.

“Oh,” Steve said. “Wait.” He tensed up almost immediately.

“It’s not okay?” Sam guessed, pausing. His hand fell away from Steve’s shoulder and Steve pulled him tighter, squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“No,” Steve stumbled. “I mean, yes, of course. Yes, it’s more than okay, but I had something I wanted to show you first.” He unwrapped Sam’s arm from around him, took a step back.

Sam hesitated. “Okay?”

“Come on.” Steve tipped his head toward the bedroom, indicating that Sam should follow. Sam did as he was told, coming up with a thousand jokes he could make about it along the way.

“What you want to show me is in your —?” Sam stopped short and stared.

Steve was standing next to the bed, his arms folded across his broad chest and his expression tight, waiting. Lying there on Steve’s bed was an Exo-7 Falcon wing pack.

Sam took a step closer. He reached out and ran his fingers over the label.

“You’re —” Sam started. “Is this really —?”

Steve shrugged.

“How did you — ?“ Sam pressed both hands to the pack, making sure it was real, really there. He lifted it to feel its weight. It felt good, real, and he gripped it tight in his hands and turned toward Steve. “This is what you were doing? This is what you didn’t want to tell me about?”

“This is it,” Steve confirmed with that lopsided smile of his. Sam felt that smile hit him right in the chest. His face felt like it was burning and he did the only thing he could do, looked back down at the pack in his hands and tripped over another stream of questions.

“Where was it? How the hell did you — ?“ He checked the straps, pulled at them, then looked up at Steve again. “I spent a year tracking down that pack at Fort Meade.”

“Well, Natasha helped,” Steve admitted. He unfolded his arms and propped his hands on his hips instead. “Nick was part of it.”

“Did you steal it?” Sam asked.

Steve made a face. “No, we didn’t steal it. It was given to us. Mostly. It was actually – SHIELD had one all along.”

Sam nodded. Based on everything he’d learned about SHIELD in the past few months, it wasn’t surprising to learn that someone there would have been able to get their hands on one of these. Now that SHIELD was in shambles, it was probably only a matter of tracking it down.

Steve shrugged. “To be honest, we aren’t actually positive that it works. We were going to see if we could test it, but I just wanted to get back.”

Who cared if it worked? Shit, was that even the point? If it didn’t work, Sam would try to fix it. It looked like it was in pretty good shape. It felt like it was in good shape. Sam guessed he’d probably dealt with worse.

Sam swallowed. Jesus, Steve had spent weeks on this. He’d — he’d been in Philadelphia working on finding this thing and Sam had been here asking Steve if Steve was running away because kissing Sam had scared him. It seemed so clear suddenly that Steve was in this just as deep as Sam was, had been for just as long, maybe longer. Sam had been slowing them down, holding them up, but if he’d just gone with it, they would have been right where they should have been, exactly on the same page.

“I thought you might want to take it up on the roof,” Steve offered. He nodded toward the pack. “Try it out.”

Steve still had his hands on his hips. He was frowning now, watching Sam like he was afraid it was the wrong choice of gift, like Sam might ask if Steve had the receipt so that Sam could return it for something else. Sam gripped the pack in his hands, watched the press of Steve’s fingers, tight on his narrow waist.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed, but leaving Steve’s bedroom was the very last thing that Sam wanted to do at that moment.

“What do you think?” Riley would have asked. “Flying or Steve Rogers?”

Sam dropped the pack onto the bed and closed the distance between them, his kiss forceful enough that Steve took a step back before he caught his footing and grabbed for Sam, kissing him just as hard. Sam’s hands slid down from Steve’s face, down over the muscles of his arms. He pulled at the hem of Steve’s shirt, slid his hands up underneath and Steve gasped into his mouth, his stomach fluttering beneath the tips of Sam’s fingers. Steve grabbed for Sam’s shirt and began tugging it up and over Sam’s head. It got caught on Sam’s neck and Sam laughed, let go of Steve’s waist so that Steve could free him of the shirt.

“Shit,” Sam gasped, taking a step back. “You know, I really thought I was the one coming over here to seduce you.”

“You did?” Steve asked. He was blatantly staring at Sam, eyes on Sam’s bare chest, his lips parted and face a little flushed. His eyes looked darker than they’d seemed a moment before.

“Hey, Cap, eyes are up here,” Sam said, though, God, he really didn’t mean it at all. Steve was staring at his half-naked body as though the reality of it already exceeded all of Steve’s expectations, and Sam was instantly hard, so ready. Sam didn’t mean it at all, but Steve snapped back to attention anyway.

Sam was worried that he might have embarrassed Steve by calling him out on his objectification. He worried that Steve might shut down and turn away, that Sam might have to lure him back. He was worrying for nothing. Steve didn’t even blush. Instead he tossed Sam’s shirt to the floor, pulled his own shirt over his head and dropped it into the puddle with Sam’s. No sooner had his shirt hit the ground before Steve was back, his hand behind Sam’s neck and his mouth kissing a line across Sam’s shoulder. Sam got his hands on Steve’s narrow waist, had been wanting to hold onto him like this for so long and it felt just as good as he’d imagined it might. He could feel Steve taking heavy breaths beneath his fingers, could feel Steve react to each touch of Sam’s hands, to each press of Steve’s mouth to Sam’s skin.

He slid his hands down and reached for the button at the front of Steve’s jeans. He got it undone and pushed down the zipper, slipped his hand inside to cup Steve over Steve’s boxer briefs. Steve groaned against Sam’s shoulder and immediately moved to reciprocate, beautifully eager.

Sam had other ideas. He pushed up against Steve, backing him up until Steve’s legs hit the edge of the bed and Steve sat heavily, trying to pull Sam down with him. Sam kept pushing at Steve until Steve laughed.

“All right,” he relented and flopped all the way onto his back, his legs hanging over the edge of the bed. His jeans were open, his cock straining against the fabric of his underwear.

“Jesus, you should see yourself,” Sam breathed. It was his turn to stare. He leaned over Steve, hands propped on either side as he kissed across Steve’s stomach, then lower as he pressed his open mouth over the bulge in Steve’s shorts.

“God,” Steve groaned. Steve’s hands were on him, pulling at his arms, then giving up and sliding over Sam’s head, fingers scratching, caressing. They traced lines up the back of Sam’s neck and Sam gasped, sucked at Steve through the fabric.

Steve abruptly stopped touching Sam and started pushing his jeans down his hips instead. Sam laughed at Steve’s impatience, though the truth was that Sam was just eager. He moved to help Steve, Steve’s cock knocking against Sam’s chin as it was released from the confines of his underwear, and Steve let out a little laugh, breathless and surprised. Steve’s cock was exactly as gorgeous as the rest of Steve and Sam wrapped his hand around the base, leaned in to press a careful kiss to the head. Steve groaned at that, his hand grabbing at the bedding. Sam slipped the head into his mouth, let it slide over his tongue until he felt the retracted ridge of Steve’s foreskin. It felt heavy against his tongue, perfect, and he released Steve only long enough to get Steve’s jeans the rest of the way off, pulling his socks off as well, before returning to kiss it again.

Steve was watching him, his face serious and his mouth red. Jesus, look at him. What had Sam done to deserve this? Who could he thank? He ran his hand up Steve’s thigh, the hair a little coarse beneath his fingertips. Steve pushed up from the bed, his hand sliding in a caress over Sam’s head before he bent down and kissed the top of it. As Steve bent over him, Sam leaned in and took the head of Steve’s cock back in his mouth.

“Oh,” Steve said, and his whole body shook a little beneath Sam’s lips, beneath his hands. His fingers where sliding across Sam’s back, caressing whatever bare skin Steve could reach. Sam wasn’t complaining, but he was feeling a little crowded, his face turned in against the curve of Steve’s stomach. He pushed at Steve’s chest and Steve went easily, unfolding back against the bed. He caught Sam’s hand and held it there, fingers curling over Sam’s as Steve gasped again.

It wasn’t like – Sam had done this before. He’d done this with men after Riley, sought them out, desperately questioning, mourning. Even so, Sam wouldn’t say it was an area where he was known to excel. It didn’t seem to matter here though — Steve seemed to love it and Sam — well, Sam had never done this with anyone he cared about the way that he cared about Steve, so yeah. God, yeah, Sam loved it too.

He took Steve deeper into his mouth, his head bobbing and his hand working. He couldn’t get enough the stretch of Steve in his mouth, the taste of him. He listened greedily to the way Steve groaned, his legs pulling up, knees bent, and one foot curling in to press against Sam’s back. And all the while, Steve’s hand still held Sam’s to his chest.

Sam had had vague ideas of starting this off with his mouth, then moving on to something else, but now like this, Sam wasn’t sure he wanted to stop, wasn’t sure he could. He pulled off only to find himself running his lips back up the side of Steve’s cock, sliding it back into his mouth instead.

Steve pressed Sam’s hand down over his heart. His other hand joined the first, strengthening his hold, as though Steve needed the extra strength, as though Sam was really that interested in moving his hand away. Steve’s fingers slid up and down Sam’s arm, a caress, as Steve gasped and moved against Sam’s tongue.

Sam moaned in answer, couldn’t believe he’d held out this long, couldn’t get over Steve clutching Sam’s hand so tightly, right over his heart, right there.

“Oh,” Steve grunted. His heel dug into Sam’s back, his thigh squeezing in against Sam’s shoulder. Sam pulled up, Steve’s cock sliding from his lips with a lewd sucking pop. His hand continued to work at Steve, but Sam just needed to see this, just for one —

Steve’s mouth was open, eyes squeezed shut. His hands clutched tightly to Sam’s arm, the sound of his sweet little grunts filling the room.

“Sam,” Steve said, low, almost a whisper, and his foot pressed down against the mattress, his other leg pushing hard against Sam’s shoulder, propelling Steve’s hips up, his cock sliding into the circle of Sam’s hand. Sam leaned in, pressed a kiss to the inside of Steve’s shaking thigh.

“I’m gonna — “ Steve started, but the thought was cut off by a groan. “Oh God,” Steve tried instead, pushing up off the bed once more. Sam moved quick, got his mouth back on Steve’s cock just as Steve spilled over his tongue, shocking and bitter.

“Sam, please,” Steve begged. He curled up off the bed, his knees pressed tight around Sam. He released Sam’s hand and reached out to grip Sam’s shoulder instead, his fingers digging in, his whole body shaking. Sam sucked through the tremors, swallowed everything that Steve had to offer.

“God.” Steve released Sam and fell back against the mattress, still twitching a little as Sam’s hand slowed on his cock. Steve’s hips pushed up one last time and then Steve went limp, his legs sliding down to dangle over the edge of the bed on either side of Sam. Sam slid his hands up and down Steve’s thighs, let Steve’s cock slide from his lips, watched it settle against Steve’s stomach, pink and wet.

“That might have been the hottest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Sam admitted as he pressed wet kisses across Steve’s hip.

Steve grunted. He glanced down at Sam, and then slid one leg in until his shin pressed to the front of Sam’s jeans. Sam pushed into it, raised his eyebrows.

“Is this how we’re gonna do this?” Sam asked. He could get off like this, kneeling on the floor of Steve’s bedroom, hands on Steve Rogers as he rubbed himself off on Steve’s leg but —

Steve shook his head. “I was just — I don’t know. I was just checking.”

“Checking?” Sam laughed. He pushed up off his knees, opening the front of his jeans as he went. And then Steve was moving too, pulling at Sam, hauling him up so that he could kiss Sam desperately, his tongue pushing greedy into Sam’s mouth. Steve pushed Sam’s jeans further down, far enough that Steve could get his hands on Sam’s ass. It wasn’t that long ago that Steve seemed hesitant to touch Sam at all, and now Steve — his legs pulled back up until his feet rested on the bed and his knees pressed in at Sam’s sides, caging him in so that there was nothing Sam could do but ride it out, his cock sliding between them as he sucked at Steve’s tongue, as Steve held him, guiding, urging.

“I thought we’d — ” Sam started, then stopped, unsure where he was going with the thought. He smiled against Steve’s neck. Finally, he thought, and he felt Steve’s hands grip him tighter in response.

**

Riley didn’t make it that far before Sam caught up with him, his hand hooking Riley’s arm.

“Hold on,” Sam said. “Why are you — we weren’t done talking.”

“Sam,” Riley sighed, but he let Sam pull him aside, followed until they were standing together, just the two of them away from everyone else.

"Is it a life or death thing?" Sam asked.

“What?”

Riley looked down at the book that Sam still held in his hand and Sam tossed it aside, heard it hit the ground with a thump. He’d pick it up later. Sam held up his hands, gestured for Riley to pay attention, then crossed them over his chest.

"Me or the wings; like if you don't choose me does that mean I die, or is it if you don't choose me, we go on living our lives with our wings, but we aren't friends anymore?" He shifted a little on his hips as he spoke.

"Jesus, Sam, I don't know," Riley groaned. He turned away from Sam and stared off into the dark. He looked sorry that he'd ever brought it up.

"Cause if it's life or death, I'm probably going to choose a lot of people over the wings," Sam admitted. "That's why I'm asking. If it's life or death, then it's not really a choice. You're just gonna do the right thing there."

"It's not life or death then," Riley said with a shrug.

"So it's the wings or you," Sam continued.

Riley threw up his hands, turned back toward Sam. "Look, I was just coming up with a hypothetical here."

"Do you want to know my answer or not?" Sam asked.

"Fine, yeah, I want to know. What’s your answer?”

"All right," Sam said, undeterred. "If I had to choose between the wings and you, I'd choose you too, okay?"

Riley looked down, let out a breath, his chest deflating a little. Finally he nodded.

"Okay," he sighed.

"Okay," Sam agreed. “We’re good?”

Riley was quiet for a long moment and then he reached out, nudged Sam. "So are you saying you're in love with me?"

Sam laughed. "You jerk off next to a guy a couple times, he thinks you're in love."

Riley shook his head. "Fuck you. Yeah, we’re good."

Sam nodded, moved to pick up his discarded book. Just before he grabbed it, he paused, left it on the ground and straightened back up. It was a quiet night. He and Riley were a ways away from everyone else now. Sam could hear some of the other guys talking amongst themselves, but as far as these things went, he and Riley were alone.

Sam turned to Riley, nodded toward Riley’s trousers. "You wanna?"

"What, fuck you?" Riley asked, nearly choking on the question.

"No,” Sam said. “I meant do you want to jerk off.” He shrugged. “Won’t be better than flying, but you know. No one else around, so…"

“Oh,” Riley said. His hand reached down to adjust himself almost immediately. He pretended to seriously contemplate Sam’s question, and then he echoed Sam’s shrug. “You’re right, it won’t be better than that.”

**

Sam stood close to the edge of the roof, stared down at the traffic below. It was after midnight and the cars passing by were few and far between. The weight of the pack felt familiar against Sam’s back, comforting, and he shifted beneath it, tightened the strap on his right shoulder.

“I'm just saying,” Riley had told him. “If it came down to it and I had to choose, I'd choose you."

It had taken weeks for Sam to catch up, to realize what Riley was saying, that none of it was really a joke any more, not for either of them. It had taken so long for Sam to realize and by the time he did —

“Be careful,” Steve said from behind him.

Sam was always careful, wasn’t he? Sam knew, though; he’d learned that there was such a thing as too careful and he took a deep breath, let go, and took off.

**

Washington DC was bright and beautiful below him. The wings took him higher and he laughed at the push of the wind against his face, turned into it, swooped out toward the Potomac, up along the Rock Creek Trail, right over Bucky’s bench, and then back toward Dupont Circle, back toward Steve. The pack felt perfect; the wings felt strong. The sensors pressed up against the muscles of his back responded to Sam’s movement instantly and Sam felt alive and free.

There was almost nothing better, never had been and never would be. Almost nothing. Almost.

Steve was standing on the roof staring up at the sky. Sam was pretty sure Steve had lost track of him, and he set the wings to stealth, carefully circled the building and then came at Steve straight on. Steve was still busy searching for him, didn’t hear Sam coming until Sam was already pretty close. He tried to dodge, but Sam had this, caught Steve easily, his arms wrapping tight around Steve’s chest and then pulling them both straight up into the sky.

Steve laughed and held tight to Sam, his arms around Sam’s neck.

“I guess it still works,” Steve shouted, leaning in close to Sam’s ear to be heard over the rush of air.

“Hell yeah, it still works,” Sam agreed with a grin.

Steve was holding tight to Sam, his neck turned away as he stared down toward the ground. Sam hugged Steve tight. He’d thought a lot about – it was going to be cheesy, like something out of an awful film, but Sam went for it anyway, pressed his open mouth to Steve’s neck, and when Steve turned back toward Sam, surprised, Sam laughed and kissed Steve, good and deep, felt Steve’s arms tighten around his neck. Sam laughed again, threw his head back and shouted up into the sky.

**

Steve shifted beside him in bed. Once Sam had landed them safely back on the roof, they’d spent a good half hour or so just making out like horny teenagers, Steve’s hands all over Sam, touching him now like he was making up for lost time. Eventually they fell back away from each other, pants open, Sam’s shirt discarded and Steve’s pushed up high on his chest.

“Are we just gonna pass out up here?” Sam asked, didn’t feel particularly inclined to move if he was honest.

Steve pulled his shirt back down, wiped it against the mess on his stomach.

“Probably not the best idea, is it?”

“Probably not,” Sam agreed. He reached for his own shirt and grabbed the pack (not so much discarded as carefully set aside before they really got going again). They retreated indoors and settled together in Steve’s bed shortly before the sun came up, not touching really, just sorta lying there facing each other until Steve’s eyes drifted shut. Once Steve fell asleep, Sam rolled onto his back, one arm folded over his eyes to block out the first hints of rising sun.

Beside him, Steve shifted again. Sam felt Steve move a little closer just before Steve’s hand reached out to settle against Sam’s stomach.

Sam smiled. His arm fell away from his face and he turned his head on the pillow to look over at Steve.

“Did you sleep?” Steve asked. He looked past Sam at the clock on the bedside table. The bedroom was bright, morning sun streaming in the windows. Sam didn’t know what time it was, but he knew it had to be pretty late. No chance of fitting in that early run today.

“I dozed off for a while,” Sam said. “Your bed’s too soft. Like really actually too soft.”

Steve groaned. “I know.”

“You didn’t even test this thing out before you bought it, did you? Did you buy your mattress online?”

“Shh,” Steve shook his head. He closed his eyes and his fingers rubbed across Sam’s stomach. He was smiling, just a little.

“Shh?” Sam repeated. “We’re trading this mattress for the one in my guest room.”

“No, we aren’t,” Steve said, eyes shut, that smile still playing at his lips.

“Okay,” Sam shrugged. “Guess this is my last sleepover at your place then.”

Steve laughed.

“Oh, you think I’m kidding?” Sam asked, eyebrows high. He turned onto his side and as he did, the mattress dipped. He hesitated, and then made an exaggerated show of tipping the rest of the way, right into Steve. “You see that?”

Steve shifted back so that Sam could settle against his chest, arm coming around Sam to rest on Sam’s back.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Definitely cause for complaint right there.”

Sam kissed Steve’s chest right below his collarbone. His hand moved across it, thumb catching on Steve’s nipple, staying there for a moment before moving on.

“You didn’t have to go after the pack,” Sam said, his voice low. “I never expected…“

“I know,” Steve said. “I wanted to.”

“I was going to sleep with you anyway,” Sam pointed out.

Steve laughed. “That’s good! I don’t want anyone to think I had to bribe you.”

“Really, though. Thank you,” Sam said, pushing up away from Steve’s chest so that he could see Steve’s face. “I’m not sure I –“

Steve shook his head. “This was me thanking you,” he insisted. “You’ve been going above and beyond for me since the moment I met you. I hoped I could do a little of that for you too.”

Sam took a deep breath. Jesus, this was – it’d been so long since he’d done this, really done this. It’d been so long since he’d felt anything like this for anyone. It still felt a little scary to him, but man, it was good too.

There was a compass on Steve’s bedside table. It sat open, a newsprint shot of Peggy Carter stuck into the cap. Beside the compass was the file on Bucky, the photographs removed and sitting on top.

“Is this how it was with you and Riley?” Steve asked, carefully. He was watching Sam closely, seemed concerned that he might be pushing too hard by asking.

“No,” Sam said. “This isn’t how it was.”

“Oh,” Steve paused. He glanced toward the items on the bedside table. “The way you asked about Bucky, I guess I just assumed.”

“Well, yeah,” Sam clarified. He shifted back until he was lying beside Steve, staring up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I thought — yeah, maybe. It could’ve happened. If I’d done things a little different. If I’d said something instead of pretending I was just fooling around — if I’d realized I wasn’t just fooling around. It might have happened. Maybe not then, but if we’d both made it through, then yeah, maybe somewhere down the line. If he was still here now, maybe it could have grown into that. I think it could’ve been good.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. He’d turned onto his side, propped himself up on his elbow.

Sam shrugged. There was nothing he could have done about it then, and there was nothing either of them could do about it now.

“Since then, I don’t know. There’ve been a few people in my life, but nothing serious. No one I’ve been ready to, you know, introduce to the family. Which is something my mother likes to point out as often as possible.”

Steve smiled at that, his eyes intent on Sam, really focusing on him, and Sam couldn’t help but hope that his streak of ‘nothing serious’ was coming to an end.

And it wasn’t like — maybe nothing serious wasn’t the right wording. It wasn’t like all of his relationships were bad or ended in disaster. He hadn’t spent the last six years just casually screwing around. He’d had relationships, a few pretty good ones at that. His family had even met Leila, but they met her after Sam had already realized that it was too soon for him, that he wasn’t ready, after they’d already realized that maybe they were better as friends. It wasn’t the same; it definitely wasn’t the same to Sam’s mother.

“She thinks I still hold back, that I’m afraid I — you know, it’s a hard thing not realizing what you might have had until you’ve lost him, always thinking about the things you should have done different. Lately, I’ve really started looking back at the last few weeks; I think my mom might have been right about that. I get scared, you know. I’m with you and I feel — I feel pretty damn happy. And I tell myself I have to go slow. Steve’s got a lot going on. This is happening and that’s happening, and if you’re not careful you’ll lose him to this. And if you’re going to lose him to this, you better not let yourself have too much. It’ll just be more to lose.”

Sam shook his head. “After a while, you realize you’re making half of that shit up. And it’s not like it makes it any better; losing someone before you’re in too deep. It doesn’t make it any easier. You just realize after what you could have had, what you missed out on.”

Steve shifted beside him.

“I guess you probably know a thing or two about that last part,” Sam guessed.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “I guess I do.”

“I spent a lot of time trying to learn from what I lost with Riley. I spent a lot of time building myself up, talking more about what I wanted, being up front about things. But then I end up here, you know? All that work and somehow you find yourself repeating the same mistakes anyway. I was pulling you in and then pushing you back, holding you at arm’s length, and I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Steve was quiet beside him, still just watching him. Sam smiled. “Did I lose you somewhere in that mess?”

“No,” Steve said. “And you weren’t — you haven’t made any mistakes with me.”

“Let’s just stay up front with each other, all right? I’m going to be better about that.”

Steve nodded. And then as Sam watched, he smiled, his eyes shining a little as he squinted down at Sam. “Have you told your mother about me yet?”

“What?”

“Your mom — you said you hadn’t met anyone you wanted to introduce to the family. I’m just wondering if you —”

“Yeah, I told her.”

“Really?” Steve asked, surprised. Sam realized that Steve was just trying to give Sam a break, pull them back with some light and comfortable banter. He hadn’t actually expected Sam to say yes.

“You aren’t really the sort of guy people work hard to keep secret from their families,” Sam said. “Just so you know.”

“Oh,” Steve said. “But what did she —?”

“She’s worried about me running with Captain America, getting myself hurt,” Sam admitted. “She’s worried I’m sitting here pining for something that’s never actually going to happen.”

“She has it all wrong,” Steve murmured thoughtfully. “I was the one doing all the pining.”

Sam snorted. “Oh, you think so?”

“I’m pretty sure, yeah,” Steve smiled. He leaned down over Sam, his eyes falling shut as he dropped a kiss onto Sam’s lips. Sam reached up, his hand cupping the left side of Steve’s face, thumb swiping across the thick line of Steve’s eyelashes. Steve turned into Sam’s touch and kissed his palm.

He’ll fall all over you, Bucky had said, not realizing that Sam was poised to fall just as hard.

“Hey, uh, just so you know, my mom wasn’t the only person I talked to about this,” Sam admitted, pulling back just slightly to give Steve the space to take in what he was saying. “Bucky and I had a short conversation about it the other day. I hope that’s — I should have asked you first if that was an all right thing for me to do.”

Steve swallowed, shook his head. “No, yeah, that’s okay. Did he — what did he say?”

“He said a lot, actually,” Sam said. “Told me exactly what he thought I should do. He said, and I quote, ‘It’s about time that guy got some action.’”

Steve laughed. “That sounds about right.”

Sam’s thoughts turned immediately to an earlier conversation with Bucky, one that involved fewer smiles.

“You know he isn’t — Bucky isn’t ever going to be the same guy that he was,” Sam said. “You do know that, right?”

“I know,” Steve said. He settled back on the bed beside Sam, their backs to the mattress, shoulders touching. “I don’t expect to go back in time.”

**

Bucky was wearing a pale long sleeved t-shirt, black gloves and dark jeans. No baseball cap today and he’d recently shaved. He looked like a young man of the twenty-first century from head to toe. Except for the gloves, if you didn’t look too closely at the shape of his arm beneath the fabric of his shirt, he really didn’t look out of place at all.

“Steve’s sitting on a bench around the bend,” Bucky noted, sighing as he sat down beside Sam. It was the first time Sam had ever beat Bucky to one of their meetings, had done so on purpose, arriving an hour early just to be sure.

“I know,” Sam said. He’d been playing cribbage on his phone to pass the time. He closed the app and slid the phone back into his pocket, gave Bucky his full attention.

“What’s he doing here?” Bucky asked. It sounded like an accusation. Sam figured he probably deserved it.

“He was hoping you might be ready to talk to him.”

Bucky let out another heavy sigh and started to stand. Sam instinctively reached out and grabbed Bucky’s arm to stop him. “Wait, we —”

They both froze, Sam’s hand wrapped around unyielding metal. He pulled back fast.

“Sorry,” Sam said.

Bucky was frowning but he didn’t leave and he didn’t look like he planned to retaliate.

“Go on. What did you want to say?” Bucky asked.

“It’s still up to you,” Sam explained. “That’s why he’s at that other bench out of sight from this one. You don’t have to go over there. If you want to stay here, Steve won’t intrude. We can do this, you and me, just like usual, if that’s how you want it.”

“Is that his shield in that bag he has with him?” Bucky asked. “Not very discreet.”

Sam shrugged. “I told him you were worried that there was some programming left and that you might hurt him. He thought maybe you’d feel better knowing that he was prepared to defend himself.”

Bucky’s face twisted a little at that. “Yeah, that’s really comforting, isn’t it?”

Sarcasm.

Bucky sat back down, his jaw working as he thought it over. He removed his gloves and pushed up his sleeves, but it felt casual this time. It looked like a move toward comfort, rather than a show of distress. Eventually Bucky said, “All right. I guess we’re going to have to see how it goes eventually, right? Today’s, yeah — it might as well be today.”

“Really?”

“You didn’t think I’d want to see him,” Bucky guessed.

“I definitely thought we were pushing it a little,” Sam admitted.

Bucky stood and stepped into the center of the trail. He wiped his hands on the front of his jeans, both of them, as though metal was likely to get just as sweaty as flesh.

“You coming?” Bucky asked.

“Do you want me to?” Sam returned, but he stood and stepped onto the trail beside Bucky without waiting for Bucky’s answer. “I thought you’d want me to hang back here, give you two some space.”

Bucky nodded. “How about you start walking over there with me and we’ll go from there.”

“I can do that,” Sam agreed. He felt restless, excited and nervous. He felt a little scared. He couldn’t even imagine how Steve and Bucky must feel.

They came around the bend and as soon as the bench where Steve sat was within sight, Bucky stopped. Steve, on the other hand, visibly started, stood right away, his arms flailing at his sides for just a moment before he shoved them into the pockets of his jeans. He stayed standing where he was, didn’t approach.

“You okay?” Sam asked, his voice low.

Bucky stood there, frozen for several seconds, long enough that Sam guessed this was probably the end of it, Bucky was going to change his mind.

Sam was wrong about that. Instead Bucky turned to Sam and said, “Hey, uh, before I go over there, I meant to ask. How did it go with you two?”

“What?” Sam asked, surprised by the question, by the conversational tone, betrayed only by the slightest tremor in Bucky’s voice.

“Did you try it?” Bucky pressed. He tipped his head toward Steve. “Did you take him dancing?”

“Sort of,” Sam said. “Something like that, yeah.”

Bucky smiled. “He fell all over you, didn’t he.”

Sam tilted his head, squinted and screwed up his face a little. “I’m not sure I’d say that,” Sam admitted. “It ended up a lot more like me falling all over him.”

Bucky considered that, then shrugged. “Well, that still got you where you were looking to go, right?”

Sam laughed. “Yeah, it definitely did that.”

Bucky nodded. “Good.” He stared at Steve, then turned back toward the way they’d come. “I left my gloves.”

“I’ll get them,” Sam offered. He took a step back, away from Bucky, away from Steve. “I’ll hold on to them for you.”

Bucky nodded again. “Okay, yeah. Thank you.”

“No problem,” Sam assured him. “Do you think you’re gonna be okay here, the two of you, or do you want me to stick around a while longer?”

Bucky thought it over long and hard and then he scrunched up his face in distaste.

“God, he’s not gonna make me go see that panda at the zoo, is he?” Bucky asked with a sigh, but when he saw Sam raise his eyebrows, his face broke a little and he smiled.

“You know, somehow I think Steve’s gonna be fine doing whatever it is you want to do,” Sam reasoned.

Bucky held out his hand. He folded Bucky’s hand in his, his handshake nice and firm. Sam suspected that some of this might be an act, might be Bucky using Sam now to rehearse how he’d present himself to Steve.

“He doesn’t expect you to be okay,” Sam carefully pointed out. “You don’t have to pretend that you are, unless that’s really what you feel you need to do.”

“I know,” Bucky said. He shrugged as he released Sam’s hand, and then he turned and started toward Steve at a determined pace, fingers hooked into the pockets of his jeans.

Sam stayed where he was, watched them both standing there, hands safely tucked into pockets, shoulders pushed up. Sam watched until he saw Steve’s shoulders slump a little, until he saw Steve slide a hand from his pocket and gesture toward the bench. Bucky hesitated, but when Steve sat down, Bucky soon followed, and Sam turned and walked back around the bend.

**

It was late afternoon when Sam heard the knock at his front door.

“Giving back my spare key when you moved out’s starting to seem kinda silly now, isn’t it,” Sam noted as he opened the door, already anticipating who he would find standing on the other side. He was right, of course; it was Steve standing there, the bag holding his shield slung across his back.

“Hi,” Steve said. His face looked a little red and his voice sounded a little strained, but he didn’t look particularly upset, just kinda anxious, maybe? Sam stepped aside to let Steve pass. He stuck his head out the door, expecting to find Bucky with Steve, but there was no one else on the steps or the path. Behind him, Sam heard Steve set down his shield, loud as it tapped against the tiled floor.

“Hey, is everything — “ Sam started, but he didn’t get any further than that. No sooner had Sam shut the door than Steve was crowding in on him, pushing him back against the door and kissing him enthusiastically. Sam grunted, flailed for a moment, and then he got with the program, his fingers digging hard into the back of Steve’s neck, moaning a little when Steve pushed his body up against Sam’s and sucked at Sam’s tongue. Before Sam could fully catch up, Steve’s hands were pushing up underneath Sam’s shirt, big palms running up Sam’s sides, around to Sam’s back, and then back out over Sam’s jeans to pull Sam’s groin up against Steve’s.

Oh, so that’s how this was going to go? They were going to do this right here up against Sam’s front door. They kept at it like this, it was only a matter of moments before Sam was going to push his pants down to his ankles, turn toward the door and start to beg for it. He was going to —

“Okay,” Sam said, pushing Steve back so that he could catch his breath, regain some sense. “Okay, we’re going to have to slow this down a little.”

There would be time for this, for fucking desperately against every piece of furniture in Sam’s house, and Sam was really really looking forward to that, but Sam hadn’t done this in a few years and for Steve it had been, well, who really knew? Sam wanted nothing more in that moment than Steve looming over him, pushing into him, but he was going to need a little more preparation than a few minutes of rutting through the layers of their clothes first.

Steve had backed off a little, but not much. He was still holding Sam close, one hand curled behind Sam’s neck as he slid his cheek against Sam’s, breath heavy near Sam’s ear.

“You gonna make it?” Sam asked, couldn’t help it, had to tease just a little.

“Yeah,” Steve murmured in response.

Bucky’s gloves were sitting on the table by Sam’s front door, Steve’s shield discarded on Sam’s floor, and Sam wanted to do this now, he really did, but he wanted to really concentrate on it, on Steve, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to that, not fully, until he’d heard about how everything else went. Based on Steve’s actions, Sam was guessing the answer was either really well, or incredibly badly.

Sam pulled back far enough that he could see Steve’s face. Steve’s expression was soft, mouth red and lips parted, just enough that Sam found it nearly irresistible, had to lean in and kiss him before he could continue.

“Did something happen?” Sam asked. “Where’s Bucky?”

“He wants to do this on his own,” Steve said as his erection pressed insistently against Sam’s thigh.

Sam swallowed, tried to ignore that for now, and leaned back. “And you’re okay with that now?”

Steve’s hips pressed tight to his again. Sam started to pull back and Steve followed close. Together they stumbled up the stairs and into Sam’s bedroom.

“You’re okay with that?” Sam asked again, kissing Steve before he pulled away to rummage through the drawer beside his bed.

“I’ve told him that he doesn’t have to, that I’m here for him just like he was always there for me,” Steve said as he sat heavily on the edge of Sam’s bed. “But I’m not going to force him. I think — Bucky’s had enough people forcing him to do what they want him to do. I don’t think it would help if I was one of them.”

Sam found what he was looking for, pulled out a condom and the bottle of lubricant and tossed them onto bed before pulling his shirt off over his head. Steve’s eyes were immediately back on Sam, but he seemed distracted by Sam’s chest, hadn’t noticed what Sam had been fishing for in the drawer.

Steve shrugged. “So I guess it’s up to him now. He knows where we are. If he needs us, he knows where to find us.”

“We,” Sam repeated as he kicked off his shoes and unfastened his jeans.

Steve nodded. “Me. Sorry. He knows where to find me.”

“No,” Sam shook his head. “That wasn’t — we is good.”

“Okay,” Steve said, watching as Sam removed the rest of his clothes and climbed onto the bed, settled on his back.

“Okay,” Sam agreed. Steve smiled, kicked off his own shoes and then turned on the bed toward Sam. He didn’t waste any time, went right for Sam’s cock, carefully wrapping his hand around it, then leaning in to kiss the center of Sam’s chest. He seemed less desperate now, more willing to take this a little slow, and that was good, though Sam caught himself missing the urgency from the hall just a little.

“He showed me where he’s staying.”

“Really?” Sam asked, surprised. Bucky had never offered up that much information to Sam.

“Yeah,” Steve said, his hand working Sam nice and slow. “I was actually — I think that’s why I’m finally okay with just letting him try this on his own. It really looks like he’s got a good thing worked out.”

“Where is he staying?” Sam asked. He pushed up into Steve’s hand, his own hand scrambling on the bed, searching for the lubricant. He found it and squirted a generous amount onto his fingers before he pulled up his knees and then reached down past Steve’s hand to press a finger into himself.

Steve’s hand stopped moving on his cock.

“Oh,” Steve said.

Sam laughed. “Yeah,” he agreed. “You don’t have to — this is going to take a little while. Finish what you were saying.”

“Um, okay,” Steve said. “Uh, what was I – oh. Bucky’s living with a woman.”

“A girlfriend?” Sam asked, surprised. Steve was still holding Sam’s cock, but he wasn’t moving, was just watching Sam’s finger as it slid in and out. Sam thought about asking Steve if he wanted to take over, replace Sam’s fingers with his own, but he really did want to hear the end of this, wanted Steve to get the whole story out, and he knew that once Steve got too involved —

Steve shook his head like he’d only just now realized that Sam had spoken. “I don’t think so, no. Not a girlfriend. Um. She’s – “ Steve squinted. “Well, she’s technically a lot younger than we are, but she remembers all seventy of her years, so I imagine it doesn’t feel that way to her.”

“Wow, so she just… what?” Sam added a second finger beside the first. Steve’s intake of breath was audible and the noise prompted Sam to push his fingers deeper, to push up into Steve’s hand. “She just took him in?” Sam finished with a grunt.

“I, uh, I guess,” Steve agreed, clearing his throat. Steve’s eyes fell shut, an attempt to concentrate on the conversation. “She volunteers at a soup kitchen.”

His hand started moving on Sam’s cock again and fuck, between Sam’s fingers and Steve’s hand, Sam was fighting to stay focused now too.

“That was where Bucky met her. He started helping her out there, then started helping her at home, and then, yeah, eventually she took him in. She – “

Steve paused, really seemed to want to concentrate on this part. His hand fell away from Sam, moved instead to slide absently back and forth across Sam’s stomach as Steve continued. “She makes Bucky smile. She gave me a slice of homemade pecan pie.” Steve sounded a little incredulous. “She has this little old dog that we took for a walk. Bucky picks this thing up and it immediately starts licking his face, and I… “

Steve trailed off, smiled and shook his head. Sam stopped what he was doing. He let his fingers slide away as he propped himself up on his elbows to give Steve his full attention.

Steve shrugged. “I know he isn’t — he isn’t okay. I know that he was trying to make things seem better than they are. It’s all going to take time, but seeing that — it was such a relief,” Steve said, seriously. “And he let — we made plans. He agreed to come over for dinner next week. I made him promise that he wouldn’t hesitate to call and tell me if any of it became too much, but he agreed, said he wanted to come.”

“That’s good,” Sam said, seriously. It was a definite upgrade from meetings on benches. “That’s really good, Steve.”

Steve’s smile was real again, crooked and accompanied by another little shrug. “The dog’s name is Peppermint.”

“That’s cute,” Sam said. “What’s the woman’s name?”

“Judy,” Steve said. “She makes a really good pecan pie.”

Sam laughed at that. He looked down at himself, felt a little silly for thinking that he could multitask through a conversation like that.

“Do you, uh, do you still want to do this?” Sam asked, a little sheepish. Steve was still fully dressed and Sam wasn’t self-conscious about his body, but he was feeling a little exposed.

Steve glanced down at Sam and then back up to his face.

“Do you?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Of course, but this got kinda heavy and what I was thinking kinda required you to —” he brushed his hand across the front of Steve’s pants. “Oh, okay. Nevermind, I guess we’re still good.”

Steve’s smile was a little cocky. “Just checking?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Sam laughed. “Something like that.”

Steve’s face suddenly went a little red. “I left there and I felt so relieved and then suddenly all I could think about was getting back to you.”

“Yeah. That part I think I noticed.”

“No, you — I got myself worked up on the metro just thinking about it,” Steve admitted. “It was – let’s just say I was glad I had the shield with me.”

Sam imagined Steve walking uncomfortably through the streets of DC, his shield clutched protectively over his groin. A National Hero hiding a hard-on behind the most recognizable thing he owned.

“I don’t know if I should laugh at you or take pity,” Sam said. “I gotta admit, mostly I’m just feeling flattered.”

Steve shook his head, his face still pretty red, and Sam gave in, laughed. He nodded down toward his bent knees. “What do you think? You wanna pick this up where I left off?”

**

He positioned himself carefully over Steve, took Steve’s cock in his hand, lined it up and then pressed down until finally he felt himself give and stretch, the head of Steve’s cock sliding slowly in.

It had been a long time since Sam had last done this and it felt so — “Fuck,” Sam grunted as he felt himself stretching to accommodate Steve. His thighs were shaking, and Steve reached out and held onto him, his big hands firm on Sam’s legs. Steve was staring up at him, mouth slightly open and brow furrowed in concentration. He was breathing heavy and Sam concentrated on the rise and fall of Steve’s chest, set his hands against it as he settled a little further on Steve’s cock.

Sam let out a breath, tried to relax. He laughed, and then he leaned forward to kiss Steve. Steve’s cock started to slide out as Sam moved forward and Steve gasped in his mouth. His hands tightened on Sam, his hips pushing up to meet Sam’s, and Sam groaned, shut his eyes, felt Steve’s kiss slide from the corner of his mouth to his jaw.

He was tempted to tell Steve to push him over, to get Sam on his back and just let go, take Sam for all he was worth, but this was — this was slow and gorgeous. Steve was staring up at Sam like he was seeing Sam for the very first time as Sam moved nice and slow over him, moving up and nearly off Steve and then taking him back in.

He felt so good like this, with Steve in him, below him. His dick rested heavy against Steve’s stomach as he fucked himself on Steve’s cock, low and smooth, wanted to memorize every gasp from Steve, every moan, every change in Steve’s face and each time Steve’s fingers tightened their grip on Sam’s legs.

“Tell me what you want me to do,” Steve said.

“Just keep doing exactly what you’re doing.” Sam took Steve’s cock as deep as he could get it, his mouth falling open. He felt so full, so good. “What you’re doing right now is perfect.”

When Sam started to pull up this time, Steve’s hips twitched, thrust back up into Sam and — fuck, this was — God damn. Sam held himself there and Steve did it again, thrusting right up into Sam.

“Oh,” Sam groaned. His hand moved immediately to his cock, realizing suddenly that he wasn’t going to last long, not long at all if he already felt this close. The time for taking it slow was over.

Sam was right; they didn’t last long once Sam moved onto his back. Steve pushed back into him, his face buried in Sam’s neck, Sam’s hands gripping tightly to Steve’s back and his ankles hooked around Steve’s waist.

“Come on,” Sam said, his voice low, right in Steve’s ear. “Come on, Steve.” And though Steve seemed unsure at first, careful and cautious, Sam’s words worked and Steve’s thrusts came harder, less gentle and so damn good, and Sam held Steve tighter and groaned, one hand sliding down between them to wrap back around himself. Steve tried to pull Sam even closer and his next thrust felt so deep, hitting all the right spots, perfect, perfect, oh God, just a little more. Sam was so damn close, had been since Steve started working him open on his fingers.

He turned his head toward Steve, kissed along Steve’s hairline, fingers sliding up into Steve’s hair. Steve turned and caught Sam’s lips, moaned right into Sam’s mouth. His breath was coming in short little pants, hard and fast, and he stayed like that, blue eyes staring right back at Sam as though transfixed, and that was it, Sam came between them with a strangled shout.

“Damn,” Sam said, still shaking a little beneath Steve, and Steve laughed, breathless, his eyes shining. Sam reached for Steve’s face, kissed Steve wherever his lips could reach. Steve was still going, faster now, more desperate than before. Each push was hitting Sam so good, and it was only then that Sam realized he was making small noises with each thrust, pleading little grunts and moans.

“Jesus, listen to me,” Sam said. He was struggling to form words, each push of Steve into him another jolt to his already spent system. “Damn, this is good.”

Steve groaned in response and buried his face back against Sam’s neck, his mouth kissing and sucking at Sam’s skin.

“Next time,” Sam offered, unsure why he was still trying to talk, but seemingly unable to stop. “Next time, maybe we can try it the other way around.”

It took a few seconds for Steve to register what Sam was saying, but when he did, that was all it took. Steve shuddered, his entire body tense as he fell over the edge, Sam’s name on Steve’s lips.

**

“How are you doing over there?” Sam asked. They were spread across Sam’s bed, both limp, both still trying to catch their breath. Steve ran circles around Sam almost every morning; Sam never would have guessed that Steve would be just as breathless as Sam now, but there it was. Sam loved that, loved to think that Steve could run laps around DC, but Sam Wilson was still a strain on his lungs. He smiled up at his ceiling.

“I’m doing pretty good,” Steve eventually confirmed beside him.

“Yeah,” Sam laughed. “Me too. Man, I thought I’d broken you for a second there.”

“I think you might have,” Steve agreed. He turned his head to eye Sam. “You didn’t seem very worried.”

“No,” Sam said. “You got me. Excited would be a more accurate description.”

Steve let out a breath, smiled. Sam shook his head, still couldn’t quite believe —

“You know, don’t get me wrong, I know I’m a pretty good catch, but I still can’t believe, out of all the — How did a guy like you make it this long without — “

“Without what?” Steve asked, a bit on the defensive, though he was still smiling. It probably helped that Sam was grinning right back. “I told you, I’ve been busy.”

Sam held up his hands. “I’m just saying, you must not hit on everyone you pass on your run is all, because I don’t see many reasons someone would turn this down. I’d imagined you had girls chasing you down on the Mall every day.”

“No one can keep up,” Steve muttered, unable to resist the comeback.

“Well, yeah,” Sam laughed. “Neither could I! That didn’t stop you from flirting with me.”

“That wasn’t actually intended to be flirting,” Steve admitted. “Not at first.”

Sam eyed Steve, squinted a little.

“Honestly,” Steve insisted. He was trying to look serious, but had a hard time suppressing his smile. “I had no idea that that was where we were headed until you put it into words.”

“Okay,” Sam shook his head. “Here’s the thing though. That wasn’t the first time I saw you running that stretch in the morning, which leaves me pretty sure it wasn’t the first time you saw me there either.”

“No,” Steve agreed. “I’d noticed you before.”

“Yeah,” Sam nodded. “And you always ran right by, never said a word. And then suddenly one day, you come zipping past three times in a row, taunting, wearing the tightest shirt you own? Dude. I mean, really.”

Steve just shook his head.

“Come on,” Sam pressed.

“The shirt wasn’t that tight,” Steve said.

“It looked like it was cutting off the circulation to your arms,” Sam said. “Like think about it. Think about me there sweating in my old-as-shit stretched-out sweatshirt. And then you come up, t-shirt ready to split right down the center of your chest.”

Steve shrugged. “Well…”

“Yeah,” Sam concluded. “I thought so.”

“I really thought I was aiming for friendship.”

“So you always dress like that when you’re trying to make friends?”

“I didn’t realize the shirt was that tight,” Steve insisted, laughing. “All right, okay, so in retrospect, maybe — I don’t know. I obviously — yeah, I thought about how I could break the ice with you before I actually said anything that day. And I’m pretty thankful that you saw something other than what I thought I was going for there. If I’d realized —” Steve shook his head. “I jumped on board as soon as you clued me in.”

“Yeah, you did,” Sam agreed, thinking back to that surprising first kiss.

Steve smiled with him for a while longer before his face fell toward serious and he continued: “I guess the thing of it is this — take this morning. This morning when I woke up, I forgot that I was different, that I was this; taller, bigger, healthy. That still happens sometimes. Not often, but once in a while. It doesn’t always feel like it’s been that long; not to me. And then on top of that, you add Captain America and the whole waking up after being frozen for seventy years thing, and it’s hard to know what it is that people see in you, if they’re seeing what you want them to see, you know? Even in 1945 it was hard, and now — If you’re not careful it can sometimes all start to feel like costuming that you can’t ever remove.”

Sam thought about it all for a moment. He thought of Steve’s face there on the Mall when Sam admitted that he’d guessed who Steve was before Steve ever introduced himself. The way Steve had been postured, showing off, his hands set on his narrow hips, right up until he deflated a little when Sam had asked about the defrosting, had tried to excuse himself before Sam rushed in and continued, not ready for the introduction to end.

“That isn’t what this is though?” Sam asked. “This isn’t me just seeing the costuming?”

Steve shrugged, turned onto his side, facing Sam. “Well, I wasn’t really sure at first. But I kissed you, pretty badly from what I gather, and then you still took us in. You let me pull you into my fight. Your car was destroyed, you saved my life more than once, you came pretty close to dying — more than once — and somehow I still woke up in that hospital bed with you sitting there next to me, so I figure —”

“You figure I’ve got it pretty bad,” Sam guessed.

Steve shrugged. “I figure it probably takes more than some made up title and a body that looks like this to convince someone to stick around through all that, plus everything that’s been happening since.”

Sam frowned, pretended to weigh Steve’s words. “I don’t know, man. It is a really great body and an excellent title.”

Steve snorted. “Yeah, well… you’ve already told your mother about me, so at this point I’m not feeling too worried.”

“Yes, I did, and my sister too. So yeah, I think we can probably say it’s more than that,” Sam agreed, and then he shook his head. “And don’t think I didn’t catch — dude, that was so far from a bad kiss. How many times am I gonna have to tell you that?”

Steve smiled and shook his head. “I don’t know. A few more times probably wouldn’t hurt.”

Sam reached over, pulled Steve toward him and Steve’s mouth, slow and thorough.

“I really messed you up by waiting around for you to make that second move, huh?” Sam asked, his thumb sliding back and forth across Steve’s cheek.

“Nah,” Steve said. He rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t just that. I had to kiss Natasha to avoid being caught by Rumlow. After that we had a pretty long drive up to New Jersey.”

“And she told you you were a bad kisser,” Sam guessed.

“Well, not exactly,” Steve said. “She said I needed practice.”

"Uh huh," Sam said. It wasn’t like that statement wasn’t true in itself. "Well, I'd say you've managed to fit in a good deal of practice since then."

Steve huffed a little, then nodded. "Yeah, I get it now. She was right."

"I can't pretend I have an objective opinion here," Sam admitted. "So far there isn't a thing I've found to complain about. I loved kissing you then and I love it now. Sitting on your couch kissing you, your hands just kinda hovering over me like you were afraid what might happen if you touched me. I can't lie; it’s all been pretty exciting for me and I’m looking forward to whatever comes next."

The Sexual Education of Steve Rogers, by Sam Wilson. Sam loved the sound of it, almost said it aloud, and then thought better of it. He didn’t want to make Steve too self-conscious. He went with this instead:

“Hey, so did you kiss Natasha before or after you kissed me that first time?”

“After,” Steve said.

“Okay,” Sam nodded. “Good. I’m still first then.”

“You aren’t first,” Steve corrected.

“First since 1945,” Sam amended, and then, without thinking it through too much, he went on. “Am I the first dude you ever kissed though? How about that? The first dude? Or you know, what about this — I’m the first black dude you’ve kissed, aren’t I. I’ve definitely gotta be the first black dude you’ve ever kissed.”

“Sam, shut up,” Steve laughed.

“Yeah, all right,” Sam said, grinning. “Getting you to admit that can wait until later.”

He didn’t make it that much later. They talked a while about the next week’s dinner plans; whose place would be better (“If we’re doing this at your place and you want me to stay at your place afterward, I’m gonna have to ask you to reconsider my offer to switch out those mattresses.”) and, more importantly, what they were going to eat (Sam offered to cook. Steve was leaning toward ordering Chinese again. “If we invite Judy too, do you think she’ll bring that famous pie?”). It felt good, comfortable and domestic… at least as long as Sam didn’t think too hard about the fact that they were planning dinner with the dude who’d been brainwashed to kill them just a few months ago, that both Steve and Bucky were born a few years before Sam’s grandfather, that they both have their faces on the wall at the Smithsonian, or that it was only a matter of time before they would probably be leaving DC behind to join the fight to bring down what remained of Hydra. If you ignored all that, it felt like —

Well, no, Sam didn’t actually want to ignore any of that. Taking everything into account, all of it, it still felt like the beginning of a pretty good life to Sam. He hoped that Steve thought so too.

“What?” Steve asked.

“What?” Sam repeated, surprised by the question.

Steve smiled. “You’re looking at me like — I don’t know.”

Sam thought he probably knew. Sam thought he was probably looking at Steve like he was in love with the guy which… yeah, maybe. Maybe that was true. Sam had promised to be more forward about what he was feeling, but he knew it wasn’t time for that declaration, not when they’re really just started this. Right now he felt like yeah, there was a real possibility they’d get to that, but he wasn’t saying anything until the answer was ‘yes, definitely’. ‘Yeah, maybe’ wouldn’t be fair to Steve, so Sam did the next best thing. He answered Steve with a kiss.

Steve reached for him immediately, pulled him closer, and Sam smiled, the slide of their mouths familiar now, easy.

“I’m going to ask you something,” Sam said. Steve hummed a little in response. “You don’t have to answer, you just tell me to shut up again and I will, okay?”

“Ask,” Steve said, a touch of impatience audible in his voice, but his eyes were still closed, his face relaxed, and when Sam pressed another kiss to Steve’s lips, Steve returned it easily enough.

“Kissing aside, am I the first to get this far with you?” Sam asked, his voice low, their faces close.

“Maybe,” Steve murmured. Sam kissed Steve’s cheek and Steve turned into it, rubbed his face against Sam’s just like he’d done earlier in the hall, seemed to like the feel of Sam’s thin beard against his skin. Sam would have to make sure to remember that.

“Yeah?” Sam asked, another press of lips.

Steve opened one eye to look over at Sam. “Maybe not,” he amended.

Sam groaned, chuckling. “All right. Shut up, Sam. I get it.”

Steve shifted, pushed Sam off of him, then moved so that their positions were reversed, so that Steve was the one dripping kisses down onto Sam’s lips.

“I’ll have you know,” Steve said, pausing to kiss Sam nice and thorough. “I spent a year touring the country with more than forty chorus girls.” Another kiss, a little more tongue this time. “Women crowded me in corridors asking me for my autograph.”

“Uh huh,” Sam said. This whole thing was starting to seem like pretty deliberate foreplay from where Sam was lying. “Your autograph. I bet they did.”

People still wanted Steve’s autograph, but somehow Sam Wilson was the first person Steve decided to kiss.

“And lately I’ve just been very busy,” Steve concluded slowly, seriously. He pressed his thumb to Sam’s lips. Sam kissed the pad of it, then knocked it aside and pushed up from the bed to kiss Steve hard.

“Yeah, now you have,” Sam agreed, a little breathless. “Damn right, you’ve been busy.”

**

They were standing in their underwear in Sam’s dark kitchen eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when Steve abruptly set his down, leaned back against the counter, and said, “I think you should come with me tomorrow.”

“Come with you where?” Sam asked. He turned on the sink, filled two glasses with water and handed one to Steve.

Steve drank half the glass before he answered. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.

“Sorry, to visit Peggy,” Steve explained. He turned and looked down at his sandwich on the counter, his eyebrows high as he continued. “I’d like to introduce you.”

“Okay,” Sam said. He waited for Steve to look up. When Steve didn’t Sam shifted closer to where Steve was standing. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. He swallowed, his forehead furrowing as he nodded. When he looked back up at Sam, he smiled. Sam’s hand was resting on the counter and Steve reached over and covered it with his own for just a moment before letting it slide away. “I think it’s important. I want her to know that I’m not alone.”

**

Sam listened to Steve breathing beside him. Steve was on his side, his back to Sam, but nice and close, so that all Sam had to do was turn in toward him to kiss Steve’s back, to slide his hand along Steve’s side and down across Steve’s stomach.

Steve turned a little at Sam’s touch, turned so that Sam could see his profile. The room was dark, but Sam could see that Steve was smiling.

“It was Peggy, wasn’t it?” Sam asked. “The first person you kissed was Peggy.”

“It wasn’t Peggy,” Steve said. He paused and then shrugged. “It should have been. Peggy was the first person I ever kissed that mattered.”

**

Sam felt – well, he actually felt pretty nervous. He was good at this. He was good at impressing friends and family. He was well-spoken, articulate, he had a good job, friends. He wasn’t kidding with what he’d said to Steve the day before: Sam knew he was a pretty good catch. But this was – it wasn’t exactly the same as meeting the parents, was it? Peggy Carter wasn’t Steve’s relative, she was Steve’s first love. Steve might even say the love of his life. If Steve had made it home from the war, she probably would have been Steve’s wife. They would have grown old together, had a family. Instead Peggy had all of that without Steve. Instead Steve got…

“Shit, I’m nervous,” Sam admitted. He wiped the palms of his hands on his jeans.

“Stop it,” Steve said. He pulled Sam’s hand away and held it in his for a minute, squeezed it tight. “Since when are you nervous? What have you got to be nervous about?”

Sam snorted. “What do you think?”

“I’ve already told her all about you,” Steve admitted.

Sam just gave him a look. Steve shrugged.

“Of course I told her about you,” Steve smiled. “What, you can tell your mother, your sister, and my best friend, but you can’t believe there’s anyone I’d want to tell? I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Sam, but you’re not really the sort of guy people keep secret from their friends.”

That worked. Sam laughed, loud and abrupt, and felt some of the tension in his body release. “All right, then. Who else have you told?”

“Natasha,” Steve said with another shrug. “Nick. I didn’t really talk to him about it or anything, but he knows.”

Yeah, okay, that probably should have been pretty obvious, what with Steve’s secret trips to get Sam his wings and all.

Steve took a deep breath and suddenly it looked a lot like he was the nervous one. He smiled. “You ready?”

“Ready if you are,” Sam said. He clapped a hand on Steve’s back, rubbed a few short circles against his shirt. “I’ll try not to embarrass you.”

Steve was already opening the door, but he paused to squint back at Sam. “Thanks,” he said, a little wary.

Sam laughed again, lower this time. He was still smiling as he followed Steve into the room.

“Peggy?” Steve asked. He stopped just inside the door. Peggy Carter was propped up in bed. The room felt very personal, full of belongings: knick-knacks and photographs. The table beside Peggy’s bed was crowded with pill bottles. Peggy turned her head to look at them and Sam held his breath.

“Steve,” Peggy smiled. “You’re back so soon.”

Steve relaxed right away. Sam knew that Steve hadn’t been here in at least two days, but Peggy recognized him. She remembered.

“Peggy,” Steve said. He started toward her bedside, gesturing back to Sam. “This is Sam.”

Sam nodded as Steve pulled a second chair next to the bed. Sam stood beside it even as Steve sat down.

“Sam,” Peggy said, gazing up at him. She looked confused, but she smiled back at him anyway.

“Agent Carter,” Sam said with another polite nod, realized he was maybe coming across a little too stiff.

“Oh,” Peggy laughed. “Please, Sam, sit down. You can call me Peggy. Peggy is fine.”

“Peggy,” Sam repeated. “All right.” He sat down in the chair beside Steve’s.

“He’s the friend that I told you about,” Steve explained. “My, uh — well, I suppose he might be my boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend?” Peggy asked. She looked up at Sam and then back toward Steve. She lowered her voice and leaned in toward Steve. “You aren’t sure?”

Sam laughed, surprised, and it sounded loud in the quiet room.

Steve turned to study Sam, searched his face like he actually was looking for an answer to that question, like maybe he really wasn’t sure.

“Yeah,” Sam prompted. He was smiling too much, too wide, too many teeth. He swallowed and his throat felt dry. “I suppose I might be that.”

A smile pulled at the edge of Steve’s mouth as he turned back toward Peggy. “I’m sure. Sam’s my boyfriend.”

Sam really liked the way that sounded when Steve said it out loud. He just hoped Peggy did too and he shifted in his seat, nervous again, waiting for her response. There were any number of things about that statement that might upset this woman, that might cause her to reject them. Sam usually felt pretty secure in himself, pretty sure, but this — yeah, he was definitely nervous. Peggy Carter though — Peggy smiled warmly at Sam and then tightened her hold on Steve’s hand.

“He’s very handsome,” Peggy noted. “Nice honest smile.”

“I did notice that,” Steve agreed.

Relief flooded through Sam as he leaned back and set his hand on Steve’s chair.

“Shall we go on?” Peggy asked Steve, a twinkle in her eye.

“We better not,” Steve said. “I don’t want him growing too much of an ego.”

Both Peggy and Sam laughed at that, but for Peggy the laughter soon turned into a coughing fit. Steve tensed immediately, leaned forward, both of his hands covering Peggy’s.

“Peggy?” he asked.

She waved her free hand at him, her eyes squeezed shut as she swallowed and cleared her throat. She held up the hand for them to wait just a moment longer.

“My granddaughter, Megan – that’s Julia’s daughter — is a lesbian,” Peggy confided once she could speak again. “Have I told you? She’s just moved in with her girlfriend. Lovely girl.”

Steve relaxed again. “Yes,” Steve said. “You’ve told me. I don’t know if you remember this, but I met Megan last month.”

“Her girlfriend’s name is…” Peggy tapped her fingers against the bedspread. “Oh, I can’t remember now, but she’s a lovely girl. Just lovely.”

Steve nodded. Sam wondered if it hurt, hearing about the family that Steve missed out on, meeting the children that might have been something like Steve’s own. Sam imagined that it must, but if it did, Steve didn’t let on.

“I’ve been worried about you,” Peggy admitted, as though she’d just plucked the thought from Sam’s mind.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Steve assured her.

“You still have an entire life ahead of you,” Peggy said. “I hope you’ll be happy.”

Steve looked down at their hands.

They had a lot going on. They had Bucky and Hydra, not to mention whatever else the world might decide to throw at them, but Steve didn’t say any of that. Instead he turned and looked at Sam, just sorta gazed at him for a minute. Sam’s chest felt instantly tight, his whole body instantly warmed by Steve’s glance.

Flying or Steve Rogers, and it wasn’t even a question anymore, was it? Sam would stay permanently grounded if it meant he was grounded beside Steve. Sam was ready to pull out his phone and call his mom right now, tell her to set the table, because Sam was bringing Steve home.

It was then that he realized: that was exactly what they were doing there. Sam had already made the comparison once, nervous and standing out in the hall, but it wasn’t until that moment that it really hit him. Steve couldn’t bring Sam home to meet the folks. This was Steve’s family now. Peggy Carter and Bucky Barnes, and once again, Steve was so far ahead of Sam, so much better at all of this.

“I hope you’ll be happy,” Peggy said, and Steve smiled at Sam and then he turned back to Peggy and answered:

“We’re working on it.”