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Paper Wings

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Sam spiralled up through the air, wind thrumming against his wings and pushing his goggles into his face. He grinned and banked to the left, then dove into a roll that had the horizon spinning giddily. Wind whipped the sweat off his face and his liver tried to crawl up into his ears as the trees below him changed places with the grey sky above, the trees growing rapidly larger with each revolution. At the last minute he straightened out and snapped his wings into a glide.

He soared up over the forest again, letting his momentum carry him back over the clipped lawns of the Avengers complex. He coasted, catching his breath and enjoying the raptor's-eye view. The skies seemed more crowded these days, with flying AIs and men in iron suits cruising around up here, but it was still a rare view. In the city, buildings and streets marched beneath his rocket-wings all the way from one horizon to the other. Here, the gleaming white buildings of the complex stood out sharply from the miles of open green land all around them. Sunlight glinted off a lake to the west. Ten minutes ago and a couple hundred feet higher, he'd scanned the quiet country roads for incoming traffic and watched Ms Potts's car crawl down the lane like a small iridescent beetle.

Sam rolled onto his back and studied the patchy clouds above him. Weather reports predicted rain, but he figured he had a good half hour or forty minutes before he had to decide whether he wanted to get wet.

His earpiece buzzed. "Gonna daydream till this coffee gets cold?"

Sam made a show of tucking his arms behind his head. At this height, Steve should be able to see him pretty clearly from the ground, especially with his super-soldier vision. Just in case, he waggled his wings back and forth in an exaggerated show of laziness. "I'm finding pictures in the clouds, man. That one over there looks like Stark's beard."

Steve's snort crackled in his ear. Without looking, Sam could imagine Steve stepping off the porch onto the close-cropped lawn, two coffees balanced in one hand as he shielded his eyes against the glare of the sky with the other. "I thought Tony would have seeded the clouds with nanobots by now. You're probably only seeing what he wants you to see."

"Nah." Sam tucked his knees up and turned the motion into a smooth roll, coming out with his feet pointing downward and his wings cupped for the descent. "If I were seeing what Tony wanted me to see, I'd be knee-deep in half-naked robot chicks."

Steve was shaking his head with amusement as Sam touched down. He handed him his coffee, biceps bulging under his light t-shirt. "Or a better jetpack."

Sam clinked paper cups. "Or a better jetpack." He took a swallow, then eyed Steve. "You sayin' I need an upgrade?"

Steve shrugged. "I'm saying Tony thinks everybody needs an upgrade." He gestured with his chin. "You break in one set of wings, he'll have invented some new alloy that does it twice as fast at a third of the size before you're ten feet off the ground."

"Fair point." Sam rolled his shoulders, checking that the wings had retracted fully. "Though I'm not sure that's how alloys actually work."

"Don't look at me. I'm not the 21st-century man here, right?" A few months ago Sam wouldn't have noticed the difference between Steve's gentle self-mockery and his rare moments of bitterness. Today, the man looked a little more somber than he'd sounded from the air, a little less quick to lob back banter.

Somewhere behind them, the shunk of a car door closing announced Ms Potts' arrival. Sam started towards the showers, trusting that Steve would keep the pace. He turned to walk backwards for a few steps. "Nah," he said, as if he hadn't noticed Steve's mood, "That's not your problem, man. Your thing is you're an artist. Not an engineer."

That got a slightly more genuine smile. "Hey, I draw a mean robot calendar girl."

"Yeah, but how are you on feathers?" Sam reached the steps and jogged up them and through the sliding doors. "You wanna watch the Fazza Falconry Championships again for tips? They're on day three."

Steve's boots thumped on the deck behind him. Sam thought he'd brush him off—Natasha and Rhodes already had—but instead he said, "Yeah. I'd like that."

The training complex's air conditioning made Sam's skin tingle after the exertion of his flight. He showered fast, and made it to Rec Room B with his skin still damp. Through the glass walls he could see Wanda tucked up on an office chair in the next room over, and Ms Potts snapping open her briefcase.

Steve was in the big leather armchair, hunched over a piece of white paper, so absorbed that he didn't notice Sam come up next to him until Sam cleared his throat. He folded the paper up in his hand so quickly Sam couldn't tell what it was, but when he looked up he seemed...sad.

Sam leaned on the back of the armchair. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I just..." Steve gave a little shake of his head, like whatever he was thinking hadn't quite coalesced into words yet.

Sam took the couch and dug his StarkPhone out of his pocket. He found the livestream in a few seconds and hit the three-button sequence that would put it up on Tony's huge flatscreen TV. Funny how they all thought of it as Tony's even though he'd insisted that it belonged to the team. Probably had something to do with how it looked different every week and was undoubtedly watching them back when they used it.

"It's Peg," Steve said, too quiet for Ms Potts or Wanda to hear in the office. "I went in on Tuesday and her doctor says..." He didn't really need to continue; Sam had heard that tone of voice too often in the air force.

Sam stopped with his finger on the play button. "Shit. I'm sorry, man."

Steve kept talking. "It's...they're counting days, you know? Weeks, on the outside. I thought I'd braced myself for it, but..." He took a deep breath. "She gave me this." He unfolded the piece of paper again. It was a drawing of a young white woman with curly dark hair and a defiant sparkle in her eyes, the careful charcoal lines capturing the bow of her lips in a candid smile much more intimate than the Peggy Carter on the newsreels.

"When did you do that?" Sam tried to imagine capturing a loved one in a pencil sketch rather than screengrabs over a dubious Skype connection. It was like imagining himself flying with the Wright Brothers, only less exciting, even if he had to admire the skill it took.

"The funny thing is, I don't remember." Steve smoothed out the creases in the paper without seeming to realize he was doing it. "Peggy doesn't either. She forgets...sometimes she forgets. But I remember how she looked when I drew it. Like she was daring me to impress her."

"It's good," Sam said. "Would've impressed me."

Steve coloured. "Well, she took her shirt off twenty minutes later."

"Who's taking their shirt off?"

They both looked up. Natasha was leaning in the doorway, raising an inquisitive eyebrow. Sam saw Steve start to fold the drawing away again, then stop. "Nobody," Steve said. "Nostalgia."

"And don't we all have a lot of that." Nat slipped into the room and perched on the arm of Steve's huge chair. "That's Peggy?"

"Yeah." Steve cut his eyes to Sam, as if telling him made it easier to tell someone else. "I just heard from the hospital."

"Bad?"

Steve swallowed. "Yeah. She won't be with us much longer."

Nat squeezed his shoulder in a half-hug. She leaned her chin on Steve's shaggy blond head and peered at Sam with a little frown. "You guys sit tight. I'm about to commit some petty larceny."

"What?" Steve's eyebrows did something complicated as he twisted to look up at her. But she was already up and slipping out the door.

Sam caught Nat's wink as she sidled out of the room; everything became clear. "She knows where Tony keeps the good booze," he said.

"Oh." A wry twist of his mouth. He ran his hands over his face, almost crumpling the precious picture of Peggy. "Sorry," Steve said after a moment. "I actually do want to see the bird thing."

Sam furrowed his brow. "You sure?"

"Yeah." Steve let his breath out in a long sigh. "Fire it up."

"'Cause this is important stuff here. I don't want you watching it out of duty." He brandished his StarkPhone and Tony's giant TV came on.

He heard Steve give a little huff of breath. "It wasn't duty when I spent time with Peggy either, all right? I just...I don't want to miss out on things with the friends I have now."

"I hear you, man." All the shit he was doing with Steve and the Avengers these days didn't make up for losing Riley, either, but he'd pretty much figured out by now that he didn't want to miss out on little stuff with these lunatics. Because none of them were immortal, and at the end of the day all you had were your memories. "I could take my shirt off if that would help."

Steve leaned forward and punched Sam's shoulder with about a quarter of his full strength. There were still going to be bruises. But then he said, "Hey, I'm not stopping you. Of course, Wanda's all eyes back there, too—"

"Fuck off," Sam said amiably, because he wasn't corrupting any minors, thanks. "So, okay, the Tilwah—"

"I'm sure I've got a pencil around here somewhere—"

Sam clicked play. "Keep Stark from upgrading my wings for three weeks and you can draw whatever you want."

"Deal."

Sam didn't have to look at Steve to know he was smiling slightly, or that he still had the drawing of Peggy smoothed out over his knee. The past wasn't really past for any of them, but as long as they knew how to balance their burdens, they could still fly.