There’s a man named Jesse who spends most of morning rush hour on the grassy peninsula between two pieces of Constitution Avenue, right where it hits 23rd Street and splits to ramp up or down from the Roosevelt Bridge. Traffic moves fast enough that the cars can never stop for long, but while they’re paused Jesse will get up, leaving his bike under one of the promenade trees, and approach the people nearest to him. He doesn’t have a sign or anything, just a friendly smile and a chatty attitude.
Sam’s coming up from the Pentagon and he’s been stuck behind a department shuttle for most of the drive in. It thunders out into the intersection about half a second into the red light. Sam coasts to a stop at the line, and the commuters coming up from the memorial start crossing in front of him. Jesse is already ambling over, big grin on. “Hey! Hey, it’s Sam. Morning, Sam.”
“Hey, man,” Sam says, taking the offered hand. “How’s it going?”
“Hot, you know. It’s hot out. You got any water maybe?”
Sam’s got a bottle in his lunchbag that’s still cold. Jesse opens it right away, sweat beading on his forehead and running down sunken cheeks. He’s right, it’s barely eight and already miserable, a real bastard of a day promised by the college kids on WHUR-FM.
“I might have some more bottles in the back,” Sam says, but Jesse shakes his head.
“Yeah, it’s okay, I got some money. I’m gonna go to CVS, after rush’s died down some. You doing okay?”
“I’m doing just fine. What about you? How are things?”
Jesse smiles a little, shrugging at him. “Well, it’s not bad. It’s not bad.”
Sam’s light turns green, and Jesse lifts a hand and waves as Sam takes his foot off the brake. “You take care of yourself, now.”
“I always do!” Jesse calls after him.
Sam only ever sees him in the morning, and only on that strip of grass marooned between two highways. He’s pretty sure there’s another spot around the city where he spends the afternoon, where the sun is a little kinder. At least, he hopes so. Jesse looks about sixty and he’s been on the street, he tells Sam, for about half his life. It takes a toll.
Sam doesn’t go out to Virginia as often as he used to, and it’s a few days before he sees Jesse again. The man is up on his feet and waving, heading towards the car before Sam’s even rolled to a stop.
“Hey yourself.” It’s not as warm today, but Sam already has the water bottle to pass to Jesse as he ambles up to the car window. Jesse takes it, and leans into the car, an unusually serious look on his face.
“Listen, Sam-my-man, I’m glad I caught you,” he says. “I got one of yours at the park.”
Jesse shares tent on 27th Street, across from Rock Creek Park. The camp there gets raided and dispersed pretty regularly by District cops, too close to M Street and Georgetown’s gothic spires for the city’s comfort.
“One of mine?”
“Young kid. He’s got tags and that PT thing. Night terrors,” Jesse says. “Bad, pretty bad. You coming out here this weekend?”
“I can, sure,” Sam says. He has a standing date with Miriam’s Kitchen on Saturdays, and they usually don’t mind if he rides along to distribute the food they make. “If it’s okay with him, you can point me out when the van comes around.”
“Think he wants to talk,” Jesse says, just as Sam’s light turns green. “But he’s scared of something. Hides from the cops. Not violent, though. Nice kid. Real nice.”
Someone behind Sam honks. “Well, you got me curious,” he says. “I’ll see you Saturday, okay?”
“You got it,” Jesse says, and turns to go back to his tree.
There are a couple church groups that do a circuit around the city’s biggest homeless communities on the weekends; if you sit in McPherson Square, three different congregations will show up and hand out food, just twenty minutes apart. Jesse’s got a joke about Episcopal sandwiches and Catholic lemonade that would make the Virgin Mary cry with laughter. Miriam’s Kitchen is in the basement of the Western Presbyterian Church on G Street, so on Saturday Sam takes the orange line into Foggy Bottom and spends a couple hours putting together bagged lunches, apples and oranges and more PB&Js than he can count. The vans go out around lunchtime, though the one going to Rock Creek Park has less than a mile to travel.
Sam sets himself up as the water and coffee distributor at the back of the van, separate from the rest of the volunteers, and waits. It’s a nice day, and they’re parked under a shady cottonwood— it’s no hardship to sit on the lip of the van’s loading bay and chat with the folks who come by. Most of them are familiar enough to linger for more than the pleasantries, so it’s close to an hour before a man he hasn’t seen before shuffles up behind Ms. Moser. She’s winding down from a long, involved story about her trip to Philadelphia to see her sisters and the guy looks ready to rabbit at the first wrong move, so Sam makes a point of looking over and saying, “Be right with you,” with what he hopes is a reassuring nod.
Ms. Moser glances over her shoulder and breaks out in a big, big smile. “Oh, Steve,” she says. “Did you get a sandwich? Sam makes the best ones, you know. They always taste better when he’s around. You need as many as you can get, hon, go on.”
It’s true. The man is thin, almost cadaverously so, stomach hollowed out like his body is eating itself. He ducks his head a little under Ms. Moser’s fond gaze, but his eyes are still flicking from her to Sam to the road.
“I’m Sam,” Sam says, holding out a hand. “You’re Steve?”
“Uh. Yeah,” Steve says, and he’s too polite to refuse the handshake. It’s a strong grip, despite his appearance, and his voice is deeper than Sam expected. He’s got a stringy beard that’s a couple months old and he’s wearing a Welcome to Washington shirt meant for a much broader man. No visible dog tags. His jeans are threadbare but clean, and his shoes are small, with holes at the toe.
“I got a few more sandwiches back here, if you’re interested,” Sam says. “We try to bring as many as we can fit in the trunk.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Steve says, rubbing at a blade-sharp cheekbone. There can’t be a spare inch of fat on his entire body. “I think other people here need it more, if you’ve got extras.”
“Steve,” Ms. Moser says reprovingly, and Steve gives her an awkward look.
“No problem,” Sam says, because he’s knows a little about pride and a lot about guilt. “Water?”
“Oh. Sure,” Steve says, and takes the bottle Sam passes to him.
Ms. Moser goes off tutting, her wire-frame cart bouncing along behind her. Steve drinks the water all in one go, finishes and licks his lips and glances at the cases still in the van.
“Have another,” Sam says, holding it up, and before Steve can protest he adds, “We’ve always got more than anyone could ever drink. No shortage here.”
Steve has a stubborn set to his mouth, but after a second of staring he smiles crookedly and reaches out and takes the bottle. “Thanks.”
Sam smiles back. “It’s not a problem. We’re here to help.”
Steve looks at him steadily, then: evaluating. It’s not exactly a trusting look, but Sam gets the feeling he hasn’t been totally written off just yet. “Yeah, I… Jesse was telling me. You help.”
“It’s up to you, man,” Sam says. “But yeah, I try.”
That first meeting doesn’t yield much. Steve’s close-mouthed and taciturn, uneasy talking about himself. Sam talks instead, careful not to press the point too long or hard: how the Nationals are doing this year, where the nearest Veterans Affairs offices are, what falafel is, the address of the clinic Sam works at, the homeless vets hotline, the metro schedule, Miriam’s Kitchen breakfast hours. He tells Steve the Catholic lemonade joke, which is how he finds out Steve has a big laugh for such a thin body. He also finds out Steve was in Germany just a few months ago and recently came down from New York.
“Family there?” Sam asks, and Steve’s body goes stiff. Without missing a beat, Sam adds, “I’ve got a whole branch in Harlem, up in Sugar Hill. Used to go there every Thanksgiving— terrible traffic— and eat about ten pounds of jello salad over four days.”
“Jell-O,” Steve says with a bit of wistfulness. “Jack Benny was a real character, wasn’t he?”
“Sure was,” Sam says, though he has no idea who that is, and carries on about Aunt Patrice until Steve’s fingers relax around the crumpled water bottle.
Sam has a collection of cheap canvas bags he likes to bring with him on trips like this, the better to stuff with pamphlets and booklets and a few more water bottles. He smuggles some leftover sandwiches in there too, jelly bleeding through the bread, and as the Miriam’s Kitchen volunteers start packing up he hands the heavy bag to Steve.
“Maybe I’ll catch you next week?” he says.
“What’s all in here?” Steve asks, peering down.
“A few things. We can talk about it then,” Sam says, and shuts the back hatch on Steve’s dawning protest.
Sam slides into the back seat and their driver says, “Hey, shoes!”
“Sorry,” Sam says, and turns to wave goodbye as the van’s engine turns over. Steve’s confused face recedes into the distance, his hand half-raised in response.
Steve isn’t at the park the next Saturday, or the one after that, though Jesse says he’s still coming around once and awhile. Sam tries not to feel disappointed about that. It happens. Sometimes people are just scared, or suspicious. Most have more going on than one pamphlet-aided intervention can help.
He decides to keep an eye out anyway, and the Kitchen is certainly happy to have him more regularly. He otherwise doesn’t have much free time; he’ll be pretty deep in coursework for his Virginia state licensure once the semester starts, and his day job is in Bollings’ Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center. The services do love an acronym, and this job— mental health counselor— gives him the enviable title of PRRC MHC. Once he has the license, it’ll be PRRC LPMHC. God love ’em but that’s a mouthful. Sam’s not looking forward to the classes, but he is looking forward to building beyond the weekday mixed group sessions he’s allowed to lead now, into individual and family work.
It’s three weeks on and a little cooler when Sam spots Steve again, lingering back by the underpass while the rest of the community bustles up like it’s a church picnic. Sam waits until the rush has died down some, then ambles his way over.
In the shadow of the bridge, it’s almost chilly. Steve’s sitting on a broken block of concrete, looking away towards the woods and the big houses just visible through the brown spray of branches. His jeans are a little dirtier, but he’s found a dull red sweater somewhere to layer with. It stops just short of his painfully bony wrists.
“Hey, Steve. Brought you a sandwich,” Sam says, holding it up.
“Oh. Thanks,” Steve says, and takes it. “Sam, right?”
“That’s right.” Sam brought an extra coffee too, and sets it next to Steve on the rough concrete. He sits next to it, and Steve, sipping his own coffee as the sandwich gets unwrapped and polished off in less than sixty seconds.
“It’s got meat in it this time,” Steve says, after the last of it is already gone.
“Yeah. Roast beef.”
Steve rubs his arms a little, still looking away, and Sam produces a second and third sandwich from his shirt pockets.
“You’re as bad as Mrs. Moser,” Steve mumbles, but he takes them. It’s a slow, controlled movement, one trying very hard not to be a snatch. The man looks at them and shifts uncomfortably on the concrete, head sinking down. “You know, you don’t have to do that.”
“I don’t?” Sam says, carefully noncommittal. Steve gives a one-shoulder shrug.
“I’m not— ungrateful,” he says, glancing at Sam sideways. “But it’s not necessary. I’m fine.”
He says it the way Jesse does, with a deadness behind his eyes.
“This stuff…” he adds, gesturing with the sandwich. “I didn’t have much when I got here, and I was… I was pretty confused. About a lot of things. These people helped me, and they don’t have much. Barely anything. I don’t want to take anything else from them, you understand?”
“Steve.” Where does Sam even start? “You’re not hurting anybody, making sure you get what you need,” he says. He leans back on his hands, keeps his voice light and even. “We all gotta eat. You deserve that just as much as anyone out here, and none of them are going to begrudge you that.”
Steve blinks hard at him, then drops his eyes to the sandwich.
“Uh,” he says.
Sam dares to lean and nudge his shoulder. “Go ahead and eat. That’s homemade by yours truly, and I make a mean roast beef.”
Steve takes a bite. “Needs more mustard,” he says after a moment of thoughtful chewing.
“Excuse me?” Sam says, and Steve huffs out a laugh through his nose and keeps eating.
“You really don’t have to keep coming out here,” Steve says a few Saturdays after that, segueing abruptly out of a conversation about ducks. The park doesn’t have ducks, but the harbor does, and he and Sam are out walking by the launch quay for the kayakers and rowing teams. Steve has mostly stopped shrinking in on himself every time someone glances their way, though he won’t walk down to where the restaurants crowd up to the water. He’s picking at his hems, smoothing the beard down: self-conscious. He rounds his shoulders and looks mostly at the birds.
Sam looks at the birds, too. Mostly the sparrows, hopping around the base of the garbage cans and tweeting viciously at each other over stale french fries. The harbor smells like fried food, damp wood and green water.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you shouldn’t— I don’t need your help, I’m fine.”
There’s that word again. “I’m sorry if I’ve been intruding,” Sam says gently, hands in his pocket. “But I think it’s pretty clear that you do need help, even if you don’t want it from me.”
“That’s not what— you’re not intruding,” Steve says quickly, and Sam breathes out in a silent sigh. “I just think… I read all the papers you gave me, about houses that might take me in, and people who hire on for short jobs. But I can’t do that.”
“Do you mind me asking why?”
Steve looks up at him, then away, an unhappy set to his mouth.
“Hey, it’s alright.” It can’t all be split-second breakthroughs. “Let me buy you a rocket pop?”
Sam points at the ice cream truck they’re coming up on, the Disney cartoon characters and superheros on sticks pasted all over the sides.
“Jeez,” Steve says, eyes rounding. “Is that food?”
“It’s ice cream, so, debatable,” Sam says, and goes up to the window.
“You don’t have to,” Steve says belatedly, coming up to fidget next to him while he buys them both something.
“That’s the thing, you know,” Sam says. “I want to.”
Steve gives him an uncertain look, and Sam hands him the freezie.
“My time is mine to give,” Sam clarifies. “I’m visiting because I want to, not because I have to. I want to help, Steve.”
He tears open his own popsicle, already dripping blue and red stickiness on the boardwalk. It’s the Captain America-branded one, so it looks like a stretched-out Smurf saluting.
“Um,” Steve says, staring at it.
“You want to trade?” Sam says, holding it out.
“No. No, I’m good,” Steve says.
Steve eventually makes it up to Miriam’s Kitchen in person, and with the first couple of nights in the fifties the Kitchen has brought out the fall menu: thick soup, cornbread, roasted vegetables, romaine salad, and apple crisp with cinnamon whipped cream. The man had looked a little overwhelmed when Sam set the plastic tray in front of him but he’d dug in fast once the tables starting filling around them. The hollows around his eyes are deep and purple; despite Sam’s quiet campaign to stock him up on the weekends, he hasn’t been gaining any weight. Might even be losing it. Sam hopes there aren’t track marks hiding under the skinny sleeves of the red sweater.
“Hey, Sam?” he says asks, down to carrot and peas. The apple crisp waits on a second plate, untouched and inviting.
“Yeah?” Sam says, nursing coffee with about a quarter cup of powdered creamer. What can he say, he likes it light.
“There’s something I haven’t told you.”
Steve’s body language is odd combinations of defensive and direct. Sam doesn’t put the coffee down, but he does reorient himself to face Steve squarely. “What’s that?”
Steve takes a deep breath and lets it out slow. “There’s someone looking for me.”
There’s an unfilled pause after the words, while Sam waits to him to elaborate and Steve has a staring match with a forkful of carrots.
“Family?” Sam finally asks, and Steve shakes his head tightly, forkful of carrot settled on the plate.
“I don’t think I have any family left,” he says. “I don’t know who these people are, or what they want. They might be from the government. But they keep trying to catch me, take me somewhere. I don’t know if they followed me down to Washington, but they could have.”
It’s depressingly common, as far as delusions go, and explains a lot of Steve’s behavior. Paranoia is also a classic symptom of PTSD and some street drugs, so Sam’s seen all flavors. He lets Steve keep talking.
“So, I can’t draw attention to myself. I can’t— I don’t want all those people knowing where I am.”
“Steve, these places value the privacy of their guests,” Sam says. “You’re not going to go on some kind of watchlist if you sign up for a spot.”
The forkful of carrots finally makes it to its destination. “But,” Steve says around them, then swallows. “They ask for all this information. Like my name, and my social number.”
“Social security number, yeah.”
Steve stops with another forkful in the air. “Like FDR’s Social Security?”
Weird way to put it, but, “Yeah, exactly like that.”
“Huh.” Steve eats the carrots, goes for his juice with the other hand. “I didn’t know it was still around.”
Sam tilts his head. “Really?”
“A lot of things I remember aren’t,” Steve says. “I was gone a long time. But yeah, that’s the other thing— I don’t even have one of those numbers.”
“You mean you forgot it?”
Steve shakes his head again. “Pretty sure I never had one. You have to apply, right?”
“Mostly, you get them when you’re born,” Sam says. “That shouldn’t be too big a problem. We can ask the state for your card—”
“No, see— that’s exactly what I can’t do,” Steve says, leaning in across the table with sudden vehemence. “They’ll find me. I know they will.”
“Alright,” Sam says, a little softer. “Alright, that’s fine. There are a few places that won’t ask for it.” Steve starts to sit back, blue eyes under creased brows, and Sam continues. “I think it’s still important to apply. A lot of the problems you’ve got, a place to stay would be the best thing for them.”
“I’ve got place,” Steve says, and his smile is bitter. “I like those cutouts in the bridge over the big road. Cozy.”
“Just think about it,” Sam says. He takes another sip of coffee. “It’s a steep first step, but as soon as you’ve got an address, it all gets a little easier. Sleeping, keeping your clothes washed. Getting a paycheck.” Treatment for trauma and substance abuse.
Steve looks lost in thought now, fork tines dragging through the gravy on his plate. “I tried getting a few jobs, here and— and up north. Even small places. When I went in and asked, they looked at me like I was crazy. Gave me papers, and internet web things, just like you. Is it all like that now?”
“Pretty much. There are programs that can help out there, too,” Sam says. He wonders where Steve came from that didn’t have job applications, online or otherwise. Sounds nice there. “I’ve got a couple of people I could introduce you to, if you want to keep it on the down-low.”
“Keep it quiet.”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah.”
“But first, housing,” Sam says. “Say you’ll think about it, at least?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Steve says, still looking at the plate.
“Trust me, Steve,” Sam says and smiles when he glances up. “It’ll be worth it. I promise.”
A few days later, Sam gets a call from a caseworker he knows at Blair House.
“I have a Steven Grant Rogers here? Says he’s Army, doesn’t have any ID right now, but you could vouch.”
Sitting in a cube farm, Sam has to keep his victory dance quiet. Gabriella across the way gives him an inquiring look, and Sam points at her and mouths, baby it's a-a-a-all right now . “That’s right. We’re working on it— blame federal’s processing times.”
“I mean, I trust you, man, but— Steve Rogers?”
It is a strange choice, for someone who thinks the government might be looking for him. Maybe his parents were just that patriotic. “Don’t worry, he’s good people. I'm hoping we can find him someplace more permanent before it becomes an issue.”
“Fine by me,” the caseworker says. “Okay, signing in one star-spangled man. Ha. You have a good one, Sam.”
“Better every day,” Sam says, making finger guns at Gabriella. She just rolls her eyes at him.
That’s housing, at least for a bit. The next step is trickier without paperwork to back him up, but Sam’s got a few strings he can pull.
Lashaun, his in at the VA med clinic on Irving, is in her early fifties and perpetually tired of everyone’s shit. Sam comes armed with pie and a tall black coffee, and she still gives him a lengthy gimlet stare before waving at the very small amount of free space on her desk.
“Go on, then.”
“Afternoon, ma’am,” Sam says, wedging his offerings in sideways. “I was just wondering—”
“Sit,” she says, and Sam obediently sits for the next quarter-hour while she finishes charting some poor soul. She eats his pie, though, so he hasn’t been completely dismissed.
“So,” he ventures when she hits submit.
“So,” she says, spinning her chair slowly to face him. Even in magenta scrubs and cyan sneakers, she’s intimidating. Maybe especially intimidating. “Sam Wilson. What can I do for you?”
“I know class rosters for the fall sessions are filling up, but I was wondering if you could find a slot for a vet I know. Great guy.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s the best guy,” Lashaun says. “He’s also a late guy.”
“He was a homeless guy, until recently. I just want to help him get back on his feet, you know?”
“Mmhm,” she says.
“Please?” Sam tries. “It’s been a couple months. I don’t want him out there this winter.”
Her expression thaws a fraction. “Which classes are we talking, here?” she asks grudgingly.
The real answer is as many as Sam can possibly shoehorn him into, but he moderates his request to job training and basic group counselling. Lashaun gives him a look over her glasses that could peel paint but she opens up the database.
“It’s, uh. Steven Rogers. Middle name Grant.”
“That poor boy,” she mutters, typing it in. “Some people shouldn’t be allowed to name children. Date of birth?”
“Can we leave that blank for now? And the rest of the biographical section?”
“I know you are not trying to make me your accomplice in stealing tax dollars from the American people,” she says, but keeps typing. “I suppose you want me to leave the clinical notes section blank too.”
“No, that I got a handle on. You can put me as the referrer.”
“Oh, can I. Thank you so much, Mr. MHC.”
All in all, it goes much better than he expected. Now, he just has to sell it to Steve.
Blair House is just down the street from where Sam lives in Eastern Market. Steve is in, according to the front desk, and arrives in the lobby looking surprised, then pleasantly flustered when Sam passes him a little something in a gift bag as they walk up four flights of stairs to the attic rooms.
“You shouldn’t have, Sam,” he says, but he’s touching the little jade plant with gentle fingers, holding it up to the light. The pot is glazed ceramic and bright yellow. “Really. I might forget to water it.”
“That type’s hard to kill, trust me.” Sam’s got about five jade plants in various sizes at home, thanks to his dad’s green thumb and annoyingly fruitful window gardens. “How’s it going?” he asks, noting the small pile of books already building on the battered nightstand. “You settling in okay?”
“ Oh, it’s great ,” Steve says with a lot more enthusiasm than Sam would be able to muster for communal showers, the bottom bunk, and those fucking stairs. He’s still a little out of breath; curiously enough, Steve isn’t. “It’s wonderful.”
“Some people like it because it reminds them of barracks,” Sam, looking around at the other beds. “If barracks had a vegetable garden and TV time.”
Steve’s face freezes, then goes empty. “Didn’t spend much time in barracks,” is all he says, setting the jade plant to the side of his books. “Thanks, Sam.”
Well, shit. Sam found that one the wrong way. He doesn't look like he'd react well to Sam asking if he's okay, though, so Sam says, “Don’t thank me yet. I’ve got a couple more things for you to look over, if you’re interested.”
Steve is intrigued by the job training but eyes Sam like he'd just proposed healing his chakras with crystals or something at the explanation of group therapy.
“I’ve got to do what now?”
“You don't have to do anything,” Sam emphasizes. “I just think it would help, is all. Little steps.”
“Steps towards what?” Steve asks with an edge of frustration. “What am I walking to?”
“That’s up to you,” Sam says. “For me, it was… a bunch of things, eventually. But at first, I just wanted a life that didn’t feel like a movie about someone else.”
Steve frowns at him, light striking in sideways to pick up the gold in his beard, the holy roller blueness of his eyes. “Like a movie. You really felt that way?”
“It’s a little something called disassociation,” Sam says. “It happens to a lot of soldiers. Still happens to me sometimes. There’s things you can do to make it less overpowering. And you can hear all about it,” he adds, “in counselling.”
“Hm,” Steve says, eyebrows drawn together. But he’s looking at the schedules Sam brought him with renewed interest.
Steve does great in group. The sessions Sam was able to get him into are held off base to make them more accessible, so Sam only sees him on the rare occasions Sam has something administrative to handle in NE Washington. Gabriella leads the groups in that area, though, so Sam gets suitably vague but encouraging progress reports from her whenever he asks. Sometimes even when he doesn’t.
“He talks about you a lot,” she says with a mysterious smirk, clacking away with one hand on the keyboard and the other holding her tea. “A lot. You’ve definitely made an impression.”
“Wait, is this a good thing or a bad thing?” Sam says, leaning on her cubicle wall.
“It’s a ‘thanks for making my job easier’ thing,” she says. “Steve has a lot of questions, and I don’t think he feels comfortable asking me the majority of them.”
“Happy to help out.” And he is; how does anyone these days reach the ripe old age of twenty-six without hearing about I Love Lucy ? Thai food? Trouble Man , for crying out loud? It’s a crime against culture. Steve deserves so much better, even if he still regularly mixes up Star Wars and Star Trek.
It's officially cold now, the leaves dry and skittering across the sidewalks, the District fountains draining away one by one. Sam gets a text on his phone from an unknown number during class one grey morning, and is checking it during lunchtime when he gets two more in the same conversation.
I have a telephone now. This is my number.
Are you getting these messages? Please respond if you are receiving.
This is Steve Rogers.
Sam sends him back a, Loud and clear, captain. He adds a thumbs up and, after a second, the Cap emoji.
Steve calls him.
“How do I make the little pictures?”
“Depends on what kind of phone you have,” Sam says, and spends a very enjoyable hour walking Steve through the basics of texting. The guy acts like he’s never owned so much as a handheld in his life, it’s hilarious.
“ And that little man you sent me?”
Sam has his feet up on his desk, group notes up on his screen and mostly forgotten. “What, you don’t recognize your namesake?”
“I was kind of hoping I was wrong,” Steve admits.
Sam grins. “Did the kids make fun of you in school for that?”
“You know, the name? Call you Captain America? Quote the newsreels at you?”
“Uh. Not really, no.”
“I would have,” Sam says and drains the last of his coffee. “I loved those things. We must have watched them every year in school. In my neighborhood we all wanted to be Gabe Jones, but Captain America was a close second for me.”
“That’s, uh. Wow.”
“Broke my leg trying to ramp off a dumpster when I was eight, pretending my bike was his motorcycle.”
“Oh, my God, Sam!”
Sam laughs, settles the phone in the crook of his shoulder as he drops his legs and stands, aiming for the kitchen. Down the corridor, his boss has a visitor in a sleek grey suit, which around here usually means Congressional budget QFRs are in the making. Sam eavesdrops shamelessly on his way past her open door.
“I’ll need to take this under advisement for now, Ms. Rushman,” Helen is saying, though it clearly pains her to do so. Ms. Rushman must be waving the big bucks. “We don’t normally refer our veterans to outside programs, you understand.”
The visitor, a rather stunning redhead, smiles back. “I understand completely. It’s a new area for our organization, so we’re also still exploring what’s possible. We just want to reach as many veterans who might be on the street as we—”
Sam loses the conversation as he moves down the hallway. In his ear, Steve’s talking about the internet again— by his own descriptions, he seems to have made his way through half of it in the last month and is both mildly obsessed and totally disgusted— and he asks a question Sam doesn’t catch while distracted by the empty pot waiting next to the sink. Honestly, it’s like the law of the jungle in here sometimes.
“Sorry, man, come again?”
“I said, could you send me transcripts from the UN General Assembly interventions today? I ran out of data to stream them,” he says, which is pretty damn advanced for a man still talking about cell phones like they’re from another planet.
“I can probably manage that, yeah.”
“They have an audiovisual library. I’ll send you a link,” Steve says.
The redhead is still talking as Sam walks back to desk.
“—area we would like to see benefits for all eligible veterans, but our director first proposed this fund because of personal experiences with his nephew. This is his way of trying to give back to that community, and maybe through it, we can reconnect a young man with his family.”
Steve says, “Okay, it should be in your inbox.”
“Alright, sounds good. You still coming to the group dinner on Sunday?”
“Yeah. Are you sure I can’t bring something?”
“Bring that appetite and some helping hands for the dishes,” Sam says. “That’s all.”
Sam had figured out pretty quickly that Steve’s bony frame had nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with a freakishly fast metabolism. They’ve made something of a tour of the District’s cheap and easy dining, and Sam has never in his life seen a human being eat as much steak and eggs and bacon and still be able to stand afterwards. He’s also never been kicked out of an Old Country Buffet before, but half the buffets in town probably have Steve on a bulletin board in the back room by now. The man is a bottomless pit, but the results are undeniable: Steve’s gained at least forty pounds since he started living at Blair House.
Sam wasn’t kidding about the dishes, either— piling twenty grown men, women, and their families into one rec center with no working dishwashers is a massive problem that can only partially be solved by paper plates and aluminium foil. He’s not going to make people with little kids stay and scrape lasagne and a couple more of them have long commutes. An additional few cheerfully admit they don’t want to miss their shows, and at the end of the night it’s just Steve and Sam bumping elbows over the industrial sinks, watching the sky outside go dark.
Steve’s in a meditative mood, though a smile is playing around his mouth like the moths outside dancing around the lights. Little things like this, just being around other soldiers, definitely seems to help him. He’s been running with a couple of the guys for a while— they all complain about him being a showboat— and tonight he’d gotten an official invite to join the gals’ weightlifting meetups. Sam hopes Steve knows enough not to showboat with them. Sam’s only joined once, and he’d been sore for weeks afterwards.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Sam asks. He has the Trouble Man soundtrack playing on his phone on the windowsill, after Steve had admitted he hadn’t listened yet.
“Nothing in particular,” Steve says, pulling a casserole dish from deep in the soapy water and setting it on the towels lining the counter. “Just. Happy to be here, you know?”
It’s good to hear. Sam smiles at him, and Steve smiles back before he drops his eyes to the dishes, cheeks a little pink from the hot water and steam.
“You think we’re about done here?” he says.
“God, I hope so,” Sam sighs. He glances at the clock on the wall. “It’s late. I can spot you a cab if you want?”
“That’s alright. I’ll walk you home,” Steve says offhandedly, then ducks his head down and scrubs harder than he needs to at a baking sheet.
They take out the center’s garbage and recycling as a courtesy, which normally means several trips huffing and puffing around to the back of the building. By the time Sam’s managed to wrestle one bag out and tie it off, though, Steve has two bags under his arms and two more in his hands, and doesn’t look particularly strained. He might be ready for those weightlifting meetups after all.
They set off in the orange glow of streetlights, skirting Lincoln Park to stay on North Carolina Avenue. They’re talking about the fundraiser gala coming up, which the DC Coalition for the Homeless hosts annually. Well, Sam’s talking about it— complaining about taking his suit to the drycleaners, organizing buses for the invited “community members” like Jesse, the performance they all put on for DC’s rich and guilty. The whole office got tickets and he’s the only one still dateless, which rankles a little.
“Hey, what about it?” he asks Steve, suddenly inspired.
Steve blinks, eyes a little wide. “What about what?”
“The fundraiser. Come with me. It’ll be interesting, at least.”
“I, uh,” Steve stutters.
They turn onto Sam’s street. Sam grins and elbows Steve in the side, their bodies swaying close on the narrow sidewalk. “Gabby will be there. I know she’d love to see you outside of group.”
“She doesn’t let us call her Gabby,” Steve mutters, and Sam laughs.
“C’mon, I don’t want to go alone.”
Steve is staring at Sam, expression hard to make out in the dim streetlight. “Beforehand… we could get dinner?” he says. “Just the two of us?”
“Well, sure,” Sam says. Fundraiser food isn’t exactly Michelin quality. They’re coming up to the front door, and he’s a little distracted digging in his pockets for the key. “We can do that.”
“Okay,” Steve says, sounding a little out of breath. “Okay, I’ll— I’ll send you the address.”
Sam’s turning in the front gate and Steve hovers outside of it, hands coming to rest on the wooden railing.
“We can meet there at six?” he asks. “Will that work?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Sam says, confused by the tension in his voice. “Steve—”
“Okay,” Steve says again. He nods jerkily. “Then— goodnight, Sam.”
“Night, Steve,” Sam says, but the man has already turned around, and Sam is talking to his rapidly retreating back.
Sam watches until he disappears around a corner, eyebrows climbing up his forehead.
“Alright, then,” he says to the cool night air, and lets himself into the house.
On Thursday, it all gets a little clearer.
“And, uh. We’re still on? For Friday?”
Sam has to think for a moment, fingers tapping on his desk. “Right. You wanted to get dinner before the fundraiser?”
“And I’m paying,” Steve adds quickly.
Sam chuckles. “I’m not objecting. But you do realize the fundraiser’s going to have a dinner portion too, right?”
There’s a moment of silence on the other end of the phone.
“I’m taking that as a no,” Sam says.
“Sorry,” Steve says, and Sam can hear the creeping embarrassment. “I can cancel, we can—”
“No, no. I’d rather get dinner out, actually.”
There’s something about the way he says it that makes Sam pause. Mentally, he reviews the invitation, the emphasis on just the two of them , the weirdly hesitant way Steve had asked and the look, the look on his face when Sam said yes.
Oh, boy. Oh, this particular boy.
“Yeah.” Sam’s looking at the ceiling with a smile wide enough to hurt his face, not that Steve can see him. “Let’s get dinner, Steve.”
“Great,” Steve says in a rush. “That’s really great. I’ll see you there.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Sam says, and Steve gives an oddly breathless laugh.
“Yeah, that’s me. Man with a plan.”
“You take care.”
“You, too. Bye, Sam.”
He hangs up, and across the way Gabriella says, “If you break his heart I’ll break your legs.”
She’s wearing a tank top that shows all her tattoos so the words have extra menace. Sam smiles dopily at her and she levels a threatening finger at him.
“Seriously, I’ve put work into that guy. I had to give him the birds and bees and enthusiastic consent talk. I had an entire two-hour session collapse into complete anarchy because they all wanted to Ann-Landers him into your pants, and then had to stop them from downloading Grindr on his phone. Twice. Consider it a professional courtesy.”
“You got it, Gabby,” Sam says, and leans out of the way of the pen she throws.
The restaurant Steve picked is small and warmly lit, tucked under an awning and all but invisible from the street. Sam only knows it's the one because Steve is standing outside, stiff-backed and radiating anxiety, and wouldn’t have even known it was Steve. But there’s unlikely to be another six-foot-plus blond who, the second he spots Sam across the street, smiles hugely and starts to jog towards him. Sam starts across when the light turns, a little bemused as Steve bounces up to him on the sidewalk.
He’s shaved and trimmed up his hair to something like a high and tight. He’s also in a suit that strains against shoulders and biceps Sam could have sworn he didn’t have two days ago, though maybe that’s the suit’s fault. Steve has put on a lot of muscle recently, more than Sam would have thought was possible, and there’s a limited pool of people Steve could have borrowed it from.
“Don’t you look nice,” Sam murmurs when he comes closer, almost to himself. Without the beard, Steve looks good, but also startlingly young and uncomfortably like the Steve Rogers Sam remembers from those classroom newsreels. Bootcamp must have been hell for him.
“You, too,” Steve says earnestly, coming to a stop at an awkward distance and rocking on his heels, like he can’t decide if he wants to go for a handshake or hug. “Do you want to go inside?”
Sam takes pity on him and puts a hand on his shoulder, steering him towards the restaurant. “Let’s. I’m so hungry I could eat a buffet out of business.”
Steve barks a laugh and a little of the tension leaks from his shoulders. Sam’s hand slips to the small of his back, and Steve trips over something invisible on the sidewalk.
They’re shown to a tiny table with a lit candle in the middle, fresh, barely-budded roses in a chic vase next to it. Their knees bump under the lacy tablecloth. The waiter hands them menus with a suggestive, “Please enjoy, gentlemen.” Sam looks at Steve as he lays his napkin over his lap and sees his cheeks are turning pink. Then his ears. Then his neck.
“You okay?” Sam asks, because he’s going to give himself an aneurysm if he keeps that up.
“It’s just so different now,” Steve says quietly, a note of real wonder in his voice. He toys with the edge of the table cloth. “I never thought I’d able to… I never thought it’d be this easy.”
“Are you calling me easy?” Sam asks archly, and Steve’s head jerks up in alarm.
“No! No, you’re not— Sam, I wouldn’t—” he stutters, then sees Sam’s shoulders shaking as he tries to keep the laugh in. “Sam!”
“Sorry,” he says, grinning at him. “Couldn’t resist.”
“God knows you’re the opposite of easy,” Steve says, clearly exasperated, then makes an agonized face. “I mean.”
“No, go on,” Sam says, enjoying himself thoroughly. “Good communication is key, and all that. Tell me about how difficult I am.”
“ Sam ,” Steve groans, head in his hands, and Sam takes pity on him and flags the waiter down for drinks.
Steve rallies around a glass of something white and pleasantly sour, still red-faced but smiling ruefully as a basket of bread appears on the table and just as quickly disappears between the two of them. “You were difficult, sometimes. Pushy. Big know-it-all. You kept after me for months, even when you didn’t know me from Adam and I had to have looked and smelled like a dead dog.”
“Never that bad,” Sam promises, and Steve gives him a peeved look.
“Sam, you realize you’ve never said no to something I asked for? The closest you got was not yet, and that was when I said I’d like to visit the moon. The moon .”
“Hey, Elon’s working on it,” Sam says, a little confused about where this is going. “And, Steve, you don’t ask for much. You’re a little stubborn about doing things your own way, in case no one’s told you.”
“I asked you here,” Steve points out. “I asked you out. You said yes, but I still didn’t even know if— if you said it just to humor me, or if you were really interested. I couldn’t tell. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks.”
“Oh, is that how it is?” Sam says with an unexpected twinge in his chest.
“That’s how it is,” Steve declares, and then his brain seems to catch up with mouth. “Um.”
Sam hooks his heel around Steve’s ankle and leans across the small table, sliding fingers around a wrist to tug it away from Steve’s face.
“Steve,” he says, low but clear. “I’m very, very interested.”
Steve mouth works for a moment but ultimately fails to produce anything but, “Oh.”
“And you are definitely on my dance card tonight,” Sam says, satisfied, and sits back with Steve’s hand still in his.
“Okay,” Steve breaths, staring down at their fingers with a dazed smile.
“You didn’t mean it about the dancing, did you?” Steve says later, clutching a cup of coffee like it might protect him from the awkward sway-and-turn starting to spread from the middle of the room.
“If you don’t like dancing, you haven’t been doing it right,” Sam says, but relents when that gets him a look of wide-eyed alarm. “Alright. Another time.”
Waiters are pulling the plates from in front of them, circling around with steaming carafes and little pots of cream. Sam had slid his charity dinner over to Steve and watched it evaporate with a speed that was frankly mesmerizing, considering the amount of pasta the man has already consumed tonight. He’s caught himself thinking, oh, yeah, Dad’s going to like this one , and grins at Steve, thinking about barbeque and picnic benches.
Steve gives him a slow smile back, relaxing further into his folding chair. “I’d be willing to try it sometime. Just. Not tonight?”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Sam says. “Tell me more about Guernica?”
“I’m not boring you, am I?”
Sam knows jack all about Picasso and feels a bit guilty ignoring his co-workers and networking opportunities in favor of listening to Steve. He still says, “No, come on. The bulls have to mean something, right?”
They watch other people dance while they talk and talk. Steve knows a surprising amount about pre-war art, and when they exhaust that he presses Sam for details about his service. Sam tells him about the lush green of poppy fields from above and the rescue missions they’d run, how a pilot in their unit had been the one to spot Tony Stark and they were buying her drinks for months afterwards.
“You know, Stark Industries? Howard Stark?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Yeah, I know him. He had a son?”
“That’s some rock you’ve been living under,” Sam says, shaking his head. “Tony Stark is older than you are.”
“Right,” Steve says, sounding subdued. “I’m still reading up on some things.”
“Hey, no,” Sam says. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”
Steve glances up at him with a half-smile. “Thanks, Sam. You know I...”
Whatever he was about to say stalls out as Sam’s boss walks up to the table, trailing a few other people in eveningwear. Sam stands to give Helen a hug, and Steve rises slowly to his feet beside him.
“Don’t you look nice, she says approvingly, flicking at Sam’s lapel. “And you must be Steve.”
“Yes ma’am,” Steve says, wooden.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” Helen says with a borderline lascivious look at Sam, but Sam is looking at Steve. The man’s face has drained of all expression, face tight and eyes hard as flint.
Helen, oblivious, goes on. “Sam, you might remember Natalie. She came into our office a few days ago?”
“A pleasure,” purrs the woman next to her, and Sam realizes he does recognize her. It’s the pretty redhead with the money, sleek in a short black number with heels that look crippling. She holds out her hand. “Sam and… Steve?”
Her palm is soft, grip slightly loose. Unease licks up Sam’s spine as Steve takes a long, long moment to respond when she offers her hand to him in turn. The movement looks forced and painfully stiff.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” Natalie says sweetly.
“Likewise,” Steve says through his teeth.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Really nice. Helen, you know who would really get a kick out of meeting Natalie?”
Jesse and Ms. Moser have just appeared in Sam’s peripheral vision like distractions sent from a benevolent God, and Sam steps in front of Steve to steer Helen, Natalie and the rest of the group over to them. Jesse does indeed get a kick out of meeting Natalie, bending over her hand to kiss it and making her giggle. Ms. Moser is in a wheelchair, her hip acting up again, but in good spirits. Sam relaxes slightly, happy to hear the latest from them.
When he glances over his shoulder, Steve’s gone.
“Uh, Helen? I have to,” Sam says and jerks his head back to the table.
“Sure,” the woman says, confused but not put out.
“I’ll be back in a second, too,” Natalie says, smoothly interjecting. “I need to find the restroom. Sam, do you know where it is?”
Sam does, because they hold the fundraiser in St. Francis Hall every year, and he scans the room as he walks her out to the hallway, then down towards the front doors. Their footsteps are soft on the short carpet.
“So… have you known Steve a long time?” Natalie asks, idly.
Sam’s not stupid, even if a lot of this makes no kind of sense at all. “Have you?” he asks coolly, and watches her red smile widen.
“I met him briefly. Earlier this year,” she says. The bathrooms are to the side, but she’s headed for the doors. Sam glances back the way they came, then reluctantly follows her. “He wasn’t in the mood to talk.”
She pushes it open, and there’s cool breeze and a gun pointed in Sam’s face. A very big, very long gun, belonging to a figure dressed head to toe in riot gear that blends in with the darkened parking lot. The figure in riot gear has friends, at least half a dozen of them positioned in the shadows cast by cars.
Sam slowly raises his arms, his every iota of attention on the barrel that swings away from him to point towards the door they’d exited. “Oh, don’t worry,” Natalie says, seeing Sam’s expression. “Tranq guns only. We’re not authorized to use lethal force— Director Fury wants him in one piece.”
SHIELD. Steve is on the run from SHIELD and merits personal attention from its director.
“Why?” Sam asks Natalie. It’s like he’s slipped sideways into another dimension without noticing. She’s kicking off her heels and buckling body armor over the lace of her little black dress. There’s an enormous taser in her hand, chunky and grey and definitely not meant for human-sized targets.
“Why?” she echoes, looking at him strangely. “Sam—”
“Sam!” Steve says desperately from in front of them, and a lot of things happen in very fast succession. The rifles, tranq guns or not, still sound like guns and they shatter the quiet of the street, setting off nearby car alarms and rattling windows. Natalie shoves Sam bodily away out of the line of fire and shoots the taser directly into Steve’s chest. Sam hits the concrete sidewalk on his hands and knees and looks up in time to see Steve respond to several thousand volts of electricity by picking up a wrought iron park bench and throwing it at them. Followed by an industrial-size garbage can. Followed by a minivan, rolled bumper over bumper through the SWAT wannabes like bowling pins.
“Sam!” Steve calls, holding the broken-off driver’s side door like a shield in front of him. “Just hold on!”
Sam looks down at his arm and sees a dart sticking out of it, right above the elbow.
“I think I owe you a serious apology,” he mutters, and crumples.
Steve gets away, at least for the moment. Sam knows, because he wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed and the second he’s cogent enough to speak he has Natalie and her boss Agent Tapioca on his case for several exhaustive hours. What day did he meet Steve? Where did he see him the most often? Why was he helping Steve? Did Steve have any other known associates they should interview? Sam doesn’t lie, but he doesn’t elaborate, and he finally escapes when Gabriella of all people springs him from Providence in University Heights with threats of lawyers and habeas corpus infringement.
When he gets home, there’s another agent just leaving his doorstep and signs everywhere that the place has been thoroughly tossed; his phone had already been politely confiscated in the name of national security, and his car is now mysteriously missing from his parking place on the street. He imagines there'd be some agents stationed around the block if they could find any parking, but this is Eastern Market and all he sees is some suspiciously twitchy bushes two doors down. He gives them a one finger salute and goes inside, falls facedown on his couch, and sleeps through the rest of the day.
When he wakes up in the middle of the night, there’s an unfamiliar sound coming from the direction of the kitchen. Sam listens, tense under a blanket he doesn't remember pulling up, and slowly rises to peer over the edge of the couch towards the darkened room.
It’s coming from the pantry, he figures out pretty quickly. There’s a thin beam of light under the door jam, slanting across the linoleum. When he settles his hand on the knob, there’s a rustle, and then silence.
Sam opens the door. Steve is sitting on the floor, an open bag of Doritos in his lap.
“Hi,” he says, head craned back to look at Sam.
“Hey,” Sam says.
“I, uh. Didn’t know where else to go,” Steve says. “But I hoped it would be okay if I came here.”
Sam doesn’t say anything for a moment. Steve wilts a little under his hard stare, looking down into the bag of chips and rubbing at the orange dust on his fingers. There’s an open, empty can of soup next to him, an open and mostly empty pickle jar, and a few more finished snack bags.
“Time-travel?” Sam says abruptly.
Steve looks up, squinting in confusion. “What?”
“Clones?” Sam asks. “Time-traveling clones? At this point, I’m willing to buy it. I can’t think of anything else that might explain Captain America in the goddamn flesh.”
“I think I froze?” Steve says. “At least. It would make sense.”
“You froze ,” Sam says.
Steve shrugs. “It was the Arctic.”
“Huh,” Sam says, and sits down on the floor next to him. It’s a small pantry, and his legs fold and bump awkwardly with Steve’s until they settle in shoulder to shoulder. Steve offers the bag to him, and Sam glowers for a moment before reaching over and pulling out a handful.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, and Sam snorts as he shoves them all in his mouth.
“For the record?” he says around the chips, crunching loudly. “This is the kind of thing you lead with when you ask a man to dinner.”
“Pretty crappy first date,” Steve agrees, smile a little wobbly around the edges. “I can go. If you want me to.”
“Yeah, well. Captain America needs my help,” Sam says. “I’m not going to say no to that. And Steve Rogers is just lucky he’s so damn pretty.”