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Still a stranger to the ground

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Turns out getting onto the base is the easy part.

All Sam has to do is use his ID to get through a non-civilian gate, smile all innocent and lie through his teeth to the guard about appointments with officers and VA business at the outpatient clinic. Oh, and pretend for all he’s worth that he doesn’t have a national icon and a master assassin stowed away in his car like a couple sets of golf clubs.

He’s pretty sure treason isn’t supposed to go this smoothly, sound this mundane, especially from the inside perspective. Hollywood movies are bullshit.

He does a slow drive around the parking lot, enough for Natasha and Steve to bail out unnoticed before he gets to the vehicle inspection station. They’d both been kinda vague about just how they were gonna get inside and meet up with him once he’s done throwing off suspicion or whatever, but this is their game and he’s never been prone to asking questions if he doesn’t have room in his pockets for the answers.

Luckily he’s been here before; he’d come to see his wings get mothballed out of some need for closure, or at least a knockoff flavor of closure, and he’d ended up sticking around for a while when something about the VA work pulled him in, gave him a purpose he could still face. Means he knows his way around and the guys working security know his face, even if they can’t remember his name right off. Means the lies go down smoother even if he likes himself less for having to tell them.

He’ll deal with that stuff later, he figures. Steve asked him for help, and that takes priority. Plus he’d be fooling himself if he wasn’t a little giddy at the thought of strapping himself back in, taking off again with no cockpit or fuselage in the way.


Of all the goings on at Fort Meade, they don’t exactly advertise the experimental tech sealed away underground. Sam ducks a few more guards, nods blandly at others, and avoids the cameras as much as he can.

He’s halfway down a hallway when Steve appears next to him in an out-of-thin-air sort of way that a guy of his size and, well, presence, just shouldn’t be able to. Dude’s like a cat. Or maybe a lion. He’s got a cap pulled low on his face and the shield on his left arm. From the cracks Natasha was making back at the house, Sam’s a little disappointed he doesn’t get to see the hipster glasses. He’ll have to ask later, if they don’t get caught and locked up first.

“Everything go okay?” Steve asks, falling into step with Sam. He asks like he’s not talking about them breaking into a secure facility on a secure base to steal something that’s not officially supposed to exist.

“You hear sirens or guys with guns sprinting after us?”


“Then I figure yeah, we’re okay. For now at least.”

Steve nods, sticking close to Sam as they round corners and move quickly down a stairwell. “Natasha’s taking care of some of the security arrangements.”

Sam quirks an eyebrow. “Do I wanna know what that involves?”

Steve’s mouth twitches. “Maybe not. I got her to promise not to concuss anybody she doesn’t have to.”

“Thanks man, I’m so comforted,” Sam says, checking around the edge of a door before they step out.

“Trust me, it can’t go any further south than our last break-in did,” Steve says.

“Oh yeah,” Sam says, “let’s dwell on that whole domestic missile strike thing, that’s what we need to be doing right now.”

“Pretty sure that was a one off,” Steve says, sounding affronted on behalf of his B & E skills or something. “Unless there’s a Nazi computer guarding the wings we should be fine.”

Sam blinks at him. “Nazi—No no, don’t tell me. We can do story time when we’re not stealing from right under the military’s nose.”

“Borrowing,” Steve puts in, and then aims a smile at Sam that’s more distracting than Sam has time for right now. “Besides, they’re your wings, right?”

Captain America is a bad influence. Sam can think of about twelve history books that need revising.

He just shrugs, “Give or take a few billion of Uncle Sam’s dollars and a Stark Industries patent, sure, but I’m not complaining.” He leads Steve down another stairwell. “I wanna help, and I want my sky back.”

Steve nods, doing that determined soldier face he does probably without noticing. Sam totally understands how people end up following this guy. It’s not helping what he’s definitely not calling a crush for the sake of his dignity.

Eventually they reach a security gate. The light on the card reader’s glowing solid green and the gate’s hanging ajar. There’s no sign of the guard and the monitor at the station is just showing static divided into squares, one for each camera. Natasha leans against the desk doing something on a tablet Sam’s guessing isn’t hers. From the almost bored look she’s wearing she could easily be playing Angry Birds on a long commute.

“Hey boys,” she says, looking up. “Ready to do this?”

“Depends,” Steve says, even as Sam’s already nodding. “Alarms?”

“Disabled,” Natasha says. “At least the low-level ones in this part of the complex. I also created a little diversion on the other side of the base that’ll keep the rest of the security detail occupied. If we go now and stay fast we can be out before they realize what’s going on.”

“Sounds simple enough,” Sam says, aiming for confident and just about making it.

“After you, soldier,” Natasha says, reaching out with one hand and pushing the gate open, gesturing him through.


Of course there was no way they’d gotten rid of all the security.

It’s just one guy with a nine mil standing outside the last checkpoint before they get to the room the wings are sealed up in.

“Ideas?” Sam asks. They’re standing against the wall around the corner from the dude’s line of sight, but it’s a long narrow corridor with no other ways out.

“I can put him out before he radios anyone,” Natasha says. Sam has zero doubts about that.

“We might need him,” he says, nodding in the direction they need to go. “This gate’s got retinal and palm scanners along with the standard ID reader.”

“Almost like they don’t want people breaking in,” Steve says.

Natasha shrugs. “You can hold him up while I open his eye if it comes to that.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Steve says. “Nat, go make sure our exit route’s clear. Me and Sam’ll get through the gate and retrieve the suit. If we set off any more alarms we’ll need you free and clear to shut ‘em down. Or just to get out and continue the mission without us.”

“I’m not leaving you here, either of you,” Natasha says immediately with a distinct not-kidding glare.

She shares some kinda silent communication with Steve, both staring at each other with these tiny eyebrow tics Sam can’t read. It sets off a pang in his chest, makes him remember the conversations he’d have with Riley in the middle of briefings or in the mess with the rest of the squadron.

“Fine,” Steve finally says, “we all get out together. But I still need you to sweep the exits, kill any alarms we set off.”

She nods at Steve. “Don’t get caught. Or killed.” Then at Sam, “Don’t let him do anything too reckless.”

Sam huffs. “Any tips on how to do that?”

Steve rolls his eyes, but it doesn’t hide the fond look he flicks at Natasha. Sam reminds himself he’s got more important things to be doing than finding Steve cute just now.

Natasha slinks off back the way they came. Steve squares his shoulders. “Ready?”

“Yeah, what are we doing in this plan again?” Sam asks.

Steve smirks at him. “We’re getting through that gate. C’mon.”

He rounds the corner, and Sam goes alongside. Of course he does.


Turns out Steve’s ‘plan’ is literally to just walk up to the soldier with the gun, stick his hand out and say hello. Sam is stranded firmly somewhere between surprised and not surprised at all.

“Holy shit,” says the guy, understandably, eyes going from Steve’s face to the shield and back. He’s a Lieutenant, and up close he doesn’t look more than twenty-three, twenty-four years old, but that could just be the star-struck expression. Sam counts his blessings he was too winded for any of that to show the first time he talked with Steve, and that now he’s seen Steve stuffing his face with waffles some of the shine has worn off. Doesn’t help his not-a-crush any, but there you go.

The guard – whose ABU’s have MURPHY embroidered on the name tape – is still staring, open-mouthed. “You—You’re—”

“Yeah,” Steve says, barreling on. “I need you to open this door.”

Poor Murphy’s whole body twitches towards the door, hand going halfway up, like Steve’s I-Am-Captain-America voice has just yanked on his invisible puppet strings. Sam sort of feels bad for the kid. Steve’s a lot to deal with without the chance to build up a tolerance.

“I, uh. I’m not authorized to do that. Sir?” Murphy says. Sam can see the shock and disbelief giving way to plain old confusion, and after that comes suspicion, at which point they’re gonna be in trouble and Murphy’s gonna be in a heap on the floor.

Sam decides to take a chance. He steps closer, holds up his ID, the one that shows his rank. “Listen, Lieutenant—” he fights the urge to go yeah, hi when he gets a startled blink “—we’re here on orders and kind of short on time. I can’t explain the situation since you’re not in the need to know, but you think you can open up this door for me and the Captain here?”

Murphy looks back at Steve, down at the shield, and then back at Sam.

He opens the door.

“Thanks,” Steve says with a nod, ducking through almost before it’s fully open. Sam returns Murphy’s slightly shaky salute and catches up with Steve.

“You know he’s gonna report in as soon as he finds his feet again, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, walking faster. Sam has to jog to keep pace. “But we won’t be here long. And I’m hoping if he thinks he was acting on orders then it’ll take more time to sort out what actually happened; right now they’ve just got a chain of command mix-up, not a group of unauthorized civilians sneaking around knocking people unconscious.”

“Hide in plain sight, huh? Fair enough,” Sam says as they round a corner. They pass a few doors marked with things Sam recognizes, labs and R&D-type stuff from the Falcon Program. He taps Steve on the arm and points up ahead of them. “We should be just at the—damn.”

“Well,” Steve says, looking at the big steel door with AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY stenciled on it. “I don’t think we can talk Murphy into letting us through this one.”

“Yeah, no,” Sam says. “I’m guessing your shield won’t break through those either,” he nods at the thick, reinforced hinges.

Steve shakes his head. “I could double back, find Natasha, see if she can get us a—”

“This door’s on an isolated system,” Sam tells him, shaking his head. “No connections to the rest of the base. And I remember something about charges in the access panel if you try and force it open.”

“Great,” Steve sighs, biting his lip. “We get all the way in here and the last door is what screws us.”

“The giant twelve inch thick steel door with a rigged control panel,” Sam says. “Don’t bruise your ego too hard there, Cap.”

“Funny,” Steve says, pacing along the length of the door.

“Y’know,” Sam says slowly, walking over to the panel. “Last time I was here…”

He puts his hand on the scanner like it might bite him. A green bar slips down the length of his hand from fingertips to wrist. The screen flashes green and a keypad appears. Sam taps away, the fifteen digits coming back as if he’d gotten them tattooed on him and he’s been looking at them every day.

Authorized entry,” the pad announces in a tinny little voice. “EXO-7 clearance. Welcome, Major Wilson.

Sam grins at Steve and waggles his fingers. “There you go. Still got it.”

“That you do,” Steve says, grinning back. There’s a moment where it’s a feedback loop and Sam’s stomach does a few tight manoeuvres, Sam looking at Steve’s face and into his eyes and losing way too much operational focus.

The door gives a hiss and a groan and starts to swing open. Steve moves around Sam and grabs the edge, hauls it the rest of the way. There’s dimness past it, gray and stale-smelling. Sam can see dust swirling in the shine of the fluorescent light above him. He frowns a little thinking about the suit – about his wings – stuck down here and forgotten, the whole program branded a failure just because he couldn’t—

“Sam?” Steve says gently, suddenly right there, not looming so much as waiting to see if Sam needs catching.

“I’m here,” he says, not really sounding it. Steve puts a hand on his shoulder, above-normal warmth passing through Sam’s shirt. He shivers like his body’s just realised it’s cold in this damn underground bunker.

“If you need a minute then take a minute,” Steve says, like they have minute spare.

He shakes his head. “Let’s just get what we came here for. Before they work out something’s up.”

Steve nods, still looking at Sam’s face. It takes effort to shrug the focus off, but Sam steps into the room.

Lights flicker and pop on, an off-white runway strip from where Sam’s standing to the far wall.

“Wow,” Steve says, soft like he’s in church. Sam can’t help loving him for it, a little.

The wings are impressive, even under crappy lighting and stuck in a metal box out of the sun. They’re extended – locked open the way they’re supposed to be for maintenance, even if it doesn’t look like anybody’s been paying them much attention. The harness is strapped to a plain gray mannequin, goggles hanging around the neck. It looks like a museum piece, or some ignored bit of art. An angel in a bottle, last of its kind.

“Still sure about this?” Steve asks next to him, both of them facing the suit.

Sam snorts and glances at him. “You’re picking a hell of a time to ask me that, man.”

Steve smiles at him. “Yeah, it’s just—I remember what it was like, putting the suit back on after—” he makes a wavy gesture Sam takes to mean after I was frozen for most of a century. “I wasn’t sure I could do it. Wasn’t sure the world really needed me back in that thing, when it seemed to move on just fine without me.”

“But you did it,” Sam points out. “And we do. Hell, turns out we need you now maybe even more than we did then.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Steve says, looking away for a second, brow creasing up. “But the world needs more than symbols, Sam. More than hope and heroes in costumes.” He meets Sam’s eyes. “It needs people who know when hope isn’t enough all by itself. Good people who make good choices, even when those are the hardest choices left.” His mouth quirks up. “It needs people like you.”

Sam’s really not sure what to do with that. Other than swallow hard and ball up his hands, gather his nerve in a tight little knot and step forward, take that last step that brings him toe-to-toe with Steve, with Captain America, with this guy he’s just met who’s slipped under the surface of his life like it’s somewhere he’s always been, lining up with Sam perfectly, not even a ripple to show it hasn’t been like this forever. If anyone had ever told Sam there’d been a Steve Rogers-shaped hole in his life, he would have laughed himself silly.

Steve’s mouth is soft and open and his eyes are shut, fucking unreal eyelashes trailing on Sam’s cheek. He’s got one hand on Sam’s jaw and his other on Sam’s arm, trailing down to his hand until his fingers wrap around Sam’s palm and he’s kissing back harder, deeper like this is a competition too, somehow. Like Steve didn’t just stroll in and turn the volume way up. Somebody’s breath stalls and Sam can’t tell whose. One of them makes a noise and he doesn’t care which.

They separate, and Sam nearly dives back in when he gets a look at Steve’s wet, pink mouth – when his mind skips a few tracks to other things that might make Steve’s mouth look like that. He feels like he used to right after a jump, legs on the ground and chute billowing behind him, the ground welcoming him back in the bend of his knees with the sky never stopping above his head. Steve’s eyes are really blue.

“Sam,” Steve says, and it doesn’t sound like a name, not just a name anyway, more like something he touches just to know it’s there, that reminds him he’s not gonna spin right off the earth when he touches down.

“Yeah, Steve,” Sam says, for all the same reasons.

Steve swallows and exhales all shaken up. He drops his forehead to Sam’s and Sam holds onto him.

“You gonna help me suit up?” he asks, making it sound almost dirty just ‘cause he can.

“Hell yes,” Steve breathes, looking into Sam’s face even if he’s too blurry to see this close. This time they kiss with their eyes open.


It’s not impossible for him to put the harness on by himself; he’s done it before, in jumps where he had to fix some kinda damage to the suit and Riley was too busy with the mission to help. It just takes longer, and it’s generally less comfortable. So he’s not above asking for a little help, and if it gets Steve’s hands on him a little more, Sam’s cool with that.

They move from the jetpack out to the wingtips, checking every join and pulling out the pins and clips that hold the wings open. Dust falls away from the movements of their hands and the soft pings of metal dropping to the floor have a rhythm in them somewhere, quick and simple until they’re done and Sam puts his hand on Steve’s back as a thank you, one that won’t accidentally lead to more kissing they can’t take the time for.

The wings shiver, a curtain of dust falls, and they fold closed in a perfect all-in-one motion. They both grin.

Steve helps buckle him into the harness, fast and efficient as Sam directs him to the clasps and straps that are harder to reach while you’re wearing them. His hands rest on Sam’s sides for a second when they’re done, and it feels like you can do this, like there’s unshakable faith in the warmth of Steve’s fingers and his solidness at Sam’s back.

Having the suit strapped to his back again makes him want to rock up onto the balls of his feet just as much as it makes his heart clench in on itself, makes him need to flex his shoulders and feel the wings move just like it makes him dizzy and puts a bitter taste at the back of his mouth. He doesn’t even know there are tears on his face until Steve reaches out and wipes one away.

“I’m alright, man,” he says before Steve can ask. “It’s just—” The last time I wore this thing I lost everything else.

“You don’t need to say anything,” Steve says, and something cracks in Sam at how he says it, understanding and not just sympathy or even empathy.

Sam digs the heels of his palms into his eyes and breathes through his nose, out through his mouth. He imagines Riley threatening to kick his ass for even thinking about staying grounded. He remembers the first time they got to use the wings in training, the Nevada desert stretched out under them and Riley whooping in his earpiece Oh I am never going back to choppers! The smile he produces is watery at best, likely to dry up at any moment, but he’s got that itch now, the one that says the ground isn’t the only option. That he can jump and just keep going.

“Okay,” he says, straightening up. He turns and yanks the goggles off the mannequin’s head. “Time for our grand exit, huh?”

“Yep,” Steve says, smiling at him, bright-eyed. Sam wants to kiss him again.

Natasha’s waiting for them in the hall. There’s no sign of their buddy Lieutenant Murphy, which means they should probably get a move on.

“You two took your time,” she says, sliding a black duffel over with her foot. “I got bored. Figured you could use these. There’s secure comms in there too.”

Steve bends to unzip the bags. Guns. Lots of ‘em. Sam eyes the machine pistols, ones that’ll fit into the suits grips, and decides they can wait until later. Nobody on the base is Hydra, or even SHIELD, so far as any of them know, and he won’t put a bullet in someone doing their job for the right reasons.

“Think you got enough?” Steve asks, shouldering the bag.

“That’s what I love about military bases,” Natasha says. “One stop shopping. We all set to go?”

“Looks that way,” Sam says.

Natasha steps up to him and plucks one of the harness straps. She nods. “Nice. So let’s get out of here before we outstay our welcome.”

An alarm sounds just as they clear the gate. Sam yells, wordless and pure exhilaration, and steps on the gas.


Before they go after Sitwell, they drive out into an empty green nowhere, all grass and trees, and Sam tests out the wings.

He doesn’t try anything fancy at first, low and slow until he’s sure he’s got the feel back, and then he does a quick set of twists and swoops and sharp turns, hearing the whine of the jetpack and the feeling the wind on his face, whipping at his civvies. He does a lot of shouting, all hell yeah’s and nonsense, catching glimpses of Steve’s face looking up, always looking right at him, never losing him no matter what Sam tries to test that super vision of his.

He nearly stumbles when he lands, skin lit up and thrumming, and his body feels heavy with his blood pounding in his ears and his hands tingling, half-numb. It’s possible he’s never felt better in his life.

Steve’s grin is a mile wide, and Sam catches a whiff of his own shampoo when he tugs Steve in by the back of the neck, works some of the rush into the bite he catches Steve’s bottom lip with and the groan he loses in Steve’s mouth. He’s hard, probably leaking in his jeans, but if he’s honest with himself that was the case before his feet were flat on the ground. Steve doesn’t seem to mind much, going by the way he presses into him, steps in between his feet.

“When this is over,” Steve says, soft and not soft at all, still near Sam’s mouth, thumb skimming his cheekbone, and oh hell yes, “I’m gonna draw you. You’ll be a phoenix, rising up and up, part of the sky and so fucking beautiful. God, Sam.”

“We’re still gonna fuck though, right?” Sam asks just to feel Steve’s laugh up close, to put his mouth on Steve’s neck and feel the vibration. He wants to laugh and cry and fuck for days, and even if he knows the high’ll wear off and they’ve got work to do, that maybe they won’t even make it, all of it seems like nothing next to moving in the air again and getting his hands under the hem of Steve’s shirt.

“Count on it,” Steve says, kissing him once more before he moves away. The world creeps back in, and Sam does a check of the harness and makes a couple of adjustments to account for movement of his civilian clothes, remembering the motions for later. He’ll have to take the suit off to move around in Washington, at least until they get a bead on Sitwell. Funny how quick it all feels like a part of him again, and how relieved he is not to have lost something he thought he’d given up forever until today.

Natasha says something to Steve about life experience that Sam doesn’t catch as they get back in the car, and Steve blushes from his cheeks right under his collar in a way Sam is so, so revisiting later, but he laughs too, so that’s good enough. More than.

“Okay,” he says, taking a slow breath with his hands on the wheel, taking stock of the pull of gravity, the air in his lungs and the fit of his skin. Of Steve’s eyes on his in the rear-view. “Let’s do this.”