It appears there are several ground rules for the average American hotel room: they're either mismatched to the point of hilarity or overly stylish, the bathroom is either slightly gross or smells like a hospital, and the TV reception is always shit.
The latter is particularly unfortunate if one's on a prolonged search-and-rescue mission and currently waiting for new leads, the TV in the room happens to be the only available entertainment, and the settings on the damn thing are more confusing than most computers Sam's had. It makes him miss the old tube TVs, those that you could just give a good punch on the top and, there you go, all fixed. Try doing that with the flat ones, they're gonna break. As it is, he just kinda helplessly waves at it with the remote, punching buttons at random and muttering to himself, about to give in and see if the room also comes with a radio, when he notices Steve chuckling at him from the other end of the room.
They've been on the road for three weeks now, trailing after a guy that doesn't want to be found and has been trained to disappear for the past sixty years. Or programmed to. Sam quite honestly doesn't want to think about that too much. The file they got from Natasha is hopelessly outdated and mainly just serves to give him the shivers. Stats and medical data and old mission reports. It's a horror story, and the less details he knows the better. It won't help, and the end result is the same: they're still poking around in the dark.
Whatever's left of the man who used to be Bucky Barnes and may or may not still be the Winter Soldier is hard to track. He should stand out like a sore thumb, what with the arm and all, but no one ever sees him. Sam had his doubts about the “he's a ghost” bit, after that spectacle he made in D. C., but now he stands corrected. Even with the big brother crowd that used to be SHIELD returning favors for Steve, it's only every few days they get an alert that someone who could maybe possibly be Bucky has been caught on some surveillance camera. But solid leads? People to talk to? Nope. Nada. Zilch. He's a ghost alright, and it's starting to be become frustrating as hell.
Right now, they're holed up in a small town in Montana, because of a grainy-as-fuck picture taken at the local gas station two days ago. Sam's watched Steve stare at it this way and that, but despite all the squinting, even Steve has a hard time staying positive. It could have been Bucky. Or it could have been some backwards mechanic who doesn't care too much about haircuts and shaving regularly. Either way, it's the same as everywhere: no one's noticed him, no one knows where he went, and they're back to waiting for more intel to fly their way through the grapevine.
So yeah, maybe he's playing the whole cursing-at-technology thing up when he sees it makes Steve smile. The guy can use a few moments of not thinking about that brainwashed pal of his. You see an opportunity to give Captain America a break, you take it, right? Anything else would just make you an asshole.
Sam's no spy. He does, for one thing, lack the subtlety required for the job. He's also not too fond of sitting around all day, looking at camera feeds and waiting for information to emerge, so they can vet and verify it. No matter how good the company, that shit drives him crazy. It was bad enough overseas, the downtime between marching orders, always knowing his ass was gonna be on the line again but with no idea when and where. This should be better – at least now he's in on the discussions about where they march – but it's not.
“What do you think about this? Look like something useful?” Steve asks and startles Sam out of his thoughts. Steve points at a screenshot from a video roughly the size of a stamp, and before he even gets up and shuffles over Sam knows he won't have anything useful to say. He doesn't know Bucky. Sure, Sam saw the same decades-old pictures everyone else did and he caught a few glimpses of him mid-battle and with his Winter Soldier gear and armor on, but he couldn't spot him in a crowd and he can't recognize him in bad quality pictures. If Steve isn't sure, then Sam's about as useful as a dice.
He doesn't say any of that out loud though, squints at the laptop dutifully. “Uh, dunno. Could be him?”
Helpful and supportive, yes, Sam's all for that. But a lie, no matter how comforting, could send them on the wrong track. This is enough of a wild goose chase as it is, no use in making it worse. He's been around the block enough in that regard, lost his fair share of comrades in action, knows that the only thing worse than having no hope is having false hope and coming down hard afterwards.
Steve sighs, adjusts the screen and does some more squinting of his own. Finally, he closes the window with the picture. “No. Maybe. I don't know.”
There's no reply Sam can come up with that won't sound hollow, and so he doesn't say anything. He gives Steve's shoulder a squeeze and wanders back to sit on his bed and pick his own laptop back up.
The window he's got open contains reports from less- than-credible news websites. When it comes to going after superheroes – or supervillains, rather; in this case, he still can't quite connect the war hero from the history books with the brainwashed assassin – the weird and impossible is sometimes more helpful than carefully vetted and researched news in mainstream media. Cheap tabloids will run anything, proof or none. He scrolls past a headline that screams about a 57-year-old bearing twins, another that announces there's asbestos in gas station pastries – unsurprising, to be honest – and then does a double-take.
The picture isn't much better than all the others they've sifted through, but... the hair, the long-armed jacket when everyone else is wearing shorts and, the glimmer of metal below one sleeve that doesn't quite look like it's just a watch; it could be him. The headline to match indicates a conspiracy along the lines of suspecting the government of secretly build androids, and the report attached is brief but does give a location and the abbreviated name of the source. If the article is right, then they've been running in the opposite direction of where Bucky went for a good long while.
“Hey, man,” Sam says, picking up the laptop and turning around to face Steve. “I think I've got something.”
Steve turns, eyebrows lifting. “Yeah? What is it?”
Instead of answering, Sam hands him the laptop so he can read the report. As he reads, Steve's face morphs into that expression of someone who wants to be hopeful and excited, but doesn't quite dare to. It's understandable; they've hit quite a few dead ends so far. “Okay. No idea what he'd want in California, but I guess it's as good a lead as any .”
They're on a plane the next morning, booked into another hotel in downtown San Francisco an hour after landing, and off to talk to one Carl Featherstone by early afternoon. Steve actually used the term interviewing – looks like you can get the man out of the spy organization, but won't get the spy out of the man, once the damage is done – and poor Carl seems to be immensely intimidated by the fact that Captain America is sitting across from him, asking him questions about a photo he submitted to some bullshit internet news site for a reward of maybe fifteen dollars.
Sam knows the feeling. Not the intimidation, but the fact that he's just. Right there. Captain America, alive and well, talking to you like it's no big deal. It's not just about the gravitas of the mantle; Steve has a way of focusing on a person completely, which is both reassuring and a little unnerving, given that not a great many people do that these days.
Despite Carl's nervousness, one thing is for sure: he's big on his conspiracy theories, and the fact that he's being visited by an Avenger is probably going to keep him going for a few additional years. He rattles off techno babble that Sam suspects wouldn't make sense even if he knew what it was supposed to mean, and he rambles; it's hard to streamline him enough to actually answer the damn questions.
"Did you see where he came from," Steve tries,"or where he was going? Maybe he came out of a building?"
"No." Carl frowns, scratches at his receding hairline. “They've probably got him hooked up with that stuff Iron Man runs on, right? I mean. It'd make sense. Wouldn't it? Not even Stark can close the door on the government if it knocks. Right?”
As far as Sam knows, Stark can and repeatedly did, but there's no merit in pointing that out. Steve seems to agree. “Probably. Can you tell me anything else?”
He gives the poor guy that smile again, genuine and encouraging and impossible to say no to, and Carl runs a hand over the back of his head and shrugs. It takes him awhile to answer, and even then he sounds like he's not sure if he's making a mistake by doing so. “Not much. I don't know. But I have a couple more pictures on my computer.”
The eyeroll Steve makes at Sam when Carl turns his back at them feels more conspiratorial than it has any right to be, but yeah, Sam shares the sentiment. So much jabbering, when they could've cut to the chase. They're soldiers, and for anyone who's any good at that, the annoyance at inefficiency and beating around the bush sets in about midway through basic training.
"Can we see them?" Steve asks, and Carl grimasses.
He hesitates again, then points to an adjacent room. "If it's you… I guess that's okay. Follow me."
They're standing by as Carl powers up the old desktop computer and it rattles to life, Steve's arms crossed in front of his chest like in all those old posters. After a bit of clicking around, Carl produces a folder with six pictures, all similar, most of them blurrier and framed more poorly than the one from the website. He stands and offers Steve his chair, who takes it and opens the pictures one by one to study them. Sam steps closer, almost leaning over Steve's back, and Carl falls back to let them work.
They already know the first picture, the second and third are only lesser quality variations thereof, but when Sam sees the fourth he notices something.
“Enlarge that,” he says, pointing at the screen. “His hands, there, look.”
Steve does as suggested, zooms in, cocks his head to the side and squints. “What is that, like, keys? A car?” He sounds vaguely disappointed.
“No,” Sam replies, points more urgently at the key pendant. The simplified, drawn flower, the cursive font; if that's a car brand it's none Sam ever heard of. It does, however, seem similar to the kind of keys they've been handed a lot for the past weeks. “Man, look. That's a hotel key or something.”
“Hmm.” Steve zooms in a little more, which only makes the picture go that much blurrier. “Yeah, could be.” He clears his throat and then, louder, addresses Carl. “Can we print these out? Or email them?”
Carl sends a glance to the shelves full of folders with chicken scratch scribbled on the back that cover the walls in here, as if he's offended by the question, and draws back a curtain to reveal an office-sized printer.
Of course. Old-school conspiracy theorists come prepared.
San Francisco, it turns out, has more hotels and motels than the beach has sand. Sifting through the Yellow Pages isn't particularly fruitful. In the end they make a list of all the smaller establishments that don't pay to have their logos featured in ads, and set out the next morning with the picture, said list, and a city map to check each place one by one.
Four hours later, and they're still doing just that, on foot, with Steve not even breaking a sweat and Sam slowly melting away a few steps behind him. He's forgotten how much he hates this kind of heat. There are hot days up in D. C. too, but, it's not quite the same. He's too proud to admit defeat and ask they take a taxi, though, no matter how challengingly Steve smirks at him. That asshole.
As if he's heard him, Steve turns while walking, and the fact that he slows down when he gets a good look at Sam only adds insult to injury. “Hey, Wilson. If you're about to faint on me, make yourself known in time, yeah?”
“Very funny,” Sam grumbles. It's not that bad. He's had to march for longer and in much worse terrain on his tours, and they both know it. Interesting that every single history book Sam's read somehow neglected to mention what an obnoxious shit Captain America can be.
“Just sayin'. Wouldn't want to have to carry you all the way back to our –“
Steve stops in the middle of the sentence, and when Sam breaks into a brief jog to catch up, he sees why. The Southside Inn, the next hotel on their list, comes into view, and with it a very familiar sign featuring a flower and its name in bold, cursive letters. Sam stupidly digs the printout out of his pocket, but there's hardly any doubt.
The inn is open 24/7, and has seen better days. The building is old and was due for a fresh layer of paint some time in the seventies, judging from the chipping paint and darker spots where someone presumably painted over graffiti. There are only two cars in the parking lot, despite spots for ten times as many.
The clerk at the reception peers at them over the edge of a newspaper, eyes going wide when he recognizes Steve. Sam figures incognito isn't much of an option for Steve anymore, since New York.
“I, uhm,” the guy mumbles, hastily putting the newspaper away and revealing a name tag identifying him as Bob. “Captain. Sir. How can I help you?”
Steve cringes a bit at the formal address, but recovers within a blink. He pats his jacket, produces a couple of old pictures of Bucky from the forties, alongside with a drawing of him in his Winter Soldier state. “Have you seen this man? Did he have a room here?”
Upon seeing Bucky on the photographs, Bob's eyebrows go up. “Is that – “
“No,” Steve replies. “It's not. Look again, did you see him?”
Bob's absentmindedly shaking his head, until he picks up the drawing. “Whoa, yes. I certainly saw him. Had a room here for a couple of days last week. Paid in cash upfront for the first day or two, then trashed the interior and ran out on me without paying for the rest of the time or the damage.”
Sam watches as Steve's face goes blank, professional, void of emotion. No hint of the mocking smirk from out on the street, or even the annoyance from moments ago; it's as if they were never there. The Black Widow would be proud, Sam thinks, if she were with them. “Can we see the room?”
“Well, uh,” Bob says, greed and respect for the national icon in front of him clearly battling on his face. Unsurprisingly, it's not his decency that wins. “I haven't gotten around to fixing the room yet, so. Maybe if we could, you know, work something out. For compensation.”
Steve wordlessly reaches into his pockets, pulls out his wallet and shoves a few bills across the counter. “That'll do?”
Apparently it does, because Bob quickly pockets the money and turns to pick a key from the board behind him. “Room one-seventeen, just down the hall. Take your time.”
The room is a mess. The table by the door is smashed to bits, there's a hole in the far wall – Sam has a good guess how it got there – and the bed has lost one of its posts, making it look like a collapsed house. The window suffered too, and has been taped together with duct tape and a plastic bag. Smaller pieces of interior are scattered all over the floor.
Steve crouches down to sift through the rubble, though Sam's not quite sure what he hopes to find. Sam keeps close to the door, scanning the room for anything suspicious, and wonders if this is the result of a freakout or a fight. He doesn't know which he prefers. The former could mean he's still in the business, taking hits, and ran into trouble. The latter might point to all kinds of things, none of them pleasant. Hallucinations, violent flashbacks… A lot of the ways the human mind tries to cope aren't pretty. It's quite possible finding Bucky is going to be the easy part, and Sam just hopes Steve's aware of that.
Almost half an hour passes, and Sam's about to figure out how to suggest they get going, move on, maybe keep looking for camera footage from this area specifically, when Steve exhales audibly. “Oh, fuck.”
He's going through the remains of the table, holding up a news magazine of some sort. It's outdated, the headline calling back to the fight in New York, and it's got a half-page picture of Steve on the cover. Someone drew an X and a question mark right over his face, and Sam suspects that's a recent decoration.
Steve rolls it up, stands, and gives the rest of the debris another good loo. His face, when he turns around to address Sam, is closed off and distant in a way Sam doesn't like at all. “I don't think we'll find anything else here. Let's go.”
That night, after Steve calls his tech guys to confirm that they're on the right track this time and prompt them to focus their search, Sam suggests they go out. There's nothing to do while they wait, and Steve hasn't looked as much like he could use a drink or five since Sam met him. Which, admittedly, wasn't too long ago, but that's beside the point.
Steve smiles at the suggestion, but it's a sad one, resigned and tired. “Last time I tried to get drunk, I gave up after the third bottle. Super soldier metabolism is a real pain sometimes.”
He probably should have expected something like that, but Sam's not going to give in so quickly. Getting Steve drunk is hardly the goal he's aiming for. “And? Try harder, drink four. I'm buying. Or don't and watch me get smashed, the guys always told me I'm a pretty entertaining drunk.”
“Yeah?” That does produce a more genuine smile.
Sam nods, underlines it with a crooked grin, despite the sting that comes with thinking back to his early days out in the desert, all of his team still alive and kicking. “Totally, man. I'm a riot. Wouldn't wanna miss it, I promise.”
“Well, in that case,” Steve says and shuts his laptop. “I'm in.”
After some walking around, they end up in a pub of some sort that's dark and smells of wood and leather and plays old-time versions of Whiskey In A Jar and Those Were The Days. Most of the few other patrons are already way past the point of no return, some sitting over their drinks in grim solitude, some roaring and singing along with music. They find themselves a corner booth, and Sam marches off to the counter to get them a whole bottle of whiskey and two glasses. As he waits for the barkeeper to get a fresh bottle from out back, he watches Steve watch a couple in their sixties occupy the small dance floor. They almost stumble on every other step, but they look happy, laughing and hanging on tight to one another.
“You know, I never learned how to dance,” he says when Sam's back, unprompted, gaze faraway like he's caught in a different time.
“That's not dancing,” Sam replies. “That's hopping around, at best.”
Steve shrugs, accepts the glass half filled with whiskey Sam shoves his way. “I don't think they care.”
They both take a few sips in silence, the minutes stretching into half an hour, then an hour, and it randomly occurs to Sam that he's not making good of his promise to be an entertaining drinking companion. But Steve's mood turns out to be contagious, maybe because Sam's sympathetic; he's lost people he fought with, too, even if he never had to deal with them coming back as mind-wiped killer machines.
That's probably a rather unique kind of problem, he figures. He giggles – there really isn't a better word for it, undignified as it is; alcohol does that – causing Steve to look up from his own glass and raise an eyebrow.
“No, I just,” he says, then stops. He doubts Steve would appreciate the humor in that. If there is any. Gallows humor, maybe. Man, his brain on booze used to be way less of a killjoy. He nods towards the almost empty bottle. “Another?”
Steve gives another shrug in lieu of a reply, and Sam decides against it. If he's already a maudlin drunk after a few glasses, he's not going to get any better after a couple more, and the last thing Steve deserves is someone to take his mood down another notch instead of cheering him up.
“Wanna go back?” he asks instead. Steve doesn't answer that either, but he does grab his jacket.
The walk back to the hotel makes matters worse. Fresh air, no matter how hot and humid it might be, serves as another boost to the buzz Sam had going already. He used to be able to hold his liquor a lot better, but decides that his tolerance adjusting down is not a bad thing.
When they reach their room, his head is swimming, and he's gripping the wall for support. Not because he's about to fall over, he's not that drunk, but to steady himself in a less literal sense. He stays right there, by the door, and watches as Steve peels himself out of that leather jacket.
They've been sharing a space for a couple of weeks, and by now it feels natural. Like Sam belongs here, around him, and not like he's a tourist to someone else's journey. He's not the most obvious choice of backup for this trip, and he knows that, but he's wrapped his head around the fact that Steve wants him here. He still can't quite comprehend why. It would've made more sense to take Romanoff, the seasoned spy. Sam thinks she'd even postponed catching up with that archer of hers, had Steve asked.
He really does have that effect on people.
Oblivious to Sam's thoughts, and probably indifferent to Sam's starring, Steve sits down on his bed and goes through his bag looking for who-knows-what. He doesn't seem to find it, puts the bag away again, gets up. There's an uneasiness to him that wasn't there before, like he's vibrating with it, and Sam can't figure out if it's impatience or anxiety. Bit of both, maybe. They've never been so close to finding him.
Sam startles a little when he finds Steve approaching him, head cocked. “You're toasted, after what, half a bottle of whiskey?”
“Two thirds of one. You didn't help much. 's all been on me,” Sam says, surprised by the slur to his voice. Huh.
Steve hmms. “You gonna stay there all night, or do you need my help in getting to bed?”
“Screw you.” Sam shakes his head emphatically, but Steve closes the distance between them anyway, hooks an arm around Sam's shoulder and sets on goading him away from his safe haven. Even though Sam's still rather pretty sure he'd be able to walk on his own without accident, he leans into Steve, allowing himself to be led.
When Steve turns his way as they sit down together, grinning, it feels like the only logical thing to do is to lean in, the filter between where those feelings lay curled up and the part of Sam's brain that knows better clogged up by alcohol and proximity. The kiss happens on its own, rather than being something Sam intends to do. He doesn't even regret it immediately, it's too good while it happens.
But when Sam draws back, Steve's eyes are wide with surprise – or probably shock – and Sam's blood runs cold. He's made a mistake. He made a huge-ass fucking mistake, he screwed up, and he can't take it back.
“Uh,” Steve says, touching two fingers to his mouth, gaze flickering to Sam but darting away almost immediately. “I'll, we. Uhm. I'm tired. We should go to sleep.”
With that, he gets up and makes a beeline to the bathroom, and Sam hurries to get undressed so he can pretend to have fallen asleep before Steve's back. He doesn't actually drift off until sometime around sunrise.
Sam isn't an introspective kind of guy. He likes to think he's got himself figured out enough to recognize what's him and what's residual PTSD, that sort of thing. But he doesn't roll stuff over in his head too much, he doesn't dwell, and more often than not he goes with the flow, acts on instinct. That's served him pretty well for the most part, but sometimes it backfires.
He wakes up with a headache, the taste of dead skunk in his mouth, and the intense wish that last night was a bad dream rather than something that actually happened. But he's also a realist, and not prone to kidding himself. He's one to face things head on, yep, that's him.
Not this though. Probably not this.
The thing is, Sam had those little moments when he thought Steve might be flirting with him since they first met; a smile, an odd glance his way, a brief touch. But it's never been anything obvious, never crossing the line from friendly to suggestive, no direct come-ons, so Sam decided there's absolutely no way in hell and put it out of his mind. Or he thought he had, anyway. Until last night, and fuck, he's never touching a single drop of alcohol again.
There's no visible change in Steve's behavior. He jokes around over breakfast down in the lobby, making fun of Sam's hangover – Steve's near indestructible sense of humor is another fact to add to his ongoing list of things the history books didn't mention – but he doesn't shy away or close himself off. He's still nervous and a little more frayed around the edges than usual, though Sam thinks – hopes – that's about their fresh trail to Bucky and not about him.
Steve doesn't avoid Sam either, stays in their room with him while they play another round of the waiting game until the tech guys call around noon. They've got a few maybes, most of them leading south, the latest one in the Bakersfield area. They pack up, get a rental, and leave San Francisco in he rear view mirror.
Turns out, picking a good rental car is not a skill either of them possesses. The AC holds out until they're just barely past the city limits, and an angry call to company they rented it from doesn't amount to much. The clerk informs Sam there's no other car available, but if they want to turn around and wait until a mechanic has been organized and the AC's gotten fixed...
Sam doesn't even have to look at Steve next to him in the driver's seat to know that, nope, waiting all afternoon on a damn car isn't an option. They could also find another company, but Steve's anxious to get going, Sam gets that, and more time spent scouting out San Francisco's rich array of car rentals isn't going to improve either of their moods.
He regrets that decision after two hours of driving through the kind of scenery that blurs from the heat when you look out the window. Somewhere in the area of Fresno, the car slows down, splutters, and just as Steve's calm composure finally breaks and has him hail down a few angry punches to the wheel, it comes to a stop.
Sam hurries to get out first, lest Steve might be tempted to continue his stress relief on the hood or something even more vital, and curses out loud when he sees the smoke billowing out of the grill. Given the right tools he could fix that himself, but a quick look into the trunk reveals nothing but a spare tire, a wrench and a car jack.
He climbs back into the passenger seat to fish for his cell phone. “We need to get someone out here.”
Steve doesn't reply, he just glares and shrugs his shoulders, frustration written all over his posture. It's actually somewhat comforting to see that even his otherworldly patience can run out at some point, but for both their sakes Sam chooses to wait outside of the car after he's made the call and let his travel companion fume in peace.
Between waiting for their mechanic to turn up and having the car towed – apparently it's a total loss, and from the look on Steve's face when they're told that, the rental company is lucky if sued is all they'll be – the afternoon slips away from them. When they're out of the shop and ready to do it all over again, find a new rental and get going, it's already dark outside.
“So,” Sam says, bag hefted up on his shoulder, and lifts his eyebrows.
“So?” Steve replies, his bag resting between his feet. The way he stands, arms akimbo and eyes straight ahead makes him look a little bit like his own statue, even now. Or maybe that's just the easily-distracted part of Sam's brain speaking, the part he's not planning to ever again hand the reigns to.
He means to ask Steve what they're going to do now, if they're going to spend the night in Fresno or drive through it, but that's not what happens. Either the rest of his brain has been cooked to a somewhat unhealthy point out there in the desert or sleep deprivation is making him dense, but if he does look at Steve's stance from a less stricken point of view it's kind of funny. Damn near hilarious, in fact. Rather than just a statue, Steve looks like a caricature of himself, the view the world has of Captain America, and Sam's bursting out with laughter before he knows it.
He's trying not to, he really is, but all attempts to settle himself fail and the look on Steve's face in reaction to that only serves to make him laugh harder. Steve rolls his eyes at first, makes a face, but when Sam's nowhere near calming down after a full minute of howling laughter, the corners of his mouth start to lift.
“Are you gonna tell me what's so funny?” he asks, clearly biting down on a smile. Sam takes a deep breath, then another when the first one turns out to be futile.
“You are,” he just so manages to inform him.
Steve cocks his head to the side, looking like he's caught halfway between incredulous and amused. “How so?”
“It's really not as funny if I gotta explain it,” Sam says, slowly regaining some semblance of self control. He readjusts his bag, trying to school his face into a more normal, earnest expression but probably failing.
He's about to take a step towards the sidewalk when he gets yanked back by his shoulder.
This kiss is nothing like the first, and had Sam ever dared imagining it, it wouldn't be anything like that either. Steve's rather more forceful than he figured, definitely more skilled, and a lot more hands-on. He's also grinning full tilt when they break apart, and Sam suspects this joke is on him. Not in a bad way, though. No one could prank-kiss like that, and he doesn't take Steve for the type of guy to play with someone's emotions for shits and giggles.
“I...,” he starts, trails off, clears his throat and starts again. “I didn't think you'd be, uh. You know. Swinging both ways.”
“Yeah. So the other night, that was you taking a stab in the dark?” Steve picks up his own bag, swings it over his shoulders like it weighs approximately nothing, and marches past Sam and onto the sidewalk. He looks left and right a few times and shrugs, finally turning back around to look at Sam. “That tidbit never made headlines, I suppose. You coming or what? Let's find a place to sleep.”
Nothing else happens that night. They check into yet another hotel, each take a quick shower, hardly even exchange another word. Sam doesn't expect to be able to sleep, but he's out like a light almost as soon as his head touches the pillow.
Steve's already up when Sam wakes, dressed and in the process of making his bed. He looks over and smiles, and Sam's hit with the sudden realisation of how young he is. Sam doesn't remember the exact dates, but Steve's been in his twenties when he disappeared, twenty-five or twenty-six, roundabout, though that's easy to overlook between the physique and the air of authority he tends to exude. Makes you think he's ages old, when in fact he's younger than most the men he commands.
"You need to stop looking at me like that," he says, eyebrows furrowed, and Sam has to fight the urge to avoid his gaze in caught embarrassment.
He sits up instead, holding Steve's eyes. "Yeah? Why?"
The painfully young echo of a kid that went off to war and came back to a different time vanishes as quickly as it appeared, makes room for the seasoned leader Sam's gotten used to.
"If we're gonna do this, I mean…" Steve gestures between them. "Us, if that's going to a thing, I need us to be level. You're not going to be, uh, dating Captain America. That's what it's called now, dating, right?"
"Guess it is." Sam confirms, wondering how they got from talking about the fact that they might be about to become an us to semantics. "Though I'd be fine with not calling it that. Dating is what I did in high school. I never figured out what the correct term is once you're an adult. Seeing someone, maybe. Going out. Whatever."
"Good to know it's not just confusing to me," Steve says and plops down on the bed he only just made.
"Hell no." Sam grins, tempted to let this run out on a joke, but also afraid it's going to fade out completely if he does. They'll talk about this right now or they won't talk about it at all, he figures. "But yeah, I get it. And I promise, that's not what this is. I wouldn't go on a mission like this, official or no, based on nothing more than leftover childhood hero worship. And I wouldn't…" He pauses. "I'm not some shallow asshole looking to get it on with a guy he idolized as a kid. That's not what I fell for. I want you, not the mantle."
The words feel foreign on his tongue; he's been around a bit, but it's been a long while since he's had anyone that's defined, more than a fling. Since he trusted anything to not get ripped away from him as soon as he's got his hands on it. The first thing war destroys is your sense of security, your trust in waking up to blue skies, and it's the last thing you'll gain back. And fuck, the man sitting across from him would know that better than anyone. He didn't even wake up to the same world he went to sleep in.
Steve simply nods, eyes to the floor, idly peeling the blanket he stuffed into the bed frame back out for what feels like an eternity, before he pushes himself to a stand. “We should get going, now that you've decided to heave your lazy ass out of bed.”
“You gotta talk. Bet that serum of yours also gave your need for sleep a nice little trimming,” Sam says, groaning as he swings his feet off the bed, yawning extensively.
Steve neither confirms nor denies, looks back up and fucking smirks. Sam grabs his pillow and throws it, but Steve catches it in midair and takes his turn to explode with badly stifled laughter.
“Smug asshole.” Sam sighs and reaches for his pants, feigning annoyance. But, truth to be told, he could get used to hearing that laugh a whole lot more often.
Sam's driving this time, while Steve belies their earlier conversation by taking a nice little nap in the passenger's seat. Seems like neither of them got a good night's sleep. Can't blame Steve though; there's so much that's got to be going through his head, so much to lose sleep over.
And it's quite possible Sam just added one more thing to that collection. He bites his lip, changes the station. The old one's gotten lost in constant static.
They're back on the road to Bakersfield, nothing but desert left and right of them. The sun's bearing down, but they spilled a little more money for the rental this time so the only inconvenience about that is how it's shining directly into the windshield, making him squint enough that he feels a headache coming on. He fiddles with the buttons on the radio again, sighing when all he gets is the more ridiculous brand of country.
He wonders what they'll find in Bakersfield, if its going to be another hint, the next helping of jack squat, or if that's where they'll find him. Some selfish part of him doesn't want the latter to happen, but it's neither big nor loud enough to gain any traction. He wants Steve to find Bucky. He wants Bucky to be okay. He wants Steve to be happy. If that means he'll fade back into the background, either for a while or for good, he's ready to do that. No arguments, no questions, no demands.
Sam doesn't know how long he's been driving – nothing to measure the passing of time other than the changing songs on the radio and he's not paying too much attention to that – when Steve stirs. He blinks awake, gives a discontent grunt, tries to stretch out in the small space of the car. His smile when he sits up and looks at Sam is a little dopey, sleep-drunken, and absolutely breathtaking.
“Hey,” he says and yawns, rubbing his temples. “Have I been out long?”
“An hour or two, I think,” Sam replies. He's staring, probably, between looking back at the road. But if they are about to start seeing each other, however briefly, then he figures staring besottedly at a half-awake Steve Rogers is one of the things he's just going to allow himself. “We'll be in Bakersfield soon.”
Steve nods. He shoots a disdainful look at the radio, raises an eyebrow when Sam grins.
“What, not your kinda tune? Time may be about right,” he teases.
“I'm offended. Even in the forties, we had better music than that crap.” Steve mock-shudders, and, more importantly, he's still looking at Sam, almost as if he can't take his eyes away any more than Sam can stop staring at him. Which is a bit of strange thought, still.
To break the moment, Sam turns the radio off altogether. “You know, when we find him, he's not going to be the guy you grew up with. We can't even know who or what he'll be, if he's going to remember anything at all.”
Steve narrows his eyes. “I know. And it doesn't matter. First we'll find him, then we'll deal with the state we find him in. Couldn't have anyone better suited to help me with that than you, could I?”
Depends on just how screwed in the head Bucky turns out to be, but pointing that out would be downright cruel. “Sure.”
They keep driving for just about long enough that Sam realizes how much of a mistake it was to turn off the radio. The silence stretches out between them like a living thing, not awkward exactly, but filled with what's been said and so much more that neither of them has put words to yet.
“Okay,” Steve says eventually. “Pull over.”
Sam turns to get a longer look at him. “Why? You okay?”
“I'm fine. I just want you to pull over.”
The car blows up a fair amount of sand when Sam slows it down by the side of the road, and they come to a stop in a cloud of dust. Steve hesitates, seems to wait for it to settle before he opens his door and nods his head at Sam to do the same. Sam follows him to the hood of the car, and there they are, both leaning against the hot metal, close enough that their legs touch, car engine still crackling.
“When I say we are going to deal with it, I don't mean me as his friend and you as his counselor or something, you realize that, right?” Steve asks, open palms pressed to the hood, ankles crossed and his gaze pointed in their general direction. “I mean us. We. You and me.”
His hand inches towards Sam's, comes to rest on top of it, squeezing. He raises his eyes too, searching for Sam's, and there's that smile again, the one that makes him look so young. More than that; he looks unsure, out of his depth. Like the kid who spent most of his life being someone people didn't look at twice, and who must've been so stunned when, finally, someone found him worthy.
Sam wriggles his hand free just enough to squeeze back. “Okay,” he says. “We. You and me.”
As he watches the tension drain out of Steve's face and his smile grow wider, Sam may be starting to believe it.