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Two-Point Conversion

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The Greyhound stops abruptly, jolting Sam out of a dream.

"Wilson, Sam," the driver calls, tired and flat. "Time to get off, kid."

Sam stares around the nearly empty bus as he staggers to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. This isn't his room, this isn't his bed, and he can't remember why he's here.

"Where are we?" he asks as he makes his way to the front of the bus, his voice hoarse from sleep. He turns to look out the window. They're idling by the side of a hill surrounded by weedy-looking fields. A gravel path rises up it, leading to a house in the middle distance. It looks like the Midwest, or at least the Midwest as he’s seen it on TV, but he knows they can't have gone that far.

"Your stop," the driver says. He's turned in his seat to look back at Sam, his expression neither kind nor unkind. "This is where your ma told me to let you off. Come on, son, I've got to be back in Manhattan by seven."

He clutches his duffel bag to his chest and takes a deep breath before he descends. The driver barely waits for his feet to touch the ground before he pulls away, leaving Sam coughing in the dust. The sun's too bright after the cool dimness of the bus, and he has to squint to read the sign hammered into the grass by the path. It's garishly painted in shades of pink and blue so bright Sam feels like it's screaming at him.

TRUE DIRECTIONS, it reads, and then, below two male and female stick figures, FREEING OUR YOUTH FROM SEXUAL PERVERSION.

Seeing the name brings it all back in one sick rush. This is why he spent the first morning of the summer on a bus, instead of sleeping off a hangover on his best friend’s bedroom floor.

Sam Wilson is going to gay rehab.

***

When he'd walked through the door the previous afternoon and seen his mother, Riley, and a strange bald guy sitting on the couch, he honestly hadn't thought much of it. Of course Riley would be there; it was their last day of high school, the start of the last summer they'd have together before Riley went to Penn State and he went to Columbia. (And even that wouldn’t give them much time to hang out—they both had part-time jobs, and Sam was planning to volunteer with the Wild Bird Fund in Manhattan two days a week.) The bald guy was a little less usual, but he figured it was one of his mom's friends, or maybe one of her eighty thousand out-of-state cousins. Sam wasn't sure how many people in the country his mother was related to, but he thought it had to be at least half the population.

"Hey, guys," he said, nodding at the stranger and giving Riley a broad grin. Weirdly, Riley ducked his head and looked away, not making eye contact. Sam shrugged and crossed the room to his mother, dropping a kiss on her cheek. "What's up?"

"Samuel, honey," his mother began. Sam froze. His mother only used his whole first name when she was either pissed or about to give him bad news. She didn't look pissed. "How about you sit down with us for a minute."

It wasn't a question. Sam's legs obeyed the words before his mind could process them, and he dropped into the armchair facing the couch. His mother's expression was solemn. Riley still wasn't looking at him. The bald guy, however, was smiling politely, his brown eyes unreadable behind his glasses.

The last time this had happened was when he'd come home to find a cop sitting with his mother and been told that his father was dead. His heart began to race.

"Who died?" he asked. His mother visibly started, then shook her head. Maybe she was remembering that day, too.

"Nobody, Sam," she said. She gestured to the bald guy, whose faint smile widens slightly as he extends his hand. "Jasper, this is my son, Sam. Sam, this is Jasper Sitwell."

Who the hell names their kid Jasper? Sam thought but didn't say. He shook Jasper's hand, noting how cool and dry his skin was.  He was wearing all blue, shorts and a polo shirt with some kind of design embroidered on the pocket.  He held a clipboard in his other hand, angled so Sam couldn't see what was on it. "Nice to meet you," he said, more out of habit than anything else. He didn't really want to meet this guy—he and Riley had a party to go to that night, and the last thing he wanted to do was waste time chit-chatting when he could have been getting ready.

"You too," Jasper said, withdrawing his hand. He settled back against the couch, his eyes never leaving Sam's face. "Sam, I've been invited here today because your mother and your friend Riley want to have a conversation with you. My job is to act as a sort of mediator in that conversation, to facilitate dialogue and ensure that nobody gets sidetracked. Are you with me so far?"

Sam blinked. "Yes?" he said, baffled. The words, and the steady, sad gaze his mother had turned on him, reminded him uncomfortably of the one episode of Intervention he’d ever watched.

"Fantastic." Jasper smiled. "Darlene, why don't you go first?"

His mom reached out between the couch and the chair to take his hands in hers. She squeezed his fingers gently, and he could feel the warm gold of her wedding ring pressed against his skin. He squeezed back, his heart slowing down a little. Whatever it was, whatever they had to talk about, she'd make it okay.

"Sam, honey," she said, her voice very gentle, "we think you're a homosexual."

***

On closer examination the house, an old-fashioned farmhouse with gable windows and a wraparound porch, proves to be painted the same hideous colours as the sign at the foot of the hill, walls alternating between blue and pink. He has to commend them for choosing a theme and sticking to it.

Jasper—Sitwell, Sam privately thinks of him—is waiting for him on the front steps, still wearing that faint, imperturbable smile. Next to him is an older man whose sky blue suit makes him look faintly clownish. His thick reddish hair is parted sharply to the side, and his smile is broad and blindingly white. He grasps Sam's hand as soon as he gets close enough, shaking it vigorously.

"Sam Wilson," he says, his voice smooth and cheerful. "Nice to meet you. I just got off the phone with your mother, she was worried that you hadn't arrived yet. I'm Alexander Pierce. You can call me Al."

Sam will definitely not be calling this guy Al.

Sitwell steps forward and tugs the duffel bag out of his other hand before Sam has time to react. "That's mine!" he protests even as Sitwell takes it into the house with him. There isn't much in there—clothes, a few books, his iPod and letter jacket—but still, it's his stuff.

Pierce nods sympathetically. "House rules, I'm afraid," he says, clapping Sam on the shoulder. "We have to check all the campers' bags for contraband--pornography, illicit reading materials, cigarettes or drug paraphernalia-"

"I'm going to Columbia on a football scholarship," Sam says, annoyed. "I don't do drugs. Or smoke." Both statements are basically true—he's only tried pot once and has smoked exactly three cigarettes in his life, all of them while drunk.

Pierce smiles. "Nevertheless," he says, and leaves it at that. "Follow me, please, Sam, and I'll give you a quick debriefing."

Sam tries not to stare as he mounts the steps and enters the house with him, but it's hard. The inside of the house is painted the same way as the outside—blue and pink, obnoxiously bright—and the walls are hung with cheerful paintings of domestic scenes that look like illustrations from pre-war magazines. There's a stinging antiseptic smell about the place, like it's just been cleaned with bleach, and he's pretty sure the flowers in the (pink) vase on the (blue) hall table are fake.

Pierce's office thankfully diverges from the retina-burning colour scheme; it's painted dark green and decorated to look like an old-fashioned gentleman's study, all brass and mahogany. Still, Sam notices as he sits that the leather on the high-backed swivel chair is suspiciously shiny, and the leather-bound books on the shelf seem to be stuck together. Cardboard, probably, or plastic. The odd smell is less intense in here, though the paper-and-pipe-tobacco scent that replaces it seems just a touch too pleasant to be anything but artificial.

Pierce takes a seat behind his desk, leaning forward a bit in his chair. He looks convivial and relaxed. "Let me tell you a little about True Directions," he says. "Our program is designed fairly simply, with just five steps." He strikes them off on his fingers. "Step One: Admit that you're a homosexual. Step Two: Rediscover your gender identity. Step Three: Participate in family therapy. Step Four: Demystify the opposite sex. And finally, Step Five: Simulated sexual experience. We built True Directions on the understanding that homosexuality is the result of gender-based confusion. Homosexual tendencies arise when an individual fails to recognize the appropriate roles of men and women. If we correct this confusion by making sure that you get in touch with your own masculinity, we correct your sexuality, and thereby allow you to resume a normal, healthy lifestyle." He pauses, seeming to wait for Sam to say something. When he doesn’t, he continues. "The other campers all passed Step One yesterday, so now it's your turn. When did you realize you were a homosexual?"

"I'm not," Sam replies immediately. Pierce raises an eyebrow.

"Really?” he says. “Your mother referred you here. She must have done that for a reason."

He sighs, feeling a headache beginning to build behind his eyes. "Yeah, she did," he replies. He's trying really hard not to sound curt or rude, because for all she seems to have suddenly turned into a delusional nutcase, his mother raised him right. "A lot of reasons, as it turns out. And they're all stupid."

Pierce nods sympathetically. "Why don't you tell me about it?"

Hey, he might as well.

***

Sam stared at his mother for a moment, dumbstruck. "What?"

"I think," his mother repeated patiently, "that you might be a-"

"I heard you, Mom, Jesus!" There were rules about taking the Lord's name in vain in the Wilson household, at least in front of company, but Sam was surprised enough to forget them just then. "Why would you think-" He turned to Riley, who still wouldn't make eye contact. Now he knew why. "Riley, is this your deal too?"

Riley shrugged uncomfortably. "I dunno," he mumbled, shifting in place. "There're, like, things I've noticed. About you."

"Like what?" Sam demanded. "I've had girlfriends, for God's sake—you set me up with my last girlfriend!"

"And you never slept with her," Riley pointed out, finally meeting Sam's gaze. There was guilt in his eyes, but beneath that something else. Defiance, maybe. "And she wanted to, you know she wanted to."

They were talking about this in front of his mother. Sam was going to need years of therapy to get over this conversation.

"That doesn't mean anything,” he replied. Which it didn’t. Amber had been great—she was gorgeous, they’d had a lot in common, she was fun and funny and came to all of his games, and yeah, Sam hadn’t slept with her, but so what? It was senior year and he’d been working for a scholarship. What with homework and practice every night, plus a part-time job at PetSmart, plus babysitting for his little cousins sometimes, he barely had enough time to sleep, let alone have sex. It had been the main reason why they’d broken up. “Not having sex with one girl doesn’t make me gay!”

"You're eighteen, Sam," Jasper interjected patiently. "What eighteen year old doesn't want to sleep with his girlfriend?"

"An eighteen year old who, like, respects women?" Sam shot back. He glanced at his mother, hoping this would have an impact on her. Her expression didn't change, and his stomach clenched uncomfortably.

"Or an eighteen year old who isn't attracted to women," Jasper said. He glanced at Sam's mother. "Darlene, you have something to say, don't you?"

His mother nodded, not taking her eyes off Sam. "The posters, Sammy," she said. "The ones in your room. They're all of men."

This was just too fucking much. Sam rubbed his temples, trying to bite back his frustration. "They're posters of football players," he said, as patiently as he could. "I’m a defensive end. I like football. Is it gay to like football now?"

"Absolutely not," Jasper said, even though Sam hadn't been talking to him. "It's completely natural for a boy to like football. But for a boy to have posters of men in his room—muscular men, men in tight pants, men who, let's face it, look like they stepped straight out of a bath house... is that normal, Sam? Are your friends' rooms like that? Is Riley's?"

It was true that Riley's bedroom had a lot more T&A plastered to the walls than Sam's did. But then, Riley had never been that into sports, so why would he have pictures of athletes around? "So you think I'm, what, jerking it to Lawrence Taylor? That’s ridiculous. I have a Marvin Gaye poster, too, you think I want to get in his-”

Samuel,” his mother said, her voice a clear warning. “Watch your mouth.”

"What about the bird thing?" Riley asked suddenly. He looked Sam in the eyes again. "You’re volunteering with the Wild Bird Fund this summer. This is our last summer before college, we're supposed to be partying and getting laid, and you're gonna go clean chicken shit all day? What is that, man?"

Sam stared at him. He somehow hadn't felt hurt yet, just annoyed and confused, but that—that stung. "I like birds," he replied at last. He didn't know what else to say. "You know that, Riley. You were there that time we found that pigeon, remember? We put it back in the nest. Together. What, do you think that was foreplay or something now?" His voice was getting loud, he realized; he'd nearly shouted the last few words.

Riley ducked his shoulders and looked down again. "I don't know what I think," he said quietly, scuffing a shoe against the edge of the living room rug.

"Sam." Jasper's tone was soothing, like he was trying to calm an angry toddler. "I understand that you feel defensive. These are patterns you may not have noticed, may not even recognize as harmful. That's why we're here. To help you understand the danger of the path you're on." He handed Sam the clipboard. "I used to be in your position. But now I've overcome my own homosexual tendencies and I live a normal, healthy lifestyle, thanks to True Directions. I’m an ex-gay now, Sam. You can be, too."

Sam stared down at the clipboard. A bright blue pamphlet on top bore the headline STRAIGHT IS GREAT! He flipped it open, glancing at the contents.

"What is this?" he asked, looking up at Jasper.

Jasper smiled. "A place that can help you," he said.

***

"So there it is," Sam concludes. "That's why I'm here."

Retelling the story makes it all sound even more absurd. Pierce nods thoughtfully, his brow furrowed in thought. This is good, Sam thinks. Maybe he sees how stupid it all is, maybe he'll send him home and he can forget this ever happened.

"So you don't believe you need to be here," he says. "You don't think you need to be fixed."

"Of course not!"

Pierce smiles, and Sam realizes that he's caught him in a trap. "A lot of our campers feel that way when they first come to us," he says. His voice is gentle and understanding. "Even Jasper did, back in the day, and now look at him! He's safe and healthy on the other side, so much so that he's dedicated his life to helping kids like you." He steeples his fingers. "Of course, it's more difficult for us today than it was when he was young. It's hard to get through all the brainwashing you kids go through. Pop culture, the media, liberal bias—it's all taught you to ignore a very important truth regarding human sexuality."

"Which is?" Sam barely manages to stop himself from rolling his eyes at 'liberal bias.' His mother's a registered Democrat, for God's sake, and look where he is.

"That it exists for a specific purpose and is meant to be contained within certain boundaries," Pierce replies. "Sex is a beautiful thing, Sam"--and oh, gross, he does not want to hear that coming out of this guy's mouth--"but only when it happens between a man and woman. The sole purpose of sex is to propagate the species. Now, tell me, can two men do that? Or two women?" His tone is light and teasing. It takes Sam a minute to realize he’s actually waiting for an answer.

"No," he replies finally.

Pierce beams, reaching out to clap his shoulder again. Sam really, really wishes he'd stop doing that. "Very good!" he enthuses. Reaching underneath his desk, he pulls out a bundle of blue cloth that matches his suit almost exactly. "For the time being," he says, "you'll remain in uniform. As you move on in the program, you'll be allowed to introduce civvies back into your wardrobe, so long as they're gender appropriate, neat, and clean."

Sam unfolds the bundle and bursts out laughing. It's a short-sleeved dress shirt, a clip-on tie, and a pair of shorts.  He half expects to find a beanie with a propeller on the top hidden in there. "Seriously?" he says, looking at Pierce. "Come on, this has to be a joke, right?"

Pierce's smile does not fade, but his eyes are suddenly colder than they were before. "None of this is a joke, Sam," he says evenly. "We’re all trying to help here, and that's more than most people would do. If I were in your position I'd keep that in mind."

Sam shivers involuntarily, fighting the urge to avert his eyes. He doesn't like the way that Pierce is looking at him.

A knock sounds at the door behind them. Sam twists in his seat to see a dark-haired girl walk in, dressed in a bright pink blouse and skirt. She's tall and looks taller because of the way she carries herself, stiff and erect. Her blue eyes rest on Sam for a moment before flicking up to Pierce. She waits in the doorway, reminding Sam of nothing so much as the Buckingham Palace guards he's seen in movies. Maybe if he poked her she wouldn't react.

"Maria!" Pierce sounds pleased. His eyes are suddenly warm again, almost twinkling. "Sam Wilson, meet Maria Hill. She's going to show you around, teach you the ropes. And, well, you'll get acquainted."

Sam picks up the absurd blue uniform and follows Maria out, feeling relieved when the door closes on Pierce's smiling face.

***

One of Sam's cousins has been in Cadets since he was eleven. Maria reminds Sam of him; she's all brisk efficiency, wasting no energy in her movements. Her hair is pulled back into a tight knot that Sam thinks must be regulation, and she speaks in a direct, no-nonsense kind of way, like she's used to giving orders.

"Kitchen's over there," she says, pointing. "Don't go in there unless you're on washup duty, the cook doesn’t like it. The dining room's across the hall.  Breakfast's at eight every morning sharp, dinner's at five, lunch is at twelve unless you're taking it out in the field."

"The field?" Sam repeats blankly. "What field?"

"No particular field," she replies, a touch of humour livening her voice for the first time. "Jasper is in charge of you boys. Mostly you're going to spend your afternoons outdoors—camping, tackle football, fixing cars, stuff like that.  They call it Gender Reorientation."

"Yeah? What do you guys do for that?"

"Cooking. Cleaning. Mani-pedis. Sometimes we get to try putting diapers on baby dolls." Her tone is carefully neutral.

"Jesus," Sam mutters. "What is this, Leave It to Beaver?"

Maria's mouth twists wryly, but she doesn't respond. "Mornings are for group therapy," she continues, her neat pink shoes clicking against the floor of the porch. "You're actually just on time for that today, breakfast is winding down. After supper we get a few hours of free time, then we do an hour of GST—Gender Segregated Therapy—until bedtime. That's nine o'clock sharp, lights out at nine thirty. You getting all this?"

"Sort of."

"Good." She leads him out the back door and onto the porch, rounding the right-hand corner to a blue door. "This is the boys' dorm," she says. She raps smartly on the wood and calls, "Everybody decent in there?"

"There's no everybody," someone replies. The voice is faint through the wood. "Just me."

Maria rolls her eyes and swings the door open.

The room is baby blue. That's not unexpected, Sam can deal with that. That the beds, bed clothes, night tables, and dressers are blue as well is also not a surprise, although he's a little weirded out by the fact that the comforters all seem to be made of plastic. Above each bed hangs a picture of men doing things: hunting, fishing, playing baseball, driving cars. The too-clean smell is leavened by the smell of socks and sweat, and Sam is oddly relieved to see miscellaneous objects strewn across the carpet. The Stepford-style tidiness of the rest of the house was unsettling; this looks like a place where actual humans live.

"There are six of you right now," Maria tells him. She hasn't stepped into the dorm with him; maybe it's not allowed. "Your bed's the one in the far corner. There'll be a rule sheet in your night table drawer if Al didn't already give you one. It's all pretty simple stuff, though. No smoking, no drinking-"

"No fucking," someone says. Sam jumps and turns toward the voice, the same one he'd heard through the door. On the third bed a skinny blond kid is sprawled on his stomach with his feet resting on his pillow, his blue uniform blending into his coverlet until he's nearly invisible. His hands are moving busily, drawing something with charcoal in a sketchbook.

Maria sighs. "Sam," she says, a hint of annoyed resignation tempering her brisk, even tone, "this is Steve. Steve, don't corrupt the newbie."

Steve glances up from his sketchbook, one dark eyebrow raised. His eyes meet Sam's for a second. They're really blue, Sam notices, like they're trying to keep up with the overall colour scheme. "Am I lying? Is 'no fucking' not on the list of dorm rules?"

"It's 'no sexual misconduct', and there's also a rule against swearing," Maria says, her lips compressed into a thin white line. "As you know. What are you doing?"

He shrugs one bony shoulder, dropping his gaze again. "Drawing,” he replies, a little too casually. He moves his arm just a little, shielding the page from view.

"You know Jasper's going to go through that later. If there's anything inappropriate in there-"

"Already taken care of." He lifts it and flips through the pages, displaying jagged edges where pages have been torn out. "I went to Catholic school, Hill, it’s not like this is new to me."

She grimaces. "Just be careful, that's all," she says. Sam thinks he hears an edge of fondness there under the exasperation. She beckons for Sam to follow her out the door.

As he turns to close it behind him he meets Steve's eyes for another brief moment. His expression is hard to read—not sad exactly, not angry, but something in between and completely different. He offers him a smile. Steve looks surprised for a second, then smiles back a little.

"Welcome, I guess," he says. His voice is pretty deep for such a skinny little dude, warm and quiet.

"Thanks," Sam says, and shuts the door.

Maria's leaning against the porch railing, her arms crossed. "That kid's gonna get himself in trouble," she says, as though to herself. She looks up at Sam. "The rest of us... we're pretty resigned, you know? None of us really want to be here, but we know we’re stuck here until we either graduate or get kicked out. But Steve, he just keeps fighting. Yesterday we ended up spending half of group listening to him argue with Al and Jasper about whether or not birth control is a sin. He doesn't seem to understand that it'll be easier for him—for everyone—if he just keeps his head down, takes what they give him, and tries to get through it." She stops, then smiles ruefully. "Not that that's my official position, of course."

"Of course," Sam echoes. His headache's coming back, making the porch swim around him a little. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even lunchtime yet. "What is your official position?"

She shrugs. "Whatever gets me out of here fastest. I'm supposed to go into the Reserves this summer. Can't do that if I'm here."

So he was right—she is military. "So is everybody here like you?" he asks, leaning against the raining next to her.

Maria cocks an eyebrow at him. "Like me how?"

"You know, just waiting it out. So people will leave you alone. I figure I can't be the only one who got sent here by mistake, right?"

She stares at him for a moment, then bursts out laughing.

"You think I'm straight?" she chokes out, her face turning red. "You think you're straight?"

"I am!" Sam protests, irritated.  Honestly, when the hell did people start assuming he was gay? Have they always and just not wanted to mention it before? "My mom just-"

Her laughter drowns him out. Shaking her head, she gestures towards the blue bundle in his hands.

"The next door down is the boys' bathroom," she says. "Go get changed. We have Group in a few minutes. You can't wear civvies for that. Even if you’re straight." She walks away and disappears around the corner, still chuckling a little. Sam looks down at the uniform and scowls.

"This is ridiculous," he says to no one. A crow calls mockingly back to him from the distance.

Maybe group therapy will be his ticket out of here. If he can state his case convincingly enough, and all the other campers believe him, Pierce will have to listen to him, won't he? He can call Sam's mom, tell her she made a mistake, and he can go back to New York and get on with his life. Maybe this summer won't be a total write-off.

"First things first," he murmurs. Squaring his shoulders, he goes to get dressed.

Chapter Text

The dopey blue shorts are exactly as uncomfortable as he thought they would be. Sam shifts slightly in his seat, trying not to wince.

The Therapy Room is large and white and bare of anything but a circle of hard plastic chairs. Pierce is sitting next to Sam, one finger tapping softly against the edge of the clipboard in his hand. The other campers are sitting quietly, their eyes fixed on Pierce, although he notices a few of them glance at him. They're all white as far as he can tell, and there are only two girls, Maria and a small, unsmiling redhead whose green eyes lock on Sam's as soon as he looks at her. She looks... familiar, somehow. She regards him for a second, then lifts a hand in a silent greeting. He frowns, trying to remember where he’s seen her before.

"Campers," Pierce begins, smiling genially, "I'm sure you've all noticed that there's a new face here today. This is Sam Wilson; he's here to start the same journey that you all started yesterday. Let's give him a round of applause!"

The other campers applaud, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Steve, who is sitting on Pierce's other side, only puts his hands together once before letting them drop pointedly back into his bony lap.

"Sam still hasn't taken the First Step," Pierce tells them, patting Sam on the shoulder. "So, in order to make him feel more comfortable, how about we go around the circle and introduce ourselves." He points at Maria, seated on Sam's left. "You first, Miss Hill."

Maria stands. "My name is Maria," she says, her voice clear and precise, "and I am a homosexual."

She sits down, carefully smoothing her skirt beneath her. The boy next to her gets up, a little more hesitantly.

"My name is Bruce," he says. His voice is soft. The rest of him seems soft, too, from his unruly black hair to his wide brown eyes. "I, uh, I like science. And I'm a homosexual."

Pierce nods approvingly. Bruce sits down, looking relieved.

The next guy doesn't bother standing. There's a deliberately rumpled, disheveled air to him; his brown hair looks too artfully tousled not to have been styled, and his blue tie is just loose enough to allow him to keep the first button of his shirt undone.  Something about him says rich kid. He waves a lazy hand in Sam's direction. "My name is Tony," he says. "I'm not picky."

"Tony." Pierce's tone is reproving. "Remember we have a disclosure script. Stick to it."

Tony heaves a sigh. "Fine," he says, as though making a great concession. "My name is Tony and I am a homosexual. Better?"

"Better," Pierce confirms. "Clint?"

The blond guy beside Tony looks at him uncertainly, clearly trying to decide if he should remain seated too. After a second he gets up, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. He looks rumpled and disheveled as well, but in his case it's clearly not deliberate.

"My name is Clint," he says, "and I guess for all intents and purposes I'm a homosexual. Or whatever."

"That's right," Pierce says approvingly as he sits down. The redheaded girl is next. Her eyes are still on Sam's face as she speaks.

"My name is Natasha," she says, "and I am a homosexual.” 

Sam jumps. He recognizes her now, knows that low, clear voice and the name attached to it from the hallways of his high school. Natasha Romanoff, the weird loner who smoked in the girl's room and aced classes without attending them and once beat a man with a bag full of nickels for sitting on the hood of her car. Rumour had it she'd belonged to a street gang, that she was really a spy on the run from the Russian mob posing as a high school student, that her locker was armed with deadly and intricate booby traps that had killed at least three freshmen. Sam has never met her personally—his school was too big for that—but he's seen her around. He smiles at her as she sits down, glad to see a familiar face even if it isn’t actually all that familiar. She doesn't smile back.

The kid sitting between Natasha and Steve is shaggy-haired and looks sullen and intense. His blue eyes are smeared with way too much black eyeliner; Sam sees Pierce's eyes fix on it, his mouth tightening into a thin line. The guy doesn't seem to notice as he stands, his feet squarely planted as though he expects to be knocked down. He's the only camper there wearing long sleeves, the cuffs unbuttoned and turned down so they trail over the tops of his hands.

He starts, "My name is Bucky-"

"James," Pierce interrupts. "Your name is James, son. And I’ve warned you about the eye makeup."

James—Bucky?—glares at him through his hair. "My name is Bucky," he says deliberately, "and I am a homosexual. Who likes eyeliner." He sits down heavily, still glaring. Steve puts a hand on his shoulder, as though to steady him. There's something strange about the arm on that side, Sam realizes, though it takes him a moment to see what that is. It's a prosthetic, the shade of the hand just a little darker than the rest of him. He wonders if that's why Bucky's wearing long sleeves. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to notice.

"My name is Steve," Steve says, jerking Sam out of his thoughts, "and we've met."

"Steven." Pierce's tone is a warning. Steve sighs and gets to his feet, keeping his hand on Bucky's shoulder. Sam hadn't realized earlier how short he is; if he had to guess he would say there's a solid foot of height between them. What with that and how skinny he is and the stupid blue shorts, he should look a lot younger than he is. He doesn’t, though; maybe it’s the voice.

"My name is Steve," he says, "and I am not a homosexual.”

"Steven-"

"I'm a bisexual," Steve continues, steamrolling right over whatever Pierce is about to say. "Which people keep telling me don't actually exist, so I guess I'm also imaginary."

Pierce isn't smiling now. "I'm going to be speaking to both of you after lunch," he says as Steve sits back down. "And Steven, you know that what you're doing constitutes inappropriate bodily contact. Remove your hand."

Steve leaves it on Bucky's shoulder for another second, maintaining eye contact with Pierce, then lets go. Sam notices Bucky dart a quick glance at him, the corners of his mouth twitching.

Pierce looks at the two of them for a moment, then turns to Sam. "Sam, it's time for your first disclosure," he says.  "I understand that this may be overwhelming for you right now, but don't be intimidated."

Here's his chance. He has to make these people believe him. "I don't have anything to disclose," Sam replies. "I'm not gay. This is all a mistake." He crosses his arms, hoping it makes him look firm and resolute rather than sulky.

"So you told me yesterday," Pierce says. He looks around the circle. "Let's open it up, shall we? How can we get Sam to take the first step in his True Direction?"

Maria raises her hand first. Sam isn't surprised—she seems like a keener. "We can encourage him to share the issues that were brought up in his intervention," she says.

"Good!" Pierce nods, encouraging. "Sam, what concerns did your mother and your friend Riley voice when you had your discussion with Jasper?"

Sam shrugs. "I like birds," he offers. "And I have pictures of football players in my room."

"Normal players?" Tony asks. He's got a little beard. Sam thinks it makes him look like a twerp. "Or sweaty, shirtless, every-ab-outlined-with-Vaseline football players?"

"Normal ones," he replies. "Except for the Devin Thomas poster, I guess." He forgets that he has that sometimes. He really should have taken it down when he signed with the Bears, but he likes the way it looks on his wall. Likes the way Thomas stares down at him, intensity sparking in his eyes.

"I see." Pierce nods. "And where did you hang that poster?"

"Above my bed," Sam replies, then realizes that he should have made something up. A murmur sweeps the circle. "That's the only space I had left!" he protests. "But that's... it's not a sex thing. I just look at him and it's like, man, I wish I looked like that, you know?” 

"I thought that at first too," Natasha says. Her expression is inscrutable. "First it was, 'Oh, wow, what a hot girl, I wish I looked like her.' Then it was 'I wish I knew her so we could be best friends.' Then it was 'I wish she'd come to my house when my parents aren't home so we could have naked pillow fights and practice kissing-'"

"Watch it, Natasha," Pierce tells her sternly. "Remember, you've all got to encourage one other not to have unnatural thoughts."

"What's unnatural about it?" Sam demands. "I mean, just looking at a guy and knowing that he's attractive, that's not-"

"Have you ever had a girlfriend?" Pierce interrupts.

"A few." Sam nods. Honestly, aside from Amber and the girl he married on the playground in first grade he hasn't had many serious relationships, but he's dated off and on since middle school. When he wasn't too busy, and when Riley or one of his other friends set him up, or the girl asked him.

"Have you had sexual intercourse with any of them?"

He hates this line of questioning; it came up in the locker room after practice way too many times, the guys giving him more and more grief about it as he got older. It's not his fault he doesn't have an insane sex drive like they do. "No."

It shouldn't feel humiliating to admit that, he tells himself. There's nothing wrong with not pouncing on every girl you date. He's a gentleman, that's all.

"But you dated them," Pierce points out. "You enjoyed their company and their time. Are your friends and teammates sexually active?"

"Yes."

"But not you."

"No." 

"Why not?"

"Because... I don't know. It never felt right, I guess. I never had time."

Tony snorts. "Buddy," he says, "believe me, if you like girls, you make the time."

"So I'm in control of my hormones," Sam snaps. He's starting to get annoyed. "I've had a lot of stuff going on in the last few years, alright? I'm an honour student, I work, I volunteer, I play football-"

"Yeah," Tony says, rolling his eyes, "no one who plays sports could ever want to bang another guy. I mean, just look at the Greeks."

"It's really easy, isn't it?" Maria says, her voice quiet. "To pretend that you're too busy, when the issue is that you don't want to date the people everyone says you want to date. You really want a classmate. A teammate. Your best friend." She smiles, but her eyes are far away. "And you think everyone feels that way, like dating is just some weird social obligation. But then you realize that everyone else likes it. That you're the weird one, because you don't."

It was their last year of junior high, the weekend before Halloween. None of their other friends had wanted to come over; they'd all had dates, or said they did.

"I don't get why guys spend all their time with their girlfriends," he'd said, still pissed about it. They were sitting in Riley's basement, eating microwave popcorn and watching some Z-list horror movie he'd bought at the corner store for two bucks. He doesn't even remember how they'd gotten onto the subject. "I mean, when I was going out with Tamara, she was nice and all, but it wasn't like we were joined at the hip or anything."

"I dunno," Riley had replied, his eyes fixed on the television. Onscreen, a woman was running from some guys in grey face paint who were probably supposed to be zombies. "When I was with Lauren I kind of wanted to hang out with her all the time. I guess if you're really into someone it's just what happens."

Sam said, without thinking, "The only person I want to hang out with all the time is you."

Riley hadn't said anything, but Sam saw his shoulders stiffen.

"But that..." Sam doesn't realize that he said the words out loud until he notices the other campers looking at him expectantly. "Everyone feels that way about their friends," he says, but it comes out sounding like a question. It feels like one, too.

Pierce shakes his head. "No, Sam," he says. "Not everyone feels that way."

Sam swallows. His throat is suddenly very, very dry. "I thought it was normal."

"But you admit that it's not," Pierce says. "So why not admit that you're a homosexual?"

He thinks of the time in fourth grade when he had held another boy's hand to help him off the bus, how firm and warm his grip had been. His first kiss at a junior high dance, when he wondered what all the fuss was about, and all the kisses after that he still didn't understand. Rainy morning runs with the team, watching muscles move in broad, strong backs under wet shirts. How heavy his gaze had felt in the locker room shower, his eyes moving from form to form. Riley's foot scuffing against his living room carpet as he said there were things he'd noticed. About him.

"Oh, shit," he mutters.

"No swearing," Pierce reminds him, but gently. "Are you ready, Sam?"

His chest feels tight and hot, like his lungs are trying to expand past his ribs. He struggles to breathe for a second, digging his fingers into his knees to ground himself.

"I'm a homosexual." He says it so quietly that for a moment he hopes that no one hears.

"Congratulations, Sam!" Pierce applauds again, smiling approvingly. The other campers join in again. This time, Sam notices, Steve doesn't clap at all. "You've taken the first step in your True Direction!"

There's more Group Therapy after that, more trips around the circle, but Sam doesn't participate. All he remembers when he thinks back to it later is Steve's eyes on him, his face contorted with pity.

***

Lunch is... well, it's weird.

"So give it to me straight, princess," Tony says as Sam sits down with his tray.  There are three tables in the dining room; Pierce and Sitwell are at the one closest to the door, Steve and Bucky have the one by the window all to themselves, and the rest of them have taken the big one in the center of the room. "Was that the first time you realized you're a homo or are you just a fantastic actor?"

"I can't believe you just started a sentence with 'give it to me straight,'" grumbles Clint. He doesn't seem to have any lunch, just a large mug of black coffee.  It’s probably a good choice. Sam’s not sure what exactly was put on his tray, but he’s pretty sure that whatever it is shouldn’t be that colour.

"Well, something's got to be straight around here." Tony nudges Sam's foot with his own. "Come on, level with me. Did you really not know before?"

What with the rich kid vibe, the twerpy little beard, and how firmly his nose is stuck in other people's business, Sam doesn't think he's going to like Tony very much. "Yeah," he says, hoping his tone makes the "now drop it" implied.

If it does, Tony clearly chooses to ignore that implication. "Well, that's bizarre," he says. "I don't even remember not knowing I liked both. It's like I came out of the womb not caring who I banged as long as they were hot."

"We don’t all have your strong sense of self, Tony," Natasha says, her voice dry. She looks over at Sam, her expression unreadable."How are you doing?"

“Fine,” Sam answers automatically. "I mean, it's a lot to take in-"

"If anyone says 'that's what she said' I'll stab them with my fork," Maria warns. Clint, whose mouth has already opened, averts his gaze and takes a long sip of coffee instead.

"Did you all know?" Sam asks. "Before you came here, I mean?"

They all nod, more or less in unison.

"Fifth grade," Maria says. "I saw Star Wars for the first time. Princess Leia..." She shrugs, her cheeks flushing a little. Natasha reaches over and gives her a wordless high five over Clint's head. “I didn’t know what it was at that point, of course. I mean, I didn’t have a word for it. But I knew something was different about me.”

"For me it was my lab partner in freshman year," Bruce says. "Every time I stood next to him I got chills, got clumsy, started stammering and sweating. At first I thought I was just really into frog dissection or something. Finding out I was gay was kind of a relief after that."

"And then when you told him you made sweet, sweet love next to the Bunsen burners?” Tony reaches out to steal his bread roll.

Bruce's smile fades. "No," he says, ducking his head a little. "He freaked out and broke two of my ribs. I didn't have a lab partner after that."

Tony doesn't give the roll back, but his hand drops on Bruce's for a second, squeezing sympathetically. Sitwell looks over from the next table, as though on cue, and calls, "No contact, guys, come on."

“I wish I’d had some kind of dramatic moment of realization,” Clint says, draining the rest of his coffee. “I just knew I didn’t want to date girls. Bada bing, bada boom, I was here.”

"What about you?" Sam asks Natasha. He can't help but be curious—she was always such an unknown factor at school. He'd never heard of her dating girls or anything, but then, he'd never heard of her dating guys, either. “When did you know?”

“Don’t bother,” Tony says, making a face. “Anytime you ask this girl anything she clams up. She won’t even tell us who sent her here. I’m assuming that means they haven't found the bodies yet.”

Natasha smiles at him—or, at least, she bares her teeth. "And they never will," she says. "Keep that in mind next time you try to take my dessert when I'm in the bathroom."

"That happened once!”

"Once was enough."

Sam looks over to the table where Steve and Bucky are sitting. They don't seem to be talking to one another; Bucky is eating with his head down, occasionally shoving his plate over in Steve's direction and waiting for him to take a forkful of food before eating again. Steve somehow managed to smuggle his sketchbook to the table and is drawing without looking up. He notices Pierce glancing at them every few minutes, as though to make sure that they're behaving themselves.

"What about those two?" he asks, nodding in their direction and keeping his voice down. "What's their deal?"

Tony rolls his eyes. "Who the hell knows," he says. "They showed up together yesterday. Unless he absolutely has to, Tall, Dark, and Gothy there doesn't talk to anyone but Goldilocks, who won't stop picking fights with Our Glorious Leader and his pet Igor. They're friends, probably. Or brothers. Or maybe two cells of a single hivemind, I don't know."

"Friends," Natasha says. "I heard them talking the other night. They grew up together."

"Did you really just 'hear them talking'?" Maria asks pointedly. "Or were you deliberately eavesdropping?" Natasha ignores her. At the other table, Steve's hand slips, and his pencil goes rolling off the edge of the table. Bucky catches it without looking. There's a quiet, casual intimacy in the gesture; Sam feels as though he shouldn't be looking at them, like he's intruding.

"See?" Tony says, not particularly quietly. "Hivemind."

Bucky looks over at their table and scowls. Not at Tony—which would at least be understandable—but at Sam. He looks away quickly.

"So are they..."

He's not even sure what he's asking, really, but all he gets are a series of shrugs and, from Tony, a loud "who cares."

"All right, campers!" Pierce's voice is startlingly loud, making Bruce jump and spill the contents of his water glass down the front of his shirt. Pierce is standing at his table, his arms spread like a preacher at a pulpit. "Once everyone's finished lunch, we're going to start today’s Gender Reorientation exercises. Girls in the Front Room, and boys, you'll meet Jasper on the porch."

He pauses, his gaze sweeping the room. Is it Sam’s imagination, or do his eyes rest on Steve just a little bit longer?

"I've got a great feeling about this group," he says. "I can tell that you're all determined to make the most of your time here, and that you’re ready and willing to help one another along the way. There’s no doubt in my mind that on Graduation Day I'm going to see all of you up on that stage, ready to change your lives."  He beams, clapping his hands together. “Good luck, everybody!”

“And may the Force be with you,” Tony mutters, standing up.

“God bless us, everyone,” Natasha adds.

***

Their Gender Reorientation activity of the day is a game of tackle football. Usually Sam would enjoy it, but lunch is sitting in his stomach like a ball, making him sluggish and slow. Even if that weren't the case, he doubts he’d really get into it today, anyway—it feels like too much contact all of a sudden, every touch loaded with new meaning. He passes each time and makes sure he stands far back so he won't have to participate too much.

It's not a good game in any case; most of them don't know the rules, in spite of Sitwell bellowing them out at odd intervals, and the only one who seems to want to play at all is Clint, whose relative enthusiasm does not make up for his complete lack of skill. It quickly wanes as he realizes that everyone else is just waiting it out.

"Sports," Tony says as they head back to the house from the field, "should be illegal. All that moving around, doing things, expending effort. What a nightmare."

"Yeah," Bruce says wryly, smiling a little, "nothing worse than trying hard at something."

Tony throws out his arms. "This guy gets it."

Sam glances over his shoulder. Steve and Bucky are lagging behind the group, walking so that their shoulders brush. Bucky’s prosthetic is even more noticeable in the flimsy blue jerseys Sitwell had them wear for the game.

“What happened to his arm, anyway?” he asks.

Clint shakes his head.  “Don’t ask,” he advises wearily. “I asked once. Steve nearly bit my head off.”

The game seems to have taken it out of everybody.  They eat dinner in relative silence, picking listlessly at whatever's on their trays. (Even after he's finished his, Sam's still not sure what exactly he put into his body.) The girls look pale and sweaty; according to Maria they've spent the whole day learning how to properly use a vacuum cleaner.

“You wouldn’t think there’d be much to learn,” she says, slumping a little in her seat. “You’d be wrong.”

Sam isn’t sure what to do with himself during his free time after dinner. His duffel bag has miraculously appeared again at the end of his bed, and although his iPod is gone (with a note in its place saying that it was taken “due to objectionable lyrical content contrary to the values of True Directions,” and that he’ll get it back after graduation), he still has the books he brought with him. He finds, though, that when he sits down to read his mind won’t settle. It’s all the blue, he thinks. After a few tries he gives up, gets up off the bed and slings his letter jacket around his shoulders. He has to get out of the house for a while.

Outside the light is warm and dreamy, touching the fields and woods surrounding the house with gold. He breathes deep, feeling better already. There’s nothing blue out here but the sky, nothing pink at all.

“It’s a relief, isn't it?” someone calls.  He turns and sees Natasha leaning against the porch railing, half in shadow. “Getting away from the colour scheme.”

Sam smiles despite himself. “It really is,” he answers, coming closer. She’s smoking, he realizes, taking quick, furtive puffs like she’d dying for it.

 She gestures at his jacket. She's wearing one of her own, he realizes, a leather bomber that's worn and cracked in spots. “I can’t believe you brought that,” she says, blowing out a spout of smoke. “You miss high school that much already?”

“Well, it only ended yesterday,” he points out. “I haven’t really had time to miss it yet.”

“True.” She takes a final, lengthy drag on her cigarette and crushes the butt on the railing, flicking it discreetly into the bushes below the porch. After she brushes the ash away with her hand there’s not a single trace of it left for Sitwell or Pierce to find. He can’t help feeling impressed.

“How the hell did you manage to smuggle smokes in here?” he asks. “They wouldn't even let me have my iPod.”

She smiles inscrutably. “You really think I’m going to answer that?”

“I guess not.”

They stand in silence for a moment, Sam watching her, Natasha watching the sky.

“So how are you, really?” she asks abruptly, her eyes meeting his. “You said you were fine before, but I’m one hundred and eleven percent sure that’s bullshit.”

How is he? Sam has to consider the question carefully.

“It’s been a weird day,” he says finally. “I’m mostly… confused, I guess. About how this could have happened without me noticing.”

“This?”

“This.” He gestures to himself. “Being gay.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Careful,” she says dryly. “Pierce and Sitwell don’t like that word. They say it implies that homosexuality is an issue of identity rather than choice.”

Sam frowns. “Well, isn’t it?” he asks. “I mean, this just kind of came up to hit me in the face. If I chose it, I sure as hell didn’t notice at the time.”

“The official response is ‘no, but you’re choosing to do something about it, and that’s what matters.’” Natasha mimics Pierce’s deep, chipper tones so perfectly that Sam laughs.

“I didn’t exactly choose that either,” he admits. “I thought I was going to show up, everyone would realize what a horrible mistake they’d made, and then they’d send me back. I had no idea I was going to have some kind of eleventh hour coming out moment.” He pauses. He wants to ask her something, but he doesn’t know if he wants to hear the answer.

 Like she’s read his mind, she says, “Before you ask, yes, I knew about you. Even in school.”

“Really?” She nods. “But what was it about me?”

She thinks for a second, her head cocked slightly to the side. “You seemed like you were waiting for something,” she says finally. “Like you knew there was something you had to figure out, you just weren’t sure what it was yet. When I saw you with girls, you were obviously having a good time and everything, but you weren’t completely there. With guys you were completely present. And you watched them more. I don’t think you even noticed that, but you did.”

Sam hadn’t noticed. He wonders who else had, besides Natasha.

“What about you?” she asks. “Did you know about me?”

 “All I knew about you were rumours.” He shrugs.

She raises an eyebrow. “Any good ones?”

“A lot of scary ones,” he says. She hums, looking pleased. “I’m guessing you’ll neither confirm nor deny if I ask about them?”

“Bingo.”

“And if I ask who sent you here?”

“Same deal.” She grins. “Let a girl have a little mystery, Wilson. I didn’t spend the last few years building up my rep for nothing.”

They’re quiet together for a while. It’s nowhere close to dark yet, but the light is changing, turning thick and syrupy.

“Do you think I’ll be able to do it?” Sam asks at last.

“Do what?”

“Graduate. Get… get fixed, or whatever. Do you think they can do that?”

She grimaces. “Those are two very different questions,” she says. “Do I think you can slog through this crap long enough to get out of here? Yeah, you probably can. Do I think a couple of weeks with two crackpots in a farm house can change your sexual orientation?” She shakes her head. “No. Not by a long shot.”

He sighs. “Yeah,” he says. “I didn’t think so.”

“You sound disappointed.”

Sam doesn’t bother answering that. It’s not like he can deny it, not with any conviction.

 She looks at him for a second, then reaches out over the railing to touch him on the shoulder.

“Just get through it,” she says. “That’s what we’re all doing.”

***

“Sam.”

The voice wakes Sam with a start. He sits up in bed, looking around. All the other campers are asleep, shapeless lumps under bright blue covers.  Someone is standing in the doorway, shining a flashlight in his face.

“Wha?” he says articulately.

“You have a phone call,” Sitwell says. Sam’s can’t see his face. “Follow me.”

He leads him down to Pierce’s office. Sam had noticed the phone there, an old-fashioned rotary model, earlier that day, but he’d assumed it was a prop like so much else in the room. Apparently not. He accepts the receiver from Sitwell, who takes a seat in Pierce’s chair.

Sam hesitates. “Could you… can you leave the room?” he asks. Sitwell shakes his head. “Figures,” he mutters, and lifts the receiver to his ear. “Hello?”

There’s a moment of silence, then: “Sam?”

The voice is crackly and distorted, but Sam recognizes it anyway. He can suddenly hear the blood pounding in his ears. “Riley?”

“Yeah, man, it’s me.” Another pause, longer this time. “How are you?”

Sam doesn’t get angry easily, not anymore. There was a time, right after his dad had died, when he’d been pissed off all the time, full of impotent rage that drove him crazy and made him lash out. It had passed eventually, and he’d been glad when it did; feeling that kind of anger, hot and burning and constant, had felt like being poisoned.

He feels that now, rising in his throat like bile.

“Me? I’m fine,” he says. “I’m in gay rehab. I’m not allowed to wear my own clothes or listen to my own music. There’s some guy sitting in the room with me to make sure we don’t start having freaky gay phone sex. Oh, and guess what? Turns out you and Mom were right, I’m queer after all. I’m great, Riley. How are you?”

“Okay,” Riley says. He sounds wary. “So you’re pissed at me.”

Of course I am!” Sam explodes, as quietly as he can. He’s all too aware of Sitwell’s eyes on him. “What did you expect?”

“I don’t know.” His voice is sullen now, like it had been when he was on Sam’s couch, not meeting his eyes. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Sam barks out a laugh. “Oh, you didn’t mean for me to be locked up in the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere all summer? That’s okay, then. We’re good. We’re cool.”

“So you—you’re really gay?” Riley blurts. “We didn’t make a mistake or anything?”

“Dude, are you even listening to me?”

After a while, Riley says, “I don’t really know why I called.” His voice is so quiet Sam can barely hear it.

“You and me both, man.” Sam hates being angry, he really does, but right now, with the heat rising to his face and his fists clenching of their own accord, he’s able to forget that. “Next time don’t, alright? Not unless you have something to say.”

He only hesitates a little before slamming the receiver down. He’s breathing hard, his heart slamming against his ribcage. For a moment he’s fourteen years old again, running from his mom and the cop sitting in the living room, fire in his veins and murder in his eyes.

“I’m going to have to report you to Pierce for swearing,” Sitwell says, standing up.

“You do that,” Sam says. He goes back to the boys’ dorm without waiting to be escorted, slipping under the covers and staring at the ceiling. It feels like his bones are vibrating, his whole body thrumming with rage. He doubts he’ll be able to sleep.

Just get through it, he tells himself, remembering Natasha’s words from earlier. Hold on, and you’ll be able to go home.

But for the first time, the thought doesn't make him feel better.

Chapter Text

They wake up the next morning to Sitwell banging on the outside door.

“This is your wakeup call,” he shouts through the wood. A split second later a song starts playing, something cheerful, tinny, and very familiar. In the bed beside Sam, Bruce groans aloud.

Sam sits up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “Is that ‘Walking On Sunshine’?” he croaks, not quite believing his own ears. He's never liked this song. Hearing it at maximum volume at seven in the morning does not help.

“It sure is,” Tony mumbles. Clint makes a strangled noise of protest and flops over onto his stomach, jamming his pillow over his ears. “He leaves a boombox outside the door and plays it every morning. He thinks it’ll make us want to jump out of bed and seize the day, or something.”

"Makes me wanna jump out of bed and seize him," Steve mutters. Bucky is already awake in the bed next to him, yesterday's eyeliner smeared hallway down his cheeks.

"In the fun way?" Tony’s eyes peel open hopefully.

Steve shakes his head, stifling a yawn. "In the punching way."

***

Pierce is waiting for them in the Therapy Room after breakfast.

"Good morning, campers," he says, sounding way too chipper for this hour of the morning. There's a general muttering in response; nobody is really awake yet. Clint's still got a mug of coffee clutched to his chest, and Natasha is clearly drowsing, her chin cradled in her hands.

Pierce doesn't seem to be bothered by the complete lack of enthusiasm. "Today," he says, "we're going to be talking about our roots. What do I mean by 'root,' does anyone know?"

Maria raises her hand. "An event or experience," she says, her voice clear even though her eyes are sticky with sleep, "sometimes traumatic in nature, which leads to a higher probability of developing homosexual tendencies." She sounds like she's quoting from a brochure. Maybe she is—the words do sound faintly familiar.

"That's right." Pierce nods. "As part of your journey to rediscover your true gender identity, you have to know what it was that led you to lose sight of that identity in the first place. I know a lot of you started thinking about your roots on the first day. I think it would be beneficial to all of you if you shared with the group." He looks at Tony. "Tony, do you want to start?"

"Nope," Tony replies without looking up. He's got his cell with him, Sam realizes, and has been playing with it since he sat down. Bruce elbows him until he sighs and looks up. "Okay," he says, sliding his phone into his pocket. "So it's something about your parents, right? Distant father, overbearing mother, all that Freudian stuff?"

"Not exclusively," Pierce says, "but yes, those are often precursors to the development of homosexual tendencies."

"Alright. So: poor little rich boy, my daddy never took me out for ice cream, boo boo boo, the end." He waves a hand, as if to say 'ta-da!' "There you go, there's my root."

Pierce raises his eyebrows. "You don't seem to be taking this seriously, Tony."

"Oh, no, not at all." Tony looks back down at his phone. Why the hell is he allowed to have a phone? Sam wonders.

Sam expects Pierce to keep pressing him, but he just levels a steady look at him before turning to the next chair.

"Bruce, what about you?" he asks.

"Uh." Bruce glances around the circle, pushing his glasses up with one finger. "My cousin let me play with her Barbies when I was a kid?"

Sam starts to laugh, expecting everyone else to join in too. No one does. Pierce is nodding enthusiastically.

"That's an excellent example of a root," he says. "You were allowed to participate in feminine play, which led to you eventually wanting to take on a feminine sexual role. Good job, Bruce!" He looks at Maria, who frowns pensively.

"My father, maybe,” she says at last. “He made it pretty clear from a young age that he wanted sons, so I tried to be good at everything a son would be good at. And I went to an all-girl boarding school, does that make a difference?"

"Absolutely." Pierce's voice is approving. "You'd already trained yourself to be a 'son,' so to speak, then found yourself in an atmosphere in which you, as an ersatz male, were surrounded by females." He moves on. "Clint?"

"I was a cheerleader in junior year."

"A very feminine activity which encouraged you to identify with women rather than see them as potential sexual partners. Excellent. Natasha?"

"I was born in Russia," Natasha says instantly. Sam expects Pierce to call bullshit on that at least, but he seems to accept it.

"James?"

Bucky doesn't make eye contact as he mumbles, "I went to see the Cure when I was thirteen."

"Good," Pierce says. "Gender ambiguity, feminine expression of feeling—music is a factor in more cases than you'd think."

"So if he'd gone to see Metallica instead he'd be straight?" Steve asks flatly. "By this logic, how is anyone who's ever seen the Cure heterosexual?"

"Begging the question," Tony mutters.

"Because they have access to positive gender role models to balance out those influences that have had a negative effect on their gender identity," Pierce replies. "Access that those in your position may not have. And there are always other factors at play, factors that may not even become apparent until much later in life. If ever."

"So you're basically saying that you actually have no idea why any of us turned out the way we did." Steve crosses his arms and leans back, his mouth set stubbornly.

Pierce smiles, seeming unconcerned by the accusation. "How about you, Steven? What's your root?"

"Up to you.” Steve’s tone is dangerously light. "My dad's dead, so I had no positive male role models when I was growing up. I was too sick to play sports as a kid, so that's another strike against me. I like to draw, which from you've said basically makes me a woman. Plus I went to that Cure concert with Bucky. Take your pick.”

Pierce nods slowly. "That brings me to the next point I wanted to raise, campers," he says. He looks around the circle, his eyes moving from face to face. "One of the greatest things about being a heterosexual is friendship. Once you've completed our program, you'll find that you will be able to be friends with people of your own gender without worrying that those friendships are founded on unhealthy interest on your part."

His eyes flick to Steve again, then to Bucky. Steve seems to notice; his mouth tightens.

"To that end, I would like you to find a friend—of the same gender," he amends sternly as Clint begins to shift towards Natasha, "and stay with them for the rest of the program. You'll be practicing with these for the rest of the session, in groups of two." He holds up what seems to be a small deck of cards. The box, held together at the corners with Scotch tape, is pink and blue.

Sam already knows how the room is going to break down—Maria and Natasha, Tony and Bruce, Steve and Bucky. He's about to get up and sit next to Clint when Pierce calls out, "Steven, James, you will not be partnered together."

Steve is already in the process of shifting their chairs away. He stops, turning to look at Pierce incredulously.

"The purpose of this exercise," Pierce says, meeting Steve's eyes without wavering, "is to form new, healthy friendships. James, you will be partnered with Clint. Steven, you'll be with Sam."

For a second it seems as though Steve is going to fight. To Sam's surprise, Bucky shakes his head, leaning down to whisper something in his ear. Steve hesitates, then nods, touching him on the arm for a moment before turning away. He marches across the room to where Sam is sitting, plunking down next to him.

"Hello, friend," he says. His mouth twists a little, ironic. "Ready to be heterosexual together?"

***

The deck turns out to be a set of flashcards, one per group. Sam looks through them, his eyebrows raising higher with each one. Each bears a picture of a man or woman doing something: the men drive cars, carry briefcases, mow lawns, while the woman carry children, knit sweaters, brandish feather dusters.

"Okay," he says. "So I guess we're supposed to flip through these and identify what gender-specific behaviours each card is displaying." He holds up a picture of a man in a suit and hat, hurrying along a sunny sidewalk.

“Walking?” Steve offers.

Sam checks the back of the card. "'Based on the details of this man's attire and stance,'" he reads, "'we can tell that he is a businessman, most likely with a family, on his way to work. He is the breadwinner of his household, as evidenced by the quality of his suit and-'" He broke off, shaking his head. "That's a lot to get out of one picture."

Steve takes the card and examines it critically. "It looks like a sophomore I used to know," he says. "He wore a suit and a fedora all the time, thought he was Don Draper or something. And all this time he was a business man with a family. Who knew?" He takes the deck of cards, shuffles through it, and holds up another card. It's a picture of a man in jeans lying on his back, halfway underneath a huge red car. The angle obscures his face and upper body; all Sam can see are his legs and ass. He feels his face getting hot.

"I'm surprised they let that one slip through," he mutters, averting his eyes. Weird how he never would have noticed that kind of thing before he came here. Then again, maybe he just wouldn’t have noticed that he was noticing. "He's fixing a car."

"Close. He's 'repairing the vehicle he uses to provide for his family, using critical masculine skills such as spatial logic, a basic understanding of mechanics, and good old-fashioned elbow grease.'" Steve makes a face. "Who writes this crap?"

"Language," Pierce calls from his seat by the door.

Sam takes the deck back, shuffling through it and holding up a new card. It's a man in a football uniform, the ball tucked under his arm as he streaks across the field.

Steve looks at it and smiles, small and crooked but genuine. "It's you," he says. “You said you played, right?”

“Defensive end since freshman year.” Sam smiles back. He can’t help it. “You said that you didn’t play sports because you were sick, right? What did you have?"

Steve shrugs. "Anything. Everything. Scoliosis, asthma, a heart murmur, high blood pressure, sinusitis, anemia... basically moving at any speed faster than a slow walk tired me out. I missed a lot of school, got held back a year." He says this matter-of-factly, and there's a glint in his eye as he looks at Sam, as though he's daring him to feel pity.

Weirdly enough, Sam doesn’t. He doesn’t know much about Steve at this point, but from what he’s seen, he’s not the kind of guy you pity. He hands the deck back over.

Steve shuffles quickly and holds up a new card. It’s a woman this time, wearing a ruffled check apron over her dress. She’s standing at the sink in an old-fashioned kitchen, beaming as she rubs a plate with a rag.

“Professional dishwasher? Maid? Detergent commercial from the fifties?” Sam guesses. Steve flips the card over.

“‘The woman on this card,’” he reads, “‘is clearly at home in her role as a mother and homemaker. By taking care of the house in which her husband and children live, she is fulfilling her biological destiny-’” Steve stops, shaking his head. “I swear, if my mom could hear half the crap they’re spouting in here she’d drag me out by my hair, gay or not.”

“What, your mom’s not fulfilling her biological destiny by washing dishes in a fancy apron?”

Steve snorts. “She’s a single mother and a nurse,” he says dryly. “She barely has time to wash herself.”

“Why’d she send you here in the first place?” Sam asks. He’s not sure why he’s curious, but he is. “What made her think you were…?”

Steve’s mouth twists. “I had a friend," he replies. "We spent a little too much time together. I mean, I had girlfriends—well, one, kind of. She was an exchange student, she went back to England before we could really… But I guess that didn’t matter.”

Sam glances over at Bucky. He's sitting with his arms crossed tight against his chest, glaring at Clint as he gamely tries to practice with the flash cards.

"Mom got suspicious," Steve continues. Sam jerks his gaze away. "So she went into my room and looked through my stuff. It was my sketchbooks that really clinched it. I guess she thought there were a few shirtless guys too many."

"So did you really like that girl? You weren’t just, you know, covering your ass or something?" He remembers Amber suddenly, and winces.

“Yeah,” Steve says, his eyebrows raising. “I really liked her. You know what bisexual means, right?”

“Of course.” And he does. Although, now that he thinks about it, he’s never actually met anyone who called themselves that. “What I’m saying is… you don’t have to like guys. So why do it?”

“That’s not how it works.” Steve’s cheeks flush, the pale skin tingeing pink. “You can’t choose who you fall for.”

“No, but you can choose who to pursue, right?”

“Sure I can,” he answers hotly. “So can you. Anyone can. But why would I?”

“It would be easier,” Sam says, picking his words carefully. Steve seems agitated; maybe he’s had this conversation before. “If you just sort of... ignored it when you fell for a guy. And it’s not like you’d be lying really, right? You like girls, you’ve dated girls. Throwing guys into the mix seems like it makes things a lot harder than they have to be.”

“You’re missing the point,” Steve insists. The flush is getting deeper now, more red than pink. “Of course it’s harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Some things are more important than having it easy.”

Sam can’t help it; he looks over at Bucky again. Steve’s eyes follow his, and his whole body stiffens.

“Oh, for…” He returns the deck with more force than is strictly necessary. “Look, let’s just get this over with, okay?”

Sam takes the cards but doesn’t shuffle them. Instead he stares at Steve, incredulous. “Are you pissed at me?” he asks.

“No,” Steve says, his voice clipped and tense. He is a terrible liar.

“Yes, you are. Why?”

“Because ever since I got here people have been telling me that my relationship with my best friend is inappropriate!” Steve snaps. “I thought that maybe I’d finally met someone who wouldn’t assume we were screwing in the bathroom after lights out!”

Sam holds up his hands, a gesture of acquiescence. “Whoa, whoa, I didn’t-”

“Sam. Steve.” All at once Pierce is behind Sam’s chair, his hands gripping the stiles, pinning him down. His voice is very soft, but it feels loud in the sudden silence. The room has gone quiet, he realizes, the other campers turning to stare at the two of them. And no wonder—their voices had raised until they were nearly shouting. “Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the group?”

Sam shakes his head immediately, but Pierce isn’t really asking him. He can feel his attention focusing on Steve, so intent it crowds everyone else out.

“Steven?” Steve doesn’t look at him. His eyes are still on Sam’s, his skinny arms folded against his chest. He looks in that instant uncannily like Bucky.

“I’ve got nothing to say,” he spits. “I’m fine. I’m great.”

Pierce stays in place for a few long seconds, his knuckles whitening. Sam can’t see his face, but he can imagine his expression.

“Okay,” he says at last. He releases Sam’s chair and steps back. “It’s lunchtime now, campers. I’d like you all to keep ahold of your flashcards. When you get a chance tonight after supper, team back up and practice. You’re dismissed.”

He hasn’t even finished talking before Steve is out of his seat and out the door, Bucky close on his heels. Clint looks from the doorway to Sam, dumbfounded.

“What just happened?” he asks.

Sam honestly has no idea.

***

Steve doesn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

Granted, it doesn’t make much of a difference—he doesn’t talk to anybody but Bucky a lot of the time anyway. But it feels intentional now, the firm set of his mouth and the clench of his jaw as they head out to complete this afternoon’s reorientation exercise. It’s fly fishing, something Sam has never done before; as a matter of fact, he doesn’t think any of them have done it before, based on their catch at the end of the day (two plastic bags, a child’s Hello Kitty watch, and half a lake trout). Sitwell is encouraging anyway, giving each of them a hearty pat on the back as they enter the dining hall. Steve, Sam notices, dodges away before he can make contact.

Dinner that night is livelier than it was the day before. Nobody is tired; even the girls have had a relatively easy day of it. Their afternoon, Maria reports, was spent learning how to apply makeup. There are still traces of it on her cheeks, a chalky pink blush with too much glitter.

"Who teaches you this stuff?" Bruce asks curiously. "Do they have a woman who comes in to work with you, or what?"

"Pierce," Natasha says thickly, her mouth full. She swallows. "Pierce, and a lot of old women's magazines."

"Pierce is teaching you guys how to be women?" Clint says disbelievingly. "Doesn't that violate, like, every principle this stupid place is based on?"

She shrugs. "I will say this," she remarks, "the man knows his eyeshadow."

Later that night when they’re in the dorm for Gender Segregated Therapy Clint brings it up again, this time in front of Sitwell.

"I'm just saying," Clint insists. They’re in a circle again, this time sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the row of beds. "You guys keep saying that gender confusion is the root of our problem, right? Doesn't that mean that using a man to teach them about womanhood would confuse them even more?"

Sitwell smiles. "I can definitely see why you'd think that," he says. "And I'm glad you felt comfortable enough to talk about this in front of the group, Clint. However, you're wrong in this instance." He looks around the circle. "Can anyone tell me why, based on what we've learned so far?"

Nobody speaks for a long time. Then Bruce raises his hand tentatively.

"Because of male-female dynamics?" he offers.

"Interesting.” Sitwell touches a finger to his chin contemplatively. "Elaborate?"

Bruce fidgets a bit, looking uncomfortable. "Well... in the pamphlet I got during my intervention, it mentioned that one of the reasons gender confusion takes root is because it's so easy to lose track of the proper roles of men and women," he says. "Especially when it comes to, you know, men and women relating to one another. Women are encouraged to be independent, and men are encouraged to be subservient, when it's supposed to be the opposite. In nature, that is."

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam can see Steve turn to look at Sitwell, his eyes narrowing.

"Exactly," Sitwell says, giving Bruce a pleased nod. "One of the main issues that we deal with here is that of women not understanding their natural roles. Too many of them think that they should be dominant—in society, in relationships, even sexually. And they're encouraged to think so. That's why Pierce is in charge of the girls. He's trying to teach them to respect men as figures of authority, so that they'll be able to accept that authority in their personal relationships as well."

“Oh, man,” Tony says. He’s on his phone again; Sitwell hasn’t even said anything to him. “You should really meet my friend Pepper. I feel like you two would have a lot to talk about.”

"If those dynamics are so natural, why do you have to teach us them in the first place?" Steve asks, leaning forward.

"Because you've been misled," Sitwell answers. He doesn't seem to notice his combative tone. "Your natural understanding of how men and women interact has been skewed, and so your understanding of your own gender has become skewed as well."

"So what is the natural way for men and women to interact?" he demands. "Officially?”

"Use the wild as your example," Sitwell suggests. "In the animal kingdom, who does the hunting? Who leads the packs? Who takes care of the cubs?"

"Lions," Bucky says. His hair's hanging forward into his face; Sam actually hadn't been sure if he was listening. "In prides, lionesses do the hunting."

"And females hyenas," Clint adds. "I think I saw that on the Discovery Channel. Their packs are... what's that word? Matriarchal."

"A cackle," Bruce corrects him shyly. "A group of hyenas is called a cackle. Like a murder of crows."

"Seriously?" Clint grins. "Awesome."

Sam remembers the year one of his baby cousins was obsessed with killer whales, how she’d spouted off fact after fact memorized from old library books and Discovery Channel specials. One of them seems to have stuck in his brain. “Orcas,” he says. “Mothers and children form the pods. Elephants, too, I think.”

"None of this is primate behaviour," Sitwell points out. "In order to understand our own species, we need to look at apes and similar animals. Across the board, in those species the males are dominant and the females submissive.”

"What about bonobos?" Bruce asks, his brow creasing. "Genetically, they’re really closely related to humans, right? Their groups are dominated by females."

"And they have a very high rate of homosexual activity," Sitwell says patiently. "You really just proved my point for me, Bruce."

“So let me get this straight.” Steve’s got his jaw set now, and his expression is mutinous. “Homosexuality is bad because it goes against natural gender roles, except when it doesn’t. And those gender roles are totally the same for every species on the planet, except for when they aren’t. And when they aren’t, those species are unnatural, because they have high rates of homosexual activity. Which is bad, because it goes against gender roles. This argument is completely circular. All you’re really saying is ‘it’s bad because it’s bad.’”

“We don’t even need to go outside of our own species to know that, Steve,” Sitwell says, as kind as though he’s explaining something simple to a stubborn child. “Homosexuals have higher rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, depression and mental illness, suicide-”

“Right,” Steve says, his voice thick with sarcasm. “And places like this, they’ve got nothing to do with that, right?”

“They do not,” Sitwell confirms. His glance travels the room, his expression placid. “We’re the ones trying to save you from that, campers. Don’t forget that. We’re on your side.” He glances at his wristwatch. “It’s nearly nine o’clock. Time to get ready for bed, boys. I’ll be back for lights out in a half hour.”

“‘Lights out,’” Tony repeats mockingly. “How old are we supposed to be, again?”

While they’re brushing their teeth in the bathroom, Bruce turns to Sam and asks, hesitant, “Do you think that’s true?”

“Do I think what’s true?” Sam says absently, not really paying attention. His face looks different in the mirror here somehow, he thinks. Smaller, or softer. Maybe it’s all the blue.

“What Sitwell said.” Bruce looks at him anxiously. Tony’s at the sink beside him, critically examining his beard. The door is open; although the bathroom is outfitted for multiple people, with three sinks and individual stalls and showers, it’s strictly forbidden for more than one person to go inside with the door closed. How exactly they keep track of that Sam doesn’t know. And, honestly, doesn’t really want to think about. “About, you know. Suicide and drugs and everything.”

Sam thinks about it for a second. “I don’t know,” he replies, figuring he might as well be honest. “I didn’t even know I was gay until I got here. I haven’t really read up on the stats for this kind of thing.”

“Statistics are bullshit,” Tony says firmly. “Just because something can happen to you doesn’t mean it will happen. Do you think I should grow a soul patch?”

“No,” Clint calls from one of the stalls behind them.

“I think that what Steve said makes sense,” Sam tells him. “Pierce and Sitwell tell us pretty much every day that we’re sick and we need to change, right? I bet a lot of our parents have done the same thing. Indirectly, maybe, but it's still there in our heads. It makes sense that some people would get depressed about it. And that maybe some of them would do drastic things because of that, whether it’s suicide or drugs or whatever. It doesn’t happen because we’re bad people. We aren’t being punished.”

I just said we, he realizes.

Bruce’s face floods with relief. “I think so too,” he says, almost whispering.

Steve is still awake when they get back into the dorm for lights out, hunched over his sketchbook again. His eyes flick up as the door opens, then quickly drop, thin fingers tightening their grip on his pencil. Sam debates whether or not he should say something to him, but decides against it. Steve’s prickly enough—he doesn’t want to risk another shouting match in front of people.

He stays sitting up long after Sitwell turns off the light, the sound of charcoal gliding over rough paper filling up the dark. In spite of everything, Sam falls asleep to it.

He wonders what he’s drawing.

***

The next day's Gender Reorientation exercise is a three-hour hike through the woods.

Sam's never gone hiking before, unless you count the occasional run through Garvey Park, but he likes the woods, and he's got enough muscle built up to be able to endure the fairly strenuous pace easily. The weather's nice, the woods pleasantly cool, and he can hear the call of birds in the canopy overhead—or at least he can when he lags behind just enough so Tony's interminable monologue about how terrible nature is no longer bothers him.

He walks just fast enough to keep Sitwell in sight, ignoring his occasional calls of "keep up, boys!", and breathes deep. Back here, in the quiet, he's able to enjoy his surroundings a little more than he would if he were to keep pace with Sitwell. The air smells different out here than it does in New York, cleaner and sweeter, but somehow with less character. He looks up and sees a house finch perched on a low-hanging branch, the red feathers on its beak and breast a bright spatter against the green. Looking at it reminds him of the Fund, how he was supposed to spend this summer, and he feels his throat grow tight.

"Stupid," he mutters. God only knows what Riley would say if he caught him getting choked up over a bird. But thinking about Riley just makes it worse. The bird looks back at him, its beady black eyes bright and suspicious.

He’s about to keep moving when something catches his eye in the brush beneath the tree. Frowning, he kneels down to get a closer look. It’s a piece of paper, a little tattered and dirty but enough to have been there for long. It looks like some kind of flyer, the sort of thing you’d expect to see stapled to a telephone pole. He wipes off the last bit of dirt on it and reads, in an eye-punishing jumble of fonts and colours:

FIND YOUR REAL TRUE DIRECTION!
THERE IS ANOTHER WAY!
LIVE FREE!
LOVE FREE!
MEET AFTER LIGHTS OUT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE HILL!

Beneath that there’s a date and, on either side, a truly criminal amount of clip art. It’s not the most poorly designed thing he’s ever seen, but it’s close.

Meet who after lights out? And why? Sam scans the paper for signs of an identifier—a name, maybe, or a logo—but all there is, tucked under a picture of a dancing cartoon pencil, are the initials NP.

He hesitates, then folds it carefully and tucks it into his back pocket. It’s probably nothing, probably useless, but what the hell.

“I thought you’d be busy teaching Maria and Natasha how to paint their nails.”

It’s Steve’s voice, coming from somewhere behind him and making him jump. The words aren’t addressed to him, though, he realizes after a second; because of the way he’s kneeling, the combination of brush and low-hanging branches screen him from view. Sam crouches down a little anyway as Steve comes around a bend in the path, panting slightly. His blue shirt is soaked with sweat, his blond hair dark and plastered to his scalp. Asthma, Sam remembers. He has asthma.

“They are both mature young women,” is the reply. Sam somehow isn’t surprised to hear Pierce, or to see him strolling leisurely behind Steve. He looks somehow at home here in his stupid blue suit, a country gentleman in Technicolour. “They can stand to be left alone for a short time. Besides, I needed to talk to you, Steven.”

“Nothing to talk about. Like I said.” Steve shrugs and makes like he’s going to keep on walking, but Pierce stops him short with a hand on his shoulder.

“I want to know,” Pierce says, “why you insist on treating this program like a joke.”

“Because it is,” Steve shoots back. “None of this crap works. Do you honestly think any of us are going to come out of this changed?”

“That’s up to you. You get out of this what you put into it, you know that.”

“Then you should talk to Tony, not me. He was playing Angry Birds all through GST last night.”

“I’m not going to waste my time on Tony,” Pierce replies calmly. Steve blinks, looking taken aback. “You and I both know why he’s here and why he’ll graduate no matter what he does. That’s out of my hands, or it is if we want to stay open another year. He doesn’t stand a chance. You, though—you do.”

“Stand a chance for what?” The fire’s gone out of Steve’s voice; he’s wary now, treading carefully on this unknown terrain.

“Normalcy,” Pierce says. “Marriage. Children. The possibility of a happy life. You could have all of those things, Steve. I believe that your own homosexual tendencies are the product of the company you keep-”

Steve laughs, a short, sharp burst of sound. “And here we are again. It’s Bucky, right? You think I’m here because of Bucky.” He glares up at Pierce, still panting a little, his shoulders squared like he’s waiting for a punch. It should be comical—Steve looks so tiny, so frail—but it’s not.

“I didn’t say that,” Pierce says. “You did.”

“Because that’s what everyone keeps hinting! Like I’m some kind of saint who he tricked into liking guys. He’s the freak and I’m the dupe. It’s bullshit.”

“Language, Steven.” He releases his shoulder. Steve doesn’t move, though; he stands his ground, taut and angry. “Think about it while you’re here. You could turn yourself around, son. Don’t throw that away.”

He smiles, as though they’ve had a perfectly pleasant chat, and turns to walk away. Steve stays in place for a second, his fists clenching and unclenching by his sides. Then he seems to deflate, his shoulders slumping and his face going slack and bleak.

“God,” he mutters, raking a hand through his hair. He leaves in the opposite direction, walking slowly.

Sam waits a good twenty minutes before he follows, carefully pacing himself so their paths won’t cross.

Chapter Text

There’s a banner hanging over the doorway of the Therapy Room. The words WELCOME FAMILIES are traced out on it in pink and blue glitter glue, the two i's dotted with intertwined Mars and Venus symbols. Sam wonders who made it. He'd like to think that it was Sitwell, if only for the mental image.

The extra people in the room make the space too small and too warm, the air thick with the smell of perfume and aftershave and strange bodies. The parents are all damp and wilted from the rain that has been falling steadily since breakfast. Natasha sits by the window between a red-headed woman and a thin, balding man, her arms tightly folded. She looks bored. Catching his gaze, she rolls her eyes, making him stifle a laugh.

Next to him, his mother tugs gently on his hand. "Pay attention, honey," she murmurs, barely moving her lips. Maria is sitting across from them with her father, a tall, stern-looking man with her dark hair and rigid bearing. Pierce is beside them, nodding intently as Mr. Hill speaks. His deep, rough voice is offset by the patter of rain on the roof.

"She was such a tomboy as a kid," he says. "It was good, at first. I was from a family of all boys, I didn't know how to raise a girl. I wanted a son anyway. But then she told me about the gay thing... Maybe if her mother was still alive this wouldn't have happened." He shrugs helplessly. Maria looks straight ahead, expressionless.

“That is certainly a possibility,” Pierce agrees. “You may notice while you’re here that very few of our campers come from intact, dual parent homes. Losing the same-sex parent, through death or divorce, often leads to a misalignment of sex and sexual attraction.”

He turns his attention to Clint, who is wedged between his parents, shifting uncomfortably.

"Harold, Edith," he says. "I understand that you initially began to wonder about your son's orientation when he began high school, is that correct?"

Clint's dad, a blond guy with the thick, solid build of a bull, nods. "He never dated anyone," he says. "Not even when his friends tried to set him up. I figure, a boy that age, doesn't want to date, he's gotta be a fairy, right?"

Pierce frowns. "We don't use language like that here, Mr. Barton," he says warningly.

"No," Steve says, his voice heavy with sarcasm. A thin, fair woman with deep-set eyes is sitting next to him, absently picking lint off of his blue shirt. His mother, Sam thinks; they have the same face, the same strange balance of delicacy and strength, although on Mrs. Rogers they somehow combine to make her look tired and defeated. Steve has probably never looked defeated in his life, even during moments of actual defeat. "That would be homophobic."

"We don’t use that word either,” Pierce says calmly. “It implies that natural feelings of revulsion towards unnatural acts are prejudiced and unfounded. Harold, Clint mentioned that he was a cheerleader. When you discovered this, did you take action?”

“What was he supposed to do, sign him up for football?” Steve asks bitingly. Sam flinches.

“Steve,” his mother says. It’s more of a sigh than an admonishment, but somehow it works on Steve anyway; he ducks his head, suddenly looking guilty.

Clint’s dad scowls. “Didn’t think there was anything I could do,” he replies, defensive. “If the kid’s a fruit the kid’s a fruit, it ain’t my fault.”

Dad,” Clint mutters, reddening, but Harold keeps going.

“His brother, now, that’s a good boy. Loves his sports, loves women, never caused any trouble for either of us. Now if what happened to this one is on us, how’d we turn out a good one the first time around?”

“As a matter of fact, gender identity issues are more common in second sons,” Pierce tells him.  “Your older child has a normal sexual identity as a result of your heightened interest in his development. Younger children are rarely given the same amount of attention, which leads to an increased risk of homosexual tendencies.”

Harold visibly bristles. “You saying I did this?” he demands.

“I’m saying that these children’s problems can universally be traced back to their home life, whether that’s a result of too little interest on behalf of their parents or too much. This is a judgment free zone, Mr. Barton. No one is saying that you need to hold yourself accountable for your son’s identity issues, only that you must help him correct them.” When Clint’s father doesn’t respond, Pierce smiles and looks to Steve.

“Steven,” he says. “You haven’t reported your root yet. Any ideas?”

“No,” Steve says flatly. The look Pierce gives him is one that a teacher might give an intelligent but unruly student. I know you know better, it seems to say, so smarten up.

“You need to think about this,” he tells him. “If you don’t address the underlying cause of your issues-“

“Steve doesn’t have any issues,” Bucky says, cutting Pierce off. He looks more out of place than ever sitting next to his parents, both of whom are well-pressed and clean-cut and the only people Sam has ever been tempted to call “square.” They're even wearing matching khakis and polo shirts. Bucky seems to have gone above and beyond the call of duty with his eyeliner in response to their arrival, smears of kohl extending from his lids to his brow bone. “Steve’s fine.”

“It’s not your turn to speak, James,” Pierce replies, his gaze steady. Bucky glares balefully back at him. “Unless you would like to volunteer an opinion regarding Steven’s root.”

“He doesn’t have an opinion,” Bucky’s father says quickly. The look he shoots Steve is pure venom. “And Steve is not fine, Buck. We’ve talked about this.”

Steve snorts, crossing his arms tightly over his skinny bird chest. “That’s great,” he says. “You think Bucky’s here because of me. My mom thinks I’m here because of Bucky. Have you guys been thinking this since we were in kindergarten or is it a new development?”

Steve,” his mother says again, more vehemently this time. Steve’s head doesn’t go down again, but his mouth shuts firmly and the guilty look returns. Pierce hums, watching them.

“I think I might see what your root is now in any case, Steven,” he says. “It’s a simple case of transference. Raised by a single mother, learning to respond to her as you would a father figure, attributing to her a masculine authority—it’s no wonder you got confused. Your understanding of gender-appropriate behavior is completely skewed.” Steven stiffens, opening his mouth indignantly, but Pierce has already turned away. His eyes come to rest on Sam, bright and shrewd. “Now that your own mother is here, Sam, I think we should discuss your root. Have you had time to think it over?”

Sam has. He finally came up with it that morning in the shower, about five minutes before breakfast.

“I think,” he says, “it might be one of my cousins.”

 Pierce raises an eyebrow. “I see,” he says. “Can you explain?”

He takes a deep breath. This is going to take more creative bullshitting than his last English Lit final.

“Well, my aunt Elaine is a single mom,” he says. “She tried not to work nights, because her daughter—my cousin Lilah—was pretty young, and she didn’t want her to be alone. But then there was a month where she was offered extra money to work from five to midnight. She couldn’t pass that up, but she couldn’t afford to pay a babysitter either. So she called me. I was, what, thirteen? Maybe fourteen.”

He glances at his mother for confirmation. She nods, looking puzzled.

“So for a month I’d go straight from school to her apartment,” he continues. “My aunt would leave, I’d fix Lilah dinner, give her her bath, read her stories and tuck her in. I was basically her mom that whole time. At first it was weird, because I’d never taken care of a kid before, but after a while it started to feel… natural. So I guess that feeling just made me confused, especially as I went through puberty. I had already learned to take on a feminine role in one way. Why not others?” He shrugs, hoping he sounds convincing.

Pierce nods slowly, approvingly. “You were learning to identify with the opposite gender,” he says, “rather than your own. You became so lost in the role of ‘surrogate mother’ that you began to forget your own gender identity in favour of femininity. Well done, Sam. You’ve taken another step in your True Direction!”

He applauds. A few of the parents do too. Sam’s mother is not among them. She looks at him with an expression that seems almost hurt.

“I didn’t know, honey,” she says. She looks at Pierce. “I didn’t know,” she repeats. She sounds very young all of a sudden. “I thought he was just being a good boy.”

"I know what you mean," says the woman sitting next to Bruce. She's got a hand settled possessively on his shoulder; he looks like he would rather be anywhere but here. "When I took Bruce in after his father went to prison I thought at first that he was just really well-behaved. Helping around the house all the time, so careful not to ruin his clothes or his toys..."

"But that fastidiousness was, in fact, an early sign of his unstable gender identity," Pierce supplies. The woman—not his mother, Sam thinks, so she must be the aunt he keeps talking about—nods disconsolately. "Tell me, Bruce, do you remember if those feminine habits were already ingrained prior to your mother's death?"

"I don't know," Bruce mumbles. His eyes are locked on the floor. "I don't remember being any other way."

"But from what your aunt has said, your father was abusive to both you and your mother long before he murdered her," Pierce says. "How much do you think your lack of a positive male role model impacted your sexual development?"

Sam blinks. Murder? he thinks, baffled. The other campers shift in their seats, some of them glancing at one another, eyes wide. Bruce's aunt squeezes his shoulder more tightly. Bruce seems to collapse in on himself, making himself smaller, saying nothing.

“Here’s an idea,” Tony says loudly. He's lounging back in his chair as usual, his legs stretched out in front of him as he takes up as much space as possible. The seats on either side of him are conspicuously empty. “How about we don’t ask the kid about his traumatic childhood, huh? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Tony.” Pierce inclines his head graciously. “Is there something you’d like to say?”

Amazingly, Tony doesn’t respond. His eyes seem darker than usual.

“Perhaps you’d like to talk about your own parents,” Pierce continues. “I understand that you were expecting them. Any theories regarding why they aren’t here now?”

“Maybe they stopped to go antiquing,” Tony replies. But there’s no snap to it, no trace of his usual bratty carelessness.

“As it happens, they left a message on my machine this morning.” Pierce pulls a piece of folded paper from his breast pocket, unfolding it slowly. “They wanted me to pass it on to you. Would you like me to read it out loud?”

Tony gets out of his chair so fast Sam barely sees him move. For a dizzy, exhilarating second he thinks he’s going to do something to Pierce, snatch the paper from his hand, even hit him. Instead he stands frozen in front of his seat for a moment, then turns and escapes into the hallway. As the door of the Therapy Room closes, they all hear the rattle of the screen door slamming open, and the heavy tread of his feet on the floor of the porch.

Pierce shakes his head, his eyes resting on the chair Tony had been sitting in. “A sad illustration of the consequences of denial,” he says. “Tony is not ready to face the feelings that have formed his deviant tendencies, and so he runs from them. I hope the rest of you are braver than that.”

***

Tony is still outside by the time Family Therapy is over, leaning against the porch railing and playing with his phone. The rain has finally stopped, and the world looks pale and clean and worn, like it’s been scrubbed too hard.

Sam comes to stand beside him. He’s careful to keep some space between them, less because of Pierce’s rules and more because Tony looks like he wouldn’t be able to handle being touched right now.

“You alright, man?” he asks, keeping his voice neutral.

Tony doesn’t answer at first, just keeps staring down at the screen in his hand.

“You know, I don’t know what I expected,” he says at last. He sounds like he’s talking to himself. “He wasn’t at the hospital when I was born, didn’t come to the science fair in seventh grade, never showed up to my graduation, blah blah blah. Why would he bother to come to this? It’s not like there’s anything for him to be proud of going on here.”

“Maybe he was just busy,” Steve says, stepping out to join them. He wedges into the space Sam’s left between them, just small enough to fit without quite touching either of them.

Tony shakes his head. “He’s a billionaire, Steve,” he says. “He can pay people to be busy for him.”

A billionaire. It suddenly clicks. “Your dad is that Stark?” Sam says incredulously. Sure, he seems like a rich kid, but that rich? “Like, Stark Industries Stark?”

“Howard Stark,” Tony replies. His smile is more of a grimace. “Genius, entrepreneur, and officially unofficial patron of everything you see before you. Pierce has been in my dad’s pocket from day one.”

Sam remembers what Pierce said to Steve in the woods.You and I both know why he’s here and why he’ll graduate no matter what he does.He can see Steve looking at Tony from the corner of his eye and knows he’s thinking the same. “That explains the phone,” he says. Tony glances down at it and shrugs.

 “Yeah, well. At my intervention Dad basically told me that he doesn’t care what I actually do while I’m here, as long as I graduate. And since his money is what keeps this place up and running, I’ll graduate no matter what.”

“Nice work if you can get it.” Natasha appears as though out of thin air, leaning against the railing on Tony’s right side. He actually jumps, pressing a hand to his chest.

“Jesus, would you make some noise when you walk?” he says. “You’re going to give me a heart attack someday.”

“That’s the plan.” But she nudges his shoulder with her own when she says it, as though to take the edge off.

They all stand there together in silence for a few minutes, watching the last few cars leave. They disappear quickly around the bends in the road.

“You know what the worst part is?” Sam says eventually. It’s a thought that’s been making the back of his mind itch all day, nagging at him as he listened to the parents vent their collective spleens. “It’s that they all mean well. They really think we’re sick, that this is what’s best for us. They’re not even trying to hurt us.”

“Does that matter?” Steve asks, but the usual combative edge is gone from his tone. He just sounds tired. “We’re getting hurt anyway.”

Sam feels the light press of his mother’s hand on his arm from when she said goodbye, whispering, “I love you, Sammy. You can do this.”

“I don’t know,” he replies truthfully. Below them, a car pulls off the road and up the path, laboring through the thick mud. It slows to a grinding halt in front of the house, a blue P.O.S. that doesn’t have “wash me” written in the dust on the back window, but should. Natasha frowns.

“Late arrivals?” she says, but Tony is suddenly standing straight up, his eyes wide. Two people exit the car, a black guy and a white girl, each wearing identical expressions of mingled fondness and exasperation.

“Holy shit,” Tony all but yells. He doesn’t throw himself down the steps and tackle them, but from the tension in his arms Sam guesses that he wants to. “What are you doing here?”

The girl, a little strawberry blonde in sensible heels that are already sinking into the mud, smiles at him. “We heard family therapy was happening today.”

“Are we too late for that?” asks the guy. He’s tall and built, with a firm, wry mouth and cheekbones that are frankly godlike. “Please tell me we’re too late for that.”

“By several hours,” Tony confirms, the heavy, miserable quality gone from his voice. He pushes himself off from the porch and goes to meet them. “You drove all the way out here for that?”

“Actually, we’re here to rescue you,” the guy says.

“Briefly,” the girl amends. “For an hour or two.” She looks up at the three of them on the porch and raises her eyebrows. “Now pretend you have manners and introduce us.”

“Intro- oh. Right.” Tony nods. “Rhodey, Pepper, these are the gays I’ve been texting you about. Sam, Steve, Natasha. Gays, this is Pepper, she can probably kill you with her brain, and this is Rhodey, the owner of this shitty car. They put up with me.”

“We’re his friends,” Rhodey translates. He reaches out to grip Tony’s arm, squeezing gently. “More or less. You mind if we borrow him for a little bit?”

“Only if you don’t keep him,” Sam says. Pepper laughs. “What do you want us to tell Pierce?”

Tony shrugs. “The truth,” he says carelessly, going around to the other side of the car. “Doesn’t matter either way, right?”

Rhodey watches him climb into the driver’s seat, looking long-suffering. “It is my car,” he says, without any apparent rancor. Pepper pats his hand sympathetically.

“We’ll give him ten minutes,” she says. “Then I’ll take the keys.” She smiles again, this time aiming it up at all of them. It’s a good smile, wide and bright, with a touch of iron in it. “It was nice to meet you all. Well, for a given value of ‘meet.’” She waves, then gets into the back of the car, leaving the passenger seat for Rhodey. He gives them a little salute before getting in, and the car peels off down to the road in a spray of muck and rainwater. It hits a fence post on the way, knocking it over with a loud bang that brings the rest of the campers—as well as Pierce and Sitwell—running out to the porch.

“Who was that?” Pierce demands. He looks more frazzled than Sam has ever seen him. “Where is Tony?”

“He just left,” Natasha informs him. Clint, Bucky, Maria, and Bruce crowd up to the railing, craning their necks to watch the rapidly disappearing car.

“Left where? With who?”

Steve grins at him, his thin face all lit up. “With his friends,” he says.

***

Tony doesn’t reappear until after dinner, disheveled, smug, and smelling like fast food. Pierce greets him with a stern look and a forbidding “your father will hear about this, Tony.”

“Like I care,” Tony tells them later. “I got Jack-In-the-Box.”

They’re all quiet and touchy in the wake of Family Therapy, keeping to themselves, avoiding eye contact. Sam is no exception. He wants to find somewhere to be by himself, lick his wounds a little and forget the hurt and puzzled way his mother had said “I thought he was just being a good boy.”

Unfortunately, there are very few places in the True Directions house where anybody can be alone. Bruce is in the dorm, curled up silently on his bed with his face buried in his pillow. Clint and Tony have staked out the porch, while Maria, Natasha, and—weirdly—Bucky are in the Therapy Room, practicing with their flashcards. The dining room and kitchen are locked after hours, and hanging out in the bathroom would just be… weird. Sam pauses outside of Pierce’s office, hearing him speaking in low, even tones. After brief pause Sitwell answers, his own voice lighter and less measured. It doesn’t sound like either of them will be coming out for a while.

Really, if he wants to be alone, he only has one option. Moving quietly, careful not to make any floorboards creak, he goes up the stairs.

No one has ever told him that the second floor is off limits, precisely. But he’s never seen any of the other campers go up there, and knowing that Pierce and Sitwell both sleep there makes the whole thing seem a lot more risky than it otherwise would. They could appear at any minute, find him…

Well, find him quietly sitting and doing nothing, but that’s beside the point.

The upstairs hallway looks nearly identical to the downstairs one, from the colours to the lurid plastic flowers on the side table. Only the pictures are different: instead of vintage illustrations, the walls here are hung with a series of group photographs, each frame fit with a tiny brass plaque bearing a year. Graduating classes, Sam thinks, looking at the one from 1999. The uniforms are identical, the expressions on the small group of teenagers bleak. Pierce stands next to them, his hair redder and his face smoother, but otherwise the same.

Someday he’ll be in a picture up here for some other sad kid to see. It’s a weird thought.

Two of the four doors upstairs lead to Pierce and Sitwell’s respective bedrooms, and the third opens onto a bathroom, small and Spartan. The fourth one is where things get weird.

The room inside is painted in violent shades of red and pink, lit by roughly a thousand tiny lamps. A heavy scent hangs thick in the air, like a cross between cheap potpourri and lighter fluid. Every surface seems to be strewn with plastic rose petals. There are no windows, no furniture, just a huge heart-shaped bed with a red satin coverlet.

And sitting on the bed, looking even smaller than usual because of how massive it is, is Steve, bent over his sketchbook. He looks up, blinking like he just stepped out into the sun.

“Oh,” he says. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Sam echoes, not knowing what else to say. “Sorry, I was just—looking for some place to be alone.”

Steve’s little crooked smile comes and goes in a flash. “So was I,” he says. “I found this on my first day. They never seem to look in here.”

“What is it?” Sam wonders, looking around. If he didn’t know better—or, rather, if he didn’t want to avoid thinking about the gross implications—he would say that this was some kind of honeymoon suite.

“I’m guessing something for the final step,” Steve replies, flipping his sketchbook closed and sitting up a little straighter. “‘Simulated sexual lifestyle,’ remember?” He gestures. “Come in, close the door behind you.”

Sam hesitates, but where else is he going to go up here? It’s not like hanging out in Pierce’s bedroom is somehow more appealing. He shuts the door, suddenly very aware of his hands and not sure what to do with them. That is a big damn bed.

“So,” he begins, but Steve cuts him off.

“I’m sorry for how I’ve been behaving,” he says, his voice direct. “Ignoring you, I mean. The Bucky thing… well, it’s not like you’re the only one who’s ever thought that about us. I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did.”

Sam can’t help but laugh. “Man,” he says, “you really don’t do small talk, do you?”

Steve shrugs. “Go big or go home.”

“Well, I’m sorry for making assumptions.”  Sam hesitates, then thinks fuck it and perches on the edge of the mattress. “You and him, you really never…?”

“Never,” Steve says, so firmly that Sam can’t help but believe him. “He’s my best friend, we've known each other since we were kids. It would be too weird. Besides, I don’t think he even likes guys.”

Sam blinks in surprise. “Seriously? Then why is he here?”

Steve makes a face. “He came out to his parents about an hour after my intervention. Pretty convenient timing, especially since he knew how they’d react. He’s been looking out for me my whole life. I don’t think he could stand the idea of me going somewhere where he couldn’t do that.”

As far as Sam can tell, it’s been the other way around, but what does he know. “So he got himself sent here on purpose?” He shakes his head. “I don’t think I’d be able to do that, no matter how good a friend it was.”

“This isn’t a matter of good,” Steve answers, matter of fact. “It’s a matter of only. Bucky doesn’t have any other friends anymore.”

Which requires no suspension of disbelief whatsoever. “He used to?” Sam asks, noticing the “anymore.”

“In junior high.” Steve nods. “He was really popular back then. Outgoing, always talking and flirting and getting excited about something. Once high school started he just kind of… stopped. I don’t know what happened. I think the arm was part of it—he got in a car accident a few years ago, lost the whole thing—but it started before that. By the end of tenth grade I was the only person he’d talk to most of the time.” His voice is quiet, subdued. “His parents are pretty sure it’s my fault. Like he’d still be that person if he’d never met me. Who knows, maybe they’re right. Maybe-“

“No,” Sam interrupts, because he knows where this kind of thinking goes. He’s been there before with other people, other things—he remembers lying awake and thinking about his father, silently cataloguing the many ways in which he was responsible for his death. “Come on, man, you know that’s not true. All you’ve done is be there for him, right? When nobody else would? That makes it pretty much the opposite of your fault.”

Steve doesn’t reply, but the look he gives Sam is grateful enough to make his face feel hot. He casts his eyes around for something to talk about and lands on the sketchbook. “So what do you draw?”

Steve shrugs. “Nothing in particular. People, places. Mostly faces since I got here.”

“Can I see?”

He hesitates, then opens the sketchbook again and hands it over. Sam leafs through it, taking his time, noting the jagged edges where pages have been torn out. He recognizes some of the faces—Steve’s mom, Bucky, Clint, Natasha, even Sitwell and Pierce—but as many of them are unfamiliar. One girl, a classy-looking brunette with big eyes and a stubborn chin, comes up again and again.

“Is this the girlfriend you were talking about?” he asks.

Sort of girlfriend,” Steve corrects. “Yeah, that’s her. Peggy.” His voice is wistful. “She writes to me sometimes from England. Actually writes, as in sends things through the mail, because she hates email. Mom brought me her latest letter today. She liked her.”

Looking at the drawing, Steve can understand why. There’s a steely glint in her eyes, a firmness to the set of her jaw. She looks like someone you can’t fuck around.

“You’re really good,” he tells him, handing the book back. He means it. “You going to art school after all this?”

“That’s the plan,” Steve agrees wryly. “In five years you’ll see me doing portraits on street corners for two bucks apiece. What about you, are you going pro?”

Sam laughs. “Nope. I mean, I love football, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not all I want to do with my life. I was thinking about becoming a therapist, maybe, or a social worker. Something where I can do some good for people.” He shifts, then frowns as he hears paper crinkle in his back pocket. He reaches into it and pulls out the flyer he found the other day, still folded tight. He forgot it was still there.

“What is it?” Steve asks, his dark eyebrows knitting together.

“Something I found in the woods the other day.” Sam hands it to him, watching his eyes narrow as he reads.

“Whoever made this likes clip art way too much,” he says at last, giving it back. “Do you think it’s real? Or are Pierce and Sitwell trying to catch us breaking a rule?”

“It was half buried when I found it,” Sam says. “I doubt they’d go through the trouble if they were going to throw it in the woods. They’d staple it to the fence, or slip it under our door or something. Besides, I can’t imagine Pierce using Comic Sans.”

“Or Papyrus,” Steve agrees. That smile lights up his face again for a second, and Sam finds himself staring. Weird how one expression can so completely change the way someone looks.

“Boys!” Sitwell’s voice comes up through the floorboards, making them both jump. They must be right over the porch. “GST in ten, wrap up what you’re doing and head back to the dorm.”

Steve nudges him. “You go first,” he says. “I’ll come down in five minutes. Less suspicious that way.”

Sam nods and gets up. He catches one more glimpse of Steve before he shuts the door behind him, his knees pulled up tight to his chest, the lamplight turning his fair hair gold.

***

Steve smells like damp cotton and sweat. He is on top of Sam, one hand reaching down to cup his cheek. Their legs are tangled carelessly together. Sam shivers at the contact, can’t help but lean into it. Steve smiles and strokes gently, his long fingers raising trails of goosebumps along Sam’s cheek.

“Close your eyes,” he whispers, but Sam doesn’t listen; he wants to see this, wants to watch as Steve’s pretty, crooked mouth comes closer and closer, his features blurring together. Their noses brush, and Steve’s lips press against his. Gentle at first, warm and soft, then harder. Sam shudders all over, his hands coming up from his sides and fisting in Steve’s shirt to pull him down closer.

He’s kissed people before, but not like this. Their bodies are lined up together, just their clothes keeping their skin from touching. Sam slides his hands under Steve’s shirt, feeling his heart beat harder and faster. Steve gasps into his mouth and kisses harder, his tongue slipping over Sam’s own. His skin is smooth and slightly cool and Sam can’t stop touching it, can’t keep his hands still as they curl into one another. Steve gasps again, then groans, and the vibrations are electric on Sam’s lips. He can feel him pressing against his thigh.

“Please,” he murmurs, a little wild; he’s not sure what he’s saying, or what he means, but then he feels Steve’s hands on his hips, the slim, deft fingers circling the points of his hipbones, and he nearly sobs with relief.

Steve's hands drift lower, hesitate, and then-

"Jesus Christ!"

Sam jumps up in bed, panting a little. The dorm is silent and dark, the other campers vague lumps under their heavy plastic duvets. He waits a minute, just in case he's woken someone up, but no one moves. His eyes move to Steve's bed like they’ve got a mind of their own, tracing his shape.

"Shit," he mutters, looking away hastily. There's a certain satisfaction in cursing and knowing that no one is awake to reprimand him, but the satisfaction is dimmed by the fact that he just had a dream about kissing Steve, what the fuck. It's not like he hasn't had those kind of dreams before, but they've always been about girls, and they've never really affected him.

Whereas this one is affecting him a little too much.  He hunches over a little, hoping to hide the telltale bulge under the bedcovers.  He wishes he could just go to the bathroom and take a long, cold shower, but the sound of the water would probably wake someone.

Maybe cold air will do just as well.  Getting out of bed, he pulls his letter jacket on over the weird blue pajamas they have to wear and walks to the door as quietly as he can. He can’t stop the hinges from squeaking, but nobody stirs, and he closes it behind him with only a slight click.

The air isn’t exactly cold—the thick, oppressive mugginess of the day has kept up into the night—but Sam is still grateful for the light brush of wind on his face, cooling him down. He walks along the porch, careful to keep his footsteps light.

It’s not that big of a deal, he tells himself firmly. Sex dreams—or makeout dreams, whatever—are perfectly natural.  (He remembers watching a short film in sex ed to that effect once, which may in fact have been titled “Perfectly Natural.”) And so it was about Steve, so what? One of his friends had a dream about making it with Prairie Dawn from Sesame Street once. If that didn’t mean anything, this definitely doesn’t.

“Argh,” he says aloud, because now he’s thinking about it, the slide and press of their bodies, the soft heat of his lips, and thinking about it is the last thing in the world he should be doing. He wishes it was colder out. Leaning back against the porch railing, he closes his eyes and tilts his face into the wind.

When he opens his eyes someone is standing in front of him.

He yelps in surprise, jumping back and slamming noisily into the porch rail hard enough to bruise. It’s Natasha, barefoot and wearing the most ridiculous pink nightgown he’s ever seen.

“Shh!” she hisses, grabbing his arm, but it’s too late: a light has already come on upstairs, and a second later Sitwell is marching towards them, a blue terrycloth bathrobe hanging off his shoulders.

“Well,” he says, coming to a halt in front of them. His voice is weary and resigned. “If either of you have any excuses, get them out of the way now.”

Natasha says nothing, her expression as smooth and blank as a bare wall. Sam tries to think of something to say, something convincingly innocent that will get them both out of trouble, but all he can think of is the dream, and he can feel it on his face.

Sitwell looks from one of them to the other and sighs. “Come on,” he says. “It’s time to wake up Mr. Pierce.”

***

It’s the middle of the night, and nobody should be awake, but somehow news gets around. As Sam stands in the hall outside Pierce’s office, his stomach twisting as he waits for Natasha to emerge, the other campers turn up one by one, sleep-rumpled but alert.

“What happened?” Maria asks him seriously. She’s wearing the same stupid nightgown as Natasha, Barbie pink and more frill than fabric.

Sam shakes his head. He’s still not sure himself. “I don’t know what she was doing,” he replies. “I just got up to get some air-“

“We spend most of the day outside and you needed air in the middle of the night?” Tony says, skepticism evident in his voice.

Steve is kneeling by the door, trying to eavesdrop through the thick oak. The image comes to his head again unbidden, Steve’s face over his, his mouth coming closer and closer. “I was warm,” he mumbles, looking away.

He wouldn’t have noticed the way they shift away from him if he hadn’t been expecting it. As it is, he feels his stomach tighten with dread as they avert their gazes, angle their bodies slightly differently. No one does anything as overt as turning their back to him; they don’t have to. Maria looks at him, her mouth tightening. Before she can say anything, the door swings open. Natasha steps out, looking exhausted. Pierce is right behind her, one hand resting heavily on her shoulder.

“Campers,” he says, his tone grave. “I’m sorry to inform you all that this will be Natasha’s last night with us.”

Maria makes a little strangled noise of protest. Pierce glances at her, but does not stop.

“She knowingly broke an important True Directions rule tonight,” he continues. “I’m talking, of course, about our ban against narcotics of any kind. Natasha has admitted that she smuggled in several packets of cigarettes on her arrival, and has been smoking after hours. Luckily Sam smelled the smoke and went outside to investigate.” Pierce smiles at him. “Well done, Sam.”

Sam swallows, feeling the eyes of the other campers burning like hot coals.

“Now I want all of you back in your beds,” Pierce continues. His hand tightens on Natasha’s shoulder momentarily, then releases. “Natasha, report to me after your wakeup call tomorrow. Your parents will be here before breakfast.”

He turns and disappears up the stairs, Sitwell at his heels. Maria waits until they’re both gone before rounding on Sam, her expression dark.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she demands, low and furious. Sam opens his mouth to defend himself, to explain, but she doesn’t stick around, just pivots and marches back to the girls’ dorm.  Tony looks at him and shakes his head.

“Yeah,” he says. “Not to take sides, or whatever, but. Ditto that.” He, Clint, and Bruce leave, Bruce throwing a reproachful look back over his shoulder at him. Steve and Bucky follow, the former lingering a little in the hallway, his gaze intent and almost puzzled.

“I didn’t do anything!” he yells after them, but nobody responds. He and Natasha stand alone, her copper hair glinting in the dim light.

“What the hell was that?” he hisses, keeping his voice low. He’s already woken up Pierce once tonight; it’s not going to happen again. Natasha raises an eyebrow.

“I just covered your ass, Wilson,” she says coolly. “Want to start by saying thank you?”

“Covered my-“ Sam actually has to cut that sentence off. He’s afraid of where it’s going to go. After taking a minute to breathe, he asks, as calmly as he can, “Do you have any idea how hard you just made my time here?”

“Not as hard as it would be if Pierce knew you were wandering around after lights out for no good reason.” Her green eyes burn into his. “Was he going to meet you, or were you walking off a dream?”

The trail of his fingers down his stomach, the way they hovered over the button of his fly for a long, slow beat. He feels heat rush over his body like a wave and tells himself to stop being ridiculous. She doesn’t know about that. She can’t. He meets her gaze and says evenly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, you do.” Her mouth twitches a little, but it doesn’t seem like she’s laughing at him. If anything, her expression is one of pity. “Maybe no one else notices who you’re looking at, but I do.”

Or maybe she can. Maybe she’s a witch. “It was a dream,” he admits grudgingly. He can’t help but glance over his shoulder, somehow sure that he’s going to see Steve there listening.

Natasha nods. “I thought so. No other reason for you to be up.”

“Not like you, huh?”

“Not like me,” she agrees. She pauses, then adds, “I’m sorry for making things hard for you. But I had to tell Pierce something. This way you won’t get kicked out, too. I hear you guys are going to play paintball next week. I couldn’t let you miss out on that.” She gives him a quick half-smile and turns, heading back to the girls’ dorm.

“Hey, Nat,” he calls. She stops and turns back toward him, shadows striping her face. “Why were you really out there?”

“Ask me no questions,” she replies. Her tone is light, even teasing.

“And you’ll tell me no lies?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Just don’t ask me any questions.”

She disappears down the hall, leaving him to switch off the light.

Chapter Text

Natasha is already gone by the time they file into the dining room for breakfast. They've even taken her chair. Sam starts to set his tray down in his usual spot, but a glare from Maria freezes him in place.

"It's taken," she says. Tony swings his legs up onto it, scuffling his feet so dirt falls off the soles of his shoes and onto the seat. 

Sam raises his eyebrows. "By who?" 

Maria shrugs. “Your pick,” she says. Bruce looks at him with the same kicked-puppy expression from last night. Clint glares blearily at him through the steam rising up from his coffee.

Sam thinks about arguing, but really, what would be the point? He turns, meaning to go sit at Pierce and Sitwell's table—it's clearly where they expect him to end up—when a thin hand on his arm tugs him in the opposite direction.

"Come on," Steve says. Bucky lurks behind him. How he manages to lurk in full fluorescent lighting Sam will never understand. "We have an extra chair."

Breakfast is quiet, punctuated by the occasional whisper from the main table and Steve's pencil scratching softly on paper. He seems to forget that the food is there, taking absent little bites of toast in between lines.  Every few minutes Bucky nudges his plate towards him, a silent reminder. Sam eats mechanically, not tasting anything. He's not used to being disliked. He doesn't enjoy the feeling.

"I didn't rat her out," he says at one point. He's not talking to anyone in particular and doesn’t expect a response, but Steve looks up at him. He looks surprised.

"I know," he replies, sounding puzzled. Like he doesn't know why Sam even bothered to mention it.

After a few days it becomes routine. Sam pairs with Steve during GST, and they work through their flashcards together. The two of them sit with Bucky during group, a chair left conspicuously empty between Sam and Maria. Somehow they end up spending time together during their free hours, too, the three of them sitting out on the hill or the porch together. He wonders occasionally how Bucky feels about this, but he doesn't seem to be glaring at him much more than usual, and Sam figures that, based on what he knows of the guy, if he disapproves he'll let him know sooner rather than later.

He's not sure how Pierce feels about their "unholy trinity," as he overhears Tony calling it one day. He seems to approve of Sam and Steve; he nods at them sometimes, a little, pleased tilt of the head that Sam isn't sure he's supposed to even notice. But he still seems to have it out for Bucky, which means that, by extension, he has it out for Steve, too. Sam gets used to cutting in when their exchanges get too heated (on Steve's part, anyway), carefully redirecting the conversation so no one gets punched. The easiest way is to make Steve laugh.

Sam discovers that he likes to try to make Steve laugh, and that it isn't hard. He's got a trick to brushing the eraser dust off of his sketchbook, an odd flick of the wrist that somehow doesn't seem to interrupt the movement of his pencil at all. He gets annoyed every time Bucky tries to slip him his dessert, but accepts it if it's cherry Jell-O. His handwriting is loopy and distinctive, his printing absurdly messy. He never finishes his carrots. When he is thinking about something his hand drifts up to his mouth, his long fingers brushing a gentle rhythm against his lower lip.

Sam tries not to see the things he sees. He really does.

He doesn't think about the dream that much at all, either. Except sometimes when he's about to fall asleep. Or when he sees Steve crouching down to tie an errant shoelace. Or when he brushes his bangs out of his eyes. Or when the light hits him a certain way and turns him gold. Or when he accidentally smears charcoal along the sharp line of his jaw. Or when his brows knit together as he processes something Sitwell says, or when he draws a slightly deeper breath for an angry retort, or when he ducks his head down bashfully when someone compliments him, or-

Almost never, is his point.

He’s doing really well, when you think about it.

***

It turns out Natasha was right about paintball.

"Okay, boys!" Sitwell shouts. The field behind the house has been set up with wooden barricades, uneven towers of rubber tires, fox holes, and miscellaneous piles of debris for cover. "Three per team, shirts versus skins. In the middle of the field"—he points at a plywood cut-out meant to look like a castle—“is the fortress. Inside the fortress is the flag. In order to win, at least one member of your team has to retrieve the flag and bring it back to Home Base." He indicates a white chalk circle on the grass in front of them. "Three hits mean you're dead. You have five minutes to take cover and strategize; if anyone shoots during those five minutes, they're disqualified. Now, if you want to choose your teams-"

"We already have," Tony says firmly, indicating Clint and Bruce. Sam glances over at Steve and Bucky. Bucky meets his gaze and shrugs. Steve takes a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. 

"We call shirts," he says. The words are barely out of his mouth before Tony's is off and on the ground. Clint's follows a second after; Bruce is more reluctant, peeling out of his button-down slowly, his face reddening. Tony wolf-whistles.

"That's right, Banner, take it off! Take it all off!" he calls. Bruce's blush goes right from his face to the top of his chest.

"That's enough, Tony," Sitwell says wearily. He hands them each a pair of goggles, a gun, and two reloadable cartridges.  They've all seen better days. The shells in the cartridges look softer than the ones he’s seen on TV, their casings looser. "Remember, this is war. This is how boys become men. Show no mercy, take no prisoners, and bring back that flag. The team that wins will get a reward." He waits for them all to settle the goggles onto their faces and then nods. "Head for cover."

The teams retreat. Sam, Steve, and Bucky hide behind one of the wooden barricades, which has been painted—what else—baby blue.

"Okay, so we have to strategize," Steve says, panting a little. The area behind the barricade is small, and his leg is brushing against Sam's. It’s just enough to be distracting. "Any ideas?"

"Shoot them," Bucky suggests, clutching his paintball gun in his good hand.

Steve shakes his head. "We need a little more to go on, Buck, sorry."

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Shoot them in the face?"

"Split up," Sam says. "They'll be expecting us all to stick together. I'll lead them around the perimeter. Bucky, how good is your aim?"

"It's really good," Steve says, sounding proud. "He can get paper into the waste basket from across the room."

Sam's not sure if that particular skill will be that useful in this instance, but what the hell. "Okay, you can cover Steve. Stay high, pick off anyone who gets near him. Steve, you can get the flag. Keep low to the ground, move in short bursts, and only shoot if you have to. Otherwise you'll give yourself awa-" He breaks off, realizing that both boys are staring at him. "What?"

"Nothing." Steve looks like he's fighting a laugh. Bucky emphatically does not. "You played this before?"

Sam shakes his head. "Never."

"So you're just naturally commanding?"

Is he teasing him? Sam looks at him. The corners of his mouth are twitching. He's totally teasing. "Just call me Captain," Sam replies, and is rewarded by a full-on grin.

"Thirty seconds!" Sitwell bellows from home base. Sam grips his gun tighter, settling into a one-handed runner's crouch.

"We all good?" he murmurs. Steve nods, hoisting his gun to his chest. Bucky doesn't respond, but his eyes are already moving, seeking out high spots. "Alright, ready, set-"

"GO!"

Sam bursts out from behind the barricade, zigzagging between the obstacles on the field. A shell hits the top of a tire pile behind him, bursting red and yellow. Another whistles past his ear as he dodges around a pile of old bricks and broken planks. He whoops, feeling adrenaline surge through him. It's like being on the field in the rain, knowing you could go down any minute, not caring. Leaping over a foxhole, he banks a sharp left and doubles back, hearing feet pounding after him. He turns as he runs, chancing a quick look behind him. Bruce is tailing him, his glasses bouncing awkwardly inside the plastic goggles. He has his gun raised up to eye level. Sam fires off a quick shot, hearing it smack wetly into Bruce's chest.

"Sorry, man," he yells, turning again to cut through the middle of the obstacle course. With no shirt on the impact must have been pretty painful.

A sharp sting, and red explodes on his collarbone. He curses, casting his eyes around for the shooter. He doesn't have to search long. Tony is perched on top of one of the barricades.

"That's right!" he yells, waving his gun triumphantly. "That's what you get when you-"

Three shots hit him in the back in quick succession.

"You're out, Tony!" Sitwell yells. Sam can't see Bucky, but nods thankfully in his general direction anyway as he ducks behind one of the tire piles. He catches a glimpse of blue through the obstacles--Steve, crawling close to the ground, halfway to the fortress. Unfortunately, he's not the only one who spots him.

"Clint!" Tony yells, halfway off the field. "He's crawling, look, shoot him!"

"Tony, you can't give advice when you're out," Sitwell says exasperatedly, but he's too late; Clint's head and arm appear at the top of one of the piles of debris, his gun pointed at Steve.

Sam's not sure who shoots first, him or Bucky. His goes wide, but Bucky's gets Clint on the crown of his head, red spattering down his face. He disappears again with a shout, either of pain or frustration, but not before shooting at Sam. It hits him in the stomach, making him hiss with pain.

"These people are begging for a lawsuit," he mutters. He may not have played paintball before, but he's pretty sure you're supposed to have more equipment than a pair of goggles. He edges carefully around one of the barriers, keeping his gun raised high. One more shot and he's dead. He's got to get to the fortress; Steve is probably already there, and he'll need more cover to get back to base.

A shot rings out from somewhere farther in, and he hears Bruce cry out again. "One more, Bruce," Sitwell calls. He heads toward the noise, moving in a half-crouch. Chances are if Banner's out there rather than close to him, he's headed towards the flag as well.

He's almost at the fortress when another shot bursts right over his head, making him duck. Abandoning his stance, he races around the edge of the plywood cutout, hearing more shells spatter against its surface. None hit him.

"YOU WERE IN THE ARCHERY CLUB!" Tony roars in the distance. "GET IN THE GAME, BARTON!"

He collapses behind the fortress, sweaty and breathless. Steve is sitting behind it, clutching the flag in his lap. Sam looks at it and makes a face. It's pink and blue.

"You'd think they'd get sick of the colour scheme sometime," he says. "Where's Bucky?"

"Here." Bucky seems to have mastered Natasha's trick of appearing out of nowhere. He squats next to Steve, resting his weight on his gun. There are two splatters of paint on the front of his shirt. Sam checks Steve. There’s no paint on him at all.

"You didn't get hit?" he asks. Steve shakes his head, resettling his goggles on his nose.

"I had good cover," he says wryly. "Besides, I was too low to the ground. You guys should take the flag to base. I'll stay out here and distract them."

"No," Bucky says, glowering. It's an absolute no.

Steve argues anyway.

"It makes sense," he insists, his jaw set stubbornly. "I know I'm slow, but it'll give you guys time to get back to base."

Bucky says nothing.

"Buck," Steve says, "nobody's hit me yet. I still have three shots left on me. If you two get hit, even once, you're out."

Bucky says nothing.

"You know this is the only way," Steve says. Sam hears a noise in the grass outside the fortress. Someone's getting close. "I can buy you time."

Bucky says nothing.

"I know you're thinking about that time with Kevin Shea," Steve says, nearly dancing in place with impatience. "This is different, okay? I'm not going to break a rib. I'll be fine."

"Out of curiousity," Sam says, genuinely interested, "is he answering you telepathically or have you just had this argument before?"

"Had it before," Bucky says. The ghost of a smile lights on his mouth. Paired with his sweat-drenched hair and the eyeliner smeared down his cheeks, it looks slightly unsettling. "Stubborn punk."

Steve rolls his eyes. "Yeah, I'm stubborn," he growls. "Not like you, you're just-"

Sam sighs. "Okay, so here's the thing," he says. Whoever it is outside is getting closer. Clint or Bruce, he wonders? "You guys can either have this argument for the rest of the day and we can all get shot in the face. Or, if that doesn't sound good to you, you could listen to this plan I have."

They listen. Although Steve requires a little extra convincing.

A few moments later they burst out from behind the fortress: Sam in front, Bucky behind, and Steve perched on Sam's shoulders, clutching his gun with one hand and holding on for dear life with the other. The flag is tied around his shoulders like a cape. They race across the field to the chalk circle in the grass. It's all so familiar: the wind in his face, the burn of his lungs, the goal getting closer and closer.

Having a ninety pound white guy on his shoulders is new, admittedly, but it's not like it's bad.

A shot rings out from behind them, then another. One hits Bucky in the leg, and he goes down with an audible snarl. Sam feels the other one hit Steve, feels his body jolt at the impact, and yells, "Shoot, Rogers!"

Steve twists on his shoulders, turning to loose the rest of the cartridge on Clint and Bruce. Sam's not sure how many hit home, whether Clint and Bruce go down or keep coming after them. All he can see is that white circle in the grass as he takes one final step over it. He sinks to his knees and collapses, Steve tumbling off his shoulders in an undignified heap. He flops back onto the grass, his chest heaving, and begins to laugh.

"Well done, Shirts!" Sitwell calls, jogging up to them. He smiles, then frowns. "Inappropriate touching, guys," he says reprovingly.

It's only then that Sam realizes how close they are, his head resting on Steve's knobbly knees. He scrambles up hurriedly.  Bucky, Bruce, Clint, and Tony are approaching base, all sweaty and splattered with paint. Tony looks sulky, Bruce exhausted, Clint baffled. Bucky isn't smiling any more, but the look he gives Sam is almost approving.

"Not bad," he says, and reaches down to pull Steve to his feet.

***

The prize for the winning team turns out to be their normal clothes, left in neatly folded piles on their beds.

"Some prize," Bucky mutters, picking though his. Still, Sam can't help but notice how quickly he trades his blue shirt for a black one. The others watch them with barely concealed jealousy.

"Could be worse," Steve says philosophically. There are flecks of red and yellow paint speckling his hair. He shakes out a green plaid shirt, turning his back as he strips out of his True Directions button-down. Sam can see bones pressing against his skin, a pale dusting of freckles scattered across his shoulders, purple bruises spilling along his spine where he was hit. He looks quickly away, keeping his eyes trained on his bed.

The three of them go down to dinner in their own clothes, and it's amazing how it makes Sam suddenly feel like a person again. Pierce nods at them as they enter, smiling with what looks like pride. Sam and Bucky move to sit at their table; Steve, however, hesitates, then shakes his head. 

"This is stupid," he says, and turns on his heel. He marches them over to the other table, leaning down just enough so his voice doesn't carry to Pierce and Sitwell.

"You need to let Sam sit with you again," he says. Bucky comes up behind him, a silent shadow.

The muscles in Maria's jaw visibly knot. "No chance," she replies curtly. Bucky's weird looming lo-mortal-I-am-Death routine clearly doesn't bother her. "You know I spent three hours learning how to applique flowers with Pierce today? Do you have any idea how many episodes of Martha Stewart Living he has taped?"

"It's not his fault that Natasha got kicked out," Steve insists, pressing forward. "She lied to cover for him. He didn't report her. It had nothing to do with him."

"Is that so." She looks at Sam, dark brows raised skeptically. "So why were you really out there, Wilson?"

"I told you," Sam replies evenly. "I was getting some air. She startled me on the porch, I made a noise, Sitwell woke up and found us there. Simple as that."

"Why should we believe that?” Tony asks flatly.

Sam shrugs. Maybe he’s still high on adrenaline, maybe off the win from before, but fuck it, he’s too Zen for this shit right now. “Don’t if you want. I don’t care.”

“But I do,” Steve says. His eyes are boring into Maria’s. Neither of them look like they’re backing down any time soon.

It’s Bruce of all people who intervenes. “Guys,” he says. There’s a firmness in his voice that Sam can’t remember ever hearing before. “Steve is right, this is stupid. How long are we going to keep avoiding eye contact and refusing to talk to each other? Let’s just let it go. There’s no need to make this place worse than it is, right?” He pushes Tony’s feet off Sam’s old chair and nudges it forward, giving him a tiny smile.

But Sam shakes his head. “No,” he says slowly, an idea occurring to him. “Let’s push ‘em together.”

It takes Steve a minute to get it. When he does he grins, broad and bright.

“Bucky,” he says, looking over his shoulder. “You okay with that?”

Bucky is silent for another moment, then nods curtly. Clint looks like he’s about to protest, but then shrugs instead.

“I guess Nat wouldn’t want us all to be jackasses to each other,” he says reluctantly. “What the hell.”

“Whatever,” Tony says grumpily, clearly upset about the loss of his foot rest.

They look at Maria, collectively anxious. She looks fierce and unyielding for another moment. Then, almost imperceptibly, her jaw relaxes. Sam sees her eyes flicker over to Pierce’s table for a second.

“Do it,” she says.

Sitwell nearly gets up when he sees Bucky and Sam pushing the tables together, but Pierce stops him with a careful hand on his arm. The two of them watch in silence as the campers sit down to eat together.

“Put that back at the end of the night, boys,” he says at last.

Sam feels like maybe they’ve won.

***

By the time they go into the Therapy Room the next morning Sam’s whole body is on fire, his muscles screaming in protest every time he moves. He’s not used to that much physical activity anymore. The others seem to feel the same way; they move stiffly, and Sam hears Tony hiss in pain as he drops into his chair.

Their seats have been rearranged into two rows of four. At the front of the room is a television on a wheel trolley, the kind of thing Sam remembers from elementary school. It’s even got a VCR. Pierce is standing by it, his hands thrust boyishly into his suit pockets.

“Sweet,” Clint says, perking up considerably as he sits down. “It’s Bill Nye day.”

Pierce chuckles. “I’m afraid not,” he says. “But I think you’ll all be pleased to know that today we’re moving on to Step Four. Which is…?”

“Demystify the opposite sex,” they say, more or less in unison. Sam’s surprised he can remember it. It seems like the Steps have burned themselves into his brain.

“That’s right,” Pierce says. “One of the reasons you’ve all developed such deep-seated problems with your own identities is because you do not understand the role the opposite gender has to play in your lives. Men and women have very different needs, and it’s crucial that you understand that before you begin to operate in the world as heterosexuals. To that end, I’ve decided that we can take a break from our group therapy this morning. This movie is, I think, a good way to start you off on the fourth step.”

He pushes a tape—an actual tape—into the VCR, presses play, and steps back, settling into the back row.

The movie is… well, the best thing that Sam can say about it is that it’s exactly what he was expecting. Black and white, apparently made in the fifties for about three dollars, and featuring a surplus of bouncy girls in poodle skirts. It has some kind of storyline involving a sock hop or a soda fountain or something like that.

“Remember,” Pierce calls to them over the choppy dialogue, “you need to actively participate to benefit from this film. Watch it critically. Apply what we’ve learned in Group so far. What do the women depicted here want? What do the men want?”

“Jobs as extras on the set of Grease,” Tony says behind them.

“Worse,” Clint replies. “Grease 2.”

Pierce frowns at them, and they subside, paying reluctant attention to the screen. The main character, an upright, earnest young man named Jim or John or Joe, has a side part in his fair hair so severe it looks like it was made with a ruler. From what Sam can tell he likes a girl named Mary and has to figure out how to ask her to go out for a malt with him without offending her virtue. Hijinks ensue.

“He looks like you,” Sam whispers to Steve, low enough that no one else can hear.

Steve chuckles, leaning back in his chair. His arm presses against Sam's, cool skin to warm, and a shiver escapes him without his consent. Steve's eyes flick to his for a second, thick, dark lashes shadowing the blue. His hand is resting in his lap; he moves it slowly, inch by inch, until it's crossed over the space between their chairs. It hovers over Sam's for a second, not touching, then covers it. 

"Okay?" he murmurs, his lips barely moving, too low for anyone else to hear. There’s the slightest unsteadiness in his voice.

Sam swallows and inclines his head just a little, enough for him to see and no one else.

“Golly,” Jim-John-Joe says sadly on screen, “I’m really in a pickle now, huh?”

Sam keeps his gaze straight and level, making sure he follows the action with his eyes, but it's just a blur of shade and sound. His muscles are still sore, his bones still aching, but he doesn't feel it anymore, doesn't feel anything but the weight of Steve's fingers over his. 

***

 “Psst. Pssssst, Sam.”

Sam blinks awake, squinting into the unexpected light. Steve is kneeling beside his bed, one hand on his shoulder.

“Wha’?” he says blearily, sitting up. The room is only half dark, with the bedside lights switched on even though the overheads are still off. The others are moving around in that stealthy, guilty, way-too-noisy way that people do when they’re up when they shouldn’t be. “What’s wrong?”

“We’re sneaking out.” Steve’s eyes are shining. He’s not in his pajamas or his True Directions clothes, but a T-shirt and jeans. “Get dressed.”

Sam wakes up in earnest now, remembering the flyer he found in the woods. “NP?” he asks.

Steve nods. “There’s a van waiting at the bottom of the hill. Bucky and I went to see them, asked a few questions. They seem okay.”

“I hope you’re right, Rogers,” Clint says from by his bed. He sounds like he’s still asleep, or at least would like to be. “Otherwise we’re all going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “They’re fine, Clint,” he says impatiently, then looks back at Sam. “You in?”

He says it like he isn’t even really expecting an answer, like he doesn’t think there’s any way Sam won’t be in for this. He finds himself out of bed and on his feet before he knows what’s happening.

“I’m in,” he says. Steve beams.

“Of course you are,” Tony says grumpily, padding over to them. His hair is wild and mussed, his pajama top done up completely wrong. “Rogers, do you have a T-shirt I could borrow?”

Steve raises his eyebrows, looking pointedly at Tony and then down at himself. “It’ll be a little tight.”

Tony raises his right back. “And?”

“Right.” Steve shakes his head and reaches under his bed, pulling out a soft pile of coloured cotton. “Forgot who I was talking to for a second there. Have a look.”

Sam gets dressed, wondering as he does it what exactly he’s getting dressed for. “Where are we going?” he asks over his shoulder as he pulls on a white tee. It’s wrinkled as hell, but it’ll do. He’ll just throw his letter jacket over it to hide the worst of the creases.

“I’m not sure,” is the reply. “We only talked for a second, we didn’t really have enough time to—aw, come on, Tony, not that one, you’re going to stretch it out!”

“You said I could!” Tony says indignantly. Sam grins and reaches for his jeans.

“Hey.” Bruce steps shyly into his field of vision. “Could I borrow from you? I’d wear my TD stuff, but it’s a little, uh, conspicuous.”

Sam’s pants are a little too tight for Bruce, but one of his old button-downs just about fits. He fusses with the collar, glancing anxiously at Sam.

“Does it look okay?” he asks. He’s buttoned it wrong, one side tailing down lower than the other. Sam reaches out to fix it.

“Perfect,” he says. It’s a deep green, a little odd paired with the bright blue of the shorts he still has to wear, but the colour suits him. Bruce nods gratefully. Sam turns just in time to see Steve look at him, a happy, considering little sidelong glance.

It takes them a few more minutes to get ready, all of them intermittently hissing at one another to be quiet. Sam, Steve, and Bruce look just about normal, but Tony’s chosen a shirt that would be small even on Steve, a tight white tank that barely stretches across his chest. Clint is dressed even more outlandishly in various tight black somethings that he clearly borrowed from Bucky. He’s even sporting a ring of eyeliner around each eye, although he seems to have applied it with a steadier hand. Sam would have thought that seeing them dressed the same would make them look alike, but somehow it just throws their differences into sharp relief: the bluntness of Clint’s features and the softness of Bucky’s, Clint’s coarse blonde hair and Bucky’s silky dark locks. Tony surveys them, one hand on his chin.

“The Crow,” he says, pointing to Bucky, then to Clint. “And Taylor Momsen.”

Bucky looks at Tony in the same way, longer and blanker. “Poor man’s Lara Croft,” he replies.

They finally make it out the door, tiptoeing across the porch and down onto the path. Sam’s heart is hammering in his throat the whole time; he remembers the last time he was up at night, how well that ended, and keeps expecting the light in Sitwell’s room to come on again. But nothing moves in the house, no one comes after them, and it takes them no time at all to reach the black van at the bottom of the hill. Maria is waiting for them inside, her face hidden by shadow.

“Took you long enough,” she says as they crowd in around her. She doesn’t have access to any of her civilian clothes, but she’s let her hair hang loose around her shoulders and pulled a black leather jacket on over her pink skirt and blouse. It’s familiar. Sam tries to place it, then remembers.

“That’s Natasha’s!” he says.

Maria shrugs ruefully. “She left it behind,” she says. One hand idly traces the fraying stitches in the right sleeve. “It was the only thing I could find that wasn’t pink.”

“Everybody in?” a gruff voice calls from the driver’s seat. Without waiting for a reply, the engine starts with a throaty roar, and the van pulls away onto the road.

Someone twists around in the passenger’s seat, an older white man with thinning hair and soft, kind eyes. “Quite a group we’ve got tonight,” he says, sounding pleased. “Nice to see you all, kids. I’m Phil, and this is my husband, Nick.”

The driver, a bald black man who seems to be wearing an eye patch, jerks his head in a brief nod. “Took you all long enough,” he says. There’s no real rancor in his voice, though. “We’ve been parking out here for weeks, hoping one of you would work up some nerve.”

“You’ll all need IDs,” Phil says, reaching into his pocket. Flipping through a little stack of plastic cards, he carefully selects seven and passes them back. “They’re not exact matches, but if the doorman asks, just say Nick and Phil brought you. We have an understanding.”

“That understanding being that if they don’t let them in you’ll come to the door and get disappointed at them,” Nick grumbles.

Sam is apparently a thirty year old organ donor named Marvin Partridge. Steve, he sees before passing the cards along, is five foot eleven.

“They know Pierce,” Steve tells Sam, taking his fake ID. He looks at it and makes a face.

Sam frowns. “From True Directions?” They seem too old to have been in any of the pictures he saw on the upper level of the house.

Nick snorts. “Not likely,” he says. “We all worked together once upon a time.”

“Doing what?” Tony asks dubiously. Given the eye patch, Sam can’t really blame him. Maybe they were pirates.

Nick eyeballs him in the rear view mirror. “Doing work,” he replies flatly. “When he found out about Phil and I he got a little… upset.”

“Fired us,” Phil translates. Sam sees one of his hands snake up to Nick’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “The next year, Pierce started the program. After what happened, we knew we had to step in somehow.”

“So you decided to drive to True Directions and park outside in the dark every night,” Maria says flatly.

“We decided that we had to provide you with a balanced perspective,” Nick corrects her. “Maybe you’ll come out of this program thinking that you’re fixed, that you can all marry women—or men, in your case—and live straight lives and be totally fine with it. But that’s not your only option.” He glances at his husband, his expression both irritated and terribly fond. “Your other option is to follow us into the world of clip art and inconsistent fonts.”

“My flyers are masterpieces and you know it,” Phil tells him. His smile is sincere. Sam looks at where his hand still rests on Nick’s shoulder. It’s a simple little gesture. There’s no reason why he can’t look away.

After about ten minutes of driving they pull up in front of a low brick building by the side of the road. Everything about it is brown and dusty-looking but the sign, a neon rainbow arc that flashes off and on in the dark. It’s so garish it takes Sam a few minutes to read the words. When he finally does he groans aloud.

“Seriously?” he says. “The Queen Mary?”

Clint shrugs. “Better that than the Queen Fairy.”

Nick actually turns around in his seat to look at them all now, the neon light from the window reflected in the shiny crown of his head. “Here are the rules. One, you can’t get drunk. You may have a drink, maybe two if you think you can handle it, but I don’t want any of you nursing a hangover in front of Pierce tomorrow.”

“Well, what’s the point of being here at all?” Tony mutters rebelliously.

“Two,” Nick continues, ignoring him, “you stay in the bar unless you’re going outside together. No matter what those IDs say, you’re young and you’re vulnerable. You stick together and keep one another safe. Three, you don’t go home with anyone. We don’t want to drive around the sticks looking for you for the rest of the night because some twink in a tank top decided you looked like you’d be a good time.” His eyes dart back to Tony for a split second. “If you have any problems, you go to the bartender with the blonde hair and tell her to call Nick. We’ll be back in three hours—that’s one A.M. sharp.” He nods at them. Phil beams.

“Have fun!” he calls as they pile out of the car, making their way to the front door.

When they first step inside it seems like every other bar Sam’s been in or seen in the movies: dim, close, a little too loud, the air thick with the smell of sweat and spilled beer. It’s only after they get past the doorman—who barely glances at their IDs, after all, giving them all lazy nods and Tony a frank once-over, which he gleefully returns—that he begins to notice the differences. The butch woman sitting at the bar, her crew cut shot through with grey. The wall above the pool table draped with a dusty rainbow flag. The couples packed onto the dance floor, men grinding against one another in the dark. Sam only lets his eyes linger there for a second before looking away.

“Come on,” Steve says, nearly shouting. He pulls at Sam’s arm, tugging him forward. The others follow suit, and they crowd around the bar together. Sam leans against it, trying to look nonchalant. He’s beginning to wish he left his letter jacket at home; he feels uncomfortably young.

“Shots!” Tony crows, waving at the bartender and dropping a few bills. It’s the blonde girl Nick mentioned—at least, Sam doesn’t see any other blondes in the vicinity. She’s younger than he thought she’d be, barely older than they are. She nods and starts setting out a line of shot glasses on the bar, filling them with something clear. “I need to have at least one drink in me before I dance.”

Bruce looks queasily at his. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he says. “Last time I did shots I kind of… broke someone’s pool house.”

“That,” Tony says, slinging an arm around his shoulders, “sounds like a great story. But it’s one that will have to wait until this song is over, because we are going to dance.” Downing his own shot and then Bruce’s, he pulls him out onto the dance floor. Steve watches them go, smiling crookedly.

“That kid is gonna get in trouble someday,” he says, sounding so world-weary that Sam laughs.

“Do you mean Bruce or Tony?” he asks.

“Bruce,” Steve replies. “I don’t think he’s Tony’s type.”

Maria snorts. “I’m pretty sure Tony’s type is whoever pays attention to him.”

Steve hums in assent, eyes wandering over the dance floor. “Must be nice, though.”

“What must be?” Sam tracks his gaze, trying not to wonder who he’s looking at. If there’s someone in particular he’s thinking of dancing with.

Steve shrugs. “To… I dunno, be someone’s type. I mean, you’ve all got your niches, right? Clint and Bucky, you guys have the goth corner covered, and Bruce is the shy, sweet, nerdy type, and Maria, you’re gold for any girl looking for someone who could wrestle a bear for their honour. Or whatever.”

“Thanks,” Maria says drily

“The only people who’re attracted to me are chickenhawks. Men who go for younger guys,” he explains, seeing Sam’s blank expression. “Not really a market I want to explore.”

 “I’m not really in the goth corner,” Clint says thoughtfully. “I don’t think I’m in a corner at all. I’m, like, in a different room listening to Steely Dan.”

“Steely Dan?” Maria says incredulously. “How old are you?”

“What about me?” Sam asks hurriedly, seeing Clint bristle. He and Maria talked about music in the dining room once, and it ended with both of them on their feet and red in the face. He never wants to see a man get that emotional about the Doobie Brothers again. “Whose type do you think I am?”

And Steve shoots him another one of those sly little sidelong glances, his eyes lit up electric. “You’re everybody’s type,” he says.

Sam’s face floods with heat. He doesn’t know how to respond to that, so instead he just grins goofily and tosses his shot back. It burns in his throat and then his stomach, making him splutter and cough. Steve chuckles and pounds him on the back, then shoots his own and nearly chokes.

“Jesus Christ,” Maria says, shaking her head in disgust. “It’s like watching a baby horse stand up for the first time. Have neither of you ever had vodka before?” She downs hers effortlessly, then passes one each to Clint and Bucky. Bucky looks at his contemplatively, shrugs, and drinks it like water.

“Of course I have,” Steve says indignantly. Even in the dim light, Sam can see that his cheeks are already flushed—from the alcohol or the embarrassment, he’s not sure. “It’s just… harsh, that’s all.”

She rolls her eyes and meets the bartender’s gaze, ordering herself another drink. The blonde complies, lingering over the transaction a little more than necessary. The glance she shoots up at Maria through her lashes is flirtatious, and when she hands over the drink her fingertips brush Maria’s for a second.

“Wow,” Steve says, following the interaction. Maria turns back to the group, looking a little flustered. “You going to do something about that?”

“Naw,” Clint says before she can answer. He’s nursing his shot, taking tiny sips and making a face after each. “You’ve already got your cap set for someone, haven’t you?”

It’s Maria’s turn to flush now. She takes a hearty swig from the glass she’s holding, her free hand tracing the stitches in the leather jacket again. “That’s not your business, Barton,” she replies, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it, and she only gives the bartender a brief look back before turning away.

This is okay, Sam tells himself firmly. He can feel how tense he is, and forces his muscles to relax one by one. The music washes over him, bass thrumming under his rib cage; the alcohol winds through his veins, warm and slow. If he closes his eyes, forgets where he is and who he’s with, it could be any Saturday night with Riley.

Except when he opens them he sees Steve there, his hands thrust in his pockets, nodding along to the beat. His bangs are falling into his eyes; he swipes them away impatiently.

“Excuse me.” All of a sudden his vision if filled with what looks like seven feet of man. Tanned, blond, with an accent he can’t quite place and a wide smile. That smile is aimed directly at Sam now. “Would you like to dance?”

And this—somehow this is a thing Sam hadn’t expected. Going to a bar, drinking, listening to music, those are all things he’s done before, but dancing with another guy? He finds himself looking down at Steve, as if for guidance. Steve looks from the tall guy to him, his dark brows furrowed.

“Sure he would,” he says after a few awkward seconds. He pushes Sam towards the guy, two gentle fingers on his lower back. There’s no real force behind it, but Sam finds himself stumbling a little anyway, nearly falling into the blond giant’s arms. To his credit, the guy just laughs and leads him out as the song changes.

Steve watches them go. Sam doesn’t know what expression he’s wearing.

The new song is something he’s heard on the radio once or twice, a slow one. Sam wishes it wasn’t; if it were a fast song this would be easier to deal with, because that kind of dancing doesn’t involve too much touching. For this he’s basically in the giant’s arms, tucked up against them and hyper aware of where their bodies touch. The man’s hands are on his hips, pulling him close, moving him slightly to the beat. Sam can feel himself tense again and sternly tells himself to chill out.

“Sorry,” he says. Out here the music is even louder, and he has to yell twice as loud to be heard. “I, uh, don’t dance much.”

“Not to worry.” The blond man smiles again. Sam has to tilt his head a little to meet his eye. “What’s your name?”

“Sam,” he replies, and almost loses it when the guy gives his own name in return. Figures that the first man he ever dances with would be named Thor.

This isn’t that different than slow dancing with a girl, really. True, he’s moving around more—all the girls he’s danced with have been happy enough with slowly rotating in a circle—and his hips are definitely more… wiggly than they otherwise would be, but all in all it’s the same kind of thing. The main difference is that he knows that he’s dancing with a man, that he can smell his sweat and his aftershave. He doesn’t know if he should think about it or not.

Behind them, at the bar, Steve downs another shot. Bucky tugs on his arm, whispers in his ear, and they’re coming out to the dance floor, too, leaving Clint and Maria at the bar, they’re curling up close to one another, they—

This is definitely something he shouldn’t think about. He wrenches his eyes away and back to the blond guy’s face.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks. He’s not that far away, but he still has to shout a little. Sam’s not keeping his eyes trained on him well enough, though; he can still see them, Steve stretching up on his tiptoes to whisper something in his ear. Sam remembers Nick and Phil again, the way his hand had come up in the dark.

He could pretend that the burn in his stomach is because of the shot he took. But he knows it’s not.

Fuck it. He knows what he wants, and this isn’t it. He steps gently away from the enormous guy, raising an apologetic hand. “Sorry, man,” he says. “I gotta go.”

He doesn’t wait for a response before turning away, escaping out the door and into the cool night air. Leaning against the bar wall, he feels the smooth leather of his jacket sleeves catch against the rough brick. He breathes deep and slow, hoping the hammering of his heart will slow.

This is okay, he tells himself again, but this time he can’t make himself believe it.

“Okay, what the fuck.” Steve’s in front of him all of a sudden, his arms crossed. He sounds pissed. “I thought we were done with this, Sam.”

“Done with what?”

“You freaking out about Bucky and me.” The flashing light of the bar sign illuminates his scowl in six different colours. “I told you, there’s nothing like that going on between us.”

Sam snorts helplessly, shaking his head. “I promise, man,” he says, “I wasn’t freaking out about you and Bucky.”

“You took one look at us dancing and booked it. We’re not even supposed to be out here alone!”

Steve Rogers of all people telling him about the rules is so ludicrous he starts laughing, quietly at first, then louder and harder, until he feels like he’s close to hyperventilating. “No,” he chokes, and can’t say anything else, just “no, no, no,” over and over again. Maybe this is what hysteria feels like.

Steve’s scowl fades, replaced by a look of puzzlement. “So why are you freaking out?” he asks. “Is it the bar? The guy? Did he-”

“I was doing okay,” Sam interrupts, wheezing a little. Steve’s puzzled look deepens. “I was going to get out clean, you know? But then-” He shakes his head again, feeling his knees start to give out. He fumbles his way to an overturned crate, sitting heavily on it.

They’re both silent for a minute. Steve takes a cautious step forward, his expression complicated.

“Then?” he echoes, and slowly, carefully, lays a hand on his shoulder. It feels heavier than Sam would have expected, warmer, and he can’t stop himself from standing up, stepping forward, cupping Steve’s face and leaning in.

The kiss is cool, soft, and brief. It feels better than anything he’s ever felt in his life.

“Oh, thank God,” Steve whispers fervently when he pulls away, resting his forehead against Sam’s. His eyes are still closed. Sam laughs again, dizzy, high, and swoops back in, covering his mouth hungrily with his own.