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Sam's doing paperwork when aliens come through a rift in space and start attacking New York.

He's working with one of his clients, helping him through the administrative hurdles he'll need to go through to get his new wheelchair covered under Medicaid, when Maureen comes running up to his door, breathless. Sam's smiling before he looks up, thinking that she's still got something to say about the Bulls/Hawks game tonight, but the moment he sees her face, the trash-talk that was on the tip of his tongue dies away.

"What is it?" he asks. A half dozen possibilities flit through his mind – a client has hurt or killed themselves, someone is in the building with a gun, there's a fire and they have to get out, bullshit like that. When he looks back on it later, on his initial reaction, Sam isn't surprised to realize that every scenario he imagined was one in which some action would be required of him, where he could help somehow.

Instead he and Mr. Jackson follow Maureen to the shitty little breakroom and watch on TV as huge swaths of Manhattan are destroyed. After a minute a few more people come in – Lamont, Jack, a couple of their interns, a couple of their clients. They all share terse nods, but no one seems to know what to say.

His jaw tightening, Sam tries to call his mom, but of course the lines are too busy, so he texts her instead. He tries to make low murmured conversation with a few of the others, asking about their friends and families in New York, but he has trouble focusing, and his hands shake until he finally gets a text back: We're fine. Out of harm's way. Watching the television. Love you.

"My mom and dad are okay," he tells the room, as Tony Stark blows up monsters on the TV. It's like something out of a movie. It's hard to believe.

Maureen squeezes his shoulder. "That's good," she says.

"You hear from your brother yet?" Sam asks. He's flipping through the rolodex in his mind, thinking about all his old friends up in Harlem who could've been in the path of the aliens today.

"Yeah," Maureen says. "He posted to Facebook. He wasn't at work today, thank God."

Sam nods. They watch the news coverage for hours, together, watch as the Hulk that smashed up Harlem a year ago takes down one of the giant alien worm-things, watch as building after building is smashed to pieces, watch as rescue workers get the people they can out of the disaster zone. Game time approaches and Maureen doesn't mention it. Neither does Sam. He doesn't even know if they're still going to be playing; it feels like the world has been put on hold.

Suddenly, on the screen, Stark flies what looks like a nuclear missile into the giant black hole in the sky, and a minute later all the aliens collapse like their strings have been cut.

"Is it over?" Lamont asks. No one answers him.

"I gotta go to New York," Sam says. "I gotta go and help somehow."

Maureen shakes her head. "You're going to be needed here. Your clients are going to need you, after today."

Sam grimaces, then nods. The phones are still overloaded, but he's texting with a few of his guys and gals, letting them know he's here if they need him.

But his hands itch to help in a more direct way. He makes himself take a breath.

On the TV, more and more people are finally escaping from the broken wreck of Manhattan and giving interviews to the news reporters. One of them has a banged-up shield in his hand and is wearing what looks like a Captain America costume.

"Are you serious?" Sam says, staring in disbelief. The guy is definitely built, and he even looks like Captain America, but it's pretty disrespectful.

The news anchor interviews him.

"No," the guy says, obviously exhausted, obviously injured. "I'm Steve Rogers. I was frozen in the Arctic. Woke up last week. Hell of a world to wake up to."

"What?" Jack says.

"That's – that can't be true," Maureen says, chewing her lip. Sam stares at the guy on screen. If nothing else, he's a dead ringer for the original Steve Rogers, and Sam should know; he had a Howling Commandos poster up in his room until he was sixteen.

"We managed to win, yeah," the Steve Rogers ringer on TV is saying. "But the loss to New York is catastrophic. The people, their homes – this is devastating."

It sounds exactly like something Steve Rogers would've said in the comics. The guy excuses himself then, and before the reporter can start asking any of the eight hundred questions she must have – like what do you mean frozen in the Arctic and what the fuck are these things anyway – he's running off to help pull some debris off of someone who's trapped. He lifts an entire slab of concrete with one hand while the TV camera zooms blurrily in on him.

"Shit, you think that's really Steve Rogers?" Lamont asks.

Sam opens his mouth, but can't think of what to say, so he closes it again.

"Bet that guy's going to need some counseling," Maureen says.

*

Over the next few weeks it's all anyone talks about, on the street, in Sam's neighborhood, at work, on the news. Tony Stark does all the talk shows, and though he dances very delicately around some of the Avengers' identities, he is willing to talk about Thor and Captain America, both of whom are apparently real. Of course plenty of people are talking about conspiracies and coverups and actors hired to play superheroes, but Sam can't stop thinking about the moment when, dirty and exhausted and sporting what looked like a gut wound, Steve Rogers had run to help someone else. It's damn fine acting, if acting's what it is.

They talk about him around the office a lot, like a joke: how are we going to get someone to process his ridiculous back pay if he was listed as MIA, is he eligible for free college tuition and loans under the terms of the old GI bill, things like that. Sometimes Sam and Maureen play a game, what they'd do if Steve Rogers walked in the door today.

"He woke up from World War Two into – into now, the modern era, talk about culture shock coming home. Then a week later he's defending his home city against an alien invasion," Maureen says. "That dude should be talking to someone."

"I think SHIELD's keeping him locked up pretty tight," Sam says. "Hope to God they got good counselors there. Or any counselors. Who the hell knows what SHIELD does."

"Right? But that's why I wish we could get our hands on him," Maureen says. Sam winks at her.

"We all know you'd love to get your hands on him, Maureen," he grins, and she punches him in the arm. Maureen's punches are no joke; Sam winces.

"You know what I mean. And he's that type, right, all the biographies and stuff say it. Has to do everything himself, wouldn't burden others."

Sam nods. He's been reading a biography of Rogers lately, one that they reprinted and stuck on the front shelves of all the bookstores after the Battle of New York.

"Plus he's like the old-timers, grew up with that idea of masculinity," Sam says. "Probably doesn't know much about what counseling is or how it could help."

"Yeah, exactly. So it'd be like one of the really cagey ones, you know? The ones that need an excuse to stay and chat."

Sam doesn't miss the sly look that Maureen shoots his way when she says this, and he chuckles ruefully. It's true enough that he was that guy, a few years ago, just after Riley had died and he got back stateside. Back then the whole world had seemed strange and uncomfortable, like an old suit that didn't fit anymore. Maureen had seen him through that, and he even remembers how she did it.

"Oh, your old 'come hang out and make me look good in front of the boss' line, huh? You'd throw that at Captain America?"

"Worked on you. Works on all you self-sacrificing extroverts."

Sam's trying not to grin at this comparison, so he scowls at her instead. "Shut up it worked on me. Only because I had no idea at the time that you ran this joint."

"And don't act like you don't steal that technique yourself," Maureen laughs. "I heard you telling some guy he could come by the VA and keep a bored ex-PJ company, how he'd really be doing you a favor."

Sam sighs and looks down at his coffee cup. "You see Rogers on the Today Show?" It'd been Rogers' first real media appearance, not counting the interview he did with the New York Times.

"Yeah," Maureen says. "Charming motherfucker."

"He knows how to handle himself under questioning, that's for sure."

"You'd have to find a point of commonality. Make him feel empathy and trust before you could get deeper."

Sam raises his eyebrows. "Sometimes you really do sound like an interrogator," he says. Maureen's not Army Intelligence anymore, but she still has the biceps, the quick mind, and the grimly practical worldview that came with the job. Sam has no doubt that if aliens marched in here tomorrow, she'd have the counselors and staff organized into a fighting force in no time flat.

She shrugs. "Technique's the same. The goals are different, though. Plus there's that other thing, what's it called, informed consent."

"Oh, right, that," Sam says.

*

He goes on thinking about it, though, what he'd say to Steve Rogers if he ever met him, what the best method to forge trust might be. He doesn't always talk to Maureen about it, though; after a certain point, it's clear even to Sam that he's projecting, seeing something in Rogers that he's struggled with in himself. The man out of time, the man who wakes up in a different world, the man thrust from one war to another.

The man who lost his best friend to a fall.

It actually would've been nice, Sam thinks, to come home from war and discover that seventy years had passed; at least that would've explained why he felt like his parents were strangers and his neighborhood was a movie set, like nothing was stable or permanent or safe.

He talks to his own counselor about it, eventually, because he's not stupid, and because his nightmares about Riley have been coming back a little.

"I think it's pretty natural to fantasize about wanting to help other people," Alex says. "Especially if you see a person who's suffering through something you yourself have suffered through."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, "but I don't even know if he's suffering. Am I just making up trauma for someone else to suit my hero fantasies where I get to save them?"

Alex doesn't say anything, just lets that idea sit in the air between them a minute before speaking again. "We should talk more about why you see counseling somebody as saving them, or even fixing them."

Sam sighs. "I know. I know. I've been working on it."

"Maybe that's what your homework will be about this week," Alex chuckles, and Sam buries his face in his hands.

*

Part of Sam's therapy homework is to write down what he feels he has in common with Steve Rogers, and what he thinks is different about them. Sam sits down with good intentions, and has plenty of stuff in mind for both columns, but all he ends up writing is two words: savior complex.

When Alex sees that, Sam ends up on the receiving end of a far too knowing look.

"Thought I'd cut to the chase," he says, shrugging.

"I think that's plenty to start with," Alex sighs.

*

Rogers gets more comfortable in the modern world, becomes more of a fixture on Sam's television and in D.C. in general. He does The View, and The Daily Show, and, after repeated on-air callouts, threats, and downright pleas, he does The Colbert Report too, laughing and consenting to pick Stephen Colbert up with one hand. Colbert doesn't look too bad in the Captain America suit, actually. Sam watches them all, and he keeps thinking about it. Superhero counseling.

*

"Iron Man," Maureen says, and they all groan.

"Tony Stark's been in counseling eight hundred times in his life," Lamont complains. "Remember, he got that one therapist pregnant?"

Jack frowns. "I think that was just in the tabloids," he says.

"He hasn't been to veterans' counseling, I bet," Maureen points out, gesturing with her coffee cup to add emphasis. "Nobody thinks of him that way. Probably not even his current therapist, whoever that poor bastard is."

"Okay, okay," Jack says. "Here's my bet: you can't start with empathy."

Sam shakes his head. "You mean, you don't think he'd accept it if you tried to put yourself on his level. Man, that's exactly what you'd have to do for him to listen to you."

Lamont counts off points on his fingers. "Don't claim to know how he feels. Prove your expertise. Give him an incentive to come in."

"How you gonna prove your expertise? Guy like that doesn't believe anyone who isn't in his trusted circle. So who . . . " Sam trails off, thinking about it.

"You get Colonel Rhodes to convince him," Lamont agrees, picking up the thought. Jack and Maureen nod.

Maureen grins at them. "So, okay: how do you get Colonel Rhodes to come in?"

It's just a game, a way for them all to talk about the different types of clients they work with and their different needs. It's fun, actually, and Maureen is almost always the one who starts it, which probably means she thinks it's a useful exercise; Maureen isn't into games that don't have a purpose.

If Sam always sits up a little straighter when she says "Captain America," always thinks about those two lonely words on his therapy homework - savior complex - then that's his mess to sort through.

*

The first time the guy blows past him, Sam doesn't immediately assume that he's the supersoldier and living legend Steve Rogers. He assumes he's some dick doing sprints so he can pass the other joggers, and that Sam will probably catch up to him in ten minutes, winded and shuffling along.

Despite his doubts about the guy's personality, Sam doesn't miss his broad shoulders, his ass, his arms. His t-shirt is way too tight, and Sam grins to himself; if the guy insists on showing off like that, he's going to get friction burns. But Sam appreciates the view anyhow.

Ten minutes later, Sam hasn't caught up to him; instead, he hears another grunted – but not really winded - "on your left" as the guy passes him again. The breeze of his passing fans Sam's face pleasantly. The guy even smells good. After sprinting for, possibly, miles. Sam scowls.

"Uh huh, on my left, got it," he calls out, only half hoping that the guy will hear him. He keeps to his usual pace, though, and wonders. Maybe the guy's messing with him, taking a shortcut to loop back around. Or maybe he's really running that fast for that long, and if so . . .

The third "on your left" comes early enough that Sam can glance at the guy's face while he runs by, and, yup. That's Steve Rogers. Captain America. Running laps around him.

"Oh, come on!" Sam yells, unable to help himself. And he's sure, just for a second, that he hears Rogers laugh as he runs past him. The possibility that Sam hadn't considered – that the guy is both Captain America and an utter dick who's messing with him – seems suddenly plausible. Sam's own laugh is lost in the huff of his breath as he throws himself into a sprint.

The sprint lasts, like, five feet. Captain America turns back and takes pity on him, introducing himself.

Asshole probably doesn't even get friction burns, Sam thinks.

They talk a bit – the guy is absurdly smooth, easy to talk to without giving much away – and Sam knows he messes up when he asks about the defrosting. A polite answer, a warm smile, and Rogers is turning away, his shoulder already angling towards his escape route in a move that Sam's seen from plenty of other soldiers.

Sam knows he only has one shot at this, that whatever comes out of his mouth next will determine whether or not he ever sees this guy again. And Sam desperately wants to see him again – to talk to him, to counsel him, to make friends, Sam's not even sure. He hears Maureen in his head saying Steve Rogers, prompting him in their game, and Sam thinks about his usual answer - emphathize, demonstrate knowledge without sounding academic, give him something practical and tangible to talk about - and takes a step forward, and speaks. What he has in mind isn't a lock, but it's his best guess.

"It's your bed, right?"

It works: Rogers turns back toward him and a puzzled little crinkle appears between his eyebrows. Sam doesn't think he's puzzled by what Sam means; he thinks Rogers is puzzled by Sam himself, that he would possess this insight.

Good. A man like Steve Rogers, Sam figures he likes a puzzle.

Rogers looks Sam up and down again, and Sam keeps talking: funny, easygoing, approachable, talking about a practical problem, a non-emotional discomfort that a lot of soldiers feel when they come back from combat zones.

"Like sleeping on a marshmallow," Steve says, grinning, nodding. There's a flash of self-depreciating humor there that Sam wants to see more of.

As their conversation ends and Steve starts to go, Sam throws out a version of Maureen's old line, saying that Steve can come in and make him look awesome in front of the girl at the front desk. Steve agrees graciously, in the polite way that people have when they have no intention at all of actually doing it.

At least this'll make a good story, Sam thinks, but then when he gets in to work that day he finds that he doesn't want to tell anyone about it. It's not like Steve's his client; Sam doesn't owe him confidentiality and he doubts that Steve would expect it. But it doesn't seem right, somehow, to discuss it with everyone around the office, even though they often help each other post-game their sessions when they're having trouble.

Instead Sam catches up on his phone messages and emails, puts some paperwork through, gives Maureen shit about the Hawks' most recent humiliation, and doesn't tell anybody that he asked Captain America to drop by.

*

"Okay," Sam says to Alex that evening, "so you're gonna think I'm a stalker or something, but hear me out."

Alex's eyebrows go up. "Okay?"

"I met Ca – I met Steve Rogers this morning."

Alex laughs. "Really."

Sam tells the whole story, and Alex nods and smiles along.

"So what do you want from him?" Alex asks eventually.

Sam looks down. "I don't know. I thought – you know, it was just a game we played." Alex nods for him to continue. "But then you – then I meet the guy, and he really is just like other soldiers, maybe feeling isolated or lost or sad. And I want to help him. Get to know him."

"Do you think you're still projecting your need for help onto him?"

Sam takes a deep breath. "Probably. But if we have shared experiences, if what I'm feeling is genuine empathy too . . . " he trails off. There's a little silence. Alex is good at letting Sam collect his thoughts when he needs to. Sam went through a bunch of therapists before he found Alex. "He's a pretty cool guy, actually," Sam says, out of nowhere.

"Good-looking, too," Alex puts in, because Sam can't get away with a single damn thing. He laughs.

"Yeah," Sam agrees. "You're not wrong."

"We've talked before about your regrets. Specifically, about regretting never telling Riley how you felt about him."

"If I could change one thing in my whole life, it'd be that," Sam agrees. "Riley didn't look anything like Steve, though."

"I dunno, those white boys all look alike to me," Alex grins. It's just right, just the release Sam needs to be able to get through this topic. He laughs, and feels some of the tension drain away.

"It's – it's all tangled up in my head, I guess. With my issues, and my work, and my regrets about Riley, it's hard to know how I could ever . . . meet someone, anyone, and see them for who they are. I feel like there's this screen between me and the world, you know?"

"A lot of counselors and therapists feel that way. I know I've experienced that."

"What did you do?"

"I'd like to say that I worked on it and was gentle and forgiving with myself," Alex sighs.

"But?"

"I blamed other people for the distance I had put between us. Not recommended. Do you think the screen is because of the work you do as a counselor?"

"Yeah. Like – it's not that I'm not honest, but I feel like I'm always watching any conversation I have. Even when it's with my mom."

Alex takes a moment to think about that. "It's been a while since we talked about your decision not to be out at work. Is that a factor?"

"Like, does it make me feel like I'm watching what I say?"

Alex nods.

"Yeah, I guess so," Sam sighs. "Some people at work know. Just not everyone. It's not a factor right now, anyway."

Alex shrugs. "You don't feel like you're bi if you're not dating a man at the time?"

"I'm not dating anyone," Sam protests, but he knows it's stupid. "I know what you mean, I know. But I worry about losing my clients' trust."

"That's understandable. But we're getting off track. Putting aside your reasons for not being out, I want to know how not being out makes you feel."

"Tired, I guess. Anxious. But I don't think having to come out to every new client would be any less work."

"Probably not." Alex waits.

Sam tries to get his thoughts together.

*

To Sam's surprise, Steve does drop by the next day. Sam wonders if there was some impetus that drove him to come, something that happened between then and now. Sam watches him kicking around awkwardly in the hallway while they finish up a group session. He doesn't run out to see him when the meeting ends, though; there are a bunch of people who want to talk to him after and Sam's not gonna leave them hanging just because he wants to go see his new celebrity client. Celebrity friend? Sam's not sure.

Steve keeps waiting, though, without giving a sign of impatience. His smile, when Sam does approach him, is so beautiful that Sam almost winces. It would be so easy to fall in love with that smile, with the image of himself that Steve projects.

Sam reminds himself that he's a professional, and tidies up the brochures while Steve starts a conversation.

"Caught the last few minutes. That was pretty intense."

"Yeah, brother," Sam says. "We all got the same problems. Guilt. Regret." Steve's earnest attention is so powerful that Sam has to look away for a moment, gather his thoughts, before he can go on.

They talk for a while about their military service; or, at least, Steve asks him a lot of questions about his while clearly keeping his own feelings locked away behind his teeth. Sam tries to be as open as he would be with anyone, to tell his story the same way he has a hundred times in the past, but telling Steve about Riley falling from a height still makes him feel strange, unsteady. He feels himself crossing his arms defensively, and can't bring himself to stop.

"It's like I was up there just to watch," Sam says, and hopes he isn't imagining the sudden shock of empathy in Steve's eyes.

Pushing on, because Steve seems to need it, Sam asks him the same thing he asks a lot of vets.

"What makes you happy?"

The self-deprecating smile comes back, Steve's expression rueful and honest as he says that he doesn't know. Sam grins.

"You're not the only one, don't worry about it. I got a lot of clients who can't answer that question."

This catches Steve's attention, the same way Sam caught it when he asked Steve about his bed, and Sam wonders exactly how brilliant you have to be to take down dozens of HYDRA bases with nothing but a band of guerrilla fighters and a dream.

"Am I your client, Sam?" he asks, sharp-eyed, clearly trying to figure out where Sam fits. Sam wishes he knew that himself, but he stays calm and gives a professional answer.

"You could be, if you want to be. We'd have to get you into the system first." He shrugs, trying to make it clear that it's Steve's decision.

"I have a counselor. SHIELD set me up with one a couple years ago."

"How's that going for you?"

Steve sighs, but doesn't lose the little smile on his face, the self-deprecating one that Sam saw the first time they spoke. "Okay. I don't know. Sometimes I think it's helping."

"Well, we can do other stuff, too. If you want to try group counseling, like what you just saw. Some guys, that makes a big difference. It did for me."

Nodding, Steve looks suddenly interested, eyes going bright and attentive. It's something, to be on the receiving end of that gaze. "You – did you . . . I don't know. Get better?" He winces as he says it, like he already knows from whatever counseling he's had that it's not the right way to say it, but also like he can't help wishing for it, still.

Sam smiles softly, aching for this guy. "You mean, does this feeling go away?"

Steve's quick nod is painfully eager.

"I wish I could say yes. But nah, man, it sticks around. It sticks around a long time. Gets a lot quieter if you deal with it, though."

"Guess I shouldn't expect easy answers," Steve says, sticking his hands in his pockets. The gesture looks weird on him, looks . . . small, in a way Sam can't quite put his finger on, until he remembers that this dude used to be five foot two and ninety pounds. It's like some part of Steve still remembers being able to hunch his shoulders and disappear.

It's the first time Sam's seen him look that way, like a kid from Brooklyn with no idea what he's doing, rather than the smooth sweet-talking supersoldier who's appeared on all the talk shows. It's striking, and it knocks Sam off guard.

He didn't practice talking to little vulnerable Steve Rogers; in the games with Maureen and the others, it'd always been Captain America.

It draws Sam in, makes him take a step forward and put his hand on Steve's shoulder gently. Steve doesn't pull away, so Sam squeezes once before letting go.

"We're all where you are," Sam says, taking a risk. "All working through it. You're not alone."

Steve's eyes meet his, and a corner of his mouth tilts up. "I appreciate that, Sam," he says. Sam tries not to let his mind linger on the way Steve says his name, the way it sounds in his mouth.

He clears his throat and steps back again. Steve's gaze dips down to Sam's feet and then back up to his face, sizing him up.

"You know," Steve says, slowly, "the girl at the front desk didn't seem to care that I was here."

"What's that?"

"The girl at the front desk. Dorothea. I stopped and talked with her a bit. You said I should come here to impress her for you."

"Oh, right."

"She wasn't impressed."

"Sorry?"

"She wasn't impressed by me." Steve cocks his head thoughtfully. "That's just something you used to get me here, isn't it?"

Sam shrugs, figuring honestly is probably the best policy at this stage. "It's possible," he allows.

Steve's smile, surprisingly, widens. "Use that line on a lot of soldiers?"

"Just the ones with the savior complex." Sam can't help his answering smile.

Steve huffs a laugh. "Well, you're lucky the other ones don't realize that the girl at the front desk is a former Marine who's married to another girl who's also a former Marine and wouldn't look at me twice if I walked in with my shirt off."

"I think even Dorothea would look twice if you walked in with your shirt off," Sam demurs, heroically not dropping his gaze to Steve's chest.

Steve nods, smiling, and he reminds Sam suddenly of Alex: not in appearance or demeanor or personality, but just in the sheer ability to look right through Sam's defenses.

"Can I buy you dinner, Sam?" Steve asks. His voice is low, kind of intense, and Sam thinks – it's hard to tell, with Steve, but Sam thinks it's a romantic invitation.

Unless he's just projecting again.

Sam freezes, caught between his deep desire to say yes and a swelling sense of dread that rises through his body. He wants, so badly, to close the distance between them again, to get into Steve's personal space and accept his invitation and see where it goes, but the idea is terrifying too. His heart beats loud in his throat.

When he speaks, it's the dread that speaks for him. "Man, I would love to, but I can't. I got an appointment. Maybe another time?"

Steve nods and ducks his head, taking a step back from Sam. Increasing the distance between them. "Sure," he says, looking up to make eye contact again. "Another time." He offers his hand, and Sam shakes it, relishing the warm, soft feeling of Steve's skin against his.

Sam watches him go, not sure which apparent fact is more shocking: that Captain America – or, Steve Rogers, that is – might've just asked him out, or that he just said no.

He wonders if Alex will be proud of him or annoyed with him for it.

*

The next time Sam sees Steve, he's on Sam's doorstep and on the run from a corrupt international military organization, so the direction of their conversation takes a turn.

Before, it'd been about Steve coming towards Sam, seeking him out, maybe even asking for help. It'd been Steve lingering outside the door to the group therapy session, waiting to talk to Sam.

Now, with his Falcon program file in hand, Sam's the one chasing after Steve, asking for a way in. If this is going to be like New York again, if there are going to be peoples' lives at risk, if there's any way that Sam can help . . .

Well. He'd like to think that there's some way he could help these two amazing superheroes. Beyond just cooking breakfast.

Steve and Natasha read his file; both of them are obviously impressed, eyebrows raised, looking Sam over again with this new knowledge in mind. Sam lets himself breathe out, relieved that they might see something valuable in him.

Sam tells them about the wings, and about the security measures guarding them, which he knows offhand because – for whatever reason he hadn't let himself look at too closely – it'd felt important for him to know where his wings went to. They've been locked up in storage, a part of his life that he thought was over, but he'd still wanted to know where they were.

Neither Steve nor Natasha seems to think it'll be hard to break them free again.

*

"You're quick," Natasha says, approvingly, as they climb, crawl, and dodge to avoid cameras and guards. They're coming up on the inner section of the facility, which is going to be tougher, but they haven't been spotted yet.

"Thanks," Sam says, when he can spare the breath to say it.

"You're breathing a little hard, though," Steve puts in, glancing at Sam with a sly grin on his face. "Need a break?"

"God, Captain America is such an asshole," Sam grits out, as they wait for a camera to move. Even as he says it, though, he feels himself flushing a little, skin getting hot in response to Steve's attention on him. Steve laughs softly, like there's nothing that could've pleased him more than Sam giving it as good as he gets it.

"Right?" Natasha says, grinning brightly. "No one ever believes me."

"I just expect a lot out of a war hero like Sam here," Steve says, and it's both a tease and a truth, so utterly, completely earnest that it damn near knocks Sam down.

Natasha pats his shoulder twice, gently, like maybe she knows what he's going through. "Let's see what you got, hero," she says, and counts them down. "Three, two, one."

They move together in perfect synch, Natasha first, then Sam, with Steve bringing up the rear, and manage to get into position to avoid security. Natasha messes with the card reader and number keypad until the light beside the door flashes green and the lock pops open audibly.

A few minutes later, they're past a couple more doors, within range of their target, and just about ready to declare victory when suddenly, they're spotted.

"Stop right there!" The private has a gun on them, and is already jogging over.

Steve and Natasha shift subtly into defensive positions, though Sam knows they're both as hesitant as he is to have to physically attack a soldier who probably has nothing to do with HYDRA or SHIELD at all. Sam takes a chance, and lets his body do the opposite of what theirs are doing: he squares his shoulders, and opens his arms, and smiles.

"Private Owens, thank God. We were told to look for you. This place is a maze." Sam indicates the endless steel shelving holding probably hundreds of dangerous experimental weapons technologies. Sam just wants his damn wings.

"IDs, now," Owens barks, not flinching or moving an inch. Good kid.

"Whoa, of course, no problem," Sam says, and reaches – slowly – into his inside coat pocket, where he's currently storing a punch card for the sandwich place near his house. He searches his memory for the names on the front pockets of the guards they'd passed, and remembers one who was about the same age as this guy. "Your buddy Jenkins said he was going to radio you that we were coming through. We're on the list. Master Sergeant Sam Wilson."

Owens' hands relax just a little on the gun. "I didn't get that information. Sergeant." The rank is like an afterthought, but it's something that the kid said it.

Natasha, who had her phone in her hand when they got caught, does something with her thumb without even looking at the screen, and all of a sudden Owens' radio starts blaring static. He jumps, just a little, and the distraction is enough for Sam to take his gun, and for Steve to get hold of him before he can go for another weapon or the radio.

"Sorry about this," Steve apologizes. "We're in kind of a hurry."

"Nice work," Natasha says, and Sam breathes out, feeling shaky from the adrenaline. It's been a long time since he's done anything like this.

They get Owens immobilized and situated where he's likely to be comfortable and unlikely to be found too soon, and then it's short work to liberate Sam's wings from their wooden crate. Sam straps them on immediately.

"Hurry it up, Sam, they're gonna get suspicious soon," Natasha warns, listening to Owens' radio.

"Help me with these last two straps, will you?" Sam asks, and Steve moves unhesitatingly into his personal space and puts his hands on Sam's body, pulling tight the last two safety straps.

"Look good on you," Steve says, softly, and Sam looks up sharply, but Steve's expression is guileless. He's handing Sam his goggles.

"Thanks, man," Sam says, a beat too late.

On their way out, they have to dodge a little gunfire, and Sam has to grab Natasha's wrists to give her a lift over the fences, and Steve, on his own on the ground, has to do a series of amazing ninja flips in order to overcome all the obstacles and personnel in his path. It's odd, watching him perform those feats of strength and agility in the clothes Sam lent him, regular people clothes; even though he'd done impressive things in New York that had been caught on camera, when he did them in the Captain America suit they'd seemed . . . appropriate. Inhuman.

When he's wearing khakis and a t-shirt, Steve's athleticism is suddenly a lot more real. Like Captain America really is just made of bones and blood and sinew like the rest of them, throwing his body forward the best he can.

Sam and Natasha land to meet Steve, once they're out of range of the guards, and this time even Steve's a little out of breath.

"Good warmup," he says, nodding at them both approvingly. "Now we go after Sitwell."

He turns and starts marching back to where they left the car, Natasha at his side, and Sam follows.

*

After their confrontation with the Winter Soldier – fucking Bucky Barnes, Jesus – and their meetup in the bunker with some new allies – Nick Fury, Maria Hill, just two stone-cold career officers who could flatten Sam with a look – they lay out a plan for the next day's attack and then get shuffled into quarters. Hill provides them each with some supplies: toothbrushes, ammo, socks, automatic weapons, those kinds of things, and Sam spends some time cleaning his guns next to Natasha, who's doing the same.

"Did Steve say where he was going?" Natasha asks, not looking up from her work. Her hands move over the pistol parts with expert ease, not that Sam expected any less.

"Said he wanted to get his uniform," Sam replies. He's not sure what that means exactly, because Sam's pretty sure that Steve's original uniform is in the Smithsonian. He saw it himself when he went to the exhibit a few weeks ago.

Natasha nods and borrows his gun oil.

"You okay, Wilson?" she asks, easily. "It's been a while for you since . . . " she trails off, then meets his eyes with a wry expression and shrugs one shoulder.

"It has," Sam agrees. He shot people today, didn't even hesitate. HYDRA soldiers, people who would kill him just for standing next to these two, but still. It's been years since he's pulled a trigger, and it all came rushing right back. He appreciates that she's able to see that, to know that it's important. "It was easy to fall back into old patterns," he confesses. "A little too easy, maybe."

She nods. "I know how that is," she says. "I'm thinking about – what I want to do, when this is over. Assuming I live."

"Getting out of the spy business?" Sam asks. Natasha snorts.

"If all goes to plan, I'm about to destroy my entire spy career," she says. "But there are other, alternate forms of work that would be open to me."

Sam nods. He can see how that would be true, given her abilities and her connections.

"To you, too, of course," she adds, and Sam's eyebrows go up. She's watching him closely, and smiles a little at his surprised expression. "I guarantee that if you live, and if he lives, Fury will offer you a job. Stark or Potts might, too. And there will be other offers, some from legitimate organizations, some not."

"What?" Sam asks, unable to imagine how that could be true.

"You're entering a different world right now, Sam," Natasha says, gently. "And, granted, we're about to dismantle the shit out of that world, but that's going to be all the more mess for people like Steve to clean up."

Sam licks his lips, thinking about this. "You gonna work for Fury, after this? If you live? Or for Steve?"

She shrugs again. "Probably not. I'm starting to think that I'm not sure where I fit. I might have to . . . consider my options, for a while."

Sam feels himself slipping into counselor mode as he asks, "What do you want to do?"

This draws a low chuckle out of her. "It's been a while since anyone asked me that," she says. "But I do have an answer, now. I want to . . . do good, naive as that sounds. I used to think that being a tool for SHIELD was how I could do that."

"And now?"

"And now, Captain America told me I could do better, and God help me I think I believed him." She looks almost unhappy about it, mouth pulled down, and Sam wonders how many people Steve carries in his wake of devastating optimism.

"I get that," Sam murmurs. She blinks twice, then focuses on him again.

"Yeah, or you're gonna," she jokes.

"Ha," Sam says, torn between excitement and fear.

"Well, I'll have to figure it out," Natasha says, cheerfully, after a moment. "So will you. I guarantee you're going to get the call."

"Thanks for the warning," Sam says, sighing. She bumps gently into his side.

"You're not the first person Steve's done this to," she says, grinning.

It makes Sam feel a little better to know that.

*

When Steve gets back with his uniform – it is the one from the Smithsonian, because of course it is – he and Sam get something to eat. It's not much, cobbled together from MREs and power bars and whatever else they'd found in the bunker's galley, but they both set to with determination anyhow.

When he finishes the business of eating, about ten minutes and four helpings after Sam finished, Steve pushes away his tray and looks at Sam speculatively.

"Not the dinner I wanted to take you to," he says, holding eye contact. Sam really can't deal with how obviously Steve flirts with him. For a while, he thought he was making it up, wish fulfillment or whatever, but at this point he's pretty sure, and astonished at how little Steve seems to want to hide it.

Does he come on to a lot of guys like this? If so, it's surprising that it hasn't been in the papers at some point.

Sam tries not to think that he might be special.

But he can't just keep dodging it, either; he wants to give back as good as he gets, wants to play with Steve on Steve's terms.

"You're welcome to make it up to me after," Sam says, recklessly. He expects to feel fear again, the fear that had held him back during their meeting at the VA, but it's gone, chased away by the strange and desperate situation, so that he feels free to meet Steve's eyes and answer his challenge.

Something changes in Steve's expression, making him look confident and glad. He leans back in his chair. "I'll hold you to that, Sam," he says, softly. Then he appears to consider something, for a moment, and adds, "But I'm not holding you to anything else. This could be a good time for you to leave."

Sam cocks his head. "I'm supposed to attack one of the helicarriers tomorrow," he objects. Steve shrugs.

"We could definitely use you and your wings. But – I can't help thinking, still, that you stopped being a soldier for a reason."

Sighing, Sam picks up his coffee cup and holds it cupped in his palms, as if it were warm. It's long since gone cold, but it's comforting to have something to do with his hands.

"I can't help thinking," Sam says, echoing Steve's phrasing deliberately, "that you keep encouraging me to get out because you want out yourself."

It's not what he'd say to a lover, or a friend, or a superior officer; it's what he'd say to a client, and Sam wishes he didn't feel like he has to.

Steve quirks his eyebrows, an ironic little smile playing across his lips. "Maybe," he says, eventually. "I guess I heard your story, at the VA – about serving, and your friend Riley, and becoming a civilian and helping people . . . well, I guess I just saw a lot of similarities between us. And I envied you."

Sam chuckles, wondering what Alex would make of that. "I guess we do have some life experiences in common," he allows, which makes Steve's grin flash big and broad for a moment.

"Yeah," he agrees, ducking his head. He's so beautiful, the way his shoulders relax and his eyelashes land softly on his cheeks. Sam wonders what he'd be like in bed, whether he'd give control up to Sam the same way he lets tension leave his shoulders when he's happy, or whether he'd be athletic and demanding, maybe, turning a fuck into a workout for the both of them. Sam wants to find out.

Unable to help himself, though, he says the one thing that he knows will definitely kill the mood, because he wants to know.

"I don't know how I'd feel, if Riley came back the way your friend did," he says, softly, and Steve's gaze snaps up to meet his. "I know it'd fuck me up pretty good, though. And having to fight him – it'd be like ripping out a part of myself, I think."

"Yes," Steve says simply, a whole world of mourning behind his eyes. "That's right."

"I'm saying – if you need to talk about it, or – " Sam stalls out, frustrated. "I don't want you to have to deal with that alone."

"Thank you," Steve says warmly. "That means a lot." Then, the same way he asked at it at the VA, he says, "Am I your client, Sam?"

"No," Sam says, all turned and twisted around inside at the question. He's having trouble even knowing how he's feeling right now, which hasn't been the case for him in a long time. The combat, and the tense situation, and the sleeplessness, and the gorgeous, emotionally vulnerable fellow soldier have all conspired to knock him off track.

Reaching out, Steve takes Sam's hand in his, their fingers meeting and sliding together.

Sam knew it was flirting, knew it as sure as he'd ever known anything, but this confirmation is still a shock, still sends a surprised thrill of electricity up Sam's arm and down to Sam's spine.

In a husky voice, Steve asks, "Do you want me to be?"

If Steve's had counselors, then he should know as well as Sam does that therapist and client relationships are a terrible, and unethical, idea. If Sam wants one kind of relationship with Steve, he can't have the other.

"I don't know," Sam says. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes for a moment, considering. "But I do want to be your friend. And I meant it, I don't want you to feel alone right now."

That's within the boundaries of friendship, he tells himself.

Steve nods slowly, and pulls his hand back. Sam misses the touch, but doesn't reach for Steve to bring him back.

After a moment, Steve says, "I was thinking, today, about all the science fiction stuff Bucky used to read, when we were kids. All the magazines with aliens and rocketships and such."

Sam nods, encouraging him to go on.

"I – ever since I woke up in the future, I've been wishing I could share it with him, you know? All the stuff that's been invented, all the social changes, humans going to space."

"And now?" Sam asks.

Steve breathes out. "And now it seems like it could be possible. If I could make him remember."

Of course, Sam thinks, of course Steve would meet his brainwashed amnesiac cyborg cryogenically frozen long-dead best friend and feel hope. Sam doesn't know why he would've thought any different.

Barnes might've been the scifi fan, but Steve's the one who thinks in possibilities.

Sam doesn't caution him again, about how dangerous the Soldier is and how he might not be able to remember. He doesn't tell Steve that he's asking a lot of himself, to think he can de-brainwash someone like that, or that Barnes' recovery would have to be Barnes' job, even if they could free him from HYDRA.

He doesn't say anything a counselor would say.

Instead, he asks, "What would you show him first?"

Steve smiles, and tells him. They talk for a long time, staying up later than they should, or than Sam should, at least. But when they bunk down on adjacent cots in the sleeping quarters, hours later, Steve falls asleep without the worry line that's been between his eyebrows since they unmasked the Soldier.

Sam takes longer to fall asleep.

*

They take down an international military organization with a small band of guerrilla fighters and a dream. Steve makes an inspirational speech that lifts Sam's spirit up, throws himself off of high places expecting Sam to catch him, and willingly gets his face pounded in by a cyborg arm that can punch through steel, so it's kind of an emotional rollercoaster for Sam. Steve keeps on flirting with him, the whole time, too, and Sam's not sure what he wants to do with that, with what seems to him like a clear invitation to something more.

When it's over, he and Natasha fish Steve's body out of the Potomac, and Natasha's frowning at the blood but she shakes her head sharply at Sam, as if to stop the already-unspooling panic in his head.

"He's been hurt before. He'll be okay." Short, declarative sentences, like she's trying to convince herself, too. But Steve's alive under Sam's hands while he and Natasha staunch his wounds, and he's still alive when they get him into the ambulance, and he's alive when they get him to the hospital, too, where the doctors say that he seems likely to stay that way.

Sam spends three days by Steve's bedside, waiting for him to wake up, and fields a lot of texts from friends and family in the meantime. Apparently the media was able to finally identify the wings he was flying around in, and from there they'd managed to figure out who he was, too.

Which means a lot of Facebook friends requests, among other outcomes. The death threats are pretty weird. The publicists who want to work with him are weirder.

His mom and dad are pretty supportive, though Sam thinks he can hear in their voices the fear they always carried while he was deployed, and it makes Sam wince and feel guilty; his mom's spent the last few years saying how glad she is that he's doing something safe now. Everyone at the VA is impressed and congratulatory, and Maureen jokes that she was actually the first one of them to bag an Avenger for counseling; she just didn't know Sam was going to be an Avenger at the time.

Sam smiles at her texts and tries to work through it in his mind, the idea of being an Avenger, or whatever it is that Steve does. Of getting back in on a more permanent basis. Steve's healing fast, and the doctors say he'll probably wake up soon, and Sam doesn't know what he's going to tell him when he does.

Offer him another resume? Offer him counseling? Offer to take him out on a date?

Alex texts him, too, saying that an extra therapy session would be totally doable if, for some reason, it happened to be needed, and Sam sighs down at the phone and texts back:

Definitely, thank you. As soon as Steve's awake.

For now, Sam will wait, and wonder, and watch Steve's slow breathing as he heals.

*

When Steve does wake up, he's still an asshole, which is how Sam knows for sure that he's okay.

"On your left," he croaks out, apparently unable to stop teasing Sam even when he's still technically half dead, and the ridiculousness of him lights something up inside Sam's chest, a warmth that wells up so fast that Sam can't help the slow spreading grin that covers his face.

"Quiet down, hero, you're not running any races today," Sam says, softly. "You need some water?"

Steve nods slightly, wincing at the pain of movement. Sam gets him a glass of water and a straw. Once he's had a drink, his voice sounds better.

"Thanks," he sighs. "What'd I miss?"

Sam brings him up to date on all the investigatory committees that are currently forming themselves, on the remnants of HYDRA that Fury thinks have gone to ground, on the endless media cycle poring over every action Steve had taken over the last few weeks and months.

"Sounds like fun. Maybe I should go back into a coma," Steve says, raising an eyebrow.

"I wouldn't blame you, man," Sam agrees. "Though, your boy's still out there. So that's something worth staying awake for."

"I have a lot of things worth staying awake for, Sam," Steve says, meeting his eyes. Sam's surprised by the fierceness in them, by the insistence of Steve's tone.

"You mean, you can think of things that make you happy?" Sam teases.

Steve chuckles, then closes his eyes tight at the pain from some gunshot wound or other. The pain passes, and Steve opens his eyes again, sighing.

"I can. Or, things that might make me happy." He smiles, in spite of his split lip. "Maybe just hope can make you happy."

"For a little while, at least," Sam agrees, thinking of all the things he wants and hopes for him and Steve.

"Now," Steve says, a moment later. "Tell me the news about Bucky."

*

Sam keeps his promise and goes to see Alex the next day.

"Nice of you to fit me in," he says.

"Well, I have a celebrity client now," Alex grins. "How else will I get material for a tell-all book?"

Sam chuckles. "Yeah, I'm sure the public is desperate to hear about my issues."

Alex shrugs, expression turning serious. "Actually, we've had multiple calls from . . . journalists, I guess you could call them."

"What?" Sam blanches. "How did they even know . . . "

"They didn't," Alex soothes. "They were calling around a bunch of places looking for you. For a receptionist or even a therapist who might accept a payoff."

"Damn."

"We're gonna keep you as safe as we can, Sam," Alex adds. "I promise."

"I know," Sam says, breathing out slowly. "It's just – it's a weird thing to have to deal with, all of a sudden."

"That might be a good place for us to start," Alex offers. "How are you coping with your newfound fame?"

"Honestly? It's really weird. Someone offered my mother money for pictures of me."

"Yikes," Alex agrees.

"And the thing is, I know I could let it all fade away. If this is my only superhero moment, they'd forget about me before too much longer. And I could go back to the job I love, and the people I know, and do the things I've worked hard to be able to do."

Alex nods with a frown of understanding. Sam had started seeing Alex just as he was finishing his Master's in Social Work, so they'd talked about how hard it'd been to go back to school after having been deployed, how proud Sam was of the accomplishment. Sam doesn't want to throw that all away for some superhero gig.

"But it sounds like you're trying to talk yourself out of that," Alex says, after a little silence between them. "Or talk yourself into something else."

"I'm – okay, let me level with you," Sam says. "If I'm falling in love with a guy, and want to follow him onto a battlefield, and also be his counselor, that's not good, right?"

Alex's eyebrows go up up up. "If that's happening, with some hypothetical guy whose name I definitely don't know – "

"Yeah," Sam agrees, nodding.

" – then I'd say that you should tell me more about it."

Sam rests his elbows on his knees and clasps his hands together, trying to find the words. He tells Alex bits and pieces of it, rambling through a bunch of stories from the past week, trying to make sense of it himself. After a while, he shrugs helplessly.

"I want him. I think – I know he wants me. But I don't know if it's fair to bring all this shit to a new relationship. I've built him up so much in my mind, and – how can I give him a fair shake as a real, real boyfriend when I spend half my time wanting to . . . " he trails off, lost in his search for the right verb.

"To save him," Alex says, eventually. Sam nods.

"Yeah. That."

"Is he giving you a fair shake?" Alex asks.

Looking up sharply, Sam asks, "What do you mean?"

"I mean, helping to define parameters. Make your relationship . . . approachable. Or is he adding to the confusion?"

Sam thinks back on Steve's question, the one he's asked twice now: Am I your client, Sam? He thinks on it for a long time.

"I think – maybe he's not helping right now, yeah," Sam concedes. Alex's eyebrows go up again.

"So," Alex says, and waits.

"So I gotta go and ask him, and tell him what I want, and establish communication," Sam says. "Is what you're saying."

"You said that."

"Fuck off," Sam says, and waves a hand dismissively. Alex laughs.

"You can have whatever you want, Sam. I truly believe that. You just have to know what that is."

*

So Sam asks Steve on a date.

Eventually. Eventually, he does.

After healing in a ridiculously short period of time, Steve's up and moving again, asking Natasha to dig up some intel, putting together supplies, obviously getting ready to go looking for Bucky, or remaining HYDRA installations, or both. Sam watches him putting equipment into a duffel bag – grappling hooks, rope, C4, where in the hell did Steve get C4 and how does he have it in his apartment? – with increasing anxiety.

"But I'll have a better idea of that when I get the list of HYDRA safehouses from Natasha, she says she's got a line on some relatively new intel – "

"Steve," Sam says, but it gets caught in his throat and Steve's going so fast he must not notice.

" – and there's a lot to figure out in terms of how they're classifying their installations, but if I can start to decode these – "

"Steve," Sam says, louder, and this time Steve looks up from the duffel bag and meets Sam's eyes.

"Yeah?" he asks, then furrows his brow in concern when he sees Sam's serious expression. "Sam. What is it?"

"Can you just – I need you to stop for a second," Sam says. "Can you come over here?"

Steve sets his stuff down on the table and goes to join Sam on the couch. The broken glass and drywall and blood had all been cleaned up, but from here Sam can still see the holes in the wall where Nick Fury was shot.

"I'm not expecting you to come with me, Sam," Steve says, pre-empting anything Sam could say. Sam huffs out a breath, annoyed. This guy is way too fast, sometimes, and doesn't always speed off in the right direction.

"Of course you're not," Sam says, a little unkindly. "You don't want you to go with you."

Steve breathes out and leans forward on his knees, all the starch going out of his posture. "You're right," he says, a minute later. "I don't."

"What do you want?"

"You mean, what would make me happy?" Steve asks, shooting him a wry look. Sam shrugs. "I want to – " he pauses for a long few seconds, then turns to face Sam. "I want to ask you out, Sam, and I want you to say yes. I want Bucky to come back without me having to go and find him, because he remembers me and feels safe with me. I want to stay here and – and learn about how to be a civilian. I want to be something that isn't about violence, for once."

Sam thinks about the C4 Steve's just packed into his kit like it was a juice box.

"But I can't," Steve finishes. "Not right now. And so what I want most is – is for you to understand that. I have to go. But it's not because I don't – not because it's what I want."

"I do understand that," Sam sighs. Savior complex, he thinks, and it's not like he didn't know this going in. He supposes there might always be some crisis that Steve will put ahead of his own life and desires. "Believe me. I understand."

He thinks back on what Alex said, about the need for communication and honesty, and he takes a deep breath. "I also gotta confess something to you, I think," he says, wincing a little. Steve's eyebrows go up.

"All right," he says slowly and seriously, before favoring Sam with a sly grin. "Though you should know that that kind of thing is exciting for us Catholic boys."

Sam laughs, surprised, and on the tail of that laugh it's a little easier to say. "I had this – image of you, before we ever met. I had sort of built you up in my mind."

Steve's unimpressed eyebrow says that he used to confess better sins when he was a choir boy. "That's – not unexpected," he says.

"I mean, not just like, you were famous and I saw you on TV," Sam adds. He sighs. "I guess I was projecting a lot, because I saw so much in common between us, or wanted to see it, anyway. I – I wanted to talk to you, real bad, because it felt like you would understand me. I don't want to . . . bring that along with us, wherever we're going."

Pursing his lips for a moment, Steve shakes his head. "I don't really see the problem," he says. "We do have a lot in common. That's why I wanted to talk to you, after our first meeting. I couldn't think of anyone else who might understand."

Sam shakes his head. "But that's because I was trying to create empathy, to get you to come in as if it were all your idea."

This makes Steve laugh, and when Sam thinks back over what he's just said, he feels his face get hot with sudden embarrassment.

"Ah, you were using your sneaky counselor's mind tricks against me," Steve pronounces, seriously, and Sam has just enough time to wish he'd been there when Steve saw Star Wars before Steve's going on, teasing him in that gentle way Sam's gotten used to over the last couple weeks. "I was helpless before your wiles, manipulated into thinking I liked you, that line about the girl at the front desk was especially hypnotizing . . . "

"All right, all right," Sam grumbles. "I didn't mean it like that."

"You're not that tough, Wilson," Steve says, kindly. "It's what I like best about you."

"Oh," Sam says, taken aback.

"And I bet it's what really draws your clients in, too. You like people, and you want to help them. That's a good thing."

Sam swallows hard. "I – sometimes I feel like there's this distance between me and other people," he says. His own voice sounds harsh, raw.

Steve's smile is sweet, and open, and full of possibility. "That's a hard way to feel," he says. "But, if you'll pardon me for saying so, I don't think it's true."

Closing the distance between them, Steve takes Sam's hand in his.

"What do you want, Sam?" Steve asks, quietly. "What makes you happy?"

Sam holds on to Steve's hand, warm and soft, and takes his time in answering.

"I love my job. But I don't want to give up on Barnes, either. I feel like I owe him one, like – this is dumb, but I feel like I'm supposed to help him. And you. My therapist is going to kick my ass for saying that to you, though."

Steve chuckles softly. "You want to help. It makes you happy to help," he summarizes. Sam nods. Sam takes a deep breath and rubs his thumb against the side of Steve's fingers, a gentle caress.

"I want to ask you out, and I want you to say yes," Sam says, echoing Steve's words. A grin breaks over Steve's face, and Sam can't help grinning back for a second before shaking his head. "But I can't be your counselor, and I can't be the Sergeant to your Captain, not if we're – not if you want to try that. I can't do all that at once. I need some boundaries."

"Okay," Steve says. Sam blinks at him.

"Okay? That's it?" Sam had thought this would be harder.

Steve shrugs. "We can talk about the boundaries," he offers. "Whatever you want. I've already got a therapist, but I could use a . . . well. Whatever else you'd like to be. Friend. Brother in arms. Co-hero."

Steve's hand in his is gentle and warm. Sam squeezes it. Steve squeezes back.

"Okay," Sam breathes, shakily. It looks like they're really going to do this. He can't get his head around it. He can't stop looking at Steve's mouth.

"Okay," Steve echoes again, making Sam chuckle. He lets go of Steve's hand and slides his palm up Steve's arm, all the way up to his shoulder. When he gets to Steve's neck, Steve bends his head and closes his eyes, putting his jaw into Sam's cupped palm. The display of trust in that simple movement makes Sam draw in a quick, surprised breath.

He strokes Steve's cheekbone with his thumb, softly and slowly, and after a few seconds Steve opens his eyes again, blinking into a warm smile.

"Will you kiss me, Sam?" Steve asks.

"Like, as your brother in arms and co-hero?" Sam asks, and Steve breaks out laughing.

"Yeah," he says, his Brooklyn accent getting a little heavier. "That's exactly what I meant."

"Sure," Sam says, and leans forward, and kisses Steve Rogers on his beautiful pink mouth. It's warm, and wet, and Steve's a little unsure, and it's nothing at all like kissing a supersoldier and living legend. Sam puts his hands on Steve's shoulders, and beneath his palms Steve is moving and electric and alive, energy and possibility barely contained beneath his skin, just like anyone else.

Sam wants to get to know this guy better, this sweetheart and this asshole who'll run laps around him and then look at Sam like Sam's the noble one between them. He wants to fight beside him, and God, he wants to kiss him, just like this, getting lost in the sliding press of their lips and tongues together. He wants to do it forever, wants to throw everything he has away and be with Steve for the rest of his life.

"Ninety days," Sam says, when they break apart, still caressing Steve's face.

"Ninety days?" Steve asks, his blue eyes slow, like Sam's kiss addled him in the head somehow.

"Ninety days is how long a leave of absence I can take," Sam says. "To hunt down HYDRA bases and look for your friend. After that, I have to go back to work."

Even that much of a commitment is wild and reckless, not the kind of thing you're supposed to do with a guy you've known a couple of weeks. But Steve makes Sam feel like all he can see are possibilities, and Sam wants to ride that feeling while he can.

"Sounds fair," Steve says. He takes a deep breath. "If we haven't found him by then, I – well. I won't stop looking for him until I do. But if ninety days on the road doesn't do it, maybe I'll base my search in D.C. after that."

"And find things here that make you happy?" Sam asks.

"Maybe," Steve says. "I hope so."

Sam kisses him again, tentatively, trying not to pin all his hopes for the next three months on these two first kisses. Maybe he and Steve won't get along, or they'll have zero sexual chemistry, or he'll find out that Steve secretly eats babies or something. But the feeling of Steve's body next to his, of Steve's tongue playing along his lips, of Steve's loyalty and conviction shining behind his eyes . . . Sam's not sure the baby thing would even be a dealbreaker.

Anyway, Sam's gonna give it a chance.

"Steve, you wanna go on a date with me?" he asks, when they next stop for breath. Steve, trailing kisses down Sam's neck, chuckles.

"Yeah, I do," he murmurs. "Do you wanna be a superhero with me?"

Sam laughs under the pressure of Steve's lips. "Yeah," he says, "I do."

*

Two days later, they go to meet Fury by his graveside. He does, in fact, offer Sam a job, but Sam knows it's coming, and turns it down.

Steve gets a file full of intel from Natasha, who kisses him on the cheek before disappearing again. Going to find her own path, Sam figures. Getting out, after too many years of service.

Sam, on the other hand, is about to get back in.

"You don't have to come with me," Steve says, for what Sam hopes is the last time. Sam nods.

"I know. When do we start?"

Steve turns toward him, reaching out his hand. Sam, surprised, takes it.

"Right now," Steve breathes, and kisses him fiercely, right there in the graveyard, both of them rising up into this new life together.

Sam can't wait.