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To Fly Toward A Secret Sky

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Sam watched the sun rise over the Avengers headquarters and grounds, a gloss of gold and pink glistening across the lake, pushing the night away.

Since joining the team, he liked to land on the roof of the main building in the mornings, spend some time alone, thinking, if he could and his duties or schedule didn’t interfere. The winter months were falling away, with signs of spring everywhere in blooming trees and the green grass growing. He cycled through the different settings of his eye gear but didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary, then took them off so he could see the world in its natural colors.

From below, he heard a sound and saw Steve exit the building, shading his eyes as he squinted up at Sam. “There you are!” yelled Steve, waving.

“You looking for me?” called Sam.

Steve jogged backwards several feet, bounced once, then sprinted forward at top speed, taking a flying leap for the building and managing about twenty feet. Steve dangled for a second, feet flailing, but then got his footing and started free climbing his way up. It was a pretty sleek building. Sam didn’t know how Steve managed.

“Uh oh,” said Sam, grinning as he knelt over the side. “Here comes trouble. If you humpty dumpty yourself, Nat will never forgive you. There are stairs, you know.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” gasped Steve, making it to the top and grabbing Sam’s hand for an assist.

Sam grunted and pulled Steve onto the roof. Steve caught his breath, gazing over the horizon, dusting off his hands. He was wearing dark jeans and a long-sleeved light blue top. “I’ve never actually been up here. So this is where you hide.”

“I’m not hiding,” said Sam, but he didn’t meet Steve’s eyes. “It’s good to get away sometimes, you know, find a moment to just be. Away from that crazy stuff.” He waved at the building.

“Do you regret joining?” asked Steve.

Sam grinned, turning to see Steve framed by the rising sun. “Naw, man. Not for a second. It’s good to see you,” and Sam pulled Steve in for a hug.

In recent months, Steve had been away more often than not. It seemed that whenever he was at headquarters, Sam was away on a separate assignment. They kept missing each other.

“Did you need me?” asked Sam, after they let go.

Steve looked confused for a moment before saying, “Oh, yeah. Stark’s in New York City, and asked me to meet him at the Tower. Was kind of hoping you’d come with?”

“He want you for anything specific?”

“Not sure.” Steve shrugged.

“Okay,” said Sam, mentally rearranging his plans for the day. “I’m all yours. We leaving now?”

“Yeah.” But Steve took a deep breath in and looked out over the drama of day breaking. The little crease between his eyebrows made an appearance. “Sorry to disturb your morning.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “How ‘bout you let me tell you when you’re disturbing me.”

Steve grinned, but still didn’t make a move to leave, shadowing his eyes as he turned in a circle to take it all in. The sun was almost completely up, and the sky was jeweled with the pink and yellow promise of the day. “Sure is something.”

“You caught it on a good day. Last week had only stormy grey clouds. But yeah, it’s still pretty good even then.” Steve was giving him a look. “What?”

“Wanna give an old man a lift down?” Steve had about as mischievous a gleam in his eye as he could manage.

“Do I wanna…?” Sam busted out laughing. “What? Your knees can’t handle jumping from here? Man, you are the least subtle super soldier I have ever met. Was this you angling for a ride? You just had to ask.”

Steve was smiling. Then he shrugged.

“Okay, come here.” Sam positioned Steve in front of him facing the side of the building overlooking the lake. He put his arms around Steve’s chest. “You trust me?”

“With my life,” said Steve, leaning lightly against him.

Sam grinned. “All right. Hold your arms out. On the count of three, we run and dive. Got it?”

Steve raised his arms out to the side. “Got it.”

Sam counted, and they leaped off the building together, diving with a loud whoop, pulling up to swing high in a big circle over the glistening lake.

~~~

A few hours later, with Steve driving, they wound their way through fitful Manhattan traffic until they arrived at the Tower, pulling into the underground garage.

The security officer on duty took one look at Steve and snapped to attention. “Captain Rogers! We weren’t expecting you.”

Sam looked at Steve, frowning. The other attendants peered at Steve with open curiosity.

“We’re here to see Mr. Stark,” said Steve with just a hint of annoyed command.

The attendant tapped at his computer screen, then waved them in. “You have access, of course.”

Steve quirked his eyebrows at Sam. “Of course.”

Sam chuckled. They exited the car. Steve hesitated, but then took his shield, and they made their way into the lobby. Two Stark Industries personnel appeared out of nowhere and approached as they headed for the elevator banks.

“Captain Rogers,” said the first employee, a dark-haired woman wearing glasses, her hair up in an artful, business-like bun. “It’s good to see you, sir. Will you be heading straight to your residence?”

Steve stopped and looked at her with his hands on his hips, then he looked at the other employee, a male version of the woman, flanking his other side. “Mr. Stark asked me to meet him today. Is he even here?”

The dark-haired employee blinked once, made lightning quick entries into her phone, but smiled reassuringly at Steve. “Of course, sir. I trust you know the way to Mr. Stark’s floors.”

Steve nodded, but glanced back at her with a perplexed expression as they entered the elevator. Sam caught a glimpse of the woman speaking into her phone.

“That was…” started Steve.

“Definitely weird,” finished Sam.

They exited the elevators onto the main floor of Stark’s residence. Sam had only been here a few times during those months the Avengers were housed in the floors above. It was decorated in the same vein as the rest of the building: clean lines, dark accents, surrounded by large windows overlooking New York City. Through the window he could see the empty quinjet platform.

“Steve,” said a voice, and they both turned as Pepper Potts entered from a side door. She smiled. “It’s so good to see you.”

“Pepper,” said Steve. “Hi.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek.

“I’m sorry for the awkward greeting downstairs.” She smiled at Sam. “But we didn’t know you were coming in. You’re welcome any time, of course.”

“I don’t understand,” said Steve. “Is Tony here? He texted me, asked if I wouldn’t mind coming into the city to meet with him.”

Pepper wrinkled her brow, but then shook her head with a smile. “You know Tony. He’s supposed to be in D.C. Let me call him, and find out if he’s on his way.”

Sam glanced at Steve, both giving each other shrugs as she stepped to one side, pulling out her phone. Just then, the lights in the room began to flash, shifting to a deep blood red. An alarm sounded. Pepper looked confused then very concerned, holding her phone to her ear and heading to a screen on the wall.

“What is it?” asked Steve. They both moved to stand beside her. She tapped on the screen, swiftly pulling up security information. An image of the building appeared.

“That’s the proximity alarm. The building’s detected a threat, but…” she trailed off as she turned to speak into her phone. “Tony? Where are you? Steve’s here, he says you told him to meet you? And the Tower thinks we’re under attack--what?”

With a crease between his brows, Steve reviewed the data on the screen. Sam moved to follow, but some sixth sense told him to turn toward the windows. He saw three jets materialize out of nowhere, hovering in mid air. “Cap!” he yelled.

Steve reacted immediately. “Get Pepper out of here. Now!” he ordered, moving to face the windows, holding up his shield.

Pepper gasped, her mouth falling open when she saw the jets. Sam covered her just as they fired and the windows shattered. He pulled her toward a doorway, trying to remember the layout of the floor and where the safest spot might be. A glance over to the now shattered windows made his stomach drop: the lead jet fired a missile aimed directly at Steve.

“Oh shi--” he started, pushing Pepper to the ground just as six flying robots appeared and surrounded him and Pepper. He didn’t have time to wonder before the missile hit Steve’s shield, causing a violent shockwave and explosion.

Sam heard only white noise and a high-pitched whine, but he shook his head and vision and hearing slammed back. There was dust everywhere, and he heard Pepper gasping for breath beside him. He realized the robot men were Stark’s drones, surrounding and covering him and Pepper. They’d taken the brunt of the explosion.

A dozen masked men in combat gear hooked to rappelling lines jumped from the three jets into the Tower, armed with automatic rifles and mini gatling guns. Sam looked for Steve and saw him lying flat on the floor near the far wall of the suite, his shield several feet away.

“Let me out,” he said to one of the drones. “Come on, let me out.”

The drone stepped aside. Sam stumbled free, running for the shield and taking it up just in time to block the gunfire aimed at him.

“Steve!” he called, gritting his teeth as he made himself as small as he could behind the shield, advancing toward where Steve lay.

The men weren’t aiming for Steve, though, concentrating all their firepower on Sam, pressing him backward and away from Steve. It wasn’t until Steve began to stir, shaking his head and rising onto all fours, that they turned their attention to him. One man separated from the others, switched weapons, and aimed at Steve, firing a tranquilizer dart at his neck.

Steve, still getting his bearings straight, swiped at the dart and threw it away. The man shot another dart, and another. The darts stuck out from Steve on all parts of his body. More tranq darts were shot. Steve half stood up and kept pulling the darts out, but they were beginning to have an effect.

With a horrific shock of understanding at what was going on, Sam advanced faster, but the relentless gunfire divided him from Steve. Steve was vulnerable without his shield.

“Steve,” he yelled to him, calculating how quickly he could get to cover and preparing to throw Steve the shield.

But Steve shook his head. “No, Sam,” he said, and somehow through all the noise and chaos, Sam heard him. Their eyes connected. Steve was unable to stand, his limbs collapsing underneath him. “Keep it.”

Sam grimaced as he charged forward but then saw a second missile flying toward him from the jet. He braced for impact. The missile hit, and he knew no more.

~~~

Sam’s cheek stung -- someone slapping him? -- and then his entire body seized with pain. He groaned from the violent stab of light driving into his skull.

“Take it easy,” said a voice, and it took Sam a moment to remember why it sounded so familiar. “Don’t move too quickly.”

“Stark?” he asked, letting the waves of nausea come and then go. Other sensations returned. He sensed grit pressed against his cheek, and smelled fried ozone: crushed concrete and twisted metal. Memory punched back, and he felt like he’d been hit with the missile a second time. Panicking, he tried to sit up but the world did a 180 spin and he almost threw up on the floor. He focused as best he could onto Stark. “Where’s Steve?”

“Careful. You’ve had your bell rung pretty bad. I wouldn’t move,” said Stark, keeping a hand on him. Sam could see they were still in the Tower, what was left of Stark’s residence reduced to rubble. The Iron Man armor was standing sentry beside Stark. Sparks were shooting from one corner of the floor, and there was a fire burning by a hallway Sam thought led to the bedrooms. He couldn’t see Steve anywhere.

“Where’s Steve?” he asked again. Stark wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Stark?”

Stark shook his head, and when he finally did meet Sam’s eyes, his own were damp and rimmed with red. “He’s gone. They took him.”

At first Sam couldn’t comprehend Stark’s words. They simply made no sense. Gone where? Who took him? His head was hurting so badly he couldn’t think and it hurt to breathe. He tried to remember what happened but he only recalled the noise of the gunfire and the weight of the shield in his hands. Then he remembered Steve saying his name across the chaos, and their eyes meeting.

Sam launched at Stark. “You set him up,” he said, grabbing Stark by his clothing. “He came here to meet you and you set him up.”

“You think I would do that?” asked Stark, trying to pry Sam off. “That I would set Cap up? In my own house? With Pepper here? You think I’m capable of that?”

He felt sick, everything spinning. The light and wind coming in from the windows kept stabbing him in the head. Sam took a good look at Stark. He saw a mirrored devastation there. He saw heartache. Sam wilted, shutting his eyes and hoping that might help with the pain in his head. “Pepper. Is she okay?”

Stark let out a shaky breath. “She’s fine. Shaken, but… doing her job. The drones are with her.”

Sam nodded, then gasped as icy-hot pain spiked through his brain. He groaned and went onto all fours. “What the hell happened?”

“I got here as soon as I could. But it wasn’t in time to stop--” Stark picked Sam up from the floor, and moved him over to where part of a couch remained. He held Sam’s head steady and looked into his eyes. “Pepper said Steve got a text from me? I never sent a text. Haven’t spoken to Cap since last week. It must have been a trap, orchestrated to kidnap him. You need medical attention.”

Stark looked like he was about to hail someone to get help, but Sam grabbed him and shook his head. He grimaced, feeling as if the Hulk had swung him around like a rag doll. “Not here,” he said, looking at Stark, meeting his eyes. “Not here. I believe you didn’t have anything to do with this, but man, your house is not clean. You get what I’m saying? He was set up. They had to have had help. And we have to find him.”

He thought Stark would protest the idea of Stark Industries personnel being involved, but Sam could tell the same thought had occurred to him. Stark pinched his lips and sighed. “First things first,” he said. “You need to see a doctor right away. I know,” he said, helping Sam up to standing. “I know. Not here. I’m taking you to headquarters. Let’s get Dr. Cho to look at you.”

It took his remaining concentration to walk, even with Stark and the Iron Man suit’s aid. Stark was on the phone, first calling Pepper and obliquely telling her she’d be host to a drone escort for a few days, then he called Rhodes. Within half an hour there was a jet landing on the platform, and within another half an hour, they arrived at Avengers headquarters.

~~~

Steve rose to consciousness. Everything felt distant and heavy. He could hear beeping.

“He’s waking now,” he heard a female voice say, and he tried to open his eyes.

“Good,” answered someone else, a male this time.

He registered the unmistakable sound of medical equipment whirring and beeping, which confused him. His mind was sluggish and felt as weighed down as the rest of his limbs. He tried to remember what happened. He remembered an elevator ride with Sam. And then, standing with Sam and Pepper in Avengers Tower. The windows. He remembered looking to windows. Blinding light.

Then, with a forceful surge of adrenaline, Steve remembered Sam taking on the full impact of a missile.

Panicked, he tried to sit up, but couldn’t, held down by some kind of restraint. His vision cleared and he could see he was lying flat in a dark room. He couldn’t move his head, held down by some kind of metal brace. His arms, legs, and torso were also restrained.

“Where am I? Who’s there?” he asked, attempting to look to the side and behind him. He twisted his hands, tried kicking his feet.

“The metal restraints are made of a titanium alloy. They should prove difficult to break, even for you.”

Steve stopped struggling. His head was restrained in a way that almost completely immobilized him, and limited his vision to what was directly in front: a bare light bulb, far above. This was a big room, perhaps a warehouse. The sounds echoed. There was definitely activity near him, just outside his range of vision.

“Why are you doing this? What do you want?” he asked.

“Hm,” said the voice, and Steve thought it was coming from behind him. “What a question. What do I want? So many things.”

Oh, great, thought Steve. One of those. Just his luck to be kidnapped by a wiseass. He resumed trying to break free. “I don’t know what you hope to accomplish. You don’t stand a chance. The Avengers will be searching for me. They’ll find me. And they’ll find you.”

Some indefinable whisper of a noise came from behind Steve and he tried to look. “I wouldn’t hold my breath,” said the man, sounding like he spoke directly into his ear. “Here, I have a present for you.”

Suddenly, he tilted forward so he was upright. With the aid of gravity, Steve immediately became more aware of his restraints: a metal band across his forehead, under his chin, across his chest, hips. Metal holding both arms and legs down. He wasn’t on an actual bed, but some kind of cold flat surface. There were needles in his arms hooked to IV drips. Wires and tubes, electrodes sticking out of his body. He was naked except for a thin, fabric underwear.

He strained to break free, yelling from the effort as he flexed his arms, his hands balled into fists. He pushed forward against the restraints, using every ounce of strength he had. The metal held, but the bolts and joints whined from the pressure. Steve gasped, out of breath.

“Impressive,” said the faceless man.

Without warning, a holographic screen appeared before Steve, showing news footage of the attack and his kidnapping from Avengers Tower. Somehow, the entire thing had been filmed. The footage, taken from the vantage point of a nearby building, showed the three jets materializing out of nowhere in the skies over New York City. Obviously, whoever was behind this had access to stealth tech similar to what the Avengers had. He saw the men rappelling into the Tower, the missile strike. He saw Sam take up the shield. No, Sam, he thought, don’t do it. Stay where you are; stay safe.

Over the footage, a newscaster reported the attack on the Tower and the kidnapping of Captain America. They used words like “horrific event” and “colossal loss.”

… As you can see, Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America, was taken captive earlier today in what can only be described as a surgical attack. This is just a monumental blow to the Avengers, an incalculable loss. No one has yet come forward to claim responsibility. No official response from the Avengers, who must all be in shock. New York City is of course no stranger to violence…

“You bastard,” said Steve. He began trying to break free again, figuring out where the weak spots were. The metal was strong, too strong, but the joints were weaker.

“You asked before, why?” said the man. “Why not? Why not see if Captain America bleeds?”

Steve saw two small aerial drones fly into position in front of him, one on each side, each pointing a round video camera lens in his direction. He knew, then, what was going to happen, and he redoubled his efforts to break free, succeeding in making the metal warp and bend.

Out of nowhere, two metal prongs jabbed him hard in his sides, sending an electrical current through his body. He cried out in pain, unable to control his body’s response to the assault. Just as suddenly as it started, the pain ended. Steve continued to yell, his cry of anger dissolving into tired laughter. “What? Is that all you got? Are you going to tickle me to death?”

He put everything that he was into the effort to break free, all of his anger and rage. With an almighty, bone-breaking cry, his right arm ripped the restraint and tore the metal like it was paper. He turned immediately to his left arm but before he could get a hold of it, the two prongs stabbed him in his sides. He started to pull free but this time they pierced his skin, driving deep into his body. Blood gushed out, and then he knew pain like he’d never felt before. Every inch of his body was on fire, every nerve ending screaming. He was screaming. The pain built and built into greater heights, until finally everything went dark.

~~~

His dance with the missile earned Sam surgery followed by a twenty-minute nap in the regeneration cradle, both of which he vehemently protested.

Sam fought with the med techs, fought with Doctor Cho, not wanting to be sedated. “What are we doing to find him? Where’s Romanoff? We have to--”

“You’re bleeding internally,” said Dr. Cho. “And you have a severe concussion. Let us help you.”

“Sam!” yelled Stark, attempting to help the techs keep Sam on the medical table. “The call went out already. The Avengers are assembling. We will find him, but you won’t be any help if you’re dead. I could use a little help here!” he called out. “Wanda!”

Sam saw Wanda enter the medical suites. “No, no!” he cried when she approached him. He tried to kick free, pushing Stark away but he didn’t get very far before Wanda made a small gesture with her right hand, and he blacked out.

He woke several hours later with a monumental headache, lying in a darkened medical bay. Light spilled across the floor, flooding in from a room next door. He could hear voices.

Grateful that he wasn’t attached to any IV lines, Sam slowly sat up, his head throbbing. He found slippers and a robe and put them on, moving toward the source of the voices. Romanoff and Stark were meeting in Dr. Cho’s office, and Sam spotted Wanda in there, too, sitting on a swivel chair. Every screen in the room was either showing footage from the attack or processing data. As he got closer, he heard Romanoff talking.

“There must be something else, something we’re missing. Let’s go over it again,” she said, standing near the front of the room, facing the screens. “Stark?”

Tony was sitting behind Dr. Cho’s desk, looking weary. “Pepper’s interviewing the staff at the Tower, going over all communications in and out. The Vision and Hill are with her. Hill hired most of the staff. If there’s anything, they’ll find it. But, I wouldn’t count on something useful, at least not in any time frame to help Cap. The way this played out, if someone on staff helped with this, they would only have been told what they needed to know.”

Romanoff frowned slightly, but didn’t argue. “Clint? Where are we with tracking those jets?”

With a jolt, Sam realized that Hawkeye was in the room, perched on a filing cabinet, twirling one of his arrows in his fingers. He rubbed at his face. “I’m working on it. It’s similar stealth tech to what we use, what Stark developed -- which is, as you know, damn near impossible to track. But the one advantage is that it’s not Stark tech. There may be a way of detecting them. And,” he added with a nod at Stark, “the Tower collected a lot of data during the attack. I’m going through it now.”

“Live and learn,” said Stark, with a rueful twist of his lips. “Rhodey said he’s looking into any unreported missing jets from the Air Force.”

Sam stepped into the light, hovering in the doorway. All conversation stopped, and they each turned to look at him. “What are you guys doing in here?”

“You should be lying down,” said Stark.

Grimacing, Sam entered the room further. “Who made you nursemaid?”

“If I said Cap did, would you do as I say?” asked Stark.

Sam wasn’t listening to him. He’d moved over to the screens, realizing what he was seeing. He read the closed captioning and saw the replay of the attack. They had zoomed in on Steve taking hit after hit from the tranq gun, showing in slow motion his collapse as the drug took affect. Then, the news report cut to a reporter speaking with a panel of experts. Sam swallowed past a dry throat. “What are we doing to find him? What have we got?”

“Unfortunately, not much,” said Barton, and Sam tore his attention away from the screens to look at him.

“Clint,” said Romanoff, with a look of warning.

“You want me to lie?” asked Barton.

Stark got up from his chair and moved around to the front of the desk, facing Sam. “We’re working several leads. It’s going to take time--”

“Time?” said Sam. “How much time?”

“Sam,” said Romanoff, her tone of voice making Sam’s shoulders ache. “Dr. Cho said you need rest.”

“Don’t talk to me like that.” The look he gave her made her swallow her next words. “What aren’t you guys telling me?”

“Nothing!” said Romanoff and Stark together. Romanoff stepped forward and gently took Sam’s hands. Her eyes held his, and he remembered all those months ago, that sassy smile she’d first given him. She wasn’t smiling now, but her eyes held no deceit. “We’re doing everything we can. You have to have faith in Cap. You know how strong he is.”

He nodded, but he was filled with a nervous fear that didn’t blend well with the heavy pain in his head, and he began to feel nauseated. “What have we got so far? Tell me everything.”

Romanoff made him sit down, and they began to brief him on what they knew. Barton wasn’t kidding; it wasn’t much. It was hardly anything at all, and Sam let the restless energy drive him from his chair as he began to pace, a hand rubbing at the pain in his head.

“Guys,” said Barton, pointing to the screens. “Something’s going on.”

They turned to look at the news footage. Someone unmuted the sound.

…just came in now, reports of a video sent anonymously to several news stations. I think, yes, we will show it, but be warned, it is disturbing, and viewer discretion is advised.

The station cut to the video, and there was Steve, restrained with thick strips of metal, struggling to break free. Sam’s hands jerked in sympathy. The sound of Steve’s cries of pain, of the effort he poured into breaking free, slammed into Sam harder than the force of the missile.

“Sam,” said Romanoff, next to him. “Don’t watch.” She tugged on his hand, but he did not turn away.

He felt a new kind of pain hearing Steve taunt whomever held him captive, watching his defiance. And then, the two instruments pierced through Steve’s body and he began to convulse, and Sam ran from the room before he threw up on the floor. He stumbled into a bathroom, dry-heaving into the toilet. When he thought he was finished, he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like crap. He remembered -- was it just that morning? -- standing on the roof with Steve by his side. Unable to lie to himself, he silently acknowledged what he had known for over a year now, the extent to which he’d given himself over. It left him shaking, and another wave of nausea rushed up, causing him to grip the toilet bowl and heave a second time.

Someone was in the bathroom with him, but he couldn’t look up to see who it was. Water rushed in the sink, and he felt a cool damp folded towel placed against the back of his neck. Then, a glass of water was pushed into his hand.

“Drink this,” said the person, and Sam finally looked up, staggering back when he saw the dark figure of James Barnes in the bathroom with him.

The surprise seemed to shock the nausea out of him. “What the hell? Where did you…? Hey, man.”

“Drink. Slowly.” Barnes continued to hold the glass of water, as if Sam hadn’t reacted to his presence as all. “You’re dehydrated.”

Feebly, Sam took the glass and sipped a mouthful. “You’re here for Steve,” said Sam.

Barnes nodded. “I’m here to get him back.”

~~~

Romanoff and Barton accepted the sudden appearance of the Winter Soldier with surprising ease, but the Iron Man gauntlets had flown in out of nowhere to wrap around both of Stark’s hands and arms. Stark aimed at Barnes, powering up.

“He’s here to help find Steve,” said Sam, stepping between Barnes and Stark. Barnes hadn’t reacted at all to Stark’s hostility but merely waited to see what the outcome would be. “And frankly,” said Sam, turning to face Stark fully. “We need him.”

Stark shifted his focus from Barnes to Sam. At first his expression was stubborn and unbending, but then his eyes traveled over Sam’s face, and he lowered his arms. The gauntlets detached, then flew back out of the room.

The tension pulsed until Barton asked, pointing to the screens, “What does that mean? It’s appearing in the other video was well.”

Sam hadn’t let himself look at the screens again, but he did so now. Barton had paused on the final image. Below Steve there was a line of text: #makegodbleed.

Romanoff turned to Stark, who looked gobsmacked. “Vanko?” she asked.

“Can’t be,” said Stark, approaching the screen, his brow creased in thought.

“Who’s Vanko?” asked Sam, looking from one to the other.

“He was a physicist. Someone from my past. He’s dead,” said Stark, turning to Romanoff. “Unless…” Realization passed over Stark, and he looked disgusted. “Oh, boy. Justin Hammer.”

“Hammer’s in prison,” said Romanoff. “He couldn’t pull this off.”

“No, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t involved.”

“Hammer. Why do I know that name?” asked Sam.

“He was a U.S. weapons contractor and a complete idiot, arrested and convicted several years ago after his defense drones attacked civilians during the Stark Expo. The drones were Vanko’s doing. Hammer sprung Vanko from prison.” He looked at Romanoff. “We don’t know whom he’s been talking to, but Hammer would have insight into Stark Industries.”

“What does ‘make god bleed’ mean?” asked Barton, waving at the screen. They could always count on Barton to cut right to the heart of the matter.

“It was something Vanko said to me. ‘If you could make god bleed, people would cease to believe in him.’”

Sam forced himself to keep breathing at a normal pace despite the surge of adrenaline making his heart pound and his fingers go numb.

Stark looked at his watch. “It’s late, but I’m sure I can get in to see Hammer. Wanda, if you wouldn’t mind accompanying me, I could use your particular talents. I’ll report back as soon as I have anything.”

He and Wanda moved to leave the room, but Barnes, who had been silent throughout the entire conversation, stepped forward. “Stark,” he said, and Stark turned toward him. A pulse of tension passed between them. “Hammer was friendly with Senator Stern. Stern was Hydra. Do you understand?”

A chill settled over the room. Stark studied Barnes, then he blinked and nodded. “Copy that,” he said, and he and Wanda left the room.

In the wake of their absence, a beat passed before Romanoff turned to Barnes. “Okay. While Stark works on that, we have a job to do. Soldier,” she said and Barnes focused his razor-like concentration on her. “I know what you’re capable of; I’ve seen you work. What do you need from us to find Steve?”

Barnes looked at her, a flicker of a smile behind his eyes, before he turned to Barton. “You’re on the right track, with the stealth tech. We can find him through that.”

Barton, Barnes, and Romanoff moved collectively, three assassins together, over to where Barton had been working previously. Sam understood about one tenth of what they were doing, but just the fact that they were doing something, anything instead of sitting around talking, helped even if it didn’t ease his fear. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, and instead paced, every minute that passed felt like fingernails down a chalkboard, scraping against his nerves. Finally, taking pity on him, Romanoff sat him in a chair and, even though it was against Dr. Cho’s orders, put him to work.

Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and remembered those few minutes from the morning, flying with Steve.

~~~

Steve sat on the edge of the roof. The morning sparkled with brilliant colors that popped and seemed to pulse. The vibrant green trees and diamond lake dazzled his eyes under a sky of churning blue. A breeze blew, and the caress of wind against his skin tingled, like a feather trailing on the inside of his arm.

In the distance, he could see Sam flying. He swooped and dove and circled, too far away. Steve thought about calling, his hands around his mouth, the air pressing in his lungs, but Sam rose higher and higher into the sky.

“Hello, Steve.”

He turned and saw Peggy sitting next to him, her legs dangling over the side of the building, ankles crossed.

“Peggy,” he said, her name like a sigh on his lips. As always the sight of her brought him hope, despair, and love in equal measures. He looked his fill of her. She, like everything else, vibrated with electric energy.

When he’d first emerged from the ice and found himself in the 21st Century, Fury had given him a folder filled with details about Peggy Carter. He had studied every photograph, every film clip. He followed her career all the way through until he knew her as she was now, lying in a home in Washington D.C. But the Peggy that currently sat next to him on the rooftop of Avengers Headquarters was the Peggy from 1945. His Peggy. She looked almost exactly like the faded photograph cut from an old newspaper clipping, preserved in his compass.

“You’re not real,” he said.

She smiled. “I’m as real as you need me to be.”

He cradled her hand in his. It felt real. She pressed her other hand against his cheek. He looked into her beautiful eyes and thought of taking her and slipping over the edge of the building.

Above him, he caught sight of Sam, circling higher and higher.

“He shouldn’t go so high,” he said, keeping her hand against his cheek.

“Maybe you should call him,” she said.

He looked up at the sapphire sky and called for Sam, as loudly as he could although no sound left his lips. He called again.

Peggy leaned in and put her cheek next to his. “Darling,” she whispered. “The drug is wearing off. They’ve released the restraints to move you. Your friends, they’re coming. It’s time to wake.”

She kissed him…

A surge of adrenaline coursed through his body. He woke, but didn’t open his eyes. Low, murmuring voices spoke nearby, and he felt hands roughly move his limbs. He lay on his side. Everything felt distant, like his body was wrapped in cotton batting, but even in the few seconds that he lay awake he became aware of a pain in his lower back and hip. Then, as if he were plunged into ice-cold water, he knew he was alive and could feel everything, sensation returning like a rubber band snapped hard against his skin.

With his eyes still closed, he felt the table he lay on shake, and heard a distant rumble of explosion. Someone rushed into the room. “Ready him for transport,” said a woman’s voice he vaguely recognized from before.

“But, we haven’t--”

“Don’t question,” she said with biting urgency. “Just do it.”

An alarm began to beep rapidly. “He’s coming out of it,” the other person said, panicking. “The sufentanil, quick.”

Swiftly, Steve rolled off the table, tearing IVs out, gagging with pain and discomfort as he pulled the airway line snaked down his nose free. More alarms blared. He saw an array of equipment circling the room. He was in some kind of medical theatre, a smaller room than he had initially thought.

His two captors, a man and a woman wearing long white medical coats, looked at him and backed away, frightened. “Guards!” yelled the female doctor.

Choking, he took cover behind medical equipment just as several men in military-style combat gear stormed in, firing on his position. Steve spit blood and phlegm free from his throat, shaking as he avoided being hit from the automatic weapons, looking for something he could use as a shield.

Then, the gunfire ceased, the sudden quiet punctured by distant sounds of fighting. The woman spoke. “What are you waiting for? Get him!”

It was only long practice from hundreds of covert missions and military operations that allowed Steve to understand what would happen next: the guards had received a change of orders. In the next heartbeat, they aimed their weapons on the man and woman, shooting them both. Two guards advanced, and began firing at Steve non-stop. He reached for the metal table they’d used to restrain him and held it up as a shield. He saw the other guards pick up several refrigerated containers. Another order was given, and the guards retreated.

As soon as they left the room, Steve ran to the two lying on the ground. The man was dead, gunshot to the head, but the woman still lived, staring with shock as she tried to staunch the blood pouring from a wound in her neck.

“Who’s responsible for this?” he asked, his voice rough. “Tell me. Who did this?”

The woman attempted to speak, her mouth opening and closing. She had wide grey eyes, her glasses splattered with blood. Her voice rattled. “Evac…sen…he...”

Her throat convulsed, then she stilled, her eyes vacant. Steve moved to the door. The hallway was empty, but he continued to hear the sound of fighting in the distance and took heart, knowing it must be the Avengers.

He could not tell what sort of building he was in, or any clue to his location, but he knew instinctually this was an old S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. He’d come to recognize the signs. Moving quickly down the hall, he shivered, and realized he was nearly naked, wearing only the thin underwear from before. He was covered in bandages, blood dripping from both arms where he’d pulled out the IVs, and the pain in his lower back and hip throbbed.

Whoever was responsible for his kidnapping would be evacuating immediately, and he raced after the retreating guards, coming fast around a corner only to retreat when they began firing again. He peeked, and saw the guards disappear into an elevator. With only seconds to spare, Steve bolted for the elevator, zigzagging to avoid being shot and reaching the doors just as they closed. He grimaced, wrenching the elevator doors open, leaping onto a cable flying upward.

Wind rushed around him and he yelled as the elevator shot upward at speed. As the car began to slow, he climbed to the top, listening for the moment when the coast was clear. He opened the hatch and dropped down into the empty car, stepping into bright, cold sunlight and an incredibly strong wind blowing from all directions. This facility seemed to be located in some isolated mountain setting, surrounded on all sides by ice-capped peaks. The landing platform jutted out over a high cliff.

The guards -- Steve counted ten total -- turned and aimed at him just as a second elevator car dinged and opened. Another dozen or so guards exited the second elevator, escorting one man protected in their midst.

“Hey!” he yelled, prevented from charging forward by the spray of bullets at his feet.

The man in the center of the guards stopped, raised a hand to the side of his head, then slowly turned. He had no face. It was, Steve realized, the same technology Natasha sometimes used when in disguise, but in this instance it obscured the man’s features completely into something undefined, shifting, moving. The guards at the man’s side stood at attention, all weapons pointing at Steve.

“Captain Rogers!” said the man, yelling over the roar of the wind, with his hair, tie and suit, whipping around. Except for his missing face, he looked like a businessman, like he’d stepped out of a Fortune 500 magazine cover. “Did you want to come along?”

Anger, a kind of boiling frustration, threatened to overcome Steve, and he debated briefly charging despite the lack of cover and that he would almost certainly be gunned down in the process.

Steve couldn’t see the man’s mouth, but he could tell he was grinning. The man began to step backward just as three jets materialized out of nowhere behind him. He, and a handful of his guards carrying the refrigerated containers they’d taken from the room Steve had woken up in, disappeared into the open hatch of the lead jet.

“No,” cried Steve, heedlessly charging forward, only stopped by the sting of bullets grazing his bare skin. The guards remaining on the platform fired on Steve. He ducked and went low, spinning and tripping one of the guards flat on their back. Steve took his weapon, firing at the retreating jets just as a fourth jet, the Avengers quinjet, flew up into view with Iron Man and War Machine beside it.

Steve felt an instant, dizzying whoosh of relief as the aerial battle ensued above hm. The quinjet fired at the remaining guards on the platform and they scattered, no longer paying him attention. With heart wrenching fear, he looked for Sam, but couldn’t see him. He hadn’t let himself consider that Sam might not have survived the attack on the Tower. He hadn’t let himself even think for a moment that Sam wasn’t safe. But then, where was he? Steve searched the skies.

The battle raged, explosions raining fire and debris. Iron Man and War Machine concentrated on reaching the lead jet, but the other two jets blocked their assault. One of the jets began smoking, and the other flanked its side. Together, they created a cover for the third jet, allowing it to swoop away and shimmer out of vision as it disappeared, but not before it fired one last missile, aimed at the landing platform. Steve saw it coming straight for him. He had one second to decide. Trusting in faith, he ran and jumped off. The platform exploded behind him.

He fell through slicing cold air, the rush of the mountainside blurring as he gathered speed. Then, he saw a pair of wings swoop in.

“Oh, man,” said Sam, his arms embracing Steve. “You’re supposed to wait for me when you want to go flying.”

Steve gazed at Sam as they circled around back toward the quinjet. “I knew you’d catch me,” he said, and he closed his eyes.

~~~

Steve woke, warm and comfortable, to the just-audible murmuring of several familiar voices. He listened. In addition to the whispering, he heard and felt the familiar energy of headquarters. He relaxed further into comfort.

“…should we…”

“No… stop. Don’t--he’s kind of cute…”

“What if I just…” Steve heard muffled giggling.

“Clint--”

“He’s awake,” said a voice -- an incredibly familiar voice. Steve opened his eyes and looked wildly around.

“You big faker,” said Natasha, but Steve wasn’t looking at her, or at Clint who was hovering over him with a fat sharpie pen, or at Tony, leaning back and balancing his chair on two legs. Steve sat bolt upright and stared with wonder at Bucky sitting in a chair next to the bed.

“Bucky?”

“Steve,” said Bucky, calmly, as if it weren’t a miracle for him to be sitting there. But Steve recognized the flicker of emotion -- fear, relief -- behind Bucky’s eyes.

“What are… you’re here?” he said, unable to keep the amazement from his voice, knowing how inadequate a response that was. Of all the things he expected to wake up to, this was a complete surprise. He had about a million questions.

“You got yourself kidnapped,” said Bucky with a familiar resentful annoyance that was both wonderful and painful to see.

“Is that what it took?” asked Steve. A shadow passed over Bucky’s face. “Hey,” he said, softly. “Thanks.”

Bucky nodded, a slight upturn to his lips.

“I guess,” said Steve, still taking in the miracle of Bucky’s presence. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I guess I’m grateful for being kidnapped.”

Bucky narrowed then rolled his eyes. “You say something dumb like that again, and I’ll let Hawkeye here tattoo ‘idiot’ on your forehead permanently.”

Clint, who was still half-hovering near Steve, helpfully offered the sharpie to Bucky. It broke some of the tension as Natasha snickered. Steve looked around, registering for the first time where he was -- it looked like one of the private rooms in the medical wing -- and who was and wasn’t present in the room with him.

“Where’s Sam?” he asked. Everyone seemed to hold their breath. He looked questioningly at Clint and Nat and Tony. “What is it?”

“He was here, a few minutes ago. Said he had to step out,” said Nat, but as she continued to look uncomfortable, her assurance did nothing to assuage his growing concern.

Then, Sam entered, and Steve relaxed. His relief was short-lived as he got a good look at Sam’s face. He looked terrible. “Sam?”

“Hey, Cap,” said Sam, smiling too broadly. It was not a natural smile, and he had dark smudges under his eyes. The rest of him looked pale, as pale as a black man could look, ashy and hollow. Sam sat down on the side of the bed, and patted Steve’s blanket-covered leg. “How you doing? You good? Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” said Steve, slowly, taking in Sam’s stretched appearance, the electric-like shimmer in his eyes. He was about to ask how Sam was doing, but reached out with his hand instead.

Sam, not too quickly, stood up and backed away. “Good, good,” he said. “That’s good. You’re doing well. We were worried,” he added in an almost scolding, playful manner. “Okay, then. I’ll see you later?”

“Sure,” said Steve, confused and increasingly concerned, watching Sam leave the room. For some reason, his heart was pounding hard, much harder than the conversation warranted. “What the hell was that?” he asked, looking at Natasha.

Everyone had become very still.

She bit her lip. “He, uh, he took a pretty big hit from that missile during the attack on the Tower. Needed surgery, and had a severe concussion---He’s fine,” she said in a hurry at his look of panic, “Helen patched him up. He wouldn’t rest, though, and that video of you they released didn’t help. He shouldn’t have gone on the mission to rescue you -- doctor’s orders -- but there was no way to keep him back. We were all worried about you, but he took it especially hard. You realize the attack was only yesterday morning? He’s still shook up.”

He listened to Natasha, but was still confused. Everyone kept looking at him as if they had bad news and didn’t know how to tell him. Worry was one thing. He was sorry for putting Sam or his team through that, but the way Sam had acted, it was like someone had died and Sam was trying to pretend it hadn’t happened. “But, he’s okay now? Right?”

Nobody said anything until Tony sat up. He had been uncharacteristically silent, watching the conversation. His dark eyes latched onto Steve’s. “Cap,” he said, and his quiet, totally un-Stark-like manner alarmed Steve more than anything else. “That man has it bad.”

“A total goner,” agreed Nat.

“Yeah, he’s cooked,” said Clint.

He frowned at Tony, then frowned at Nat and Clint. He looked at Bucky. “I don’t--”

“Were you always this slow?” asked Bucky, but his gentle tone belied his harsh words. “He’s in love with you.”

At first Steve did not understand. Love wasn’t something anyone in the Avengers talked about. Steve cared deeply for each of his team members -- present, absent, and missing -- as complicated and prickly and difficult as they were. And Bucky was family; Steve had loved him since they were kids; it was as much a part of him as breathing. But if asked about it, he wouldn’t have called it love. No one on the team would have, except maybe Sam.

But Bucky had said Sam was in love with him. Steve knew how he had felt about Peggy: like every time he saw her, every touch between them, tore him apart and then put him back together again. If Bucky was right, that meant Sam felt that way about him.

Steve stared hard at Bucky. Bucky nodded, then tilted his head toward the door.

“Excuse me,” said Steve, rising from the bed.

“Steve,” called Bucky, and Steve turned as he reached the door. Bucky grabbed a pair of sweats and a T-shirt off the bed and threw them at him. Steve caught the clothing, belatedly realizing he was wearing a medical gown and nothing else. “No one needs to see your backside,” he said, even though Natasha, Clint, and Tony had all leaned over to take a peek, each with identical smirks.

“Right,” Steve said, ears burning, half-heartedly glaring. He nervously put the sweatpants on, tugged the gown off, and left as he started running, still holding the T-shirt.

~~~

Steve knew where he would find Sam. Pulling on the T-shirt, he jogged over to one of the access doors leading to the building’s service elevators and emergency stairs. He ran all the way up the stairs then burst onto the roof. Sam was standing close to the edge, on the side overlooking the lake.

It was dark outside. With a start, Steve realized he had no idea what time of day it was. Facing west, there was just a hint of purple, and the last lick of the sun disappearing over the tree-lined horizon.

Hearing the door bang open, Sam glanced at him sideways. He looked pained, but waited for Steve to approach with a controlled sigh of resignation. “You given up on shoes?” asked Sam.

Steve stopped, and looked down at his bare feet. “Uh,” he said. “Forgot about those.”

Sam shook his head with familiar exasperation, but didn’t say anything. A brisk, chilly breeze blew as night settled, but it was nowhere near as cold as it had been on that mountaintop.

“Sam?” asked Steve, stopping close enough to touch. Sam shook his head, not turning away but neither would he look at Steve. “The others, they said…” Steve swallowed, and stepped closer, half expecting Sam to step back. But he didn’t. Sam only ducked his head to avoid looking at Steve. Steve dropped his voice to a whisper, coming even closer, trying to look into Sam’s eyes. “Sam. Tell me.”

Sam didn’t answer, didn’t seem able to answer, but he did lift his eyes. Steve took a halting breath. Sam leaned in, pressed his forehead into the crook of Steve’s neck and with a shuddering sigh, he brought his arms around Steve, lifting one hand to place it against Steve’s cheek.

It was such a simple gesture, but it broke Steve apart. He felt it, the moment he became undone. Steve turned blindly to press his face against the palm of Sam’s hand.

“I’m sorry,” said Sam.

“God, don’t be sorry,” said Steve. It was difficult to speak when one was in pieces.

“I didn’t mean for this.” Sam sighed. “I know you weren’t looking. This job. What we are. And you’re not… not.”

Steve didn’t stop Sam from speaking but he brushed his lips against the pulse point on Sam’s wrist, licking his skin. Sam froze in his arms and fell silent. Steve turned to bury his nose into Sam’s neck, breathing him in, tasting him there as well. And then Sam was kissing Steve behind his ear, kissed him down his neck, nipping his Adam’s apple. Their lips found each other and Steve groaned. Sam bit his lower lip, and Steve almost came in his sweatpants.

“We can’t do this here,” said Steve, breathing wetly into Sam’s neck. Steve wasn’t worried about the Avengers staff, but even with every sort of perimeter and boundary protection, anything done outside could be seen by outsiders through satellite or some other confounded tech he wasn’t aware of. “And the others. We have to… briefing.”

Sam nodded. “I know,” he said.

With difficulty, they parted. Steve wasn’t exactly presentable, but he figured by the time they got down to the main floor he might manage to put himself together. He was more worried about Sam, who still looked like he was barely holding on.

“I’m all right,” said Sam, reading Steve’s mind. “Just tired. I’m not the one that was kidnapped and tortured.”

Arguably, Sam had had a worse time of it than Steve, but he didn’t comment. He wasn’t about to make light of the kidnapping or the attack, but he took Sam’s hand in his, thinking he looked far more than just tired. He opened his mouth to suggest that they could do the briefing without him, and that Sam should go to his quarters and sleep, but Sam shook his head.

“Don’t even think about it,” he said.

Steve frowned. They would just have to get through the briefing quickly. He led the way back into the building. Once under cover, he tugged on Sam’s hand and they stopped halfway down one flight of stairs. He was still reeling from everything, and could hardly believe how much had changed in the few minutes since he’d woken up. First Bucky, then Sam. It was surreal and incredible and it left him groping for something solid.

Sam was looking at him with an expectant, waiting expression so Steve kissed him. He stepped back and Sam broke out in a slow, warm smile, which made Sam look more like Sam than anything yet so far, and Steve felt the many pieces of himself come back together again.

~~~

It was a testament to how concerned the team had been for Sam and Steve, but mainly for Sam, that no one teased when they reappeared with Steve leading Sam by the hand. Although Natasha did smirk at Steve. “If I’d only known, Rogers.”

He smiled at her. “Shut it,” he said, ears burning. He looked at everyone who was there. “Let’s step into the briefing room. I need to know what you guys have found out.”

With a reassuring glance at Sam, Steve let go of his hand and approached Bucky, who was hanging back. He couldn’t tell what Bucky was thinking. He appeared to have his memories back, or at least he remembered more than what he had the last time they’d seen each other on the helicarriers. Bucky smiled slightly, but then his eyes darkened and he seemed unsure.

“Will you stay?” asked Steve.

The question brought a small crease between Bucky’s eyebrows. Then Barton stepped in, clapped Bucky hard on the shoulder, and said, “He’s staying,” before wandering away again.

Acknowledging Barton with another small smile, Bucky faced Steve and studied him for a moment. “I’ll see this through. After that…” he trailed off, giving a small shrug.

“Okay,” said Steve. It was more than he could have hoped for. “May I…?” he asked, stepping closer.

Bucky eyed him warily, but allowed Steve to take hold of his shoulders. Steve struggled with a strong need to beg forgiveness, to hug Bucky to him. He did neither of those things, watching Bucky start to withdraw into himself, like he was ashamed or afraid.

“Hey,” said Steve, shaking Bucky slightly. Their eyes met. “You’re my friend.”

Bucky breathed in, then nodded.

Giving in to one of his urges, Steve cupped the back of Bucky’s neck, squeezed once, then let go as he turned away. Sam was nearby talking with Natasha and Barton, but he looked over when Steve came closer. They all moved together into the briefing room, taking their seats. Sam sat on his left side, and it took a lot of Steve’s willpower not to reach under the table and take his hand again.

“All right,” he said, acknowledging that Dr. Cho had joined them. He paused as he looked around the room. “Where’s Wanda and the Vision?”

“Wanda’s babysitting Hammer for me,” said Tony from the other end of the table. He rolled his eyes and made a wavy hand gesture. “Long story. Vision’s with Pepper.”

At the mention of Pepper, Steve sat up, looking at Tony and Sam.

“She’s fine,” said Tony, meeting Steve’s eyes with a private nod between them. “He’s helping her with the Tower. And actually… hang on,” said Tony, tapping away on the console at his station. A few seconds later, Maria Hill and Rhodes both popped up on a screen at the front of the room, split side-by-side. “There. All present or accounted for.”

“Well,” said Steve, with a determined grimace. “We should probably start at the beginning. Tell me about the attack.”

There was a pause before Natasha started going over the events of the attack itself, what intel they had on the three jets and the twelve-man extraction team. “This is, what, the third Stark residence destroyed?” she asked, looking at Tony.

Tony made a face. “I’ve lost count.”

“The video of the attack was taken from another high rise,” continued Natasha. “From the vantage point we were able to figure out which building and what floor, but when we got there, we found only a camera setup and a modem.”

“That video, and the one after it, both had a secret message. Well, maybe not so secret,” said Tony, bringing up the paused image of Steve strapped to the table, blood gushing out of him, then zoomed in on the hashtag text: #makegodbleed.

Steve felt Sam tense, then relax as the more graphic portion went out of view. He gave in to his earlier desire and took Sam’s hand in his, then took a deep breath. “He said that to me. Or something like it. The leader, the guy in charge, whoever he was. I never saw his face. He said, ‘Why not see if Captain America bleeds?’”

Sam’s hand twitched in his, but he showed no outward sign that he was any more affected than the others.

“It refers to something from my past,” said Tony. He went into a short history of what happened six years previous between him and Justin Hammer. Steve was only vaguely familiar with the name Hammer. But he felt Bucky stir next to him.

“So, you’re saying that all this may be as much about you as it is about me?” he asked Tony.

Tony shrugged and shook his head. “I know you like to say I make everything about me, Cap, but I wish I didn’t have to claim any part of this. Fact is, Hammer’s had his memory tampered with. That’s why Wanda’s with him. Maybe she can help. Little turd was a nuisance, but he doesn’t have the capability or capacity to do any of this. Remember Senator Stern? He’s as good as a vegetable, found drooling in his comfortable supermax prison suite. The two Stark Industry personnel who helped with the attack have also had their brains scrambled. Any of this sound familiar?” They all looked at Bucky who had let his gaze fall slowly to the tabletop. “Someone was cleaning house.”

“Sounds like a take-over,” said Clint.

Stark spun his chair, and pointed a finger at Clint.

Silence fell. Steve stared at the intel on his screen. “How’d you guys find me so fast?”

“Largely thanks to Barnes,” said Clint. Bucky, who had almost completely closed in on himself, took a deep breath and gave Steve a slight grin. “Those jets,” continued Clint. “Their stealth tech is different than Stark’s. They’re, well, for lack of a better word, noisy. Stark stealth tech is much quieter. These gave off a faint harmonic signature. Impossible to track in flight, but, if you’re quick, you can pick them up when they’re stationary. It’s a definite advantage for our side. Still took several hours to search, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting us to track them.”

“No, they weren’t,” said Steve. “Tell me more about the jets. Those were military jets.”

Stark turned toward the front of the room, facing the screen with Maria and Rhodes. “Rhodey? Care to share with the class?”

Rhodes didn’t immediately speak. Just the way he was looking at all of them made the back of Steve’s neck crawl. “I don’t have much,” said Rhodes, dryly. “And what I do have, you’re not going to like. I don’t think I should say anything more from here.”

That sounded a loud warning bell with Steve. “Get back here, as soon as you can,” he said.

“Roger that,” said Rhodes, and his screen went black.

“There’s something else,” said Helen Cho, speaking up for the first time. “Their main objective may have been to make Captain America appear vulnerable, but I think it’s a lot more sinister than that. Captain Rogers, I’m sorry, but if you wouldn’t mind recounting what you experienced yesterday.”

Steve glanced at Sam. He let out a breath, then pursed his lips. “Well, you saw some of it. That video was taken right after I woke up. There was… more of the same for a while, and then they used that drug again, and I was out. I… kept fighting the drug. They would just give me more.”

Dr. Cho looked steadily at him. He knew what she was getting at, but he found himself reluctant to discuss it. “Sufentanil,” she said, after a moment. “It’s a shame. It is one of the few drugs that work on you. Or used to. Now, should there be a real need to sedate you, if you ever require surgery or the like, it will prove quite difficult.”

“Is that more evidence of someone accessing confidential information?” asked Sam. “People shouldn’t know what drugs work on Cap.”

Dr. Cho shrugged. “Perhaps. We know the captain required surgery in 2014, and there was some guess work done at the time to see what would work on him.” Once again, Bucky shifted in his seat and wouldn’t look at him. “It may be that someone looked into those records. But it wouldn’t be a difficult guess, to use sufentanil. A stronger drug, tailored just for you, may yet be developed, especially with their knowledge of how you reacted to this one. That’s only one of my concerns, however.”

Steve sighed. “What can you tell me? I don’t remember much.”

She had a gentle frown creasing her forehead. “It’s difficult to know for sure. Your body heals so quickly. They would have monitored your body’s reactions to pain and stress. The marks on your lower back, and your hip -- it’s more than likely they removed spinal fluid and bone marrow. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also took a supply of your blood, and probably seminal fluid. They didn’t have much time for anything else.”

Both Sam and Bucky sat up in alarm. “Don’t tell me what they’re planning to do with that stuff,” said Sam.

“Steve, you have to get it back,” said Bucky.

“No one has ever successfully replicated Erskine’s formula,” said Steve, looking at Bucky.

“Zola did, close enough. He did it with me.” Another ringing beat of silence. “They can do it again,” added Bucky. “And even if they can’t, they can do serious damage by trying.”

“All right,” said Steve. He turned to Sam. “All right. Clearly, that’s number one priority. I know they left with whatever they collected. I saw it. And I’m pretty sure it was on that lead jet that got away. Did we find anything in that lab?” Everyone glanced at each other uncomfortably. “What? Don’t tell me…”

“Place blew up, Cap,” said Natasha. “Right after we got you back on the quinjet. They must have set the building’s defense explosives before evacuating.”

Steve let out a gust of air, at a loss. For the briefest of moments, he gave in to a wish that it would all go away, that he could turn his back on everything and disappear. He remembered his dream with Peggy, looking up at a sapphire blue sky, watching Sam fly. He turned to see Sam watching him.

“We work every lead,” said Steve, facing his team. “We’ll figure out who’s behind this, and get to the bottom of it. In the meantime,” he looked at Sam, and then at Bucky and Barton, and everyone else. “We use what advantages we have. They don’t know yet how you tracked them. I want someone looking for that jet. That’s our best bet. Barton? Bucky?”

Barton sat up, clapped Bucky on the back. “Already on it,” he said, rising. “Come on, “ he said to Bucky, who raised his eyebrows at Steve before willingly following Barton.

“Hey Clint,” called Steve before they left the room. He walked over to him. “I didn’t get a chance earlier.” He held out his hand. “Thanks for coming in.”

Barton, who was usually so cool and unflappable, ducked his head as he shook Steve’s hand. “Sure thing, Cap. Nat?” Barton tilted his head toward the door.

Natasha rolled her eyes, but followed Clint and Barton out of the room.

Steve took his seat again. “I think that’s all for now,” he said to those who were left.

“There’s one more thing, actually.” Maria, who hadn’t said anything at all during the meeting, finally spoke up. “Cap, there’s no way around it. You’re going to have to make a public statement. We let the press know that you were found, but the entire world saw the video of the attack, and the video of what they did to you. They need to see with their own eyes that you’re okay.”

Sam put a hand on his shoulder and gave a sympathetic squeeze. Public official appearances as Captain America were definitely the least favorite part of his job.

“Fine,” he said. “Not tonight, though.”

After a moment, Maria nodded. “It’s late anyway. Tomorrow. I’ll prepare a statement.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll do it,” he said. “All right. Dismissed.”

Everyone rose from the table, except for him and Sam. Tony waved at him, and said, “I’m heading back to the Tower. I’ll send Wanda and the Vision home later. Check in tomorrow.”

Steve nodded, and then he was left alone with Sam. He suddenly didn’t know what to say, his mind swimming. Sam waited patiently, not making any demands. He looked better than he had earlier, but the marks of exhaustion were clearly showing.

“My place or yours?” asked Steve, and he was rewarded with Sam’s warm, easy laughter.

~~~

Steve brought Sam to his quarters, mostly with the intention of making sure he slept. Once in his suite of rooms, he took Sam by the hand and led him into the bedroom. “Do you want a shower?” Sam lifted his eyebrows. “By yourself,” Steve added, ears burning.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to join, but it would definitely derail his primary mission of ensuring Sam got rest before anything else happened.

Sam laughed, seemed to blush, and then nodded, although Steve thought he detected a slight shadow of disquiet pass over his face before he disappeared into Steve’s bathroom.

He tried not to think about Sam in his shower, and laid out clothes for him, then busied himself reading one message from Maria telling him he would be required to see a counselor--it was written in the by-laws, there was no getting out of it--and a second message from Barton with an update on the search for the missing jet. He shot off quick replies to both.

When Sam emerged, Steve intended to take his own shower to give Sam privacy, but one look at his face and Steve stopped in front of him. “Hey. What’s going through your head?”

Sam sat on the edge of the bed, bare-chested and wrapped in a towel. “That you didn’t ask for this. Maybe I should go to my quarters?”

Steve sat next to him. “If you want to, but I don’t want you to.”

They sat close enough that he could feel Sam’s body heat radiating along his side. He leaned closer, then pulled him into a hug, his hands lightly trailing over Sam’s bare, shower damp skin.

Without pulling away, Steve asked, “Will you be here when I get out?”

His chin resting on Steve’s shoulder, Sam nodded. Steve felt the light pressure of Sam’s lips against his neck.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, letting go. “Make yourself at home,” he added with a smile, pleased to see Sam smile back.

He didn’t linger in the bathroom, but he wanted to give Sam enough time to decide if he really wanted to stay or not. Ten minutes later, he stepped out, holding back a sigh of relief when he saw Sam sitting more or less in the same spot, dressed in sweat shorts and a loose tank top.

Steve turned off the lights and pulled back the covers. “In,” he said, pointing to the bed.

Light trickled in from the window, but not enough to see by. Sam was little more than a shadow, and Steve felt more than saw Sam’s eyebrows rise. “Yes, sir,” he said.

“When was the last time you slept?” asked Steve. Sam didn’t answer. “Exactly.”

Steve got in the bed first, held out the covers until Sam climbed in next to him. They moved around and settled, but Sam stayed raised up on an elbow. In the darkness, Steve could only make out the shape of him but met Sam with a kiss. It started slow, then deepened. He pushed Sam down to lie on his side, kissing his neck and then his shoulder, wrapping one arm around his chest. He spooned in close, nuzzling behind Sam’s ear. All at once he felt Sam relax against him.

Steve planned to lie there next to Sam for as long as was needed, not sure he could sleep anymore. He felt like he’d been sleeping for the past forty-eight hours. But he lay his head down and closed his eyes.

He woke when he felt the bed shift, the room filled with the gray light of morning. Sam was getting back into bed, lying beside him and resting his head on his arm. “Good morning.”

Steve blinked away sleep, rolling out of bed to use the bathroom and drink a glass of water, then rolling back into bed. “What time is it?”

“Half past seven,” said Sam, amused.

Reality intruded, and Steve thought of what the day ahead might bring. He had that press conference to look forward to, and then he thought of Bucky, concerned that he should go see to him, make sure he was okay. He caught Sam smiling at him, knowingly. “What?”

Sam held out his hand, pointing his thumb up. “One, I checked with Hill and she’s set the press conference for 11 a.m., so you got some time. Two,” and Sam raised his forefinger. “Barnes is holed up with Barton, who seems to have taken him under his wing.” Sam made a funny face at the wing reference. “You know, both Barton and Natasha have experience with turned agents. It’s not exactly the same with Barnes, granted, but on the whole it’s a good thing, those two getting along. Three,” his added his middle finger to the others. “They were able to track that jet again. Natasha sent a team for early reconnaissance. She thinks it’s best to go under cover of night, mission op time tentatively set for nine this evening. And four, Wanda, the Vision, and Rhodes are all safely back. They each checked in.”

“How long have you been awake?” asked Steve, both pleased and surprised.

“Half an hour, sleepy head. I also snooped around your bedroom. Where do you get the Hello Kitty Captain America? I want one.”

Steve flushed. “Barton’s daughter sends them to me.” He smiled at Sam’s laughter. “You look better,” he said, raising his hand to trace a finger down the side of Sam’s face.

In truth, Sam looked incredible -- bright-eyed and rested. He knew Sam was attractive, but this shift in their relationship opened Steve’s eyes to just how good looking he was.

“Steve,” Sam started, and Steve waited for whatever Sam needed to say. “Are you sure you want this?”

Steve frowned a little. He thought he’d been pretty clear. “Do you?”

Sam studied Steve, brow furrowed. “It’s not always that simple. Have you ever been with a guy?”

He supposed it was an important question. Steve pressed his thumb against the spot between Sam’s eyebrows, smoothing out the lines there. “No,” he said. “Just you.”

If possible, Sam’s eyes darkened further. He shook his head, looking wonderingly at Steve.

“You know,” said Steve, still keeping his tone casual but smiling as he continued to explore Sam’s face. “I’m sure this will surprise you, but I don’t have a ton of experience either way. I was never one for dating.”

Sam chuckled, but he still frowned slightly. “But you have…”

“I have,” said Steve, thinking on his few sexual encounters. Then, his thoughts turned to Peggy. He would have married her, if she’d have had him. But that dream ended long ago. He looked up at Sam, his eyes falling to his lips. “I guess I never considered men an option before. What about you?” he asked. “Have you been with men?”

He looked a little embarrassed. “Some,” said Sam, rubbing at his head.

This confession gave Steve a jolt to his stomach, and he felt his dick harden. “Really?” He dropped his hand to the bed. “Can you…” His voice cracked, and he swallowed. “Will you show me…Sam?”

He groped for Sam. They kissed and then Sam pulled back, smiling as Steve’s erection pressed against his stomach. “Well,” he said, with a voice full of warm honey. “What have we here?”

Steve held his breath as Sam brought one hand under the covers, skimmed lightly over his stomach, and slipped into his shorts. He surged up into Sam’s hand, panting into his mouth, already so hard. He lost himself, thrusting into Sam’s tight grip until he came with a shudder.

“Wow,” said Sam. “You’re going to be fun to play with.”

Steve blushed, shaking as he laughed, one hand covering his face. “Uh, sorry.”

Sam pulled back. “Nah,” he said, smiling, kissing him. “None of that here.”

He continued to kiss Steve, slowly working their clothing off. Steve was happy to lie there and let Sam kiss him all over. With a mischievous smile, Sam moved further down, and before Steve realized what would happen Sam took him into his mouth. The sensation was overwhelming, and he held back from thrusting, concerned about hurting Sam.

“Wait,” he said, tugging at Sam. “No, I want to do that,” he said.

“What?” asked Sam, lips shiny and plump. Steve kissed him then pushed him back onto the bed.

“I want to do that,” he said, spreading Sam’s legs and getting a good look at his dusky erection for the first time. It looked huge to him, and he met Sam’s eyes as he wrapped his hand around it, stroking up and down. The contrast in their skin color made his own dick jump, and he bent forward to take the tip in his mouth. “Tell me what you like,” he said, licking up.

Sam swore, pushing gently into Steve’s mouth. “Get it wet,” he said, holding Steve’s head. “I like it wet.”

Steve experimented with how far he could take him in. He swirled his tongue around the tip, then licked him down to the root, then further down.

He rose up so he could look at Sam. They kissed again, and Sam rolled on top, their erections rubbing against each other. “I want,” he said into Sam’s mouth. “I want you. Can we?”

He felt his ears burn with embarrassment. Sam pulled back to look at him. “You want to do that? Like this?” he asked, his hand slipping between them, between Steve’s open legs, pressing one finger into his body.

“God, yes,” said Steve, bearing down, his cock leaking.

“You sure?” asked Sam, kissing his nose, his chin, nipping at his Adam’s apple. He added a second finger, pushing in and up, and pressed hard.

Steve saw stars, his mouth falling open. He’d never felt anything like it before and he clutched at Sam as his cock spasmed, a jet of come spurting onto his stomach. “Definitely,” he said, when he could speak again. “More.”

“Wait right here,” said Sam, sounding strained. “Don’t move.”

He was gone just long enough for Steve’s heart rate to calm down. He took his cock in his hand, getting it hard again. Sam returned from the bathroom and stopped at the side of the bed, tossing a small bottle onto the covers.

“You are going to kill me,” he said, watching Steve stroke his cock up and down. Sam’s eyes shone bright, his skin gleaming dark and golden in the morning light. His heavy erection bobbed in front of him.

Steve held out his hand, pulling Sam back onto the bed and over to him. With his free hand he reached for Sam’s cock, panting into Sam’s mouth. Sam pulled away, going between Steve’s legs, spreading his cheeks and then Steve threw his head back and moaned as Sam’s tongue lapped at him. “You like it wet,” Steve said, managing to speak.

“Damn right, I do,” said Sam, licking more before he added two fingers covered in something slick. Steve gripped the base of his cock, trying to stop himself from coming again, but Sam pulled his hand away. “No, come as often as you need.”

Steve came hard, breathing fast, squeezing his cock and letting the come pool on his belly. Sam rose onto his knees, lifting Steve’s right leg over his arm, holding himself steady. “Look at me,” he said, and Steve met his eyes.

They kissed, waiting the moment out. Steve braced his two hands to the side of Sam’s face. “Sam, I… I--”

“I know,” Sam said in answer, kissing Steve tenderly on the cheek. “Breathe with me.” Sam swallowed Steve’s cries as he pushed his cock in, inch by inch.

Steve felt himself fall to pieces, and he clutched at Sam, riding through that incredible sensation over and over again. Sam thrust in and up, hitting that spot that made him see stars. Steve came again, and then he felt Sam grow bigger inside him, pushing all way in. “That’s it,” he said to Sam.

Sam locked eyes with Steve as he came, pumping into him until he had no more. They held each other until Sam slipped out.

Steve shifted so he could keep Sam near him as they lay side by side. He never imagined it would feel like that, to be with someone you loved, and to his shame he felt the sting of tears. Something in his breathing must have given him away, because Sam lifted his head to look at him and kissed each side of his face, gathering him in his arms.

~~~

“…they thought that by releasing those videos they could destroy not only Captain America, but our faith in something greater than ourselves. Their goal is to manipulate you for their own personal gain. Don’t let them. I’m not a god, and I’ve never claimed to be one. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn whose one wish was to fight for his country. I do bleed, just like any other soldier, just like all of you. My strength doesn’t come from this shield. It comes from a united goal…”

~~~

Steve found Bucky and Sam together in the weapons locker, selecting handguns and replenishing ammunition. When he walked in, Sam was laughing at something and he looked up to smile warmly at Steve. Steve felt a jolt of love and lust hit him squarely in the center of his chest. “What are you laughing at?” he asked.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” asked Sam, with a half-wink at Bucky and another beaming smile at Steve. He finished getting what he needed, moving to leave.

Steve felt his skin tingle as Sam passed him. “Wheels up in twenty,” he said to Sam.

“Copy that, Cap,” said Sam, close enough that Steve caught a hint of his aftershave. There was nothing at all suggestive in Sam’s words or his tone, but nevertheless Steve felt a blush creep up his neck. He watched Sam leave, then turned back to find Bucky studying him with a hint of a grin in his eyes.

“You two work things out?” asked Bucky.

“You could say that,” said Steve. He leaned against a wall. He still couldn’t quite believe that Bucky was here, that he’d come in. “How are you doing?” he asked.

Bucky glanced quickly at him, then returned to the rows of weapons, opening and closing drawers. “I’m still here,” he said.

“I guess that’s a start,” said Steve, with a smile.

“Barton said I could…” Bucky indicated the weapons.

Steve nodded, refraining from stating that of course Bucky was welcome, as an Avenger, to help himself. It didn’t seem the time to push that on him quite yet. He moved to show Bucky where the automatic handguns were kept. “What else do you need?”

They laid the guns and a few knives on the table, and Steve helped check them over, taking the guns apart and putting them back together again. They worked quickly. It brought back a wealth of memories from all those times during the war he and Bucky had sat side by side occupied in the routine maintenance of their firearms.

He kept glancing at Bucky, to see if he remembered.

“All right, Rogers. What’s got you fretting like an old lady? Out with it.”

He sounded so much like Bucky that Steve could only stare at him. “That day, on the train--” The look Bucky gave him stopped his next words.

It wasn’t lost on Steve that during the rescue op, Sam had saved Steve from falling, doing for Steve what Steve had failed to do for Bucky.

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Are you beating yourself because you can’t fly, Steve?”

“I…” he started, then shook his head, amazed that Bucky knew him so well.

“What did you say at that press conference, ‘you’re just a kid from Brooklyn?’ So am I.”

Steve realized that he could not apologize for failing to save Bucky. No apology would be sufficient anyway. Seventy years later, and he finally understood what Peggy had been trying to tell him that night in the burned out bar in London. “Thank you, Bucky.”

Bucky widened his eyes, and he let Steve reach for him. They gripped each other’s forearms. “Old lady,” said Bucky with shining eyes.

~~~

Bucky and Barton located the missing jet in the wilds of northern Montana. The recon team reported several abandoned buildings, but an active perimeter fence.

“That’s a black site location,” said Rhodes, looking at the intel.

“You know this for sure?” asked Steve, standing with the rest of his team as they prepped for the mission.

“No,” said Rhodes. “Not officially.”

“Unofficially?” asked Steve.

Rhodes shrugged. “One hears things.” Rhodes had returned from D.C. with news that the jets were definitely military spec, but he’d gotten only stony faces and evasions to his questions of who had taken them and why. “As far as the Air Force is concerned, I’ve crossed over. No one’s talking to me. I’ll tell you one thing though, it was a theft, and they covered it up.”

“All right,” said Steve. “We’ll deal with all of that later. Right now, our concern is retrieving… what they took. What can you tell us about breaking into this place?”

Rhodes nodded, and returned to the intel.

Half an hour later, Steve stood along side Sam on a clifftop overlooking a valley. A strong cool breeze blew. The sky was full of stars, and a crescent moon hung low on the horizon. A few lights twinkled, but the valley was otherwise cloaked in darkness. Even so, Steve could see the outline of several buildings, and the line of a perimeter fence.

The plan was for Rhodes and Tony to approach the site openly as War Machine and Iron Man, to see what sort of reception they received. Those two had the best chance of distracting whoever was there while Barton, Natasha, and Bucky infiltrated the facility. Meanwhile, Steve and Sam would come in from the air. He was saving the Vision and Wanda for the end.

Rhodes approached Steve, the facemask of his suit flipping down. “War Machine, locked and loaded.”

“Locked and loaded?” asked Tony, also in his suit, exited the jet to stand near Rhodes. “Do you have any idea how ludicrous you sound?”

“I sound cool,” said Rhodes.

To Steve’s left, he sensed Bucky, with Natasha and Barton. Behind him, the Vision and Wanda stood near the quinjet. He looked around at his team, gaze resting just a fraction of a second longer on Sam. “First,” he said. “I want to thank you all. It means a lot to me to have you here.”

“No maudlin speeches, please,” said Tony. “Tears rust the suit. We’re all quite happy to get you back, Cap. I keep telling people not to take my stuff.”

Steve laughed, then nodded. He felt Sam shift slightly closer. “All right,” said Steve. “Rhodey, Tony. You’re up.”

“Copy that,” and Rhodes, and they both flew up in the air in a burst of repulsor energy. A few seconds later, Steve watched Rhodes and Tony land right at the black site’s front door.

Steve glanced at Bucky, Barton, and Natasha. All three nodded back, then jumped from the cliff on rappelling lines, melting into the darkness.

It would take them a few minutes to break into the facility. Steve waited for the signal over comms. Below, he saw that Tony and Rhodes had finally gotten the site’s attention as a half dozen armed men emerged from one of the buildings to surround them.

Natasha’s voice came in over comms. “We’re in,” she said.

“Be careful,” answered Steve. He glanced at Wanda and the Vision. “You two know what to do,” he said.

“We do,” answered the Vision.

Then, he turned to Sam. Sam smiled at him. “You ready to fly?” Sam asked.

“Yes,” he said, and stepped into Sam’s arms.