"What the hell were you thinking? You meet Captain Fucking America and while he's flashing his pearly whites at you, you tell him that you want to use him to pick up girls? What kind of idiot does that?"
Sam stood under the spray of hot water, arms braced against the shower wall as he mentally replayed what had happened on his run. The last thing he'd expected when he'd set off on his pre-dawn morning run was to be shown up by an American legend like Steve Rogers.
Having the man pass him three times was humiliating but it had almost been worth it just to see his perfect ass in motion. And then when you got the chance to actually talk to him you botched it by talking about picking up girls. Exasperated, Sam slammed his hand against the tap, shutting off the water.
He'd been berating himself the whole way home as he'd limped away from the chance encounter with Steve Rogers on the Mall. Sliding the shower door open, he walked naked to his bedroom to get dressed.
"Don't forget the way he pulled you up," his ego-killing reflection told him in the mirror on the back of the bedroom door. "You liked that didn't you? All those sexy muscles popping and him all sweaty. And when he was about to walk away you got him back...got him talking about his fucking bed. Then you just go and slam the door shut by being a macho ass. What would Riley have said? He'd have called you a fool. And he'd be right."
Shutting the door on his reflection, Sam went into the kitchen and opened the fridge door, pulled out the ingredients for his morning smoothie. His joking about using Captain America to pick up a girl was typical guy talk. What he'd gotten used to having to do in the years before DADT had been rescinded.
It wouldn't be so fucking annoying if it wasn't for the connection he'd felt while taking with Rogers. Sam knew some of what the man must be going through and he couldn't be having an easy time of it. The media coverage had been filled with the astounding story of Steve Rogers after he'd been discovered in Arctic.
Rogers had fought in heavy combat conditions for over three years before disappearing into the ice. Technically it had happened seven decades ago but Sam knew for Rogers it had seemed like only been four months ago. They had only talked for a few minutes but it had Sam wondering about how he was coping with that transition. Sam knew what it was like to suddenly be back in civies after years of service and combat.
His gut was telling him that Rogers wasn't handling it as well as his easy smile and smooth attitude suggested. The man was up running at dawn after a night spent tossing and turning. A soft marshmallow mattress likely wasn't the only thing keeping him awake. Sam had his own ghosts that kept him from sleeping, he wondered what was chasing Rogers out of his bed.
Sam made his breakfast, cracking two eggs into the blender pitcher and added a banana, strawberries, yogurt, protein powder, and ice. Hitting the button on the blender, he let it do its thing as he leaned against the counter, replaying the encounter with Rogers in his head again.
What was bothering him is that he could've really offered to help Rogers instead of just joking with him about picking up girls. Sam knew he should've done his job as a vet counselor and made sure that Steve Rogers, a returning veteran, was getting the help he needed and offering his services.
Sam didn't know what to say to the voice in his head, that sounded a hell of a lot like Riley, telling him that he really didn't want Rogers to be a client, he wanted more.
The session was nearly over when Sam noticed someone lurking in the open entranceway to the room. It wasn't uncommon for someone to hang back before deciding to join the group. It wasn't cowardice: they'd likely not hesitate to throw themselves into a gun battle in the sandbox. It took an entirely different kind of courage to sit in the metal folding chairs in a vet group and reveal your deepest fears.
A cough in the room brought his attention back to Karen as she talked about what had triggered a PTSD episode. Sam forced himself to focus on those in the room. There were no easy answers for any of the vets sitting in the group, but he knew from experience that getting them to talk out loud was the first step to leaving the battlefield behind.
The chime on his phone went off and Sam wrapped up the session. As was saying good-bye to everyone he saw who the lurker was and had to tamp down the jolt to his libido that seeing Steve Rogers standing in the hall triggered.
Steve stayed back as Sam made eye contact with each one as they were leaving; reminding them to call him if they needed to talk before the next session. At last everyone was heading home and Sam turned to see Steve waiting for him.
"Look who it is. The running man."
He didn't miss the flush that rose in Steve's cheeks as they shook hands. Interesting.
"I caught the last few minutes. It's pretty intense."
"Yeah, brother, we all got the same problems. Guilt, regret."
"You lose someone?"
Sam swallowed hard before answering. He understood that sometimes veterans needed to be reassured that a counselor actually knew about the experiences they'd gone through in combat. It was interesting that Steve had guessed that Sam had suffered a loss. It wasn't easy talking about Riley, but Sam knew it was a concrete way of making an immediate connection with fellow vets, it reassured them that he'd made it through something so painful and that they could too.
"My wingman, Riley. Flying a night mission. A standard rescue op, nothing we hadn't done a thousand times before, till an RPG knock Riley's dumb ass out of the sky. Nothing I could do. It's like I was up there just to watch."
"After that, I had really hard time finding a reason for being over there, you know?" Sam gave a little shrug. After bumping into Steve the week before, Sam had gone to see the Captain America exhibit. He'd learned that Steve Rogers had lost a childhood friend who'd served in the same unit had been killed in 1944. And for Steve that loss must still be raw, to him it had only been a few months before.
"But you're happy now, back in the world?"
Sam had to laugh, it was an easy answer. "Hey, the number of people giving me orders is down to about zero. So, hell, yeah. You thinking about getting out?"
"No…" Steve gave a little nod, contradicting his words. "...I don't know. To be honest, I don't know what I would do with myself if I did."
"Ultimate fighting? It's just a great idea off the top of my head. But seriously, you could do whatever you want to do. What makes you happy?" Sam tried to lighten the mood but Steve wasn't having any of it.
"I don't know."
Sam could tell the words came from Steve's gut. The easy-going guy who'd had exuded confidence the previous week had been replaced by one with his hands shoved down his pockets one whose eyes slid off to the side rather than looking at Sam. And he wanted to find out why.
"Tell you what, I was just going to head down to the canteen. Let me buy you a coffee."
Steve's shoulders relaxed in a slump and he gave a small smile. "I'd like that."
Sam kept the banter up as he gave Steve a mini tour of the VA hospital. He wasn't sure if Steve heard a word he was saying. They filled mugs with coffee and Sam grabbed a couple of pastries. Food had a way of opening people up. Sharon the cashier winked at Sam and waved them through when Sam pulled out his wallet to pay.
"She's cute," Steve said as they made their way through tables.
"Who? Oh, sure. She's fly. Not quite what I'm looking for these days though," Sam said. Not since a certain someone had blown past him on the Mall. Being bisexual had never bothered Sam, thanks in part because of the support he'd gotten from his mother who had simply smiled when Sam came to her talking about his crushes.
"Love who you love, Samuel. It will all sort itself out."
The canteen was in the back of the building and overlooked a small garden. Being the middle of the afternoon it was nearly empty, aside from a scattering of people likely waiting for loved ones or for their appointment. Sam recognized one of the Korean War vets sitting at a table, a former POW whose ongoing health issues stemmed from two years spent in the harshest prison camp conditions imaginable. Sam stopped to to say hello to him and and the man's eyes lit up as he recognized who was standing next to Sam.
"Captain America. Won't my wife be sorry that she didn't come with me today. Used to read all your comics when we were in school. I'm pleased to meet you."
Steve smiled as he shook Leo's hand. "Pleasure's all mine. And you can call me Steve. Sam invited me to stop by and see what the VA is all about."
"He's a good one. Not like some of those docs who try to get you to talk but have no idea what's what. Sam knows. He's been there."
Sam led Steve to his favorite table, it was tucked off in the far corner. The view of the garden was soothing; he used this table for sessions with vets who were too jumpy to meet in the cubby hole that served as his office.
The open space of the cafeteria usually made them feel safer but it could cause other problems: Sam didn't miss how Steve chose the far chair so his back was to the wall. He sat himself to Steve's left rather than across so he wouldn't block Steve line of sight as he scanned the room and the windows. The dangers must've been minimal because Steve relaxed back into his chair and looked over at Sam.
"How did you end up doing counseling?"
Sam motioned towards the vet they'd just shook hands with. "Because of brothers like Leo there. And all of the others who served in your war and all the ones that have followed. My dad served in Vietnam. Received a thank you for your service and was sent on home along with tens of thousands of other returning soldiers. They came home knowing they had to be tough and forget about seeing the man to their left and right being maimed or killed; forget about how many people they'd killed. Nope. They were supposed to get on with their lives. And they did, but inside it chewed them up alive."
Steve rolled his coffee mug in the palm of his hand. "They called it shell-shock back when I was growing up. Lot of vets from the great war, the first one, in my neighborhood in Brooklyn."
"Exactly, seems to happen with every war, we never learn. My mom said Dad had been a different man before 'nam. Would go out dancing, sneak her up to the top of their apartment building in the middle of the night just to watch the city lights. Not after he came back. He held it all inside until liquor ate his liver away. Died from cirrhosis when he was forty-two."
Sam shook his head. "It took my first gunfight in Afghanistan to understand my dad. I walked away without a scratch but two in my platoon weren't so lucky. I realized I'd had just a glimpse of what my old man had been through."
"We were raised to be tough, and if you couldn't be tough then you had to fake it." Steve looked around the room before looking back at Sam with a frown creasing his face. "Some nights there was no escape from the artillery and you'd just pray that you'd be there in the morning. Then feel guilty when you were but the guy in the trench next to you wasn't. And I'm sure a lot of the soldiers I served with when they came home, if they came home, kept it locked up inside."
"Well, that is one thing that is getting better now for our servicemembers returning from overseas. We could be doing a lot more, could definitely use twice the number of counselors, but we're on the right track to better help our men and women. At VAs across the country they have a place to turn to, and we help their families, too. Helped me after losing Riley. That hit me hard. But talking about it was better than not. And eventually I got my degree in counseling and now I'm here."
"And from what I heard of the session, doing a great job."
"You're welcome to sit in on the next one. No pressure to talk. Sometimes it helps just knowing that others are going through the same thing. And there are sessions led by other counselors, too." Sam had to suggest the other sessions, sitting at the table talking felt like spending time with a friend, if Steve became a client that would have to change.
"I'll keep it in mind, with the work I'm doing for S.H.I.E.L.D. it's hard to say where I'll be from hour to hour."
"Do you like that? The missions? Seems you aren't so sure."
"I like action more than inaction but only…" Steve shifted in his seat, his eyes scanning the room before looking at Sam again. "When I enlisted it was because I knew the cause was right, there was no question who the enemy was. Now…"
"Now you're not so sure."
"No. I'm not. Especially when it has gotten hard to know who to trust."
"That makes a huge difference. And you trust S.H.I.E.L.D.?" The president and other world leaders had tremendous faith in the global organization but with so much secrecy surrounding them Sam wasn't surprised that Rogers had doubts about it. Blind faith wasn't a good platform for something with that much power.
"There are some things with S.H.I.E.L.D. that make me feel uncomfortable, but I know that peace comes at a price. Maybe I'm just troubled because I'm still adjusting to living in this time."
"I imagine you get tired of people asking how you are liking the 21st century. From what I see it looks like you are making it work for you. Using the internet and all that, but I'm wondering how you are really doing overall, I know you aren't sleeping."
"Learning what has happened, catching up on world events, that's the easy part." Steve's hands were wrapped tightly around the mug. "What is hard is letting go of what's gone. I grew up in Brooklyn, knew every face in a four block radius of our apartment building. Now all I remember is gone. Some of the buildings are the same but they are filled with strangers who don't even know the people who live next door. Even the Dodgers are gone, I have no idea who the Mets are."
"Well, they aren't the Yankees so you don't even have to worry about the Mets." Sam gave a chuckle as he tore into one of the chocolate frosted pastries and pushed the plate towards Steve.
Steve smiled but it didn't reach his eyes. "That's why I decided to move down here. It was too hard being in New York. I know I have to move forward into this century, but it's hard to accept that whatever I used to want, or thought I wanted, is gone along with percolators and pressure cookers. Every morning I wake up and I don't know..." He grimaced and shook his head.
"You feel lost."
"I do." Steve agreed as he reached for pastry and took a bite. "Mmm. This is good."
Sam tried to ignore, the little smear of chocolate frosting at the corner of Steve's mouth. He couldn't ignore when Steve's tongue flicked out and licked it away. He shifted in his seat, forcing himself to tamp down the curl of desire that was firing up.
"I won't pretend to know how it feels like for you, but I do know what it was like going to back to my old neighborhood after my first tour. Kids playing in the street and I couldn't help but think of the kids over in Afghanistan. Ten year olds with no shoes to wear but they already knew how to strip down a Kalashnikov. And I had a pretty hard time relating to my friends who were worried about their golf score and mortgage. Is there anyone left from your time that you can talk to? Family? Friends?"
"No, well, there's Peggy." Steve straightened up, squaring his shoulders as he turned back to Sam. "She served with us. I went to see her last week and it was good to see her but she's lived her whole life. After the war she got married, had kids, grandkids, and soon…" He sat back, his jaw clenching as he turned his head, blinking.
His voice was rough when he continued speaking. "Soon, she's going to be gone and I still remember her like it was yesterday. It was yesterday." He'd pulled something out of his pocket, a small round metal case, his fingers rubbing over the cover like a talisman. "It is just one more thing that is making me rethink everything. When I went to war seventy years ago I knew what I was fighting for, I knew who the bad guys were. Now I'm not so sure."
"That's probably making you ask yourself some pretty important questions." If there is one thing Sam knew from his two tours was that you had to believe that you were fighting the good fight. Once you started questioning that, it was all over.
Steve fidgeted, his fingers opening the little case and Sam recognized it as an old World War II compass. He shook his head. "Some days I don't even know what the questions should be, let alone what the answers are. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to burden you with my problems."
"That's what I'm here for, remember you're a vet. You've every right to come and get help here, same as all the other vets who walk through these doors. "
"I'll remember that, but right now it's enough just enjoying a cup of coffee with you. Maybe later, when things settle down." Steve gave Sam a smile that made his stomach muscles tighten just a little. Damn, the man was fine. Hard to believe he was ninety-five; he was so unlike the other ninety-five year olds that Sam sometimes spent time with at the VA.
"And you're welcome to come back for more coffee, and on Fridays they have apple turnovers." Sam said but brain was already clicking ahead towards a way to help Steve feel more connected to his past.
"Now that's good intel."
"Believe it." Sam checked the time. There was just enough time to test out his idea before his next session. "You have a few more minutes? I want to take you upstairs."
"Sure, where are we going?" Steve asked.
"Want you to meet some buddies of mine."
The ortho floor was up on the third floor. Sam motioned down the long corridor of patient rooms. "These patients are recovering from everything from amputations to hip replacements. They're stuck here except for the times they get to go down to PT. They could use someone new to talk to, my day isn't long enough to give them the kind of attention they deserve."
"What you were saying about an old man...many of them are your age. Someone like me can talk to them all day long but it isn't the same as talking to someone who knows what it is like to grow up in the Depression. You need answers. Sometimes you can find them where you aren't looking." The alarm on Sam's phone went off. "Damn, my next session starts in a few minutes. Want me to see you out to the front or stay here?"
Steve looked around. "I think I'll stay here."
"Good." Sam reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out one of his business cards. "You still have that little notebook? Gimme your pen."
Steve raised an eyebrow but pulled out the pen and handed it to Sam.
"This has all my contact info." Sam scribbled on the back of the card. "And my home address and phone. Call. Stop by. Doesn't matter the time." He handed it to Steve. "And you can come up here anytime you like. I'll let them know at the front desk."
"Thank you, Sam."
"Least I can do, even if I won't ever get to watch you from the front row on the ultimate fighting."
"No, you probably won't." Steve's cheek blushed faintly.
"Probably wasn't the best suggestion, but there are other options out there. Promise me, that if you need to talk, about the past, or the future, you call me."
Over the next week he heard rumor from staff that 'Captain America' had stopped by to visit patients but it wasn't until the following Friday when he heard a knock on his open office door and looked up to see Steve.
"Busy?" Steve asked, as he leaned against the doorway, his hands stuffed in his jeans. He was wearing a dark brown leather jacket that looked as soft as butter and Sam really wanted to find out if it was.
"Not at all." Sam stood and motioned him to come in. "Might be a civilian now but it doesn't save me from all the paperwork. C'mon in, sit down, you can give me a break from these quarterly reports."
Steve sat down in one of the the client chairs in front of Sam's desk. Sam didn't miss how Steve turned it so he could keep an eye on the door. "You want to head to the canteen? Get a coffee?"
"No, don't have that long. Just thought I'd come by and say hello since I was in the building."
"I heard rumor you've been coming by. Ben, he's the night nurse, says that the mood on the whole floor has perked up. I'm glad you're doing that."
"I am, too. It's nice talking to someone else who remembers when the only ice you could get was delivered by horse and wagon or how good a chocolate soda from Woolworth's tasted."
"And that's a two way street. You're helping them just as much as they help you. I imagine they've helped fill in some of those gaps you're missing. Still marking things down in your notebook?"
Steve nodded. "There are things I have a hard time understanding… nuclear weapons, the whole sixties thing, but talking to vets my age? It's good."
"I'm glad," Sam said even though Steve looked just as uneasy as the last time he'd seen him.
Steve looked around the room, taking in the photographs of Sam with various clients, his family. "When I came by the first time, you told me about Riley. Your wingman."
Sam nodded. "Riley and I did two tours together."
"You must've been close."
"Yeah, we were." Sam could still see Riley's smiling face as they'd walked out of the mess that last night, the other team members all around. Sam spent years wishing he could've said something to Riley. To do more than give him a fistbump after they'd suited up and were ready to take off.
"It hurts, losing a friend like that." Steve stated it as a fact.
"It's been three years and the hurt hasn't gone away, just a little easier to breathe now. But sometimes I wake up and I remember he's gone and it hurts like that first day all over again. You lose someone like that?"
Steve stood up and walked to the window. "A good friend, Bucky. We'd grew up on the same block in Brooklyn and ended up serving together in the Commandos. He was killed during a mission. It was like you said..he was there and then he wasn't and there was nothing I could do."
"And you still feel the guilt. That you didn't save him. That you survived and he didn't."
"I can't tell you how you move on, only what it was like for me. I had to keep going even though I didn't understand how he could be gone and I was still breathing. Didn't seem fair. But there were more missions and I still had to do my job."
"Can I ask–" Steve glanced over at the open door and back at Sam. "Were…"
"What do you want to know?" Sam wanted to be sure on what Steve's question was, he wasn't going to trust his gut on this one. If Steve wanted to know he'd have to spell it out.
"Were you and RIley more than just friends?" Steve spoke quietly, checking the door again. "I'm guessing by the way you talk about him, it seems you and Riley were more than that, you just didn't serve together."
Sam nodded, leaning back in his chair as he forced himself to look relaxed. "We were a lot more than friends. We met in training and the connection was pretty immediate. Didn't take long for us to get together but Don't Ask Don't Tell was still in play back then. You've heard what that was all about?"
"That was the regulation that you could be homosexual in the military so long as no one knows." Steve's cheeks blushed red. Sam wondered if he'd ever said the word homosexual out loud before.
"Right, in other words, it was complete bullshit, you could be gay, or bisexual in my case, but if they found out you were out." Sam still was disgusted by the stupidity of that rule. "It meant that when Riley died I had to act like someone who'd lost a member of his team and not his lover. We'd been together for seven years and I couldn't grieve him, couldn't show that my heart had been torn out."
"How did you go on?" Steve crossed back to his chair and scooted it closer to Sam's desk.
"I finished my tour and I got out. Ended up getting a degree in counseling thanks to the GI Bill and started working for the VA. It helps. The hurt hasn't gone away but it's been long enough now that I know Riley would be ticked at me if I let what we had hold me back. He's like a voice on my shoulder, yelling in my ear to get out there. To not hide away, so that that's what I do."
"And you get up and run at dawn."
"Yep. And you better believe he'd have laughed at me for not being able to outrun one hundred-year olds."
"Don't make me older than I am. I'm only ninety-five."
Sam laughed and nodded. "Right, if you were a hundred I could've totally have beat you."
"Does that bother you? My age?"
"What? That you're older than my great grandparents? Nope. What matters is what we have in common and the ways we are different makes it interesting. You're from Brooklyn, I'm from Harlem. We were in different wars but I think we have something in common there, too." Sam gave Steve a straight on look, daring him to dodge the unasked question.
Steve held his look and nodded. "We both lost someone who was more than just a friend."
"You want to talk about that?"
Steve shook his head. "Maybe someday, not today."
Sam gave him the out he needed, Steve probably already had enough to think about. "I'm okay with that, what do you have planned for the rest of the day? Already been upstairs?"
"Yes, I should be going, actually. I'm overdue at the Triskelion."
"I need to stretch my legs, I'll walk you out."
Out in the parking lot Sam stopped short when Steve walked towards a motorcycle parked near the front of the building.
"Damn. This is yours?" The bike was a sleek Harley Davidson and Sam sincerely hoped it was Steve's so he could watch him ride away on it.
"Now that is a bike. I had a Honda years ago but sold it before my first tour. It was nothing like this. Is it a 750? How does it ride?"
"Better than the ones I was riding over in Europe." Steve was standing at ease as Sam drooled over the bike. "Maybe you'd like to take it out for a spin sometime?"
"I'm not going to say no to that. Would love to." Sam ran his hands over the handlebars. "I bet it's a smooth ride."
"It's a good escape when everything gets to be a little too much for me."
"You know you can call me anytime you need to talk."
"I don't want to be one of your clients."
Sam gave a slow smile. "That's good, 'cause I didn't offer as a counselor. I'd like it better if we were friends. If you were a client, things might get a little difficult."
Sam angled his head at Steve, wondering the odds that he was reading Steve correctly and cursing to himself when they came up even. Splitting the difference, he held out his hand and when Steve took it, Sam pulled him in for a hug.
The immediate relaxing of Steve's body against his own told Sam what he needed to know and he didn't let go. He ran his hand down Steve's back, as he pressed against him. Steve smelled of the leather of his jacket and Irish Spring soap.
"You don't wear after-shave." Sam said, as he pulled back.
Steve smiled and shook his head. "Once found a fox hole full of Hydra soldiers just because we could smell their cologne coming downwind to us. Haven't worn it since."
Sam hadn't let go of Steve's hand and Steve hadn't tried to pull it away. Steve's eyes flicked down to Sam's mouth and in the split moment before it became too awkward, Sam reached up and gently put his hand to Steve's neck. "Just say no…" he waited a moment and when Steve didn't pull away Sam closed the distance and kissed him.
For the briefest of moment Steve stood so still that Sam almost pulled away, then Steve gave a little moan deep in his throat and began to kiss Sam back, his lips seeking, needing. Steve reached up, his fingers cradling Sam's face as the kiss deepened.
Sam gave a groan of his own and slid his hands beneath Steve's jacket, feeling the warmth of Steve's body under his t-shirt and the muscles of his back. They pressed together and all of Sam's senses lit as Steve's fingers caressed his face, his neck.
Their lips and tongues tasted and teased, everything racing far beyond the little test kiss that Sam had intended as their bodies pressed together and Sam could feel Steve's muscled body against his own.
A car's engine revved nearby and Steve jerked away and Sam crashed back to reality. He forced himself to take a step back. Steve was breathing hard, as he looked quickly around, his shoulders pulling back in fighter stance.
The car passed them by with the driver not even giving them a second look and Sam gave a sigh of relief. They stood there for a moment, Sam's hands tangled in the belt loops of Steve's jeans, keeping him close but far enough apart to avoid temptation.
"Should I apologize?" Sam asked as his pulse slowly returned to normal and he had to fight the urge to run his thumb against Steve's reddened lips.
Steve's soft laugh was music to Sam's ears. "Only if you regret it, but…" he looked at Sam and gave a deep sigh. "Would you hate me if I say it's complicated?"
"Nope, because I know it's the truth. I know you have a lot of things to figure out. Probably should've waited, but I wanted you to know that if this is one of the things you're trying to figure out, I can help you with it - as a friend or something more."
Steve nodded and looked away. Not meeting Sam's eyes was never a good thing. Sam took a little step back, and gave Steve's hips a squeeze before pulling his hands away.
"I don't want to…" Steve bit his lip like he did and straightened up. "Your friendship means a lot. I don't know a lot of people outside of those I work with but...you're right. I lost Bucky seventy years ago. It still hurts like it was yesterday."
"That's because it wasn't that long ago. Your loss was a lot more recent than mine. Don't let what year it is now mess with what year it is in your head when you think of what you've lost."
"Easier said than done." Steve waved his hand up at the jumbo passenger jet that passing by overhead descending towards Reagan National. "Everywhere there are reminders that this is a whole new century."
"I get that. So we take it easy, you want to meet for coffee and talk about that or anything else. Not as a therapist/patient. As a friend. I'm here for you."
"I'd like that, maybe as soon as things at S.H.I.E.L.D. get straightened out."
"Good. I'm gonna hold you to that." Sam glanced back at the hospital. "I need to get back and finish those reports. You still have my numbers? Use them."
"Thanks, Sam." Steve held out his hand and Sam gave it a firm shake before stepping back and Steve got on his Harley. Watching him pull away Sam knew things had changed but didn't know how they'd work out. The man had a lot of ghosts chasing him but they weren't ones that anyone living today could possibly understand.
Three days later, Sam opened the door to his apartment to see a battered Steve standing next to the red-head who'd picked Steve up after the run on the Mall. They needed help and after hearing what they were up against Sam didn't hesitate to reveal the secret that he'd signed an oath to never divulge.
That night he woke to the sound of someone moving around the house. It was three in the morning, Steve and Natasha should still be sound asleep. Instantly on alert he got his weapon from the bedside drawer.
Easing the door to his bedroom open, he made his way down the hallway, his Beretta in ready position. The light was on in the kitchen and he could hear someone searching for something, he switched sides of the hall to get a first look.
"Stand down." Sam's heart pounded as Steve suddenly was in front of him, his arms held up high, palms out. "It's just me."
"Shit. Fuck. Sorry." Sam lowered the pistol and shook his head, releasing the tension in his body. "I thought someone had broken in."
"I'm the one that should apologize. I was getting something to eat, didn't mean to wake you." Steve said as he lowered his hands. He was wearing the sweats and t-shirt that Sam had put out for him and looked pretty damn fit in them.
"Yeah. Well, light sleeper." Sam put the safety on the pistol and set it on the counter. "Hungry?"
"Afraid one of the disadvantages of super-serum. Metabolism is so high that I need constant fuel." Steve looked at Steve and then away, a flush rising on his cheekbones. Sam guessed he was embarrassed to be found out raiding another guy's fridge.
"Then let's make you some food, eggs good?" Sam said as he moved to the kitchen and pulled out a carton of eggs from the fridge. From the pantry he grabbed an onion and two potatoes, and then with a quick glance at Steve, decided to make it three. The man was hungry. "Must be tough to get enough rations when you are in the field."
Steve laughed. "Worse than you could imagine. Last year in the Argonne…"
"Yeah?" Sam started grating the potatoes and onion but turned back to look at him. "What happened?"
Steve started cracking eggs into a bowl. "We were trying to find a Hydra encampment and the supply lines had been cut-off. Everything had to be rationed out and...it wasn't enough. Went to bed with my stomach gnawing and I thought I was going to have to start eating grass when Bucky snuck back into camp carrying two chickens. He'd disappeared and I thought he was just doing a recon. Don't know where he found them but we roasted them on green sticks over the coals of the fire."
"Bet it was the best chicken you ever ate." Sam pulled out his biggest frying pan and added some oil and put it on the burner, when the pan was hot he patted down the potatoes and onions so they'd cook up crisp.
"Second best," Steve corrected. "Bucky's mom made the best fried chicken in Brooklyn. Uhm. Do you think you should put on an apron?"
"What?" Sam glanced down and realized for the first time he was only wear the grey boxer briefs he'd worn to bed. "Shit." He took a step back from the frying pan that was spitting oil. "Well, this is awkward."
Steve held his hands up. "Didn't want to criticize, but back when I came from frying potatoes without a shirt on wasn't considered a good idea."
"Hell. Keep an eye on that pan." Sam ran down the hall to the bedroom, he grabbed the sweats he'd worn the day before and pulled them on along with a blue t-shirt that was at the top of the pile of dirty clothes.
"Practically hanging my junk in front of Captain America, Riley would definitely have gotten a laugh out of that," Sam muttered to himself as he did a double check in the bedroom mirror to make sure everything was covered.
"Sorry about that," he said as he got back to the kitchen. "Thought there was an intruder and then...you know."
Steve was at the stove, flipping the potatoes that were already crisping up nicely. "No need to apologize, I'm the one that invaded your home."
"Yeah, slept in just my boxers since I was a teen. We couldn't afford air conditioning and there weren't any breeze in our apartment in Harlem. Was hot as hell in the summer..."
"No one had air conditioning back in the thirties. Hot summer nights we'd drag our mattress and pillow out and sleep on the fire escape. Still wore our pajamas though," said Steve with a wink and a flash of his dimples that had Sam turning to the stove to hide his reaction. He quickly plated up the potatoes and eggs, giving Steve most of them.
As they sat down at the table to eat them Sam noticed the linens and pillow that he'd given Steve were spread out on the floor in front of the sofa, not on it. Natasha had taken the guest room and even though there was room enough on the queen bed to share, Steve had offered to sleep on the sofa.
"Still prefer sleeping on the floor?"
Steve nodded. "Three years in sleeping on the ground makes just about anything but the ground too soft. I don't sleep well as it is, this body doesn't need as much sleep as a normal one."
"Does it feel like that? That your body isn't yours?"
Steve glanced down at it and shook his head. "It's mine, but inside I still feel like an asthmatic kid from Brooklyn who couldn't stay out of a fight. But I'm used to it now. Understand it better."
Sam picked at his plate as Steve ate everything on his plate and two glasses of milk until at last he pushed back his plate.
Sam set down his fork on his half finished plate. "Anything besides your stomach keeping you from sleeping tonight?"
"You don't think that finding out that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a Hydra cover agency isn't enough to keep me up?"
"Nope, because you've been fighting Hydra for years. All those uncertainties you had? They've been confirmed. If anything you should sleep better knowing you're going into battle for the right cause."
Steve nodded. "You're right. My gut had been telling me something was rotten at S.H.I.E.L.D. for weeks."
"Then if I was a gambling man I'd guess it might have something to do about the conversation we had the last time we met, and maybe a little about me kissing you."
"I kissed you too. You weren't alone in that."
"Damn right. And it wouldn't be something I'd mind happening again, if and when you want it to. And I'm also guessing that it wasn't the first time you'd kissed a man." Sam had been thinking a lot about that. Steve might've hesitated a moment before kissing him back, but there Sam didn't have a didn't think for a minute that it had been a new experience for him.
"No, it wasn't, but the last time was...it was before."
Steve's hand was gripping his fork so hard Sam could see the metal bending. Sam reached out and put his hand on Steve's, his thumb rubbing the back of Steve's hand until it relaxed.
"The first time I was with someone after Riley died, I cried the whole way home. It tore me up inside being with someone else. And she was a nice woman and we'd had a fun time together but she wasn't Riley and I felt so damn guilty about moving on. Took a long time to convince myself that it was okay, that Riley would've wanted me to."
"It isn't just that, the everything is hard." When Sam couldn't hold back a chuckle at that, Steve flushed and laughed at himself. "Besides that, I mean. Attitudes are so different now. Things like this being talked about out in the open, that never happened when I was growing up. It would've made things a lot easier if I'd known about homosexuality."
"But you knew you had feelings for men. You loved someone."
Steve nodded. "Bucky was my best friend. His family practically adopted me after my mom died. I knew what I felt for him wasn't a love like a brother or a best friend. Then the war started and he enlisted and I didn't dare try to say him anything to him."
"And you didn't know you were gay?"
"I didn't even know there was even a word for how I felt. I thought something inside of me was wired wrong. Before I looked like this...my whole body was weak. Asthma. Rheumatic fever. Scarlet fever. It made sense to me that what I felt for Bucky was just one thing that had gone wrong with my body."
"Did you ever tell him how you felt?"
Steve nodded. "After he escaped from Hydra, we had some time together in England and, well, turns out he felt the same way." Steve's cheeks were bright red and he had a smile on his face as he looked down at his plate rather than at Sam.
"That must've been pretty good."
"It was, but the war was still going on. We formed the Howling Commandos and most of our time was spent in combat conditions. But in the dark...we...well, I knew he loved me. Neither of us knew what would happen when we went back to the States, and then it was over. He fell from that train in the mountains and he was gone."
"And that hurts." Sam knew the pain that Steve must've felt at seeing Bucky die.
"It does," Steve said hoarsely. "I miss him."
"You always will," Sam said. Just hearing Steve talking about Bucky brought back all the raw emotions he'd felt when Riley had died. He had take in a couple deep breaths to tamp them back down so he could help Steve. "It is okay to miss him. It is okay to feel that pain. Give yourself time to grieve. And don't shy away from thinking about the good times you had with Bucky. Appreciate those moments. You had someone you loved in your life and that is a blessing. And when you're ready maybe it will be easier knowing things are different for those of us who are gay or queer or however you identify than they were back in the thirties and forties."
"I know that's true. Everything is so much more open. I did some searches on the internet about it."
"Oh boy, you googled being gay? I bet that was educational."
Steve groaned. "You've no idea."
"Oh, I do know. But don't think you have to do this alone" Sam leaned forward. "I can be here for you. We can talk about what all the letters in LGBTQA mean. Just because I grew up when it was more accepted doesn't mean it wasn't confusing for me. Especially since I like women and men. Took me a while to figure out that that not everyone thought that way, but it was still okay."
"I know enough already to know that I don't need to worry about what everything means and just follow what feels right. Like when we kissed. Maybe I did have some mixed feelings. To kiss a man in a parking lot in broad daylight? That could've never happened with Bucky and I think that . This is a different world from when Bucky and I together that helps me not feel conflicted. I don't feel guilty about betraying him."
"You aren't betraying him."
Steve blushed. "Right, I know."
"You know, but you still feel a twinge of it."
"Maybe, a little. Maybe I'll be ready to move on soon, but right now I have to focus on Hydra."
"And I imagine that is bringing up a whole lot of old ghosts for you."
"You have no idea. Seeing Zola's face yesterday, brought me right back to the day I found Red Skull's compound and Bucky. What he'd done to Bucky." Steve's hands tightened into fists. "It wasn't right. I thought he was dead and instead he was continuing his madness."
"You'll stop Hydra, and I'm going to be there to help you anyway I can, and then after it's over then—" Whatever else Sam was going to say was lost by a mammoth yawn. "Damn, sorry."
"My fault, it's oh four hundred and we have to be up in a couple of hours." Steve stood up and picked up their plates.
"Leave those, I'll do them in the morning. I do need some shut-eye because I've a feeling things are going to start moving pretty quickly."
When Sam reluctantly dragged himself out of bed just after dawn he found Natasha drinking coffee alone in the kitchen.
"Went out for a run. He wrote up the plan for getting Sitwell. You'll want to take a look. Make sure that the EXO-7 suit can do we what we need it to do."
"Okay." Sam wondered if Steve had gone to bed at all. "You get yourself some breakfast?"
"Taken care of," Natasha said as she eyed him over the rim of her mug. "You and Steve were up late talking?"
"Eh, he got the late night munchies. I kept him company." Sam went to the fridge to get milk for his coffee.
"You two became buddies pretty quickly. When I picked him up on the Mall he'd said he'd just met you."
"Yeah, well. He could use some friends away from S.H.I.E.L.D.. Came by the VA, we talked."
Natasha gave a hmmm as she refilled her coffee cup. She had on the same leggings and green hoodie she'd shown up wearing the day before. "I imagine you have a lot of shared life experiences."
"You could say that, serving in a war whether it was in the this century or the last, does mean we have something in common." Sam didn't know what she was digging at but she had the sly eye look that had him on alert.
"I've a question for you."
"What's that?" Sam asked, hopping up the counter.
"Who was the last person you kissed?"
"Now what would motivate you to ask that?"
"Well, since we've only just met, there'd no reason to not answer. Unless…" Natasha raised her eyebrow as she smiled into her coffee cup.
"I won't answer because you're poking at things that aren't any of your business." Sam said shortly. "I'll take a look at those plans."
The table wobbled as the waitress cleared the plates from their table and Sam had to grab the water glasses to keep them from spilling. The girl apologized in soft spoken English, the blush on her cheeks hidden by her long black hair. They were in Beziers, France, following the latest in a series of leads that proved to be another dead-end in Steve's pursuit of Bucky Barnes.
Judging by what intel they had found on Barnes, Sam was convinced that it would be better if Barnes wasn't found. No matter how good of man he'd once been, there was plenty of evidence that he'd been Hydra's main hitman for decades. Despite all that they'd discovered about Barnes Steve was still determined to find him. Steve would sooner risk death than turn his back on his friend. Sam just hoped it didn't come down to that.
Steve's phone vibrated. He looked at it and grimaced.
"It's Fury, I'll take it outside."
There was an open doorway to the narrow street and Steve ducked through it, dodging a motor scooter that beeped at him as it passed. Sam watched him leaving, wondering how Steve could make a plain dark blue button-down shirt and khakis look so sexy.
Sam pulled out the Euros needed to settle the bill. The waitress was talking to the only other customer in the place, an older man with dyed brown hair and dressed in nylon button down shirt that had been made for someone twenty pounds lighter. Sam had noticed that the man had been steadily working his way through a second bottle of wine. They were talking in French and Sam couldn't understand everything they were saying but there was no doubting the unwanted advance when the man ran his hand down the girl's arm. She tried to pull away but the man grabbed her hand so that she had yank it away.
"Fury wants me to head back in the morning. Something's brewing," Steve said, he'd sat back down at the table without Sam realizing it.
"That's fine." Sam drained his water glass and set it down. "I've still got four days of vacation. I'll go back to Berlin, follow that last lead Nat sent us." He still had an eye on the waitress, she'd gotten away but not before the man pinched her bottom, making her start and nearly drop the plate she'd cleared from his table. She retreated to stand by the bar area, her back to the room and Sam could see her shoulders shaking.
"Ready to head back to the hotel?" Steve asked.
Sam shook his head. "Nah, think I'll stay here a bit. Practice my French."
Steve looked over his shoulder at the waitress. "Oh, sure." He gave Sam one of the half-smiles that he did and walked away without another word.
Sam headed up the five flights of stairs to the back-alley hotel they'd been staying in for the past three days. The narrow hallway was dark except for the single flickering lightbulb and Sam cursed as the uncarpeted floor creaked loudly under his feet. There was no light under Steve's room door so he went past to his own room two doors down.
He'd just stripped off his shirt when there was a knock at the door. Steve was at the door, still dressed in the same clothes that he'd been wearing earlier. "Thought you'd gone to bed," Sam said.
Steve's eyes slid past Sam's shoulder, searching the room.
"Am I alone? Who do you think I'd have here?"
"You mean the waitress who is seventeen and still in school?" Sam scoffed. "There was a drunk harassing her. I stayed to make sure she was safe. Her father just came a few minutes ago to walk her home."
"You really think I'd go for a girl that young?"
"I'm sorry." Steve at least had the decency to flush bright red. "I didn't think, I noticed that you were looking at her and I jumped to the wrong conclusion."
"You were jealous." Sam said, folding his arms, leaning against the doorframe. It had been a long four months since their kiss. They were friends and nothing more. Sam knew that Steve would never be able to consider Sam as anything more than that until Barnes was found. Even then it was a question of how Barnes reacted to Steve, but Steve wouldn't give up on his first love until he was rejected or killed by him. All the same, Sam had noticed the side glances that Steve gave him sometimes and it was enough to keep the hope burning.
"I…yes." Steve looked up and down the hall. "I'm sor—"
"If there had been someone I was interested in, you know that there's nothing to stop me from taking them into my bed." Sam challenged Steve, he could stand being just friends with Steve but he wasn't going to let him get away with being possessive of him.
"I know… I shouldn't have…"
Sam shook his head. "No, you shouldn't have. I told you back in D.C., if you ever want me to be more than a friend, I was willing."
"You know that I have to find Bucky. I can't—"
"And that is why I haven't pushed, but we've been looking for him for four months and we haven't caught more than a trace of his trail. He might never be found."
Sam decided it was time for some hard truths. "There could be nothing to find. Every top-level Hydra operative scattered after S.H.I.E.L.D. went down and they were covering their tracks as fast as they could. Maybe they decided that Barnes was too big of a liability. Or maybe he's on the run and never intends to be found. Maybe he's still assassinating people for hire. No matter what, if he's alive, if you find him, he's not going to be the man you remember. He's not going to be who you fell in love with."
"I know that." Steve's hands were clenched and Sam wondered if Steve was trying to fight the urge to hit him.
"Do you? You're chasing a ghost hoping he'll remember you and it will be like it was seventy years ago. I'm willing to be just your friend but you can't go getting all possessive if I look at someone else. And if you are jealous then maybe you need to figure out why that is."
"Sam—" Steve rubbed his face. "I can't...what if we find Bucky next week?"
"What if we don't? You need to decide if you want to live in this century or the last. I think there's the potential for something pretty amazing between us." Sam had his hand on the door and he hated that he had to grip it to keep his hand from shaking. He hadn't planned on having this conversation tonight but the need to declare himself to Steve had been building for weeks and he couldn't stop.
"The last person I felt this way about was Riley, but I'm not going to wait around hoping that you choose me in a year or five years from now. You need to decide if you want to wait for Barnes or if you want the flesh and blood man who cares for you and is right in front of you. I'll see you in the morning."
Sam didn't give Steve a chance to respond, he pulled the door closed, forcing Steve to step back into the hallway. He waited until he heard Steve's footsteps going back down the hallway before taking his hand off the doorknob and flipping the lock.
An hour later, Sam was staring up at the water-stained ceiling when there was a tap at the door. It was so quiet, Sam wasn't sure he'd heard it. The soft rap of knuckles against the door came again. The iron bed frame squeaked as he stood and went to the door.
Steve was standing in the hall, barefoot in a white v-neck t shirt and gray sweatpants. His jaw was clenched but his blue eyes held Sam's gaze. Sam gripped the door tightly as he felt the longing that he'd suppressed for months start to rise as his pulse quickened. He opened the door wider and Steve's shoulder brushed lightly against Sam's as he stepped into the room. Sam caught Steve's hand in his own, twining their fingers together and he shoved the door closed.