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Also, Nightingale

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Clint was the first to go, about two weeks into their Wakandan asylum. Sam hadn’t been privy to the latest intel, but he knew that Clint had a family, and also a best friend who happened to be one of the finest intelligence operatives in the world, so when Natasha appeared from out of nowhere one morning at breakfast, Sam wasn’t exactly surprised. All conversation stopped, and Sam heard a soft clink as Steve dropped his fork. Clint froze, and stared at Natasha with a stricken look on his face.

“They’re fine, they’re all fine, they’re safe, relax” she said by way of greeting, sidling up to the table and stealing a piece of chechebsa off Clint’s plate. “God, that’s amazing. I’m starving.”

Clint blinked, his eyes huge. Natasha sighed. “No, seriously—I got them all out, everyone’s fine. I found a safe place, they’re waiting for you; we can leave whenever you’re ready. Go pack.” She waved Clint out of his seat, ducked into it herself, and immediately set about demolishing his breakfast.

“Nat,” Steve said faintly.

“Hey,” Natasha said. She eyed him. “Huh. I didn’t know you could even grow a beard. Pass the salt?”

Steve passed her the salt, opened his mouth, closed it, and shook his head. Then he took a sip of his coffee, and picked up his fork.

Natasha and Clint were gone within the hour.

***

Wanda was the second, three weeks later, and Sam didn’t need any spooky mind-reading powers to know that Steve was going to take it hard. Sam took it hard himself: he liked Wanda; liked her a lot. They shared an affinity for spicy food and beautiful Wakandan sunrises and mockery of Steve Rogers’ terrible sense of humor and not being locked up. Also, Wanda seemed to understand that she didn’t have to be happy all the time with him, that Sam didn’t see her sadness as indicative of some kind of personal failure on his part, and so she shared those moments with him more than anyone else: silent, reflective periods (for both of them, because it wasn’t like Sam didn’t have his own sorrows to grapple with), but when they were over she never left him without a soft smile and a gentle thank-you touch on his cheek.

Steve was a different story. Sam hated to think what Steve’s early life would have been like if he’d actually had a little sister; probably would have gotten beaten up twice as often through sheer, bullheaded overprotectiveness. Wanda had pointed out with some frequency (and varying levels of asperity) that she was not, in fact, an actual child, and that she was, in fact, an extremely powerful person who had, on at least one occasion, stopped Captain America right in his tracks without even breaking a sweat—all of which Steve readily and calmly agreed to, before completely ignoring all of it and carrying on with his campaign to Protect Wanda Maximoff.

“Want me to see if I can get him to knock it off?” Sam had asked her once, during an evening walk they took through Birnin Zana (Steve told her she should wear a coat, to which she replied that it was eighty degrees outside before she slid sideways into another language and spat a stream of words that did not at all sound like they would translate to ‘happy birthday’).

“No,” she said, shrugging. “He is a good man, he means well. He… I think he is a man who needs to feel like he helps.”

Sam’s cheek twitched. “Oh, you caught that, huh?”

“And he does help—of course, he helps. He just doesn’t seem to know the difference between actually helping, and being an annoying—” he didn’t know the word she used at the end of that sentence, but it had enough glottal vowels in it that he felt like he caught the gist.

“Yeah,” Sam said, and didn’t say anything at all about Pietro, the way he’d protected her, the way Steve had seen him protecting her, and the way that Steve tended to deal with loss—his own, or that of those he cared about. “Hey—ice cream place up ahead. Want some?”

He got tamarind-lemongrass, she got ginger berbere, and after they sampled each, they swapped.

~~~

“Where will you go?” Steve asked her, and Sam marveled once again at how just the set of Steve’s shoulders could convey distress so clearly, when his voice was all calm neutrality.

“Where they won’t ever look for me,” she answered, then closed the small bag she had packed and walked over to Steve, taking both his hands and staring up at him. “But I will stay in touch, and I’ll stay safe, and I’ll come back when I can. I promise.”

Steve wrapped her up, and didn’t ask why she was going, but he caught Sam’s eyes for a moment before he closed his own, and the question was there.

There were things Sam could have said. Things he was ready to say, if Steve wanted to talk about it. About loss, about mourning, about trauma; about what happens when your time to deal with those things is cut short by war or imprisonment or yet more loss. About recovery, about identity, about finding a way forward. But all of that seemed a little close to the bone given the circumstances, and Sam wasn’t Steve’s therapist, he was Steve’s friend, so he waited. He waited until he and Steve were just standing there, listening to the receding click of Wanda’s boots on the tile floor—waited to see which way Steve would go.

Steve looked out the window, frowning, then shook himself a little and stuffed his hands in his pockets, offering Sam a weak smile that asked him to look past its deficiencies. “You think it was something I said?”

That was not an invitation to talk. That was an invitation to do the opposite of talking. A deflection, and a boundary. Sam would respect it. For now. “Naw. It’s just your face.”

Steve’s answering grin was rueful, relieved. “It’s the beard, right?”

“That’s a beard? I thought it was some weird Wakandan fungus that was like… trying to colonize you.”

“Shut up.”

***

Scott, conversely, did not seem to be in a hurry to leave Wakanda. Scott, Sam thought, might actually never leave Wakanda, provided he could find a way to sneak in the occasional visit with his daughter.

“Did you know school is free here? I mean… not just grade-school and shit where they make you go to keep you from terrorizing the neighborhood, but like, University?” Scott shook his head, popping the top off a bottle of local beer that, to Sam, always tasted like it was brewed with flowers (very tasty, beer-y flowers). “They’re just like… yeah, hey, you want a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, sure pal, just show up, here’s a class schedule—oh, and how much math do you know?” Scott took a long pull from the bottle, then looked at Sam mournfully. “I mean, I know math, I’m not actually a math slouch, or anything, but… these people? They know so much math. And they speak, like, eighty languages apiece.”

So shortly after that Scott was in school and gone most of the time, and then he made friends with a group of young people who were all multilingual math nerds sharing near-campus housing just so there was always someone home who got their deeply weird math nerd humor, and then he moved in with them, and then he was gone.

~~~

“And then there were two,” Steve said at dinner that night.

“Three, if you count the beard.”

“Jeez, Sam.”

***

At first it seemed inevitable, that Steve would reach a point where he’d talk; where he’d need to talk, where he’d be ready to talk. It seemed inevitable, and then enough time passed that it seemed eventual, and then… it receded to a perhaps. A possibility. A possibility that Sam tried to stay ready for: that, one of these days, Steve Rogers was going to just open his mouth and let go.

Sam wasn’t holding his breath, however. Which was probably for the best, since morning runs in Wakanda were breathtaking, in every sense of the word. Cool mist, gold and green everywhere, smooth-packed streets with steep hills and staggeringly wide skies and the rising sun glinting crazy, roseate brilliance from a million different angles throughout the most spectacular views Sam had ever seen in his life.

When they got back to the wing of the palace where their quarters were Steve leaned back against the wall, breathing like he had maybe just climbed one flight of stairs in a mild hurry. Sam leaned over with his hands on his knees, sucking air like it was the last air he was ever going to get, and wondered vaguely if his cred would take a serious hit if he passed out or threw up right now (probably), and whether or not he could persuade himself that the essentially ephemeral nature of cred meant that he shouldn’t care (sadly unlikely).

“So,” Steve said, arms crossed over his chest. “What about you?”

“What.” Sam managed. “About me… what?” He was not wheezing. He was being succinct.

“Are you leaving?”

Sam squinted up while stinging sweat ran into his eye. “Are you retiring?”

Steve frowned. “I. Um. What?”

“You heard me.” Sam paused for a deeply necessary breath. “Are you, Steve Rogers, planning to hang up your proverbial jock? I mean, I know a lot of circumstances have changed, and anyway the post of ‘Captain Wakanda’ seems kinda… taken, but you—however it turns out, are you planning to stop doing what you do?”

Steve looked down, pondering the spot between his shoes, then back up at Sam. “No. No, I’m not.”

Sam armed sweat off his face and stood up (swayed up—whee, endorphins and hypoxia). “Right. So I do what you do, only slower, and with a whole lot more style.” Steve blinked at him. “Hey—if you didn’t want to be stuck with me, you should’ve just left me in prison.”

Steve looked away then, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. When he looked back at Sam, he was smiling. “Okay. Breakfast?”

“Yeah, man, breakfast—when I’m not drowning in a pool of my own sweat. Give me ten minutes to shower.”

Steve tsk’ed. “From that little jog?”

Sam smacked him on the bicep. It hurt his hand a little. “Asshole.”

***

T’Challa offered them the use of a house, just outside the King’s compound in Birnin Zana, ‘intended for visiting Tribal dignitaries and their entourages’. The place had seven fucking bedrooms and three different dining rooms (state, family, and staff) and the two of them were going to rattle around like peas in a vastly oversized pod, but Sam was still glad of it—there wasn’t much in the way of ‘normalcy’ about their lives now (or indeed in his life at all since he’d submitted his resume to a wanted super-soldier and his pal the terrifying spy)—but living in the royal palace had taken the surreal nature of things to a whole new level.

Of course, that meant they had to negotiate living arrangements for real, but it wasn’t too bad. Steve was tidy, Sam wasn’t a slob. The house had two master bedrooms with their own baths, one with a view of Lake Turkana (Sam’s), the other with a view of the city (Steve’s), and they didn’t even have to flip a coin over it. The touchiest part was cooking, because it turned out that Captain America could burn water with the power of his mind, and his idea of flavoring pretty much started and ended with ‘salt’. But after some experimentation they developed a routine where Sam made breakfast and then Steve cleaned up, and Steve made lunch (only sandwiches or salad or any other fare that did not require the application or regulation of heat) and then Sam cleaned up, and at dinner they ventured out into the city and tried different things.

“I’m gonna die,” Sam groaned, leaning back in his chair. Tonight they had discovered roasted fish with charred greens and bajias, and it was so good that for once Sam actually tried to keep pace with Steve plate for plate (Steve ordered food in rounds), and now, sadly, he was going to die. He was going to drop tragically dead of food overwhelm, right here on the outdoor patio of the tea room where they always stopped after dinner so Steve could have dessert because he was a terrible human being and a complete freak of nature. “My God, I ate… so much food. Why didn’t you stop me? You’re big enough that you coulda stopped me. Man, I thought you were my friend.”

Steve stopped with a maandazi halfway to his mouth, then pushed the entire basket over towards Sam. “Of course I’m your friend. Here, want one? I’m happy to share.”

Sam made a revolted noise. “Shut up and eat your damn donuts before I throw them at you.”

Steve ate his damn donuts, grinning. Sam laced his fingers behind his head, and gazed out over the busy, beautiful streets. Honestly, if he’d had to pick a place for exile, Wakanda would have been at the top of the list, now that he’d seen it.

“Sam.” Steve leaned forward, lowering his voice. “On your right, two tables over. There’s a gal—uh, woman—giving you the eye.”

Sam earnestly hoped that, whatever the future held for Steve Rogers, the guy did not have his heart set on a career in spycraft. “Yeah, okay, she probably was, until you started acting like that.” He took a quick, surreptitious glance. Sure enough, a tall woman with her braids swept into an elegant updo was quite frankly checking him out. He grinned. “Yep. Gotta give her points for good taste.”

Steve gave him a look. “I can just, uh, head home, if you’d like to go and introduce yourself.”

Sam shook his head. “No, but thanks, man.” A thought occurred and he dismissed it, but it circled back and circled back and he had a brief, silent-but-intense dialogue with himself about everything he knew about establishing trust, and in the end he felt only mild surprise when he actually continued on, “I don’t actually date women all that often.”

“Oh.” Sam waited. Steve ate another donut. “Oh.” Steve actually put down his maandazi. “Does that mean… what it sounds like it means?”

“If you think it sounds like it means that I’m more likely to date dudes, then yeah, it does.”

“Oh.” Sam waited. Steve ate another donut. “Huh. I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t ask.”

Sam waited through three more donuts, during which Steve didn’t so much as look at him, and he was about to break the silence and have it out when Steve leaned back toward him again. “Okay. Three tables over, at your three o’clock. Fella giving you the eye.”

Sam burst out laughing, and took a donut he was definitely going to regret in five minutes.

***

Natasha showed up for one overnight visit, during which she gave them each a phone and set up a laptop in the parlor they had dubbed ‘the office’, and told them that overt and covert representatives of several governments and government agencies, as well as a distinguished handful of ambitious unsavory individuals, were extremely interested in their whereabouts—so they had better both keep a goddamn low profile. “I’ll send you updates when I can,” she added, typing and talking and nodding at the laptop all at the same time. “On the phones, or here. Don’t use the computer for anything else, and don’t open anything that comes that doesn’t have my verification code on it.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Spy stuff. So noir.”

Natasha gave him a look. “That’s kind of funny, coming from a guy who just got busted out of prison by a wanted fugitive.”

“What do they want?” Steve rubbed his forehead, staring at the laptop.

Natasha shrugged. “Depends on who’s looking, at what level, and with what agenda. To lock you up, to turn you into a weapon, to find the Winter Soldier, to recruit you as Captain of another country that isn’t America, to kill you and use your blood in experiments—take your pick.”

“Sounds nifty,” Steve said dryly. “Any good news?”

“Sure. Wanda, Clint, and Fury are doing fine. T’Challa hasn’t banned me from the country; I didn’t even have to sneak in. Scott’s doing great; offered me a hit from what looked like the world’s largest bong—”

“Did you take it?” Sam asked.

“I’m working,” she said curtly, turning back to the keyboard and clicking rapidly. Then she glanced at him, and shrugged, the corner of her mouth twitching. “I might swing back by on my way out of town.”

“Atta girl.”

~~~

They had a fantastic dinner at what had quickly become both Sam and Steve’s favorite restaurant, and Natasha charmed the pants off everyone from the kid who brought them water to the head chef to the sommelier.

“I didn’t even know they had a sommelier,” Sam mumbled, turning to Steve. “Did you know they had a sommelier? I mean, what are we, trash?”

Steve blinked at him. “You drink beer, Sam. I drink water or juice. We don’t need a sommelier.”

Sam was about to point out that it was the principle of the thing, but he shut his mouth when Natasha winked at him, and then smiled brilliantly at the smitten-looking guy with the bottle. “That just means more wine for me—oh, thank you—”

~~~

She found him on the balcony after dinner, gazing out over the dark of the lake, and the brilliant arms of the city that stretched to embrace its curve. She was quiet for a long time, long enough that he actually wondered if she had come out just to take in the night, when she finally spoke. “You’re staying.” It wasn’t quite a statement, but it wasn’t quite a question, either.

Sam braced his arms on the balcony edge. “Yeah. I’m staying.”

She nodded. “Good.” She looked at him then, and despite the low light he could see every ounce of her considerable intelligence, will, and pragmatic ruthlessness in her face. “That’s good.” She paused and looked away, and Sam felt his gut tense up, like he knew what was coming. “So, you know, since you’re staying with him—”

“I’m not gonna spy on him, Natasha. I’m not… I’m not doing that.”

“I’m not asking you to spy on him, Sam. I’m just… I just wanted to tell you that if something happens, or if nothing happens and it’s enough nothing that he starts to flip out and you start to worry, you can call me.”

“He trusts you.” Sam left the rest to her excellent inference skills.

She blinked at him. “It’s fine that you don’t. I just… wanted to let you know it’s an option. That you’re not alone.” She looked out over the lake again. “I’ll come back pretty often, I think; there’s a lot going on right now.”

Sam snorted mildly. “You mean a lot besides the shadowy government agents and the would-be rogue mad scientist kidnappers? What, did you bury the lead?” He shook his head. “’There’s a lot going on right now’—you mean a lot you didn’t tell us?”

She smiled. “I’d like to think you might find that comforting.”

So many layers to her words, everything she said was as nicely calculated as the books of a scrupulous accountant. Sam swallowed. “Listen. If you hear something, and you… you think he might, you know, take it the wrong way; if you think it’s something that might make him do something like… like what he does, reckless, brave,” he shook his head. “Dumb—if you hear something like that, will you tell me and maybe… let me see what I can do? Let me help?”

Her smile shifted slightly. “Look at you, Sam Wilson. Spy stuff; so noir.”

~~~

The next morning she was gone by the time breakfast was over, and it wasn’t until that night that he found the small package she’d left him under his pillow.

Sam:

I’ve been stealing all the HYDRA money I can get my hands on. It seemed like the right thing to do after everything that happened. Also, it’s fun. This is your share, and Steve’s, because if I told him he’d probably insist that I a) give it all to charity, and b) stop stealing it. I’ve got the charity part covered, but I’m not giving up the utter joy of robbing them blind and then watching them panic for anything or anyone, not even Steve Rogers.

Yours in carefree moral ambiguity,
Natasha

Sam shook his head, took a peek at the balance in the Royal Bank of Wakanda passbook attached to the letter, and whistled. Damn.

***

Falling for Steve Rogers sounded like low, blurred-indigo jazz inside his head; a touch of melancholy without regret, a pain rarified by savoring it. It seemed strange, to be glad of something that so clearly consisted of not having what he wanted—but he was glad of it. His heart seemed oddly safe in the keeping of a man who didn’t know he held it.

Increased intimacy didn’t always equate to increased esteem, he knew that—so when it did, it was a satisfying thing. Steve liked to read, and talk (sometimes poignantly, sometimes lightheartedly, always intelligently) about what he read. Steve liked people—and the people of Wakanda seemed to be a remarkably homogenous group: collectively sophisticated and wry, and prone to a brand of genteel satiric humor that Steve responded to so strongly that it made Sam very curious about life in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Steve liked music (Sam conducted a grand sociological experiment where he made one giant playlist of everything he could think of and then attempted to extrapolate data based on observation of Steve’s level of apparent enjoyment or distaste, but he gave it up once his ‘Steve likes’ category included James Brown, The Go-Go’s, Black 47, Etta James, The Talking Heads, Suffrajett, Fishbone, and Donna Summer, because really what the fuck was he supposed to extrapolate from that?) Steve liked Sam—liked him and trusted him, and no amount of unrequited love on Sam’s part was ever, ever going to lessen the value of that.

Falling for Steve Rogers happened before he knew it, went deep before he knew it, and made itself at home in him before he knew it. It was there, and Steve was there, and it was fine—inexplicably, weirdly, strangely—a fine and precious truth that was perfect in its inherent imperfection.

***

Nat: Everybody’s mostly looking elsewhere, but it looks like this guy’s following a hunch and he might get close. He’s dangerous.

Sam: Tell me.

Nat: Well he’s going to have a tough time being stealthy because he’s nearly seven feet tall, white-blond hair, built, looks like an Aryan nutjob which is funny because that’s exactly what he is. I can be there in twelve hours, do a sweep.

Sam: I’ll do one now. Who’s he working for?

Nat: Not sure yet, but it would be best if nobody knew his hunch paid off. Just keep an eye out.

Sam: Both eyes.

He found the guy in an alley four blocks over from their house in Birnin Zana and didn’t waste time on pleasantries; the look of triumphant recognition on the guy’s face was enough of a calling card. It was kind of like fighting a giant pile of rocks, but thankfully a pile of rocks that was significantly slower and stupider than he was. He left the body at the bottom of a dumpster, texted the location to Nat, and then snuck silently back into the house.

Steve did a double-take at Sam’s gauze-wrapped hand on their run the next morning. “Hurt your hand?”

“Smacked a rock. No big deal.”

Steve’s cheek twitched. “Hope the rock learned its lesson.”

“It’s not gonna smartmouth me again, don’t worry.”

***

The next month it was one lone-wolf assassin from Turkey (the guy might have been aces at shooting high-value, well-protected targets, but he couldn’t fight for shit once his gun was gone), then two months later there were two HYDRA agents back-to-back because one of them had the brilliant plan of tracking the slightly smarter one, then six weeks later it was three elite mercenaries from England in an uneasy truce which, Nat told him, was going to leave a giant hole in the part of the world where people with way too much money were willing to give ridiculous chunks of it to people who would shoot first and ask questions never.

“Where are you taking all these guys, anyway?” He asked, pressing an icepack to his cheek. With three of them at once, he’d been lucky Nat had shown up before he tracked them to the roof of the high rise they were using as base ops. He had a wrenched shoulder, a bruised cheekbone, and his left kidney wasn’t going to be on speaking terms with him any time soon. Nat had… slightly messy hair, but that could’ve been the wind.

She gave him what he’d come to think of as the Smile of the Madonna. “HYDRA bases are terribly convenient for this sort of thing. And they’re everywhere. Including far away from here.”

Sam nodded. “Makes sense.” He shifted over as she came to sit next to him, offered her a bottle of water from his pack.

“Thanks.” She drank, gazing out over the view of the city, a gaudy display from their high vantage point. It was beautiful, if you ignored the three carpet-wrapped dudes piled in front of the stairs that led to the freight elevator. “What are you going to tell him if he asks about your face?”

Sam shook his head. “After the first guy, I joined a gym about half a mile from the house; talked Steve into joining too. There’s boxing, sparring, MMA; I spend a couple evenings a week there. Figured I might need the cover at some point.” He shrugged. “Like now.”

“Smart.” She put the cap back on the bottle and set it carefully down by her feet. Blinked slowly. Sighed. “Sam. What is he waiting for?”

“What… what?”

“He’s waiting, as far as I can tell. He’s not gathering intel, he’s not planning anything, he’s not chafing to get out there and do battle on the side of the righteous; he’s just… waiting. What for?”

Sam had noticed, and he had some thoughts, but that was just speculation on his part and didn’t need to be brought forth for further speculation anywhere other than inside his own head. “I don’t know.”

Her face was calm, impassive, the fact that she didn’t believe him—or believed that he was equivocating—remained unspoken. “Okay.” She looked back out over the city one last time, then smacked him on the leg. “Hey, break’s over. Help a lady with her luggage?”

“Ow. Yeah.”

***

They were slowly getting to know Birnin Zana, going further afield on their walks to get dinner, or just exploring for its own sake. Steve’s favorite so far was the art museum, no surprise there—Sam just marveled at the opportunity to see a major modern art museum with no pictures of white people in it. Sam’s favorite was the Institute of Wakanda, history and science and technology and the bright, shining thread of vibranium that ran through all of it. Wakandan tech was so beautiful, so organic in design and so lyrical in form and function; it made the spot between his shoulder blades itch like crazy.

The night they tried githeri and mango tacos from something that looked like an upscale food truck that Sam suspected might be able to fly when it wasn’t dispensing delicious tacos, they wound up wandering through a part of the city that was much darker and less populated than the places they usually went. They were right in the middle of a mildly heated debate about whether or not the taco truck could fly (Steve opined that while yes, Wakanda had lots of flying vehicles you just didn’t see in other parts of the world, it just seemed silly to equip a taco truck with that technology, while Sam staunchly stood his ground on the belief that a flying taco truck was actually the apex of sophisticated civilization), when there was a sharp, fast stream of words in Xhosa from behind them, and the unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Steve said quietly, and turned around with his hands up.

Sam followed suit, his brain on full scramble; they were in an alley, which was not great, they were in civilian gear with no weapons or shield, which was worse—but that was no HYDRA goon, no paid dogsbody for a crazy rogue scientist of European origin—it was just a guy, Wakandan from the look of his hair and clothes, gun in one hand, his other hand open and gesturing to both of them. “The… fuck. Steve, is he actually trying to rob us?”

“Wallets, jewelry, kimoyo beads—that’s what he asked for, so I’m going with yes.” Steve’s voice was low and amused.

Sam couldn’t help it, he burst out laughing. That turned out to be a terrible idea because their would-be mugger seemed to take it personally—personally enough that he swung the gun towards Sam, and then Sam got shoved into a brick wall hard enough to make his teeth rattle in his head, and there was a flash behind his eyes and in front of his eyes and a dim, echoing report. He pushed away from the wall, dizzy and stunned, and saw the guy running away at top speed, melting into the shadows, while Steve slumped against the opposite wall of the alley, his head hanging down.

“Oh, hell no,” Sam managed, rushing in, “you did not just take a bullet for me, you asshole.” Steve was red-faced even in the dim light, short of breath, and the corner of his mouth turned down. Both of his hands were pressed to his left side, just above his hip. “You—oh fuck you did, you crazy—what the hell; if you die Rogers I swear to god I’ll kill you—”

“I’m not gonna die,” Steve growled at him, “it went right through; I’ll be fine—”

“Why? Why why why—” Sam was babbling, he knew he was babbling but he couldn’t seem to stop. His hands were wet and warm, direct pressure, he hadn’t told his hands to do that but they did it anyway. “Dumb, you are so dumb, Rogers—you’re not bulletproof, you’re not… why—”

“Because I’m just a little more bulletproof than you are,” Steve said, and Sam could see Steve’s expression now, pained but calm, calm to help him be calm, kindness to help him find his way out of panic. It cut through the babble, choked all the words back hard in his throat, because if he said anything right now it was going to be something incredibly, agonizingly stupid.

“Maybe we should take the train home,” Steve said mildly. “Just for tonight?”

~~~

Sam cleaned and dressed the entrance and exit wounds—small-caliber, he guessed: the bleeding had already stopped, no swelling, no apparent need for sutures, glue or butterfly tape. It looked like a days-old injury that was healing perfectly, not something that had happened not quite an hour ago. “That super-serum is something else, I guess.”

“Told you,” Steve said with enough of a trace of self-righteousness in his voice that Sam was seriously tempted to punch him right in the bullet wound.

“Go lay your smug ass down in bed,” Sam said sharply instead, gathering up gauze, tape, and scissors. “Wound-side up. And stay there. And don’t ever do that again.” He busied himself in cleaning, tidying, washing his hands again, putting things away, doing what needed to be done, moving on autopilot until there was nothing more to do.

When he went to check on Steve he found him in bed, lying on his right side, reading by the light of his bedside lamp. Sam put a full glass of water down on Steve’s nightstand. “You should drink that. To help with all the shock you don’t seem to be in.” Steve put his book aside, and sipped obediently. “You want some pain meds?”

Steve shook his head. “Nope. Thanks.”

“An icepack?”

Steve smiled and shifted gingerly, and his too-long hair fell over his eyes until he shook it back. “Nope.”

“Anything?”

Steve did something that actually looked like honest-to-god batting his eyelashes. “I never got dessert. We got any ice cream?”

Sam was stomping pissily out of the room to get goddamn Captain Lack of Self-Preservation Skills his goddamn ice cream when Steve called after him, “With banana slices on top, okay?”

“Bite me,” Sam said to the darkened hallway. He sliced four bananas on top of a giant bowl of ice cream, and Steve ate all of it.

***

Two weeks later, Sam was struggling not to yawn his way through lunch. He’d been out late the night before tracking down a religious zealot from Florida who believed that God had instructed him to kill Captain America and also all homosexuals for Jesus. The guy wasn’t much of a fighter, but he was fast as hell and also armed to the motherfucking teeth and had a penchant for booby traps, so what with one thing and another, Sam hadn’t been to bed. He went straight from working with Nat to decommission the guy’s terrifying rented room (what Nat didn’t know about booby traps wasn’t worth knowing, and wow had he learned a lot) straight to his morning run with Steve. So by lunchtime, he was a little punchy.

“I got a text from T’Challa while you were in the shower,” Steve told him over devilled chicken sandwiches and fruit salad. “He asked if we could come by this afternoon.”

“He say why?” Sam stole another spicy-sweet pickle from the jar on the table. So addictive.

“Nope.”

“Got any ideas?”

“Nope.”

“Think he wants back rent?”

Steve grinned. “If he does I guess I’m gonna have to take up busking on street corners.”

Sam chewed judiciously, thinking that over, then wiggled his eyebrows. “Well, here in Wakanda you’re kinda exotic. Might be a market for that.”

Steve shook his head and reached for a fourth sandwich, pushing his hair back with his other hand. “Not after they see me busk, there wouldn’t be.”

***

Their escort at the Palace took them to some kind of conference room Sam hadn’t been in before, one with a dazzling, dizzying view of water pouring over rocks with golden fields beyond, so much light streaming into the room that it was hard to see, so much light that at first he didn’t realize that the man standing in front of the windows wasn’t T’Challa.

It was Bucky Barnes.

Steve came to a stop as abruptly as if he’d run into a wall. He looked stunned. “Buck?”

“Hey, Steve,” Bucky said quietly, smiling, then nodded briefly, tersely, at Sam. “Wilson.”

Well. Good to know it wasn’t going to be necessary to pretend it was a joyful reunion all around. “Barnes.”

***

Weird. Weird weird weird weird weird: really motherfucking weird. Sam had met the Winter Soldier (aka murder machine), and he’d met post-HYDRA Bucky Barnes (still part machine, less murder, really fucking annoying). But the guy across the conference table, the guy with the half-manbun and the linen button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the calm voice and the calm face where the only lines on it looked like they probably came from a lot of smiling: he had not met that guy. He did not know that guy. At all. It was… supremely weird.

Not that anyone asked his opinion or anything. Steve didn’t seem to find it weird at all. Steve jumped right in with what seemed like a million questions, and Bucky answered them calmly and very much like a sane and undamaged person would, and Sam just sat there and got mildly freaked out by the weirdness of it all. He sat there through the talk about Barnes’ new arm (Wakandan tech, vibranium, and okay, undeniably badass), overhauled brain (which seemed to have been repaired through a combination of the Wakandan version of a regeneration cradle and some kind of pilgrimage into the wilderness, which was freaky as hell but whatever), and even ‘harmonization’ of Barnes’ off-brand serum (because the version Bucky got apparently had physical effects very similar to a virulent and systemic infection, which meant that the guy had more or less been in constant pain since October of 1943). Sam sat through it all, and by the time Steve’s questions shifted from broad inquiry to fine detail Sam knew a lot more, but that sure didn’t make it any less weird.

Steve was halfway through a question about Bucky’s ‘serum harmonization’ when Sam spotted T’Challa at the doorway, beckoning to him. It was actually a relief to get up and go.

“Captain Rogers seems very glad to see his friend,” T’Challa said, leading Sam down the hallway.

“Guess so,” Sam admitted. He scratched behind his ear. “Though, uh, are you absolutely sure that’s the same guy? Because I gotta say, the guy we left with you was… well, he was different.”

“Sergeant Barnes was very damaged, yes,” T’Challa agreed. “He required a great deal of care and work, medically and psychologically and even spiritually, to be made whole.”

“And you did that… why?”

T’Challa glanced at him. “Compassion, Mr. Wilson. Along with a certain amount of intellectual curiosity and innovative drive on the part of my sister, Shuri.” He shrugged. “She’s sixteen, she’s ambitious. And curious.”

Sam blinked. “So… hold up. You let your sixteen-year-old sister give the Winter Soldier a medical and psychological makeover?” It was official, his life could not get any weirder.

“She’s a genius,” T’Challa said simply. “And often troublesome; it was good for her to have a project to focus on.” He nodded. “You’ll like her, I think.”

Whoa. “Uh. No offence, but I don’t actually need any kind of makeover—”

“Shuri is our Chief Technologist,” T’Challa said, folding his hands behind his back. “I understand that you have an appreciation for Wakandan technologies.”

Oh. “Oh. That… well, yeah.”

T’Challa inclined his head as he turned a corner into a wide-open room full of light and soft music. “This way, Mr. Wilson.”

Sam rolled his shoulders. “I don’t suppose you could manage to just call me Sam?”

“Sam,” T’Challa said, and rested a hand on his arm for a moment. “Don’t look so nervous; she won’t bite you.”

“Oh, now I’m going to have to bite him just to keep you humble, brother,” a young woman said from over by the wall, tossing her braids over her shoulder as she scrolled through several projection screens above the table she was perched in front of. “Gross.” She shot a glance at Sam. “Come in, Mr. Wilson.”

“Sam,” Sam said automatically, walking forward. The projection screens were all footage of him—different cellphone videos from the fight in Bucharest, zoomed in and paused on a shot of him in mid-flight, halfway through a roll. “Hi.”

“Hello,” Shuri said. She was slender and almost pixie-ish, with a lovely, clever face and a bearing that was half-regal, half-casual, and one hundred percent impatient teenager. “These wings. You didn’t design them, right?”

“I… no. I didn’t—”

“Good. Then you won’t take it personally when I tell you how terrible they are.”

“Hey, now—”

“Look at them,” Shuri said dismissively, waving her hands over the table and somehow zooming in on different details of ten videos at once. “Clunky. Ridiculous. So, so ugly. So old, so utilitarian. Designed by bureaucrats with no nobility, no artistry, no history; ignorant, insecure imbeciles who think of nothing but imperialism and colonization and war.”

Well, it wasn’t like she was wrong. “Well, yeah, but—”

I think,” she said, with one majestic wave of her hand that winked out all the screens at once. She eyed him. “I think we can do better. Much, much better. Don’t you?”

Sam started to smile.

~~~

Sam was still smiling late in the evening when he made his slow way home, wandering through the crowded streets with his head in the conceptual clouds, full of sketches of graceful wings in motion, wings outstretched, wings bearing down, proud and fierce and so, so gorgeous.

“Why you doing this?” He’d had to ask at one point, because it seemed like too much—like everything (nearly everything) he’d ever wanted.

Shuri gave him a half-mocking look. “You Americans, always amazed by generosity; it takes your feet right out from under you, doesn’t it?” She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t worry, though, Sam—there’s two things that I want from you.”

Sam looked at the screens again, her initial sketches, which made his heart feel like it was going to explode. “Okay. Name it. Them.”

“I can design this,” she said, waving at the screens. “I can engineer it, and I can build it. But I can’t fly it.” She turned to him. “I want to fly. I want you to teach me.”

Sam thought that over. “Your brother’ll kill me if you get hurt.”

Shuri laughed. “He wouldn’t have to—Okoye would kill you first.”

“That’s… so comforting?”

“Don’t be such a worrywart. I’ll build in a safety system. After all, we can’t all be super-soldiers.”

Sam scratched his eyebrow with his thumb. “You’re right on that one. Okay. What’s the second thing?”

Shuri folded her hands. “I had an experience recently, one that taught me a very valuable lesson: I can build the best tech in the world, but if it fails or stops working, it’s very important to have something to fall back on.”

“I hear you.”

“So I started training with Okoye, with the General. She is an exceptional fighter.”

Not hard to believe, because he’d met her, and the lady was scary as hell. “Good idea.”

“She is very disciplined.”

“I believe it.”

“She is very noble, with great integrity.”

“Uh-huh.”

“She makes me meditate a lot.”

“Okay.”

“You…” Shuri paused, and poked his bicep. “I’d like you to teach me how to fight dirty.”

Sam grinned. He couldn’t help it. “What?”

“Okoye will teach me combat, tactics, strategies; the mental and physical disciplines necessary to prevail. But you—I’m hoping you’ll teach me how to throw down and kick some ass.”

Sam’s grin widened. “Terrible American colonizer-style brawling?”

Shuri looked delighted. “Exactly. I knew you would understand.”

Sam nodded. “I understand. And I’m in.”

***

Sam’s smile finally evaporated when he turned onto their street, once he realized that either Steve would still be at the palace with Bucky, or (what seemed more likely) that he would have brought Bucky home with him.

But no: Steve was at home, sitting at the kitchen table with only the hallway light on, his chin propped on his fist, staring at apparently nothing.

“Hey,” Sam said, locking the door behind him. “Where’s Bucky? I thought… you know, that you’d invite him to stay here.”

“I did,” Steve said, and that tone in his voice was deflection all over again, and he didn’t meet Sam’s eyes. “He… uh. He said he’s good where he is.”

Seriously. What the hell. “Okay.” Sam waited, then went on when it seemed clear that Steve had said everything he meant to say. “So… you hungry?”

Steve looked at him then, just a glance, and shook his head. “No, I’m just… I’m kinda tired.” He stood up slowly. “Think I’ll go to bed.”

Sam looked at the clock on the wall. 8:07pm. “I… okay. G’night.”

“Good night, Sam.”

The. Hell.

***

The next day Shuri showed him her actual lab, which wasn’t at the palace at all but inside the vibranium mine itself: a tech-y wonderland of stark contrasts, a riot of art and color against ultramodern black-white-and-gray. He had questions (so many questions), and Shuri seemed happy enough to show off her work (which she should be because it was straight-up amazing), and basically what with the in-depth tour and some design input and also a full-body scan so she could have accurate measurements to work with, he stayed much later than he meant to.

He surprised himself by getting off the train at the palace, rather than the stop closer to home. The guard who waved him in gave him directions to the suite of rooms where Bucky was staying, no questions asked, so he didn’t have much time to prepare himself before knocking on the door.

Bucky didn’t exactly look surprised to see him. “Wilson,” he said, leaning slightly against the doorframe before pulling the door open wide. “Come in.”

The room seemed comfortable, with a low table and a low couch, and a long, wide window overlooking the river. There were a lot of books, a lot of newspapers; stacks of them everywhere. Against the opposite wall there was a narrow desk with a datapad and a computer, with some hard-bound notebooks next to them, and a few pens.

“Nice room,” Sam said.

Bucky nodded. “Yeah. I like it.” There was a pause. It was not in the least a comfortable pause. “Did you want something?”

“Yeah, actually.” Sam took a breath. “I want to know… I want to know what the hell is going on, Barnes. I want to know what you said to Steve that made him look like someone kicked a puppy in front of him and had him going to bed at old-man-o’clock last night. I want to know why you turned him down when he tried to get you to come home with him. With us.”

“Oh.” Bucky didn’t seem particularly perturbed. He eyed Sam, then nodded towards the couch. “Sit down.”

Sam moved a stack of newspapers, and sat. Bucky took the rolling chair from in front of the desk and tugged it over, straddling it backwards and crossing his arms over the back. He stared at Sam, and there was another one of those weird and extremely uncomfortable silences.

“Well?” Sam prompted.

Bucky lifted his chin a bit, scratching lightly through his beard. His eyes caught so much light from the windows that they looked nearly iridescent, alarmingly bright. “Steve doesn’t know.”

“Doesn’t know… what? That you’re a giant pain in the ass? Oh, I think he’s caught on to that one—”

“He doesn’t know you’ve been fighting,” Bucky said. “You haven’t told him.”

For a moment Sam was utterly speechless, then he slumped. “Oh, God—when they fixed your brain, you got the creepy mind-reading powers, right? I mean—”

Bucky’s grin was a sly thing, intimate. “No, Wilson. No creepy mind-reading powers. But last night when I told Steve that he had to be careful because sooner or later people were going to come looking he blew it off, said there hadn’t been any trouble that got close. But you have at least four different bruises that you got at different times, and you’re moving okay but you’re still favoring your left side a little, and I’m pretty sure you managed to wrench your wrist within the past few days, so… trouble has gotten close. And you’ve taken care of it. And Steve doesn’t know.”

Jesus fucking Christ that’s just what the world needed—an enhanced super-soldier with a Sherlock Holmes delusion. Sam rubbed his hands over his head. “You are out of your damn mind.”

“Not anymore,” Bucky said, raising his eyebrows. He stood up. “You want a drink?”

For fuck’s sake. Sam stood up. “No, I do not want a drink, Barnes—I want you to come to the house with me and hang out with the guy who gave up fucking everything in the world for you.”

Bucky took a step towards him, and for a moment Sam thought they were actually going to get into it—Sam’s hands curled into fists and his heart did a solid double-thump in his chest—but no, Bucky didn’t look pissed, certainly not fighting-pissed, he just looked… resolute. “Thanks for the invitation, but no. Now if you don’t mind, I have some work to do.”

Sam fumed all the way home.

***

Steve was still worryingly subdued, but at least when Sam proposed a walk to get dinner, Steve agreed. Sam didn’t want to rock the boat by bringing up Bucky, but he did take the opportunity to tell Steve all about Shuri, the wings (now known as the Circaetus Project, because both Shuri and Sam agreed that such a badass endeavor deserved an equally badass name), and his new temporary stint as a flight-and-fight teacher. Dinner was outstanding; the kachumbari, samosas, and nyama choma (along with the inevitable follow-up maandazi) seemed to have a salutary effect, and Steve actually smiled a little (albeit somewhat sadly) on their slow post-prandial wander back to the house.

Sam waited until they had escaped the majority of the crowds before he spoke. “You okay, man?”

Steve glanced at him, still with the smile, and tossed his too-long hair back out of his eyes. “I’m fine, Sam. I’m… I’m fine.”

“You wanna go to the gym and hit things for a while?”

“Nah. I’m good.”

They were four doors away from their own house at that point, and if Sam hadn’t happened to catch a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye he would’ve missed Nat, who had tucked herself behind a tall potted tree on a nearby doorstep. Sam lifted his chin at her with what he hoped was a subtle conservation of movement. “Okay, well—I think I’ll go, see if there’s someone around who wants to spar. Uh, don’t wait up.”

He went two streets over, then stopped and waited, hands in his pockets. Natasha materialized at his side with spooky suddenness. Sam sighed. “What is it this time, a crazed mutant albino deep-state true believer with a hate-on for superheroes?”

Nat fluttered her eyelashes at him. “No; I already took care of that guy by myself. This is one of the Winter Soldier’s former handlers—thinks he has a lock on triggering the compliance program, and he happened to luck into the right people who gave him the right information before he killed them.”

“Right.” Sam rolled his head until his neck cracked, then shook out his shoulders. “You got a plan?”

Smile of the Madonna. “I always have a plan.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

***

He and Shuri were deep in a conversation about force shielding, photostatic cell masking, and energy symbiosis (Sam couldn’t contribute much on the technical side of things, but he absolutely one hundred percent could say things like ‘hey it would be so cool if…’ which seemed to be all she expected of him), when he paused. The omnipresent background music in the lab (drums and soft voices singing in Xhosa) had faded out, only to be replaced by a cymbal riff and guitar bass line that was eerily familiar. Shuri didn’t seem to notice, but continued on, flipping through data screens at top speed. “So as you can see, the reflexive energy re-absorption rates—”

“Shuri.”

She glanced at him, annoyed. “Yes? Are you paying attention, Sam? Because I’m not going to go through all this again—”

“Why are you playing the theme song to Shaft?”

She eyed him. “What? For you, of course.”

Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. “Seriously?” He squinted at her. “Just how old do you think I am?”

“Extremely old,” Shuri said matter-of-factly. “And extremely American. This music is perfect.”

It took a few seconds for him to figure out that she was fucking with him, because she had a very good poker face right up until the moment she completely broke.

“Okay, that’s it,” he said, tugging her away from the table by the wrist while she cackled at him. “Here’s what we’re gonna do: we’re gonna sprint around this lab until the song’s over so I don’t miss a single golden moment of it, and then you and me are going to go for a run until you’re feeling like less of a smartass.” Shuri snorted indelicately. “Or until I get tired, which is probably what’s gonna happen first. Come on, Princess: you need strong leg muscles to kick colonizer ass. Let’s go.”

***

Sam was still moderately euphoric when he stopped in at the palace at the end of the day, knocking authoritatively at Bucky’s door until it opened.

“Wilson.”

Sam cut to the chase. “Come home with me, asshole.”

The corner of Bucky’s mouth twitched. “No, but I’m really impressed with myself for standing firm in the face of such a sweet-talker.”

“Why are you being such a fucking jerk?”

“I play to my strengths.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “You know, I think I liked you better when you were trying to kill me.”

“Never give up on that dream, Wilson.”

“I hate you.” Sam turned and went.

“Hate you back,” Bucky called cheerfully after him as he stomped down the hall. “Have a nice night.”

***

Delicious grilled fish over charred greens was, yes, his absolute favorite, distracting enough that Sam wasn’t quite ready for it when Steve leaned close to him over the table. “Hey. Have you heard from Nat?”

Sam made himself swallow. “Not… no, not for a while. Why, what’s up?”

Steve sucked some juice off his thumb, a faint frown line visible between his eyes. “Nothing, I just… she gave us all those warnings about keeping a low profile, about people looking for us, and then—nothing. I should probably check in, see if there’s been any HYDRA activity; something we could help with. I worry about—”

“Everybody.”

Steve smiled briefly. “—her, and everybody, yes. But we’ve been hiding here for a long time now, and I think... maybe it’s time to suit up again.”

Sam eyed him. “What if she tells you to just lay low?”

Steve’s smile actually reached his eyes. “Well, you know, Sam; under normal circumstances I’m not really the laying-low type.”

“Yeah; I guess you’re not.”

Fuck.

***

When he was sure Steve was asleep he snuck out of the house, making his way through the moonlit streets to the palace, where even the guard who waved him in looked sleepy. He toned down his knock on Bucky’s door and prepared himself for a wait, but the door opened in seconds and Bucky was fully dressed, low lamp light behind him spilling over several newspapers and books spread out on the table in front of the couch.

“Wilson—”

“You’re right,” Sam said quickly, keeping his voice low. “There have been people looking for us—for all three of us, and I have been taking care of it, and Steve doesn’t know because I didn’t want Steve to know, because I’d like Steve to not do dumb things for a while, and all that was working out great only now he’s decided it’s time for him to suit up again; he decided that just now because it turns out that what he’s been waiting for was you—he was waiting for you, dammit, and now he’s not. Now he’s done waiting, and why the hell did you have to go and fuck up my perfectly good plan?”

Bucky chewed his bottom lip for a moment, then swung the door wide. “Come in.”

Sam walked in, and watched while Bucky gathered up newspapers and books (seriously—who read ten things at once?) and put them in a towering pile on the table before waving Sam to the couch. Bucky brought over his desk chair as he had done before, straddling it backwards. He reached up behind his head and pulled out a thin, stiletto-shaped implement that looked like it was made out of sharpened, polished wood, and his hair fell down around his face. He tossed the stiletto onto the table and leaned forward, his hair hanging, his face shadowed. For the first time, he looked a lot more like himself. His old self.

“On the plane, on the way to Siberia when we were after Zemo,” Bucky said slowly. “I told him, I said… I said I didn’t think I was worth it. All the trouble, everything that happened—you all ending up in jail; and everything else, and everything else that could happen—I told him, but he didn’t listen. I was trying to stop him, trying not to make it worse; I was trying as best I could with my brain full of buzzsaws, but… he’s hard to stop.”

“I know it,” Sam said. He did.

“When I saw him the other day—here, when I was finally ready; after we caught up, I… I told him that I was done.”

“Done?”

“Done. With fighting. With war. I told him that I was finally able to think clearly for the first time in forever, and that what I wanted, what I really wanted, was to just… stop. Be at peace. Be whole.”

“Uh-huh.” Sam saw that Bucky had scars on the knuckles of his right hand, old-looking, crabbed puckers of darker skin. “So… you’re done fighting, then.”

Bucky’s smile was bitter. “God, no; that’s just what I told Steve. I’m… I am a weapon, Wilson; and I’m always going to be a weapon.” He took a breath. “But I’m never going to be somebody else’s mindless weapon, ever again; never going to be used the way I was used, for years, with such… terrible effectiveness.” He flexed his vibranium hand in front of his own face, then gestured to the pile of books and papers on the table. “You know, before the army, before Kreischberg, a thousand years ago, I didn’t have too bad a brain. I was smart. And now that my brain’s fixed, I’m certainly smart enough to learn everything I need to know to make informed choices, to make decisions about exactly what kind of weapon I’m going to be.”

Wait a minute, wait a minute. “Wait a minute,” Sam said. “You can’t possibly think that Steve would try to… to use you, like—”

“No,” One of Bucky’s eyes gleamed at him through the curtain of his hair; the other was obscured. “Of course not. That’s not what I’m saying.”

Sam closed his eyes for a moment and thought it through. “You’re…” He opened his eyes while his stomach did a slow roll. “You’re trying to protect him?”

Bucky didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Sam sat up straight on the couch. “Barnes—”

“I’m a liability for him; it’s obvious—”

“Barnes.”

“He gets… vulnerable, and then he does stupid, stupid things—you said it yourself, Wilson; he lost everything—”

“Barnes.”

“And I’m not, not, going to be the reason that Steve Rogers gets hurt, or killed, or loses one more thing in this world—”

“Barnes, you have lost your goddamn mind.” Sam rubbed his face with both hands, feeling so exhausted he could sleep for a week. “You think what you’re doing right now isn’t hurting him?”

Bucky tossed his hair back, and gave him a look that Sam felt almost as if it was a touch. “He’ll get over it.” Sam rolled his eyes. Bucky started ticking off points on his vibranium fingers. “One, he knows I’m healed. Two, he knows I’m safe if I stay here—at least, safer than I would be almost anywhere else. Three, I told him I want out; that I did enough fighting and now I just want to stay quiet and be at peace. He understands that, he respects that. So He. Will. Get. Over. It.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I’m not.”

“You are.” This was entering schoolyard-bickering territory, and Sam was so, so tired. “And even if you’re not wrong, it’s not gonna stop him from doing dumb things—”

“No power in the universe can stop that, Wilson.” Bucky sighed. “But I can stop him from being dumb because of me—at least for a while.” He tilted his head. “For the rest of it, I have… a few thoughts. You want a drink?”

Sam slumped. “Right now? I want about twelve.”

Bucky stood up. “Let’s start with one, then, and see where it goes from there.”

***

Where it went from there was way too fucking many (although not twelve, if it had been twelve he’d probably be dead), followed by way too little sleep, followed by way too much running.

“Jeez, Sam—what’s the matter, you feeling your age today?” Steve called over his shoulder when they were about halfway through their regular loop.

“I’m feeling your age today, asshole,” Sam managed, then wished he hadn’t because breathing was definitely A Challenge, and he had no extra breath to spare on such pleasantries when he was trying so hard to actively not die.

~~~

“So,” Shuri said, typing rapidly. “There’s flexibility, maneuverability, tactical adaptability, camouflage-slash-stealth, power, responsiveness, accuracy, speed, defensive capabilities, ease of deployment, and pilot synergy to be considered—hey, are you asleep?”

“Not asleep,” Sam insisted, sitting up straight and blinking rapidly. “I wasn’t—I’m not—no.”

“Oh, it’s fine—lots of elders find they need a nap in the middle of the day,” Shuri said complacently, smirking at him. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“You are literally a royal pain in the ass, Princess.”

~~~

“Hair of the dog?” Bucky said, waving a bottle at him.

“Jesus—no, Barnes. No more drunken scheming for me. If I’m gonna scheme, it’s gonna be stone cold sober. I think that’s important.”

Bucky shrugged, flipping the top off a jar of roselle juice. “I dunno—that thing you came up with, with the aliens—that might actually work.”

Sam rubbed his eyes. “Bite me.”

~~~

Sam stopped halfway down a narrow alley between rows of houses, leaned against the wall and pressed the phone harder against his ear. “They’re what now?”

“Bioengineered… things.” Nat sounded frustrated, which was understandable, and actually slightly nervous, which was… well, that never meant anything good. “Hell, Sam, I don’t even know what to call them. In the pictures here in the lab they kind of look like oversized slugs but, uh, purple, and with wings, and there’s one end that looks real bitey—”

“And they’re tracking by scent?”

“Not really. Look, the crazy scientist who made them only gave me so much intel before he lost his temper and had to be put down for a nap. They have a genetic tracking feature built in which is going to lead them right to you—”

Something that wasn’t a bird buzzed very close by him and Sam reacted, lashing out. There was a loud, squirting sound and a splash of warm-wet, and in the dim light he could see that the lavender-gray thing about the size of his forearm that he’d squished against the wall did indeed have one end full of sharp teeth that were still trying to bite him. He heard more low buzzing, coming towards him from every direction. “Okay, I gotta go, but Natasha, just so you know, this is disgusting,” and then he dropped the phone and pried a board out of an abandoned pallet and went to work. The end tally was Sam Wilson 136, gross-flying-bitey slugs 0, but he was covered head to foot in purple goo that smelled like rotting goat innards and he had to break into someone’s backyard to steal a shovel and after shoveling up and dumping all the splattered slug bodies he wound up just faceplanting into the lake to get the goo off and then squelched his slow way home and basically it was a very, very long day.

***

Nakia looked from Bucky to Sam and back again. “So let me make sure I understand you. You want me to give him… false intelligence?”

Sam cleared his throat. “Only a little.”

Bucky scratched behind his ear. “For a while.”

Nakia had one of the best ‘what the fuck are you useless men trying to pull’ faces Sam had ever seen. “And you say he’s your friend?”

“Definitely,” Sam said. “Absolutely,” Bucky said.

Then, because Bucky was obviously out of his depth and Sam was very compassionate, Sam continued. “Look, it’s like this—we know we can’t stop him from, from being a hero forever; we wouldn’t want to. We just… he went through a lot, he lost a lot. We’re just trying to buy a little time. Time for him to heal.” Sam took a breath. “Haven’t you ever had a friend who went through too much in too short a time, and you can tell they’re just not ready to get back into it, but because they are the way they are they do anyway, and… hold up, this is way too specific, isn’t it?”

Nakia smiled a little. “Perhaps a bit more universal than you might imagine.” She sighed and sat back, resting her palms on her knees. “Okay; I’ll do it. But only for a little while.”

Bucky met Sam’s eyes then, and there was a fierce moment of connection that was like a silent and motionless high-five. “Thank you,” Bucky said, relief evident in his voice. “Yeah, thanks,” Sam added. “It means a lot.”

Nakia tapped one of her kimoyo beads, bringing up a blank screen. “So. Let’s talk a bit about what kind of lies you want me to peddle to the poor man,” she said, shaking her head, “and may Bast preserve me from ever having friends like the two of you.”

That was fair.

***

Even for Wakanda it was a particularly beautiful day, clouds and sun and the faintest breeze, gold-green light like springtime but perfectly warm with a soft, luxurious feel to the afternoon air. It was far too nice to stay indoors, so Sam and Bucky ended up at a small table in the courtyard of one of the palace gardens, playing gin rummy and drinking beer.

“I swear to god, Barnes, if you’re even thinking about going out… dammit,” Sam said as Bucky laid down his last card with a smug take-that smirk on his scruffy, stupid face. “Huh. Guess I shoulda known better than to play a Grandma game with someone older than my actual Grandma.”

Bucky’s smirk deepened. “How many points is that, Wilson?”

Sam tossed his cards down. “Way too fucking many, that’s how many.” He scribbled new totals on the sheet of notebook paper they were using to tally. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Then don’t talk about it and deal the fucking cards, loser.”

Sam eyed him. “Did anyone ever tell you what a horrible person you are? Because I really think it’s important that you know that.”

“Well, nobody lately, but I guess that’s what I have you for.”

Sam shuffled and dealt, and was working on putting his melds together when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. It was Steve, who had obviously been cutting through the courtyard on his way somewhere but was now frozen, staring at the two of them like he’d been poleaxed. Sam’s stomach did a little flip—guilt, of course; guilt he’d been trying to ignore ever since he and Bucky had started Operation Give Steve a Break, only it was pretty much impossible to ignore it now. “Hey, Steve.”

Steve smiled, but it was obviously one of his polite smiles, perfunctory, because the lines between his eyebrows said something completely different. “Hey. Uh. Sam. Buck. I just—” he swiveled around then swiveled back, thumbing over his shoulder. “I just… Nakia asked to see me, I guess she might have some, um. Intel.”

Sam pushed his chair back. “Okay, good—that’s good. I can go with you—”

“No,” Steve said quickly, holding up a hand. “No, don’t, you should—I mean, it’s good that you guys… hang out. It’s good.”

Sam’s chest felt tight. “Well, I mean, I could go home with you after… afterwards, if you—”

“No, Sam, really,” Steve was already backing away, shaking his head. “I’m sure you… you should stay. I’ll just… I’ll see you later.” He turned and was gone.

Sam took a deep breath and rubbed both hands over his face. When he looked up, Bucky was staring at him curiously, his head tilted a little to the side. “What? Like you’re gonna tell me that wasn’t awkward as hell for you?”

Bucky carefully set his cards down and leaned back in his chair. “So, Wilson—how long have you wanted to bang Steve?”

God damn un-spooky non-mind-reading powers. Sam put his own cards down. There were lots of ways to respond to that: denial, dismissal, mockery, or defiance. Sam leaned back as well. “Well, since I figured out I love him, which was about a week after I met him.” He lifted his chin. “How about you?”

Bucky scratched his beard, his eyes alarmingly blue under lifted, quizzical brows. “Same, so… 1933 or ‘34, I guess?”

Oh. Well. That was… unexpected, but not entirely surprising.

Bucky picked up his cards, a slow grin spreading across his face. “Guess that means I’ve got dibs, then.”

Sam snorted. “Sure, Barnes—you got dibs, you get first crack at nailing Captain America. Knock yourself out.”

Bucky took the top card from the draw pile, moved some things around, then laid down two books and one run, and went out. “Ha. Rummy. Double points.”

“Oh, son of a bitch.”

***

He thought there might be some awkwardness at home, but when he walked in Steve was at the kitchen table with a glass of juice, absorbed by several pieces of paper spread out in front of him. Sam went to the refrigerator for his own juice, then sat down. “That the intel?”

“Yeah, and I also asked Nat yesterday—and look, it all lines up.” He pushed papers across to Sam, and Sam made a show of flipping through things: yes, intel about a possible HYDRA lab hidden under a warehouse in Kampala, Uganda, with a remarkable similarity between Nakia and Nat’s information; almost as if they had planned it that way. Sam felt slightly sick with guilt—spy stuff, so noir, and wow was he not cut out for it—and handed the papers back.

“So. We going to Uganda?”

Steve’s cheeks were pink. “Well—are you up for it?”

“I go where you go—course I’m up for it.”

Steve looked down at the papers. It was good to see him smile, even if it did twist Sam’s insides into knots. Steve looked back up then, his eyes indigo in the fading light, and ran both hands through his hair. “Good.” He opened his mouth to say something else, then closed it, and shook his head.

“What?”

Steve looked down at the table with apparent self-consciousness, then seemed to shake it off and pull himself together. He cleared his throat. “You know, we don’t actually have any weapons.”

Sam nodded. He’d been meaning to address that problem himself. “Don’t worry about that—pretty sure I’ve got you covered.”

***

Shuri walked them through her stock, and Sam was struck all over again by the loveliness of everything she made, even the destructive stuff. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that he’d been one of those guys who had a certain level of pride in and affection for his firearms over the years, but looking at everything Shuri showed them, it occurred to him that guns were forever going to be ugly to him now. He was okay with that.

They each took an energy baton, blast darts, some cool EMP beads that apparently stopped cars, communicator blisters, shielding discs, and a set of small projectiles that looked a whole lot like decorative stylized metal snowflakes.

“These are experimental; not even the War Dogs have them yet,” Shuri said, handing them over. “Make sure you take note of how they work in the field, and report your results back to me in detail.”

“What are they? I mean, what do they do?” Steve asked, frowning down at the case that held them. They were awfully small.

“Neural disruptors. They disrupt electrical impulses between the brain and the body, except for survival brainstem functions like breathing, heartbeat.” She waved an elegant hand. “Tap one and throw it, you shouldn’t even need to contact skin for it to work. Then I guess you can use the guy for a puppet show, if you wish.”

“Amazing,” Steve said, slowly closing the lid of the case. “And terrifying.”

“Thank you,” Shuri said brightly, smiling, and then added in a delighted, confidential tone, “I call them Brain Freezes.”

***

They stopped overnight in Mbale, halfway to Kampala. There was some kind of festival going on and the place was packed; they were lucky to find a room to share. And as much as Sam was still weirded out by their too-huge house in Birnin Zana, he had to admit it had some things going for it—namely, being able to close a door between himself and Steve when he needed some time alone.

An upside of the festival: food was for sale everywhere. They ate smoked fish with peanut sauce, posho, and sesame greens outside at a table near a wide open-air stage, listening to music and watching people dance. Sam lingered over dinner, in no hurry to get back to close quarters, but eventually he finished and they headed back, with one short side trip when Steve spotted a vendor selling (surprise!) maandazi.

In the room Steve sat down on the edge of the bed closer to the wall, staring somewhere into the middle distance with a faint frown on his face. He cleared his throat. “I guess… I figure Bucky must have told you that he’s done. With fighting.”

“He… might have mentioned it.” Sam sat on the edge of the other bed, moving slowly. Now? Now, Steve decided to talk—when Sam was compromised, when Sam was maybe only eighty percent sure that he was doing the right thing. Fuck. “That’s gotta be pretty tough for you, man.”

Steve smiled a little, a half-bitter, half-rueful smile. “Yes, and no. I mean, he’s safe, and he’s… better. He’s so much better than he was. If I dragged him back in he could end up captured—reprogrammed, or locked up. Or dead.” He shook his head. “I don’t want that to happen. I can’t let that happen. I just.” Steve closed his eyes, and his voice dropped to almost a whisper. “I really miss him.”

Fuck. “I know. I know you do—”

“Sam?”

“Yeah.”

Steve opened his eyes. They were bright, brimming a little. “Thank you. For having my back. For being such a good friend.”

Sam swallowed, guilt like a bitter lump in his throat. “No problem.”

Fuck.

***

Nat had done a fine job—the warehouse she scouted actually had been a cover for a HYDRA base up until about a year ago, so there was a lot of sneaking around and breaking into sub-levels to do, and they found a few pieces of discarded tech and some inventory and project notes that made for very creepy reading, but nothing else.

Steve was quiet all the way back to Wakanda.

***

Bucky didn’t open his door when Sam knocked, and Sam was about to turn away when he heard Bucky’s voice, faintly. “Wilson. Come in.”

Bucky was stretched out on his couch with his right arm over his eyes. He looked terrible.

“You okay?”

Bucky lifted up his arm for a moment, peered at him, then let his arm flop back down. “Fine. Bad night.”

Sam moved the desk chair closer to the couch and sat on it. “Yeah? Want to talk about it?”

Bucky shrugged. “Not much to talk about.”

Sam doubted that. He waited, letting the silence stretch out. Bucky finally lifted his arm up again, glaring at him. Sam raised an eyebrow.

Bucky sighed. “You suck, Wilson.” He sat up and leaned forward on the couch, elbows on his knees and his hair hanging in his face. “Guess you guys made it back in one piece.”

“As fake missions go it was pretty standard, yeah.”

Bucky rubbed his face with his hands. “Good.”

It was like a lightbulb went on in his brain. “Wait—you were worried? Barnes—we were on a fake mission—”

I know that,” Bucky snapped. “But just because I have all the pieces of my brain back doesn’t. It doesn’t unhappen anything.” He stood up and went to the kitchen and came back with two beers, offering one to Sam. Sam took it wordlessly.

Bucky drank, then sat back down on the couch. His voice was hoarser, rougher, more like it had been back when he hardly spoke. “Everything I went through, everything I did—that’s all still there, it’s actually more there; it’s mine, it’s part of me, all of it.” He stared at the floor, fingers lacing through the hair at his temples as if trying to hold his head together. “When I dream on the bad nights, it’s not me they capture. It’s Steve.” He looked at Sam then, almost an accusatory stare. “And last night, it was both of you. Both of you came for me, and they’d caught you and changed you and you didn’t know me; neither of you knew me, and I didn’t want to hurt you but…” he trailed off on a long sigh, and closed his eyes. “It was just a bad night, Wilson. They happen.”

Sam got up from the chair and sat down on the far end of the couch. “This okay?”

Bucky glanced at him with hollowed, shadowed eyes. “Fine.”

“You want me to go?”

Bucky shook his head.

Sam sat quietly, sipping his beer, only looking at Bucky from time to time. Mostly he watched the sun go slowly down over the unbelievable cityscape of Birnin Zana, a sunset that looked like a symphony sounded, a heartbreaking gorgeousness of humanity. Bucky drank his beer and then slowly listed over sideways, curling up on the couch with his eyes closed. His hair fell back from his face, and in the saffron-gold light he looked impossibly young; even with his heavy stubble and shadowed eyes Sam could see the boy he must have been once, so very, very long ago.

When he was sure Bucky was asleep Sam stood up silently, covered Bucky with the woven blanket from the back of the couch, and left.

***

He had a chest protector, a decent pair of punch mitts, and forearm guards, which seemed like a reasonable setup to start with (Sam had originally asked a Dora Milaje if she had any idea where he could get some sparring protective gear, which led to increasingly amused inquiries about just what that was and then a stream of derisive language that left Sam about ninety percent certain that he’d just learned the Xhosa word for ‘wuss’). In the end he’d borrowed the equipment from one of the regular palace security guys who had overheard and been hugely entertained by the entire exchange.

“Okay, so—this is just offense for you, you don’t need to worry about blocking anything,” Sam said, circling around Shuri with small steps, keeping a close eye on her form. She was light on her feet, fast, and ruthless, and so far she had taken to heart everything he’d taught her about how to deal with an enemy larger, tougher, and heavier than she was (which was basically everyone unless she somehow ended up in a skirmish with a twelve year old). “I want you to look at me and figure out where the weaknesses are—whoa—” Sam stopped short and whipped his head to the left when she flat-out tried to kick him in the face. Yes, he was an idiot for not borrowing headgear. Absolutely an idiot.

He blocked her next kick, then a jab, then a roundhouse. “You’re doing great, Princess—”

“Why are you talking?” Shuri huffed, rapid-punching into the mitts. “Just shut up and let me hit you.”

“I’m talking because I’m teaching,” Sam said. “For instance, right now I know exactly what you’re gonna throw and where it’s going, because you’re thinking about it, and your eyes are giving the whole game away. You’re telegraphing, and—”

And that was when he blocked for a kidney punch that never came because instead she kicked him right in the balls. His unprotected balls. Because apparently he was a way bigger idiot than he gave himself credit for.

Sam made a half-distressed, half-interrogative sound and fell over, curling up on the floor. Shuri folded gracefully down next to him, one hand on his shoulder. “Oh. You weren’t wearing a cup? I thought for certain you would be wearing a cup.”

If only he’d been wearing a cup. That would have been swell. Sam made a sort of watery, wheezing noise.

“You know what? You need some ice, and some juice to drink. I’ll go get you some.”

He watched her leave and tried to focus on his breathing, on training his mind away from the hot debate over whether or not he was going to throw up, away from the moldering jaw full of rotting teeth chewing through metal that his entire groinal region had become.

“You underestimated her,” came from the shadows by the door, and General Okoye appeared. “You should not have done that. She is young, but fierce—and she learns quickly, as you have seen.”

“Got that,” Sam managed. “Lesson learned.”

Okoye walked slowly towards him, looking him over. “I think you’ll live.”

From the floor, she looked about seven feet tall. “General. I know you’ve been training her; she just asked—”

“I know what she asked,” Okoye said smoothly. “And I know why, and why you said yes. And I am training her,” she paused, glancing around the lab before looking back at him. “But the kind of training I am giving her takes years. It requires dedication, and discipline, and mastery of both mind and body: to be able to rise above pain and fear and panic; to see the fight clearly.” She actually smiled at him then, just a little. “If she panics, I think she might be much more likely to remember the efficacy of kicking a man in the jewels than she would be to remember all the principles of Donga.”

“That… yeah, probably. Glad I could help out.” He took a breath and didn’t throw up. Yay. “So. We cool?”

“It has indeed been a day of valuable learning for both of you,” Okoye said, as if making a solemn pronouncement. “Now get up off the floor and follow me—there is protective gear in the Palace Guard’s quarters.”

~~~

When he told Steve about it, Steve made him lie on the couch while he went out and brought dinner back for both of them, including dessert (malva pudding with cream sauce), which very nearly made the entire experience worth it.

When he told Bucky about it, Bucky laughed so hard he got tears in his eyes, and immediately texted Shuri to ask if there was footage.

***

The new wings were powerful, effortless, moving as if they read his mind. Roll and soar, dip and reverse and then straight up into the sky, the glittering city below him and the golden majestic expanse of Wakanda stealing his breath. Sam crested, shivering at the top of everything, and then strained up again, up, rebelliously up and up into the sky and faster and faster still, a thundering, daring defiance that left him weightless, gasping, entirely untethered—And falling.

Fallen. He was fallen. Still straining, still gasping, all of the sky gone now that he was home and hidden on the lush green banks of the river, a sweet and tangled writhing. The man behind him took him into warm arms and held him, and Sam looked down to see a white hand low on his belly with familiar scars across the knuckles. It made his brain explode with an inextricable mixture of heat and dismay, mortification and desperate lust. “Open your eyes,” came a hoarse whisper in his ear, and Sam did, gasping all over again—

And sat up in bed, shocked and displaced, racing breath and so much blood rushing through him that he could feel his heartbeat in his ears. His fingers crept to the covers and held on, waiting for calm, waiting for his body to stop shuddering. It took a long time.

Well. Fuck.

***

Nat’s voice over the phone was quiet, intense. “Don’t freak out.”

“Uh, Nat? Just as a heads-up, saying ‘don’t freak out’ to a guy is pretty much gonna lead to a guaranteed freak out,” Sam whispered fervently, sneaking out of the dark and silent house and making sure the door was locked behind him before slipping into the deserted streets like a shadow. “What is it this time?”

“Okay,” She cleared her throat a little. “See, there’s this necromancer—”

“Oh, come on!” Sam stopped in his tracks.

“Ha! Gotcha!” She sounded way, way too happy about that. “No, it’s just two HYDRA assholes, but they’ve got some training, so be careful. I’m sending you the address of the base they’ve set up—it’s pretty close to you.”

Sam leaned against a streetlight. “Are either one of them fucking necromancers?”

“No, jeez, sorry, I didn’t know this was don’t-prank-Sam-Wilson week,” she replied with all the sarcastic gravity of an annoyed teenager. “One of them was Special Forces, the other one was MI6, but it was a while ago. I’m checking up on Fury so I’m too far away to help; I just want to make sure you’re careful.”

Sam tapped the telescoped energy baton he had in one pocket, and the small case of neural disruptors (he refused to call them Brain Freezers because… well, just because), he had in the other. “I’m always careful.”

He was careful, but not too careful. It was actually a relief to fight, to throw himself into something he knew he could do, to let go of some of his pent-up frustration and focus on righteously kicking the ass of such a deserving target. Targets. He used the energy baton. Target. He used it again. Former targets.

Sam toed the last guy’s limp form, wondering if the guy was going to get up again, hoping he would. Nope. Sam sighed, leaned against the nearest building, and texted Nat the all-clear.

***

Sam was still jittering with restless energy the next morning, and his first thoughts were about actually trying to give Steve a run for his money on their morning loop, but the sky outside was a gray and slanting scape of rain.

“Huh,” Steve said, wandering into the kitchen while Sam grumpily made coffee, looking out the wide sitting room window at the washed-wet deep green of the trees. “No run, I guess.”

“Guess not,” Sam agreed. He decided to put his excess energy to work on making something different for breakfast: a version of his grandmother’s blueberry cornbread using black plums instead, and shashouka with red fatalii peppers.

“You’ve been holding out on me, Sam,” Steve said, sniffling a little. “This is amazing.” He sniffled again. “You know, if I’d had this as a kid, the sinus infections wouldn’t have been such a huge problem.”

The cornbread also turned out better than it had any right to given that he was winging it from memory, cooking by whimsy and impulse, and with a little butter and dark raw Wakandan honey—Steve was right; amazing. Perhaps he should stress-cook more often.

Between the two of them they demolished everything, then parked themselves on the settee in the sitting room with second cups of coffee, staring out at the rain. Sam was lulled by the susurrating, hushed fall of water, and when Steve cleared his throat unexpectedly Sam jerked a little, shaking off a mesmerized half-drowse.

“Do you miss home?” Steve asked, without looking at him. In the cool gray light Steve stood out like a beacon, dark-gold blonde and blue eyes and his lips almost vividly red framed by the beard, ridiculously handsome, nearly a caricature of handsomeness.

“I miss my family, yeah,” Sam answered, setting his cup down. “But I gotta say; I do love this place.” He leaned back, lacing his hands over his stomach. “How about you?”

Steve glanced at him then shook his head, smiling faintly. “This place, yeah. It’s strange; I mean, it’s all new to me, but somehow it feels more like home than any place I’ve lived since I woke up.” He shrugged. “I do miss Brooklyn sometimes, but that’s… that’s the past I miss, I’m pretty sure.”

“I get that.”

Steve drained his cup and set it down. “It could be because here, I’m an outsider—I don’t exactly blend in. Back in DC, in New York, I was still an outsider—felt like one, anyway—but I had to pretend I wasn’t. There was a lot of pressure, even with people who knew who I was, to be… normal, maybe?” He took a breath. “Which actually made me feel a lot more like I didn’t belong.”

Sam blinked slowly. If they weren’t what they were to each other, if they were more, if things were different, this would have been a moment when he would have straddled Steve’s lap and laced his arms around Steve’s neck and made out with him, sweetly and steadily until the frown line between Steve’s eyes eased away. His chest ached a little on his next breath, but it was okay—it was an ache he was used to. “So… you’re okay?”

Steve looked at him, his eyes so arrestingly blue it almost felt like they could see inside him. “I will be. But I need to get back to work—there’s still an awful lot of bad guys out there; even if there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of them in our general vicinity.”

Sam ran a hand over his face. “Maybe.” He hesitated, then pushed on. “Maybe it’s a good thing, though, to give yourself a little break.” He cleared his throat. “I mean, a lot happened over the past few years. You… you lost a lot.”

Steve studied him. “Is that why you’re here? Why you’re staying?”

Not the question he expected, and the ache in his chest expanded a little. “No,” he answered simply, which was true, even if there was a lot more to it than that.

Steve looked away, back out at the rain. His eyelids lowered and he smiled a little, and Sam had a half-panicked moment of wondering how much of his stupid lovesick feelings had showed themselves on his stupid face before Steve turned back to him, clapping him briefly on the shoulder. “Okay, then.” Steve leaned against him. Feeling like he’d dodged a bullet, Sam leaned back.

They watched the rain together, and this time when his eyes grew heavy, Sam let them drift shut.

***

The intel from Nat was a little spotty, and given the uncertainty she’d suggested that he just hold off until she was back in Wakanda; but Sam really wasn’t in the mood to wait, especially when it was just another couple of HYDRA jerks. He snuck out of the house with his usual caution, then made his way through dark and silent streets to a manufacturing building on the outskirts of Birnin Zana, one of many in that part of town, only this one had its windows blacked out—unheard of here, in this city where all the views were amazing.

He found the first guy just outside the back door in the loading dock area, and took him down as quietly as possible with hand-to-hand: the energy batons were great, but they did make a bit of noise—then liberated the guy’s keys, and let himself in.

The wide hallway he found himself in was only faintly illuminated by weak light coming through the bottom edge of closed double doors straight ahead. He heard voices, two voices, too faint to make out any actual words, but that was okay because very shortly it wasn’t going to matter what the hell they had to say to each other—

Which was when he sensed something behind him, but before he could turn he felt cold steel press against the back of his head. “Mr. Wilson, I presume.”

Damn.

~~~

“You have caused us a great deal of trouble, Mr. Wilson,” the guy at the head of the table said to him, steel-rimmed glasses and a suit that still somehow managed to look like a uniform, and the whole room smelled weird, and why did all HYDRA assholes seem to have that odd, medicinal, pseudo-Teutonic whiff about them? It occurred to Sam that the question answered itself, really; and it further occurred to him that he was probably in a bit of trouble here, because it wasn’t two guys, or three guys—it was ten guys, ten guys and Sam had now been relieved of all of his weapons.

“Are you waiting for an apology? Because I’m fresh out, unless…” he reached into his emptied pocket and pulled out a fist with the middle finger extended. “No, looks like I got one left. Here you go.”

The man at the head of the table smiled faintly. “Yes, very amusing; no doubt your dull-witted friends find your sense of humor endlessly diverting.” He waved a hand, and one goon grabbed Sam’s left arm while another grabbed his right, and then that cold, steel circle pressed hard into the back of his head again. “But I’m afraid my colleagues and I are not quite as enraptured with juvenile insolence as those you have recently been keeping company with, Mr. Wilson—which brings me to my question: where is the Winter Soldier?”

“Last I heard he’d joined a traveling circus outside Poughkeepsie,” Sam said as his lips went numb. “He makes a great angry clown.”

The man nodded once, and yet another goon came up from Sam’s left and punched him in the gut hard enough that all the breath left his body, his vision went white for a moment, and he would have folded in half if he weren’t being held up by his arms. He swallowed bile, and got his feet under him.

“The Winter Soldier, Mr. Wilson. Where is he?”

“Organic farming commune in Oregon,” Sam managed. “See, he hooks a rototiller onto the arm and—”

Another nod, another punch, this one to Sam’s solar plexus, followed up by a solid uppercut to the jaw, snapping his head back so hard he thought he felt the impact between his shoulder blades. Sam sagged and retched a little, but managed to get back on his feet, shaking his head.

The look on his interrogator’s face was an interesting mixture of avid enjoyment of his suffering and mild consternation, but his voice was perfectly calm, and cold as deep ocean water. “Last chance, Mr. Wilson, before I have Stefan shoot you and we move on to more fruitful, if less droll, avenues of inquiry: the Winter Soldier.”

“He’s gone undercover as an altar boy at St. Matthews in Crown Heights—” Sam gritted out between his teeth, and he couldn’t help it, he jumped when he heard a shot, only it somehow wasn’t him getting shot, because the next thing he knew there was a roar of voices all around him and his arms were free, and Sam didn’t stand on ceremony but hurled himself sideways, toward the shelf where they’d tossed his weapons.

He flicked on the energy baton and backhanded one of the goons with it before it even initialized. There was a loud, solid thock sound, and that guy was out.

“Rototiller?” he heard, and Bucky was there, across the room, staring accusingly at him while punching a guy in the chest with his vibranium arm hard enough that the guy flew into the wall and left a person-shaped dent in the plaster and a red splotch behind when he slid to the floor.

“I was improvising,” Sam muttered, and moved as fast as he could given that blast dart sounds and gunshots were everywhere, and everyone except he and Bucky seemed to be yelling something at everybody else. He got two more goons with the baton and punched a third one right in the face solidly enough that he heard something crack.

There were screams. Dart sounds. “Angry clown!?” Sam roundhouse kicked a guy who was drawing down on Bucky, and the guy flew into the path of another guy’s bullet and tumbled to the floor motionless.

Sam’s inquisitor was up against the wall, pale and terrified, barking commands at Bucky in multiple languages at a faster and faster clip until Bucky turned towards him and hit his throat with a sideswipe hammer punch from his metal hand. Then it was suddenly, shockingly quiet.

He and Bucky were the only ones standing. Sam could feel pain coming, could feel a wave of close-call panic coming, but it hadn’t quite arrived yet—for now he was just one giant, jittering bundle of nerves, checking and re-checking all the puddled bodies on the floor to make sure that it was over, that he wasn’t going to die in this terrible little room.

Bucky stepped in front of him, breathing heavily. His hair was wild. His eyes were wild. He was sweating. It was an unfairly attractive look on him. “I am no fucking altar boy, Wilson,” Bucky said, then pushed Sam up against the wall and kissed the hell out of him.

~~~

Sam’s stomach ached. His chest ached. His chin ached. Some other parts ached too, but there was a whole different rationale behind that. Sam wiped his wet mouth with the back of his hand. “Jesus, Barnes. How long have you been bottling that up?”

Bucky reached out and brushed a thumb over Sam’s lower lip. “Since the first time you looked at me without either hate or pity.” He turned away then, collecting weapons and checking bodies, moving with brisk efficiency until he was back in front of Sam. His eyes were dark in the low light, but Sam could feel the intensity of his gaze as if it were tactile pressure. “Come home with me.”

Sam blinked. “Just like that? Really?”

Bucky stepped closer to him, his voice low, a half-grin on his face. “What, this wasn’t your idea of a solid first date? I shoulda brought flowers?”

Sam closed his eyes. There were only a few things he’d found that were undeniable turn-ons for him, and sadly, tragically, ‘cocky-but-handsome asshole’ seemed to be one of those things, provided that the cocky but handsome asshole in question a) had the skills to back it up, and b) wasn’t actually a terrible person. Granted, all the evidence wasn’t in yet on Bucky regarding those two qualifiers, but Sam had his suspicions. He opened his eyes. “Funeral flowers, maybe. We’re standing in a room full of dead HYDRA agents, Barnes; you don’t think your timing could use a little work?” Speaking of timing. “And why were you here anyway? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m real glad not to be dead on this floor right now—”

“I follow you.”

“What?”

Bucky tossed his head. “I follow you. When you go out and fight.”

“Wh—since when?”

“Since I found out what you were doing.” He shrugged. “I thought I’d be there in case you needed some backup.”

Sam chewed his bottom lip for a moment, then saw that Bucky was watching him do it, and stopped. “So… the purple slug-bug things? You saw all that?”

Bucky’s grin widened. “That was fucking hilarious, Wilson.”

Sam narrowed his eyes. “Back to hating you now.”

“I think I can work with that as a starting point,” Bucky said, tilting his head down a little. “Come home with me.”

Sam sighed. “After we clean up this mess, yeah, okay. These guys can’t be found here—”

“Already on it,” Bucky said, pulling out his phone and tapping away at it. He looked up long enough to drop Sam a wink. “I got connections.”

“I bet you do.”

***

The expected: Bucky had a lot of scars. A lot of hair. A lot of stamina. A short refractory period. A big dick, and a lot of self-confidence.

The unexpected: he was… sweetly raunchy, relaxed and filthy and easily affectionate, as turned on by making out as he was by anything else. “Your fucking mouth,” he muttered, shivering, holding close but being oh-so-gentle with Sam’s injuries, only the lightest of touches on his belly and chest. “I think I could come just from kissing you.”

Sam rolled Bucky onto his back and got on top then, and okay, maybe it wasn’t just kissing, there was definitely a little rubbing in there too, but not too much, and Bucky’s hands on his hips tightened and then tightened again. Sam kissed him until he moaned and his body rolled like an oiled machine, kissed him until his breath caught and his hips jerked and Bucky gave it up without a touch but with deeply sweet, half-broken abandon, then Sam pulled Bucky’s hand down to his own cock and got off in five lazy, panting strokes.

“Proof of concept,” Sam managed once he’d flopped onto his back, his mouth beard-burned raw and his zinging nerves still firing like crazy, his own heartbeat loud in his ears.

“Mmm,” Bucky grunted vaguely, groping toward him with his right hand and landing somewhere on his thigh. His voice was hoarse, scratchy, half-satiated and half-hungry. “I’m gonna eat your gorgeous ass now, Wilson. Okay?”

Sam definitely did not internally quiver at that. Not even a little. “Uh. Sure. Knock yourself out.”

Bucky certainly took his time about it. Nothing tentative at all—he dived in like he was starving, full-throttle without any niceties to warm up on, but then he dialed it back and dialed it back to a slow, grinding tease, fucking devil-tongued sadist holding him open with too-strong hands while Sam smashed his face into the pillows and tried not to beg out loud. Bucky took breaks—breaks to pet him, breaks to kiss him, breaks to flip him over and suck his cock so lightly and tortuously that Sam was within an inch of grabbing the guy by his stupid, soft, sexy hair and making him finish.

“You had better be ready to fuck me after all this, asshole,” Sam panted into Bucky’s mouth during one of the maddening kiss breaks.

“Wilson,” Bucky said, gazing deeply into his eyes and cupping his face like they were moony teenage sweethearts or something. “I am gonna do my level best to fuck your ass so good you swear nobody ever fucked you before.” He sounded terribly earnest.

Cocky. Handsome. Asshole.

Bucky read his body like they’d been together for years, like he knew just what Sam needed and just what he wanted and just what he could and couldn’t take. He worked his way in slow and then let everything build just a little at a time, kept Sam on his hands and knees until he was fucking Sam hard and fast and Sam was about to come—and then pulled out, flipped him over and started working his way in again with them face-to-face, the slow, steady build all over again, torturous.

“Dick,” Sam managed faintly. He meant to preface that with ‘you’re such a’, but somewhere around an hour into desperately needing to come he kind of forgot how to talk.

“Nothing gets past you, does it?” Bucky gasped in his ear, and that was terrible—Sam burst out laughing and then there was no stopping it, his body took over and he exhaustedly and greedily worked his ass hard on Bucky’s cock until he came, still laughing and half-groaning and feeling so goddamn fine, he got one glimpse of Bucky’s surprised, aroused face before Bucky fucked him hard with three last teeth-jarring thrusts and came in him, his head thrown back and his throat corded, sweaty, laughing, moaning, gorgeous.

~~~

Sam drowsed a little, half-draped over Bucky’s right side with Bucky’s arm under his head. Bucky smelled spicy: leather, sweat, a trace of coconut and warm metal. It was surprisingly soothing, and when Sam drifted back to wakefulness under the effect of more luxurious, patient kisses and a vibranium hand jerking him off with agonizingly slow strokes, his eyes may have rolled up in his head a bit.

Bucky lubed him up and then rode him, kissing him the whole time, tight and hot and shivery-good and thank god Sam had already come twice because that absolutely, utterly broke him down—Bucky whispering lewd sweet nothings in his ear between kisses, riding him gently and then roughly and then voraciously, kissing him until the very end when Bucky reared back and got himself off and came all over Sam’s stomach and chest, working his hips hard until Sam came with a half-strangled expletive, his shaking hands tight on Bucky’s slick, muscular thighs.

~~~

“You are way too good at that, Barnes.”

Bucky, facedown on the bed with his head pillowed on his crossed arms (which couldn’t possibly be comfortable), peered at him with one barely-open eye. “Thanks. At what?”

“All of it.”

Bucky opened both eyes to half-mast, and grinned. It was a grin of insufferable smugness. “Glad to know I rocked your world, Wilson.”

Sam punched him very lightly on the shoulder. It made a soft clinking noise. “Shut up. I mean… have you been nailing half the population of Wakanda since your miraculous healing experience, or was all that reclaimed talent?”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t take you for the jealous type.”

Sam raised his own back. “That’s ‘cause I ain’t.”

Bucky reached out slowly with his left hand, and brushed Sam’s cheek. “I got around a lot when I was young, before… before.”

Sam nodded. “Steve said you were quite the ladies’ man.”

Bucky snorted indelicately. “Shows what he knew. Ladies’ man. Man’s man. All kinds of man.”

Sam grinned a little. “Slut.”

Bucky grinned back at him. “Hell yeah.” He rolled over and onto his back, stretching, naked, breathtaking.

Something clicked in Sam’s brain. “You got paid.”

“That, too.” Bucky ran his fingers through his hair. “Lots of poor and pretty Brooklyn boys had sex for money back then.” He shrugged. “They probably still do.” He glanced at Sam. “That bother you?”

“No,” Sam said, reaching out and tracing Bucky’s wicked lower lip with his thumb. “I mean, the necessity part—that you had to. But not that you did it.”

Bucky grabbed his head and drew him over for a kiss that Sam felt all the way to the base of his spine. “Yes, Wilson, you are the beneficiary of all the expertise I gained sucking off captains of industry in the 1930s,” he said dryly.

Sam’s mouth twitched. “You sucked off captains of industry?”

“No, I sucked off middle-class businessmen mostly, but they looked like captains of industry from my comparative poverty level.”

“Got it.” Sam cleared his throat. “How ‘bout any other Captains?”

Bucky eyed him. “Some, once the war started, but no—none of them were Steve.” He stared at the ceiling. “I think Steve’s straight. Probably straight.” He snorted. “Despite the fucking beard.”

Sam made a soft noise and dragged both hands down his own face. “That beard.”

Bucky looked over at him again, shaking his head, his eyes wide and earnest. “It’s so hot.”

Stupid hot,” Sam agreed.

“Nail me to the motherfucking wall hot,” Bucky said, and then they were both laughing like idiots.

***

Sam used Bucky’s shower, then made his slow, wobbly way home. He collapsed into his glorious soft bed and zonked out for nearly thirty beautiful minutes before his alarm went off.

Steve did a double-take when he walked into the kitchen. “Jeez, Sam—you okay? You look kinda rough.”

“Had a. Um. A hard night,” Sam mumbled, wrestling with the recalcitrant coffeemaker with his face blazing hot. “Didn’t sleep much.”

“Well, don’t worry; I can run on my own today—”

“No.” No, not today, not with unexpected HYDRA nests popping up in their immediate vicinity. No, sir. “I’m good, I’ll be fine, just need—” he stopped to yawn. “Need coffee.”

Steve looked unconvinced. “You sure?”

“Sure.” He moved to the cupboard where the coffee cups were.

“You hurt?”

Sam turned around. “Huh?”

“You’re walking kind of funny.”

His face was going to fucking combust. “Bum knee. Kicks up sometimes.”

“Oh. Well, jeez—you don’t wanna mess it up worse—”

“We’re going running, Steve,” Sam said evenly in his calmest, bossiest voice. “Just as soon as I have some coffee.”

Steve put his hands up. “Okay—whatever you say, Sam.”

He supposed the coffee was helpful in the sense that he didn’t actually fall asleep while running, but it was an extremely close call.

***

As time passed, Sam reflected with great fondness on the days when his life had allowed him more than an average of three hours of sleep a night. Those days now seemed long ago and far away, a hazy delirium of cherished and indulgent memories.

Shuri sometimes let him take a nap on one of the lab benches if he yawned enough, and Sam was too fucking tired to respond to her satirical comments about his encroaching age and infirmity. She could make fun of him all goddamn day if he got a decent nap out of it.

Sam and Steve took a (carefully prearranged) lovely and entirely uneventful trip to Nairobi, Kenya. It was a disappointing endeavor for Steve (thanks to the careful prearrangements they found no HYDRA agents), but Sam loved it because he actually got to sleep for three nights in a row—and his guilt didn’t bother him as long as he was unconscious.

Whatever tipping point there was, they’d reached it—according to Nat’s and Nakia’s intel, people were starting to know where they were; not just the ones who’d gotten lucky. T’Challa tightened security around Birnin Zana, but while that filtered out most of the larger, better-organized groups, there were still plenty of crazies, HYDRA assholes, assassins, and well-trained government agents who slipped through faster than the intel could keep up with them, and he and Bucky wound up taking people out more often than not on their nighttime patrols.

“I think we should tell him,” Sam said, delivering an elbow smash to the face of the guy behind him while he fired up his energy baton.

“We’re not telling him, Wilson,” Bucky replied flatly, sweeping the legs out from under the guy with the biggest gun and following up with a devastating knee to the face.

“Okay, so maybe we don’t tell him,” Sam said, whapping the guy holding the small box that looked very much like a remote-controller for a toy RV upside the head until he dropped it, then punching, punching, punching until the guy went flat. “We could just... let him in on this.” Next guy, kick to the chest—done. Next guy, energy baton to the balls—done. Guy ranting about removing their brains and electrocuting them—dropped. “Steve would love this—I mean, it’s not like we come up against anyone very dangerous—”

“Hey,” the last guy said, glaring at Sam and sounding very aggrieved, but then Bucky lifted him up against the wall by his throat, and that was as much as he got out before his voice choked off.

“We weren’t talking to you,” Bucky said primly, then turned back to Sam. “Wilson, think about it for a minute—” the last guy’s feet drummed against the wall, and he looked to be doing his level best to pry Bucky’s hand off his neck—but unfortunately for him, it was the vibranium hand. “Think about how you’d feel if something happened and he got hurt. Think about how he’d feel if one of us got hurt.” He seemed to reflect a moment, scratching his chin with his non-strangling hand. “Think about how we’d both feel the first time he decides he has to do something incredibly brave and stupid.” Bucky shook his head. “Not worth it.”

Sam turned off his baton and sheathed it, then armed sweat off his forehead and put his hands on his hips. “This can’t go on forever, Barnes—we can’t just keep lying to him. I mean… we’ve got a real situation here. How the hell does this end?”

There was a sharp popping, cracking sound, and the last guy’s feet stopped drumming the wall. He collapsed like a pile of rags when Bucky let go. “I don’t know,” Bucky said quietly, staring down at the last guy’s body, then took out his phone, tapped out a message, and tucked it away. He took a deep breath and lifted his head. Even in the low light, his eyes gleamed. “I just want to make sure it ends worse for the bad guys. Come home with me?”

Bucky always asked. So far, Sam had always said yes. After all, while he had to admit that he was sometimes a fool, he was not a stupid man.

***

“You are so fucking pretty, Wilson,” Bucky told him between kisses, and yeah, maybe there was a good sarcastic comeback for that but it was really difficult to dredge one up when Bucky was staring at him awed and hungry, fucking him slow and gentle and giving him absolutely everything he wanted, a warm, calloused hand on his cock and just about to come. He did manage a half-hearted glare, but there was no way to keep it up when his bones were melting, goodness brimming like an overfull bowl at the core of him, ready to spill. Coming took forever, a slow, clutching, pulsing release of tension that went on until it almost hurt, wringing him dry and leaving him beached and gasping in Bucky’s rumpled ocean of a bed.

It was easy to drift, easy to bask in the warm afterglow of low lamp light and Bucky staring at him, hazy and satiated and self-satisfied, a heavy and proprietary vibranium hand petting his hip. Bucky stared at him a lot (before, during, and after), and it might have been weird if Sam hadn’t spent most of his time in Bucky’s bed utterly saturated with post-orgasmic endorphins and a kind of incredulous giddy delight over their sexual chemistry. Not that he needed to say that out loud—Sergeant Super-Smug-I-Made-You-Come-Really-Fucking-Hard-Several-Times certainly didn’t require any reassurance.

Sam lazily scratched his sticky stomach. “I should get in the shower. Long day tomorrow.”

Bucky’s eyelids lowered to half-mast. “You’re leaving for Mek’ele in the morning?”

“Yeah.” Sam yawned. “Another stupid exercise in carefully orchestrated futility—”

He cut off when Bucky slid over and kissed him, pressing him into the sheets, hot and possessive. “Be safe, Wilson,” Bucky said when he pulled back, one fingertip tracing Sam’s hairline, making him shiver. “And keep Steve safe. I need you both back.” Another kiss, this one slow and teasing, accompanied by Bucky’s bedroom eyes look—which, in Sam’s opinion, was far too effective for anyone’s good. “Come see me when you get home?”

Sam grinned. “Why, you gonna be lonely?”

“Lonely, worried, horny,” Bucky affirmed, sliding his hand behind Sam’s neck. “Gonna need you to put my mind at ease, then put out and fuck me ‘till I can’t walk.”

“Yeah, okay,” He reached out and tucked Bucky’s hair behind his ear. “You be safe too—there’s a lot of really terrible people around lately, so just… don’t be a hero, okay, asshole?”

“Fine. Dick.”

Sam tossed Bucky off him, whapped him with a pillow, and made his shaky, sore and very-well-fucked way to the shower.

***

On the road to Mek’ele, Steve seemed to be in good spirits—he shoved a pasti in Sam’s mouth after dinner when Sam was joshing him about his sweet tooth, which, okay, was weird, but also, okay, pretty damn funny. And tasty.

On the way home, Steve didn’t talk much, and Sam was utterly unable to fight his way past the terrible guilt that made words stick in his throat. He stayed quiet until they were home, until Steve was asleep, until he snuck out of the house and made his way to Bucky’s and barely got the door closed behind him before he wrestled Bucky to the ground and yanked his pants off and fucked him until they were both sobbing, Sam half with raw, guttural pleasure and half with the sweet and terrible relief of being with someone who knew the worst of him.

***

One guy. Just one fucking guy. But the guy was so fast and so strong that Sam wondered if they might be dealing with an enhanced or semi-enhanced human: he whipped in and out of shadows with eerie silence, managed to cut Sam’s arm (almost his throat) and then dart back out of the way of a baton strike before Sam could land it, managed to get in a kick that actually sent Bucky off the edge of the roof they were fighting on, before running in the opposite direction and hurling himself off the other side. The fight ranged through the streets and seemed to take forever, and by the time they finally climbed a wall and cornered the guy in an alley Sam had a split lip, a blood-soaked and useless arm, and double vision from a kick to the head, while Bucky was limping, snarling like a deranged maniac, and dripping blood everywhere from a cut on his ribs. It took both of them together to actually take the guy down, and after the final sharp snap of his neck Sam wandered across to the other side of the alley and slid down to the ground, panting and cradling his arm.

“That… didn’t go so hot,” he said, pressing his head into the plaster wall behind him, waiting for his heartbeat to back off from a gallop.

“Not our finest hour, no,” Bucky growled, gently kicking the guy’s limp body before he slid down to the ground, hissing softly and holding his ribs.

“You gonna let me look at that? Fix you up?”

“Later,” Bucky said tersely, wiping sweat off his forehead.

Sam looked up at the stars in the narrow slice of sky between buildings. He took a breath. Then several more breaths. “Barnes.” He swallowed. “We gotta let Steve in on this.”

There was very little light to see by, but he could certainly feel the glare coming his way. “Shut up, Wilson, and leave Steve out of it. He’s fine—”

“He is not fine,” Sam snapped, struggling up to his feet. “The guy is fucking miserable, because what we’re doing—yeah, we did it for good reasons at first, sure—but now? Now it’s hurting him.” He blinked, and his eyes stung. “He’s frustrated and he’s hurting, and we can’t just keep sending him out on fake missions to try to make him feel useful while we take out all the actual threats behind his back and then fuck each other stupid. We can’t.” His throat was aching, half-choked with all the things he’d needed to say, that he’d been holding onto for so long. “I can’t. I can’t do this anymore.”

Bucky rose to his feet slowly, and took three limping steps towards him. “Wilson—”

“Don’t,” Sam said, catching Bucky’s right hand as it reached out to him. “Don’t, because every time you grab my dick my IQ drops by fifty points and I can’t talk, and I need… we need to talk about this.” Sam’s hand was shaking, Bucky’s wrist steady in his grip. “Look. You don’t even talk to Steve anymore, you don’t see him. I’m the one who lives with him, and I’m telling you: what we’re doing, it’s hurting him.”

Bucky’s face was set, stolid. “He’ll get over it.”

“Actually,” Both of them turned lightning-quick at the low, tense voice coming from a dark silhouette at the top of the alley. “I’m not sure that I will.”

Steve, Sam tried to say, but nothing came out of his mouth.

~~~

“I heard voices,” Steve said, walking towards the two of them, and something in Sam’s chest cramped with sudden, terrible pain, and then shifted to a bitter ache. He looked around, and only then realized that the alley they were in was perilously close to their house—across the street and one house down. Bad luck. It was just bad luck. He let go of Bucky’s wrist and took a step back.

“I thought… I heard your voices, and fighting, and I thought something had happened. Was happening.” Steve looked between the two of them, and now that he was closer Sam could see how drawn and stern his face was, how shocked, how pale. “But it sounds like there’s a lot that’s been happening, for a while.”

“Steve,” Sam said, and at least that time he was able to actually say it out loud. “Steve, I—”

“Sam,” Steve said, turning to him, and the look on his face—pain, anger, and something worse, something like grief or loss—lanced through Sam and made his throat close up immediately. “Don’t. Just don’t talk to me right now.”

Bucky limped forward out of the shadows, his arms crossed over his chest, his head up, defiant. “Lay off Wilson,” he said in a low growl. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”

Steve made a soft, half-suppressed noise that might have been either a laugh or a sob. “Really? All this was your idea, then?”

“Enough of it was.”

Steve looked away, took a breath, looked back. “You’re fighting.”

“Yeah.”

“Not just tonight, you’ve been…”

“Yeah.”

“Since when?”

“My entire fucking life.”

Steve winced. “So when you told me you were done—”

“Giant lie.”

Steve rubbed his hands over his face. “You… Buck. Why?”

“Because you’re an idiot.” Bucky took another step forward, and his voice hoarsened. “Because when people tell you the truth, one of two things happen: either you don’t listen to them and then you go and do something brave and stupid, or you do listen to them, and then react by doing something even more brave and stupid.” He shook his head. “You do the stupidest goddamn things, Rogers, for the stupidest reasons, and after Zemo I swore—I made a solemn vow to myself, once I could fucking think straight—that you were not gonna do that again because of me.”

“So you lied to me.”

Bucky smiled faintly, coldly. “Yeah, I did.” His voice was steady, defiant, hard. “I’m good at lying, Steve—in fact, I’m great at it. I’m great at two things: lying, and killing people, and I’ve been doing both of those things just to give you a little bit of a fucking break, so back off already.”

“I can’t believe this,” Steve said softly, such incredible sorrow in his words that Sam’s chest ached.

“Steve,” Sam said, trying and failing to stop his voice from shaking. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but you gotta know; it wasn’t him, we both… we just wanted to help you, we both thought—”

“Sam,” Steve interrupted, and turned his face up to the sky, not even looking at him. “Please, just… shut up.” He swallowed. “I don’t even wanna think about what the hell you both thought you were doing.”

Bucky lowered his head, oddly bullish with his hair that had come loose in the fight falling around his face. “Well, are you pissed because we tried to help you, or pissed because you found out we’re fucking?”

Sam’s throat clenched. No, don’t do this—

“Buck.” Steve’s voice was low and tight.

“You knew Wilson likes men—”

“Yeah.” Steve blinked. “But I didn’t know you did.”

“Well, you should have.” Bucky’s eyes were bright in the dimness, too bright, and emotion was cracking through his words now, too much emotion, and Sam’s stomach folded in on itself in dismay. “I’ve been in love with you since I met you, asshole.” He shook his head a little, almost a shiver. “You want the truth? There you go.”

Steve looked at Sam with a stunned expression on his face, as if the words didn’t make any sense to him at all, then turned back to Bucky. “What?”

“Wilson’s been in love with you since he met you.”

“Bucky—”

“We’re both in love with you,” Bucky gritted out, his voice ratcheting up. “We’re in love with you and we didn’t tell you, because we also like you and didn’t want to lose you—and obviously we’re both fucking idiots, only I guess I’m the biggest idiot of all because Wilson and I have been banging for three months and nine days now and it was something I wanted to do because he’s brave as hell and a decent guy and also really fucking hot and it was supposed to be for fun only it didn’t work out that way because now I’m in love with him too which is just. Fucking. Great.” Bucky glared at Sam, glared at Steve, then pushed past them both and walked toward the mouth of the alley.

Sam sucked in a breath. “Barnes—”

“Buck—”

“Fuck off!” Bucky yelled, and kept on walking.

In the wake of his departing footsteps, it seemed very quiet. Sam swayed on his feet a little, feeling every one of his injuries, feeling others that hadn’t quite hit home yet. His eyes stung, and he rubbed them. “Steve.”

Steve still didn’t look at him. One hand slowly rubbed his chest, as if it pained him. “Sam… I can’t.”

Steve walked away. Sam listened to his footsteps until he couldn’t hear them anymore, until he heard the front door of their house (god right across the fucking street how could he have missed that) open and shut.

He went and sat down next to the body of the dead guy, buried his face in his hands for a minute while he tried to figure out if he was actually jealous of the dead guy for being well past all this kind of bullshit, then sighed, pulled out his phone, and texted the location of the body to Nat.

Wow, close call, she texted back.

You have no fucking idea, he sent.

***

Nakia came to collect the body, and frowned at Sam when he only used one arm to help her load it onto the gurney she’d pulled out of the ambulance-type vehicle she’d arrived in.

“You’re hurt?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said automatically, but his voice was still a hoarse and scratchy mess, and her frown grew more grave.

“I think you’d better come with me.”

It struck him, then, really struck him, that he had no place to go where he would be welcome, and his throat tried to close up on him again. “Yeah, okay.”

The building she drove to was in the industrial section of Birnin Zana, a slim four-story blank edifice with a loading dock around the back. “What is this place?”

Nakia shrugged, an elegant gesture evocative of a woman with more to do than time to do it in. “Right now it is War Dog HQ, a safe house, our research and intelligence center, and lately, an off-the-grid morgue.” She waved her kimoyo beads in front of the lock, pulled the double doors open, and shot him a glance. “You’ve been keeping us busy.”

Sam pressed his lips together. More guilt. Fantastic. He didn’t say anything, but she must have picked up on something in his expression because she briefly put a warm hand on his arm, shaking her head. “You don’t understand. This… we don’t just handle the bodies. Valuable intel comes from tracing back where these men come from, who sent them, what they want.” She eyed him. “You know T’Challa has tightened security around the country, and around the city; since we told the world who we truly are.”

“Yeah.”

Nakia nodded at the sheet-draped form on the gurney. “We catch or keep out as many as we can who plan to do us harm, but still, some get through. And of the ones you and Sergeant Barnes have taken out, more than half of them have had a dual agenda. Yes, they may want you, Captain Rogers, or the Winter Soldier, but they also want to exploit us, what we have. They want vibranium, they want our technology.” She raised an eyebrow. “A good percentage of them have had kidnapping Princess Shuri as their secondary goal: for ransom, or to force her to work for them.”

Sam closed his eyes, then opened them. “I didn’t know.”

Her smile was gentle, quizzical. “If you had known, would you have killed them harder?”

Sam rubbed his head. “I… uh. Yeah?”

She patted his shoulder. “Good. I am not fond of violence, but I am also not willing to sacrifice the innocent people I love most in the name of peace, when they are targets.”

“With you on that one,” Sam mumbled, and followed her and the rolling gurney through the doors.

~~~

The ‘safe house’ portion of the building was on the top floor; a sprawling and comfortable space that was entirely in the funky style Sam thought of as ‘Wakandan Contemporary’ except for the fact that there were very few windows. Nakia settled him on the edge of the tub while she cleaned and examined the cut on his arm. It was fairly nasty, and since it had happened at the beginning of the fight it had bled a lot. “That… probably needs stitches,” Sam said looking down, gritting his teeth a little.

Nakia pulled back from her inspection with a look. “So barbaric,” she said chidingly. She opened a cupboard and pulled out something that looked like a futuristic tape dispenser and another thing that looked like a high-tech hair dryer. Sam watched her apply a thin, clear strip of sticky sheeting over his wound, then aim the not-a-hair-dryer at it, flooding the area with a rectangle of purplish light. Sam felt his skin tingle, then go blissfully numb. She looked up. “This is just an emergency field regenerator; I’m afraid it will take some time.”

“Lucky for me my plans for the evening got cancelled,” Sam said dryly, then swallowed. “Thank you.”

She glanced at his face briefly before focusing back on his arm. “This is not your only hurt, I think.”

Sam licked his split lip, but that wasn’t it; he knew that wasn’t it. “Steve knows. He heard the fight, he heard me and Barnes, he… he knows, now.”

Nakia rolled her eyes. “Well, thank Bast that your little deception is over, because honestly it was one of the stupidest ideas I ever heard of.”

Sam broke a little then, trying to breathe through rueful, pained laughter. He let it have its way with him, then closed his eyes and started talking, telling her more, surprising himself by telling her all of it. It was actually a relief, even more of a relief than the warm absence-of-pain that was his arm. When he finally ran out of words he opened his eyes to find her staring at him with her lips slightly pursed.

“What about you? Do you love both of them?”

It wasn’t the question he expected, but the bright bolt of pain it sent through him let him know that maybe it was the one he should have asked himself before now, before this moment. “I… fuck. Yes. I didn’t mean to… but. Yeah.” He shrugged with his non-injured shoulder, carefully. “But I don’t…” he swallowed. “I can deal with that. I’m dealing with it. I just want us to be able to work together, that’s all.”

Nakia shook her head, tsk’ing quietly before she looked back to his arm. “Three warrior men, and not one woman to stop you all from being so stupid. Most terrible idea ever.”

Sam wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’m not gonna argue with you.”

The corner of her mouth twitched. “That is very wise.”

***

Sam spent the night in a spare bedroom at the safe house, and it was warm and quiet and dark and comfortable which was undoubtedly why he slept until 11:35 the next morning and then blinked himself awake feeling kind of like he’d been hit by a truck.

He grabbed his phone. Six texts from Steve, all from early this morning: Sam. Then Sam? Then You ok are you with Bucky? Then Sam?? Then Where are u? Then I’m calling Nat. Three from Nat: What the hell, Wilson? Then oh. Then I can come if you need me. Sam sent no to Nat and on my way home to Steve.

Nothing from Bucky.

Nakia was gone, but she’d left him a note to make himself at home and make sure the door locked behind him when he left. Sam took a shower (marveling over his arm, which bore nothing more than a faint and slightly tingly scar), drank a glass of juice, and then headed for the nearest train stop to make his way home. He was glad of the time to think, or even not-think, to stare out the train windows at the lovely bronze and amber glow of the city, and try to be ready for whatever came next.

~~~

Steve was at the kitchen table, gilded by the light coming through the windows, his face as grave and stately as a bas-relief monarch. Sam sat down across from him. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Steve’s eyes took him in. “You’re hurt.”

Sam looked down; his grey shirt was stiff with dried blood. “I’m fine. Nakia took care of it for me, when she came after… after.”

Steve’s glance was keen above his hawkish nose. “She knew about this too?”

“She knew, yeah. She knows more now.” Sam flexed his arm. “For the record, she never approved of what we were trying to do; she knew how stupid it was. She only went along with it because me and Barnes basically begged her to.” Sam took a breath, then let it go. “I’m really sorry, Steve.”

Steve tilted his head. “I talked to Nat this morning, when I couldn’t find you. She told me how it started; with you, with Bucky.” He looked away, gazing out the window, his eyes so full of light they appeared to glow. “She wanted me to understand that neither one of you were trying to hurt me; that you had good intentions—I know Buck said that last night, but I don’t think it really sank in.” He turned back, staring at the table. “She didn’t know the two of you were, uh, together. But she didn’t seem that surprised.” He shrugged. “I guess I’m the only one who didn’t know that Bucky liked guys. I seem to be… really slow on that particular uptake.”

Sam scratched his ear. “For the record, he likes both. Like me.”

Steve studied him carefully, intensely enough that Sam could feel his skin grow hot. “Did you always know? That you liked both, I mean?”

“I think… right about when I hit fifteen, I kinda clued in. I stressed about it for maybe a year, but eventually it worked out. I was lucky; my ma’s brother is gay and two of my cousins on my dad’s side are lesbians; it wasn’t like I was busting the rainbow tape in the Wilson clan. My family was cool.”

“Good.” Steve dropped his gaze to the table again. “I knew Bucky’s family. They… uh. I don’t think most of them would have been very cool.”

Sam laced his fingers together. “Maybe you could ask him about that.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Thanks, Counsellor. But I don’t think he wants to talk to me right now.”

Sam sighed. “Doesn’t look like he wants to talk to me either, so, y’know, you’re not alone.” He hesitated, then pushed ahead. “Look, Steve—I know you’re mad, and I know you’re hurt, you might be freaked out, and I know you need some time. I’m fine with that. I’m ready to apologize as many times as it takes, and make amends any way I can, but I gotta ask: in the meantime, can you work with me?”

Steve looked mildly puzzled. “Huh?”

Sam sat up straight. “We’ve been keeping things from you, and now we’re not. I don’t know how much Nat told you, but right now there’s a ton of bad guys out there. And it turns out that they’re not just after us, not anymore; so no matter what Barnes decides to do I’m gonna be… I’m in.” He swallowed. “So. You in?”

Steve actually smiled, a little. “Honestly, Sam—did you even have to ask?”

Sam sat back in his chair, one of several aching knots deep in his chest unravelling. “Yeah. Yeah, Steve, I had to actually ask.” He rubbed both hands over his face and let his head hang back. “God, you’re such a dumbass.”

Steve reached across the table and gently whapped Sam’s uninjured shoulder. “You too, you jerk.”

***

With all the constraints required by clandestine secrecy removed, Nakia texted Sam and asked him to come to War Dog HQ for a briefing on the latest intel at 9pm. Sam agreed and said he’d bring Steve, and very carefully didn’t ask about whether or not Bucky would be there. He took another shower, changed his clothes and did some laundry, and since Steve had skipped lunch and Sam had skipped anything resembling food, they headed out for an early dinner.

As soon as the first round of nyama na irio had been mostly disposed of, Sam cleared his throat. “I hated lying to you, you know. I ain’t built for it.”

Steve nodded carefully, then wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Me too. I hate, um. I’m not good at it.” He took a breath, and lowered his eyes. “Which is why I have to tell you that you’re not the only one who didn’t talk about stuff you maybe should have talked about.”

There was a pause as more food arrived, as they passed dishes back and forth. Despite the beard, Sam could see that Steve’s cheeks were pink. “Okay, so you gonna spill, or did you just mean to tease me?”

Steve’s glance was sharp but brief, before he went back to staring at the table. “It’s really stupid.”

Sam put his fork down. “Listen, man, if we’re competing in stupid things done lately, I hate to tell you but I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win.”

Steve looked away, one knuckle tapping methodically on the table, and then turned back to him. “You remember when you first told me about being bisexual?”

“I remember. There was a hot second there when I thought you were gonna flip out.”

Steve drank some juice, and shook his head. “I didn’t flip out. But I wondered. Because of… because of how you were with me, I had to wonder if you, if you liked me that way.”

Sam’s face went hot. “Yeah, it turns out I’m not so great at being stealthy.”

Steve pressed his lips together. “Which made me wonder if I liked you that way. Because somehow, that was a question I’d never asked myself.”

“Oh.”

“Sam.” Steve ran his hands through his hair, and finally met Sam’s eyes. “I thought we were dating.”

Sam blinked. “What.”

Steve looked up at the ceiling. “I thought. We. Were dating.”

Sam blinked again. “You thought we were dating?”

“Yes.”

“You and me?”

“Yeah.”

“Dating?”

“Yes.”

“You thought—”

Yes. Sam—”

“Excuse me—” Sam realized his voice was too loud, and brought it down to a rough whisper, leaning forward over their table. “Excuse me, but in what universe could you have thought we were dating?”

“In this universe,” Steve whispered back in a fierce rush, leaning forward himself. “In this universe where you stay with me and make me breakfast every morning and go to dinner with me every night and always listen and always care when I’m upset and cuddle with me on the couch when it rains and where of course you’re being a perfect gentleman and giving me as much time as I need to get used to things because I don’t have a lot of experience only that turns out to be a terrible idea because I also don’t know how to make the first move—” he sat back in his chair, and covered his crimson face with his hands. “I know—I know we weren’t, now. I know I never should have thought we were. I just… I thought we were… something.” He took a breath. “I told you it was stupid.”

Sam’s entire world tilted on its axis, and tilted again, and then swooped until he felt a little dizzy. “Son of a bitch,” he said with quiet, profound awe, and Steve looked at him, really looked at him—and then burst out laughing; a rolling and unstoppable bray of dismayed, awkward, embarrassed laughter, and it really didn’t matter that Sam had serious doubts about whether or not this was an appropriate moment for levity, because before he knew it he was laughing himself, pressing his napkin to his streaming eyes and slumping sideways in his chair because every time he and Steve looked at each other he just. Fucking. Lost it.

~~~

Sam got another beer. Steve got more nyama na irio, along with matoke, some chicken stew, and greens. Sam drank slowly—his head was already swimming enough.

“I can’t believe I was a terrible boyfriend and I didn’t even know it.”

“You weren’t a terrible boyfriend,” Steve said with his mouth full, sounding vaguely offended. “I told you, you were a perfect gentleman.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Trust me, if we were dating for half a year and I never made out with you even once? I was a terrible boyfriend.”

Steve’s cheeks went pink again. “Well, it’s not like I had a lot of basis for comparison.” He sighed. “Look—I just… I know I should have talked to… to somebody, I mean, even if I couldn’t manage to talk to you, I should have talked to somebody about it. But I didn’t know how.” He shook his head. “I’m almost a hundred years old; I’m a little long in the tooth to be suddenly falling for a guy.”

Sam felt his face go warm. “You fell for me?”

Steve drank some of his juice, and put his glass down with deliberate slowness. “More like suddenly figured out that I’d fallen for you a long time ago, and that maybe I would have noticed if I’d actually been paying attention.”

Sam ran his thumb over the top of his beer bottle. “Bucky?”

He didn’t elaborate, but Steve didn’t seem to have any problem keeping up with him. He took a breath. “Yeah. Yes. And I thought long and hard about it last night, and no, I don’t think I ever would have told him. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t have.” He shrugged. “So that gives me a little perspective about things.”

Sam drained his beer, set the bottle down, and rubbed his eyes. “Jesus.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is some kinda fucked up mess.”

“You got that right.”

Sam slumped forward to rub his temples, closed his eyes, and let the hum of the restaurant wash over him, letting things sink in. He abruptly jerked upright at the screech of wood on clay tile, and his eyes flew open to see Bucky dragging a chair up to their table, flipping it around, and sinking down to straddle it. He leaned against the back of the chair, scowling at both of them. “Aren’t you done yet? You assholes have been in here forever.”

“Barnes, what are you—”

“Buck. You—”

“I’ll have everything they had,” Bucky said to their passing waiter, then had to continue with a brief exchange in Xhosa to confirm that yes, he really meant that. When that was done, he turned back to them. “I followed you.”

Sam pursed his lips. “Yeah, he does that,” he said to Steve.

Steve had gone from pink to pale. “Bucky—”

“Don’t,” Bucky said, leaning forward and lowering his voice. “Look; there’s some things I gotta say—to both of you—but it’s not easy for me, so just… listen, okay?” He grabbed Sam’s empty beer bottle, shook it, shrugged, and set it down. “Steve. For the record, when we were kids, I hated lying to you. Hated it. But I lied a lot in my life, to everybody, and I got used to it. I shouldn’t have—not with you, anyway. And I am very sorry.” He had the tone and cadence of a man who had, after much summoning of courage, decided to confess terrible tooth pain to his dentist. He turned to Sam. “Sam. That was the longest relationship I’ve ever had, really the only relationship I’ve ever had, and I wondered for a long time if I just thought I fell hard for you because you were the only person I’d ever slept with more than three times—but that wasn’t why at all. And that’s not how I wanted you to find out about it. I wanted to tell you, only I thought you’d stop if I did because you didn’t feel the same, and I didn’t want to stop. Which was a punk-ass move on my part, and I’m sorry.”

Sam and Steve stared at Bucky. Bucky stared at the table. The waiter approached with a tray laden with three bottles of beer. “Oh thank god,” Bucky said, taking all three at once without waiting for them to be set down. He put two down and chugged one. Sam looked at Steve, who gave him a perfectly eloquent and equally silent what you gonna do shrug, then sat up straight, clearing his throat.

“Bucky.”

Bucky put the first (now empty) bottle on the table, and picked up the second one. “Steve.”

Steve took a deep breath. “You should know—I do love you. I’ve loved you all my life.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “I do know that—of course I know that, you ass—” he cut off abruptly and looked down at where Steve had taken his hand, not so much in the ‘good friend and comrade’ way, but lacing their fingers together, rubbing his thumb over Bucky’s palm. “Um.”

Steve reached out to Sam and Sam reached back, more laced fingers, and Steve’s hand was strong and warm and shaking just a little bit. “Also,” Steve said, “I love Sam. So there’s that.”

Sam plucked the beer bottle out of Bucky’s vibranium grip (probably just in time, as his hold was so tenuous he had probably been about to drop it), and laced his fingers with Bucky’s. “Barnes. Man. I didn’t mean to fall for you, but I did. So now you know.”

Steve swallowed visibly. “Which leaves us in kind of a weird place.” His voice sounded a little scratchy. He cleared his throat. “So. Uh. Really, I have no idea where we go from here, but at least… well, at least we got it out in the open.” He met Sam’s eyes, then looked at Bucky, who was staring at the table.

Bucky blinked. “Son of a bitch,” he said softly.

***

There seemed to be a lot of people at the intel and strategy meeting. It was a little overwhelming at first, because what Sam really wanted was some time alone to think—but it seemed pretty important to learn everything he could that might help keep people safe, including himself, including the two guys he was apparently dating now, so the supreme weirdness of all that had to take a back seat for the moment.

There were a lot of voices in the room, a lot of reports, a lot of analysis, and a lot of opinions, but Sam stayed pretty quiet. So did Bucky (which wasn’t a surprise), and so did Steve (which absolutely was). They didn’t sit together, but dispersed themselves around the meeting table, and Sam kept his head down and paid close attention and tried not to think about how he could actually feel it any time either one of them looked at him.

“Now,” Nakia said, waving several screens closed and bringing up another one. “For immediate threats inside Birnin Zana—” she nodded around the table at Sam, Bucky, and Steve. “I assume you three will be together?”

Steve went very still. “Uh.”

“That you will work together,” she clarified somewhat tersely, and Sam had to press his lips tight and look down, pretending to be very interested in a hangnail. From across the room he thought he heard Nat subdue a snort, and his peripheral vision definitely caught Bucky wadding up a piece of notepaper and chucking it at Nat’s head.

“Yes,” Steve said. “Yeah, absolutely.”

“Very well; let me show you what we have learned,” Nakia said, and as she was flicking separate screens into the air she gave Sam a look, and left him with no doubt that her conviction regarding their collective idiocy had suffered no material disturbance.

~~~

Four hours later, Sam leaned against a tree in the very lovely park just beside the Institute of Wakanda, reminded himself sternly not to lock his knees, and tried not to fall over. “I think that’s it,” he panted, looking around at the still forms of eight very large men splayed in various undignified positions over the chewed-up turf. “I think that was the last one.” He switched off his energy baton and sheathed it.

“Bastard,” Bucky said, lightly kicking the guy who’d split his lip.

“Suppression collar,” Steve said, frowning down at the thick, black collar with a blinking red light that had been hooked to the utility belt of the last guy to go down. “They were probably after Wanda.” He twisted the collar savagely between his hands until there was a sharp bzzt noise and sparks shot out from between his fingers. “Well, I guess if they were looking for her here, at least they’re not looking for her… wherever she is.” He dropped the twisted and lightly smoking wreckage, and looked up at both of them. “So. What’s next?”

Sam met Bucky’s eyes, and marveled a little because he’d seen a lot of looks on Bucky’s face but he’d never seen that particular expression of sudden, suppressed, smoking-hot panic before. “We call it in,” Sam said. “And I don’t know about you all, but I just chased eight guys about seven miles and then got in a fight that felt like it lasted half a year, so I could really use a shower.” He took a step forward because Bucky was backing away, actually backing away from both of them with a look on his face like he’d just figured out that Sam and Steve were rigged to explode. “Barnes.”

“I’ll call it in,” Bucky said, already pulling his phone out of his pocket as he turned away. “See you guys later.”

“Buck, wait—”

“Barnes—”

“Bye,” Bucky said, and then he was gone, vanished into the trees.

Steve blinked at him. “What the hell…?”

Sam shook his head. “I don’t know, man.” He gingerly rubbed his ribs where someone had gotten in a lucky kick. “I do not have a single goddamn clue.”

***

He spent a very productive if terrifying day with Shuri, who was all kinds of excited because for some reason she’d decided that the wings shouldn’t have an actual harness but more like a forcefield support system that didn’t actually involve any straps or fastenings on the wearer’s actual body, and he spent several hours dangling two feet off the ground while she poked him and demanded that he flail around in specific ways. Sam complained loudly about how this was the quickest way to an ignominious death that he’d ever heard of, but in the end he managed to withstand the full force of her twin powers of mockery and ridicule, and left her furiously typing notes.

He stopped at the palace on the way home. Bucky opened the door when Sam knocked, but only a little. His face was set, shuttered, grim.

“Dude,” Sam said. “What the fuck?”

Bucky sighed. “What do you want, Wilson? I’m busy.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “With what; studying ways to be a total dick? Hate to break it to you, but I think you’ve already got that one nailed.”

Bucky frowned, but then let him in. The room was in slightly more disarray than usual, with books and papers scattered over every surface. Bucky gathered up everything from the couch and moved it to the coffee table, and waved Sam to a seat. He sat down himself on the opposite end of the couch, staring forward resolutely.

Sam spoke once it was clear that Bucky wasn’t going to. “So. Why’d you run off like that?”

Bucky shrugged. “We were done. I went home. That’s all.”

“I saw your face, Barnes—you looked like you were facing a firing squad.” He rethought that. “You looked like a normal person would look facing a firing squad. Why?”

Bucky took a deep breath and tilted his head back, then closed his eyes. “Because I freaked out, Wilson. I thought that was pretty evident.”

“Okay. Why?”

Bucky shook his head. “Because… I can’t do this.”

“You can’t… what, the two dudes thing?”

Bucky glanced at him dismissively, then away. “Like I haven’t done two dudes before.”

“Right—you’ve had more wild, sleazy sex than I’ve had hot dinners.” He sighed. “So why can’t you have it with us?” He shifted on the couch. “Look, Barnes—not that you’ve ever needed reassurance, but you’ve got a dick like a jackhammer and you fuck like a demon—”

“Wilson.” Bucky looked at him. “I never would have fucked you—never would have made the move—if I’d been in love with you at the time.” He swallowed. “I liked you, and I’d developed some respect for you, and you are seriously fucking gorgeous—like, you cross your arms over your chest and give me that sarcastic asshole look with your goddamn beautiful eyes and I have to fight off a public boner—but I wouldn’t have done it, if… if.” He looked back at the ceiling. “The whole thing just snuck up on me, I mean—I didn’t know; I really didn’t get how I felt about you until you were standing in that alley breaking up with me.”

Sam blinked. “I… Barnes. I wasn’t—”

“You were. You would have. You should have. You were right.” He took a breath. “Steve was hurting.” He smiled faintly, just for a moment. “He seems better now.”

Sam put his hands on his knees. “You love him.”

“You know I do.”

“You love me.”

“Yeah.” A quick glance, then away. “Unfortunate, but true.”

“You know we both love you.

Bucky looked down. “Yeah,” he said, like he was admitting to some kind of crime. “So I can’t.”

Sam rubbed his face. “Barnes,” he said slowly. “You’ve endured homophobia, poverty, war, being a POW, medical experimentation, genetic mutation, loss of a limb, brainwashing, psychic hijacking, torture, mindwipes, and probably a ton more shit that I don’t even know about—and this is what scares you? The thought of putting sex and love in the same basket for the first time in your life?”

Bucky licked his lips, staring at his lap. “Guess so.”

Sam watched him, the pointed words he wanted to say dying an unlamented death inside him. He felt a tight, pressing cramp deep in his chest, and for the moment he just breathed and let it have its way with him—so much love for this man, so much bone-deep affection and affinity and longing for this ridiculous, beautiful, vibrant, irascible bastard. “Okay,” Sam said, his voice hoarse and soft. “Okay, Barnes. If that’s how it’s gotta be.”

***

Steve was doing laundry when he got home. “You got any cold-water stuff you want done?” he asked, halfway through loading the machine. “There’s some room in this… uh. Sam?”

Sam leaned against the dryer. “I saw Barnes.”

Steve put his laundry basket down. “Oh.” A pause. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. He’s a giant dumbass. We’re gonna have to see if we can seduce him.” He paused. “If you want to, I mean.”

Steve looked down into the washing machine as if it might hold all the secrets of the universe. When he looked up his cheeks were pink, but his jaw was set. “Sam.”

“Yeah?”

“I want to.”

***

Sam: We’re going to dinner. Want to come along, or would you rather just stalk us again?

Bucky: Not tonight. Eating here. See u @ strategy mtg.

Bucky: Also fuck u Wilson

So there was sort-of a strategy meeting before the strategy meeting, over absolutely delicious curried fish stew with vegetable couscous.

“You know… I don’t have a whole lot of experience,” Steve said to his bowl, almost too quiet to hear. “Really, not… uh. Not much.”

“I kinda figured.” Sam used his napkin. “That bother you?”

“No.” He shrugged. “I mean, I think it did, when I was young, but a lot of that was because I knew how girls saw me back then. And later, I had… I had opportunities that I didn’t take, because I just… didn’t want to. And now, of course, I know about at least one opportunity that I might have had, only I didn’t figure it out in time. And the one opportunity I knew I wanted to take—well, I never got the chance.” He looked at Sam. “But I gotta wonder… how the hell am I supposed to try to seduce someone, when I have no idea what I’m doing? I mean, I think Bucky’s pretty experienced.”

Sam nodded. “He is.”

“So… wouldn’t he just… laugh at me?”

Sam set his spoon down, and kept his voice very low. “Okay, first of all, no, he wouldn’t laugh at you—at least, not in the way you mean. And second, I said what I said back at the house on the spur of the moment, but I gotta be clear with you: we don’t gotta do this. You don’t gotta do this. You, we, him—we do not have to do anything we don’t want to. I need to know you get that.”

“I do,” Steve said, and then looked down, tracing patterns on the embroidered tablecloth with one finger. “I do, though. Want. I... want. Things. With. Both of you. If we can.” He cleared his throat. “It’s hard to talk about.”

Sam sipped his beer, mulling things over. Steve went back to his stew and Sam forced himself to look around the room, because if he didn’t his eyes went to Steve like they were drawn there and then stuck, taking in the faint frown-line between his eyes and the warmth of the lamplight on his face and the curve of his lips, so goddamn pretty, and it would be far too easy to slip into unconscious ogling if he didn’t make himself behave.

“I’m gonna tell you what I think,” he said at last, setting his empty bottle down on the table. “I think that there are things that matter a whole lot more than experience.”

Steve’s eyes widened a little. “There are?” He appeared to think that over, opened his mouth and closed it, opened it and closed it again, then turned back to Sam. “Like what?”

Sam ticked off points on his fingers. “Authenticity. Self-knowledge. Integrity. Honesty. Fearlessness. Respect. Kindness. Generosity. And a sense of humor.”

Steve blinked. “Those are sex things?” he said incredulously and quite loudly, then winced and looked around before leaning forward and lowering his voice to a whisper. “Those are sex things?”

“Think about it,” Sam said. “The one opportunity you knew you wanted to take—Peggy, right?” Steve nodded. “Well—aren’t those all things you would’ve wanted to bring to the table with her? For her? If you’d had the chance?”

Steve looked away, his brows drawn down, obviously thinking hard. Sam waited, ate a strip of chapati, and made himself not-stare at Steve some more. When he looked back he saw that Steve had leaned back in his chair and had both hands tangled in his too-long hair, with an expression on his face so raw and fragile and intimate that it seemed almost an intrusion to look at it, except that Steve was looking at him, staring right at him with a flushed face and wide, luminous eyes. “That’s… yes, Sam. That’s everything I would have wanted to give her. That’s everything I want to give.” He took a breath. “That’s perfect.”

Sam drew the napkin off his lap and draped it over his empty bowl, trying to pretend that his heart wasn’t whamming in his chest like a kick drum while his stomach looped like it was in free-fall. “Okay. Well, I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes.”

***

How it went was a really interesting strategy meeting where they learned that the HYDRA revelations back home had finally fractured and scrambled large chunks of the NSA, CIA, SAD, and various black ops groups throughout the United States government and military, leading to infighting, whistle-blowing, power-grabs, betrayals, and accusations. It also led to a large number of the ostracized and disaffected personnel forming their own groups, one of which had decided to make for Wakanda, exact purpose and mission presently unknown. The border guards had caught some, but not all.

So how it went after that was a laborious stealth infiltration of a warehouse on the outskirts of Birnin Zana, followed by a long and bitter fight where Steve got a bullet-graze to the shoulder, Bucky got thrown off a second-story catwalk, and Sam got a black eye plus irrefutable proof that the neural disruptors did absolutely, thank god, work, or else it would have been a whole hell of a lot worse.

The clean-up team seemed pretty jazzed to have some intact-but-powerless rogue agents to bring back to HQ for interrogation, and by 3am they were pretty much done, having been gone over by medical personnel, treated, and released.

“Bye,” Bucky said as soon as they hit the street outside the warehouse, limping a little and stuffing his hands in his pockets as he turned toward the street that would lead him back to the palace.

Steve and Sam looked at each other. Sam shrugged, turned, and called to Bucky’s retreating back, “Love you, Barnes!”

Steve stepped forward. “I love you too, Buck!”

“You can both fuck entirely off,” Bucky muttered savagely, and just kept walking.

Steve watched Bucky melt into the darkness, then scrutinized the dressing taped over his shoulder wound, pressing it, checking for bleed-through. He sighed, and put his hands in his pockets. “I think we’re annoying the shit out of him.”

Sam nodded. “I think you’re right.”

***

The mad scientist they were up against had created a host of mind-controlled half-organic/half-robotic cyborg bugs. That in and of itself wasn’t unheard of (and Sam for one was deeply grateful that they were not at all slug-like), but the wry twist on this particular iteration was that the bugs were the size of horses, and they had a bitey end, a stinger end, and way more claws than seemed necessary. They were also fast, impervious to neural disruptors, and there were a godawful lot of them.

Sam, Steve and Bucky were in the thick of it, near the lake with not a lot of cover, fighting back-to-back while the bugs swarmed around them. Sam had his energy baton in one hand and a long sime knife with a laser-cutting edge in the other (a surprise gift from Shuri when she heard they were going out on a ‘bug hunt’). Bucky had energy darts and a short spear, but he gave both up in favor of his M249 SAW when it proved to do a much better job of shooting the fuckers out of the sky. Steve had two small vibranium arm shields (a gift from T’Challa, Steve was still getting used to them), but mostly he was punching the bugs to death, or just yanking their heads off before they bit or stung him.

“Bucky,” Steve said, pressing back further from the water as an enraged bug boiled up out of lake at him.

“What,” Bucky yelled over the roar of the gun, sweeping back and forth in arcs, up and down.

“Uh, we’re still friends, right?”

The gunfire cut off abruptly. “What?” Bucky said, then, “Whoa—” and then the gunfire started up again. “What—what the fuck, Steve, of course we’re still friends.”

“Okay, good!” Steve yelled, then grunted as he put his fist through a bug’s thorax. “You should come over to the house for dinner some time. You know, you’ve never actually been over to visit.”

Sam swiped off a reaching claw with the sime, then aimed his energy baton into a bug’s open, chittering mouth. “Sure, you’ve lurked outside the house a bunch, probably been up on the roof a time or two, and peeked in all the windows, but you’ve never come by just to be neighborly.”

“Fuck you, Wilson!”

Sam gestured at the two horse-sized bugs flying in front of him, apparently competing over which one of them was going to get to eat him as a snack. “How in the hell are these fuckers flying? Do they look aerodynamic? No, no, they do not! They are the fucking opposite of aerodynamic, and now I’m pissed off because I know there’s probably a word for that, but I don’t know what it is!” He punched a bug to see if it would make him feel better. It didn’t.

“Come over for dinner, Buck,” Steve yelled, and then there was a squirting/popping sound, and a bug’s still-biting head went flying into the lake. “I promise you won’t have to put up with my cooking. Sam’s a great cook. He’ll make cheeseburgers.”

The gunfire stopped again. “You’re making cheeseburgers? Like, actual cheeseburg—AAAA!” The gunfire started up again.

“Yeah, Barnes, cheeseburgers.” Sam walloped a bug with the energy baton just right and sent it hurtling up, where Bucky shot it out of the sky. Excellent. “Well, lamb-burgers with goat cheese and spicy pepper relish, but they’re good. Come for dinner.”

He heard a low growling noise, a wild burst of gunfire, and then silence. “Fine. I’ll come for dinner. Jerks.” More gunfire.

Steve used the edge of his shield-arm-thing on a bug, and cut it almost in half. “Great!” He caught Sam’s eye, and winked.

Sam winked back, bashed a stinger away from his face, and kept on fighting.

***

Bucky: Shld I bring anything?

Sam: No, man. We got it covered.

Bucky: wilson

Sam: Barnes

Bucky: are you two banging yet?

Bucky: none of my business right but

Sam: WHAT. No. we’re not. At all.

Sam: Barnes?

Sam: Barnes.

Sam: You’re still coming to dinner, right?

Bucky: ill b there

***

Sam was up to his elbows in ground lamb when he heard Steve come thundering down the stairs. “Sam?”

“Yeah?” He didn’t bother to look up—he was trying to incorporate the garlic, onion, Worcestershire, chopped parsley, salt, diced hot peppers, cumin, and berbere without over-mixing or slopping anything onto the counter, and—

“What should I wear?” Steve sounded near panic. Sam looked up and froze.

“Uh, probably not that.” Steve in nothing but boxer-briefs was… extremely impressive. “Huh. On the other hand, maybe that.”

“Sam—”

“Wear whatever you feel comfortable in,” Sam said, grateful that his brain knew how to answer that while the rest of him was very much focused elsewhere. Something nudged at a corner of his mind—there was something he was, something he’d been… doing? He looked down. Mixing. Lamb. Right. God.

“Whatever I feel… oh, thanks, Sam. That’s… really helpful.” Sam stopped pretending to mix lamb and watched sulky Captain Sarcasm walk up the stairs in nothing but boxer-briefs. Good goddamn.

“Glad I could help out, man,” Sam called after him in a perfectly steady voice, then sighed, shook himself, and got back to work.

~~~

The burgers were delicious, messy as hell, and spicy enough that both Steve and Bucky had watery eyes and the sniffles by the end of dinner. Steve did the clean-up (as a guest, Bucky was not allowed to help), but Sam and Bucky perched on stools on the other side of the kitchen counter with a second round of beer to be sociable.

“Sam,” Steve said gravely, sorting things into piles. “You made burgers and a salad. How the hell did you manage to use every piece of equipment, dish, and utensil in the entire kitchen?”

“It’s because I cook con brio,” Sam said steadily. “And because I know I’ve got you cleaning up after me. That helps.”

“You still like to cook, Buck?” Steve asked, opening the dishwasher. “You used to be really good at it.”

“I made good poverty food,” Bucky told Sam. “Steve doesn’t know this, but my specialty was soup made from largely stolen ingredients.”

“Bucky.” Steve stopped wrestling with the dishwasher rack and stood up. “Really?”

Bucky eyed him. “You loved my soup, Steve.” He drank some beer and then tilted the bottle in Steve’s direction. “You are complicit in my depression-era criminality of stealing potatoes and carrots and cabbages.”

“Oh, jeez.”

“Do the stolen ingredients make the soup taste better?” Sam asked, grinning.

“Yes.”

“No!”

“Good to know,” Sam said.

~~~

They settled in the living room once the washing-up was done, with Sam and Steve on opposite ends of the couch, and Bucky in one of the guest chairs. It was surprisingly easy between the three of them, and talk ranged from an assessment of strategy meetings (consensus: so helpful, and they were collectively very lucky that Nakia and Shuri were not inclined toward world domination), recent battles (consensus: bugs suck, HYDRA sucks, and the US government had a hell of a lot to answer for), food in Birnin Zana (no consensus: Sam loved it unconditionally, Bucky loved it but missed some things, Steve liked it—he came out very strong in favor of maandazi—but didn’t know why everything else had to be so darn spicy), and world politics (the topic was largely carried on by Bucky, who read everything. Sam and Steve learned a lot.) Eventually Bucky drained the last of his third beer, put the bottle down, and sighed, leaning back in his chair and blinking at the ceiling.

“You guys,” he said quietly. “I know what you’re doing.” He swallowed. “What you’re trying to do. But here’s the thing—I want to; you have no fucking idea how much I want to. Being here with you is… it’s so good. But I just… can’t.” He looked at them, rolling his head on his neck. His eyes were startlingly blue under his dark brows, his hair coming loose from the half-bun he had it in, and he looked so fucking sad and sorry and beautiful that Sam’s chest hurt. “I’m really sorry. I can’t.”

“Buck.” Steve’s face was solemn, drawn, grave. “Bucky.”

Sam jumped a little when Steve’s warm hand touched the back of his neck, and he whipped around to find Steve right there, looking right at him, staring into his eyes from no more than two inches away, what the hell. “Steve—” Steve’s hand cupped his neck firmly and then Steve kissed him, and Sam had to suck a shocked breath in through his nose, because this was in no way part of any of the half-assed plans they’d discussed, and Steve’s beard was both soft and scratchy, his mouth soft and hot and so wet, and Sam felt an erotic shock go through him strong enough that it felt like his teeth were vibrating.

Then Steve pulled back, slowly back, and Sam could breathe, Sam needed to breathe, and Steve’s eyes were wide and scared and excited and turned-on and terrifyingly earnest, terrifyingly present.

“You. Steve. You just kissed me.” He hadn’t meant to say that.

“Yeah. I did.”

Steve looked at Bucky. Sam somehow managed to move his head and look at Bucky. Bucky was open-mouthed and wide-eyed, he might have been frozen in time except for the way he was breathing, soft and rapid, almost panting.

“Bucky,” Steve said again, and put his other hand on Sam’s knee. “I don’t have experience. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I want… will you help me?” He swallowed. “Would you help me?”

“Oh, goddamit,” Bucky said, sitting forward and burying his face in his hands. He took a breath. He took another breath. “Okay,” he said, his voice sounding as rusty as if he hadn’t spoken in years. “Okay you fuckers, okay okay okay okay okay. Jesus.”

~~~

They ended up in Sam’s bed, since it was the biggest. Bucky was different—slow and soft, quiet, but with the same focused intensity that he’d always had. They settled with Steve in the middle, and there was a whole lot of kissing, what felt like a forever stretch of time of just sweetly making out. Steve hummed when he got into it, or when it was especially good for him, but he also hummed—and arched restlessly against Sam’s sheets—when Sam and Bucky were making out above him.

“It’s okay—it’s okay to watch you, to watch that, right?” he asked, licking his swollen lips.

Sam licked his own. They were tender, sensitive, aching. “If you liked watching it, sure. Barnes?”

“Wilson’s a hell of a show,” Bucky drawled agreeably, leaning slowly toward him with his eyelids half lowered. “Sexy bastard.” Bucky’s right hand slid behind his head and tugged him forward, and Bucky gently fucked Sam’s mouth with his wicked, wet tongue, and Sam kind of forgot his own name a little while Steve made a faint noise that dissolved into a hum, and shivered.

They found a workable division of labor with one of them kissing Steve’s mouth while the other went after his neck and upper chest, trading off with a kiss during the exchange. Sam’s left hand tangled with Bucky’s right on Steve’s sternum, and for the life of him Sam had no idea which one of them started it, but there was no question that both their hands were sliding down, slowly slipping on sweat over gently-heaving muscle, lower and lower. Steve breathed faster, and under Sam’s tongue the cords in his neck stood out, Sam could feel his pulse there, rapid and fluttering. A deep, devastating kiss from Bucky and then Sam kissed Steve again, tangled hands sliding down the last few inches, over the top of Steve’s boxer-briefs to his giant erection, but he and Bucky only squeezed and stroked together for about two seconds before Steve gasped “Jesus fucking Christ,” right in Sam’s mouth and came under their touch, his hips working, his breath stuttering, his mouth suddenly flooded with wetness, and Sam heard Bucky growl softly from somewhere near Steve’s ear.

Steve was so red. Breathless. He looked overwhelmed and slightly mortified and ridiculously hot. “Okay, that was—really fast. I know—”

“That was so fucking hot,” Bucky muttered, squeezing Steve’s thigh and pulling it toward him, reaching for Sam’s thigh and pulling it closer. “Really fucking hot god damn it Steve just tell me if there’s something you don’t like okay fuck Wilson get over here—”and everything got much closer and sloppier then, kisses and light grappling and tugging and then Sam saw his briefs go sailing by overhead, an unlamented loss. Stripping dissolved into a kind of hazy erotic tangle where it was actually extremely difficult to tell who was doing what, but some time later Sam came with two hands pumping him and two rapt faces watching him hungrily, taking turns kissing him despite the urgent groans he couldn’t control, and after that Sam for sure had Bucky’s hot and hard cock in his hand, stroking him slowly while he thrust against Steve’s sweat-slippery stomach muscles until he came with a choked-off sound like he was maybe dying.

“Steve,” Sam managed when he could talk again, lightly squeezing one arm in their tangle that was—probably—Steve’s. He was fairly confident it wasn’t his own. “You okay? How you doin’?”

“Good,” Steve whispered. “Good, I think, I’m—I’m really good. My dick is so hard it hurts. But I’m good.”

Bucky made a disgruntled noise and groped toward Sam’s bedside table, glanced at his phone and then dropped it. “Damn it; we gotta get a move on if we’re gonna make the strategy meeting.”

Sam lifted his head—oh, there was Steve, his face red all over again. “We don’t, actually. Steve and I asked to have a night off. With you. Nakia said she’d put a group of War Dogs on patrol—after she got done rolling her eyes.”

Bucky glared at both of them. “You’re not even gonna pretend you didn’t plan this, are you?”

“Nope,” Sam said cheerfully while Steve shook his head. “All part of the plan. Lamb burgers and dick.”

Steve snorted. Bucky swatted both of them. “Assholes.” He stretched, then took a deep breath and levered himself out of the pile. “Fine.” He twisted his head until his neck cracked, and rotated both shoulders. “If we’ve got a night off, I’m gonna put it to good use.”

Sam recognized the glint in Bucky’s eyes. He’d missed it terribly. Next to him, he heard Steve swallow.

~~~

Sam held Steve in his arms and watched while he got his first blowjob, a Bucky Barnes special that went on forfuckingever while Steve went from stunned to entranced to lost to really-fucking-into-it to needy to desperate and begging. It broke Sam open, aching and pained and saturated with love for both of them, so fucking turned on he could barely breathe. At the end of things Sam grabbed Bucky’s silky hair and pulled, and Steve came like he was never going to stop, holding Bucky’s face and finally fucking his mouth and kissing Sam all at the same time.

When Steve finally collapsed into a limp puddle on the bed Bucky pulled his head up, arming wetness off his face, his eyes so dark with arousal they looked almost black. “Wilson—”

Sam grabbed the lube out of his bedside drawer and threw it onto the sheets. “Do not fuck around with me, Barnes,” he said shakily, flipping onto his stomach. “None of your goddamn teasing. Just lube up, get in me and fuck me hard—hey!”

Bucky lifted him bodily and then pushed him down again on top of Steve, leaning over both of them, kissing Sam’s cheek and then Steve’s mouth. “Hang onto him,” Bucky muttered. “Don’t let him move.”

Well hello, kink I did not know I had, Sam thought hazily. Steve blinked dreamily at him and kissed him deeply, sweetly, then took his wrists in a gentle but implacable grip and stretched them up. “Oh, fuck,” Sam managed, in what was definitely not a hoarse and intensely aroused squeak.

“Too much? Too hard?” Steve asked, backing off.

Sam scrambled for a brain cell. “No, uh, no—I’ll tell you, I promise; I’ll say stop or don’t or too hard or too much but anything else I say just roll with it okay please oh my god—” Bucky pried his thighs apart and licked his ass like he owned it. Which at the moment he sort of did.

“Jesus,” Steve whispered, stretching his neck to peer over Sam’s shoulder. “Is he, what’s he… oh. Oh, wow.”

“Ngurr,” Sam supplied helpfully, melting.

Steve shivered as soon as Bucky rose up onto his knees and reached for the lube, his voice rough and intimate in Sam’s ear. “I wish you could see this.” His body rolled under Sam’s, and Steve groaned a little. Sam felt Steve’s dick hardening against his own. “Can I kiss you, while he—while he does it?”

Kissing was easier than answering for the speechless, and with Steve’s soft tongue in his mouth and Steve’s hot hands holding his wrists and Bucky’s demanding hands squeezing his waist, that qualifier definitely included Sam. Bucky used his knees to force both Sam’s and Steve’s thighs wider open, then pressed into Sam slowly but steadily, gasping. Sam—almost—came immediately, too turned on for too long and too much erotic input from too many sources, but Bucky forced his hips still and pulled back, almost out of him. “No you don’t, Wilson. Not ‘till we’re done.”

Steve made a pained and desperate noise as if he were the one being pleasurably tortured, and Sam let himself go rigid, let himself struggle, let himself try to keep Steve’s wet, hard, hot cock from rocking against his own. He kind of lost track of things then, fucked so fiercely and stretched so tightly and kissed so tenderly, too much, entirely too much for him, and he let himself go with a kind of savage gladness that seemed completely foreign, giving himself up to everything, a long, spooling, lost and dizzy time, with a wracking shudder of ecstasy between each sobbing breath.

It was Steve who put an end to it at last, nails biting into Sam’s wrists, uttering short, helpless cries into Sam’s mouth as he writhed under him. “Sam,” he panted, his brows drawn down and his face pained. “Buck. I’m—I can’t wait any more, sorry, it’s too good, I can’t—”

“Do it,” Bucky groaned hoarsely, bearing down with his weight, crushing them against each other so there was no getting away from any of it. The noise Steve made in his ear almost hurt and Sam came the second he felt hot wetness spurt against his belly, working his hips for Steve, for Bucky, for himself, while Bucky got off in him with a series of desperate, hungry groans, panting his name, squeezing his hips and working him over and Sam was gone, gone, gone, so very gone.

~~~

There was a long, drowsy, dreamy time after that. Someone turned the bedside lamp off, but the bright near-full moon over the lake streamed into the room through the balcony doors, washing over the bed and their sweet briny tangle, all indigo and slow breaths and half-lowered eyelids. There were kisses like pouring honey from one vessel to the next to the next, kisses that rewarded patience and care and deliberation, kisses that took Sam’s breath away and got down to the heart of things. Sam had his face tucked into Bucky’s neck, his hand spread wide over Steve’s heart, his thumb brushing back and forth there, over and over, reverent.

When Steve spoke, even his voice seemed as slow and deliberate as the bubble of time they inhabited. “I’m never letting anyone take either one of you away from me.” Sam pulled his heavy head up. Steve had said the words staring up at the ceiling, but now he turned to them, coming in close enough for shared breath, for the telling of secrets. “The only one who could, is you.” He looked from Sam to Bucky, and back again. “Will you stay?”

“I’ll stay,” Sam said, something breaking free in his chest with the words, like he’d just thrown himself off a cliff because he knew his wings would catch him.

“I’ll stay.” Bucky’s voice was rough. His eyes were wet. His right hand reached out to touch: Sam’s jaw, Steve’s throat. “Yeah. I’ll stay.”

Steve closed his eyes, exhaled, and swallowed. “Okay,” he murmured, a hushed and fervent one-word two-syllable prayer, bending slowly but inexorably toward both of them. “Okay. Okay. Okay.”

***

Sam lifted the disc up, peering at it. It was sleek, curved metal, shaped like a crescent moon, just a little bigger than his hand. “This is it?”

Shuri nodded, smiling widely. “That’s the prototype, yes.”

“Isn’t it kind of… small? And light?”

She elbowed him. “You’re just used to having two hundred and fifty pounds of hideous clunky metal trash strapped to your back.” She took the disc back from him, holding it in both hands and gazing at it lovingly. “This is much better. You can take off from the ground, and once you land you can fit into small spaces—any space you would normally fit into—and it’s completely silent.”

“Silent?”

“I used noise-dampening technology. Completely silent.”

Sam shrugged. “I kind of liked going ‘whoosh’.”

Shuri frowned at him. “That’s because you’re a man and very fragile about your masculinity, so you always want to be as loud and scary ad possible.”

Sam grinned. “That must be it.” The look on her face as she gazed at the disc finally clued him in. “Hold up—you didn’t design these wings for me; you designed them for you. You’re the one who wants to take off from the ground and fit into small spaces and… uh, what exactly are you planning on doing with the wings, Princess?”

She gazed at him with perfect teenage equanimity. “Mostly I want to use them to hide up in high places and then taunt my brother when he starts taking himself too seriously.” Sam’s amazement must have shown on his face, because she raised an eyebrow at him. “It’s a very important part of keeping him humble,” she added haughtily. “All truly great leaders need that.”

Sam pressed his lips together, shaking his head. “I… no, I honestly can’t tell you you’re wrong. Okay, extremely diabolical point taken.”

They talked about the next steps in the testing phase, including the very exciting step where Sam would get to actually put on the wings and try flying around, and then they were done for the day. Shuri put the disc away and set a few screens of data to compile, then turned to him. “Sam.”

Sam forced his brain back to earth. “Yeah?”

Shuri looked at him slyly, her face inquisitive and mischievous in equal measure. “Is it true?”

“Uh. Is what true?”

Shuri lowered her voice. “That you’re dating both of those white boys at once.”

“Oh.” Sam’s face went hot. His neck went hot. He said a quick and silent prayer of thanks for melanin. He scratched his ear. “That’s, uh, that’s actually none of your business, Princess.”

“Sam!” She sounded scandalized. “Are we not friends?”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “That is blatant manipulation—you oughtta be ashamed of yourself.”

“Yes, but I’m not, though,” Shuri said composedly. “So tell me: is it true?”

Sam rubbed his face, then let his hands fall to his sides. “Fine. Yeah. It’s true. So what?”

She shook her head at him, grinning. “You Americans. Always so ostentatious.”

***

T’Challa tilted his head, as if he believed he might have misheard. “Excuse me, you want to…?”

Sam straightened his shoulders. “We want to buy the house you’ve been letting us stay in. We like it, we’ve gotten used to it, and it looks like we’re not going anywhere for a while, so we wanna buy it. If you’ll sell it to us.” He hesitated, then pushed on. “We, uh, have money.” He left out the part about stolen HYDRA funds, for now.

T’Challa leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers over his midsection, eyeing Sam and looking mildly amused. Sam bore his scrutiny with his head held high. He had no idea how much T’Challa knew, but most likely it was everything, because he had very good sources of information, and in Wakanda as in everywhere else, people tended to talk.

“Sam,” T’Challa sat up, and moved his hands to his knees, as if making a pronouncement. “If my information is correct, you and your companions have saved my sister from kidnapping at least three times in the past month alone. You—the three of you—have defended Birnin Zana and her citizens as fiercely as if you had been birthed on her soil. You have shown courage, resourcefulness, and a strong commitment to the safety of our people, and my family. The house is yours.”

Sam actually rocked on his feet a little, and it was his turn to feel like maybe he’d misheard. “Say what now?”

The corner of T’Challa’s mouth twitched. “I said, the house is yours. Consider it my welcome gift to you, in gratitude for your service to this city that I hope will now be your home.”

Whoa. “Wow.” He blinked. “I… don’t know what to say other than… thank you.”

“You are welcome.” T’Challa nodded.

“I gotta learn Xhosa,” Sam said. It just slipped out.

T’Challa grinned. “That would be wise. Hamba kakuhle.”

***

The three of them were at breakfast (Bucky’s turn to cook, so it was pancakes, plain scrambled eggs, and fruit, or as Sam called it as he slathered on the pepper sauce, Breakfast of Grumpy Exiles) when someone knocked on the front door. The three of them just stared at each other for a moment, because that never happened. “I’ll get it,” Steve said, pushing back from the table.

Sam heard the door open, then nothing but silence. He and Bucky looked at each other, then pushed their chairs back and got to their feet. They found Steve standing in the foyer with Wanda wrapped up in his arms, his eyes closed.

Sam blinked. “Wanda?”

“Hi,” Wanda said, smiling, a little muffled from being smushed against Steve’s chest. “I heard that maybe you could use some help. Hi.” She waved stiffly with the part of her arm that wasn’t being completely enveloped.

Steve finally let her go, but kept his hands on her shoulders as if he was afraid she would disappear. He sniffed a little. “Hey. Come in and have some breakfast.”

~~~

“Thank you,” Wanda said as Bucky put a plate in front of her, staring at him as he returned to his chair.

“Welcome.”

Sam moved the pepper sauce to where she could reach it.

She tilted her head, still staring at Bucky. “You really… you are quite different, I think. I mean, your energies. You seem…”

“Less broken?” Bucky asked.

“Well, yes, but also—”

“Less murdery?”

“Buck,” Steve chided.

“It’s all right,” Wanda said. “He is being playful; playful is good. A sign of healing.” She tasted her eggs, smiled at Sam, and reached for the pepper sauce. “No, it’s not just that—I mean, you have obviously been relieved of a great deal of pain, but it’s more than that, it’s as if, as if…” Her eyes widened. “Oh.” She looked at Steve, and then at Sam, and then back at Bucky. “Oh.” She looked down at the table then, her cheeks pink, and smiled.

“So,” Sam drawled. “Anyone want more coffee?”

~~~

Wanda had trekked through deserts, climbed mountains, gone deep into forests. “Anywhere without people,” she said, spooning sugar into her coffee. “Sometimes the presence of many agitated minds is simply overwhelming, if I’m too tired to block them out. I needed to be alone.” She smiled a little at Bucky. “I had my own healing to do.”

“And then you came back,” Steve said.

She nodded. “I stayed in touch with Natasha, and she told me about the growing threats here. I decided to return, and offer my help.” She gazed out the windows, her eyes fixed on the distant trees, reflective, her chin propped on her hand. “It’s important, to help where I can. It’s… necessary to me.”

Steve looked at Bucky, looked at Sam, and the three of them didn’t have any actual creepy mind-reading powers but Sam figured they’d managed to get pretty close, because there was an entire three-way conversation that happened without a word spoken, in the course of a few seconds.

Wanda sighed, and put her empty cup on the table. “Thank you for this; it was lovely. But I should go—”

Steve cleared his throat. “You don’t need to go, Wanda. You can stay here. With us.”

She looked faintly startled. “I… what?” She looked at the three of them again, then raised an eyebrow. “Oh.”

There was a long pause, as if she were debating what to say. Steve reached out and took her hand. “Stay. Please.”

She smiled ruefully. “But you see, I need a lot of time to myself, a lot of space.”

“Of course,” he said. “It’s a big house, you can take any room you like—”

“Not my room,” Sam interjected.

“Except Sam’s room,” Steve said.

“I’m keeping my library,” Bucky said.

“Except Bucky’s library—” Steve gritted, then paused to frown fiercely at both of them. He turned back to her. “Look, it’s a big house, take all the space you need.”

Wanda’s smile grew more playful. “I hate doing dishes.”

Steve nodded. “I’ll do the dishes.”

She tilted her head. “I want a cat. Maybe two cats.”

“We love cats.”

“I want a bird,” Sam said.

“I want a dog,” Bucky said.

“We are very pet-friendly,” Steve muttered while the back of his neck turned red.

Wanda took a deep breath. “Sometimes I need to think about Pietro and put on the music he loved very loudly and dance until I fall down.”

Steve smiled. “That sounds like a wonderful way to celebrate him.” He lifted her hand, swung it a little. “Welcome home.”

***

Sam made a delicate turn in midair, then folded the wings and landed on the balcony outside his bedroom as softly and silently as if he’d stepped off a low curb.

“You’re getting really good at that,” Steve said.

“Thanks.”

“Yeah, but it was much funnier when you smashed into the side of the house half the time,” Bucky said, sounding mildly aggrieved. “I miss that.”

“Dick,” Sam said companionably, stripping off his goggles. “How come you’re both out here?”

Steve reached behind him and slid the door open, releasing a distant cacophony of very loud, very punk music being yelled in a language Sam definitely did not speak, then slid it shut again.

“Ah.” Sam released the wing disc from his back and stuffed it in his pocket. The sun was setting over the lake in a riot of spectacular color and the air was cooling rapidly, so when Bucky hooked Sam around the waist and drew him in to the center of the huddle, he was glad for the shared warmth.

Sam leaned on the balcony railing with two warm arms around him, listened to the distant thunder of falling water and the opening notes in the symphony of owls and nightjars in the trees, and watched the sun go down over Wakanda.

~End~