It was the tenth crappy motel or the twelfth, somewhere in there. They'd been on the road long enough that Sam had lost count. They’d picked up an old VCR at the nearest Goodwill for $10 and the cables to rig it up at Best Buy for $40. Steve pushed in the dusty old VHS tape. It still had some blood spattered across the label.
There was more of that dried deep under Sam’s fingernails and in the creases of his knuckles. His back hurt and his jaw under the icepack ached, and this was one of those days he was painfully reminded nobody had ever fixed him up with a dose of supersoldier serum. Even so, by the time Steve stopped the tape and sat down heavily on the squeaky bed, Sam knew which one of them was hurting more, and it wasn’t him.
"You knew it had to have been rough," he said quietly.
Steve’s face had gone all wrong, hard and empty. A few tears sliding around the curves of his cheeks and jaw, dripping off. His eyes weren’t seeing anything in the room. “Yeah,” was all he said. His voice was thick.
After a little while longer, Sam got up and took the remote out of Steve’s hands. He turned off the tv, still on the blue screen, and ejected the tape, neat little letters printed under the thumbprint smear of blood: Wipe Session 53a (Winter Soldier program). Just one of a thousand relics of old Hydra operations, buried in the bowels of a minor base.
He went around the room switching off the lights. In the dark, he went back to Steve and pushed him over onto the bed. Steve went, docile, and curled up on his side tight as a snail. Sam climbed in behind him and rested a hand on Steve’s arm, gripping firm but not painful: I’m here. He ignored the ache in his shoulder from folding his other arm in between them, and went to sleep.
In the morning, when he woke up, Steve was already out of the shower. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, hands folded in his lap, looking down at them. Sunlight was leaking in around the blackout curtains. Sam pushed up on an elbow and just looked at him, let Steve feel the weight of his eyes. He knew when a silence was waiting to be broken.
After a while, Steve said, "I can't help thinking, he wouldn't believe I'd leave him behind. He probably figured I'd show up right until the last minute, right until they put that thing — "
He stopped talking.
"You thought he was dead, right?" Sam said.
"Sure I did," Steve said. "There was no chance he could've survived that fall." He swallowed. "But the thing is, far as Bucky knew, there had to be a chance he wasn't dead. Because he wasn't. So he would've been waiting for me."
He broke after the last word, brought his clenched hands up and knuckled them against his eyes, teeth clenched up. He didn't sob, his breath just came ragged a couple of times.
Sam didn't say the lines, even though he knew you were supposed to. It's not your fault. You couldn't have done anything. Yeah, damn straight, and he'd known it just fine. Steve knew it too. That wasn't comfort. That was the problem, that this was a world where you could watch your wingman go spiraling down, a smoke trail like Icarus and not a damn thing you could do about it but keep on flying.
Steve's breath evened out. His back was still bent like for once he was feeling some weight he couldn't hold up. Sam leaned over and put a hand on his shoulder and said the only thing worth saying. "He's still waiting, man. So let's get going."
Steve's back straightened out. He nodded and stood up.
Sam tried hard not to lie to himself these days. There was a lie it helped to tell yourself when you walked into a fight, the lie that you were going to come out of it on the other side on top. That went double when the way you got into the fight was by strapping on a pair of wings and jumping. Nothing wrong with that, either, he'd figured once upon a time, except it turned out that once you got started telling one lie, more of them came easy. Nothing's going to go wrong. We can't lose. We're invincible.
Well, he wasn't invincible and neither was anybody else. Not even the country, not even the planet. He'd talked to a lot of soldiers who'd come out of New York lugging around the broken pieces of that lie. He'd carried them for a long time himself before he managed to open his hands and let them drop.
What he'd figured out about Steve early on was, Steve had learned that lesson before he was a soldier. Hadn't made him quit trying any, but deep in his bones, he knew losing was an option. Knew sometimes the best you could do was decide how you were going to lose, if you were going to go down easy or go down hard. And he picked going down hard, each and every time.
Steve hadn't asked Sam why he'd come along, but if he did, Sam could tell him why. It made it easier to go down hard yourself when you had other people around you doing it too. And with Steve, you knew going in that he was always going to make that choice. Running with Steve meant you were signing on to go down hard up front. And you couldn't take it back in the last minute, either, because then you'd just be a flat-out asshole, better off dead.
So if Steve asked, Sam could tell him that hanging out with him was just plain relaxing. All the tough choices already made, a man could just get about his business. Made life easier. And Sam aimed to be one of the good guys, but he wasn't set on being a martyr. Sticking it out back at the VA, trying to win battles fought by inches instead of miles, fighting his alarm clock every morning and the Internet every night, that was just as much a worthy fight as this one; hell, more so in a lot of ways. But the way he figured it, he had another six, maybe eight years of this fight left in him, and he might as well enjoy them. The other job would still be there when he got done.
Three months in, they burned out the last of the Hydra nests they'd gotten a smell of. That night they laid out everything they had across one of the motel room beds, all the intel they'd managed to scrape together, and they sat down on the other one, facing the spread.
Finally Steve leaned forward, elbows propped on knees, and rubbed his hands over his face. "At least he hasn't gone back to Hydra."
"Yep," Sam said, and left it at that. The problem was that meant the only person who knew where Bucky was, was Bucky, and he wasn't sharing.
Steve sighed. Sam got up and went to the squat room fridge and got out two halfway-cold beers: he'd added a six-pack to the groceries today alongside their usual gallon of milk. He handed Steve one. Steve flipped off the cap with his thumb and took a long pull. Sam stuck with the bottle opener and sat back down next to him. "So now what?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "Get in touch with Hill, maybe. Somebody should probably see all this." He waved a hand over the intel. "For whatever it's worth. There are too many of these places, and we found most of them too easily."
Sam nodded. "Sacrifice plays." The guys they'd been fighting weren't top-notch, all the equipment a little dated.
"Yeah," Steve said. He sighed again.
Sam didn't push. They both knew what the real question was. Keep chasing Bucky, or switch gears and start digging after the real Hydra, even though they knew by now that they weren't going to find Bucky down that snake hole. And there was a pretty clear right answer there, but that didn't make it any easier a call for Steve to make. There was a reason they hadn't talked about the Hydra bases all being third-tier before now.
Well, he could put it off a little longer. Sam finished his beer and set it down. "Okay," he said. "Since you haven't got any better ideas, here's what we do. We pack all this up, and then we go out and get a steak dinner, and a good night's sleep."
Steve glanced up at him, corner of his mouth turning up, trying. "I guess that doesn't sound too bad. And after that?"
"Sufficient unto the day, my friend," Sam said. "Come on."
Of course, Sam hadn't known what he was doing when he'd made that offer. "Man, I can't take you anywhere," Sam said, after they came out of the steakhouse. "It is a crime what you made them do to that beautiful piece of ribeye."
"You watch ten people spend a week vomiting from bad meat, maybe you'll start taking yours well-done too," Steve said.
"I'm not saying have yourself a bowl of tartare in the field," Sam said. "But that is all the more reason to enjoy steak the way God intended back home."
"What do you mean, in the field? I'm talking on my block in Brooklyn back in 1936," Steve said, half-grinning.
"Damn," Sam said, shaking his head. "God bless the FDA."
Most of the time, Sam didn't even think about it; he knew plenty of polite old-fashioned boys. But once in a while, something like that just popped up and you remembered. Steve was a guy from another planet, and he was settling in okay, but that didn't make this home.
When Steve shoved his hands in his pockets and stayed quiet all the way back to the motel, looking out the window, Sam figured he was remembering that, too. He drove and didn't make Steve talk about it. But when he pulled into the lot and they got out, Steve hesitated outside the motel room door, and Sam stopped and turned back, eyebrows raised.
Steve said, "You know, sometimes — I notice the world's different. Things don't mean the same as they used to."
Sam nodded, waiting.
"Those women at the other table," Steve said. Sam had to think about it: four women at the table behind them, glancing their way, smiling a little; that kind of thing happened now and again.
"Two of them were — " Steve said, and after a moment Sam figured it out. Now he thought about it, two of them hadn't looked, not the same way; they'd been sitting a little closer together, they'd been inside each other's personal space.
"Yeah?" Sam said, because he couldn't figure Steve would give a damn; seemed weird he'd even noticed.
"It's not that I didn't know," Steve said. "I just didn't put it together. That it wouldn't mean the same thing to — to ask."
He went a little pink in the cheeks, and Sam got it. He spent about five seconds being surprised as hell, and then he propped his shoulder against the doorframe and folded his arms and grinned Cheshire-wide at Steve. "So maybe you should go ahead and ask, then."
Steve started grinning back. "Well, I don't know. I wouldn't want to put you out or anything." He still had his hands in his pockets, but he rocked back on his heels a little, shoulders relaxing, body opening up, and Sam discovered he'd made it all the way through surprised and hell yeah and was headed for hell now.
"Get your ass in here, Rogers," Sam said, jerking his thumb into the room, and maybe some of that came across in his voice, because Steve lost the grin too, and as soon as he made it through the door they were kissing before they even got it shut.
They fell onto the first bed, boxspring squawking in protest, and Sam got his shirt off and Steve's pants open and shoved his hand inside. They stuck there for a while, in a beautiful and uncomplicated place, Steve shuddering under him, gripping Sam's shoulders a little too tight and panting, hips working up into his grip, sweat springing out all over his forehead. "Okay," he said finally, out of breath, first time Sam had seen that happen. "Okay, hang on," and sat up to pull his own shirt off over his head.
They both stripped the rest of the way down, ditching boots and clothes on the floor, and Sam dug into his bag for condoms and lubricant. Steve looked down at them with a wry eyebrow.
"It's okay," Sam said. "I got this."
"Okay," Steve said, and lay back for it, trusting him.
Steve was beautiful spread out and gasping on his fingers, tightening up and relaxing for it. Sam didn't think getting in was going to be a problem, but he hung out a little while to let Steve get used to the feeling, let his brain turn it into sex, giving his cock a few strokes to help along the project. Steve had a beautiful cock, too, big and uncut, and he groaned with Sam's hand around him. "Ready?" Sam said.
"Yeah," Steve said, voice strained.
"Okay, over on your side," Sam said, and pushed in nice and slow, taking it easy. Steve didn't make a lot of noise, breathing steady, a few grunts and gulped breaths. His eyes were drifted shut when Sam checked in, forehead creased a little, concentrating, but not wincing. Yeah. Sam got a hold on his hip and tucked his leg under Steve's and bottomed out in one smooth stroke.
Steve blew out his air explosively and coughed a couple times, half a laugh. "Oh, is that how you do it," he said, his voice just a little high.
Sam grinned and nosed at the back of his ear, kissed his neck. "You need me to go easy on you, you just let me know."
"Nah, I'm all right," Steve said, and gasped again as Sam gave him a good hard thrust, right where it counted. "Oh, man."
"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about," Sam said.
Steve said, strangled, "Quit talking."
They ended up on hands and knees so they could go at it harder, Steve rocking with him and under him in quick-march time, soft huh-huh-huh bursts of breath coming out of him. "Oh, yeah," Sam said, panting himself. "Oh, yeah," long and slow, Steve tight and hot around him, and Sam rolled the palm of his hand over the sweet curve of that heavy muscled thigh, ass like carved marble, leaned into Steve's back and followed the line of his hipbone around, all the way around, and wrapped his hand around Steve's cock.
"Yes," Steve said. "Yes, oh, yes," and he was there, hitting the crest, and Sam rode him on down into the bed, all the way to the end, fucking gently in and out of him while Steve came apart in long gulped breaths.
"Oh." Steve sighed it out long, pancaked flat and relaxing, going heavy, and Sam grinned and pulled Steve up and into his lap, enjoying his long half-surprised groan as he sank down deep, thighs spreading to either side of Sam's and his own weight pulling him down hard.
"Oh yeah," Sam murmured. "Yeah, there it is. There it is, baby." Steve's head tipped back against his shoulder and turned blindly in, hand catching at the back of Sam's head. Sam kissed him long and slow and sweet, mouthing over his throat and jaw, rolling his hips, Steve still shivering around him, and yeah. There it was.
They abandoned the wreck of the first bed and sprawled into the other one together, still sweaty and slick and not caring a whole lot. Steve was boneless, relaxed, tucking himself up close, head on Sam's shoulder. "You run way too hot to be a cuddler," Sam said, ruffling fingers through Steve's hair and ignoring his own words, not doing anything to shove him off. Steve just smiled drowsily, curve of his mouth moving against Sam's collarbone.
They both breathed in rhythm, deep, coming down. Sam's whole body felt heavy and good, that place just outside of sleep where his arms and legs didn't want to move but his head was clear and wide open, windows letting in a spring breeze. Steve was relaxing against him, finally; something deep down coming loose.
They didn't talk for awhile. Finally Steve let out a long deep breath. "That scientist at the third base," he said. "The one who was hiding under the desk."
"Yeah," Sam said. "The guy we turned over to the FBI."
"He was doing some real research," Steve said. "Those files he destroyed, before we got down there. I'm betting he was talking to other Hydra scientists about his work." His mouth twisted. "Trying to move up in the ranks."
"Makes sense," Sam said.
"We'd probably better go talk to him," Steve said.
"Okay," Sam said, sorry even though he'd known it was coming, because he knew Steve was carving out a piece of his own guts to say it.
They lay quiet a while together. Sam rubbed Steve's back in slow gentle circles and watched the outlines of the blinds sliding across the ceiling as cars went by on the road. He said, "You know, a lot of times, somebody who's been hurt bad — they can't take a hand yet. They've got to go find themselves a deep dark hole and lick their wounds a while, first. Doesn't mean they're never going to be ready to climb out." He paused and added softly, "He knows where to find you."
Steve's head moved against him in a small nod.
"You and him ever?" Sam asked, even though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.
"No," Steve said. "Like I said, it meant something different, and — " He stopped. Finally he said, "The thing is, Bucky was the only one who was never sorry for me, before. Or, I guess that's not right. What I mean is, he was sorry when I was sick, he was sorry when I got beat up again. But he wasn't sorry I was me. He didn't look at me any given day and think, damn, that poor bastard.
"If I asked, and he said no — I knew he wouldn't get mad or anything. But I thought maybe I'd see in his face, just for a second, that he was sorry for me. And once I started thinking that, I realized that whether or not he really did feel sorry for me, maybe I'd see it anyway." He shrugged a shoulder, minutely. "So I didn't have the right to ask. Because I wasn't sure I could handle getting no for an answer."
Sam glanced down. Steve still lay quiet against him, but his face was starting to tighten up around the eyes and the mouth: a man seeing someplace he wasn't anymore. Sam's gut said Steve had been better off getting some of that out, but he was headed around the curve and straight into brooding. Unless he got derailed right about now. "And now you're lying there thinking, hey, maybe if I'd had the guts to kiss him a couple of times — "
"No, I — " Steve paused and said, wryly, "Maybe."
"Well, Rogers, I hate to tell you this — " Sam said, keeping it quiet and kind, what he thought of as his Counselor Troi voice.
It took Steve a moment to get past the tone. Then he pushed himself up on an arm, outraged. "Excuse me?"
Sam raised his hands. "Look, man, maybe you're just a little out of practice — "
"Out of — !" Steve glared, so speechless Sam couldn't hold on to the deadpan any longer. He started laughing, and Steve shoved him flat and climbed on top of him.
"I guess I'd better start working on that, then," Steve said, almost a growl, the light coming back in his eyes as he leaned over for the condoms, and Sam grinned to himself and settled back against the pillows. Hey, it was nice when virtue really was its own reward for once.
After round two, Steve did go down easy for once, having done his absolute best to show off in every way possible. "Out of practice," he mumbled once more in vague drowsy indignation.
"Yeah, you'll get there," Sam said, patting his shoulder, and Steve only managed to flip him the bird without even opening his eyes. He was breathing steady and deep thirty seconds later. Sam was fading fast himself, but he couldn't help smiling at Steve's sleeping face, reaching out a hand to slide a thumb over his cheek, gentle and barely-there touch. Steve's eyes didn't open, but his mouth curved a little, like a welcome.
Yeah, maybe some days there wasn't anything to do but go down hard, but at least tonight, Sam was marking one down in the win column of both his good fights. Satisfied every way there was, Sam rolled over to sleep — on his stomach, because damn.