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If You Also Want To Tell The Truth

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It starts because of the bifrost.

One of the worlds linked to it just hasn't come to Earth, as far as anthropologists can tell. There are no legends about them, like there are about Thor and Loki. There's no record of them ever coming, until one day, they're knocking on Japan's front door. A joint UN task force is sent to welcome them, with a linguist to attempt communication. The aliens, as it turns out, are called the Vrai, and they're pretty quick with languages. They learn English, and then suddenly various coalitions and representatives are being sent to communicate with them. It's a media feeding frenzy - information is being meted out to every major news outlet in the world, and Sam can't help but be glued to the TV. This is the first totally peaceful alien contact Earth's ever had. That's a pretty big deal.

The US gets in on it, of course. Sam's expecting Steve to get sent, because he's their shiniest toy, aside from all the guns. What he's not expecting is for Steve to say, "Okay, but I want Sam with me."

It's been a year since they went searching for Bucky, and six months since Natasha absconded with him for some hardcore brainwashing detox. He sends Steve emails, and Steve responds, sometimes three or four times a day. Since then, Sam's been working at the VA again, and Steve's been meeting with various government officials. Things are as close to normal as Sam figures they're going to get.

They're eating dinner when Sam gets the call. Steve says "yes" and "uh-huh" a lot, then glances at Sam and says, "I'd like the Falcon with me. Yes, sir, I understand. He's a certified counselor, I think he could be useful. Of course. We'll report Monday. Thank you."

"Okay, what did you just volunteer me for?" Sam says. He eats another piece of sesame chicken while Steve makes an embarrassed face.

"So," Steve says, "the Vrai are interested in our heroes, and they've already met Tony, which didn't go very well, since he was more interested in their computers - well, their version of computers - than the actual people. So they want me to go."

"And I'm going with you?"


Steve's blushing a little, which normally Sam would be trying very diligently not to find cute. Right now, though, he's mostly stuck on the whole "meeting an alien race only twenty or so people have had contact with" thing. "And they said yes? Just like that?"

"Well, technically speaking, your security clearance is pretty high," Steve says.

Sam shakes his head. "I start hanging out with you, all kinds of weird stuff happens."

Steve smiles a little, self-deprecating. "Bucky's not going to believe this."

"I barely believe it," Sam says. "Why Monday?" It's only Wednesday night.

"They want time to prepare us a brief. We'll read it over the weekend," Steve says.

"No in-person training?"

"There'll be a diplomat there to make sure we don't screw up too much." Steve hesitates, then says, "Sam, if you don't want to do this -"

Sam waves a hand. "It's fine. I'm fine with it, seriously." He doesn't mention that he'd follow Steve almost anywhere. He hinted it for awhile, even when he thought Steve might be hung up on Bucky in a not-so-platonic way, but Steve had never picked up anything Sam put down, so Sam figures Steve's just not interested. He's taken a few girls and guys out since they settled in DC, so it's not an orientation thing. Sam doesn't take it personally; he's gone on dates, too.

But really, Steve should've figured out by now that Sam would follow him. It's kind of embarrassing, and it makes all his aunts worry about him, but there it is.

"You're sure?" Steve says.

"Positive," Sam says. "What, you think I'd pass up the opportunity to meet more aliens? These guys seem a lot less rowdy than the Asgardians, too." Also purple-skinned and literally four-eyed, but Sam's open-minded.

"Good," Steve says. "I've gotten used to having you around." He smiles at Sam, open and totally innocent. Red, white, blue, and clueless, Sam thinks.

"Me, too," he says, and goes back to his dinner.

Sam goes back to the VA as usual the next morning, but he gives them notice that he'll be gone, possibly indefinitely. They haven't really been given any information about how long this diplomatic mission is supposed to last. Fortunately, the Vrai are pretty high-profile, so the fact that Sam's going to get to meet them is impressive enough that the director waves off the short notice. He's feeling pretty good when he gets back to the apartment - and then he sees Bucky and Natasha sitting at their kitchen table.

"Nice place," Natasha says with a smirk that seems to imply everything Sam's not actually doing with Steve.

"I like it," Steve says. Sam stares at him, because at this point, he can't tell if Steve's just fucking with all of them, or if he's actually this clueless.

"Hi," Bucky says to Sam. "Sorry about - everything." They searched for him for four months. In the end, he'd almost killed Sam - but Natasha had gotten a hold on him at the last minute, then dragged him off for some de-brainwashing. Sam doesn't still have bruises around his neck, but he remembers thinking he was going to die pretty clearly.

"No worries, man," Sam says, a little faintly. "What's up?"

"We thought we'd come see you off," Natasha says. "We're staying in a hotel - we're going to go to Europe. Fury wants our help with something."

"Back to the old life, huh?" Sam says.

That gets a blink from Natasha, and a frown from Bucky. "Not exactly," Natasha says.

Sam holds up his hands. "Not my business, I know," he says.

"Anyway," Steve says, "I thought we could all go out to dinner?" He looks at Sam like - Sam's not actually sure. Something's up.

"Sure," Sam says, making it sound as casual as he can. "Steve, can I talk to you for a second?"

Steve nods, and follows Sam when Sam goes into his room. Steve's got the bigger room, but Sam's room is big enough that it shouldn't feel cramped. That's entirely Steve's influence - or rather, what Sam wants to do when he looks at Steve. Diplomatic mission, he reminds himself, and does his best to tamp that shit down.

Quietly, he says, "Are you okay with all this?"

"With the mission?"

"That," Sam says, "but I'm sure you'll handle some aliens just fine. I mean with the whole - Bucky thing."

Steve makes a rueful face. "He's so different now."

"Well, he went through a lot."

"No, I mean, I know that. I don't mean from how he was back when we were kids. I mean, he's different from when we found him. There are bits of the old Bucky, but he's...he's different, is all."

Sam nods. He can't tell Steve to distance himself, because he knows Steve's trying; it's just not as easy as all that. "Well, dinner could be nice."

Steve offers him a half-smile. "Or a disaster."

"One or the other," Sam says. "Ready to go?"

Steve nods.

They go to a Mexican place Sam and Steve sometimes hit up. They do most of their business through delivery, which means the nice eat-in part tends to be not empty, but also not that full. Bucky's given no sign that he's unfit for polite society, but Sam figures a loud room might be beyond what he's willing to deal with.

"So," Steve says as they're waiting for their food. "How was LA?"

"Sunny," Bucky says. "Have you gotten your brief on the Vrai yet?"

"It showed up in my email an hour ago," Steve says. "Why?"

"Are they a threat?"

Steve shrugs. "I doubt it. They've been working with the UN for weeks now."

Natasha nudges Bucky gently. It's an obviously familiar motion, but Sam's pretty sure he'd get hit if he tried it. "We're happy for you," she tells Steve. "It's about time you got back in the field."

"I'm not sure a diplomatic mission counts as the field," Steve says dryly. "But thanks."

Natasha and Bucky - mostly Natasha - talk about LA a bit, and Sam talks about the classes he's taking, courtesy of the VA - mostly psychology classes. He steers away from the stuff that might be sticky with Bucky. Steve talks about his art, and the talks the government has him giving, and the classes on tactics he's taking. He also talks about the number of places that have asked him to do a commencement speech, looking embarrassed.

That's when they get the best response from Bucky of the night. He snorts and looks at Steve fondly, saying, "You're not a public speaker."

"That's what I told them," Steve says, "but they've seen my reels."

Bucky's lips curl in a smile. Sam lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding.

"Those dumb things," he says.

"I love them," Natasha says. She looks mildly amused; if she were anyone else, Sam guesses she'd be smirking.

"Okay, we're not discussing this," Steve says. "Sam, tell them about - anything but those reels."

He's not mad, though, so Sam says, "I don't know, I've only seen a couple of them."

"They're something else, pal," Bucky says.

They end the night on a high note, and then split up. Once Sam's locked the door to their apartment, Steve slumps against it, letting out a deep breath.

"I think that went well," Sam says. "Or, not terribly."

"It was good," Steve says. "Europe might be good for Bucky."

"Taking out HYDRA?"

"Honestly, I'm not sure," Steve says. "But Natasha wouldn't be leading him into something he can't handle."

"You've got that much faith in her, huh?"

Steve nods. "She doesn't like to admit it, but she's a good person."

Sam doesn't want to make Steve dwell, so he just says, "Why don't you print out copies of the briefs? We can do a little studying before we go to bed."

It comes out more suggestively than he really meant it, but Steve - of course - doesn't notice. He says, "Good idea," and goes to retrieve his laptop.

Sam doesn't watch his ass. He's gotten a lot of practice at not doing that.

The brief is, well, brief. They started communicating really fluently about three weeks ago. There are lots of warnings about the Vrai being a very formal culture. Their structure is basically socialist, which is apparently classified information for now - Sam can see why, given how many people will be pissed about that. They haven't had a war in three hundred years, largely because a single diplomatic negotiation can take three years and both sides just accept it. Their days are 30 Earth hours long, but their years are only 150 days. The math on that, apparently, means all of the diplomats are roughly 60 Earth years old.

"So they're not like Asgardians," Sam says as he and Steve bat bits of information back and forth.

"Immortal? No, apparently that's fairly unusual," Steve says. "They do live a long time, though. A hundred and fifty at least, more if they choose to regenerate."

"Who wouldn't choose that?" Sam says, then almost bites his tongue off.

Steve doesn't get mad, though. Steve rarely gets mad. He just smiles a little wryly and says, "Me. One life is good enough for me."

"I assume the regeneration tech is classified," Sam says.

"It only works on the Vrai," Steve says. "So there's not much chance of a mob breaking out, or billionaires buying it."

"But the biology eventually might work on us," Sam says. "I mean, I'm guessing."

Steve nods. "So yes, it's classified."

"Great," Sam says. "We're just diving in, huh?"

"Seems like," Steve says. "You're still sure you want to do this?"

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, of course I am," Sam says. "What, are you getting scared?"

"Not a chance."

Steve's got that stubborn look on his face that really exhibits how much he hasn't gotten over his short man complex. Sam snorts and goes back to the brief.

They have a low-key weekend. They pack and get ready to go on the mission. Steve's been told to wear his uniform, but Sam hasn't been told anything, so he settles on his military dress uniform. The Vrai are formal, so they'll like his implication that this is a ceremony. He hopes.

They drive to an area in Virginia that doesn't, technically speaking, belong to the US government. The bifrost is there, a circle full of interlocking lines, like the one Sam's seen on the news. It occurs to him suddenly that he's really planning on traveling through space, with a suitcase full of clothes and Steve at his side.

"Captain," the military man who meets them says. He's tall and Latino, with weathered eyes and ramrod-straight posture. Sam gets the feeling the promotion wasn't because he's good at pushing paper. "Sergeant," he adds to Sam.

Sam's a little surprised, but he salutes. He's retired, but he wasn't raised in a barn.

"I'm General Garcia," the man says. "I'll be your escort today."

"The entire company's not American, is it?"

Steve seems genuinely worried, and Sam has to repress a smile. Steve's patriotism is a little old-fashioned, and it's one of Sam's favorite things about him.

"No," General Garcia says. "We're meeting with an envoy when we reach the Vrai end of the bifrost. They'll be taking the bifrost from Japan - two Japanese diplomats, two Chinese generals, a Kenyan minister, and the British royal family. We've also got representatives from Canada, Russia, and Brazil on Valrian already, along with General Johnson, who was the first American contact." Valrian being the name of the Vrai planet.

"That's quite a mix," Steve says.

"Attempting to present an accurate representation of Earth is difficult, as it turns out," General Garcia says. "And a little embarrassing."

"Which is where I come in."

"You're as wholesome as the American people have to offer," General Garcia says. "And it helps to present an image of solidarity. The Vrai were disappointed to find out that Earth has so many wars."

"So was I," Steve says, a little quiet.

Sam shifts slightly, moving more towards Steve. General Garcia looks between them for a moment, then nods. "Then let's go, gentlemen."

Sam's not sure what he was expecting. There's a rushing in his ears and colored lights all around him, and then they're free, under a yellow sun that looks shockingly like the one at home.

General Garcia must see him staring, because he says, "The parameters to support life on a planet are shockingly narrow. Shall we?"

That's when Sam realizes they're standing dead center in front of a huge city. Or at least, Sam assumes it's a city. There are twisting structures that look like wood, spires rising high. Sam remembers the brief, how the Vrai build with plant material, and treat it so it won't burn. There's also people all around. They don't seem to care that humans just arrived on the bifrost. They all move a little slowly, gliding in a way that would be totally out of place in New York - or DC, for that matter. The roads are paved with bright blue cobblestone, but there are wide stretches of brilliantly colored plants - mostly green, but with some blue and purple mixed in. Above, vehicles move soundlessly through the air.

"Well," Steve says, "they're definitely more advanced than we are."

"Indeed," General Garcia says. "This way." He leads them to a sprawling building, where roots twist around a door.

Inside, the building is warm, with an open roof and planters on either side of the room. It's barely furnished. A Vrai is sitting in a chair near the entrance to a hallway; she's got holo-screens, or what look like holo-screens, in front of her.

At least, Sam assumes she's a woman. If the Vrai have a concept of gender. That information was left out of the brief; Sam wonders if it's on purpose. Oh, well. It's not like he's going to ask her.

She smiles when they approach. "General Garcia, Sam Wilson, and Captain America."

It's not a question, but Steve says, "That's us."

"It's great to meet you," Sam says. "The Captain here goes on about how exciting meeting new -" He can't say aliens. "- people is." To cover for his stumble, he puts a hand on Steve's shoulder.

Her eyes flicker between them, going a little wide. Sam wonders if he's doing something wrong. He squeezes Steve's shoulder a little and lets his hand drop.

"Yes, of course," the Vrai woman says. "Please, come with me."

She leads them up a level. The staircase is a little too high for them; the Vrai are taller, and move more smoothly. But Sam climbs the twisted branches anyway. When they get to the top, there are two Vrai waiting for them.

The woman who met them downstairs goes up to one of them and whispers in his ear. Sam watches nervously. That's not really an auspicious beginning to this. He glances at Steve, only to find Steve looking at him. It's obvious he's thinking the same thing.

The woman steps away and says, "Again, it was lovely to meet you," bowing before she goes downstairs. None of them even get a chance to reply, she leave so quickly.

"Welcome," one of the remaining Vrai says. "I am Jalia, and my companion is Grai. You are General Garcia, Steve Rogers, and Sam Wilson." Together, the Vrai bow.

Sam, the general, and Steve all bow, too. Sam feels like a little bit of an idiot.

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Steve says. "Your city looks wonderful."

"We have toiled many days to make it so," Jalia says. She looks between Sam and Steve. "I was unaware that we would be meeting committed partners. Thus far, our experience with Earth has been with humans without attachments."

Sam blinks. Then he blinks again.

Steve's not one to let a weird statement stop him, though. "I'm sorry," he says, "I'm not sure what you mean."

Jalia gestures at Sam and Steve. "Downstairs, Helai saw you with one another. It was obvious you are bonded."

"I wouldn't say that," Sam says. He looks at the general, but he looks as confused as Sam feels. "We're just -"

He notices Jalia frowning, all four eyes narrowing.

"...yes," Steve says. "Yes. Sam and I, we share a strong bond."

"A romantic bond," Jalia says.

Sam wants to say no, no, and also, no. But Steve just says, "Of course."

This isn't a smart way to do things. "Humans, we touch each other a lot," Sam says. "It doesn't necessarily mean we're - bonded."

"I have been informed of this," Jalia says. "But Helai is not one to mistake these things. Your gesture was one of great intimacy."

Sam's pretty sure that diplomacy-wise, this counts as a disaster. "Ah, well," he says. "That's - " A matter of interpretation? Not true?

"We haven't yet made it official," Steve says, and gives an 'aw shucks' smile. "But Sam and I are very close."

Sam closes his eyes briefly. It feels inevitable when Jalia says, "We have ministers who are capable of arranging ceremonies, very similar to the ones your people have told us about."

"Good," Steve says. He reaches out and takes Sam's hand. "That would be wonderful."

There's a bunch more diplomatic stuff that's all a blur to Sam, even though he knows he replies to questions multiple times. Originally, apparently, this mansion had three rooms for them. But Jalia presses Sam and Steve into the same room, with a giant bed and its own bathroom.

They're assured they'll have privacy, even though none of them asked. Or, at least, they're supposed to have privacy. The first thing that happens is General Garcia practically dragging them into their room.

"I want you to know," he says, "what a monumental screw-up that was."

"We could explain," Steve says. "Tell them it's not like that."

"No," Garcia says. "They'll figure out how humans work, but as far as they're concerned, you two are lovebirds. We don't want to cause a diplomatic incident by embarrassing the Vrai. I want you to act like you've been dating for five years, you understand?"

"If this gets back to Earth -"

Garcia interrupts Sam. "It won't. You have my word."

Steve's spine straightens. "Of course. Thank you, sir."

General Garcia says, "Good night, gentlemen," and goes into his own room. Suddenly, Steve and Sam are alone.

Sam double-checks to make sure the door is closed. The room itself is nice, branches twisting overhead and plants growing on either side of the room. But that doesn't change the fact that he and Steve are getting married. On another planet.

Would that even be legal in the US? Sam has no idea. Probably not, but it's not like there's precedent for this kind of thing.

"I have to ask," Sam says. "Why the hell did you say we were in a committed relationship?"

They're standing across from one another, the bed between them. Sam watches as Steve turns bright red.

"I didn't know what to say," he says. "I was never trained for diplomacy."

"The truth might've been nice," Sam says. He doesn't want to guilt Steve, he really doesn't, but - this situation is all kinds of messed up. Steve might not think so, but then, Steve's not carrying a torch for Sam. Sam's situation is a little different.

"I'm sorry," Steve says. "I could tell them the truth tomorrow."

Sam desperately wants him to, but he ends up shaking his head. "There's no reason to give them the impression that we're liars. It won't even be a legal marriage in the US." Probably. "So we'll just go through with it, and then Earth doesn't need to know that Captain America got gay married on another planet."

"Okay," Steve says. He offers Sam a smile - apologetic, cute as hell. Sam tamps down on those feelings as soon as they rise to the surface. "I really am sorry."

"Don't worry about it," Sam says. He's suddenly tired. "Left or right?"

Steve blinks at him. "Left," he says finally.

Sam's already standing on the right side of the bed, so he says, "Dibs on the bathroom," and rummages around in his suitcase for a toothbrush.

He's bunked down next to plenty of guys, in beds way less comfy than this. The Vrai sleep in hammocks, but they made up beds for their Earth visitors. Real hospitality. The problem is, while Sam's slept next to plenty of guys before, he's never slept next to one he wanted to fuck quite as much as Steve.

The room is cool, like the branches are insulating them from the sun outside. So they initially go to sleep with a blanket on, sleeping back to back.

But Steve's warm. He radiates heat, so much that after just a couple of minutes, Sam is sweating. He tries sticking his feet out from under the blankets at first, but that doesn't work, so finally he pushes the blanket down until it's barely covering him. That solves the sweating problem, but Steve's still so fucking warm, Sam can't help but feel it.

Maybe it's the serum; maybe Steve was always like this. Either way, Sam has to resist the urge to touch him, force down any thoughts that might lead to him popping a boner. This is going to be torture. At least it's a short-term trip.

When he wakes up the next morning, he's groggy in a way only civilians can afford to be. He's also half-squashed, because Steve is sprawled out, an arm and a leg swung over Sam.

Sam's very still for a moment, a rush of arousal going through him so quickly he almost makes a fool of himself. He very carefully lifts Steve's arm, then slides his body out from under Steve's leg. He's almost extricated himself completely when Steve lifts his face from the pillow, blinking sleepily at Sam.

There are pillow creases on his face. Sam is in so much trouble.

"Oh," Steve says. He pulls away - not suddenly, but quickly enough that Sam can tell he's embarrassed. "Sorry. I didn't - um."

Sam's pretty fucking glad his blushes don't show, right now. "No worries," he says. "I've shared beds with all kinds of people. You're fine."

"Thanks," Steve says. "I'm used to being all alone, I guess."

That sounds like the beginning of a porno. Sam sends up a brief prayer, even though he hasn't been to church in weeks, that this doesn't get all fucked up. Sam can control himself. He can. "Yeah, whereas I've slept with all kinds of grabby people."

Steve rubs a hand at the back of his neck, still propped up on one elbow. "My guess is those grabby people were grabbing on purpose."

"Sometimes," Sam says. Was that a come-on? No, it couldn't have been. He's seen Steve with people he wants to sleep with, and Steve's a lot smoother than that. "You want first shower?"

"Please," Steve says, and rolls out of bed.

Sam wishes he could call Sabrina from the VA, or Natasha, or even his mom. Someone he could vent to about this situation. But unfortunately, they don't get cell service on Valrian, so he's stuck with only himself as a sounding board.

"Get it together, Wilson," he mutters to himself, and sits on a low stone ledge next to a planter while he waits for Steve to get out of the shower.

Luckily, Steve showers military-quick, and in just twenty minutes, they've left in search of food. The Vrai believe very strongly in privacy, so no one's posted outside their door; Sam remembers dimly, through his haze of shock, that there's a kitchen on the third level of the mansion. So they climb another set of stairs, and come to a deserted and remarkably normal-looking kitchen.

Well, for certain values of normal. The stove is made from some kind of glowing stone, and according to the carefully written English directions above it, you rub one of the stone burners with another thin rock to start the heating process. Steve does it dubiously, while Sam greases up a stainless steel frying pan - Cuisinart, so clearly from Earth - and cracks some mottled green eggs into it.

"Are you sure this will work?" Steve says when Sam puts the frying pan on.

"Nah," Sam says, "but there's only one way to find out if these taste like regular eggs."

Steve sits at the table in the center of the room - which looks like it's growing straight out of the floor - while Sam makes eggs. They're more orange than yellow, to the point where they look a little uncanny when he slides them onto two stone plates. He adds some of the loaf of brown bread he finds on the counter, adding extra for Steve.

Steve looks at the eggs dubiously.

"Come on, Cap," Sam says. "You must've eaten worse things during the war."

"I ate worse things at home during the Depression," Steve says. "That doesn't mean I want to go back to those days."

Sam laughs a little and takes a bite. They're saltier than regular eggs, and have an almost grassy undertone, but they're not terrible.

"Thanks," Steve says belatedly. "That was rude of me."

"No worries," Sam says. "Any idea what's on the docket today?"

Steve looks at the clock. "It's six o'clock now," he says. "We went to sleep at 28:00. The Vrai need more sleep than we do; no one will be up until nine at the earliest."

"You got all that from the briefing?"

Steve looks at him, eyebrows quirked. "General Garcia told us last night."

Things were more of a blur than Sam realized. "Right," he says. "Of course."

"They said they'd summon us," Steve says. "Well, they said they'd 'make ourselves available for an audience', but it basically means a summons."

"I wonder if they'll make us plan the wedding," Sam says.

Steve turns red again. The pillow crease marks are only beginning to fade. And - Sam needs to stop staring.

"I really am sorry," Steve says.

There's really not an upper limit for how many times Steve would have to apologize for Sam to stop feeling weird about all of this. Finally, he settles on saying, "Don't worry about it. Seriously. It happened, we'll get married - it won't mean anything in the long run. It doesn't affect the mission."

Steve's face goes through a complicated series of twitching motions that Sam's not entirely sure even count as a facial expression. Then he says, "Good point," and goes back to eating his eggs.

Jalia sends someone to summon them a few hours later. Sam and Steve are dressed by then, both of them wearing khakis and collared shirts. They can't just wear their uniforms for two weeks, or however long this lasts. They follow the messenger to another huge, sunny room. Jalia's standing in the center of it, but that's not what makes Sam's stomach drop. She's surrounded by assistants, and there are two US-style suits hanging from a rack in front of her, in a deep purple that Sam's pretty sure is a Vrai wedding color.

"I guess this is really happening," Sam says, sotto voce, as they walk to her.

"Gentlemen," Jalia says. "Thank you for joining me."

"The pleasure's ours," Sam says. "These wouldn't happen to be for us, would they?"

Jalia smiles. "They are indeed," she says. "I hope you don't find them ostentatious?"

"We'd love to honor your wedding traditions," Steve says. He reaches out suddenly and grabs Sam's hand. "I mean, it's so important to me - to us - that we do this right."

"Excellent," Jalia says. "Then I hope you won't object to the ceremony being tonight?"

"Tonight?" Sam says. It's more of a squeak.

Jalia just nods, though. Of all the Vrai, she's the most studious in communicating like a human. Sam kind of wonders if they taught a course at some point: how to make the twitchy humans less twitchy around you. "When a couple reaches mutual commitment here, the ceremony is quick. The clothes are, of course, made by each member's family, long before a wedding occurs. But the ceremony is merely a confirmation of what is already known between the two. And then, naturally, the couple is left to consummate the marriage. Privacy is extremely valued among the Vrai."

If they get married every time they touch each other, that makes sense. "Thank you," Sam manages to say. "I guess we'd better try these on, then."

They both fit perfectly. The Vrai have biometric scanners, so that, at least, is less creepy than it otherwise could be. They get dressed behind screens, and then - as Jalia instructs them to - come out to look at each other.

"In Earth customs, this would be bad luck," Steve says. He's looking Sam up and down warmly, almost like he's actually into this. Which, of course, he's not. But he's a better actor than Sam would've credited him with. "But of course, I don't really believe in that superstition."

Or in this marriage, Sam thinks. Aloud, he says, "The suits are lovely, Jalia. Thank you."

"We're honored to be part of this," Jalia says. "Though General Garcia informs me such contact is normal among humans who are not committed...?"

Her expression is serious suddenly, and she looks between them. But Steve says, smooth as anything, "It is. But Sam and I are definitely very committed to one another."

It's avoiding an interplanetary incident, obviously. But it's also locking them together for the time being.

But this is a diplomatic mission, so Sam pushes down his own personal concerns and says, "And we are, again, honored. Should we change out of these and go meet the others?"

"Of course," Jalia says.

If Sam rushes out of his clothes, well, he's behind a screen. No one can really tell.

The briefing got him ready for days of cultural exchange, mutual history lessons, food tasting, and diplomatic negotiation. His brief didn't need to actually tell him that he won't be doing the negotiation for him to know that. Hell, even Steve's not really going to be at the table. He'll have an opinion - Steve's always got an opinion - but that doesn't, of course, translate to him being a negotiator.

And, okay, Sam's a little distracted. Or a lot distracted. Because he's getting married to Steve, he shared a bed with Steve, and he's good at repression but even he has his limits. Steve, on the other hand, seems totally focused, asking smart questions and eating all of the Vrai food like it's the best Italian food Brooklyn had to offer circa 1942.

Then Jalia puts her hands together and says, "The time has come to prepare for the wedding. Attendants will meet both of you in your room."

"Preparation" involves, apparently, putting on the suits as attendants do last-minute tailoring, and staring at one another. Steve's the one who breaks eye contact first, rubbing the back of his neck and saying, "So we're really doing this, huh?"

"My grandparents had a last-minute wedding," Sam says. "By which I mean, yeah, I guess we are."

"My grandparents were engaged when they were fifteen," Steve says. "I always hoped I'd find someone like that."

He sounds - sad. Sam nudges him a little, to bring him back to himself - and to remind him that there's a Vrai with perfectly adequate ears still in the room. "We won't know how it turns out with us 'till we do it. Honey," he adds, and steps forward, kissing Steve.

His logic goes: they have a witness; they'll probably have to do it at the wedding; they're going to have to get used to it. He expects Steve to stiffen, to have to cover for Steve stepping away. He's not expecting Steve to melt into the kiss, pulling Sam close and brushing Sam's lips lightly with his tongue.

Sam - Sam gets a little lost, is the thing. He kisses back, and wraps his arms around Steve's (small, fuck, he's in too deep) waist, until the Vrai with them - she didn't introduce herself - delicately clears her throat.

"Excuse me," she says when they jump apart, guiltily. "The ceremony should be beginning soon."

"Lead the way," Steve says.

He sounds a little winded. In spite of himself, Sam can't help but be smug.

The ceremony takes place in what looks like a presentation room of some kind. Benches grow from the ground, curved on either side of a walkway. It's not a traditional aisle, since it turns, too, and is bracketed on either side by more planters. But someone has apparently told the Vrai about Earth tradition, because they direct Steve and Sam to walk down the aisle, where Jalia is waiting for them.

General Garcia and the other human diplomats sit in one row of benches; six Vrai sit in the other row. Sam recognizes Grai, and two diplomats from earlier, Benia and Daquai. It seems like both not enough people and too many people, for Sam's first wedding.

"General Garcia has kindly informed me of the traditions of Earth," Jalia says. "I will officiate, if it would please you."

"Actually," Steve says before Sam has a chance to say anything, "We'd prefer to follow your tradition. As much as is reasonable, of course."

Jalia looks surprised, but also pleased; score one for Captain America. "Of course," she says. "Then first I must say what an honor it is, to wed two humans in the Vrai fashion. The first Vrai marriage, it is said, took place on the continent of Enli, in the year two-hundred forty-six, between the female companions Falia and Kalin. They said..."

Sam kind of tunes out the rest. As it turns out, Vrai wedding ceremonies involve reciting the entire civilization's history, it feels like, and then holding Steve's hands and looking into his eyes.

"Normally you'd have this memorized," Jalia says, with a hint of humor, "but you will repeat after me. Honored one, to whom I give my life; I will protect you all of my days."

Sam pauses, expecting it to be longer, but Jalia says, "Now: together."

So they repeat it, holding eye contact. Steve doesn't look scared. Sam feels scared; he'd give anything for a mirror right now.

"We are honored to be here with you," Jalia says. "And now, the consummation."

Now Steve looks alarmed. "We don't have to - privacy. You value privacy. Right?"

"Yes, of course," Jalia says. "Grai, please escort them back to their room."

Sam waits until they're alone to laugh. "You thought we were gonna have to get dirty in front of a bunch of diplomats."

"It was a concern," Steve says, fumbling with his suit. "This pinches," he adds, tugging at his tie.

"They're trying, you've got to give them credit," Sam says. Steve tripping his way out of a suit is hot and cute, which means Sam needs to turn around and change himself before something embarrassing happens. He turns his back on Steve and drops trou, adding, "And that could've gone a lot worse. We just have to stick close and, you know, make everyone think we had wild sex once they left us alone."

"Oh, of course." Steve's voice is dripping with sarcasm. "Shouldn't be a problem."

Sam finishes pulling his shirt on and turns around. Steve's looking at the wall across from Sam. "I like you," Sam says. "We're friends. We can keep up the pretense for a couple weeks. And I doubt General Garcia, or anyone else, is going to be tattling on us on Earth. No one wants that incident."

Steve smiles a little, almost bitter-looking. "I just always thought it'd be special," he says, finally looking at Sam. "That's what I was going to say before."

Something twists in Sam's gut, ugly and jealous. "It will be." He picks up his folded clothes and puts them on top of Steve's, on the desk. "When it's real, it will be."


They stay in their room for the rest of the night. Steve reads - he's going through a big Stephen King phase, and has all of his books loaded on his Kindle - and Sam plays Tetris on his iPad. It's a peaceful night, and Sam's looking forward to two more relatively boring weeks of diplomacy, figuring out what makes the Vrai tick and how to arrange an alliance that will benefit Earth. They haven't talked about it - Steve's an introspective guy, and Sam doesn't want to overstep - but Sam's biggest worry is the whole socialism thing the Vrai have got going on. That won't go over well with world leaders.

But then, it's not like you can tell an alien species, hey, can you change your entire government to satisfy Earth sensibilities? Much though Sam knows some world leaders would like to.

They go to bed early. Sam forces himself to sleep, ignoring Steve's warmth next to him. He gets plenty of sleep, but he wakes with a start, pre-dawn coming in through the window.

For a split second, he's not sure why he startled awake. Then someone starts pounding on their door.

"Open up, lovebirds," General Garcia says. "There's been a murder."

Steve's already awake when Sam looks at him. Sam stumbles out of bed and opens the door. He and Steve are both in their boxers, but that's not particularly incriminating. "Give me five minutes," he tells General Garcia.

Ten minutes later, they're on an upper level. Grai's throat has been slit - no, Sam thinks as he kneels. That's not the right term. It's been cut, but the edges of the wound are jagged. This was done with a serrated blade, meant to mutilate and kill.

He stands up. Steve looks at Jalia with as serious an expression as Sam's ever seen on his face. "You have my sincerest apologies," Steve says. "This should never have happened."

"The only reason you're not being detained," Jalia says, "is because I know you speak the truth. We've been monitoring your whereabouts. Neither of you could have done this."

"This is a bit of an insensitive question, so I'm sorry," Sam says, "but - do the Vrai have a high murder rate? I know you don't have wars."

Jalia shakes her head. "We are an empathetic species. Strange though it may seem to humans, we do not take one another's lives. Not often, and not easily."

That's a nice way of saying they're more evolved. "I see," Sam says. "Who would you dispatch to investigate this, then?"

"You," Jalia says.

Steve blinks. Sam feels like he's been hit over the head. "I'm sorry?" Steve says.

"We have ten representatives from Earth on our planet," Jalia says. "It could be any of them."

Sam's about to point out the obvious when she continues. "Or it could have been one of our own, driven to murder by the presence of humans on our planet. But General Garcia tells me you both have combat training. I find that distasteful, but there is no one else who can intuit human impulses and conduct an investigation while my people are assured of their innocence."

"What about the Vrai?" Sam says. "If we're the human investigators..."

She smiles thinly. "Yes. Yulia?"

A Vrai Sam didn't even notice comes out from the shadows. Her skin is darker than Jalia's, and her four eyes seem larger.

"Yulia has enhanced senses," Jalia says. "She is one of our Protectors."

Sam can tell it's an important title, but he doesn't know what it is. Police force? Psychics? Who knows, really. Their brief was in depth, but it wasn't in depth enough to cover every aspect of Vrai governance.

"Protectors?" Steve says.

It's the most polite, subtle request for actual information Sam's ever heard. But Jalia just says, "Yes, Protectors. She will assist you in investigating our people. Yulia?"

"Hello," Yulia says.

Steve nods. "Hello."

"Hi," Sam says.

"With respect," Steve says, "I don't really have experience doing investigative work, but I know someone who does. I'd like to bring them on, if I may."

Jalia hesitates. "If he carries any guilt -"

"He couldn't possibly," Steve says. "He's been out of contact with any known Earth government for almost a year now."

"How can you be sure you'll be able to contact him?" Jalia's lower eyes flicker, her agitation becoming much more obvious. "If you're with the government -"

"I have ways of contacting him," Steve says. "And there's no one I can think of who understands human motivation, and questioning humans, the way he does." He waits a beat, then says, "If I'm going to conduct this investigation, I'm going to need you to trust me."

It's masterful, but it's still not quite enough to sway Jalia. Until Yulia turns and says, "He's telling the truth."

Sam expects Jalia to ask if Yulia's sure, but instead she just nods. "Very well," she says. "Then summon this man."

Steve turns to General Garcia. "I need a way to send an email," he says. "We want Nick Fury in on this."

Sam almost chokes, but he's practiced enough at this stuff that he doesn't betray it out loud. No one seems to notice his shock. General Garcia himself says, "You're sure about this?"

"Positive, sir," Steve says.

"Very well," General Garcia says. "Go to the bifrost. There's enough of a connection to send an email. I assume you still have your phone with you?"

Steve nods, looking a little sheepish.

"Kids," General Garcia says. "Go ahead. Yulia can guide you. I'll stay here with Jalia and ensure no one tampers with the crime scene."

The term makes Jalia wince, but she doesn't argue. "Come with me," Yulia says, and leads them out.

Sure enough, Sam's phone beeps with notifications as soon as they get to the bifrost. Steve pulls his out and types quickly. Moments later, his phone chimes. "He's on his way," Steve says.

"How fast can he get there?"

"He's in France," Steve says. "There's a bifrost in England, so...a few hours?"

"Good to know," Sam says. "Provided time passes normally."

"It should, more or less," Steve says. "This one is stable."

Sam nods. "Then we wait."

"We wait," Steve says.

"Should we interview people? I've never done this before." Sam glances at Yulia, but it's not like his ignorance is classified information or anything.

Yulia doesn't appear any more bothered than she did in front of Grai's body. "We will wait to interview my people," she says. "If you are bringing an expert, it might be wise to wait with the humans, too. They are all contained."

"Safely?" Steve says.

Yulia's lower eyes close when she looks at Steve. "We do not harm those who could be innocent."

"Unfortunately, humans do," Sam says as Steve turns red. "We're a suspicious species."

"I see," Yulia says. She looks between them. "And you are devoted?"

Sam steps a little closer. He'd completely forgotten the ruse, but of course - they'll have to maintain it for the duration of this journey. Which is suddenly looking like it'll take a lot longer. "Yes," he says. He takes Steve's hand. It, too, is overly warm. Sam wonders what the Vrai think of the serum. "We are."

Yulia's skin is a dark enough purple that Sam's not sure if she's flushing. "It is a beautiful thing."

"If you don't mind my asking," Steve says, "is there a place we can sit down while we wait?"

Yulia looks at him like he's said something dumb. Which he has, as it turns out; she walks them over to one of the wooden walls surrounding the bifrost and gestures gently at it.

A bench grows out of the wood.

Sam knows he's gaping, but - "Can every Vrai do that?"

"You wanted to know what a Protector is," Yulia says. She sits down on the bench, which is more than big enough for three people. "We are born closer to the earth, I suppose you would say. The rocks and trees are ours. Protectors erect the buildings we live in, and ensure the fields are fertile."

"It looks like magic," Steve says.

"It is merely a matter of energy perception and manipulation," Yulia says.

"You guys have gene manipulation," Sam says. "Why can't everyone do this?"

"We are an imperfect species, Sam," Yulia says. She sounds gentle, not at all brittle, like Jalia did while discussing the potential of Vrai murdering Vrai. "Even with our centuries of peace, we understand that to give this power to all is to invite chaos."

That's an interesting point of view. Sam says, "I see," and just leaves it at that.

Yulia seems happy to just sit and wait on Fury. After fifteen minutes, Sam's bored as fuck, so he says, "Can you explain a little more about how your government works?"

Yulia is more forthcoming than Jalia, thank God - or maybe Jalia would be more forthcoming now, too, since there's been a murder. Either way, Sam learns that their government is controlled by a yearly rotating group of two hundred people from each continent. They oversee various local bureaus that handle social services. Their economy is largely agrarian, and they do have some rough capitalism in place, but it's vastly overshadowed by their system of social services - schools, roads, childcare, healthcare, the works. Crime is minimal; government members aren't career politicians, and are randomly selected from the population. Their constitution is incredibly long and detailed with regards to civil rights. It doesn't sound like utopia, but Sam's impressed all the same.

So is Steve, but his focus is a little narrower. "Then when do people commit murder?"

"We are a passionate species, for all our empathy," Yulia says. "We experience jealousy and anger. When those emotions overwhelm us, tragedy occurs."

"You don't seem as broken up about that as Jalia," Sam says.

Yulia looks at him with all four eyes, her head swiveling almost 360 degrees. "I am a Protector. It is my job to collect the killers. I cannot live separate from the flaws of our society."

That's a pretty bad burn for a Vrai. Sam nods. "Got it."

Luckily, Fury arrives soon after. The only warning they get is a hum in the air, and then the bifrost has lit up and Nick Fury's landed in it. He's dressed in a black leather jacket, black top, and black pants, but the big overcoat is gone. And with it, his eye patch. He doesn't have anything in place of it; Sam tries not to stare.

"Gentlemen," Fury says. "I understand you've got a situation on your hands."

"You could say that," Steve says. He stands; Sam hastens to follow. "A Vrai has been murdered."

"You'll have to explain some things to me," Nick Fury says. "I haven't been briefed." He looks over Steve's shoulder, at Yulia. "Nice to meet you, Ms...?"

"Yulia," she says. "Just Yulia. I will get you a copy of the brief we gave the other Humans. If you would come with me, please."

Fury throws Sam a Look - a "you've got a lot to explain" Look - and follows her. Steve and Sam fall in line behind him.

When Yulia gives him the report, Fury flips through the pages like he's not reading them; but Sam knows too much about Fury to take credit away from him like that. He's reading them, and he'll remember them. He's just doing it faster than most people on the planet could.

"So," Fury says when he's finished. "We've got a dead Vrai on our hands, ten touchy diplomats, and a society that's so unfamiliar with murder that you can regenerate a dead arm but can't dust for fingerprints. Am I clear on this?"

"Our monitoring system usually catches the culprit," Yulia says.

Sam blinks. She didn't tell him and Steve that.

"Isn't that a little...creepy?" Steve says.

"It is non-invasive," Yulia says. "It is only triggered when a life-sign dies. Protectors watch over it."

"But the system was glitching when Grai was murdered."

Fury doesn't say it like a question, but Yulia nods. "We have no record of his death."

"Yulia," Steve says. He sounds more gentle than Fury, but Sam knows he's no less determined to get the truth out of her. "I need to know what you're not telling us."

Her lower eyes close, and she blinks rapidly with her upper eyes. "It is as though he never existed," she says finally. "His life-sign didn't die. It disappeared."

"Records of him?" Fury says.

"Gone," Yulia says. "It should be impossible. Our computers, as you say, they persist in memory. They are organic. But he's gone."

Fury looks at her. For a second, Sam thinks he's going to have to go in with the comforting play; but then Fury reaches out and clasps her shoulder. "This is not your fault," he says. "The Vrai and humans have a lot to learn about each other. I'm here to make sure that learning doesn't get derailed by some dumbass with a grudge. Got it?"

Yulia takes a deep breath and nods. "Yes."

"Good," Fury says. "You two. Newlyweds?"

"We love each other," Sam says. He takes Steve's hand.

"Beloved," Steve adds quickly.

It's some of the worst lying Sam's ever seen, but Fury nods like he believes it completely. "Let's go interview the humans," he says. "Yulia?"

She nods and rises. "Come with me."

First on their list is Vera Avilov, a Russian diplomat. Sam's not sure what to expect, but he's somehow still surprised by the small white woman sitting at her desk in the guarded room. She's wearing trousers and a chiffon blouse, and looks like she's at a business meeting.

"Nick Fury," she says, rising and shaking Nick's hand.

"By reputation, or have you been briefed?"

"By reputation, of course," she says. "How many one-eyed Americans would be brought in to investigate a murder?"

"That's a good point," Fury says. "May we?" He indicates the bench on the other side of the desk.

"Of course," she says, sitting back down. "Mr. Wilson. Captain."

"Hi," Sam says.

"Nice to meet you, ma'am," Steve says.

"Yes," she says. "Now: enough pleasantries. Why, precisely, is this investigation being carried out by three Americans? Am I to believe it will be fair or balanced?"

"And a Vrai, madame," Yulia says.

"Yes, yes," Ambassador Avilov says. "That does not negate my desire for an explanation." She fixes Fury with a look that makes Sam himself nervous. "Now."

"Monitoring," Fury says.

Sam feels something brush against his hand. He looks down to see Steve's hand. Sam looks up at Steve, who nods - so minutely Sam almost doesn't catch it - at Yulia.

Right. Sam takes Steve's hand and does his best to focus on the murder investigation, not his own ridiculous feelings.

"Monitoring?" Ambassador Avilov says.

"Out of respect," Yulia says, "We did not subject our Human guests to the monitoring system all Vrai consent to."

Ambassador Avilov's eyebrows raise, but she stays silent.

"Except for Mr. Wilson and Mr. Rogers," Yulia says. "Their suite was monitored. It is custom with Vrai weddings, to seal the door so that the couple may enjoy themselves fully. Any Human could have come or gone without our knowledge, except for them."

"That does not explain your presence," Ambassador Avilov says to Fury.

"No," Fury says. "But if you've heard of me, then you should know I'll work the case fairly."

"I want a Russian representative present."

"Ma'am, with all due respect, we've got a body cooling in a big room and no clue who killed him," Steve says. "We don't have time to assemble a full task force, even if the Vrai would consent to it. More people means more mistakes."

Sam can see the hole Steve's digging, so he bails him out. "What the Captain's trying to say is, we understand your concerns," Sam says. "But we're unaffiliated with the American government proper - we're no longer government employees. All of our findings will be subject to international review before any...action."

"Prosecution," Fury says. Never let it be said the man's not blunt. "He means before we throw someone in jail, your people will have a say. Everyone will, the Vrai included."

"If it is one of ours, it is none of your concern," Yulia says. For the first time, she sounds stiff.

"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it," Fury says. "Ambassador, we need your consent, everyone's consent, to do this investigation. Without it turning into an international incident."

She looks at all three of them in turn. It reveals a lot, Sam thinks; to her, the Vrai are incidental. She doesn't want humans to have any great contact with them. But if they do, she wants her country to have a piece of the pie.

Sam's American; it's a position he understands. He looks back, as steadily as he knows how.

"Very well," she says. "But be aware that the overview of the investigation will be extremely thorough."

"I'd expect no less," Fury says. "Now, why don't we talk about where you were the night of the murder."

Sam and Steve pretty much ride it out; Fury does most of the talking. Ambassador Avilov was apparently quietly sitting in her room when Grai was killed. "Of course, I understand this is no true alibi," she says dryly. "But you will not place me near the crime scene, as I was not there."

"Thank you for your cooperation," Fury says when he's done.

They leave the room, which is when Fury says, "I'd kill to bring Romanoff into this."

"Natasha?" Sam says.

"The very one," Fury says.

"She's in deep cover," Steve says. "We can't bring her on."

"And I just delivered a signed and sealed promise I wouldn't get any more humans involved," Fury says. "Especially not Americans. I don't think the good Ambassador would appreciate me bringing a Russian defector on board." He sighs. "There's always issues with any investigation. Who's next?"

They interview the Japanese ambassadors next, then the Chinese generals. All of them express Ambassador Avilov's concerns; Fury talks to them straight, and so do Steve and Sam, and eventually they back down. The four of them were up late with Jalia at the time of the murder, so there's not much to straighten out there; "Although they could have arranged it," Fury says as they walk to the Brazilian ambassador's room.

Ambassador Cardoso is a dark-skinned man who greets them with a glare. "Explain to me why I have been imprisoned."

"Standard protocol when there's an inter-planetary incident," Fury says. "Nice to see you again, Manuele."

He glares at all three of them. "This is ridiculous. Why would any of us kill Grai? He was a good man, and one of our primary contacts."

"Those are two excellent reasons to kill someone, depending on who you're asking," Fury says. "Mind if we sit?" Ambassador Cardoso has the same setup as Ambassador Avilov: a desk with a chair, and a bench in front of it.

Sam and Steve sit together, while Yulia stands. They know by now not to offer her a seat. Steve pulls Sam's hand onto his thigh, their palms pressed together, while Fury says, "You've been briefed on why we're conducting the investigation?"

"That's not my objection," Ambassador Cardoso says. "Only I want to know why humans are suspected at all. How would we get away with murder on a foreign planet?"

"You are an adaptive species," Yulia says. "At this point, we cannot ignore the possibility that one of you arranged this."

"Is that how you treat diplomats?" Ambassador Cardoso says.

He says it mildly, but Sam can practically feel the tension in the air rising. But Yulia's not offended. "I am not a diplomat, sir. I am a Protector. My priority is finding the truth."

"That's all of our priorities," Fury says. "Now, I'm only going to ask this once: where were you last night?"

Ambassador Cardoso sighs. "Very well. I was in my room until, oh, 26:00 local time. I of course do not need as much sleep as the Vrai, and I prefer to spend my waking hours during their night. I got hungry, though, and so I went to the kitchen on this level. I made myself some toast and ate it by the window."

"Would your surveillance have caught any of this?" Fury asks Yulia.

"Perhaps," Yulia says. "One moment." She puts a hand against the wall and closes her eyes. "Yes," she says. "The toaster was used, the window had condensation on it. Not Vrai." She opens her eyes again, all four of them focused on Ambassador Cardoso. "But you heard no screams."

"No," he says.

Sam does quick recon in his head. They've circled around this level, which means - "Grai was murdered next door to you," he says.

He's not sure he should've said it at all. Ambassador Cardoso's eyes widen.

"Did you see something?" Steve says. "Anything you can give us would help." He doesn't actually say they're at a dead end so far, but Sam's pretty sure he's not the only one who hears the implication.

"No," Ambassador Cardoso says. "I would have alerted someone if I had. Everything was quiet."

"You can slit a throat quietly," Fury says. "Do you know if any of the humans on Valrian carry knives?"

Ambassador Cardoso's expression is disdainful, to say the least. "We are diplomats, sir. We don't carry weapons."

"Some of you are generals," Fury says. "And some of you diplomats might want to learn a trick or two." He sighs heavily - mostly for theater, Sam thinks - and stands up. "Ambassador," he says with a nod, and leads their group out.

"We've still got interviews to conduct," Steve says. "Should we keep going?"

Fury shakes his head. "None of those folks did it," he says. "Maybe Avilov, but she doesn't seem like the type, and she wasn't at all worried about that UN investigation. No. If a human did it, then it's one of the people we haven't talked to yet."

"Meaning you want to make 'em sweat," Sam says.

Fury snorts. "Exactly. Also, it's lunchtime, and I'm hungry."

"The kitchen is this way," Yulia says, and starts off down a hall.

Sam tries to hide how he jumped. It's easy to forget she's there - almost uncannily easy.

Steve smiles at him crookedly. "He knows how to take over a situation, huh?" he says, starting to follow Fury.

"He's got good hearing," Sam says.

Fury snorts.

Steve smiles - way too sweetly, given the situation - and takes Sam's hand again.

Yulia's got her back to them, but who knows what the monitoring system might pick up. Sam squeezes Steve's hand, and they walk down the corridor shoulder-to-shoulder.

Lunch is as awkward as lunch with his grandparents after his parents almost divorced. Sam's parents are happy again, now, but somehow he doubts this group will have the same resolution. Yulia and Fury keep looking at each other, like one or the other will give up their secrets if they stare long enough. Sam and Steve are sitting next to each other, and Steve keeps leaning into Sam, which means Sam has to hide how he tenses up. He wants Steve so much that it's hard to process, really, the fact that Steve's just pretending.

No; it's not the best lunch in the world.

Afterward, Fury says, "We're going to split up."

"Excuse me?" Yulia says.

"It makes sense," Fury says. "I understand that you're acting in a supervisory capacity, and you're welcome to supervise me. But we've got four more people to interrogate, and General Johnson wouldn't take kindly to me being in the room while we question him."

"You know him?" Sam says.

Fury doesn't sneer, exactly, but he looks ready to, given an opportunity. "Let's just say he didn't approve of what I was doing at SHIELD."

It figures that anyone with the clearance to come to Valrian would also have the clearance to know about SHIELD. Sam says, "We'll butter him up. I'm a serviceman, he'll like that."

"The man loves his country," Fury says. "I'm not sure how much use he has for you, though." He nods at Steve.

Steve gets that stubborn look of his that Sam loves, even when it makes him worry about Steve. "I've dealt with doubting generals before."

"I'm aware," Fury says, and they fall into an awkward silence again.

After lunch, Sam and Steve go to General Johnson's quarters. He's standing by the window with his back to the door. When they walk in, he says, "Close the door behind you, please."

Sam does. The general turns around. He looks - friendly, Sam thinks. He's white, younger than Sam expected, thin, with whipcord muscles that are obvious even in dress uniform. "So," he says. "You're investigating the murder of that poor Vrai ambassador."

"We are," Sam says. "I'm Sam Wilson, a PJ with -"

"I know who you are," General Johnson says. "And you're Captain America." He looks at Steve. "The stories I've heard about you."

That actually sounds vaguely insulting, Sam thinks, but Steve doesn't even blink. "Yes, sir. We were hoping to ask you a few questions."

"Please," the general says. He doesn't sit down, though, so Steve and Sam stay standing.

"Where were you when Grai was murdered?" Sam says.

"In my room," the general says, "Reviewing files on Vrai agriculture. Their computers are pretty advanced; you should be able to get a record of my being in there."

Sam makes a mental note to check up on that. General Johnson looks innocuous enough, but you never know. He can't imagine what America has to gain from murdering a Vrai, but people on diplomatic missions aren't exactly always logical.

"Thank you," Steve says. "What did you think of Grai?"

"He was a good diplomat," General Johnson says. "I got my promotion in the field, you understand. I'm new to this desk work. I've served since before the Gulf War, and I was never overly fond of officers."

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em?" Sam says.

"Something like that," General Johnson says. "I understand Grai was murdered in the north audience chamber?"

"Where did you hear that?" Sam says.

"Easy, soldier," General Johnson says. "They apprised us of the details of the murder, as part of making sure we stayed in our rooms."

Privately, Sam thinks it's obvious the Vrai don't have much experience with murder. Keeping people in the dark is the easiest way to spot a liar. Out loud, he says, "Thanks. So you liked Grai?"

"I did," General Johnson says. "And before you ask, I didn't see anything. I prefer to keep my door shut, and I'm across the building from the north audience chamber."

"Thank you," Steve says. "Am I right in assuming you and General Garcia are pushing for a heavy American influence on the Vrai?"

That makes General Johnson smile. "Son, it would be irresponsible for the entire world if we didn't. Who will lead, if not us? The Chinese?"

Sam blinks, but manages not to say anything. It's not like he's never heard that attitude before.

"Of course," Steve says, a little stiffly. "Thank you." He nods at Sam, and they leave.

When they're a safe distance from General Johnson's room, Sam says, "Not my favorite guy."

"I prefer Ambassador Avilov," Steve says. "She was honest, at least."

"You think General Johnson was lying?"

"No," Sam says. "But he was disingenuous. If he didn't do it, he's not exactly crying that it was done, even if he liked Grai."

"We're American," Steve says. He sounds glum about it, which isn't very Steve-like at all. "That's what he's happy about. American control over an international incident."

"It's not like that," Sam says. "We're in control, we're turning this over to the UN."

"Isn't it?" Steve says. "Maybe."

They sit in silence for a few minutes. Then Steve says, "We'd better move on. We have Ambassador Jennings from Canada next."

They run into dead ends after that. Jennings was with Prince Richard of Britain all night, down in the lower kitchen level, where there are Vrai all over the place. By dinner time, they've exhausted their resources and have met with Fury.

"I really, really do not want to do some big state dinner," Sam says.

Steve looks thoughtful. "You know," he says, and picks up Sam's hand.

Sam stares while Steve runs a thumb over his knuckles. "What are you doing?" he finally manages to say. If this is some kind of joke...

"We're newlyweds." Steve gives Sam a crooked smile, like he thinks he's funny. "Why don't we take advantage of that? Dinner in our room, since we need time alone."

"That's not gonna fly with Fury," Sam says.

"He knows we have our reasons."

"Does he?"

Steve shrugs. "It's worth a try."

Sam knows Steve well enough to not be surprised by some minor scheming. And he really is tired. So he says, "Okay, but you're the one who gets to do the tired-newlyweds line."

"Sure thing," Steve says, and smiles at Sam.

That smile is a dopey, happy one. Sam looks away. That kind of smile is dangerous; it makes him feel all kinds of things he knows he should be suspicious of.

Fury looks incredibly suspicious when Steve leans into Sam and says they're exhausted from a long night, but Yulia looks as pleased as Sam's seen any Vrai. "We'll have food sent to your room," she says. "Do you need help finding your way back?"

"I think we've got it," Sam says. "Thanks, though."

"It's wonderful to see two people so happy," she says. "Especially amidst disarray."

Steve nods. "Absolutely." He lifts Sam's hand and brushes a kiss over the knuckles. A wave of totally inappropriate arousal goes through Sam before he manages to tamp it down. Hard.

"Goodnight," Sam says, and practically drags Steve away.

"They're going to think we're getting up to all kinds of nonsense," Steve says when they're far enough down the corridor, "with you dragging me like that."

"They can think what they want," Sam says. "You were busy kissing me."

"I didn't kiss you on the lips. Anyway, Natasha kissed me when we were on the run. This isn't that much different."

"Except for the fact that we're legally married, according to the Vrai."

"Only according to the Vrai," Steve says.

Sam can't interpret his look and decides he's not going to try. "Sure thing," Sam says.

They get into their room. Steve's about to close the door when Yulia's voice comes down the corridor. "...unsure. They act as comrades, yet they're married."

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what they're saying. Steve looks ready to close the door and hide, but Sam - Sam knows what's up. They need to be convinced.

He knocks the door open and pushes Steve against the outside wall, kissing him.

Steve responds. Sam hopes he didn't do this with Natasha, too, because this is downright dirty, a slide of tongues and Steve's hands on his ass, pulling him in hard. Sam tells himself Steve's just selling it, but that doesn't mean he's any less disoriented when Yulia says, "Excuse us."

Sam steps away from Steve. "Yulia, hey," he says. It doesn't take work for him to sound a little off-balance. "How you doing?"

"I am well," she says. "This is Belai, a fellow Protector."

"Nice to meet you," Steve says. He sounds out of breath. "We were just -"

"Going in," Sam says. "Now." He yanks Steve inside, trying for 'ready to jump him' body language as he slams the door shut.

When it's closed, Sam listens until he hears their footsteps move on. Then he turns to Steve. "Sorry about that."

"You don't have to be sorry," Steve says. "I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy it."

Sam stares at Steve. When he says things like that - damn, Sam just wants to do the dirtiest things to him.

Instead of saying that out loud, though, he just says, "Well, that's good, because it'll probably happen again. They're not convinced."

"I caught onto that," Steve says. "I don't know why. We held hands all day."

"Maybe our tendency to look like we'd been dragged to prison and forced to?"

"I didn't feel forced," Steve says.

"Sure," Sam says. "But it was weird. You can't deny that."

"It was," Steve says. He sits down at the table in their suite. He dwarfs the chair. "It was nice, though, too. Bucky would've liked you."

"He liked me well enough when we caught up to him," Sam says. "In between trying to kill me." He thinks Steve shouldn't kid himself. Sam and Steve never would've gone down well in the 40s, whether or not Bucky liked him. But Sam knows Steve gets like this sometimes, a little stuck in his own past despite his superhuman efforts to pull himself out of it.

Steve doesn't look bitter, just a little sad. "Yeah."

Sam sits down next to Steve, instead of across from him, and puts a hand on Steve's shoulder. "You'll get him back. If anyone can do it, it's Natasha."

"She knows what she's doing," Steve says. "I'll give her that."

"Would you go for her?"

"Sure," Steve says. "But she's a better friend than she'd be anything else. And anyway, she and Barton have something going on."


"Hawkeye," Steve says. "What, you don't watch the news?"

"Of course I do," Sam says. "I was just checking. Knowing heroes' actual names is above my pay grade."

"After this mission, hardly anything's going to be above your pay grade," Steve says.

They've neatly sidestepped discussing their kissing, and Sam's not going to go back there. Instead, he says, "What kind of food you think they'll bring?"

"More weird eggs, maybe," Steve says. "It's interesting - the Vrai don't place that much emphasis on sustenance, considering all their agriculture."

"Maybe their taste buds don't work the same."

"Don't say that in front of them. We don't want to give the impression we want to put them on a lab table."

"I get the feeling Fury would."

Steve's expression gets mildly troubled. "Fury would do a lot of things, in the end."

"He wants a separate Earth."

"We don't have that option," Steve says. "Not with the bifrost."

"I guess not," Sam says.

They sit in somewhat uncomfortable silence until someone gently knocks on the door. They've brought dumplings and a steamed grain in a light sauce. It's all weirdly familiar, despite tasting like nothing Sam's eaten on Earth. Maybe they're trying for familiar preparations, even if the actual food is different.

Sam and Steve eat in silence. Steve still eats like a starving man; Sam's never found a way to ask if that's because he used to not be able to eat enough food, or if it's because he used to not be able to get enough food. He suspects it's a little of both - but when it comes to his past, Steve's not exactly an open book.

Sam doesn't realize he's staring until Steve finishes chewing a dumpling and says, "Is there something on my face?"

"Nope, it looks as dumb as usual," Sam says. He smiles, but it feels a little false.

That night, he lies awake thinking about kissing Steve. He feels like a damn teenager, but that doesn't make the thoughts go away. Steve's a good kisser - maybe a little rough, a little desperate, but Sam can't blame him for that. Dude might not've even gotten laid this century. He's been out on dates, but he's always back at their apartment suspiciously early.

God, Sam wants him. This isn't the time or the place, in the middle of a murder investigation on another damn planet. But that doesn't change how badly Sam wants him.

In the end, he lies on his side, forcing his hard-on down through sheer force of will. When he wakes up the next morning to Steve spooning him, he sighs a little and taps Steve's hand. "Wake up, sleepyhead. It's dawn."

Steve grumbles a little, then goes still. "Sorry," he says, and rolls away from Sam.

"Who'd you even share a bed with?" Sam says. He rolls over to look at Steve, telling himself there's no way Steve can look at him and tell what's been going through his head.

"No one," Steve says. "Guess I'm just a natural."

"Well, we are married."

"So it seems," Steve says. "I'm going to shower." He rolls out of bed and goes to the bathroom without looking at Sam.

Sam's pretty sure Steve's being weird for reasons that aren't Sam's particular ones, but he doesn't much care. At least they're in this together.

"We're at a dead end," Fury says at breakfast that morning. Yulia hasn't joined them yet, which Sam's personally grateful for. She unsettles him a little. "I can't say for sure any of our representatives did it, but I can't say they didn't, either. I'm out of my depth, here. This planet is -"

"Strange?" Steve says.

Fury gives him a hard look. "Inhuman," he says. "Buildings grown out of trees and girls who can make them grow faster."

"Not just girls," Sam says. "We met another one. Belai. Male, and another Protector."

"And that's another thing. What is a Protector, exactly? This planet has so much oversight, our people would riot. And they don't have cops, they've got Protectors."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Steve says, a dangerous mildness in his tone. "Last I remember, you weren't so opposed to constant oversight."

"I'm aware you think that was a mistake," Fury says. "I've come round to thinking it, too. But we never meant to monitor life-signs, not like this. And empathy - what kind of empathy makes trees grow to your will?"

"You think Vrai biology is relevant to the case?" Sam says.

"I think it's a mystery, and I don't like having mysteries when I can't figure out who murdered someone."

"I think we need to talk about the obvious," Steve says. "Is there any indication that one of the humans might be HYDRA?"

"Our people?" Fury shakes his head. "Hill's got Stark combing through the leaked data, looking for patterns, but HYDRA didn't operate by putting their identities in SHIELD files. They could be HYDRA, but HYDRA was never the root of all evil in the world. Plenty of people want to throw a wrench in the world's plans to reach out to aliens, especially after New York."

"That much, I know," Sam says. "But what about the Vrai?"

"They don't seem to leave much room for dissent," Steve says.

"Are we sure they experience it?" Sam says.

Steve shrugs. "They're sentient beings. Call me overly human, but I can't help but wonder if it's possible to be sentient and not disagree with your government every now and then."

"The point is," Fury says, "much though she unsettles me, we need Yulia in on this. And we need her to trust us."

Sam catches the drift right away. "You think we should tell her the marriage is a sham."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but neither of you is going to be up for an Oscar this year," Fury says.

Sam's all ready to say sure, they'll give up the ruse, but Steve talks before he has a chance to. "We can't," he says. "There's too much riding on our honesty. If they know we lied about that, who's to say we didn't find a way around their security system?"

It's a good point, so Sam stays quiet.

Fury looks at them both, hard. It's made unsettling by his mutilated eye. Sam's pretty sure he knows that, and is working it for all it's worth. "If you're sure," he says. "But you better start acting like lovebirds where the Vrai can see."

"We already have, sir," Sam says.

"Good," Fury says. He looks over their shoulders and straightens. "Yulia. Just the girl we wanted to see."

"To you, I would be a woman," Yulia says. She doesn't sound offended, which is something. "Though our conception of such things is complicated. Our reproduction works differently from yours."

"Which is a fascinating topic," Sam says, "though maybe not for today. How about you eat breakfast and we talk a little about Protectors?"

Her lower lids don't even flicker. "Very well," she says. She pulls a green brick out of the fridge, one of the items of food Sam doesn't even want to touch, and sits down next to Fury. He looks like he wants to inch away, but of course, he's too much of a pro for that. "What do you wish to know?"

"I want to know how someone took your monitoring system offline," Fury says.

"By which he means, how would someone slip past you?" Sam says. "It obviously takes a lot of skill. Who in your society would have that kind of skill?"

She looks at each one of them in turn. "Have you concluded none of the Humans are guilty?"

"We're being thorough," Fury says. "Who can subvert the life-sign monitoring?"

Yulia takes another bite of the green brick. "Nearly anyone."

Sam thinks he's misheard. "Excuse me?"

"The system is not meant as a chain, Mr. Wilson," she says. "Anyone can turn it off. It simply will come back online immediately."

"You're side-stepping the question, and I'd like you to stop," Steve says. "The system didn't come back until Grai was dead. Why?"

"When someone disrupts the system, a Protector travels to evaluate them," Yulia says.

"So every time someone dies, the police get involved?" Steve shakes his head. "That doesn't make any sense."

"No. Natural deaths do not disrupt the system. Violent deaths do. Accidents and murder, these are what the Protectors investigate."

"So we're going to ask again," Steve says. "Why didn't the system come back when Grai died?"

Yulia shrugs, a fluid movement that doesn't hide the rapid blinking of her lower eyelids. "I do not know."

"A human likely doesn't have the tech to hack that kind of system," Fury says. "That's why we need more information on your people."

"A Human, on the contrary, might have shut off the system acting primarily on ignorance," Yulia says.

"It's possible," Fury says. "I want to see this system up close."

Yulia shakes her head. "You would not understand it."

"Maybe not. I still want to see it."

"Very well," Yulia says. "Finish eating, and we'll see it."

They finish. Yulia puts half the green bar back in the refrigerator and says, "Follow me."

Steve takes Sam's hand as they rise to follow her. It's a nice distraction from how tense Yulia is. Sam gets the creeping feeling they're about to see something very, very dangerous. He had it right before the Air Force showed him the wings he was going to wear. And that ended well - or at least, that ended without him dying.

Sam's not so sure about this time.

Yulia leads them up two levels. Sam catches his breath when they come to the top of the stairs. This level is one massive room, with roots twisting closely overhead, and the smell of organic matter heavy in the air.

"Come," Yulia says, leading them down a narrow pathway, plants bending in on either side. It's dark, so dark Sam can barely see Yulia ahead of them.

They come to a clearing. Steve says, "Oh," when they stop; they're surrounded by ten Vrai that Sam assumes are Protectors, all wrapped in roots, eyes closed.

"This," Yulia says, "Is our system."

If Fury's ruffled, he doesn't show it. He comes up to stand side-by-side with Yulia, inspecting the locked-in Vrai.

"Are they ever freed?"

"Their bodies are fused with the trees," Yulia says. "They are free in their minds. Anywhere the trees touch, so they touch."

"And when someone dies..."

"They alert us. Here." Yulia taps her mind.

"Ten Protectors for an entire continent?"

"No. For each city."

"That's a lot of oversight," Sam says.

"It keeps us safe," Yulia says.

"And they're nonviolent?" Steve says. "They can't just reach out and..."

"Kill someone?" Yulia shakes her head. "That is not how we conduct ourselves, Captain Rogers. You must see now why we didn't show your diplomats this. Humans do not relate to one another the way we Vrai do."

Sam's not so sure about that. CCTV might not be a bunch of people strapped into trees, but it's meant to be protective, too. There's just a price for that, when it comes to humanity. Sam's not going to believe there's no price for the Vrai just because one of the people behind the cameras tells him there's not. "So, for Grai to go dark, he'd need to be removed from the network." For the first time, he really focuses on the fact that the Vrai go around barefoot. It can't be that simple.

"A quantum event," Fury says. "Shift the space around him so the trees can't see him."

"It's not as simple as that," Yulia says. "We would have registered the shift. Our Protectors felt nothing."

"There are technologies you're not aware of," Fury says.

Yulia turns sharp eyes on him. "Human technology? You are primitive, compared to the Vrai."

It's the harshest thing she's said so far. Sam's not surprised that it was Fury who inspired her to say it. "He doesn't mean it like that," Sam says. "He means there's always new technology, and the establishment isn't always the group that finds out about it first."

Yulia gives him a long look. "You speak from experience?"

"Something like that," Sam says.

"Your Protectors should see if you can duplicate it," Fury says. "If we know what tools are needed to do so, we can track down the killer."

"We do not buy and sell things the way you do. The materials could be acquired anonymously."

"And personally, I'd call that a security risk," Fury says. "But there's ways around that."

"I think -"

One of the Protectors in the tree gasps.

Yulia's eyes roll back in her head, all four of them. She goes still, one hand flung out as though to stop them from talking. A moment later, her eyes come back, and she looks at them grimly. "There's been another murder."

"A Vrai?" Sam says, unwilling to focus, for the moment, on how damn creepy that display was.

"No." Yulia looks at them, one by one. "A Human."

Ambassador Cardoso's room is undisturbed, except for the pool of blood underneath him. He was stabbed in the gut, then his throat was slit. By the looks of it, he's been dead for awhile.

"How did this happen?" Sam asks Yulia.

"We felt a disturbance," she says. "Where there had been a life, there no longer was. But we did not feel the moment of death."

"Another masking?" Fury says. He kneels by the body, examining it. "Serrated blade, like the first."

"Is there any kind of symbolism surrounding serrated blades?" Sam asks Yulia.

She shakes her head. "They are traded for at the daily market, as they make good hunting knives, but -"

"Who makes them?" Steve says.

He doesn't even apologize for interrupting. He's pretty tense.

"Nefia," Yulia says. "A woman. She trades them for many things."

"Are there other manufacturers?"

"Our blades are handmade," Yulia says. "They are used for simple purposes. No. She is the only one who would be selling serrated blades."

Finally they have a lead. Sam's itching to go out, but he knows Fury's got control of this investigation, so he waits.

Luckily, Fury stands up like he's made a decision. "Is this market still in progress?" he asks Yulia.

"It begins at 11:00 and continues until 14:00," Yulia says. "It would have only just begun."

"Good. If you don't mind, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Rogers will need a guide down to this Nefia woman. I'm going to stay here and see if we have any witnesses again. And do some forensics," he adds. "Can you send someone to my room to grab a few things?"

Yulia closes her eyes for a moment, touching the nearest wall. "Someone will assist you shortly," she tells Fury.

"Thank you," Fury says, like that display wasn't more than a little creepy. If the Protectors can communicate with each other and the trees, Sam thinks, how can Yulia get a message out to a normal Vrai? More that they're not telling the humans.

"This way," Yulia says, and leads Sam and Steve out into the sunshine.

Sam's been to markets before. He expects a lot of noise, vendors, people haggling. All the usual stuff. But they walk a few blocks, past more of the twisting, organic buildings, to an open square. There's a market there, all right; the square is huge, and there must be at least fifty stands open for business. But everyone is speaking so quietly that there's barely a murmur.

If humans are going to co-exist with the Vrai, Sam thinks, it's going to take some getting used to.

Yulia leads them across the square, to a small booth in a corner. An old Vrai is selling knives. The Vrai's regenerative technology could keep her young forever, so she must be one of the ones who's decided death is the better part of valor, or - whatever it is that motivates Vrai to die. She smiles when she sees Yulia approach. "Yulia, darling."

"Mother," Yulia says. "These humans are Mr. Rogers and Mr. Wilson. They have some questions about the murders. Sam, Steve, this is Nefia."

As soon as Yulia says 'mother', Sam feels Steve go stiff next to him. Sam's not too happy himself, but he nods his head. "Ma'am. Nice to meet you."

"The honor's mine," Nefia says. "I assume Yulia didn't tell you about our relation."

"Yulia hasn't told us about a few things," Steve says. It sounds mild enough, but there's bite behind the comment. With Steve, there usually is.

Yulia flushes. "My mother was a Protector," she says. "The...incidents...aren't news. But she knows about them anyway."

"I knew you'd come," Nefia says. "You want to know if I remember who's purchased my knives."

"That would be very helpful," Sam says. "We're running into a lot of dead ends, trying to solve this thing."

"Well," Nefia says, "I sell perhaps two or three hunting blades a week. I don't recall anyone buying one so far this week. I could transmit to Yulia the likeness of those who I sold to last week, but my memory doesn't stretch beyond that. Perhaps if you brought me the image of someone you suspect, but..." She shakes her head. "I do a lot of business. The blade could have been purchased from me years ago."

Sam's stomach sinks, even though that's the answer he suspected. "Thank you," he says. "I appreciate it anyway."

"Of course," Nefia says. She looks at Yulia. "If no progress here is made -"

Yulia nods. "Enjoy the market," she says, and moves to leave Sam and Steve.

"Whoa, hang on," Sam says. "How are we going to find our way back?" They don't have any money, either, but that's apparently not really how the Vrai do these things.

Yulia looks at them, clearly puzzled. "It's the largest building in the city," she says, and moves back into the quiet crowd.

Steve says, "It was nice meeting you, ma'am," to Nefia, and pulls Sam away by one hand. They're standing in the shade now, out of earshot - Sam hopes - of Nefia.

"What?" Sam says.

"This is a test," Steve says. "Look up."

Sam obeys. The square is surrounded by free-standing trees, not attached to buildings.

"I'm not convinced they don't have eyes and ears," Steve says, and leans down, kissing Sam.

Sam's not an idiot, so he kisses back. Two kissing humans should draw attention, but apparently Vrai politeness extends beyond that, because no one hassles them. No one even talks to them, in fact, as the kiss grows more heated, Steve's tongue slipping into Sam's mouth, Sam pressing one leg between Steve's.

They're both breathing hard when they pull apart. "Come on," Steve says. "Let's mingle."

Sam can think of better things to do than mingle. But Steve's right: this is a test. So they go from booth to booth, admiring clothing, strangely shaped produce, butchered animals that look nothing like cows, pigs, or even rabbits. It's all oddly familiar, though. The Vrai don't shop at stores; this market is how they get what they need. And what they need is remarkably human-like: clothes, food, little toys. There are children tugging their parents from place to place, people presenting art for trade and frowning when the Vrai behind the booths shake their heads. Markets are defined, Sam thinks, by conflict - two people thinking they've gotten the better end of the deal. The Vrai might think they're above human practices, but from where Sam's standing, this quiet market isn't that different from the ones he's seen on Earth after all.

After an hour or so, they go back to the mansion. Or whatever the Vrai would call the massive, towering building. They're let in without question, and go back to the second level.

Fury's waiting for them outside their room. "Just the couple I wanted to see," he says, folding the holo-screens back onto his tablet.

"Did you discover anything?" Steve says.

"Only that each of the humans on this planet are as innocent as the driven snow," Fury says. "Tell me what's strange about this situation."

"Everything?" Steve says.

"Dig a little deeper, Rogers."

But Sam's already got an idea of what Fury wants to hear. "They killed a Vrai, which would place blame on the humans," he says. "But then they killed a human. This isn't about destabilizing relations between humans and the Vrai. This is about something else."

He looks at Steve, who suddenly looks incredibly serious. "Terror," he says. "This is about terror."

"Precisely," Fury says. "They want us to be scared. Not of a human or Vrai in particular, but of who we might be living with, generally. They want chaos."

Steve looks grim. "HYDRA."

"So one of our people definitely did it?" Sam says.

"Not necessarily," Fury says. "There are bifrosts all over this planet, and on our own."

"If a human activated it before..." Steve says.

"I'm not sure a Vrai could be recruited to HYDRA," Fury says. "But stranger things have happened."

"And these murders are their style," Steve says. "So what do you want me and Sam to do?"

Fury hands them a USB drive. "On this drive are the locations of four HYDRA facilities on Earth. I'm sending you to investigate them. See if you can find any record of Vrai-human interaction before this first contact."

"I thought you had Stark combing the data," Steve says.

"The data we dumped on the internet, yes. This data's different. Files, old computers."

"Stuff that can't just be put on a USB stick," Sam says.

"Exactly," Fury says. "Oh, and Yulia's mother is coming."

Sam groans. Steve looks at him. "We're still married if Nefia's coming," Sam says.

Steve's shoulders go stiff. "Of course. Well - we've maintained it this long." He pockets the USB drive. "And you'll stay on Valrian?"

"I don't have much of a choice," Fury says. "We're security risks to the Vrai now."

"A day between murders isn't much," Steve says. "What if more people die?"

"We'll deal with it," Fury says. "Start packing. You leave in an hour." He turns to go, then stops. "Oh, and General Garcia will be giving you your suits before you leave. HYDRA's got bodyguards and booby traps. This isn't an easy assignment."

"Thank you, sir," Steve says.

It sounds as sarcastic as Sam's ever heard him. "What he said," Sam says, putting a hand on Steve's shoulder.

Fury snorts and leaves.

It doesn't take them long to pack. As Sam's putting his last shirt in his rolling suitcase, Steve says, "Why Nefia?"

"Maybe she wanted a taste of interstellar travel," Sam says. "Or maybe Yulia hates us."

"Or maybe," Steve says, "Yulia was telling too many Vrai secrets for Jalia's comfort."

"I guess it's possible," Sam says. "Or Nefia needs to be off-planet for awhile."

"Why would that be?"

"She sold the knives," Sam says. "She's as much of a security risk as we are, at this point."

Steve sighs. He's sitting on the bed, and he puts his face in his hands. "I'm not good at this," he says. "Mystery stuff - I memorized where HYDRA camps were, and we took them out. That's so much simpler than all this."

Sam hesitates before putting a hand on Steve's shoulder, largely because he has some seriously non-wholesome ideas for how to calm Steve down. "Neither do I, if it helps," Sam says.

Steve snorts. "Kind of the opposite."

"We'll figure it out," Sam says. "Infiltrating HYDRA bases, that's kind of your thing, right? And we can read a bunch of files, see if we can't get information on who's behind this."

"I guess," Steve says. "I'm still dealing with - I thought we left HYDRA in the 40s."

"Evil never dies," Sam says. "I learned that pretty young." It's part of why he joined the military, though he's not going to tell Steve that.

"I'm getting that," Steve says. He straightens, Sam's hand slipping off his shoulder. "Let's go," he says.

They meet Nefia at the bifrost. She might be old, but she's perfectly spry, carrying a large pack on her back. "Once we get to Earth, I have a lovely masker," she says. "I'll look as human as either of you."

"Let's go, then," Steve says, and together they step onto the bifrost.

They get back to earth and get into the car that's waiting for them. Sam didn't realize how quiet Valrian was, didn't really feel it down to his bones, until they step outside in DC, in front of their hotel. There's a cacophony of noise, cars and people and planes overhead. Nefia, in her human guise, looks charmed. Or at least, Sam thinks that's her expression. She's a dark-skinned woman in her human masker, with dark, curly hair. So assuming her human masker comes with human expression, she's charmed. Sam's mostly just shocked.

They have two rooms, one for Nefia and one for Sam and Steve. They're at the Marriott, far from the roadside places Sam and Steve stayed at while they were looking for Bucky. Steve and Sam's room, once again, just has the one bed. Steve carefully places his stuff on the ground and pulls out a laptop, putting the USB stick Fury gave them into one of the ports.

"Hmm," Steve says, clicking around.

"What's on it?"

"Like Fury said, locations of old HYDRA bases. There's one in George Washington National Forest, and one in Reno We should probably check those first. The others are in Paris and Moscow."

"Just the four?"

"Stark's got most of the data," Steve says. "These date back a-ways."

"Got it," Sam says. "Fort Meade makes sense to hit up first."

"Lots of combing through old files." Steve clicks around some more. "There's information on the bifrost here, too."

"In case we need to use it?"

"We have to communicate with Fury somehow." Steve pulls out his phone. "This is Stark tech. Apparently my plan's changed."

"Tony upcharging you?"

"No," Steve says. "He's bouncing the signal off the bifrost in Virginia. Fury will get my emails almost as soon as I send them."

That seems impossible to Sam, but what does he know about how Stark runs his business? "Sounds good to me," he says. "I'm ready for dinner now, though."

"Room service?" Steve says. "It's on Stark Industries' tab."

"Not the CIA?"

"We can trust Pepper. The head of the CIA? I'm not so sure about that."

"What's a little embezzlement when it's to save the world, really?" Sam says, and gets the room service menu. Someday he'll stop feeling like people are planning shit over his head, he's sure of it. Someday.

He and Steve eat, then Steve showers. Sam really doesn't need the image of him in there, all soapy and looking like a porno, but he thinks he might be - almost - getting used to this whole lie. At least, it's not that hard to pretend when they're out with other people. That's something, at least.

Steve's wearing sweatpants when he comes back out. "I didn't realize Valrian was warmer until we got back," he says.

He's all flushed from the shower, hair damp. Sam looks away. "Yeah. Well, it's fall here."

"It is," Steve says. "Did you need the shower?"

"Nah, I'll get it in the morning," Sam says. He's been sitting up in bed, ostensibly reading, with his shirt on. He takes it off - because changing what he's been doing would be weird, he tells himself - and lifts the covers. "Climb on in, Cap. We've got a long day ahead of us."

Steve climbs in, and Sam goes about trying to fall asleep. Being back on Earth just feels - weird, Sam thinks. These beds are familiar, the walls covered in comfortingly mundane art. He can't pretend that he and Steve sharing a bed is just part of the overall weirdness of being on an alien planet. This is Earth, this is home, and he and Steve are still sharing a bed.

That doesn't make the marriage real, he reminds himself, and forces himself to sleep.

The next day, they drive to George Washington National Forest. Sam personally thinks it's a special kind of sacrilege that means there's a SHIELD/HYDRA compound underneath a nature preserve, but it's not really his business. They go three miles into the forest when Sam sees the little hill with a trapdoor in it.

"You know how ridiculous this is, right?" Sam says.

"Oh, I'm well aware," Steve says. He wrenches the trapdoor open. "You want to go in first?"

"Not on your life," Sam says.

Steve grins at him, like the adrenaline is what really gets him going. Knowing Steve, that's not really a surprise. "If I don't come out, assume the worst," he says, and goes inside.

A moment later, a light flickers on. It looks weak and old - which, given the setting, makes sense. "Come on in," Steve yells.

Sam sighs. He's done some crazy things for Steve lately, he thinks, and follows Steve down.

The trapdoor has a ladder leading down, down, until they're standing in the center of a large underground room. Old lamps hang from the ceiling - but, Sam thinks, they can't be that old, because their motion has made them flicker on. "Who do you think is monitoring activity down here?" Sam says.

"I guess we'll find out," Steve says. He walks over to the heavy metal door on the far side of the room. "Want to help me?" he says, lifting the huge metal latch.

"Like you need help," Sam says, but together, they get the door open.

The now-familiar SHIELD insignia is on the wall opposite the door. A row of desks is on either side of a walkway, with old, heavy monitors and big computer towers. There's a computer on a podium up by the logo, which seems like a good place to start. Sam can tell Steve thinks the same thing; together, they walk down the aisle to the computer.

Steve boots it up with surprising ease - though, Sam guesses the bigger computers have more obvious power buttons. There's a login screen, but Steve pulls out a CD and puts it in the tray.

"Natasha gave me this," he says. "On a USB drive, too. It'll get around all the passwords."

"Clever," Sam says.

"She is," Steve says. "It's a little terrifying, you know?"

"Sure," Sam says, thinking of how strong and fast Steve is, how quickly he picks up information.

They comb through the hard drive of the main computer, but there's no real information on it. Sam knows he can't expect, say, a spreadsheet of old HYDRA agents - useful though that would be. They get some information about a few other bases, and some information about Obadiah supplying HYDRA with Stark Industries tech back in the 90s, but nothing really concrete. Finally, after an hour of clicking around and reading random files, Steve sighs. "I think we're done here," he says. "There's no information on any of the -"

"Company," Sam says, and leaps at Steve, throwing them both to the floor.

A spray of bullets hits the wall by where they were standing. "The computer," Steve says, getting up. He has his shield, but he also has two guns; now, he sits up long enough to return fire, then hides behind the desk again.

Another spray of bullets. This desk isn't going to last long, so Sam says, "Use the shield, draw some fire. I'll take them out."

"You're sure?" Steve says.

"As sure as the day I was born," Sam says. "Now go!"

Steve's not lacking in guts. He leaps out, crouched behind the shield as the two shooters focus on him. Sam creeps along the perimeter of the room. One of them notices, but it's too late - Sam kicks one of the chairs at him and he buckles, and then Sam gives him an uppercut and takes his gun.

He should take hostages, he knows, but Steve's still being shot at, so Sam just shoots both the guys. He throws the gun down after that, breathing hard.

"Where there are two, more will follow," Sam says. "Let's get out of here. You get the CD?"

Steve nods. They exit together, each of them taking one of the fallen HYDRA agents' guns.

When they get back to the hotel, it's to see Nefia standing outside their room, arms crossed. "And just where have you two been?" she says. "You look as though you've been through an obstacle course."

"Worse than that," Sam says. "HYDRA agents."

"Next time, you take me." She stabs a finger at each of them in turn. "I don't care what your excuse is, you hear me?"

"I hear you," Sam says. "We're going to go in and - recover. Okay?"

"Recover." She looks sly now. "I know what that means. You boys have fun." She turns on her heel and goes back into her room.

Sam and Steve look at each other. Steve shrugs, a rueful smile on his face. Yeah; to him, this isn't anything approaching real. Sam sighs and unlocks their door.

"This must really be cramping your style, huh," Sam says as they get ready for bed.

"Sorry?" Steve strips his shirt off. Sam turns away.

"This," he says. "You know, you and me, being married. Doesn't leave much room for dating."

"I don't think this mission leaves much room for dating." Steve brushes by Sam to go into the bathroom. "And anyway, it's temporary. Remember?"

Oh, Sam remembers. He remembers that way too well. He sighs and gets into bed.

The next HYDRA facility is in Reno and, lacking a big budget, Steve and Sam decide to drive. Nefia seems generally fascinated by the whole thing. "This is delightful," she says, peering out the window. "Your world is so..."

"Fractured?" Steve says.

"New," Nefia says. "We know your history. You're children."

"Believe me, ma'am," Steve says, "I feel plenty old some days."

Sam lets his foot down on the accelerator just a little more. He hates that tone in Steve's voice, and sometimes he's just not - big enough, or good enough, or whatever, to try and chase it away himself.

They sleep in two motels on their way to Reno. Nefia seems content to make her own fun, more or less; she doesn't ask Sam and Steve many questions, and she's not as - well, creepy - as Yulia was. The second night, she says, "I'll leave you two alone," cackling a little - but Sam's getting used to that level of innuendo.

Unlike the last remote compound, this HYDRA facility is right downtown, in an unassuming building housing a coffee shop on the first level. They can't tell where the entrance is, so Sam leads the three of them to the back, where there's a fire escape.

His coat wrapped around his fist helps him break the window and unlock the back door, and then they're in. It looks like any old office, except this building actually has the HYDRA logo on the wall.

"I don't know how we didn't figure it out," Sam mutters.

"SHIELD itself was bad enough," Steve says. "Most of what HYDRA was doing - I could believe that SHIELD ordered it."

"That must be rough," Sam says.

Steve shrugs, but he's frowning a little, obviously unhappy. "It happens."

Nefia has walked over to one of the computers - newer models this time, with flat screens - and is typing something in it. "See anything you recognize?" Sam says.

"This technology is not difficult to master," she says. "I wish to know if the compound is watching us."

"We don't really have that kind of tech on Earth," Sam says.

"No," she says. "But you have cameras and such." She relaxes after hitting a few more keys. "But this compound is abandoned."

"Then let's get to work," Sam says.

They comb through files, both physical and virtual, for hours. There's no mention of any of the humans on Valrian. Sam tamps down frustration as quickly as it rises. They knew they'd be investigating some dead ends. There's no reason to panic - not yet.

He turns to ask Steve if he wants to get lunch or something. It takes only a millisecond for him to see the red dot on Steve's chest, but by then it's too late. He tries to tackle Steve, but the bullet gets him first - one in the gut, one in the chest.

"Ambulance!" he yells at Nefia. "Use a human phone, get me an ambulance!"

"I'm okay," Steve says dimly.

But he's clearly not. Sam does his best to hoist Steve up, getting him in a fireman's carry and going towards the nearest exit. "Come on, Nefia!" he yells.

But whoever shot Steve is gone. Steve passes out before they get down to the street, and a few minutes later, the ambulance arrives. They get Steve on a stretcher, and Sam - Sam's not sure how he gets into the ambulance, but he rides with them to the hospital. They've heard of Captain America, they know Steve will heal quickly, but they still have to operate. The spray of bullets hit too close to his heart.

Sam sits in the waiting room, feeling sick. These facilities were supposed to be abandoned, or at least relatively safe to go into. They weren't combat ready. They made a huge mistake, and Sam doesn't know if -

"You're in pain," Nefia says, approaching him.

Sam doesn't ask how she found him. She probably followed the ambulance.

"He's my -" Sam's voice catches on 'friend'. He can't say that, not when Steve will - hopefully - live, not when they still have to keep up the ruse.

Nefia sits down next to him. "I understand."

"Do you?"

"I had someone who was very dear to me, once," she says. "A man who I honored above all others. But a great storm came, and took him from me."

"The Vrai - you're monogamous?"

"Some of us," Nefia says. "I was. Once."

They sit in silence after that. After what feels like a hundred years, a doctor comes out. "He's stable," the doctor says as soon as he sees Sam. "And he's asking after you."

"I'll stay here," Nefia says. "You go."

Sam does. He walks down the long hospital hallways and into Steve's room. He's bandaged up and looks pale, and Sam flashes back to after the helicarriers blew up, how he wasn't totally sure Steve was going to wake up.

"Hey," Steve says, smiling weakly. "We probably should've secured the perimeter."

"It was a dead facility," Sam says. "You goddamn idiot."

No one's there, and there's no reason to pretend. But he can't help himself. He leans down and kisses Steve, full on the mouth, desperately holding onto him.

When he pulls away, Steve looks fuzzy, puzzled. "Is Nefia here?"

"No, I -" Sam groans. "Call it an impulse."

"Okay," Steve says, and leans back against the pillows. Sam made him half sit up for this. Sam's an idiot. "Stay with me?"

"Of course," Sam says, and sits in the chair next to the bed.

Steve's discharged just a few hours later, with the doctors trying to hide their shock. Sam rolls with it, getting Nefia from the waiting room and leading both of them to the car - which, thankfully, Nefia had the presence of mind to lock up.

Once they're in, he says, "We shouldn't go back to that facility. We didn't find anything, anyway."

"What's our next step?" Steve says. "More investigation?"

"We need to talk to Fury," Sam says. He pulls out his phone. "A hospital parking lot is as good a place as any."

Fury picks up right away. "I've got some bad news," he says.

His voice is staticky - which, considering they're communicating interstellarly, makes sense. Sam says, "Steve got shot. HYDRA's on to us."

"Different bad news," Fury says. "Natasha sent me some intel on you two. Someone caught you holding hands, and one of the humans on Valrian leaked the info on your marriage. It's going to run on CNN any time now."

Sam feels like all the breath has been stolen from him. "No."

"Yes," Fury says. "Go back to New York. People are going to want to interview you."

"But HYDRA -"

"Can't exactly get to you if you're on national television," Fury says. "Believe me, I've been through it. They have video of the wedding ceremony. They know Nefia's a Vrai. There's no way around it."

"Who did this?"

"I'm going to find out," Fury says. "In the meantime, there haven't been any more murders. Answer your phone when it rings. Schedule interviews. There's no way around this - you two have to act as though, to the American people, you're a happily married couple."

"I can't -"

"Wilson. You have to."

Sam grits his teeth. "Fine," he says. "I'll be in contact." He hangs up.

"You heard that?" he says to Steve and Nefia.

Steve nods. "Your phone is loud," he says, sounding faint.

Sam starts the car. "Nothing to be done about it," he says. "Let's go back to New York."

The first time his phone rings, he feels sick. He ignores it, focusing on driving. Steve answers his phone, sets up interviews with The Today Show and Oprah. "Apparently," he says as they cross into Iowa, "it's a big deal that I'm bisexual."

"Are you?"

"Sure," Steve says. "Peggy know what she was to me. But I like men, too."

"Did you know? Back then?"

Steve glances in the mirror uncomfortably, and Sam suddenly remembers Nefia. But Steve just says, "Yeah, I did."

They stop in Iowa. Sam would rather just switch off and drive straight through, but Steve wants to take his time. Probably doesn't want to be wrecked when they go on The Today Show in a couple of days, Sam thinks with a hint of bitterness. The motel clerk looks like she desperately wants to snap a picture of the three of them, but she holds back, thankfully. As they go up to their rooms, Nefia says, "On Valrian, a crisis tests a couple's commitment to one another."

"That's true here, too," Steve says.

"You two are committed." She stops in front of her room and pats their arms. It's odd seeing her with all four eyes again, her purple skin, her elongated fingers. "You'll be fine," she says, and goes into her room.

Sam doesn't mention the kiss as they get into bed, and neither does Steve. Steve falls asleep curled up in a ball on his side of the bed. Sam wonders if that's how he slept when he was younger and had every chronic illness on the planet. Sam used to wonder about Captain America, about how he'd be if Sam met him. The reality - the kindest person Sam's ever known, the most determined, someone it's way too easy to fall in love with - is nothing like how Sam imagined it, back in the day.

He prefers this Steve. He does. But he also wants this Steve, desperately, and it's the wanting that keeps him up half the night, an ache in his stomach that has nothing to do with physical arousal.

When he wakes up the next morning, Steve's already in the shower. He quashes his disappointment and gets ready to get back in the car. He sits in the backseat this time, with Nefia up front and Steve driving. They don't talk much; they're doing a straight shot to New York from just outside Des Moines, which means Steve's going to have to use some of his super soldier abilities to stay awake. Sam's not worried, though. Mostly he's reviewing what he's going to say, mentally, trying to figure out how he's going to sell this relationship to the American people.

The world whizzes by them, going from corn to, eventually, the Ohio River Valley, all green hills. Then, late into the night, there's the urban sprawl of New York.

In two days and a handful of hours, they'll be prepping to be on The Today Show. Sam's not loving it.

He's ignored most of the news, because he has to; he's not going to stuff himself full of information on how the American people are taking their beloved hero being bisexual. Nefia and Steve talked for half the day, but Sam couldn't get the energy up to say anything. He thinks he might be - finally, after almost a year - crashing from all their work: chasing Bucky, and then going to Valrian.

No; that's not true. He's tired of acting. So he stays silent.

They check into a hotel in downtown New York, one with valet parking. Both their banking accounts have been wired a ridiculous amount of money. Hush money, Sam thinks cynically. Nefia tells them goodnight, and then they're alone in their hotel room.

"Two days to kill," Sam says.

Steve nods. "In New York, though."

"My guess is you'd prefer Brooklyn."

Steve shakes his head. "SHIELD has - had - a field office in New York, you know. I could've lived up here. But it was too close to home, and too far away. There were too many reminders."

Sam nods. "I hear that."

They're facing each other, the bed between them. If Sam were braver, he'd invite Steve onto the bed, see if he's really that out of practice. But becoming friends with Steve was as easy as breathing, and he's not willing to risk that. Not for anyone, or anything. If they have to pretend, they'll pretend; but Sam's not going to go there for real.

The hospital was close enough. That can't happen again.

It takes him awhile to fall asleep. In the morning, once again, Steve's in the shower. Sam realizes he's woken up because of someone persistently knocking on the door. Figuring the odds are decent that it's Nefia, rather than paparazzi, he checks through the peephole.

It's Nefia, so he shrugs on a shirt and lets her in. "How are you?"

"I'm doing fine," she says. "Everyone is making such a to-do of me being an alien. I don't think housekeeping is meant to come in if you have the 'Do Not Disturb' up."

"That's true," Sam says. "But, well. This is New York."

Nefia nods, even though that's a cultural reference Sam's ninety percent sure she's not getting. "I thought I'd see the city today."

"Alone?" Sam can't figure out a way to say, looking like that?

"Oh, I have the masker." She waves a hand. "And who will bother an old woman? I'll pretend I'm a tourist. That's common here, yes?"

Sam nods.

"We don't really have tourism in Valrian," Nefia says. "It's considered rude."

"You don't think it's rude here?"

"I'm old," Nefia says. "What do I know? Besides, you two need some time alone. Things seemed tense yesterday."

Which is all Sam's fault. "Sorry. I just kind of crashed."

"I understand. New marriages are always like that. Don't fret when I'm out. I'll let you know on your phone when I'm back."

"Thanks," Sam says. "I appreciate it."

"Good, good," Nefia says. She swans out, leaving Sam feeling a little stunned.

It's not that he - well. He thought maybe there was a chance that she knew it was fake, and was just going along with it. She's more casual than the other Vrai, and Sam thought maybe she'd recognize the marriage as a lie. But apparently the Vrai just get casual when they're old, or something.

Sam really hopes she doesn't get into trouble. It's on his head if she does. But then, he's pretty sure that if he tried to stop her, that would be on his head, too.

Steve comes out of the bathroom a few minutes later, fully dressed. "Who was in the room?"

"You heard someone in the room and didn't come out?"

"I figured you'd yell if it was HYDRA." Steve smiles at Sam like he always does - meaning, flirtatiously. Sam smiles back, but he also looks away.

"Nefia. She went out."

"Out? As in -"

"She put her masker on and just left. I know," Sam says before Steve can object, "it's not a good idea. But she was gonna go unless we locked her up."

"And she's an alien, not an asset." Sam nods. "I understand."

"I'm gonna shower," Sam says.

He makes it all the way to the bathroom door before Steve says, "Hey, are we okay?"

Now's the time to act. For real. "Sure we are," Sam says. "Why wouldn't we be?" He taps the door frame, then adds, "We should stay in today." He goes into the bathroom before Steve can respond.

Steve spends the day on his tablet. Sam's ninety percent sure he's checking the news, but he doesn't ask. The bisexual thing is one thing, an issue entirely on its own, that Sam's sure is giving people conniption fits. But there's also the fact that Sam's black. His whole family's black, in fact, his parents are the most liberal Democrats out there, and essentially, everything about the situation means that people are going to be pissed as fuck at both of them. Steve's already survived assassination attempts, but Sam doesn't like his own chances if some nut tries to gun him down for having the nerve to marry Captain America.

So tomorrow he's going to call The Today Show about security - preferably when Steve's out of earshot. Sam's pretty sure it hasn't occurred to him. Steve's got little blind spots like that.

Nefia texts them that she's back around six. They order room service, tacitly agreeing that they've had enough of the outside world for now. As they're getting into bed, Steve stops, sitting on the mattress awkwardly. "Yes?" Sam says.

"I'm glad you're here," Steve says.

"I'm glad I'm here too," Sam says.

It's not even a lie, he thinks as he turns out the light. He can't imagine that makes him anything but pathetic, but there it is.

The next day, Steve wants to take him and Nefia out.

"We've been too isolated," he says. "And we're going to get pictures taken of us sooner or later, anyway. I've seen how things work these days."

"It might not be safe," Sam says. That's the most delicate way he knows how to put it.

Steve nods. "I thought about that. But I don't want to live in fear, and I don't think you do, either." He looks at Sam, so earnest that Sam's breath catches. "I won't make you go out with me, but I do want to go out."

Here he goes again, willing to follow Captain fucking America into anything. "I know," he says. "Let's go, then. Nefia alone will draw enough attention, maybe people won't notice Captain America's married a black dude."

People notice; of course they do. But to Sam's surprise, no one approaches them. They get some glares, and some less obviously condemnatory stares, but overall, people seem fine with it. They don't even point at Nefia - much.

Sam knows the world's changing. He just didn't realize aliens had become so normal.

They're getting coffee at a nice place in Manhattan, a place with a patio and views of massive, soaring condo buildings. Nefia is stirring her coffee with one finger, and Steve's got a sketchpad out. Sam's leaning back with his coffee, tolerating Steve staring at him intently as he sketches.

"I'm not that interesting a subject," Sam says, sipping his coffee. Cappuccinos and art: safe topics, he thinks.

"You are," Steve says. He looks up and smiles at Sam, so fucking sweetly. "You have interesting bone structure."

"That your way of calling me ugly?" Sam says.

He's joking, mostly, but a tiny jolt goes through him when Steve laughs a little and shakes his head. "You couldn't be ugly if you tried."

"Don't push your luck," Sam says.

Steve nudges him with a foot under the table. It's barely footsie, just a gentle push, but Sam still stares.

Steve's looking down, though, sketching again. Nefia's watching passersby with an intent gaze, apparently oblivious.

Sam wishes he knew what the hell is going on. Unfortunately, that's a conversation for later - or never, depending on how brave he's feeling.

"Do humans often walk like this?" Nefia says. She's still only taken a sip of her coffee, but she keeps stirring it as she looks at Sam.

"Like how?"

"Rushed. Tense."

"There's a lot of tension on Earth," Sam says. "We don't have the planetary government Valrian has, or the benefits that come with it."

"You're also less empathetic." Nefia nods. "It's a shame."

Steve frowns a little, clearly feeling defensive. Sam hurries to say, "There are benefits to humanity, too."

"Such as?"

"No one's better in a fight," Sam says. "All due respect to the Asgardians."

"Asgardians." Nefia snorts. "Warrior cultures. There's no empathy there at all."

"We feel strongly," Steve says. He's staring at Nefia, still defensive, but also just - off. Sam has no idea what's going on there. "We're tumultuous. And young."

"Yes, so young," Nefia says. "It's a wonder you've accomplished what you have." Finally, she picks up her coffee and takes a sip.

Sam wishes he didn't suspect she's just gotten more information out of them than he'd prefer.

Sam feels stretched to the breaking point, and he's been in enough therapy to know what a bad sign that is. When they drop Nefia off at her hotel room, after eating dinner at an Italian place that made Steve make wistful faces, Sam says, "Hey, would you be okay with me going out?"

"Out?" Steve says.

"To a bar."

"You're not going to..." Steve looks at him, like Sam's psychic.

And maybe he is, because he knows exactly what Steve's asking. "Not to pick someone up, Steve. Just to have a few drinks."

Steve nods. "I didn't really think so, I just wanted to ask. You know it's okay if you do, right? At least, tonight. No one - I mean, no one knows your face yet. People just know we're married. They'll know you after tomorrow."

Sam would give almost anything in the entire damn world to not be having this conversation right now. "I know," he says. "I don't want to go pick someone up like it's my last night on Earth. I just want to relax a little. Okay?"

"In that case, mind if I come with?"

"You can't get drunk," Sam says. "I've read your file."

Steve's smile is downright mischievous. "No," he says. "But I can drink."

An hour later, Sam's pretty sure this was a terrible idea. They're at a bar near their hotel, a nice place that serves microbrews and fancy drinks. There's no Sex on the Beach type stuff here. Sam's had two beers, which, back in the day, would've been enough to relax him. But it's not back in the day. Sam's out of the military and he doesn't drink with the big boys anymore. Two beers has him tipsy, and he's flagging the waitress down for a third, because Steve won't stop watching him.

Steve himself has been nursing a beer for the better part of the hour. "Did you ever experiment?" Sam says as he drinks his third beer.


"Alcohol," Sam says. "You know, drink 'till you can barely stand, see if that makes you drunk."

"It's not worth it," Steve says. "They always used to make fun of me, but...I don't know. Being healthy, I almost don't want my senses impaired. I always worry I'll miss something."

Sam takes a long, long drink, trying to ignore the twist in his gut when Steve looks at him all earnestly. When he's done, he says, "The Howling Commandos?"

"Yes," Steve says. He sounds wistful.

Sam doesn't want that. He wants Steve to be happy. He nudges Steve's leg with his knee, leaning over the tiny table to look Steve in the eye and say, "You did the right thing. You'll find friends like that again."

"Sometimes I think I have," Steve says, looking directly at him.

Sam has to look away.

They call it a night after three hours and five beers for Sam. He's thoroughly tipsy when they get back to the hotel room. He knows it's a bad coping mechanism, but he doesn't care, because for the first time since they left for Valrian, Sam doesn't feel like he's dancing on a knife's edge.

"You should get ready for bed," Steve says. He sounds amused, mostly, as they walk into their hotel room.

"Sure," Sam says. He brushes his teeth, strips down, and gets into bed. Steve follows his example, lying on his back, the length of him pressed against Sam.

Sam thinks of a question to ask and rolls over, propping himself up on one elbow to look at Steve. "Hey," he says, then stops. The question's gone. All he can think about now is the way Steve's eyelashes look resting against his cheek.

"Yes?" Steve says.

"I..." Sam shakes his head. "Thanks for tonight. Sometimes I need to relax."

"I know." Steve smiles at him, sweetly. "It was nice."

Sam wants to kiss him. He wants it so badly he can feel it coursing through him, pushing him towards Steve. But just as he's swaying closer, Steve says, "Sorry, I won't be able to fall asleep like this," and pats Sam's shoulder, rolling over to his side.

Sam stares at Steve's back, then turns over as well, so their backs are to each other. Not like this, he thinks. Not when he's half drunk, not when he and Steve are married. The hospital kiss was an aberration, and Sam doesn't want to repeat it right now. It can't be like this.

But God, he wants it. So, so damn much.

Eventually, he falls asleep. They have to wake up at 4AM for The Today Show - getting there, first of all, and then being briefed by the government's own publicist. Or one of them, anyway. Sam's not hungover, but he's also not a big enough fan of early mornings to not grumble a little as he they get ready to go. Nefia meets them in their room, and together they take a cab to NBC headquarters.

They're treated like royalty when they arrive - all thanks to Steve's star power, Sam's pretty sure. An assistant leads them to separate makeup chairs. Sam amuses himself wondering how they're going to deal with Nefia's four eyes and purple skin as people fuss over him.

The publicist is a white woman named Natalie, rail-thin, who rattles off what they're supposed to say. "Don't call it a mistake," she says. "You've been a happy couple for two years, and you were already planning to take the plunge. The Vrai simply gave you an opportunity. If race or other politics come up, don't say a word. I don't care how it's phrased. Same with the gay marriage debate. The focus is that you're young and in love, and happy about it."

Steve nods. "We can do that."

"Should be a piece of cake," Sam says.

Then it's time for them to go on.

Sam doesn't remember much of the intro. Everyone greets them and says sappy things about what a lovely couple they are, and Steve grips Sam's hand so tight Sam can practically feel the bones grinding together. Then Matt Lauer really starts grilling them.

"It must be interesting, getting married in an alien civilization," he says. "What made you choose to get married there?"

"Oh, well," Steve says. "It was kind of a spur of the moment thing. The Vrai knew immediately that we were close, and we couldn't help but take the plunge then."

Lauer's eyes are bright when he says, "And did the pressure here on Earth have anything to do with that?"

"Pressure?" Sam says. "No, of course not."

"Keeping your relationship a secret," Lauer says. "And of course, Captain America being gay, marrying a...Democrat. Sam, your family are dyed in the wool Democrats, aren't they?"

Sam's pretty sure 'Democrat' isn't the word Lauer's thinking. "They are," he says. "But politics isn't really the focus of our relationship."

"I'm not gay," Steve says quickly. "I'm bisexual. But that's not really the issue. I love Sam, and Sam loves me, and we're happy to be married."

"And what a marriage it was," Lauer says. "Why don't you walk us through that?"

They're out of the trouble zone after that. They talk about fluff - the marriage, their made-up first date, on and on until finally they're done. Sam walks off set in a daze.

Steve lets out a long breath when they're back in their hotel room. "I think that went well."

"We have to fly to Chicago tomorrow," Sam says. "Oprah. She wants it in her old stomping grounds, for sentimentality's sake." Not that that will mean much to Steve.

Steve smiles, a little weakly. "Goodie."

Sam's about to reply when his phone rings. It's his dad. "Dad? I'm -"

"On television," Sam's dad says. "I know I'm not supposed to call you during a mission, but I wasn't aware missions now include getting married to Captain America."

"They don't," Sam says. "I mean, usually. I mean -"

"I want to meet him."

His dad is using the tone that was the reason Sam didn't find the military that difficult an adjustment. His spine stiffens as he says, "You can't, right now. We're doing a press tour."

"Well, when you're done with the press tour, bring him home to Philadelphia. I'm not going to let some man marry my son without meeting him."

"Even if that man is Captain America?"

"Especially if that man is Captain America."

"I'll bring him home," Sam says. "After the press tour is done." Which means never, because the marriage is a sham. This line isn't secure, though, so Sam can't say that.

"Good," his dad says. "I love you, son."

"Love you too," Sam says, and hangs up.

"What was that all about?" Steve says.

"Don't pretend you didn't hear every word."

Steve makes a face. "Your father sounds intimidating."

"Believe me, he is."

"Luckily for you, we have to go to the airport," Steve says.

Sam nods and finishes packing his bag.

The flight is quick, and the flight attendant barely startles when she sees Nefia. They have the rest of the day to kill before they go on Oprah the next day. When they're set up in the hotel room, Sam says, "So what do you guys want to do?"

"I saw a sign for movies," Nefia says. "Films. Your ambassadors told us about them."

"They're pretty big, culturally," Sam says. He hasn't been to the movies in years.

"I would like to see one."

That's how they end up watching the US version of Godzilla, complete with 3D glasses. Steve feels like a goddamn tool in the glasses, but Nefia seems fascinated. When it's over, she says, "Is such violence normal for a movie?"

"Well, this was an action movie," Sam says as they file out of the theater. "So, kind of."

"Excuse me," someone says.

Sam is immediately on the ready. He turns to face the kid, who's just come out of the theater. "Yes?"

"Are you a Vrai?" the kid says, pointing at Nefia.

Nefia perks up. "Yes, I am. Tell me, is the violence in your movies endemic due to your relative lack of empathy?"

"Um," the kid says. "I just wondered if I could take your picture."

His cell phone's already out, and Sam would bet anything there are already pictures of them on it. Especially since his gaze keeps darting between Sam and Steve.

Steve, in a sudden burst of movement, takes Sam's hand. "Thanks for your interest, but we like our privacy," he says firmly. "Come on, guys. Let's go get a taxi."

Steve's out of sorts for the rest of the day. He gets on his computer when they get back to the hotel room, typing furiously. "Emailing someone?" Sam says, since that's one of the few things Steve uses his computer for regularly.

"Bucky," Steve says.

"Ah." Sam wants to ask how that's going, how Bucky is feeling these days, but he's pretty sure the questions wouldn't be welcome. Instead, he focuses on his own email to Fury, updating him on their status.

They're getting ready to go on Oprah the next day when they get the call. "Natasha?" Steve says. "It's good to hear from you, how are...there's a bifrost in Paris? There's what? Okay, we'll go, of course, just give me an address - okay. We'll be there. Thanks." He hangs up.

"You need to write that down?" Sam says.

Steve shakes his head. "I'll remember it. There's been a murder, a body found directly on the Paris bifrost. We have to go. Immediately. Natasha and Bucky are waiting for us, she's already contacted Fury."

"Call Oprah," Sam says. "I'll pack our things."

Half an hour later, they've bought an emergency flight to Paris and are in a taxi going to the airport. They've explained the situation to Nefia, who's solemn the entire ride there. Sam has the creeping feeling that she's not exactly being forthright with them. But that's a problem for another day. Right now, they need to see that body.

They get to Paris, and take another taxi to the warehouse whose address Steve noted down, luggage and all. The door is open, so they walk in, carrying their bags.

"Gentlemen," Natasha says.

She's standing at the edge of the bifrost. In the center of it is a dead body.

"Is it safe to walk on?" Steve says.

"For whatever reason, it's not active right now," Natasha says. "We'd need an electric charge of pretty great magnitude to activate it. So yes, it's safe."

"Oh," Nefia says. She puts a hand to her throat. "Oh, this is awful."

"If you're going to throw up, do it in a corner," Natasha says. She seems completely unimpressed with Nefia - but then again, Natasha's pretty unimpressed with the whole aliens thing in general. Sam and Steve drop their luggage and go to inspect the body.

Sam wishes to God that he'd be surprised to see the person was killed with a serrated blade. But he's not. He stares at the ragged flaps of skin on the person's neck and says, "Any ID on the body?"

"Aaron Sanchez," Natasha says. "A Spanish contractor, in Paris on business."

"Is Bucky here?" Steve says.

"He's back at my safe house," Natasha says. "Planning our assault on an active HYDRA base." She looks at Sam, and then Steve. "You're welcome to come, if you want," she says. "They might have information on this."

Steve nods. "Thanks," he says. "Why was he killed on the bifrost, of all places?"

"My guess? Human sacrifice," Natasha says. "Look at him. He's spread-eagle, and his blood has soaked into the bifrost. Either someone was trying to activate it the old-fashioned way, or they were trying to make a statement, or both. Either way, the whole thing reeks of HYDRA."

"They always were superstitious," Sam says. "Okay. If we're going to assault HYDRA, we need weapons."

Natasha smiles. "Don't worry. We've got you covered."

"Excuse me," Nefia says, "but are you sure violence is the correct response? Violence begets violence."

"I know," Sam says. "But we need the information HYDRA's holding, and investigating dead bases has just gotten us in a world of trouble."

Natasha raises her eyebrows.

"Long story," Sam says. "But Nefia, this is the mission. If you don't like it -"

"I'm staying in the room," Nefia says. "I know. These old bones aren't meant for a violent human world."

Apparently the Vrai are fine with guilt trips. Sam says, "Good. The body?"

"I've called in a favor," Natasha says. "It will be removed."


"I scanned it for bio-signs," Natasha says. "There's nothing there, human or otherwise."

Sam nods. "Let's roll, then."

They go back to Natasha's safe house, which is - hopefully - a lot less predictable for them than a hotel. Natasha's ready for a full-on assault, based on how many weapons she has. When they get into the house, Bucky's waiting for them, hand on his gun.

He relaxes when he sees it's them. Marginally.

"I told you we were coming," Natasha says as she goes to the fridge. "Anyone want some water?"

"Me, please," Steve says. "It's good to see you, Buck."

Bucky nods silently.

Sam's uneasy around the guy, but he doesn't seem like he's going to fly off the handle and try to kill them, which is an improvement on last time. So he says, "Hey, man," and goes to sit on the couch.

Blueprints are laid out on the coffee table, presumably of the HYDRA facility. Sam applies himself to studying them.

It looks like there are three layers of security, locks alone. That shouldn't be hard to get past, since Natasha has SHIELD tech just lying out on a side table. Sam can pinpoint where the guards will be pretty easily. There are choke points they'll have to draw the guards into so they can deal with them individually. After that, it'll just be a matter of getting the files they need.

"Can you hack their computers?" Sam says as they all settle in the living room.

"I have a program that can hack their computers," Natasha says. "And in a pinch, I can see what I can do."

That's not exactly the most promising answer, but it's also not terrible. "Good," Sam says. "Looks like we're going to have trouble getting in."

Steve studies the blueprints. "Kill the guards in the stairwell?" he says.

Natasha nods. "Choke points."

Exactly what Sam was thinking. The Soviets did a hell of a job training her. She's terrifying, and moreover, she's competent enough that Sam's money isn't entirely on Steve in a fight. Luckily, she's on their side.

"Okay," Natasha says after a few minutes of them all staring at the blueprint. "We go in at night, on the first level."

Steve nods. "Take out the guards, then use the stairwells, up to the top floor."

"Based on the electric lines, that's where the mainframe computer will be," Natasha says.

"Why not the basement?" Sam says.

"Because it's not 1975 anymore, and it's easy enough to keep a supercomputer on the top floor," Natasha says. "And HYDRA likes being on top."

Sam winces. "Not an image I needed," he says as Natasha smirks a little.

"Once we're up," Steve says, "Sam and Bucky, you and I will guard Natasha as she gets us our intel."

"And then?"

"Then we take the stairs back down," Steve says. "This compound's only eight floors high, so it should be easy enough."

Easy. That's one way to put it. Sam looks at all of them: two super-soldiers, and a spy who has twenty-six years of training despite being in the prime of her life, physically. And then there's him, with his twelve years of military training.

"Sure," he says. "Easy."

"If you'll excuse me," Nefia says. "How many people will you kill?"

"A lot," Natasha says. She levels a stare at Nefia. "This is the cost of keeping the peace."

"I can't help but think there must be an easier way," Nefia says. "Some way that doesn't involve bloodshed."

Not for the first time, Sam gets the prickly feeling that there's something Nefia's hiding. He doesn't say anything, though, just sits there as Natasha says, "There's not," and rolls the blueprints up again.

"There's a gym downstairs," Bucky says.

It's a nice offer, but Sam's got to conserve his energy for the fight. "I'm going to nap," he says. "Anyone mind if I use the couch?"

Steve shakes his head. "I'm going to use the gym."

"Great," Sam says, and stretches out, kicking Steve lightly. Steve smiles down at him, and for a second -

No. Sam shuts his eyes, determined not to go there.

He gets a nice nap in before it's go time. Natasha outfits him with two Glocks and an AK. Sam just prays they don't get pulled over as they drive to the HYDRA facility at just past midnight.

Hopefully, the civilians have cleared out by then. Sam doesn't know how many of them are aware they're working for an evil Nazi organization, and he doesn't want to kill innocent people.

"So," Natasha says as they drive over. "That Nefia. Quite a character."

"The Vrai are more empathetic than humans," Steve says.

"And more sanctimonious," Natasha says.

"She doesn't understand what it takes to live in this world," Steve says. "But I sympathize. Sometimes I wish all of this weren't necessary."

"So do I," Natasha says. "But I never had the luxury of seeing a future where it isn't." She pulls into the HYDRA parking lot. "Validated parking," she says. "That's good."

"You're planning on paying?"

"It's only polite." Natasha unbuckles her seatbelt. "Let's go," she says.

Sam keeps half an eye on Bucky as they approach the compound, but Bucky appears completely calm. Natasha seems confident in his abilities, so it's probably not Sam's job to worry - but Sam's always taken it upon himself to worry, even when he ostensibly doesn't need to.

But Bucky and Natasha take point. They get to the front doors, and the guards in the lobby have just enough time to raise their weapons before Natasha shoots them in the kneecaps and then knocks them out, one after the other.

"Let's move," she says, and they head for the stairwell.

The first rush of guards is no surprise. They sprint up the stairs as their group is rounding the second floor. Sam levels his gun at them and takes them out - one, two, three shots in the shoulder. "Wow," Steve says. "You don't even need me."

"With all due respect, Cap," Sam says, "you're not exactly used to shooting a gun."

"All due respect now, is it?" Steve says, but he's smiling a little.

Steve gets a chance to use the shield, though, because on the fourth floor, they're ambushed on both sides. Steve knocks two guys out as Sam deals with one, and then they're running again, stepping over the bodies Natasha and Bucky have tossed down.

It's like that all the way up - get a floor or half a floor up, stop to fight. Sam's count is up to thirty by the time they get to the top floor. He, Bucky, and Steve array themselves in a line in front of the door as Natasha goes over to the mainframe computer.

"Hmm," she says. Sam can hear rapid typing.

"Is that a good 'hmm'?" Steve says.

"This is the director's computer," Natasha says. "It's a little control-freakish to hold all your organization's secrets on your own computer."

"There's no server anywhere?" Bucky says.

"No," Natasha says. "Just three five-terabyte hard drives."

The doors burst open. Bucky shoots both of the incoming guards in the head. Apparently they're not playing games anymore - or maybe Bucky wasn't the entire time.

After they're attacked three more times, Natasha says, "Got it." Sam turns to see her pocketing three USB drives. "That much info fits on those?"

Natasha smiles a little. "The relevant information does," she says. "Let's go, boys."

They fight their way back down, then drive back to Natasha's silently. Well, mostly silently; Natasha has to drive to avoid a tail once, which involves a lot of choking back terrified yells on Sam's part. But eventually they get back safely, and then Natasha's plugging the USB drives into her own computer.

"HYDRA's done a lot of research on the bifrost," she says. "But they don't have Jane Foster or Asgardians to help them anymore, so their information is a little out of date."

"Does it say anything about human sacrifice?" Steve says.

"There's a lot of information on old rituals, mostly Celtic and Viking," Natasha says. "They wouldn't bother with rituals from non-white cultures."

"Nazis," Bucky says darkly.

Sam wonders, offhand, if Bucky even knew what the Nazis were doing, or if Natasha had to break it to him. The guy's entire existence is kind of freaky.

"Exactly," Natasha says. "But there's no record of human sacrifice opening a bifrost."

"So what," Sam says, "they just decided to try killing someone for shits and giggles?"

"Symbolism," Nefia says from the doorway.

Sam jumps. Steve just turns to her and says, "Explain," in his Cap voice.

Nefia takes a deep breath. "The Vrai are not violent."

"We're aware," Natasha says, dry as a bone.

Nefia inclines her head. "The Vrai are not violent, but before we...evolved...we were - are - a symbolic culture. Protectors exist to prevent murders, but crimes of passion are rare. Crimes of symbolism are more common."

"What kind of symbolism?" Sam says. "'Watch out, I'm coming for you', or something else?"

"Our gods weren't kind, in the old times," Nefia says. "And..." She hesitates.

"Yes?" Steve says.

Nefia shakes her head. "Our gods weren't kind," she says again. "It was thought that the blood of a Vrai would strengthen our structures, protect our homes against a storm. And it was thought that the blood of a Vrai would make passage between the realms safer."

Sam barely has a handle on how the bifrost works, but he's pretty sure it's safe, as far as space travel goes. "The bifrost used to be dangerous?"

"You Humans see it as magic, but it's technology," Nefia says. "And once, that technology was imperfect."

"That's a great theory," Natasha says. "Except that it requires a Vrai to be on Earth, murdering people."

"Yes," Nefia says. She doesn't elaborate.

"You think a Vrai is behind the killings?"

"I think," Nefia says, "that no human has the knowledge to hide a murder from our Protectors. And that is precisely what happened with Grai."

"I'll call Fury," Steve says. There's barely-restrained frustration in his voice, which Sam sympathizes with plenty. All these dead ends are getting annoying. "If Yulia investigates Vrai -"

For the first time, Nefia's voice is cold. "She will find the culprit."

"I hope so," Steve says. He pulls out his phone and dials, putting it on speaker. "He might not pick up - the Vrai boosting technology can be spotty."


Apparently Steve was wrong. "You're on speaker," Steve says. "Natasha, Bucky, Sam, and Nefia are all here."

"Sounds like a party. What's going on?"

Steve explains the murder and what they failed to find. When he's done, Fury's silent for long enough that Sam's starting to wonder if the call dropped. Then Fury says, "There's one problem with your theory. I was getting ready to call you."

Sam looks at Natasha, but she looks clueless - or maybe just calm. Sam's pretty sure that's her clueless expression, though. "What did we miss?" Sam says.

"Ambassador Avilov was found standing over a Vrai's body this morning," Fury says. "Covered in blue blood. You might've met her - Kalimai."

Sam didn't meet her, but that doesn't keep his stomach from sinking. "You think she did it?"

"She wasn't holding a knife," Fury says, "but there are plenty of places in this mansion to hide knives. We've got Vrai and humans looking for it now. In the meantime, she's being detained."

"You suspect she's HYDRA?" Natasha says.

"At this stage, we can't rule anything out," Fury says. "But since we found the address of an old Soviet military facility in her papers, I'm not laying my money on HYDRA."

"HYDRA was involved with the Soviets," Natasha says. Her voice is mild, but her hand is clenched into a fist at her side.

"Sure," Fury says. "But the Soviets were also dirty dealing on their own, same as the United States."

Sam wonders how much it cost Fury to admit that. From Steve's stories, he was a patriotic guy. And not the kind of suspicious patriot Steve, or even Sam himself, is.

"So we go to Russia," Natasha says. "Email me the address. We'll investigate."

"Natasha -"

"I'm ready for this." Natasha glares at the phone like it will make Fury materialize. "Don't take this from me, Director. If I couldn't handle it, you know I'd tell you."

"It's the facility you were trained in," Fury says.

That's as gentle as Sam's ever heard him. Sam almost thinks him being a dick about it would've been better for Natasha. She goes stiffer than she was before, shoulders back as though held by invisible hands. "I can handle it," she says again. "We need to get to the bottom of this. I don't want a war with the Vrai."

"We do not war," Nefia says indignantly.

"No, but we do," Fury says. "Go, then. Find out what you can, and get back to me as soon as possible. We need evidence to implicate Avilov. The Vrai don't convict on circumstantial evidence, and Avilov's insisting that she found the body and was distraught. She worked closely with Kalia."

"Order acknowledged," Natasha says.

"Thank you," Steve says. "Rogers out." He hangs up the phone.

Bucky and Steve are both looking at Natasha like she'll break, so Sam very pointedly examines the molding on top of the walls. Natasha takes a deep breath, then says, "Gentlemen. Let's pack."

Sam and Steve haven't been acting particularly married, which Sam is grateful for. If Nefia asks any questions, they can blame it on the stress. But then they get on the plane to Moscow, and Steve sits next to Sam and says, "I'm tired. We should both sleep. It's going to be a long flight."

"Sure," Sam says.

Steve smiles at him and settles his head on Sam's shoulder. It takes two breaths before he's out like a light.

Sam looks across the aisle and sees Nefia staring at them, smiling a little. So that's how it is, Sam thinks, stomach sinking.

They land in Moscow and go immediately to a hotel room, none of them wanting to take the mission on head-on after a short flight. Sure, they're ostensibly dealing with an abandoned Soviet facility on the outside of Russia, but Sam and Steve's experiences with abandoned facilities haven't exactly gone well so far.

Natasha says, "You two can have your own room; I can share a bed with Nefia," with a smirk. Steve blushes bright red, and Sam - not for the first time - wishes to God there was some truth behind everyone's assumptions.

"You don't like it," Steve says when they're safely in their room, getting ready for bed.

"Don't like what?"

"Pretending," Steve says. "Our entire fake marriage."

"It's not my favorite," Sam says. "You can't tell me you like it."

When he looks over at Steve, Steve's staring out the window. "I like parts of it," he says. "The parts where I can almost believe, for a second, that I have someone. Those are nice parts."

"But then you come back down to earth," Sam says.

Steve smiles a little, wistful. "Yes. Then I come back down to earth."

Sam doesn't have a very restful night, but that's nothing compared to the morning. He wakes up in increments: the smell of hotel soap, the warmth of sun over his eyes, the feel of the sheets against his legs. It's kind of weird, really, that it takes him so long to realize Steve's hard-on is pressing into his back.

And Steve's moving.

Not a lot, but his breath is coming faster than it normally does, and he's thrusting gently against Sam's back. Sam's entire body goes hot as he tries to stay relaxed, to not wake Steve up and make this into something Steve'll be embarrassed about. But he can't help but wonder how much Steve's done this, how often he's slept next to someone. If he'd welcome it if Sam rolled over and -

Steve moans, and all of Sam's imagination shatters, because it just doesn't compare to the reality. But Sam's an honest guy, and he knows this is about to go too far. So he rolls off the bed, as quickly and carefully as he can, and goes into the bathroom.

He's half-hard as it is, and it would be easy - and right - to just let it die. But instead he turns the shower on, gets under the spray, and gets his hand on his dick.

Steve was so solid and so fucking warm. Sam imagines pressing him into the bed, spreading his legs and going down on him. He'd be thick and solid, surrounding Sam, hips maybe bucking a little. And Sam - God, Sam would be shameless, rocking his hips into the bed as he sucked Steve off, head spinning with how into it he'd be.

He comes with a bitten-off groan, eyes screwed shut. He braces a hand on the bathroom tile as he gets through it, then opens his eyes slowly.

He's fucked. He's so fucked. But hasn't he known that for awhile now?

When he comes out of the bathroom, towel slung around his hips, Steve's sitting up in the bed. He's not hard - he doesn't even look embarrassed, and Sam wishes he could demand Steve's secret.

Instead, he just goes over to his suitcase. "Better avert your eyes," he says.

"I don't mind," Steve says. "Do you think we'll find any useful information today?"

Sam gets dressed quickly, his back to Steve. "I'm hoping so. The easiest thing would be to find something to implicate Ambassador Avilov."

"You're not sold on her as our culprit?"

"She didn't seem guilty," Sam says. "Which, I know, that's a weak reason. But I can't help but feel like Nefia's hiding something, too."

"I know," Steve says. "But if the murderer is a Vrai, we have next to no chance of catching them."

"Maybe," Sam says. "But at least we can figure out if there was Vrai-human contact before just now."

"Maybe," Steve says. His tone doesn't exactly echo Sam's. He sounds a lot more suspicious.

It's a short drive to the Soviet facility. The building itself is three stories high, brick, and looks like it could be an eccentric old guy's house, wrought iron gate and long driveway included. They part outside and Natasha kicks the door down - a little dramatically, but Sam's not one to criticize. They fan out, Nefia sticking with Sam and Steve upstairs, Natasha and Bucky taking the first floor and the basement.

"Your world is fractured," Nefia says as they comb through massive file cabinets, looking for recent information.

"You've known what you were getting into for awhile." Steve's voice is mild - deceptively so, Sam thinks. Steve's more defensive of humanity than any soldier Sam's ever known. "This is our world. It might be fractured, but we'll fight to protect it."

"I am not proposing a fight," Nefia says, though she doesn't sound offended. "I was simply making an observation."

"Humanity is imperfect," Steve says. "That doesn't mean we're irredeemable."

"Of course. But -"

Sam flips a page in the file he's got and freezes. Staring back at him is General Johnson. Below his picture is documentation: Agent J, United States of America.

"Uh, guys?" he says. "We have a problem."


As it turns out, they've got more than one problem. Fury's not picking up his phone.

"I don't understand," Nefia says. "How could it be General Johnson?"

"It might not be," Natasha says. "But he's our best lead right now. We didn't find anything on Ambassador Avilov, and none of our tech guys have found anything online, either." She turns to Nefia. "Tell me. Is there a bifrost near Moscow?"

"Two hours north," Nefia says.

Sam doesn't bother asking how she knows that. He tosses Natasha the car keys. "Drive like a bat out of hell," he says, and they go to pile into the car.

Before they step onto the bifrost, Sam turns to Nefia. "When we get back to Valrian," he says, "I want to know what it is you've been hiding from us."

"I will tell you," Nefia says. She steps onto the bifrost, and Sam follows. The world goes topsy-turvy, and then they're standing outside the mansion, Sam a little breathless.

"Let's go," Steve says. He takes Sam's hand, and for once, Sam can't even be self-conscious about it. They go into the mansion together. Natasha's taken the lead, and she's strolling, making it look like nothing's wrong.

Something is definitely wrong, if Fury's not picking up his phone.

General Johnson's quarters are empty. "Do we split up?" Sam says.

Steve shakes his head. "We're easier to eliminate separately. We'll sweep this floor together."

They go in pairs, Sam and Steve, then Nefia, then Natasha and Bucky. Bucky and Natasha's guns are out, Steve's got a gun and his shield is on his back, and Sam's got two guns and is feeling uncomfortably naked. Natasha might not be a super-soldier - that Sam knows of; she's got her secrets - but she's still been in spy training since she was a kid. Compared to her, Sam's a rookie, and he knows it.

Sam's the one who sees General Johnson first, but Johnson's eyes are on Steve. He's got a Glock, and Sam shouts a warning, but Johnson's already shooting and even Steve's not going to be able to move his shield in time.

So Sam jumps. Right in front of the bullets, two shots that hit him in the shoulder and the gut. He hits hits head on the way down, and the world goes black.

When he wakes up, he hurts like a motherfucker. Everywhere. "Johnson," he says as he opens his eyes.

Steve's sitting in the chair next to his bed, in a room that's done up to be not unlike a human hospital room. Sam gets a weird feeling, like reverse deja vu. "Apprehended," Steve says. "He's been charged with the murders, along with conspiracy to disrupt Vrai culture, which is a new one to me."

"Good," Sam says. He takes a deep breath, then regrets it, wincing. "You know," he says, "you really should've had your shield out."

"That was stupid," Steve says. "I didn't think he'd get the jump on us."

"People rarely do," Sam says.

"Thank you," Steve says.

Coming from anyone else, Sam thinks, it'd sound like an admission of guilt of some kind. But from Steve it just sounds gentle, understanding. Steve gets self-sacrifice.

"No problem," Sam says. "Just do me a favor and don't get anyone shooting at you for, I don't know, a couple weeks at least."

"A couple weeks?" Steve laughs. "Do you have super soldier healing now?"

"What's the damage?" Sam says.

That makes Steve more serious. "Perforated organs, collapsed lung," he says. "And you're going to have scars, since the Vrai regeneration tech doesn't work on humans. Yet."

"Goody," Sam says. He sighs. "Being bed-bound was not how I anticipated my honeymoon going."

That makes Steve turn a little red, which is at least entertaining. "I, well. That's." Steve stands up. "I'm going to go get us some coffee."

Sam closes his eyes. Steve will be back, and then they'll talk about the marriage, maybe. About how long they've got to keep the pretense up, and what they'll do about their divorce.

Sam's maybe freaking out about it, a little. But only in that private, battlefield way where he's keeping that shit locked down.

Footsteps make him open his eyes again. He expects Steve, but what he sees, he at first thinks is a hallucination: Grai, upright and walking. Carrying a knife.

Sam tries to roll out of the hospital bed, but Grai clamps a hand on his shoulder. He's inhumanly strong, and Sam is pinned as he puts his knife to Sam's throat and leans in.

"This was supposed to go perfectly," he hisses. "The murders would cement my position, and I would become the only protector Valrian needs. And instead, I have you. A filthy rat of a human, apprehending my agent and ending my plans."

Sam doesn't respond. He's too busy inching his knee up.

"But now, I will have my revenge," Grai says, and moves to cut Sam's throat.

Sam kicks with his knee. Hard. It wrenches something in his gut, but that doesn't matter, because Grai's hand lets up just long enough for Sam to grab the knife and stab Grai with it. Not straight through the heart, but right by it, enough of a blow that he falls to the floor, stunned.

Sam knocks heads with him, knocking Grai out, then slumps back on the bed. He's pretty sure he pulled some stitches. Watching the body on the floor, wary of sudden movement, he presses the Earth-like nurse help button.

There are long hours of talking after that, but not as long as they'd be if this happened on Earth, because the Protectors apparently saw the bulk of it. Sam doesn't get an explanation, though, until Nefia slips into his room late at night, after Steve's already fallen asleep on a cot next to Sam's bed.

"Spousal privileges," she says quietly, looking over at Steve.

"Why are you here?"

"No one told you what Grai is."

"No," Sam says. "I was given to believe that information is confidential."

"It is," Nefia says. "But you were directly involved, and no Protector will lay sanctions against me. After this, I will go back to the market."

"What was Grai, then?"

"A Protector," Nefia says. "Or he could have been. We do not hide our skills, because why should we? Every child is tested for potential when they are young. But murder is the only way to unnaturally become a Protector. To have the sight and skill to reach into the minds of other Vrai. That is why, you see. He wanted to become like Yulia."

"Not like Yulia at all," Sam says. He suddenly feels exhausted. "It all leads back to power, even here on Valrian."

"No," Nefia says, "not like Yulia. But more like her than we'd like to think."

"How'd he fake his own death?" Sam says. "He just dropped out, right? No signal?"

"Correct," Nefia says. "Even if he couldn't become fully a Protector without murder, he had a few...tricks up his sleeve, I believe you would say. He slowed his life signs so that we could not physically feel them, then erased his biological signature from the Protectors' view."

"And General Johnson?"

"Grai promised him great things," Nefia says. "The General was unhappy with the Earth coalition. Once Grai held sway over the protectors, he intended to expel all but the American representatives."

"Does the President know about this? Was he involved?"

"No," Nefia says. "We have had a Protector swear to this. A trustworthy one. Your organization, HYDRA - they were behind it. But not the President."

Sam nods, feeling suddenly tired. It's a lot to take in, and beyond that, it hurts to know that humans were part of this massive fuck-up. "Thank you for the explanation."

Nefia nods back. "You are welcome," she says. She makes it back to the door before she hesitates, looking back at Sam. "You should tell him you love him."

She leaves before Sam has a chance to mount a protest.

How long has she known? Will she tell anyone? Sam would like to ask, but he knows he can't. He reclines his bed instead, closing his eyes and trying to sleep.

They wait two weeks to go anywhere, as Sam heals up. The Vrai have managed to adapt some of their healing technology, but the heavy-duty regeneration stuff is still Vrai-only. The trip back to Earth is uneventful - comparatively, anyway. They just get on the bifrost and go, Steve and Sam pointedly holding hands.

"We could stay in New York," Steve says over coffee. It's morning in New York, so even though they're exhausted, they're going to power through until they can at least have an after-lunch nap.

"You got a place in Brooklyn?"

Steve shakes his head. "I couldn't...but there's a place in Manhattan. Howard left it for me. He thought I was dead, but he still spent the money for it. I'm not sure why."

Every day, Stark's complex about Steve makes more and more sense. "I see."

"It's a nice apartment," Steve says. "Two bedrooms."

"We have to pretend to be married, remember?" Sam says. "At least for a few more months."

"I know," Steve says. He makes a face that Sam can't figure out, halfway between embarrassed and chagrined. " might be nice to have a space of your own."

Sam wants to point out that once they're no longer married, it would look seriously weird if they kept sharing an apartment. But he's exhausted, all of his stuff is in storage or in a house the government's paying rent on, and he doesn't particularly want to drag Steve back to DC, anyway. He can call the VA, see about a transfer to New York. He's high profile enough that he thinks they'd go for it. So finally, he says, "Yeah. Let's do that."

They pick up some stuff on the way to the apartment - a coffee maker, some paper plates. Steve's not sure what to expect, apparently, even though the keys to the apartment are on his keyring, as nondescript as can be.

The apartment is - Sam's first thought is understated, but that's only true in the context of the Starks. It's got smooth granite counters and a brick wall in the living room, with floor-to-ceiling picture windows that show a beautiful view. For anyone else, it would be ostentatious. For Howard Stark, well. It's morbid and creepy, but also kind of nice.

"This is nice," Steve says. "This will be fine." He goes into the bedroom, dropping the bags on the floor with carelessness that's totally uncharacteristic of him.

Sam walks over to the bedroom, leaning on the door frame. "You okay, Steve?"

"Of course," Steve says. "Why wouldn't I be?" He's unfolding and hanging up clothes with a weird kind of contained violence.

"This is a lot of stress," Sam says.

"You're the one who almost died." Steve's eyes flick to Sam and then back again.

"We live dangerous lives," Sam says. "You can't freak out every time I almost die. That's no way to live."

"I will, though," Steve says. He stops packing and stares at Sam like he's willing Sam to read his mind. "I always will."

Sam feels a little sick at the prospect. "That's no way to live," he says again, because he can't think of anything else. He goes back out in the kitchen and unpacks the coffee machine.

They watch TV that night, on opposite ends of the couch. There's no one here to pretend for, but Sam doesn't try and fool himself about why he misses it. He wants Steve, and for the first time in his life, he doesn't know how to make a move.

The worst part about Steve, the thing that makes living with him a tiny bit annoying, is that Sam can't just wait him out until he goes to bed. Steve hardly sleeps. So Sam ends up going to bed first, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell he's going to do about this.

The next day, Steve has an itinerary. A long one. He wants to go grocery shopping, to coordinate cooking, to get new sheets - "These are too smooth" - and to go to the park. He also wants to investigate the gym in the basement of their apartment complex. Sam would like nothing more than to sleep for a hundred years, but when Steve lays out his plans, he gives Sam this hopeful look that Sam, in spite of himself, can't resist.

"All right, fine," he says. "We'll go to the farmer's market. Honestly, Steve, you're too old to be this white."

"That doesn't even make sense," Steve says.

"It does a little," Sam says. He pats Steve on the shoulder and goes to the bathroom.

Errands are actually fun with Steve, which is a red flag all on its own. They go to the damn farmer's market, which is full of rich people glaring at tomatoes like they'll reveal state secrets, and then they go to Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and then they dump all their shit at the house, rough out a cooking schedule, and go to the park. Steve picked up a frisbee somewhere along the way, so they play frisbee, and it's - God, it's so sickeningly sweet that Sam is a little disgusted with himself, but it's also good.

Sam is so goddamn doomed, it's not even funny at this point.

The worst part is that all throughout this, paparazzi are taking pictures. But no one actually approaches them. Sam's not new to the way people harass celebrities, but apparently knowing that one of those celebrities can squash your head like a melon dissuades people from being too invasive. Never mind that Steve would never actually do that. People remember the invasion of New York with too much clarity to push Steve.

Sam would be offended, but the fact is that he's just not as deadly as Steve. Being a PJ kind of removes your inferiority complex, apparently. Plenty of people and things aren't as deadly as Sam. IEDs, for example.

They flop down in the grass at the park after they're done playing frisbee. Steve lies spread-eagled, a blissful smile on his face that makes Sam wonder if this is how he'd be after sex, too. He's barely quashed the thought when Steve says, a little breathy, "This was fun."

"Yeah." Sam lies down on the grass so he can stop staring at Steve like a middle schooler at his first dance. "It was."

"It will be nice to have company still," Steve says. "I mean, don't feel like you have to, obviously. We've spent a lot of time together, on Valrian and before. But..."

"Steve. Calm down. You're right, it'll be nice."

It's the right thing to say, exactly the right amount of soothing and supportive. Sam wishes it didn't make him feel quite so shitty. Unrequited love is the goddamn worst thing in the world.

They go back to the house together, Sam ignoring when people pull out their phones to take pictures of them. He's not sure if Steve doesn't notice or is ignoring it, too, until they get back to the apartment and Steve says, "I hate that."

"What?" Sam says, toeing off his shoes.

"The cameras. It's so annoying."

"So you noticed, huh?"

"I have a good memory," Steve says, like Sam doesn't know all about his here's-where-the-HYDRA-camps-are stunt from the 40s.

"Sure," Sam says. "I'm going to make us a salad for dinner, is that cool?"

"What kind?"

"Bacon, eggs, spinach, tomatoes. You know, good stuff."

"With some of that bread we picked up?"


Steve smiles at him. It's a huge, too-nice smile, one that makes Sam feel vaguely guilty just for wanting more.

He shakes himself a little and forces a smile back, then goes to the kitchen.

Cooking, at least, helps him settle down a little. Here, he can pretend he's just having a friend for dinner. No major drama, no aliens thinking they're married, no sleeping in the same bed while Sam aches to reach out and touch him. Just Sam and Steve, hanging out. No need to mention the Falcon program, or Captain America, or any of that.

He carries the bowls of salad out, along with some of the crusty bread they bought at the farmer's market. Steve devours it all, then goes back for seconds and thirds. Sam's a little more circumspect, but still, by the time he's done, he's full and happy.

"Do you miss being normal?" Steve says out of nowhere.

Sam almost chokes on his water. "Do I what?" he says, putting the bottle down before he does more damage.

Steve picks at the couch. "I kind of miss, you know. Back in the day, me and Buck, fighting to survive. I know I shouldn't." He looks up, his eyes canvassing the living room. "This apartment is so nice. But..."

"I don't think we really have the same kind of homesickness, man."

"I know," Steve says. "I just wondered."

Sam decides to throw him a bone. "Yeah. I do, sometimes."

Steve nods, and they lapse into silence again.

Sam goes to bed early that night, but he tosses and turns and can't sleep. So finally, he turns the bedside lamp on and props himself up with some pillows, reading a book about supernovas. Half of it's flying over his head, but it's interesting. He's engrossed in it enough that he doesn't even notice when Steve comes in, until Steve closes the door behind him with a click.

Sam looks up. Steve's standing there, looking at Sam like he's been stunned. His shirt is a little tight, and he's got a hand up scratching his stomach that he seems to have forgotten about.

Something shifts and clicks, imperceptible but no less real. Sam puts the book on the side table, carefully, then says, "Maybe you should come here."

Steve blinks at him. "Do you mean -"

"Sex," Sam says. "Just to be clear."

"Oh," Steve says. "Well, in that case." He walks over to the bed and pulls his shirt off before settling next to Sam.

That means it's Sam's job to roll on top of him, straddling Steve's narrow hips and running his hands over Steve's chest. "Fair's fair," Steve says, tugging the hem of Sam's shirt.

Sam can't help but laugh a little, but he takes his shirt off. "Shouldn't we kiss first? I thought guys in the past went slow."

"I've been celibate for a long time," Steve says. "But you're probably right." He lifts them both up, settling them in a sitting position, and then ducks in to kiss Sam.

It's not dynamite, at first. Steve holds his head at an awkward angle, and his hands are biting into Sam's hips a little uncomfortably. But then Sam reaches up and puts a hand on the back of Steve's head, changing the angle and nipping at Steve's lower lip, and then it all changes. Steve kisses back, a little more urgently, and Sam returns it - the pressure, the need. Steve's hands on his hips ease, then flex, pushing Sam - and his growing hard-on - more firmly against Steve's stomach.

"Wow," Steve says when they pull apart. "You're..." He cups Sam's cheek, runs a thumb over his cheekbone.

"Come on," Sam says. "You've seen prettier."

"Sure I have," Steve says. "But I want you."

"Well, in that case," Sam says, and kisses him again.

In the end it's Steve who rolls them over and goes down on Sam, looking up at him with a mischievous expression that makes Sam laugh, until he's too busy trying not to come too quickly to do anything else. Steve likes it when Sam fucks his mouth, moans and thrusts his hips into the mattress when Sam holds the back of his head. He takes Sam almost all the way, too, encouraging Sam by lifting Sam's hips a little, then playing with Sam's balls. It's so good, better than Sam thought it would be even in his more optimistic fantasies, and before long he's coming his brains out, with Steve's hands all over him.

Steve swallows. He makes a face, and that makes Sam laugh again. "You know, you could've spit. I'm gonna spit."

Steve looks so hopeful at that. "You're going to..."

"Hell yeah," Sam says. "Get up here."

One thing leads to another, and before long Sam's licking Steve's cock with two fingers buried in his ass. As it turns out, Steve is so fucking pretty when he's being fucked, spread-eagled on their bed, fingers digging into the sheets. He's holding himself back a little, Sam can tell, and that makes it hotter when he says, sounding choked, "God, Sam, oh God," and comes all over his stomach, with Sam's hand around his dick.

Sam jacks him through it, curls his fingers one last time and watches Steve shudder. Sam doesn't have the energy to do much more than the most half-hearted cleanup, but when he's done, Steve hauls him in and sprawls on top of him.

"Are you always like this?" Sam says. His arm's going to fall asleep in ten minutes, tops, but Steve's got his face buried in the crook of Sam's neck, and that alone is enough to make him put up with the aggressive cuddling.

"You know," Steve says, a note of wonder in his voice, "I don't know. I guess we'll find out."

Sam strokes Steve's back, long and slow, and doesn't answer.

They're enjoying a nice afterglow the next morning, Sam making eggs and Steve grinding coffee in the truly impressive conical grinder someone bought for the place, when the lawyer calls.

Well, Sam's not sure if she's technically a lawyer. She's someone with high-level clearance and knowledge of gay marriage as it pertains to alien cultures, though, and she wraps up the call by saying, "So, long story short, you should be able to legally divorce one another within six months, if not sooner."

"Thanks," Steve says. His voice is a little tight. Sam would like to think he doesn't want to get a divorce any more than Sam wants to, but that's maybe a little optimistic. Once upon a time, Steve was Catholic. Maybe he just doesn't like divorce, generally. "We'll get back to you."

"Thanks, Naomi," Sam says, a hollow echo of Steve.

"No problem. If you two need anything, give me a call. This is my direct line." She hangs up.

Sam flips the eggs. They're looking done, so he turns the burner off and pulls two plates out of the cupboard.

"Divorce," Steve says. "Not exactly a nice Sunday morning topic."

"We knew it was coming," Sam says. He portions out the bulk of the eggs to Steve, then fills his own plate, adding a tiny cup of yogurt and some fruit for each of them. This is good. Focusing on cutting the fruit, giving the yogurt a little swirl so it's not weirdly textured. He sets the plate in front of Steve and thinks, for a minute, that they can just drop the whole thing.

They do, technically speaking. But when Steve polishes off his food in five minutes flat and says, "I'm going to be out today," Sam knows the elephant's still in the room.

"I'll see you later," he says.

Steve does the dishes before he leaves. He's courteous like that. Sam wants this, he wants it forever - well, fine; maybe he wants to take Steve on a couple dates first. But he doesn't know how to say any of that. Steve's not a delicate guy, but this thing between them is delicate by definition. Sam wants to open lines of communication, to get them on the same page, but he's fucking terrified that they'll be reading two entirely different metaphorical books.

Even his metaphors are tortured. He gives up on thinking about the problem directly in favor of going for a long, punishing run.

His left knee has never been his best friend, and by the end of his ten-mile jog, it's acting up. He goes inside and sits on the couch, sweat and all, while he ices it. Steve's not back yet, but then, it's only noon; he's probably eating lunch at some diner, sketching, maybe thinking about divorcing Sam.

Sam can't blame him. He knows enough about Steve to know that this kind of freedom is terrifying to him. He could do anything, be anyone. He doesn't even have a government agency to be a soldier for anymore. Or not a single government agency, anyway. All that freedom keeps him locked in, clinging to the few things he still finds familiar. Put like that, Sam's not even sure he wants Steve to want to stay married to him.

God, this is a mess. Sam puts the icepack back in the freezer and goes to take a shower.

Steve stays out the entire day. Sam does his best to stay occupied, but the day drags on anyway. He's making a stir-fry for dinner when Steve comes back.

"Hey," Sam says. "How was your day?"

Steve blinks, like that's not the question he was expecting to have to answer. "Fine. I drew a lot, went to the library."

"That's good," Sam says. He feels so fucking awkward.

"Listen," Steve says. "About last night. I don' wasn't..."

Sam's stomach sinks. "Don't worry about it," he says, and stirs the vegetables in the skillet a little harder than necessary.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking," Steve says. "About us. This whole marriage."

"It's not a big deal," Sam says. "We got a little out of line last night, but it makes sense. All the pretending fucks with your head. And we've been through a lot."

"I kind of figured you'd say that," Steve says. "You're good at saying the right thing."

"Someone has to."

"Not always," Steve says. "Sometimes the right thing isn't what needs to be said."

Sam's not sure where Steve's going with this, so he stays silent.

Steve squares his shoulders like he's going into battle and says, "I liked it. Sleeping with you." He turns red. "I want to do it again."

"That doesn't exactly solve our problems," Sam says. "We're married. You think it won't get complicated?"

"It's already complicated," Steve says. "You don't fall in love with a...person...overnight, and I didn't. But I might be there."

Sam's breath catches in spite of himself. He needs to play it cool, and he knows it, but that's hard with Steve standing there, looking so fucking hopeful.

He stops the burner and turns away from Steve. "Me too," he says. "Maybe."


"You can't expect me to say definitely."

He doesn't realize Steve's crept closer until he feels hands on his waist. "I didn't really mean maybe," Steve says.

He's still keeping his distance; their only point of contact is Steve's hands. Sam could end this now.

Instead he turns so he's facing Steve, inches away. "Neither did I," he says.

Steve smiles a little. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Sam says, and kisses him.

It goes on for so long that the stir-fry gets cold, but the apartment has a microwave, and Sam can't worry about that when Steve's pressed against him, their legs tangled together, Sam leaning against the counter.

Finally, Sam says, "You know, this makes staying married more complicated."

Steve looks at him. "How?"

"Well, for starters, I want to take you on a date."

Steve ducks his head. "You can stay in the other room."

"We'll try that," Sam says. He'll probably end up spending most of his nights in Steve's room, but still - it's a start.

"You're so practical," Steve says. "It's..." He shakes his head. "It's good, except I don't want to be practical right now."

"Let's be impractical, then," Sam says, and takes Steve's hand, pulling him into Steve's bedroom.

The next day, Steve says, "I want to take you out."

"On a date?"

Steve smiles. "Do you like Italian?"

"I do, actually."

"Great. Be ready at six, then."

Steve takes them to a shabby-looking Italian place - or at least, as shabby as it gets in Manhattan. Sam's kind of surprised he didn't take them to Brooklyn. He's not sure if it shows on his face or what, but after they've ordered, Steve says, "I don't go back to Brooklyn that much."

"Too much has changed?"

"Too much hasn't," Steve says. "It's like being haunted. If a place can haunt you."

Sam thinks back to the desert, Riley falling to the ground. "Yeah. I know what you mean."

Sam's halfway through his spaghetti when Steve gently touches his foot to Sam's. Sam doesn't look up, just keeps eating, but he hooks his foot around Steve's.

This is really not helping his resolution to not think about just dragging Steve off to bed.

"That was good," Steve says when they're done, leaning back in his chair. "But I'm ready for the check." His eyes are on Sam, intent, and suddenly Sam realizes that Steve's been having the exact same problem.

"Yeah," Sam says, and flags the waitress down.

They keep a lid on it as they walk back to their apartment - holding hands, but not doing anything too teenager-like, not dragging each other into an alcove or groping each other on the street. Which is a pity, because Sam definitely wants to. In the elevator, Steve grabs Sam and pulls him close, kissing him, and Sam clings a little as they lean against the elevator wall.

"Finally," Steve says when the elevator hits their floor. He drags Sam inside, pushing him up against the door and kissing him.

Sam's head is spinning by the time they get to the bedroom. But Steve anchors him, pinning him to the bed and kissing him, again and again, until Sam's thoughts about how this could all go sideways disappear.

Sam tells himself he's going to take it day by day. One day turns into two, which turns into three, which turns into a week. He and Steve go out a bunch together, but they avoid photographers more than anything else; they're still legally married, but neither of them feels like flaunting the fact. What's going on between them is too delicate, too new.

But God, Sam loves him. He loves waking up in the morning to the smell of eggs, and he loves going to sleep at night with Steve half sprawled on top of him. He might not know what'll happen with them, but he knows he wants to keep this, the two of them.

A month later, they get the news that the government wants them back on Valrian for negotiation. Namely, Earth getting their hands on the Vrai healing tech. They have two weeks, so Sam gives his vacation - government mandated, stressful, indefinite vacation - notice at the VA. But there's one thing he knows he can't put off any longer.

His little sister Jamie takes four days off - perks of being a dentist with her own practice, apparently. His mother takes time off from her law firm. And his dad - well, he retired from the force two years ago. He's been itching to meet Steve even before they got married.

So Steve and Sam go to Philadelphia.

"I don't think I ironed my pants enough," Steve says as they pull into Sam's parent's driveway.

"You ironed them twice," Sam says. "They're khakis."

"It's your parents," Steve says.

Sam laughs. "You look fine. Come on, let's go."

They go up the walk together. Sam's mother opens the door before they even get to the steps. She's wearing her lawyer getup, even though she's got an apron on over it. Dressed to impress - or intimidate. "Sam! So this is the boy you decide to bring home to us." She eyes Steve up and down.

"You know what he looks like, Mom," Sam says. "His face is all over the news."

"Mhmm," his mother says. "Captain America. The darling of Fox News, if I'm not mistaken, up until this whole marriage. Which you didn't tell us about."

"It's a long story," Sam says. "Can we tell it inside?"

"I suppose," his mother says. She steps aside. "Come in, Steve."

Steve goes inside. Sam follows him. Steve stands in the entryway, hands jammed in his pockets, shoulders hunched just a little. Sam's probably a bad person for thinking it's cute.

"This is a lovely home, ma'am," Steve says. "It's good to meet you." He takes a hand out of his pocket and shakes Sam's mother's hand, much to her amusement.

"It's good to meet you as well," she says.

"I never much liked Fox News," Steve says. "I don't think they understand how things used to be."

"Nor how they are now," his mother says, but there's visible thawing.

"We brought this," Steve adds, holding out a bottle of wine. "Thank you for hosting us, ma'am."

"Thank you, Steve," she says. "Call me Sharon. James! Jamie! They're here."

"Come out to the living room," his father says. "We've got some time before dinner."

Steve gulps, but he follows Sam's mom down the hallway. Sam doesn't miss the way he looks at the pictures on the wall as he goes, smiling a little at them.

"Sam," his father says when they get out there. He doesn't get up to hug Sam, but he's not really the hugging type. "Steve Rogers."

"Sir," Steve says.

"There's been a lot of news about you two. Most of it false, I imagine."

"A lot of it's classified," Steve says. "But, um." He turns bright, bright red. "I love your son. Very much."

"Good," his father says. "I like the 'sir', though. You can keep that."

Jamie comes racing down the stairs. "Captain America! It's true!"

Steve holds up his hand, the ring obvious on it. "Very true."

"I can't believe you married Captain America," Jamie says. "How am I going to follow that up? All the other superheroes are taken."

"Maybe you'll meet a new one," Steve says, smiling a little.

"I read on TMZ that he eats like, five hot dogs in one sitting," Jamie says, eyes shifting to focus on their mother. "You made a lot of pot roast, right?"

"Of course I did," she says.

"I really appreciate that, ma'am," Steve says.

"Steve, I told you to call me Sharon."

"Yes, ma'am," Steve says.

Sam's father laughs. "I'm starting to approve," he says.

"How old are you?" Sam says to Jamie. "Serious question, because last I checked, thirty-year-olds don't read TMZ."

"Sure we do," Jamie says. "And you're one to talk." She pitches her voice a little higher. "Oh, I met Captain America, he's so cool, we're going on a road trip together, it's the best."

"I never said that," Sam says. Only, he kind of did. And judging from Steve's amused expression, he knows it.

"You totally did," Jamie says. "Anyway. Come on, I'll show you the yard. Mom's got a vegetable garden."

"I love gardens," Steve says.

"Let's go, then," Jamie says. "You can weed it. I was supposed to."

"I'd like that," Steve says.

Sam's pretty sure he's being genuine, too. Jamie leads Steve outside.

Sam doesn't follow. His father's still looking at him, and Sam knows what that expression means.

"I'm going to go check on the roast," his mother says, and leaves them alone.

"You know, he's not who I would have chosen for you," his father says. "Regardless of how many Nazis he killed."

"He's a good person," Sam says. "One of the best I've ever known."

"So you keep insisting," his father says. "But you're happy?"

"I am," Sam says. "I really am."

"Good," his father says. "Then go keep your husband from yanking out your mother's begonias. I don't trust that boy to know a tomato from a red pepper."

Sam would protest, but he gets the feeling that would just get him laughed at. "Thanks, Dad," he says, and goes out to the garden.

Dinner is great. Sam's intensely grateful for Jamie making the trip, because she keeps up a patter of conversation, tapping Steve on the wrist, kicking Sam under the table. Sam's father quizzes Steve about forties politics, and Steve has all the right answers - not even on purpose, Sam's pretty sure. "It was a shame about the regiments," Steve says at one point. "We all share a country, and they kept us separate. Luckily I got to pick who I wanted for the Commandos."

Sam's father nods. "Good," he says. That's a seal of approval, coming from him. Sam tries to tuck away his smile. If he looks too stupid, Jamie will call him on it.

Dinner runs late. By the time they're driving back to the hotel - which Sam insisted on, because staying in his childhood room would be way too much for him - Sam's a little sleepy. That goes away, though, when they get into their room. Steve starts to change, stripping his shirt off, and Sam stops him with a hand on his belt.

"Let me," he says, and unbuckles it, undoing Steve's pants and pushing them down to the ground.

Steve's gorgeous, and Sam lets himself drink it in. Or at least, he does for as long as it takes Steve to get impatient and kiss Sam, tugging at his shirt at the same time.

"We can't do both at once," Sam says, laughing a little. But he pulls away enough to strip off his shirt and pants, and then they're tumbling onto the bed in just their underwear.

Sam hoists himself on top of Steve, kissing him again. "My family liked you," he says, brushing his hands over Steve's pegs, pressing his leg against Steve's dick.

"Good," Steve says on a stuttered breath. He runs a hand over Sam's head, down his neck, to his back. "God, I want - so much."

"We have time," Sam says. "All the time in the world."

That makes Steve crane his neck to smile, so fucking sweetly. Sam scoots down and pulls Steve's boxer briefs off. "I'm going to fuck you," he says, rubbing a thumb over the head of Steve's dick.

"Yes," Steve says, arching his back.

The lube is in Sam's suitcase, so he retrieves it, pulling his own underwear off as he goes. He lubes up two fingers and bends down to suck Steve's dick as he presses two fingers in, rubbing his thumb over the back of Steve's balls, moving with Steve as he gasps and rocks his hips.

It's so good like this, Steve's skin glowing in the light from the corner lamp, his hands tightening around Sam's shoulders. It's easy to fuck him, harder and harder as Steve gasps, until he's practically coming off the bed with how bad he wants it. It's easy to jerk Steve off, laughing when he comes quickly, then groaning when he gets hard again after another minute of fucking.

Sam holds on for as long as he can, but in the end, he comes as Steve jerks himself off, a hot rush of sensation that makes him bite off a cry. Steve comes again as Sam's getting his bearings; he wipes his hand on the side of the bed as Sam loosens his grip on Steve's knees and pulls out.

"I'll admit," Sam says after they've both brushed their teeth and curled up against each other, "the whole super soldier refractory period is nice."

Steve laughs a little. "It is," he says. "I like it."

Sam kisses him gently. "I meant it, you know," he says. "About having all the time in the world."

"I know." Steve looks at him, suddenly intent. "I want that. With you."

"Good," Sam says. He kisses Steve again, then says, "Because I'm pretty sure the President would have us locked up if we tried to get a divorce."

He drinks in the sound of Steve's laughter.