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It starts early on in the hunt for the Winter Soldier.

Steve Rogers: SOS

Sam frowns at the text message and straightens at the bar, looking around as inconspicously as possible to find Steve and the threat. His heartrate slows down a little when he spots in him in the corner of the bar, apparently caught on the way back from the bathroom by two gorgeous looking women in pumps and crop tops. They're biting their lower lips a lot, looking up at him through their lashes, and Steve is nodding politely to whatever they're saying, hands in his pockets. Sam sudddenly sees why Steve asked for a smart phone with real buttons. He must have texted blind.

Sam gets up from the barstool and saunters over. "Hey, man, there you are." He deliberately doesn't say 'Steve' in case they haven't figured out who he is yet. To be honest, it's possible that Steve could get this kind of attention even if people thought he was a nobody. His cheekbones are ridiculous.

"H-Hi," Steve says, a little too loudly, and reaches out to Sam like a lifeline, clapping him on the shoulder. Take me away from here, his body language is screaming. If it were anyone else Sam wouldn't feel bad for the guy getting piled on by girls, but Steve's discomfort is almost palpable. For whatever reason, he obviously hates this.

"Your friend?" The first girl looks Sam up and down, evaluating, and Sam has to be at least a little smug at her expression. "Is he coming with us to the party?"

"Party?" Sam quirks a brow.

"There's, um. Natalie was just explaining that there's a party at her friend's house that I should attend." Steve smiles in the way that effectively communicates he wants nothing to do with it. Sam pouts.

"Babe, it's date night. I know you like to mingle, but it's just you and me tonight, okay?" He grabs Steve's wrist and tugs him out from between the two confused girls, leading him back to the bar stools on the other side of the room. "Sorry, girls, but he's only on leave for so long. I'm gonna be selfish."

"Ohhhh," one of the girls says under her breath, just as the other girl chirps, "Have a nice night!"

Safely back in their own seats, Sam quietly explains that he and a friend used to do that for each other in college, and that it was a pretty good way to get a girl you weren't interested in to leave you alone without hurting her feelings.

"Isn't it a little..." Steve's brow furrows. "Dishonest?"

"You wanna go to a house party in Newark? Yeah, didn't think so."

**

It doesn't happen much after that, considering most of the leads on the Winter - on Bucky - take them to terrible parts of the country that aren't exactly full of single women. There's one memorable night in New Mexico, though, when the working girls loitering outside the motel they're staying at start to circle Rogers. Steve, moron that he is, actually chats with them a while before they get a little too close, a little too handsy, and then Sam curses under his breath, jogs away from the concierge desk, and grabs Steve around the middle.

"You're not exactly his type," Sam says apologetically, and the girls mutter something and scatter. Steve is bright pink when they get to their room, and Sam flops down on his bed and picks up the remote, trying to see if there's anything good on TV. (There isn't.)

"Man, I know you knew they were prosititutes."

Steve shrugs.  "There were lots of working girls in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I guess I'm used to... being really short. And the girls knowing I'm poor. They used to just want to shoot the breeze."

"Well, now they want the D."

Steve makes a distressed sound and hits the shower.

**

"Why does it make you so uncomfortable?"

Steve doesn't answer at first, but Sam knows the difference between the silence of someone who isn't going to answer and the silence of someone gathering their thoughts. It takes a few minutes:

"For the first twenty-something years of my life I was ... small. Really small. The whole world ignored me. Especially women."

Sam watches as Steve fiddles with the dials for the air conditioning. "And now it's all the opposite?"

"And it's worse."

**

Steve Rogers: SOS SOS SOS SOS

Sam rolls his eyes and gets up from the hotel bed in Ohio. Down in the small lobby, by the snack machines, the cougariest woman Sam has ever seen is running a finger down the buttons on Steve's shirt. He looks like he's gripping the ginger ale tightly enough to burst it open. He also looks like he wants to die.

"...and the conference is only til Thursday," she's purring. "I've got an extra room key, if you-"

Sam leans against the railing of the staircase and shouts. "Baby." Something dark and evil in his heart is very amused by the fact that Steve instantly whirls around. "You said you'd get me a soda and come right back to bed."

"I'm - I'm sorry," Steve manages, and practically flies up the stairs to meet him. Sam barely registers the apologetic peck on his cheek before Steve dashes past him and down their hallway to the room.

**

"What was that?"

"She was a horrifying human being, Sam. I panicked. I wanted to make sure it stuck."

"That bad, huh?"

"I'm, um. I'm sorry. It was rude of me, now that I think about it."

"Share that ginger ale and we'll call it square."

**

Sometimes Sam wonders if he started something bad. Something he kind of wants to go through on. Steve's growing disappointment is poorly hidden behind a stoic face, with every charred bunker and dead end in finding Bucky, and Sam's desire to comfort him isn't just friendly anymore. He knows that. He knows himself. This is probably bad.

**

"You can just say 'sorry, I'm gay', and then you don't have to wait for me to see you flailing and save your ass." They're walking out of a bar outside of Detroit.

"I'm not really ready to say that," Steve says in a strange voice, and Sam drops it.

Chapter Text

Much later, when they've found Bucky and begun reintroducing him to the non-murdering side of modern life, Sam's phone buzzes in the diner. He checks it and groans.

"God damn it, he just went to the car for two seconds to get a damn sketchbook..." Sam slides out of the booth and gestures at Bucky that he'll just be a minute.

Sam sees him. In the parking lot, a girl who can't be more than nineteen is rubbing her hand up and down Steve's forearm while she whispers something in his ear. Steve is holding still enough to be mistaken for a wax figure. Sam is too under-slept for this bullshit and elects to just shout from the restaurant doorway.

"Let go of my damn boyfriend and let him come eat his breakfast!"

The girl snaps back as if she's been struck, looking from Steve to Sam, and Steve goes from motionless to a blur, jogging past the cars and up the steps and through the doorway with a mumbled ohgodthankyou as he passes by. When Sam lets the door shut and goes to sit back down, Bucky is still staring out the window at the retreating girl. When Bucky turns back to look at Sam, his eyes are burning.

Steve notices and sits up a little straighter. "Um, Bucky, the reason we-"

"Shut up," Bucky says, harsh and dark. He's furious, Sam realizes with a jolt of fear. Bucky slides out of his side of booth, stalking down the narrow aisle to the door and leaving. Steve makes a pained sound and buries his face in his arms. Sam watches out the window as Bucky jogs west.

"Which way did he go?" Steve mumbles.

"Toward home," Sam says, and the tension in Steve's back looks like it relaxes a little. "Sorry, man, I-"

"It's not your fault." Steve sits up. He sounds furious. With himself. "I've been avoiding the subject with him."

"What, the subject that occasionally your friend pretends to be your date to keep women off you? You can't blame yourself for a stupid detail like that, there's been a lot of stuff to talk about." Sam examines Steve's face, finding something painful and broken there. "What's really going on?"

"You're not... the subject I've been avoiding. Before he fell, Bucky and I... we..."

"Oh my God."

Steve looks like he's about to say something, but ends up just burying his face back into his arms. "I fucked up." Sam's never heard him curse before. "I wasn't sure if he remembered, and I didn't want him to - to get scared or think he had to - to do anything, I didn't want him to get the wrong idea and think I expected things to be like they were before, I was so scared of..."

Sam tries to think one step at a time. "Well, no matter what he thinks or remembers, he'll probably feel better if he doesn't think we're a couple."

"He left his phone here."

"Of course he did." He left the pancakes. He definitely left his stupid phone. "Let's go home. He's probably there."

**

Sam pulls into the driveway. Steve is already unbuckling his seat belt.

"Give me a five minute head start," Steve is saying, taking a deep breath and opening the car door. "I'll see if I can calm him down."

"Sure," Sam says, and cuts the engine. He watches Steve fumble the keys out of his pocket and disappear into the house. In the back of his mind, Sam can feel the selfish part of himself start to get mad that Steve is gay. That he's gay and not interested, that he's gay and has some sort of epic love story spanning two centuries. That Sam doesn't have a chance and hasn't had one since he was like negative forty years old.

The back door opens and Bucky gets in. Sam blinks and half expects the barrel of a gun to get pressed to the back of his neck; instead a hand covers his mouth, cold and metallic and unyielding.

This is how I die , Sam thinks to himself.  I get my neck snapped by the angry ex of a guy I never even got to kiss.

"I'm not going to kill you," Bucky says, because he's not stupid enough to think Sam wouldn't think that. Sam relaxes a little. "Listen, okay?"

"Mmph."

Sam can see Bucky nod in the rear-view mirror. It takes a long time for him to actually say anything for Sam to listen to. "You're probably really good for him. So I won't hurt you. I'm - I'm really fucked up now, and he shouldn't be with someone like that. He deserves something good." Bucky's voice doesn't sound cold anymore. It sounds sad. "Just. Make him happy. As long as you do, I won't hurt you."

The silence stretches out, and Sam thinks maybe Bucky's waiting for him to agree to this, so he says 'mmph' again and the cold metal against his mouth disappears. So does Bucky. Sam twists around in his seat to see where he went, but other than the echo of the car door slamming, he's gone.

Sam twists back to stare forward, catching his breath and trying to process what just happened. He's gotten a lot better with panicky situations in the last few years, but it takes more long, slow inhales and exhales than he'd like to admit to get his hands to stop shaking.

The curtains rustle as Steve lifts them up, beckoning for Sam to come inside. He gets out of the car and comes in. Steve is alone in the living room.

"I explained it," Steve says, "and he got a weird expression and went to his room. I don't know what.. what's going on with him right now, but he's not mad anymore."

"You saw him?" Sam asks.

Steve blinks. "He was in the back yard. He just came in about a minute ago."

That man is fast. "So, he. He knows we aren't."

"Right."

"And we were never."

"Right." Steve says emphatically.

"Okay." Sam wonders how embarrassed Bucky is right now. "Are you two...?"

"No," Steve says, even more emphatically. "I don't - I don't know, he hasn't. I still don't even know if he remembers. Us." He gestures from his chest to the door down the hall.

He totally remembers, Sam thinks, but is 90% sure he shouldn't reveal that.

Chapter Text

It's weeks later in New York when Sam finally gives up and goes to a bar on his own. There's nothing wrong with the Avengers crew, but with Steve and Bucky off on a date somewhere tonight, Sam's closest friend in the Tower (and, he hates to admit, his second-closest friend in the Tower) are gone and he feels... like he doesn't fit.

He's been feeling that way a lot, lately, and he wonders if it was a mistake to move up here. He doesn't mind the danger, and the good karma from helping people makes up for it tenfold, but. He's pretty sure the 'outsider' feeling from being the only one who never fought an alien horde is really something else. It gets to him sometimes and he's never liked the taste of jealousy in his mouth.

"You're way too cute to be drinking on your own."

The guy is cute - tanned skin, big dark eyes. He's got the sculpted kind of build you get from dedication and a good gym. He probably works in an office. Wears nice suits. His 'evening casual' involves tight designer jeans and a casual Henley.

"Hi," Sam says, because that's kind of all he's got at the moment. Cute Guy grins and sidles closer.

"I'm Robbie." He's drinking something with a lime wedge in it. His hands are rotating the glass in careful little turns, like he's maybe more nervous than he's letting on. "Nice to meet you."

"Sam." He stops leaning against the bar just long enough to extend a hand to shake. It seems to throw the guy off a little, but he goes with it.

"Oh, I know who you are." The man's face breaks into a wide smile, and it's genuine, but something's wrong. Sam's a nobody. There's no reason for anyone in this city to know who he is. "It's not every day you run into a guy you've seen on CNN."

"Actually, I'm from DC, and that happens all the time there." Sam's discomfort has gone from 0 to I Really Want to Get Away From This in about two sentences. There's nothing malicious about this guy, no crazy groupie vibe, but something just doesn't sit right about it and it feels... wrong. "If you've ever wondered if senators are as ugly in real life as they are on C-SPAN, the answer is yes."

"Well, you're just as cute in real life as in the pictures. If you were, you know. Wondering."

Sam buys some time by smiling into his drink. He used to have getaway lines, he thinks to himself. He used to be able to let someone down gently instead of just getting flustered. He's out of practice.

"Not yours," someone says behind him, and out of the corner of his eye Sam sees Robbie take a step back.

Sam turns around. Bucky's standing there with his hands at his sides, utilizing that ability he has to look completely menacing by standing perfectly still and doing nothing. It's working, Sam thinks faintly. And not just on Robbie.

"Honest mistake," Robbie says quietly, and Sam's relieved when Bucky just nods, accepting this, and grabs Sam's arm to almost forcibly pull him away.

Sam follows him in silence until they're halfway down the hallway towards the sit-down part of the bar. "So you're my fella, huh?" He's got to make a joke out of it, because just saying 'thank you' would be weird. He and Bucky aren't really at the 'actually expressing genuine feelings to each other' stage yet.

"Nope," Bucky says, and lets go of Sam's arm as soon as he's sure Sam will keep following him. The dining area is cramped and intimate, and in the corner behind a privacy wall Steve is sitting at a small booth, looking confused.

"Are they handing out colleagues in the washroom?" Steve gives Sam the polite little 'hello' nod and Sam is about to give it back, but Bucky moves him bodily until he's shoved into the other side of the booth. Sam blinks dumbly at the half-finished plate of nachos in the middle of the table, and then at Steve, who also looks lost.

"I found your other boyfriend," Bucky says flatly, looking at Steve with some kind of meaningful expression that Sam can't read. "He was lonely. You should pay more attention to him."

"Bucky, I-" Steve stutters as Bucky reaches past Sam, grabbing his coat from the booth and pulling it on.

"Get him home by midnight. " Sam realizes Bucky is talking to him now. "Be a gentleman."

"Or you'll 'deck' me?"

"You're damn right." Bucky gives Steve some last meaningful look that Sam can't even begin to decipher, and then he heads out the way he came, not looking back.

There's a solid thirty seconds where Sam looks at Steve and Steve stares down at his glass of water.

"He thinks," Steve starts, and then barks out a laugh that is completely forced. "He's got it into his head that you're sweet on me."

Sam thinks about it, looking at the way the tips of Steve's ears and the apples of his cheeks are blooming pink. "Bucky's smart," he says finally, and reaches forward to grab a nacho. When he looks up, Steve is perfectly still except for the rapid blinking. Sam gives it a few seconds, chewing, and hides his grin behind another nacho when Steve finally breaks out into a small, gorgeous smile and leans forward.