Actions

Work Header

that secret that we know (we don't know how to tell)

Work Text:

 

“On your left!”

It’s six thirty AM on a Tuesday and a man is running by Sam Wilson at an incredible speed – a superhuman speed. Sam, jogging around the lake in front of the Washington Memorial, can make out blond hair and sweat pants.

It keeps happening, usually when Sam has only made fifty yards of progress and he ignores the prickling of his skin, thinks about safety and concentrates on the way the sky is collapsing in onto itself, the colors bleeding, the light growing. He can hear the other man rushing past him, can feel the blast of air and the buzzing of feet slapping the ground.

“On your left –”

“Ahuh, on my left, got it.”

Again, when the sun has risen fully and there’s no more fuzzy in between time: “Don’t say it,” Sam snaps, hearing the man behind him. He’s like a freight train, barreling on, unstoppable. Loud. “Don’t say it – “

“On your left,” the man says and Sam swears there’s a bit of a smirk there, just to egg him on.

“Come on!” He yells, speeding up, but the man is already yards ahead of him, moving like a grey bullet.

He doesn’t know when he realizes who the man is. It’s more like a constant knowing, an inevitable realization.

He collapses on the grass, the morning dew dampening the back of his sweatshirt, and by the time Steve Rogers finishes his final lap and jogs over, Sam has managed to adopt a more dignified position, his back against the trunk of a tree.

“Need a medic?” Steve asks, hands on his hips, but he’s smiling. He might be as thick as the tree Sam’s leaning against, he wouldn’t know – he’s not built like Steve, doesn’t have over two hundred pounds of solid muscle.

“Need a new set of lungs,” Sam chuckles, grinning up at Steve. Steve’s smile grows. “Dude…” Sam’s still panting. Steve, fuck him, doesn’t seem winded. “You just ran like thirteen miles in thirty minutes.”

“Guess I got a late start,” Steve says, casually serious and Sam doesn’t believe him for a second. Who knew Captain America was a professional bullshitter?

“Really?” Sam raises an eyebrow. “You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take another lap.” He pauses, looks away. “Did you just take it?” He looks back: Steve is smirking again. “I assume you just took it.”

Steve points at him, like he’s discovering something. “What unit you in?”

“58th Pararescue. Now I’m working down at the VA.” He pauses, raises up an empty hand, curved like a question mark. “Sam Wilson.”

Steve takes his hand and pulls it up. Sam feels like he’s been burned, scalded by the heat of the Steve’s skin. “Steve Rogers.”

“Ah, I kinda put that together,” he says and grins. And then promptly slides into VA mode, like a fish on land, trying to establish distance and camaraderie at the same time. “Musta freaked you out, coming home after the whole defrost thing.” 

Steve looks away, mouth quirking up on one side like he’s thinking about it. He must get that question all the time – or maybe he doesn’t, maybe people are too busy seeing Captain America, American Hero to see Steve Rogers, Inevitably Traumatized Soldier.

Captain America – he’s a mystery. But Steve Rogers is Sam Wilson’s territory.

“It takes some getting used it,” Steve allows and Sam nods. Steve points at him as he turns to go, walls going up. “Good to meet ya, Sam.”

And Sam, for whatever reason – can’t let that happen. He staggers forward, no easy grace, and blurts out: “It’s your bed, right?”

Steve pauses, turns back to him, that easy smile frozen in place.  “What’s that?” His voice: careful, light, controlled.

“Your bed is too soft.” Sam halts in front of him, close enough that if Steve turned away their shoulders would brush. “When I was over there, I’d sleep on the ground, use rocks as pillows, like a cave man. Now I’m home, lying in my bed, it’s like…” he shakes his head.

“Lyin’ on a marshmallow,” Steve finishes, and there’s something tired about him. He’s not holding himself so tight, so upright anymore. Sam doesn’t try to figure out if that’s progress. “Feel like I’m gonna sink right through to the floor.”

Sam nods, the half terror of remembering rising in him.

“How long?” Steve asks, squaring his shoulders under the new weight, the distance between them breaking down and Sam makes a face.

“Two tours.”

Steve nods.

And Sam – can’t bear it, so he shifts, master of misdirection. “You must miss the good ole days, huh?”

He watches Steve inhale, fascinated by the movement, the rippling of his shoulders, the vastness of his chest. He feels small, not because of who Steve is but because of the very essence of him. He wants to touch.

“Well,” Steve sighs out the word. “Things aren’t so bad.” It sounds like a concession. “Food’s a lot better – we used to boil everything. No polio’s good…Internet –” he gestures at Sam, one muscular arm thrusting towards him. “So helpful. Been reading that a lot, trying to catch up.” He’s so fucking earnest that Sam has to smile, biting his lip.

He mirrors Steve, lifting up a hand – wait for it: “Marvin Gaye. 1972. Troubleman Soundtrack. Everything you missed, jammed into one album.”

Steve mulls this over, pulling out a moleskin and a pen and that’s so boy scout of him that Sam has to bite his lip. He read somewhere that Steve was – is? – an artist, sketched a lot. Maybe that’s his mini sketch book. Maybe when he’s not running circles around Sam, he sketches.

“I’ll add it to the list,” Steve says, and scribbles it down. He probably has very nice handwriting. Sam watches the lines of his shoulders.

Steve beeps and he checks his phone – a fancy phone, Sam notes. No flip phone technology for him. “Alright, Sam,” he says, pocketing his sketchbook. “Duty calls.” He sticks out his hand and Sam takes it again without thinking, is shocked again by the heat of him. It’s like touching the sun. “Thanks for the run – if that’s what you wanna call that.” The smirk is back.

Sam’s mouth falls open. “Oh, that’s how it is?” He demands, letting go of Steve’s hand. Steve is grinning now.

“Oh, that’s how it is,” he says, nodding, and leaves. Sam tries and fails not to look at him. There’s just so much of him – he takes up an enormous amount of space, has an enormous presence and Sam wonders what it would be like, to command that sort of power.

“Anytime you wanna stop by the VA, make me look awesome in front of the girl at the front desk…just let me know,” he’s smiling again and Steve is tilting his head a bit, considering it.

“I’ll keep it in mind.” From anyone else, that’s a no. From Steve Rogers? Sam doesn’t know, honestly.

A fancy car pulls up to the curb, a red head in the driver’s seat. She leans forward, smirking at both of them. “Hey fellas. Either of you know where the Smithsonian is?” She asks. “I’m here to pick up a fossil.”

Steve scowls. “That’s hilarious.” He mutters, marching towards the car. Sam grins. The redhead winks at him from around Steve’s massive body.

He nods at her. “How you doin’?” he asks, letting his smile broaden and she nods back at him, not smiling. She’s dangerous, he realizes, and she knows it, doesn’t care if he knows it – is confident enough to just nod back at him and drive away, leaving him sweating. She’ll lose no sleep over it – why should she? – and it’s really fucking hot.

“Hey,” she says, like a threat.

Steve glances at him. “Can’t run anywhere,” he says, like he’s apologizing.

“No you can’t,” Sam drawls and the red head smirks at him again, and then they’re driving away, and Sam is left watching them and trying to figure out who he’s more attracted to.

He still hasn’t figured it out by dinner time.

 

*

 

When Sam is fourteen, he tells his parents he wants them to start calling him Sam.

When he explains why, his dad leaves the room. Leaves the house too, he found out later, and walked to the bar three blocks and didn’t come home that night.

His mom brushes his hair back from his face – it was longer, then, relaxed and down to his shoulders – and nodded. “Anything else you want to tell us, baby?” she asks, voice strained but not cracking.

“I think I want to cut my hair,” he replies.

“When?” his mom asks.

“Now?”

So he dragged a chair from the dining home into the master bedroom and is sitting in it now, while his mother cuts his hair carefully. His mother is like that – a careful woman who favored bright colors, who never yelled and who took everything in stride. She is steady, like a constantly burning flame and that’s why his father loved her, apparently.

She is the best mother ever, and that’s why Sam loves her.

“Do you want me to start calling you my son?” she asks as she neared the back of his head, her eyes meeting his in the mirror.

“Yeah,” he says. “If that’s – alright.”

“Baby,” she sets down the scissors and puts her hands on his shoulders. “Of course it’s alright. It’s your body. It’s who you are. If this is who you are, then we support you.”

Sam is fourteen, not an idiot. “But Dad...”

“Needs time to get used to the idea,” his mother replies calmly. “He’s stubborn, your father. But he’ll see.”

 

*

 

It’s 7:30 in the morning and the TV is on, blaring about Captain America going rogue. It’s bullshit, it’s all total bullshit but Sam can’t stop watching. He’s grabbing the orange juice out of the fridge and honestly, he’s been thinking about this all day, all through his run – his orange juice. He wants his fucking orange juice and now he’s going to get it. He unscrews the lid – and there’s a knock at the door.

It is seven thirty in the morning,” he mutters, screwing on the lid and sticking it onto the counter. He promptly stubs his toe on the corner of the island, curses, and limps to the door. Habit makes him peer out of the door before he opens it. Experience gained overseas means he has three locks to unlock.

There’s no one there.

The knock happens again and Sam frowns, because he’s on the third floor of his building, but the knock seems to be coming from the guest bedroom. He limps over to it, pulls on the blinds, and stares.

Steve fuckin’ Rogers and the hot red head are standing on the roof outside of his window.

Sam opens the window.

“Hey, man,” he says, because what do you say when this happens?

“I’m really sorry about this.” Steve says quietly. His clothes are ripped, his hair is sticking up and there’s soot everywhere. The hot red head doesn’t look any better – actually she does, probably because her hair is too scared of her to misbehave. Sam is too scared of her to misbehave. Steve is still talking. “We need a place to lie low.”

The red head interrupts, looking – shocked. “Everyone we know is trying to kill us.”

Wow, okay.

Sam glances from her to Steve and back again, makes a face, and decides that he is one stupid motherfucker.

“Not everyone,” his voice sounds dark, even to his own ears. He stands aside and they climb through his window; he shuts the window, locks it, and pulls down the blinds. He doesn’t think anyone saw them. Instinct makes him recheck the lock on the window and the locks on the door.

Steve and the woman – Natasha, Steve informs him when Sam gets him clothes that are stretchy enough that they might fit him – immediately shower. Sam pours himself a glass of his goddamn orange juice and then gets to work making breakfast. He wonders how much Steve will eat. He wonders if Natasha will like his cooking.

Steve takes the first shower – Sam wonders at that, briefly, having pegged Steve to be one of those gentlemanly types who insists that women go first. Maybe Natasha gave him the evil eye and he shut up and took the damn shower. Sam doesn’t know.

“Do you…” Natasha is leaning against the doorway to the kitchen, still looking a little shocked.

“Mm?” Sam asks, mixing up pancake batter.

“This is a long shot,” she says, voice throatier than usual and Sam sets down his whisk and looks over at her. “But do you have anything I could wear while I wash this?”

“No worries,” Sam says, and leads her to his room. He pulls open the closet and roots around for a while, finds his stash of more feminine clothing – women’s jeans, tank tops, a sports bra, and panties.

He had stopped needing the sports bra a while ago, can’t remember if it’s actually his or if an old girlfriend left it behind.

Natasha surveys his findings with interest.

“You have a girlfriend?” she asks, picking up the sports bra.

“No ma’am,” Sam says. His urge is always to fidget whenever faced with these types of questions. He forces himself to keep his hands at his sides.

Natasha’s eyes focus on his shoulders – as narrow as hers – and she nods once.

“Alright,” she says, and that’s it. No more question. “Thank you.” She withdraws soon afterward, retreating into the guest room she’s staring with Steve.

Sam returns to the kitchen and mechanically finishes making the pancakes. He doesn’t think Natasha knows, doesn’t know he feels about her and Steve knowing – it’s part of his identity, yes, it’s important but there’s a whole fuck ton of drama he can easily avoid by them not knowing.

This is also not the time for this, at all, so he concentrates on making food and then politely knocks on the doorframe. Natasha and Steve are staring at each other intensely. Sam pretends really hard not to notice. It doesn’t seem like a sexy moment; he doesn’t feel bad interrupting.

“I made breakfast,” he says, and pauses. “If you, uh, eat that sorta thing.”

 

“So, the question is,” Natasha says, perching on his counter, “who at SHIELD could launch a domestic missile strike?”

Holy fuck, SHIELD.

“Pierce,” Steve says in quiet tones of disgust. Natasha gets up, walks towards him. It’s not the walk of a predator, not right now but she still has that inhuman grace that Steve has.

Sam realizes, suddenly, where he’s seen her before – on TV, during the alien invasion in New York. Her hair was shorter, and she was in all black but it was her.

Black Widow.

Oh man is he fucked.

“Who happens to be sitting on the most secure building in the world,” Natasha continues, oblivious to Sam doing his best to bore holes in the back of her skull with his eyes.

She and Steve keep talking, mostly about things Sam doesn’t quite understand. What he does understand is that they need him, so he takes the liberty of slapping down his file on the table in front of both of them.

“What’s this?”

“Call it a resumé.”

They both pick up the photo, and Natasha knows about his mission, has heard about it, heard about him. It’s not the right time to gloat so Sam tucks it away for later.

Steve, of course, asks about Riley.

Sam nods and ignores the vice crushing his heart in his chest. It’s a regular thing. He knows how to live with it now, how to survive. It feels like being crushed by 200 feet of bedrock. It feels like being crushed like one of those cars at the dump. His heart is inside a trash compactor. He’s used to it.

“What did you use?” Natasha asks and Sam shows them the picture of his wings – wings that he misses like they were his own, like they grew out of his back and had nerves starting in the feather roots and ending in his brain.

Steve is politely incredulous. “I thought you said you were a pilot.”

Natasha tugs the file from his grip and flips through it, reading it rapidly. After a minute she looks up, eyes sharp, and stares at him. Sam ignores her, focuses on Steve. He shows his teeth, amusement sharp like a knife. “I never said pilot.”

 

Steve takes over Sam’s laptop to do research and Natasha follows Sam into the kitchen and picks up a drying cloth.

He passes her a plate and watches her. He wonders if she’s going to say something.

Her hair is curly.

“Your hair is curly,” he says, like it’s important. He feels like an idiot. Natasha offers him a tiny smile.

“I straighten it,” she explains. “But I don’t…”

“I do,” Sam says after a minute. A pause; she watches him. “An ex did leave that here. Did you want to use it?”

Natasha smiles properly at him and she has dimples and that is way, way too much. So Sam immediately puts down his plate and goes into his room again and she follows; he digs out the straightener and hands it to her.

“You should really use some heat protective spray.” He tells her, following her back out into the common room. “Otherwise you’ll damage your hair.”

“My hair is pretty damaged already,” Natasha says. “I have to do stuff to it all the time for missions.” He’s followed her into the bathroom. She takes the straightener out of the box, unwraps the cord and plugs it in, setting it on the edge of the sink. Then she turns to look at him. “How do you know about women’s hair?”

“I had a black mom,” Sam shrugs. “They’re always very particular about hair.” He pauses. “First time I relaxed my hair, she threw a fit. My mom never raised her voice – but she did then.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten.”

Natasha offers him a smile. “What was the next time?”

“When I told them I was enlisting.”

She nods, picking up the straightener and begins to straightener her hair with quick, practiced motions.

“It was dangerous of you to enlist,” she says, calmly. Her eyes find and meet his in the mirror.

“Yep,” Sam agrees. “But they needed me.”

 

*

 

On his file, his gender is listed as ‘Female.’

This is not his gender.

The air force will not change it.

 

*

 

He doesn’t remember everything that happens, just remembers that The Winter Soldier – Bucky, according to Steve – grabs him right out of the air and shakes him by the wing, like he is a bird and Bucky is a cat. And he’s grounded, just like that, unable to do anything.

It’s a snapshot in a collection of memories that are too vague to be real. He’ll process them later, he knows. That’s how war works.

Now, as they stand in front of Nick Fury’s (fake) grave with the (alive) Nick Fury with them, sporting sunglasses instead of an eye patch, Sam stands close to Steve and listens to them talk about Bucky.

This isn’t a good idea and he’s explained that several times, but it’s Steve – Steve, who risked his life about six times in twenty minutes for all of them. Steve, who is damn near ninety-five years old and believes in everyone else so fiercely it’s like being around him does make you a better person.

It’s sort of exhausting, to be honest.

Natasha strolls towards them as Nick leaves

(alone, even though he wanted Sam to come with him to Europe.

Sorry, but no. Captain America needs me).

She’s smiling, hair red and straight and framing her face and she slaps a thick file against Steve’s chest.

Sam has been with them for two weeks now and still hasn’t figured out if they’re fucking. He doesn’t want to ask. It’s become a point of honor now – he has to find out organically, he can’t ask because that’s cheating.

“That thing you asked for,” Natasha says, and Sam tunes back in – they were talking about spy shit, and he doesn’t do spy shit – “I called in a few favors from Kiev.”

He thought she had looked Russian.

Steve stares down at it like he’s holding the bible – a poisonous bible. Natasha’s eyes soften.

“Will you do me a favor?” she asks, gentle. “Will you call that nurse?”

So…they aren’t…?

“She’s not a nurse,” Steve points out, like an asshole.

“And you’re not a SHIELD agent.”

Steve looks down. Sam feels like a creepy voyeur but he’s literally two feet from them, he can’t not overhear. “What was her name again?”
“Sharon.” Natasha pauses, smiles. “She’s nice.”

Maybe you should date her, then is on the tip of his tongue but he makes himself shut the fuck up.

Steve is smiling at Natasha, in his helpless, gentle way and Natasha’s face does something complicated. She looks down, then reaches up and grips the back of Steve’s neck, tugging him down so she can kiss his cheek.

After another minute of overly intense eye contact, she starts to walk away.

“Be careful, Steve,” she says. She turns to face him, face shuttered, eyes dark. “Might not want to pull on that thread.” And then she really leaves and Steve stares after her.

What the fuck, Sam thinks to himself, moving to take his place at Steve’s side. Why aren’t you going after her instead of Bucky?

Instead he says, glancing down at the file Steve is looking at: “You’re going after him.”

“You don’t have to come with me.” Steve says, and this is the thing. The stupidest, most annoying thing about Steve – he doesn’t know his effect on people. He doesn’t understand it. He’s not aware of it. That’s why he makes a good Captain America. That’s why he’s irritating as hell to be friends with. Sam thinks about punching him in the gut. He thinks about kissing him on the neck. He wonders which he’d like more.

He doesn’t do these things. Instead he says: “I know.” A pause. “When do we start?”

 

*

 

9/11 happens when he was seventeen years old, almost eighteen. He is fighting with his doctor about whether or not he wants to start T now (yes, according to Sam) or wait (yes, according to his doctor) one day and the next, the towers are falling down like an accordion, people jumping, flames licking metal and concrete and it’s all on TV, all repeated and looped and it’s all he can see, all he hears about.

“I’m joining up,” Sam tells his parents three days after it happened. His mom begins to yell. His father, a veteran, recommends the air force.

Later that night, his mother sits on the end of his bed and explains to him that the military will not respect his gender. That he cannot transition while in the military. That he has to make a choice.

With the footage of 9/11 side by side with the footage of crews digging bodies (and rarely, people) out of the rubble, the choice seemed like an easy one.

 

He makes it through basic and he readjusts to being called his birth name, to being called the wrong pronouns. It’s a constant itching under his skin but at least in the military he’s covered up 94% of the time and has to wear a sports bra, and that helps.

He avoids mirrors. People tease him about it. Eventually they stop.

 

“Paratroops are the elite,” they had explained to him. “You might not make it,” they had said.

He makes it.

“We have some experimental technology from Stark Industries that we need candidates for.”

They select fifteen people. Six make it. Sam, Gunner, Nails (real name: Charles), Andrew, Adam, and Riley.

Sam is the only dfab person in their group. Sam is the best.

“How do you do it?” Riley had asked early on, when night had fallen and they were eating dinner, tired and heavy limbed, in the mess hall.

Sam shrugs. “I weigh less then you guys.”

“Yeah?” Riley smiles. He is the shortest guy, only 5’10 compared to Nails’s 6’3. Sam is 5’9.

They assign Riley and Sam to be wingmen the next day.

A week later, Sam asks Riley to use the name Sam instead of his birth name.

Two months later, Riley asks if Sam is trans, if Sam wants different pronouns.

Three years later, Riley asks Sam if he wants to get married, when they’re back home and all of this is over.

Three years and two days later, Riley dies, and Sam has to go home without him.

They do not get married.

 

*

 

Sam and Steve start right away; Steve gets intelligence from his friend Tony – “Iron man? Seriously! He made my wings!”

“I’ll ask him if he can make you new ones.” – that leads them back to Russia. They get one hotel room with two beds. The flight had been over ten hours long and grueling. Sam had been spent a lot of wondering how Steve fit on the airplane, how he managed to collapse himself, make himself smaller, like luggage to be more easily stowed.

“You can have the first shower,” Steve offers, flopping back on the bed. It squeaks and he grimaces, then leans back up and tugs off his sweatshirt.

He does it in that way men do, where they grip the front of the shirt and pull it up and off. Sam had spent countless hours imitating it in front of a mirror, trying to make it look natural.

(It really depends on the clothes.)

“Sure, thanks man,” he says, anything to look away from the amount of muscle on Steve’s arms, the gentle curves on them, the thick veins, things he wants to touch. Instead he unzips his suitcase, grabs his shaving kit and marches into the bathroom.

If he gets himself off by fingering himself with two fingers while rubbing his clit with his thumb, well, that’s no one’s damn business.

When the bathroom doesn’t smell like sex anymore he towels off, pulls on his boxers and applies his HRT cream, and then walks back into the room. Steve, sprawled on the bed, glances up – and then stares.

Sam frowns, glances down at himself, making sure his junk (or lack there of) is securely covered (it is) and then realizes what Steve is staring at.

He had gotten top surgery right after he came back, desperate to do something, to settle back into his life, into his real identity. Who was he, if not a paratrooper? Who was he without Riley? What was he without the military?

It was part of his therapy, actually, getting top surgery. And it’s been almost three years, the scars aren’t big and raised anymore but they’re definitely still there.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says after a pause. “I just – I didn’t know.” He pauses again. “Did they torture you?”

Sam laughs, even though it isn’t funny. “No,” he says, still standing there, towel draped around his neck. “No, it’s from surgery.”

“Oh,” Steve says, nodding. “Sorry, again. I didn’t mean to make you self conscious.”

Sam shrugs. “I’m not.” He is. Steve gets up, goes into the bathroom and Sam immediately puts on a shirt.

 

They find the Hydra safehouse in Moscow. It’s a smoking ruin, bodies everywhere, throats slit with clean precision.

“Looks like he got here first.” Sam says. Steve looks sick.

 

They head to Poland, and from there Eastern Europe. It’s all the same story. Bucky is gone by the time they arrive. Sam brings shirts with him into the bathroom.

Tony Stark recommends they go to Brazil so they fly to São Paulo.

They have a routine by now, Steve sprawled on the bed, Sam rooting around in his suitcase for shaving kit and shirt. He turns to head into the bathroom and finds all 240 pounds of Steve in his way; shirtless Steve, which he cannot deal with.

Steve’s arms are crossed over his (magnificent) chest and his eyes are soft.

“You can stop bringing a shirt into the bathroom now,” he says gently. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable or self conscious.” He pauses, throat working. “You aren’t…ugly, Sam. Far from it. Feel free to be as shirtless as you want.”

Sam doesn’t know what to do with it, because it’s easy to be the funny guy, to deflect, but Steve’s brutal honesty bowls him over.

“It’s a lot more complicated then you understand,” he says finally, and tells himself that’s not a cop out. It’s the truth.

“Alright,” Steve nods, calm and accepting.

“And uh…feel free to be shirtless more, too,” Sam hitches a smile back on his face. “Absolutely no one minds.”

Steve is smiling again. “Is that how is it?”

“That’s how it is,” Sam nods, and then retreats into the bathroom.

 

Brazil turns out to be a bust. The hydra safehouse is empty, no tracks disturbing the thick layer of dust on the ground. Steve is silent the entire time they’re there and Sam doesn’t know what to say. At least he was never tortured here? Sorry we wasted our time? I think Brazil is a very beautiful country?

They go back to the hotel room and Steve slinks into the bathroom and turns the shower on again. He doesn’t actually need to shower – or maybe he does, maybe he, like Sam, can feel the crime and decay of Hydra’s crimes smeared onto his skin. It’s not really there but try telling a veteran that.

So Sam doesn’t mind. Instead he flops down onto his bed and picks up the remote, and sets out trying to find something he can watch in English.

(Sam can only speak some Creole, and two years of high school French. Riley spoke some Spanish. They and everyone else in the goddamn air force spoke some basic Farsi and Pashto. He knows Steve can speak a couple different languages, doesn’t think any of them are Portuguese. So he looks for an English program.)

He finds Disney’s Mulan playing. It’s always been his favorite, for obvious reasons, so he stays on that channel. By the time I’ll Make A Man Out of You has finished, Steve has emerged from the bathroom, dressed only in sweats.

There’s water running down his bare chest, down his arms and Sam swallows hard and focuses on Mushu yelling at the cricket. Steve has paused halfway to his bed, staring at the TV, head cocked.

There’s a drop of water that runs down his perfect abs and disappears into the golden blond hair peeking out above his sweats. Sam swallows again.

“What’s this?” Steve asks. He’s smiling now, and he sits down on the edge of his bed, leaning forward to see the TV better.

“It’s a movie called Mulan. It’s about a girl who runs away and disguises herself as a boy to fight in the army so her dad won’t have too.”

“Who are they fighting?”

“The Huns. Mulan is Chinese. It’s apparently based on a true story or something.”

“The drawing style…” Steve says after a moment. Mushu is riding a panda and yelling at the mean skinny guy. This is actually one of Sam’s favorite parts. “It’s amazing. Someone hand drew all of this.”

“Yeah, man,” Sam says with a shrug. Mushu’s panda climbs up the tree. “Disney’s like, famous for this.”

Steve is leaning forward, trying to get a better view – his bed is off to the side of the TV – and Sam huffs in exasperation.

“Come here,” he orders. “Just be quiet, this is one of my favorite movies.”

Steve settles in next to him, his shoulders brushing Sam’s, his thigh pressed against Sam’s. There’s a solid wall of heat where ever they touch and Sam is hyperaware of it. He spends most of the movie watching Steve watch the Steve; he hears Steve sing along quietly to A Girl Worth Fighting For and can’t help but smile when Steve gasps indignantly when they leave Mulan alone in the mountain pass.

“But she saved his life!” he protests.

“And he spared hers because of it.” Sam reminds him.

Steve turns to look at him. His eyelashes are like spun gold, thin and fine and very long, long enough to cast shadows over his cheekbones. Sam wonders if anyone’s ever put mascara on them.

“Gender shouldn’t matter like that,” Steve says after a minute. Mulan is currently having a pity party, probably similar to the one Steve had in the shower about twenty minutes ago. “She’s a capable fighter. Why does it matter if she’s a girl?”

“It shouldn’t,” Sam says, stretching. His foot knocks against Steve’s calf. “But, I always sort of thought this movie was a cop out.”

“Mmm?” A hun has just punched out of the snow. Sam has always privately felt this part was both unrealistic and overdramatic.

“Mulan dresses up as and lives as a man. What if she’s actually a trans man? Why couldn’t she be? It makes sense, especially with – well, you missed it, but there’s a song in the beginning about wanting her reflection to show how she feels inside.”

“What’s a trans man?” Steve asks. He’s not really paying attention to the movie anymore, is watching Sam intently.

Sam focuses back on screen. Mulan is careening down the mountainside. “Well,” he says, cursing himself for bringing it up. He’s sweating, and his foot is nestled against Steve’s calf and Steve is watching him closing, his hand brushing Sam’s. “At birth, you know how people say the baby is a boy or a girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Someone who’s trans decides, at some point, that they aren’t what was decided for them. So, a trans man realized or decided at some point in his life that he wasn’t what was decided for him, and that he’s a man.”

“Are there trans women?” Steve is frowning, but – it’s not a frown of disgust. It’s a frown like he’s concentrating.

In his chest, Sam’s heart is beating hard enough that Steve must be able to hear it. His heart is being squeezed slowly like a lemon on a spike but it’s trying to fly away and he feels nauseous, digs his fingers into the bedding while trying to keep his body relaxed.

Steve reaches over and picks up one of Sam’s hand and clasps it, his hand huge and overly warm. He’s rubbing his thumb over the back of Sam’s hand and Sam calms down, focuses on Mulan, pretends nothing is riding on this conversation.

Mulan is yelling at Shang. Sam approves.

“Sure are,” he replies.

“What about…” Steve trails off. He’s still frowning. “Are there people who aren’t…either? Don’t think of themselves as a man or a woman?”

“Yeah.” Sam glances at Steve and smiles, then refocuses on the screen. His palm is sweating. He wonders if Steve has noticed. “They’re called nonbinary people. And, y’know, I’ve heard theories that Mulan is nonbinary. Like, maybe she’s bigender. Maybe sometimes she feels more like a man so she dresses and acts as one and other times she feels more like a woman.”

“I had no idea,” Steve says after a minute. “Back in my day…people were queer. And, a lot of folks dressed up – they were called fairies. But I’ve seen that now a days and it’s called drag.” He points, suddenly, at the screen, where all of Mulan’s friends are dressing up as ladies of the court.

“Yeah, drag is different then being trans.” Sam shifts, his knee bumping Steve’s. He finally looks away from the screen and meets Steve’s gaze. “It’s sorta complicated to learn about the first time, but – people who agree with the gender they were told they were are called ‘cis’ and people who realize they’re a different gender are called trans. And sometimes trans folks do something where they ‘transition’ so their body sort of…matches what they want to look like. And sometimes they don't. And sometimes they transition a lot or a little bit. And whatever they do, it’s okay. There’s not a wrong way to do it.”

“And how – how do I make sure I don’t assume someone's gender or make them uncomfortable?” Steve asks after a minute.

“Well,” Mulan is facing off against the evil Hun guy. Sam never got why he had yellow eyes. “You can ask their pronouns, and they’ll tell you, and that’s all you gotta know.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. And…” This is it, this is his moment. “If someone is trans and they want you to know, they’ll tell you. Don’t ask. It’s rude." Fuck.

“Alright.” Steve is smiling now. Sam, realizing he’s panting a bit, flushes.

And that’s it. No, how do you know so much about this? No, I think that’s gross. Just the simple, kind acceptance that shows Steve is exactly the kind of man everyone thinks he is. He is a Good Man.

Sam can count the amount of Good Men he’s met on one hand.

“Steve.” Sam says, suddenly, a stone lodged in his throat and the trash compactor of his chest bearing down, down, so he can’t breathe.

Steve is still holding his hand. He’s still smiling, he’s still looking at Sam.

“Yes?” Steve asks gently, and he’s so close and there’s so much of him and Sam is so fucking scared but he knows Steve would never hurt him, would never let anything happen to him and that’s not even it. It’s because there’s a looming drop, a cliff that he’s about to hurtle over and the last time he did this, someone died. He doesn’t know what he’s even talking about anymore, because he’s thinking of Riley but he’s thinking of coming out for the first time and it never, never gets any easier, and his heart’s in his throat and Steve – is just. Is just looking at him, calm and patient and gentle, smiling. He’s still rubbing his thumb over the back of Sam’s hand, and suddenly Sam can breathe again.

“I really like this movie,” he says, because he is a fucking moron. He is a goddamn idiot. He does really like this movie. “It’s one of my favorites.”

Steve turns back to watch Mulan’s grandma flirt outrageously with Shang. “I like it a lot,” he’s still smiling. “I've seen some of Disney's stuff but I didn't realize they were still making them.”

“Oh, yeah. We can – we can watch the good ones, if you want.”

Steve nods and bumps his shoulder against Sam’s. “I’d like that.”

 

He leaves a little while later to get them food from a street vendor and calls Natasha – her number had magically appeared in his phone, somehow.

“Romanoff.” She answers, curt.

“I fucked up,” Sam says immediately, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Steve isn’t nearby. Steve’s back in the hotel room, of course, but Sam’s been in two tours. Paranoia is part of survival. “I fucked up.”

“Calm down.” Natasha orders.

“Are you – fuck, sorry, are you on a job?”

“If I had been I wouldn’t have picked up,” she answers, curt. Then: “Clint, stop.” Clearly that’s not meant for Sam, so he waits. “How did you fuck up?” Natasha asks, and she sounds a little calmer, little more open to conversation.

“I was – we, I mean, Steve and I, were watching Mulan and I started explaining about trans folks and I was about to tell him, and I just – I choked.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything.

“I do not choke, Natasha. But he was – was doing his earnest golden retriever thing and I couldn’t do it, I don’t know how to tell him, I don’t…”

“You don’t have to.” Natasha points out logically. “It’s not any of his business.”

“Natasha,” Sam snaps, exasperated. “You and I both know that at some point, I gotta tell him.”

“No, you’ve never explicitly said that, actually.” She’s smiling, he can tell. “Are you – “

“Shut up,” Sam orders her. “Yes – he’s Steve fuckin’ Rogers. And I think – I don’t know what to think.”

“I don’t either,” Natasha admits. “I kept trying to set him up with women but he never acted on it, but I know he was in love with a woman in the ‘40s. And then Yasha – Bucky – showed up and his reaction was so…”

“Yeah,” Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. “Do you think that’s – that’s why we’re looking for Bucky?”

No,” Natasha says immediately. “I don’t think so. I think – he’s interested in you, Sam. And if you think he won’t be when or if you come out to him, then you don’t know him.” She pauses. “Don’t use this as an excuse not to go for it.

Sam is still sputtering in outrage when she hangs up.

 

São Paulo is, like every city, smelly. Millions of people live here and there’s trash and the smell of too many warm bodies and animal waste. Sam picks his way through the streets outside their hotel. The sun is going down, staining everything with a flat yellow-orange and he tries to lose himself in it as he orders food and brings it back to the hotel.

Steve is propped up against the headboard of his bed, laptop on his knees, when Sam returns. He immediately sets the laptop aside to grab the food Sam offers him.

“You were gone for a bit,” Steve says, meeting Sam’s eyes. “I was worried.”

“Needed to clear my head,” Sam says around a mouthful of meat. “Next time I’ll make it clear I’m doing so.”

“Appreciate it.” Steve says.

Silence falls between them. Sam lets it keep.

 

 *

 

“What was your callsign?”

“Falcon.”

A pause. “What was Riley’s?”

“Redwing.” A sigh.

 

*

 

There were six of them, and the rankings went like this: Sam, Riley, Nails, Gunner, Andrew, and Adam.

Nails was 6’3 and tall and skinny like a beanpole, despite basic training. His partner was Gunner, a gruff black man who didn’t talk much. Adam was 5’11 and Chinese; Andrew was 6'0 and white enough to need SPF 75; together they were A2. All of them had bird call signs. All of them called Sam his preferred name and knew Sam and Riley were planning on getting married.

When Riley got shot down, everything was tan and dusty and then
everything
slowed
down.
And Sam had to keep flying, and Adam was screaming because Andrew had been shot down to, and Sam had glanced to the left to see Gunner missing an arm and a wing, being held up by Nails
and
then
everything
went white.

 

Later –

Later, when the sun had burned out, the wind was rising, and Gunner was in surgery,

Sam trekked out on foot and found what was Riley.

Something burned. Something he could not look at for too long.

He had turned around and Nails at been there, arms tucked into the straps of his pack.

“Stupid, to come out alone,” he had said gently and Sam couldn’t say

I will always be alone, now.

He heard it, anyway. “Not when you’ve got us, you aren’t. C’mon, let’s go home.”

 

*

 

They never exchanged rings.

Sam wears Riley’s half melted dog tags around his check.

Steve looks but does not ask.

 

*

 

Sometimes, I can’t wash you off my skin.

 

*

 

From Brazil they fly back to the US, getting in at the Houston Airport.

Natasha is waiting for them.

She’s blond now, hair teased high like a southern girl’s, lips red, and she’s sitting differently but Sam knows there’s a weapon within easy reach of her hands.

Next to her is a tall, muscular man with sandy hair and a hard face.

“Aww, hell,” Steve mumbles, tugging his baseball cap lower and hunching his shoulders a bit before wandering casually over to them.

Sam follows, a bit less casually. Black man in Houston, comin’ through.

“Wonderful,” Natasha is saying. “We’ll have our driver bring the car around.” She’s smiling toothily, and Sam wonders if it’s meant to be alluring. He has a skewed perspective – Natasha’s beautiful but when he looks at her all he sees is danger, and he pities anyone who can’t.

Natasha does not introduce the man to them until they’re in the car, the partition raised, their luggage in the back.

“This is Clint,” Natasha says, dropping her affected voice from earlier. “Clint, this is Sam Wilson. He was the guy with the wings in DC.”

Clint smiles. “Clint Barton,” he says, and sticks out his hands.

It’s broad and oddly callused and Sam shakes it and takes a while to realize that Clint Barton is the guy who shot aliens in the face with a motherfucking bow and arrow during the whole New York debacle.

“It’s an honor,” he says, and Clint’s smile grows.

“Likewise,” he says. “Though, you’ll have to fight me for the bird call sign.”

“Hawkeye, right? Naw, mine is definitely cooler.”

“Falcon?” Clint scoffs. “More like a sparrow. Look at you, you’re puny.”

“I’m aerodynamic,” Sam snaps.

“Gentlemen.” Natasha says dryly. “Shut up.”

“Any reason you decided to meet us?” Steve asks. He’s not unhappy, shoulders tense under his leather jacket. Sam reaches over and touches his arm without thinking about it, and then regrets it as both Clint’s and Natasha’s eyes follow his movement.

“You have to stop looking for him.” Natasha says bluntly.

There’s silence. Clint turns to the panel in the side of the car and produces champagne and four glasses. He pours it with scary dexterity. Natasha and Steve seem to be doing some sort of staring competition.

Steve breaks first, because he is weak (but also, because no one wins against Black Widow).

“Why?” he asks, flopping back against the leather seat and accepting the glass Clint offers him. He drinks it with one swallow.

“If you stop following him, he’ll come to you,” Natasha says after a minute. She’s the picture of southern elegance – big hair, red lips, champagne and a limo. “Trust me. I –” she pauses, delicately, and it’s like a wall comes down. “I didn’t know how to tell you, or how to explain before.”

Steve is tensing up again, because he hates secrets and Sam stretches out and flings an arm over his shoulders, casual-like. Clint smiles.

“I have a lot of memories I’m not always sure I can trust,” Natasha says, very quietly, hands white knuckled around her champagne glass, her face devoid of color. “Because of how I was trained. I was…made, by the same people who had Bucky. He trained me. I was very young.”

Steve is staring at her. “But, in the hospital, you mentioned –”

“He didn’t know me.” Natasha says simply. “They wiped him so often. The longer he was out of cyro, the more unstable he became. And after a while they stopped keeping him out of cyro for any reason other than a mission. He stopped training new recruits. The last time I saw him, I was thirteen.”

Steve is relaxing, slowly, under Sam’s arm. “They messed with your head, didn’t they?”

Natasha nods, a single sharp movement.

Steve sighs.

“Damn,” he says, to all of them and none of them. “Alright. So – I need to let him come to me?”

Natasha nods again, color slowly seeping back into her cheeks. She glances over at Barton, who nods at her.

It’s a I’ve got your back and a you’re doing a good job and a yes I’m here I love you nod, all wrapped up and condensed into a small movement and it blows Sam away, the quiet love behind it. The understanding not to offer comfort unless Natasha asks, because she doesn’t want to seem weak.

He understands, now.

“You have to let him come to you. He will, eventually – he’ll get tired of running and turn himself in, either to you or to me. He’ll fall, and he’ll make sure you’re there to catch him.”

Steve flinches, a whole body movement. “But I wasn’t,” he whispers.

“This time you will be,” Sam says before he can stop himself.

He knows, okay. He did a report on Bucky Barnes when he was in school, because Bucky was the coolest and because his own dad was also loved Bucky. He knows how Bucky ‘died’. He knows, because Steve wears it like a bright fucking neon sign, that Steve blames himself.

 

Natasha and Clint drop them and their bags – and a few bags that they didn’t bring but Natasha and Clint did – at a hotel, and they watch the limo disappear, right outside the hotel doors.

“What now, then?” Steve asks after a minute. “Am I just supposed to – to go back home?”

 “You should do what you want,” Sam says, shifting easily into VA mode. “You can’t rush this; you gotta live through it. Might as well enjoy it.”

Steve turns to Sam, their shoulders brushing. “What will you do?”

“Think I might go to Iowa,” Sam admits. “Got a family I need to visit there.”

“Thought you were from Louisiana?”

“Oh, I am,” Sam says after a minute, because he can’t remember telling Steve that. But it seems the last three months have been a solid block of Steve, of waking up next to him, eating with him, living with him, Steve’s arm over his shoulders, Steve’s smell in his nose.

“Ah,” Steve says, leaning over to pick up his duffle and the parcel Natasha had left for him. “Riley’s family?”

“Yeah.” Sam picks up his own luggage. His parcel is a familiar weight and has Stark Industries stamped across it. “Steve…” he starts, quiet, as they walk into the hotel. “You don’t think…?”

Steve turns and glances at the package Sam’s holding, and then grins. “You know,” he says, turning away again and striding towards the receptionists’ counter. “I really do.”

 

Later, when they’re all checked in and Sam is rummaging in his bag for his shaving kit, and Steve is stretched out on the bed, arms crossed under his head, Steve asks: “Can I come with you?”

Sam doesn’t understand for a minute, finds his shaving kit and sets it on the bed and then connects the two threads of conversation.

“I mean,” Steve says, before he can respond, “if you – I figured maybe you’d want back up. I can’t imagine visiting them would be…easy.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Sam says, trying to put Steve out of his misery. “You – you didn’t even know him.”

“But he was important to you,” Steve protests. “And you’ve spent the last three and a half months chasing Bucky with me, and you don’t know him except for the fact he tried to kill you.”

“When you put it like that…” Sam says, smiling, but Steve doesn’t smile back. He sighs. “You can come, of course you can come.”

 

In the shower he runs through fifteen different ways of explaining who Riley was to him, and hey by the way I’m not exactly who you think I am, or I haven’t always been, or maybe I have it’s a little complicated. None of them make sense. All of them sound stupid to his own ears.

He gets out of the shower, towels off, puts on his HRT cream, slips into his boxers and marches out into the main room. Steve is sketching, biting his lip in concentration. At Sam’s entrance he looks up.

“The thing is,” Sam says, and he still doesn’t what he’s going to say. “About me – about Riley – well the thing is –”

Steve is smiling, soft. “You loved him.” He answers, like it’s just that simple, that it didn’t take an act of legislation that might have been an act of God to allow Sam to say that out loud.

“I – yes.” Sam says, the fight taken out of him. He flops onto his bed, dog tags jingling on his chest. “We were going to get married.”

Steve nods. “Okay.”

“Okay? Okay but it’s – it’s a bit more complicated then that, man.” Sam laughs, because it’s not fucking funny and it’s not just okay and Riley is dead. Riley is dead and he will forever be making his peace with that, every day, and he can mourn Riley and be in love with Steve at the same time, but he –

he doesn’t know how to tell him that, and he doesn’t know how to tell him he’s trans and he wants to tell him both things and when did this get so fucking complicated?

He used to be good at this, but it’s always easier when it’s not you, always easier to untangle and simplify something when it isn’t your stubborn ass on the line.

“Sam,” Steve says gently. “It’s me. You can tell me whatever you want. Or you don’t have to tell me anything.

“Did you love Bucky?” Sam asks desperately, because it’s relevant, it really is.

Steve shakes his head. “Not in the way you mean,” he says softly. “Not – not like I loved Peggy.”

“Is she the one you visit sometimes?” Sam asks, distracted, and Steve nods.

His mouth twists. “She has dementia, doesn’t remember me too well.”

“I’m sorry.”

Steve shrugs. “She’s old, Sam. That’s what happened.” He waves a hand, brushing it aside. “If you want me to come, I’ll come. If you don’t, I won’t. It’s as simple as that.”

“Okay,” Sam says.

 

Later, that night, when Sam is half asleep, his arm flung over the side of the bed, he hears Steve moving in the other bed.

“Whatever else you’re carrying, Sam,” Steve whispers, “I’ll share the load, if you’d let me.”

Sam falls asleep before he figures out how to reply.

 

*

 

It’s been 120 days since Riley died, and forty-five days since Sam got his top surgery, and he still doesn’t know what to do with himself. He calls his mom and tells her as much, voice deeper from the T he’s started taking, and she sighs gently over the phone and (politely) orders him to get his ass down to Lousiana to attempt his Grammy’s 90th birthday.

Sam obeys.

He ends up playing with his nieces and nephews, made half an outcast by his grief and his gender and the scars both visible and not. The adults give him space. The children don’t notice any of it and ambush him, and it hurts when they brush against his incisions, almost fully healed, but it hurts more to stand alone in a crowd of his family.

An hour and a half after Sam arrives, his great aunt Lucinda rings the bell for lunch and he’s abandoned almost instantly. Or mostly abandoned – his oldest niece stays with him, following him slowly into the big house. She’s mousy and thoughtful, hair done up in twists and overly big glasses on her face, and she’s holding his hand like she hasn’t realized she’ll be teased for it at school.

“Hey, Uncle Sam?” she asks, tilting her face up to look at him. “Can I ask you a question?”

“You’ve never asked permission to ask me anything before, Layla.”

She wrinkles her nose. “This is sort of a rude question.”

“Go ahead.” He knows what’s coming, has a hyperaware sense for this question but he’s glad Layla is asking him, and not her parents.

“My parents used to call you my aunt.”

“That’s true.”

“But you’re my uncle now?”

He stops walking and turns to face her. “You know what being trans gender is?”

“Kinda.”

“I realized my actual gender was being a man. You know how some people dye their hair and no one gives them –” he changes the word he was about to use just in time “ – any fuss about it? Gender should be like that. It’s what you want. It’s what you relate to. So, I realized I’m a man. Simple as that. Now I’m your uncle.”

Layla looks at him, arms crossed over his chest. Sam wonders, for a second, if she’s going to fight him on this.

“In the air force, you had wings, right?” she asks, and it’s so outside the realm of what he thought she was going to ask that he staggers a bit.

“Sure did.”

“In the bible,” Layla starts, voice adopting a I know all about this tone, “angels don’t have gender. They just are. Maybe they’re like you.”

She says it matter a fact, healing scrapes on her knees and too-big glasses on her nose and Sam loves her so fucking much that he bends down and pulls her into a hug. She loops her skinny arms around his neck and squeezes.

“Can I tell you a secret?” he asks when they break apart. She nods. “You’re my favorite niece.”

Layla grins. “I know.”

 

*

 

The drive to Riley’s family’s house in Iowa from Houston is two and a half days long. Steve drives; Sam puts his feet up on the dashboard and inspects the new wings Natasha left for him, or sleeps smushed up against the window.

Tony calls on the second day of the drive.

“Capsicle!” his voice blares out through the phone; Steve sighs and hands it to Sam.

“Hello, Sam Wilson speaking. Steve can’t talk, he’s driving.”

Sam!” Tony says everything with the intense, focused energy of someone experiencing a manic episode. Sam’s encountered this before. He raises an eyebrow at Steve, who smiles. “You know, you never mentioned that you were one of the pararescuers who rescued me.

“We haven’t actually met since then,” Sam points out. “And I was just doing my job, sir.”

“Tony, it’s Tony. Have you had a chance to look at the new wings I made you? I did a bunch of updates, specialized them – you were different back then. During the rescuing, I mean.”

“Yes, I know. But –” he glances at Steve, who is frowning at the GPS installed into the dashboard of the car. Tony’s voice is quieter now, and Sam thinks that Steve must not be able to overhear.

But not everyone knows, got it. Well it’s on your paperwork still – I’ll talk to Rhodey about that if you want – but I used the footage in DC to calculate your height, weight, and approximate muscle mass. These wings should suit you much better. In DC, looks like you were having trouble adjusting for the weight you gained and lost in different areas – your flight movements were a little off –

“Excuse you, they were perfect!”

“I’m not trying to insult you, calm down. This suit should be more comfortable too, you know, no straps over scars or anything. I know all about that. Anyway – your file says you’re the best paraflyer they’ve ever had.

“How many they had, six?” Sam snorts. “But damn straight I am.”

Probably because you weigh less than a cis man,” Tony points out. “Now that plus no boobs equals extreme aerodynamicness – is that a word? JARVIS, look up if that’s a word – and maneuverability. So –” a pause. “JARVIS says it isn’t a word. Anyway, Mr. Falcon, tell me how these wings work out and maybe think about joining the Avengers. We could use a guy like you.

“This is…very generous of you. Incredibly invasive, but generous.”

Steve glances up. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but that’s the very definition of Tony.”

“I heard that!” Tony snaps. “Anyway, I didn’t actually call about the wings – I have better things to do – but tell Capsicle that his cyborg turned himself in today.

“Hang on,” Sam orders. Tucking the phone away from his ear, he orders: “Pull over.”

Steve obeys, glancing at Sam with raised brows.

“Bucky turned himself in today – lemme put Tony on speaker.”

He fiddles with the phone and holds it between them. “Tony, go ahead. Tell us everything.”

“Please, Tony,” Steve adds, and his voice is raw, is an open wound.

“He walked into the tower!” Tony practically yells into the phone. “JARVIS knew who he was immediately and alerted me and Romanoff – she just got back, actually, her and Clint – and Agent Hill, who isn’t actually an Agent anymore but whatever. He surrendered and everything, is mainly speaking Russian but whenever he talks in English he has a Brooklyn accent. He’s okay, Cap. And –” Tony sounds particularly indignant, “he won’t let me near his arm! I could make him one ten times better in maybe a day but no, he wants outdated Soviet tech that weighs like eighty pounds. Though – he did get someone to paint your shield on it, over the star.

Steve literally puts a hand over his heart. Sam grunts, because that’s the cutest fucking thing he’s ever heard, a very obvious declaration of a changing of loyalties, a vow to change and Sam doesn’t even know this guy but he’s really fucking proud.

“He’s okay.” Steve repeats. “He’s alright.”

“Okay, he’s obviously deeply traumatized and he’s a little confused but yes, he’s alright. He came here under his own power, he hasn’t tried to kill anyone yet, and he’s letting the doctors examine him. And –” Tony’s voice turns sly. “He’ll be here when you get back. You do have your own floor, you know.

“Yes,” Steve’s voice is incredibly dry. “You mentioned that once or twice.”

I’ll make you a floor too,” Tony says, and it takes a minute for Sam to realize that’s directed at him. “Oh, that’s a good idea – I wonder where Pepper is –”

“That is really not necessary, thank you sir.” Sam says, sinking iron into his voice. Tony laughs.

I actually have to go, something about having not slept in thirty six hours – Pepper’s mad, is the important part. Bye!” He hangs up as quickly as he talks and leaves Sam and Steve staring at each other, still pulled over on the side of the road.

“I’m guessing you want to turn around, go to the airport, get on a plane and head straight to New York,” Sam says finally. Steve is looking at him, face contorted, slumped down in his seat and Sam wants to reach over and touch him but feels like he can’t anymore. The ghosts of two men are thick between them, except now one of them isn’t a ghost, he’s alive and in New York and Steve can see him again.

“No,” Steve says finally. “I can’t do anything for him that’s not already being done. Let’s go see Riley’s family.”

Sam doesn’t know what to do. “But –”

“Sam,” Steve says, and then he’s touching Sam, reaching across the center console to touch Sam’s cheek. Sam’s eyes flutter shut and he leans into the touch like a – like a fucking cat or something, practically nuzzles into Steve’s hand and he’s not even sorry, because it’s warm and solid and he feels like the careful order of the last three months are collapsing. “This is important to you, which makes it important to me. And I said I would do this with you. So don’t – don’t suggest I leave, and you go without me. That’s not how we work.”

Sam wants to ask and what are we, exactly? He doesn’t.

“Okay,” he says. “Then you best start driving.”

Steve smiles at him, something brilliant and blinding, and puts the car in gear.

 

Riley’s family lives on a farm west of Iowa City. Their house is surrounded by power lines and corn fields. It takes them three tries to make the right turn onto the dirt road that leads to the house, and when they finally pull up, Steve insists on waiting in the car.

Sam climbs the rickety steps by himself, shaking a little with nerves, and knocks on their door.

He had called ahead last night, informed them that he was in the area and could he stop by? But he hadn’t been prepared for them to fling open the door, for Riley’s mother, Mrs. Gill, to be standing there, her arms outstretched.

“Sam!” She gasps, and she’s crying. He bends down and hugs her and he’s crying too, and they stand there, in the doorway of the house that means so much to both of them, but for different reasons.

When they pull apart, she reaches up and touches the dog tags he’s wearing, outside of his shirt today.

(He had visited before, had tried to offer her and Riley’s father the tags but they wouldn’t take them, had said Sam was meant to have them, and it’s no secret they’re a soldier’s version of a wedding ring.)

She ushers him onto the porch and into a rocking chair, scurries back into the house to get lemonade and cakes. Sam lets her fuss, knows something about overprotective mothers, and when they’re both settled onto the porch, staring out over the corn fields (and Steve, leaning against the car), he waits.

“How are you doing?” she asks him. “You look – well, I imagine this is how you’re meant to look, isn’t it?”

He smiles. “It makes me happy,” he confesses, and it’s the truth. “I was going to do this before, and then 9/11 happened, and I enlisted.”

“That’s why Riley enlisted too,” Mrs. Gill nods. “He had just turned eighteen when it happened. He was fit to be tied when Greg and I told him he had to finish school before enlisting.”

It doesn’t hurt to talk about Riley with her. It’s like the trash compactor of his chest has eased up so much as to allow the hurt to filter out, rise like steam from his skin and Riley seems to be there with them, and neither of them seem to mind.

Mrs. Gill glances at him. “Did Riley ever tell you about his aunt Cynthia?”

“No ma’am.”

“She wasn’t always his aunt. I mean, it all happened well before he was born – almost torn the whole damn family up.” She sniffs, and Sam has to hide a smile because he knows that sniff, that what a stupid bunch of idiots sniff. “Thankfully Greg’s family came to their senses and realized another woman in the family wasn’t the end of the world. And she told Riley, when he was old enough. So when he wrote and told us about you – well,” Mrs. Gill takes a sip of her lemonade. “I was quite grateful to her, for setting Riley’s head on straight.”

“She sounds like an incredible lady,” Sam says, when he was talk properly, and Mrs. Gill smiles at him.

“I’ll invite you to our next family reunion,” she offers. “You can meet her then, if you want.”

“I’d like that.”

They rock in silence for a minute, and then Mrs. Gill gestures at Steve.

“Is this your young man, Sam?”

“Ah, no, not quite,” Sam stammers, because he’s always been reduced to a ten year old around stately ladies like Mrs. Gill or his mother. “Did you happen to catch the DC drama on the news, about four months ago?”

“How could I miss it?” Mrs. Gill demands, leaning over to sock him in the arm. “You, working with Captain America! Saving lives!” She beams at him. “We’re so proud of you. Riley would have been proud of you.”

“Stop,” Sam grumbles, wiping his eyes. “Damn. Well – that’s Captain America. He’s a buddy of mine.”

Mrs. Gill stops gaping like a fish in order to give him an arch look. “Just a buddy?”

“Oh, man,” Sam sighs. “You and my mother, you’re exactly the same.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” She’s smiling. “But really, Sam – invite him up for some lemonade.”

 

Sam drags his feet in the dirt as he walks across the courtyard, from the house to the car. Steve is leaning against it, arms crossed over his massive chest, and Sam wants to kiss him. It’s a constant desire he’s learning to live with, but it’s so strong and sudden in that moment that he doesn’t know what to do.

“Mrs. Gill wants to meet you,” Sam blurts out, so he doesn’t do anything stupid. “And – I’m gonna get my wings outta the car.”

By the time he arrives back at the porch, wing suit strapped on, Mrs. Gill is fawning over Steve. Sam knows the feeling, honestly he does.

“Sam’s amazing,” Steve is saying, and he doesn’t stop talking when Sam pauses at his elbow; he looks at Sam and smiles, eyes clear and blue. “He’s brave, he’s honest, he’s intelligent, and he’s selfless. He watches my back and I watch his. He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met.”

“Wow, Rogers,” Sam mumbles. “Laying it on pretty thick.”

Steve laughs.

“Riley used to call Sam, Samwise the Brave. After that little guy in Lord of the Rings.”

Sam flinches. He had forgotten Riley used to do that – maybe he blocked it out, but he’s remembering it now, Riley’s sleepy voice murmuring that.

Steve grounds him, puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes and Sam comes back to earth, abruptly.

“Mrs. Gill,” he says, half to prevent her from saying anything else, half because this really fucking matters. “I was wondering if you wanted to see what me and Riley did, over there.”

That’s how he ends up flying high above the golden cornfields of Iowa, in the sky that Riley looked at when he was growing up. The sky is big, big, big, and so blue, and Sam soars so high that Steve and Mrs. Gill are tiny specks against the gold.

He shuts his eyes, catching a thermal and soars for a little while, and when he opens his eyes he swears to god that Riley is there, smiling at him, freckles on his nose and cheeks standing out in the sun.

Love you, Sam thinks and loses track of who he’s saying it to – to Riley, to Steve, to the sky, to himself.

He folds in his wings and hurtles down, and through the rush of air in his ears he hears laughter, and whooping, and all he can see is Steve and Mrs. Gill looking up at him, Mrs. Gill crying and clapping her hands, and Steve – Steve is there, solid and immovable like a mountain, his smile lighting up his face like a beacon, calling Sam home.

 

*

 

“Do you think this surgery will make you like yourself?” his therapist asks. Riley has been dead for thirty-two days.

“No.” Sam says, because he’s not an idiot.

“What do you think will?”

“I don’t know.”

“How many days has it been?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Do you think you’ll ever stop counting?”

Sam stares at his therapist blankly. He doesn’t understand the question.

 

*

 

“Do you remember when you asked me, at the VA, what makes me happy?” Steve asks as they’re hauling their luggage up the stairs. They’re staying at a fancy ass hotel in Iowa City – Steve had insisted – and somehow despite the amount of money they’re paying to sleep in a bed, the fucking elevator is out of order.

“Yep,” Sam says, panting, because he’s fit and everything but this is the fifth flight of stairs.

“Well, I figured it out,” Steve says, triumph, and then he picks up Sam’s duffle literally out of Sam’s hands and hefts it, like it’s nothing.

Come on,” Sam snarls, but then they’re on the right landing and he’s fumbling with the key card, and – wow.

The hotel room is really nice, with two soft looking queen sized bed, a living room, a little kitchenette thing and a big ass bathroom with a marble tub and a shower.

“This tub has jets!” Sam announces. “Like a real life Jacuzzi!” He sighs at Steve’s blank look. “Never mind. What – what were you going to say?”

Steve grins at him. “I liked seeing you fly,” he explains. “I liked meeting Mrs. Gill – meeting someone who isn’t SHIELD, or CIA, or Stark Industries. I liked traveling with you, and I like trying different types of food, and I like – I like living, I guess. Now that it’s not mission to mission. Now that it’s like, that is the mission. To enjoy yourself. I’m probably not making any sense.”

“It makes a lot of sense,” Sam says, grinning back at Steve. He can’t shift fully in VA mode because all he’s hearing is I like being with you and that’s how he feels too and maybe Mrs. Gill and Natasha and everyone else in the whole damn world are right and they’re too stupid to get their heads out of their asses – but he doesn’t know what else to do, what other step to take. They’re literally sharing a hotel room and have been for almost four months and it’s like they’re really sexy roommates.

“Let’s go to dinner.” Steve sort of announces this, all earnestness and blue eyes and that urge to kiss him is ever present but steadily growing stronger.

“Okay,” Sam promises. “Let me change, and we can go.”

 

They go to a fancy steak house and Steve spends a good thirty minutes bitching about how expensive everything is.

“Dude,” Sam says, fifteen minutes in, “you can afford it.”

“That’s not the point!” Steve hisses. He was the one that picked out this place. He’s refusing to let them go anywhere else. He is appalled by modern day America. “There is no reason on earth a piece of meat should be this expensive.”

“Man, tell that to the farmers that have to be subsidized by the government to keep going. It’s all pretty fucked up.”

“I did not become a giant ice cube,” Steve hisses, stabbing his finger at the fifty-five fucking dollar filet mignon, “for this.”

“But damn, we better enjoy it,” Sam says, and orders two, because Steve’s paying and he’s really fucking hungry.

They also order fancy red wine and Steve drinks a lot of it, even though he can’t get drunk. They spend maybe too much time laughing and looking at each other then is considered appropriate for two men, one white one black, in the Midwest but neither of them notice.

The steak is really, really good.

“But is it worth fifty-five dollars?” Steve questions. “I don’t know. I’m not sure. That was like – that was almost two months rent, in my day.”

“Did you hike uphill in the snow without shoes, too?” Sam asks, deadpan, and snickers into his mashed potatoes when Steve looks at him blankly.  

After steak comes dessert – “A brownie sundae? Hell yeah!” – and more wine, and soon enough Sam is slightly buzzed and full of good food, and Steve’s foot is pressed against his calf, and instead of feeling out of his skin about it, Sam relaxes into it.

Steve gets the bill and then they leave the restaurant and wander around, because there’s a park nearby and it’s the height of summer.

They walk side by side, shoulders brushing sometimes, a comfortable silence stretching between them. The crickets are out and dusk is falling, the reverse of what happened the first time Sam met Steve and it seems slow but inevitable, when Steve stops walking and turns to face him.

“Can I ask you something?” he makes a face. “Well, actually, two things.”

Sam looks at him, at his clear blue eyes and his long, golden lashes and the way he’s looking at Sam – like Sam is something good, and true, and precious.

“You know you can.”

“But one of these questions – it’s a rude question. But it leads directly into the other question.”

“I see.” Sam smiles, and he thinks he knows what’s coming, can see it but can’t make it happen quite yet and he’s relieved that it’s finally happening, after all these months of waiting and panicking over how to make it happen, over how to tell Steve – and Steve is doing it for him.

“Have you –” Steve swallows. “Have you always used he/him/his?”

“No,” Sam breathes, and

it’s

a

release.

Steve moves closer to him, still looking at Sam like he’s something fragile and perfect and full of meaning, and puts on hand on Sam’s hip. He uses his other hand to touch Sam’s cheek, to stroke the bone there, and it’s so fucking gentle that Sam feels like he’s going to shatter apart.

“I wanted to ask that one first,” Steve says, his feet lined up with Sam’s, his voice soft and sort of choked, “so you know that I don’t – think of you any differently. Of course I care, because it’s important to you and so it matters to me, but it doesn’t change anything.”

“Steve,” Sam whispers. “Ask your second fucking question.”

“Can I kiss you?” Steve whispers. Wordless, Sam leans in.

Steve tastes like red wine and chocolate and steak. The hand on Sam’s face slides back to cradle his head, and the hand on his hip tightens.  Sam, for his part, throws his arms around Steve’s neck and holds on.

The kiss is chaste and it is tender and it just enough to take Sam entirely apart. After Steve draws away and rests his forehead against Sam, Sam shudders and tries to remember how to breathe, and Steve’s hand moves from his head to his back, like he is a nervous horse that Steve must comfort.

“I’ve got you,” Steve murmurs, voice deeper then normal and Sam nods, because he knows.

“I think,” he says, when he can manage a steady voice, “that we should go back to the hotel now.”

 

They’ve never been awkward and they don’t start now. Sam sticks his hand in the ass pocket of Steve’s jeans as they walk through the hotel lobby together, and take the elevator – now working – and when they get back to the room, the door swinging shut behind them, Steve crowds him up against the wall.

“Natasha told me,” he breathes against Sam’s lips, “to be gentle with you. She never told me why.”

Sam laughs, and Steve kisses his throat, his small Adam's apple, the hinge of his jaw.

“Bet this isn’t what you were expecting,” Sam breathes as Steve sucks a bruise on the underside of his jaw. He’s busy running his hands down Steve’s chest. As he speaks, he tweaks a nipple and Steve groans, deep in his throat.

“I didn’t have any expectations,” he replies, running his hands down Sam’s sides. Sam sticks a thigh between Steve’s legs and Steve grinds against it, gasping.

“Bed?” Sam suggests and Steve nods, breaking away to stand in front of the nearest bed.

“Uh, I think that means get on the bed,” Sam points out, flopping onto it.

Steve obeys, knee-crawling up the bed and gathering Sam up in his arms.

He kisses Sam slowly, reverently, cupping Sam’s face in his hands and Sam lets him. It’s been a long time since he’s been loved like this, since he’s let anyone love him like this, and Steve seems content just to kiss him, tongues meeting, bodies pressing together.

“Shirt,” Sam says after a while, between kisses and Steve obeys, tugging his shirt off in that obnoxiously male way. Sam immediately begins to run his hands over Steve’s body and this – this is a body he has watched for months. This is a body that mystifies him, with its size and it’s strength and it’s speed, with the presence it exudes.

“Jesus,” he mutters as Steve kisses a line down his neck. “The veins on your arms are incredible.”

He feels Steve grin into his skin. “You know what has better veins?” Steve asks and Sam chokes, physically chokes and feels his ears go bright red. When he draws back to look at Steve, Steve is also bright red, but looks incredibly pleased with himself.

“Dear god,” Sam marvels. “That was – impressive, even for you.”

“I’ll show you impressive,” Steve winks at him. “C’mon, shirt.”

“I still have those scars,” Sam reminds him, tugging off his shirt in a way that is not as obnoxiously male but still pretty damn close, because he practiced in the mirror for hours.

“And I think they’re beautiful,” Steve tells him. He scoots back on the bed and kisses his way down Sam’s chest, Sam’s hands in his hair.

He kisses the left scar and Sam gasps, not because he can really feel it, even almost three years later, but because of what it means, what's being promised. Steve hums and kisses his nipple, hand coming up to toy with the right one, and Sam leans back on the bed.

"Gentle," he murmurs, because he doesn't have a lot of sensation there and what he does has is sharp and rearranged.

"Okay," Steve promises, touches turning gentle and revenant, thumb rubbing circles into Sam's skin.

Steve hums and leans over to kiss the right scar and give that nipple similar, gentle treatment, and then he’s kissing his way down Sam’s body, pausing at Sam’s pants.

“You can take them off,” Sam says, trying not to curl in on himself because this is the part where most people leave, and he’s had to work on it, even with himself – genitals do not equate gender. No genitals are gross. He is not less than for having a vagina.

“I just want to make sure you’re comfortable,” Steve says gently.

“I – I am. If you are.”

“It’s not about me,” Steve points out, sitting up and frowning. His hair is sticking up and his lips are kiss swollen and oh god, Sam loves him. “It’s about you. Do you still want to do this.”

“Yes.” Sam says after a minute, because yes.

Steve smiles, and leans down again, unbuttoning Sam’s pants and pulling them down. Sam lifts his hips obligingly and Steve pulls them off entirely.

Steve kisses along his waistband and then presses his face against the front of Sam’s boxers, nose brushing Sam’s clit and Sam’s cunt is throbbing, heat spreading. He shifts, too turned on to stay still and Steve is fucking inhaling him and that’s so hot, he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

“You smell good,” Steve says, voice husky, and then he’s kissing Sam’s cunt through the cotton of his boxers. Sam twitches, grabbing Steve’s hair and Steve sighs contentedly and continues, tongue darting out against the cotton of the boxers.

He’s driving Sam insane and Sam finally can’t take anymore, finally lifts up his hips and pulls his boxers down his legs. Steve helps, tugging them off of his bony ankles and then Steve is spreading his legs gently, so gently, and pressing a kiss against his outer lips.

“Beautiful,” Steve tells him, reverence in his voice and Sam twitches. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.

Steve looks up at him, eyes dark. “Can I…” his hand is creeping up Sam’s thigh and when it reaches Sam’s cunt, Steve seems to lose track of what he was saying. He drags his index finger up the cleft of Sam’s cunt and then stops at his clit, thumbing at it. It's big, more like a tiny penis, and Steve stares at it with hunger.

Sam whines.

“You can do whatever the fuck you want as long as you do it right now,” he snaps, and Steve laughs.

Steve goes down on him like it’s his mission, spreading his cunt with both hands and licking it, alternating between sucking on his clit and fucking Sam with his tongue. Eventually he slips two fingers into Sam and curls them up, stabbing at that spot repeatedly, using the thumb of that other hand to rub circles on the head of Sam’s clit.

Sam shakes apart with a yell, shuddering under Steve’s hands and Steve gentles him, licks him clean and then withdraws his fingers and focuses on pressing kisses into the skin of Sam’s inner right thigh until Sam is coherent again.

“You were made to do that,” Sam mumbles, grasping ineffectively at Steve’s shoulder. Steve obliges, coming up the bed until they’re chest to chest. “Not…to be a super soldier.”

“To eat you out?” Steve asks, and grins. “I definitely prefer doing that then to being a super soldier.”

Sam hits him on the arm. “Sweet talker.”

Steve’s cock is nudging at his hip and Sam grasps it in one hand. Steve is big and uncut and yes, veiny, and Sam starts to jack him off slowly.

“Ahh,” Steve sighs, thrusting a little into Sam’s hand.

“I have to go get condoms and lube,” Sam tells him, continuing to not move. Steve is fucking Sam’s hand now, thrusting lazily, arm thrown over his face and chest mottled red.

“Oh?” Steve asks, snapping his hips up, and then he seems to come back to him. “You’re – we’re –”

“Is that okay?”

“Yes!” He nods, vigorously, and Sam grins.

“Good, because I was planning on riding you.”

Steve makes a hurt noise, like he’s been shot – though Sam knows what Steve actually sounds like when he’s been shot – and Sam gets up and rummages through his duffle until he finds a condom and his small bottle of lube.

“Bring – oh – a couple,” Steve tells him. “The serum…short refractory period.” He’s fucking his own fist now, sprawled out across the bed, hips moving up and chest rippling and it’s so beautiful. Sam walks back to him and unpeels the condom, batting Steve’s hand away so he can roll it down onto Steve’s dick. He uncaps the lube bottle and fingers himself for a minute, getting himself slick, and then rubs more lube onto Steve's dick.

“You’re pretty impressive,” he allows, moving until the head of Steve’s dick is positions at his entrance. “But I’m better.” He sinks down with one motion and Steve yells, overly large hands coming up to grip Sam’s hips.

When he’s fully seated, Sam pauses to adjust, feeling his walls expand, feeling Steve flex inside of him. God, I missed this.

Sam rides him, Steve’s too-big hands grasping his hips, and for a while it’s lazy and gentle, Sam undulating his hips and Steve rising to meet him.

“How long have you wanted to do this?” Sam asks, rising up a little so he can sink back down and Steve makes a little bitten off noise, something quiet and hurt.

“Since…” Steve snaps his hips up. “Since I first saw you jogging.”

Running,” Sam hisses. “I was running.”

“If that’s what you want to call it,” Steve grins, and then sits up so Sam is in his lap. “Can I try something?”

“Ahuh,” Sam manages, because Steve is so deep now, and he feels amazing – and then Steve is lifting him up and carrying him towards the wall, pressing Sam against it. Sam automatically wraps his arms around Steve’s neck, and Steve hitches Sam’s legs high over his elbows. And then Steve starts to fuck him properly, hips snapping against Sam’s body. Sam throws his head back and it meets the wall with a crack and it hurts but Steve is fucking him smoothly, almost mechanically, great body straining forward, punching the air from Sam’s lungs.

“Touch yourself,” Steve breathes in his ear, voice ragged and Sam obeys, extracting one hand and pulling gently on his clit. Steve is clenching the bottoms of his thighs and he starts to fuck faster, grunting, breathing open mouthed against Sam’s neck.

Sam comes again, shuddering, and Steve fucks him through it, gasping noisily against Sam’s neck, his teeth scraping Sam’s collarbone. Sam rakes his nails down Steve’s back – and fuck, there’s so much of him, so much baring down on Sam and Sam loves it. He clenches down as Steve thrusts in and Steve groans, deep and low in his throat and comes, leaning his forehead against Sam’s collarbone.

For a moment they stand there, still and silent, and then Steve walks them over to the bed and lays Sam on it gently. He tugs the condom off of his still hard dick and throws it away, and then rolls on a new condom and lubes it up. Sam realizes they could do this for hours, that there’s nothing stopping him and Steve from fucking until they physically can’t anymore.

“Steve,” he mutters as Steve gets onto the bed and crawls towards Sam. Sam sprawls welcomingly, letting Steve sink back into him and begins to thrust, a little gentler then last time, a little less desperate. “How many times can you come in a row before it hurts?”

Steve grins at him, eyes bright against his flushed face. “Four.”

“Holy fuck,” Sam says, and hangs on for the ride.

 

After – at least two hours later, although Sam wasn’t exactly keeping track of time – Steve staggers over the bin and gets rid of the last condom, while just lays on the bed. Steve comes back and sprawls next to him, one big hand grasping Sam’s bony ankle, his shoulders nudging Sam’s waist.

“You’re too warm to cuddle,” Sam mumbles, sore and sated and happy in a way he hasn’t been in a long time. He feels rather than hears Steve laugh.

“Hey,” Steve says after a few minutes. “You up for room service?”

“It’s late, Steve. They probably stopped a bit ago.”

“I’m Captain America,” Steve says, only half serious, and Sam laughs at him. “Think if I tell them that, they’ll do it anyway?”

“Probably.”

“With great power,” Steve says seriously, but the corner of his mouth is twitching, “comes great responsibility.”

“I’ll show you how to come.”

Steve bursts out laughing. Sam wonders if they can hear him out on the street.

I did that, he thinks. I made Steve Rogers that happy.

Steve does end up getting room service, a quick burger and fries, and Sam comes to his senses long enough to put on boxers before crawling into bed.

Steve crawls in with him, slotting in behind him and Sam sighs and throws the covers off.

“You’re so hot,” he grumbles.

“Thank you,” Steve says, smiling against Sam’s neck, and then goes oof when Sam elbows him in the ribs.

 

*

 

Steve is not the first person Sam has asked, what makes you happy?

First time he asks it, it’s to a Gulf War vet who’s been out of combat for over twenty years but can’t quite let it go.

“I don’t know,” the vet says – a standard response. “What makes you happy?”

“Helping people,” Sam says immediately, because it’s true. He bites his lip. It’s been 447 days since Riley died. “Living, despite all of – this.”

The vet nods. “I just wish I knew how to do that.”

“But you are,” Sam points out. “You got up today, man. That’s amazing. That’s all it takes.”

 The vet looks at him, sharp, and then all of the fight goes out of the man and he deflates into his uncomfortable plastic chair. Sam should know how comfortable they are – he’s sitting in a matching one.

“Sometimes, though, I wish I didn’t.” The vet admits, real quiet like, and Sam nods. They don’t say anything more.

That is the day Sam Wilson stops counting.

 

*

 

He wakes up to Steve bustling around, making coffee in the coffee maker that comes with the kitchenette thingy, and for a while all Sam focuses on is the sunlight streaming in through the window, the dust motes in the air, Steve’s pale body gleaming in the morning light and the smell of coffee.

Steve’s obviously been up for a while; his sketchbook and several charcoal sticks are spread out on the table, and he’s wearing sweats. But his hair is still sticking up from sleep and he’s moving like someone who’s well fucked, and Sam smirks before sitting up and stretching.

“Mornin,” Steve says, strolling over to him and handing him a cup of coffee. It’s like every morning they’ve shared in the past three months but much better. “How’d you sleep?”

“Like a baby.” Sam sips his coffee. “What about you?”

“Pretty good.” Steve is smiling at him, that clear, honest smile that makes Sam squirm. He flushes hot and looks away, focusing on the sketchbook.

“Whatcha drawing?”

“You,” Steve says, honest as ever. “It’s not finished yet.”

“Oh.” They sip their coffee in silence, Steve coming to sit on the bed with him, close enough that their knees brush.

“You headed back to New York?” Sam asks, and Steve smiles at him.

“I am. You’re invited.”

“Always wanted to see the place,” Sam admits. “Lotta important shit went down there.”

“I’ll take you to Brooklyn. You’ll love it.”

I’ll love anything you love, Sam thinks. He keeps that thought to himself.

 

They check out of the hotel and drive to the nearest airport, dropping off the car on the way. Sam leans against Steve while they wait at their gate, still tired from the night before.

Steve puts an arm around him and draws him tight, pressing a kiss to the top of his head.

People are staring. Sam doesn’t care.

“People are staring,” he points out. Maybe he cares a little.

“You mind?” Steve asks, voice pitched low and intimate and Sam shivers a bit.

“No. Do you?”

“Nope,” Steve says, popping the p. “’Sides, they’re just jealous of me.”

“Absolutely,” Sam agrees. “They’re wondering how an ugly fucker like you landed such a hot dude.”

“Hey,” Steve protests, laughing. “I’m okay looking.”

“Just okay,” Sam nods. “Not Greek God status or anything. No, not at all.”

Steve kisses him, right in the middle of the fucking airport and Sam forgets what they were arguing about entirely.

 

He leaves to get more coffee and to call Natasha, and she answers on the third ring.

“I figured it out,” he announces, inspecting a display of airplane neck pillows. “It’s all – taken care of.”

“Did you fuck?” Natasha asks, blunt and deadpan but Sam is pretty damn sure she’s smiling.

“Not of your goddamn business,” he replies, and she laughs at him, a big beautiful throaty laugh. “We’re headed back to New York now.”

“Bucky’s sedated,” Natasha says. “He has to sleep a lot, because of his brain damage. They don’t think he’ll wake up for a couple days, at least.”

“I’ll let Steve know.”

“I think Tony’s on the phone with him, actually,” Natasha replies. Sam shrugs, even though she can’t see it. “So, enjoy yourselves for a bit. Steve’s gonna want to come to the tower immediately, and stare at Bucky like a sad puppy through the glass – but after that, well, he’s all yours.”

“You know I thought you two were, well, together?” Sam moves from the pillow display to the travel mug display. Natasha is laughing at him. “No, I mean – you guys have some scarily intense eye contact. But then, you and Clint…”

“Clint and I share well,” Natasha says, matter a fact and Sam honestly cannot imagine her sharing but what does he know? “Steve doesn’t. It wouldn’t have worked.” She pauses. “He’s so easy to fall in love with…I had to spend a lot of time ensuring I didn’t.”

“You got a hell of a lot of will power,” Sam informs her. She’s laughing at him again. “I’ll see you soon.” She’s still laughing when he hangs up.

 

Steve is still talking to Tony when Sam gets back, carrying two cups of coffee.

“Yeah, Sam liked his wings – here he is. Did you like your wings?”

“Love ‘em,” Sam says, sipping his coffee, and Steve smiles.

“He loves them. Yes – yeah. Listen, you can ask him this in about four hours. Yeah, we’re flying in – no, that’s not necessary – okay, sure. Okay. Bye, Tony.” He gets off the phone, frowning. “Tony is sending a car to pick us up on the airport. That alright?”

Sam shrugs. “Fine with me.”

He doesn’t know how to say, I will follow you to the ends of the earth because I love you so whatever we do, as long as it’s together, is absolutely 100% fine with me. He wonders if Steve knows anyway.

“Thought it might be,” Steve says, real soft, and Sam shivers.

 

They sit next to each other on the plane in fucking first class, dog tags both displayed – it gets you better service on planes – and Steve’s shield stowed under his seat.

“So,” Steve says, over shitty plane food that likes to pretend it’s better in first class but isn’t. “This. Me and you.”

“Yeah?” Sam asks, poking at his fruit suspiciously.

“I want it to be a thing.” Steve’s jaw is set, like he’s concentrating really hard on using ‘I feel’ statements and Sam has to force himself not to laugh.

“Good, me too,” he says, and Steve relaxes immediately. He puts his hand on Steve’s knee, stroking up the inside of Steve’s thigh but keeping it PG-13 rated. “Figured you’d get yourself into trouble without me, anyway.”

Steve just looks at him, and it’s everything he can’t say in one look and Sam flushes bright red.

“Think you are the trouble,” Steve tells him, and kisses him, leaning awkwardly over the seat divider. “Think I never wanna get outta it.”

“Then don’t,” Sam breathes against his lips.

Steve smiles.

 

*

 

The drawing is left for Sam to find when he wakes up, on his bedside table. It’s him, nude, with real wings sprouting from his back, his head turned up towards the sky and arms outstretched.

He looks like an angel. He looks happy. He looks beautiful.

“Come on,” he yells, knowing Steve is still in the apartment, knowing Steve can hear him. “How the fuck am I supposed to top this?”

“Maybe you can’t,” Steve calls back, laughing.

“Oh, it’s on,” Sam yells back, shooting out of bed. “Get ready, Rogers! I’m coming for ya!”

“Counting on it!” Steve yells, and Sam dashes out of the room, heading towards the kitchen. He thinks he knows what three words will do the trick.