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The first week after Steve walked out of SHIELD, he went clubbing. Sometimes the bouncers recognized him, sometimes they just let him in because he had on a tight shirt and looked like he had money. He made himself get out on the dance floor and pretended he was learning a new martial arts technique. The music was so loud you couldn’t talk to anyone, but that didn’t seem to matter. He didn’t have to ask girls to dance; they just looked at him and smiled, and when he smiled back tentatively, they came up on the dance floor and started dancing with him. Sometimes they even put their hands on his waist and pulled him in so close their bodies were grinding up against each other and he got hot and panting and turned-on.

He sure got the appeal of that part, but he could barely see their faces, washed with green and yellow and red, and at the end of the night he walked out with four or five new numbers on his cellphone and only a vague idea who any of them belonged to. He called and texted a few of them the day after, but they rarely answered. When they did, they mostly sounded confused when he tried to explain who he was, which was a challenge in and of itself. “That guy you were rubbing up against last night at the club” didn’t seem right, and when he said, “Steve,” they said, “Who?”

One of them did remember him and said, “Sure!” when he asked her to come out for lunch, and then she added, “But it’s got to be on the other side of town, I don’t want my boyfriend to find out,” and Steve stared at the phone a moment and then said, “Sorry, my mistake, I’ve—got to—go,” and hung up.

He even took the drugs people offered him, trying to throw himself into the spirit of the thing: a few hits off a passed joint, a handful of ecstasy pills, a tab of LSD. The LSD briefly made the room writhe and spin around him queasily. The guy who’d given it to him said, “Dude, I think you’re having a bad trip.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I think so too.” He let himself call it a night and crossed nightclubs off the list.

#

The second week after Steve walked out of SHIELD, he drove up to Atlantic City and blew $5,000 gambling in a night. It felt almost criminal, even if he had more money in his bank account than he’d be able to spend in the rest of his life, but he let girls blow on his dice at the craps table and bought rounds of drinks, and a small crowd of people formed watching him play, friendly and excited, ready to cheer and give him advice, everyone chatting easily. No one stayed for very long, though, and he ate dinner alone in one of the dozens of restaurants, which all seemed interchangeably neon to him.

When he got up to his room, he discovered the casino had sent up a bottle of champagne, which he figured had to mean he’d lost an immoral amount of money even by their standards. He packed his bag and went downstairs to check out.

He had to walk through the casino past the slots, which he’d tried to avoid. There was a bank of Captain America machines with a recording of his actual voice from the 1943 newsreel saying “Every dollar is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun!” that creeped him out every time it went off. Fortunately that wasn’t too often; the machines weren’t very popular next to the giant stand of red-and-gold Iron Man slots. He emerged into the shopping strip walking a little too fast and had to stop before he knocked into a double-column of seniors pouring in off a tour bus.

He waited next to a small booth staffed by a tiny old lady who was just sitting in a chair reading a giant paperback romance novel. He glanced over her head at the banner reading AFFINITY in glitzy silver letters, with two posters side by side underneath: They Don’t Need Us... over a picture of two stick figures holding hands, surrounded by family and friends, and the second one of a figure all alone in a black empty space above the words ...But Maybe You Do.

He flinched, maybe; anyway some instinct made the little old lady scent blood in the water. Her head came straight up out of her book. Two seconds later she had her hands on his arm and was tugging him inside the booth, stuffing a pamphlet into his hand. “Listen, honey, signing up is free,” she said. “We don’t charge your card unless we find you a match. It takes ten minutes, fifteen minutes, it’s nothing. Come on, sit down: what’s the worst that happens, you meet the love of your life?”

He stared at the interview chair: it was a big square thing with leather padding and long cables snaking out to a computer tucked under one side. There were videocameras pointed at it from three different angles and a bank of blinking lights along the top. It looked awful.

Then he took a deep breath and sat down in it. “Okay,” he said. “What do I do?”

She triumphantly handed him a clipboard with a form to fill out. “Just do that while I set up, then we’ll do the questions.”

It seemed to take forever, a computer tablet feeding endless questions that the old lady read out to him slowly and loudly. He half thought about giving up, but he didn’t have anywhere else to be. He’d been counting on at least a few more days here to figure something out. Maybe he’d sign up for a few other computer dating services when he got back home, that could be this week. It sounded weird as hell to him, having a computer tell you who to date, but it wasn’t like it could do a lot worse than he was doing on his own.

He’d hoped for a while that it would just—happen. That he’d find friends, even if not necessarily a girlfriend. People who’d become part of his life. He thought he was ready for it. He had a job, he had an apartment, he’d bought furniture. He’d seen enough news and movies and TV that he could follow conversations without feeling completely at sea.

And he’d met plenty of people at work—he said hi, they chatted, he asked about their work, their families. He knew their names. They seemed to like him. But they never seemed to move past there. They were always a little too—respectful. He couldn’t blame people for not being able to get past Captain America. You weren’t supposed to see past the red-white-and-blue, that was the idea. But it was hard to ask somebody to have lunch with you when they’d just called you sir.

He’d tried going out drinking with Rumlow and the guys from the Strike Force a few times, but he felt awkward. They kept an eye on him while they talked, watching for his reactions, and, well, the truth was he didn’t much like the way some of them talked. They seemed to have funny ideas sometimes, and he couldn’t even argue with them. They had to follow his orders in combat; it wasn’t fair.

At least with dating, asking was normal. So he’d gone on half a dozen dates with girls from work, and every single one had been awful. Awkward and uncomfortable and off-balance—they’d known so much about him, or thought they did, half of it wrong and the rest a little bit off, and he hadn’t known anything about them. It turned out all the pop culture he’d taken in told him about as much about how their lives worked as they would’ve gotten from watching Casablanca.

So, no. Even a computer couldn’t do much worse. He stayed and answered the questions, one after another, until the interview was finished.

#

The third week after Steve walked out of SHIELD, he got up still half-groggy after another dragging night of staring at the ceiling, not tired enough to sleep, and walked past Natasha and all the way to his fridge without noticing her. He was drinking from the carton when she said, “You know, Rogers—” and he coughed milk all over his kitchen floor, whirling around.

She didn’t bat an eye. She was sitting curled up on his couch, with his tablet. “I realize you’re annoyed, but this is a little extreme.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Steve said. He wiped milk off his chin and went to grab the tablet out of her hands.

She let him take it: one look at the screen was enough to tell him she’d been deep inside his email. He glared at her as he put it aside. She glared right back. “You know what’s funny?” she said. “When Fury said he was concerned about you, I told him, ‘Rogers just needs to cool down. He’s a big boy, he can take care of himself.’ Apparently I was wrong.”

“You know what’s really funny?” Steve said. “You and Fury thinking my private life is any of your business. Out, Natasha.” He made a grab for her arm that she somehow managed to evade, standing up and moving into the middle of the room as gracefully as if she’d been planning to do that all along.

“You’re making it my business,” she said. She ticked off her fingers. “In the last three weeks, you’ve taken multiple illegal drugs, gambled away thousands of dollars, and now you’re signing up to marry somebody that a computer program picks out for you? You know, if you’re that desperate, you could’ve asked me to find you someone.”

“If I’d wanted to ask you, I would—wait, what?” Steve said. He looked around and grabbed the Affinity pamphlet from where he’d left it on his coffee table, unread.

Please note that we are not an online dating service. We see ourselves as a matchmaker for the modern age. All Affinity users are seeking a permanent, life-long relationship. We have an honor-system limit of three dates for participants to determine whether or not they wish to commit to one another and begin the magical process of discovering their new life together!

Steve stared at it blankly. Natasha raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t even read the fine print? You are desperate.”

He tossed the pamphlet down. “Thanks,” he said tightly. “Was there something you wanted?”

“I want you to stop fucking around,” she said. “Get angry at me, get angry at Fury—”

“Way ahead of you there,” Steve said.

“—but none of this is a reasonable coping strategy. You’re not even enjoying yourself. Are you ready to come back to work yet?”

Steve was silent. The hell of it was, he wanted to say yes. One empty day after another stretching out—at least working at SHIELD felt purposeful. But that didn’t make it right. He wasn’t just pissed off because she and Fury had gone behind his back. Those helicarriers Fury had shown him, just a few weeks away from launching, like a gun pointed at the head of the whole world—he didn’t want any part of that. He couldn’t lend his hands to that kind of work.

When he didn’t answer, Natasha shook her head. “So what are you going to do? Marry someone after three dates?”

He didn’t have an answer for that, either. After she left, he sat on the couch with his tablet and looked at his email: a bunch of promotional spam from two dozen companies, nothing personal, and then the latest one from Affinity with the subject line: We Have A Match For You! He opened it up and stared at the little stick-figure icons holding hands out to each other with a question mark above them. There wasn’t a name, just a link to click through to charge his card and get the meeting place. Steve guessed that didn’t really make a difference. Three dates and then you had to propose: it wouldn’t have been any less nutty just because he could google the woman beforehand.

On the other hand, he’d never made it to a third date in his life. He clicked the link and approved the payment. What was the worst that could happen?

#

“Hey,” his match said, pulling out the chair on the other side of the table. “I’m Sam Wilson,” and sat down with a frown starting, the one that meant he was trying to place Steve’s face. Steve didn’t actually get recognized all that often out of uniform, for which he was grateful, but if someone looked at him long enough they got it. At the moment, though, he was preoccupied by other concerns.

“Oh,” he squeaked. “Oh? Oh.” His voice wavered up and down.

Wilson’s attempt to recognize him got derailed. He sat back and eyed Steve narrowly. “Which is it?”

“What?” Steve said.

“Did you forget to tick the box for white, or did you forget to tick the box for girl,” Wilson said.

“There was a box for girl?” Steve said faintly.

Wilson’s eyebrows went up. “Orientation?”

“The thing that had all the checkboxes? My interviewer and me couldn’t figure out—” Steve stopped and sighed. When he’d asked, the little old lady had peered at that part of the form, and then she’d shrugged. “Beats me, honey,” she’d said. “Just leave it blank, let the computer figure it out.”

“And here I was all up on them for being progressive,” Wilson said, starting to sound warily amused.

“Sorry,” Steve said, ruefully. “I’m, uh. Steve Rogers,” he added, awkwardly.

Wilson paused. “Oh, you’re kidding me,” and Steve braced himself, but Wilson just stared at him a moment longer, then spurted a little huff of laughter and sat back into his chair, shaking his head, really amused now. “All right, fine,” he said. “Being frozen for most of the last eight decades gets you a pass. But now I’ve got to ask—really?”

“What?” Steve said, and then Wilson gave him a raised eyebrow. “You signed up for it!”

Wilson snorted. “Yeah, well. They kind of waylaid me a couple days ago with a booth they set up at the VA. I guess I figured why the hell not. I’ve never really been into catch-and-release, and the DC scene is full of college boys. Even the grad students feel younger than I remember being since basic.”

Steve paused. “You’re a vet?”

“Yeah,” Wilson said. “58th Pararescue. I’ve been out for a while, though.” The waitress came over with Steve’s beer and turned smiling to ask Wilson what he wanted to drink. “Scotch on the rocks, and make it the really good stuff,” he said, and added to Steve dryly, “You’re buying.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, ducking his head, red; the least he owed Wilson was a drink. “Sorry again.”

“I’ll forgive you soon as I’m drinking top shelf whiskey,” Wilson said.

#

Wilson was Sam by the time they decided to order a second round and some food to go with it. The conversation bounced here and there; they ended up trading stories about winter forests versus deserts, all the most stupid things the guys they’d served with had done to get warm or cool off, respectively. They both broke down crying with laughter over the time Dum-Dum had literally gotten himself taken prisoner with nothing more than a razor blade and a lockpick hidden in his waistband, just for the chance to bust out that night and rob the Hydra officers’ pantry, because it was Christmas, goddammit, they weren’t going to be eating rations for Christmas. He’d fled in a motorcycle with an entire squad on his heels and come bursting back into their camp yelling, “They’re right behind me!” and then he spun out and three giant smoked hams came flying out of the sidecar and knocked Steve flat off his feet.

“Were they any good, though?” Sam gasped, wiping his eyes.

“The best damn ham I ever ate,” Steve said. “We had to eat it in a cave, though—Hydra had two thousand men in that base, and they all came at us. We had to abandon the camp and run for it. No fire that night, nothing, and it must’ve been twenty below.” He hiccupped with laughter. “The guys nearly killed him.”

“I was going to ask how he made it out alive,” Sam said.

“Well,” Steve said, “he’d also stolen two bottles of the officers’ schnapps.”

They were grinning at each other. Sam had a great smile, his whole face curving with warmth, and then the waitress cleared her throat at the side of the table. “I’m really sorry,” she said, “but we’re closing.” Steve looked around, startled: they were the only people left in the entire restaurant.

He paid the bill. They went outside, the street mostly quiet, but there was a bar down the block still open. Steve looked at it and said, “Want to get one more round?” He knew he was trying to prolong the inevitable. But date or no date, this was the best night he’d had in—seventy-two years and change. He didn’t want to get to the end, to say goodbye, sorry again, nice to meet you and walk away alone again.

Sam didn’t answer right away, looking down the street towards the bar, too, and then he turned around abruptly and said, “You know, I’m thinking if I was willing to let this thing find me a partner, I don’t see why I shouldn’t let it find me a friend. That sound right to you?”

It was like getting his breath back, his whole chest opening up. “I guess it does,” Steve said.

Sam nodded and took out his cell phone. “I’ve got work tomorrow, so I’m going to be responsible and get myself to bed. But I usually go for a run around the Mall at six. You want to come along? I’ll spring for coffee after.”

“Sounds good,” Steve said. They traded numbers, and when they shook hands goodbye it felt like saying hello instead, like making a connection. Steve walked back to his bike through the quiet streets, happy, the warmth of Sam’s hand still tucked in his pocket.

#

The next morning, about a mile into the run, Sam said, panting, “You’re not even breaking a sweat, are you?”

“It’s nice to be out,” Steve said, equivocally.

Sam shot him a narrow-eyed look and made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go on, I’m not going to be holding anybody back. Think you can lap me by the end?”

Steve pointed at the Lincoln Memorial, about a quarter of a mile away. “See you at the steps?”

“Oh, bullshit,” Sam said.

Steve flashed him a grin and took off. He loved running flat-out, so much: the fantastic feeling of his whole body working as one perfect unit, lungs, legs, eyes, everything. There had been a lot of days his morning run was the only thing that got him out of bed at all. He whipped around the Mall and caught Sam just at the Memorial and said, “I’m sorry, what was that you said?” as he slowed back into place next to him, not really breathing too hard.

“Are you kidding me?” Sam said. “Okay, get your ass moving again, I’m keeping a tally from here on: I want twenty laps before I finish, or you’re buying breakfast.”

“Twenty!” Steve said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, is that not enough of a challenge? Twenty-five. Should I make it thirty?” Sam said, smirking, and Steve glared at him and started running.

He started caroling out, “On your left!” every time he passed, and Sam would flip him the bird and yell out how many laps he had left to go. The number kept ticking down, but it was going to be close; Sam was picking up the pace himself. Steve hadn’t ever run this hard; the world was blurring, he was soaked with sweat, and his shoes had stopped feeling warm under his feet: he was taking the ground in huge leaps, barely hitting long enough to launch himself again.

The final lap and Sam was closing in on the street lamp where they’d started, putting on one last burst of speed, breath rasping and sweat-soaked, but Steve was going to make it; he clenched his teeth and stretched out to pass him, gasping out, “On—your—left!” and Sam said, “No fucking way!” and tackled him as he went by. Steve yelped and caught him, but he had too much momentum: it carried them both toppling over the grassy edge and right into the Tidal Basin, wrapped in each other’s arms.

They came up spluttering and bedraggled, soaked through and covered with muck. They traded indignant stares, then both cracked up at the same time. They collapsed on the bank and just lay there on the grass next to each other, laughing and wiping slime off their faces. “You are absolutely buying breakfast,” Steve said, and Sam flapped a hand at him and said, “Yeah, okay, bacon’s on me.”

Sam took Steve back to his house and sent him off to the guest bathroom with permission to rummage in his drawers for something to wear. Steve showered off and came out of the bathroom into a house filled with the glorious smell of frying bacon; he found a pair of gym shorts and a t-shirt that fit, soft and comfortable, and pulled them on naked. He padded out barefoot and found Sam damp and bare-chested in the kitchen, slugging back orange juice out of the jug with a giant pan full of eggs on the stove. He wiped his mouth and offered it, and Steve gladly tipped it back, taking huge gulps while Sam finished cooking.

“Seriously, dude,” Sam said, dishing out eggs, “that is something and a half to watch. You do that every morning? And okay, that’s something to watch, too,” he added, eyeing Steve as he sat down: the eggs were disappearing rapidly. “I think I should’ve gotten full disclosure before I put up breakfast.”

Steve swallowed the last bite of his first helping, got the orange juice and polished off the container, and reached for the serving bowl to tip the rest of the eggs onto his plate. “Who made me do twenty-five laps? This is all your own fault.”

“Yeah? Well, I can see I’m going to pay for my sins,” Sam said, and he shoved his plate over at Steve and got up to crack the rest of the carton of eggs into the pan.

With nine eggs and half a pound of bacon under his belt, Steve finally sighed back into his chair. Sam put him on coffee duty, and he got it brewed up just as Sam came out of his bedroom in slacks and a button-down shirt, fastening his cuffs. They poured tall mugs: Sam loaded his up with cream and sugar, and Steve hesitated instinctively, then followed suit.

“Guests don’t have to take it the same way,” Sam said, raising an eyebrow, a question.

“No, it’s just, my old neighborhood, we didn’t exactly have loads of cream and sugar,” Steve said, stirring it in and keeping his head down. “Back in the day, if I took that much visiting, my mom would’ve given me a good wallop.”

He always tensed up saying anything about the past; it almost never worked out for him. Other people either got too interested, and pretty soon he felt like a zoo animal, or they got visibly sorry for him. Sam just laughed. “One time I was six, my mom took me to visit a neighbor lady from our church who was sick; she had a huge bowl,” he shaped a vat with his hands, “of jelly beans on her coffee table. ‘Help yourself,’ the nice lady says, so naturally—”

“You ate them all?” Steve said, lifting his head.

“Four minutes flat, that bowl was empty,” Sam said. “They went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, they came back out, I was done. My mom hauled me home by the ear she was yelling into, and then to add insult to injury, I threw them all up on the front steps.”

“Ouch,” Steve said, smiling and relaxing, muscles in his neck unlocking.

Sam finished off his coffee, stuck his mug in the sink. “I’ve got to get to work. Your stuff’s in the dryer—you want to stick around until it’s done, just go out the back door, it’ll lock if you pull it shut. And if you clean out any more of my fridge, you owe me groceries,” he added on, already getting his keys and wallet from a basket by the door. “I’ll call you when I get off work, you want to get dinner?”

“That would be great,” Steve said, and Sam gave him a wave as he vanished out the door.

Steve washed the dishes and put them away: he mostly guessed right on the cabinets within a couple of tries. He took a second cup of rich, sweet coffee into the living room to wait for the laundry to finish, and looked at the pictures on the shelves: lots of family pictures, smiling faces. One shot of Sam somewhere out in the desert, grinning, wearing fatigues and with his arm slung around the neck of another soldier, a white guy with a buzz cut and a wide grin. When Steve picked it up for a closer look, there were a pair of twisted, half-melted dogtags tucked into the back, the chain still blackened. He put it back carefully, with respect and a sharp pang of sorrow in his chest, and sat down on the couch in the middle of Sam’s house, the warmth of Sam’s life around him like a borrowed blanket, and thought, whoever gets him is going to be so lucky.

#

He went home afterwards and found an email waiting for him from Affinity: How Did It Go? The link loaded up the Affinity website. Under his profile there was now a picture of Sam, smiling, and buttons under his name: Continue With Active Match and Request New Match. Steve stared at it.

The rules said pretty clearly that you had to get married or say no thanks after three dates. But if you said no thanks, they’d get you a new match. Which should’ve sounded great, now he knew the system actually worked, but—he didn’t really want to try again. Not yet anyway. He wanted to spend more time with Sam, not some hypothetical other person. He clicked the Continue button and closed the browser.

After twenty-five laps around the Mall, for once he didn’t feel restless. He settled onto his couch and spent the rest of the morning reading about pararescue training on the internet, and watching a documentary about them he found on Netflix. Around noon his phone rang, which made Steve jump for a moment before he realized where the noise was coming from. It was Sam calling.

“Hey!” Steve said, and stopped himself saying I was just thinking about you, because that sounded wrong.

“Okay,” Sam said, laughter in his voice, “come on, man. I gave you a pass once, but you only had two buttons to choose from this time.”

“What?” Steve said, and then realized—“It emailed you?”

“Uh huh,” Sam said. “‘Your match wants to continue on your journey of discovery! How about you?’”

Steve groaned, mortified, and dropped his forehead against his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t realize. I just—”

“Couldn’t face diving right back in again?” Sam said more gently, and Steve swallowed.

“Something like that.”

“It’s all right, I won’t rat you out to the system,” Sam said. “I’m pretty sure they give us at least a couple weeks’ grace before they start checking at the registrar’s office.”

“Thanks,” Steve said ruefully, but then he hesitated. “I don’t want to—hold you up.”

Sam snorted. “Listen, man, don’t take this the wrong way, but I can take a little time. Captain America’s a hard act to ask some poor bastard to follow.”

“Well, I did punch Hitler out two hundred times,” Steve said.

“Funny how few of my exes can say that,” Sam said. There was a faint noise on the other end like someone knocking on a door, and Steve heard someone saying, in a wobbly voice, “Sam, do you have a—I’m sorry, I don’t want to interrupt—”

“No, it’s okay,” Sam answered, and said to Steve, “Hey, man, I’ll talk to you later.”

“Right,” Steve said. He hung up the line and looked at the documentary paused on screen, a team of PJs diving out of a plane over a battle zone just to pull other men to safety. One kind of rescue, and then Sam had gone on to another. He sighed. Sam wasn’t going to be all that easy to follow, either.

His phone rang again about twenty minutes later. He grabbed for it hopefully, but it was an unlisted number this time. “Hello?”

“Rogers, are you compromised?” Natasha said, over the sound of a roaring car engine.

“Huh?” Steve said, and then, “Wait, did you hack my—”

“I realize it’s frustrating they only found one match for you in the entire continental United States—”

“What?” Steve said.

“—but swapping sexual orientation to compensate is not a good idea.”

“I’m not—no, you know what,” Steve said, interrupting himself, “you can just mind your own damn business, Natasha.” He hung up, wishing that he had a good old receiver he could slam down instead of just pushing an icon on his cellphone: it wasn’t nearly as satisfying, even if he’d probably have cracked the phone in half.

But he couldn’t help wondering, and after a little dithering he called the help line on the Affinity pamphlet after all, and tried to explain. “I’m sorry, it was my mistake,” he said, but the woman on the other end waved it off easily.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Lots of people make mistakes or forget something important to them. Maybe not quite this important,” but it was friendly teasing, and she was typing away at the same time, “but that’s why we have a no-questions-asked policy on rematching! Okay, I’ve got your constraints adjusted. Now then, are you sure you won’t let me find you another match? No time like the present!”

“No, thanks,” Steve said hastily, “but — there is another match?”

“Well, I can’t assign you until you’re ready,” she said archly, “but I can take a quick look here and tell you as far as potential matches go, you’ve got more than — ” She paused. Her typing stopped. “Hm.”

“Yes?” Steve said.

“You know, would you mind holding for just a moment?” she said. He sat and listened to the hold music, a tinny jazzed-up version of It Had To Be You, until she came back and said, “I’m so sorry, I really hate to say this—”

“Were all of mine men?” Steve said, wondering if maybe the computer was only giving him combat veterans or something. It would’ve made some sense—

“Well,” she said, “to be honest, it looks like—he was it. I tried expanding to the full US pool but it’s still coming up empty. But don’t give up hope!” she added brightly. “Remember, we’re adding new people to our system every day! Your next match might be interviewing right now. Just hang in there!”

#

Sam kicked his foot under the table at dinner that night. “Okay, dude,” he said, when Steve looked up from toying with the giant carved white radish duck that had been sitting in the middle of his plate: he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to eat it or not. “Stop torturing your garnishes and give. I can see it trying to get out, but I don’t know what it is.”

“Oh, it’s just,” Steve said awkwardly, and then he sighed and said, “Just so you know, I did call Affinity and told them about the mistake. You can get a new match anytime, just call in.”

Sam nodded, equably. “Okay. You get a new one?”

“No,” Steve said. “Turns out—there isn’t one.” He poked the radish duck again. He’d already gotten the idea that he was a tough sell, but there was something about having a computer confirm it.

Sam sat back in his chair and fixed Steve narrowly. “There isn’t one.”

“Apparently not,” Steve said.

“Are you kidding me?” Sam said, which made Steve feel better, and then Sam laughed and said, “I guess you’d better marry me after all, then,” and Steve grinned back and then suddenly he was staring, wide-eyed, and Sam stared back at him puzzled and then his eyes widened and he said warily, “Okay, hang on—”

“—would you?” Steve blurted.

“Dude,” Sam said, incredulous, sitting back, but Steve leaned over instinctively and caught his wrist.

Sam stared at him, and Steve took a deep breath. Sam had every right to think he was out of his mind, but—“Why did you sign up?” Steve asked. “What were you—looking for?”

Sam was silent. Abruptly he said, “I lost a good friend over there. Went down on a night mission—shot out of the sky, right in front of me.”

Steve nodded, remembering the dogtags, the name RILEY pressed into the bent metal. The echo of his own still-sharp pain: Bucky, falling.

“It took me a long while to get out of that hole,” Sam said. “But a couple months ago, I turned around and realized, I felt good getting up in the morning again. Felt like I was good; maybe ready to do somebody else some good, too.” He said it simply, even though nobody seemed to think about it that way anymore; even though everyone just told you to think about what you wanted, you needed, as if people were worth anything on their own without anybody to care about, to work for. “And I figured, I don’t really want to waste time anymore.”

“Neither do I,” Steve said, almost sick with gratitude; he was more sure with every moment. “Sam, I want to do somebody some damn good, too. I want to do you some good. If—if you’d let me.”

Sam stared at him helplessly. “Steve, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m still a guy.”

Steve swallowed. “We could—try?”

“You want to try having sex with me,” Sam said, very levelly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—that’s not fair,” Steve backpedaled hurriedly, mortified at himself; Jesus, he wouldn’t have asked a woman to let him try out having sex with her. “I’d—if you’d be willing to take a chance on—”

“Oh, now you want to get married without trying first?” Sam said, his voice rising.

“Uh.” Steve stopped with his mouth open. “—yes? I don’t—I—I don’t know what the right answer is.”

“How is this even happening to me, seriously,” Sam said, mostly to himself. He looked at Steve, and then he said, “Okay. There is no right answer here, because this is flat-out crazy, but what we’re going to do is, we’re going to go back to my place and put on some Marvin Gaye, and try making out a little and see if the spirit moves. And if it don’t move,” he added sternly, “you are not going to lie about that just because you want me to put a ring on it.”

“I don’t lie,” Steve said, his heart pounding already.

Sam groaned and put his hands over his face. “You know, if you could manage to be any less than perfect, I could just run away about now,” he said muffled.

Steve followed Sam’s car on his bike, back to his place, fighting hard to stick to the speed limit and not whip out around him and get there first. He parked in the driveway and almost beat Sam to the door; Sam eyed him and said, “I’d ask if you had second thoughts, but I’m not completely sure you’ve had first thoughts yet.”

“Okay,” Steve said, not really paying attention. The door was opening. He hung up his jacket on the hooks by the door. Sam made him go and sit on the couch, and went to open a bottle of wine.

“I can’t get drunk,” Steve said.

I can,” Sam said, firmly. He put on some low smoky music, a deep-voiced singer who sounded like he was having sex, and then sat down next to him. Steve didn’t have time to worry about whether it was okay to touch him; Sam was already putting a hand on his back, and his fingers slid over the edge of Steve’s t-shirt, bracketing the back of his neck.

The intimacy of it, the tenderness, was breathtaking, a shock through his whole body. Steve gasped. It wasn’t just a come-on, it was—taking hold, taking care, Sam asking gently, “Seriously, man, don’t try to force—”

“Sam,” Steve said. He leaned in, putting his hands on Sam’s thighs for support, feeling the thick heavy muscle under his grip: they felt so solid, so good. “Sam,” he said again, asking, and Sam said, “Oh, hell, c’mere,” and they were kissing.

And—and Sam’s soft mouth fitted to his, Sam’s hands holding his head, one hand cupping his cheek, fingers curling into his hair—Sam was kissing him long and deep. Steve shuddered into it and held on to Sam’s shoulders, smoothing his hands down over his chest and back up, down again, buttons stuttering away under his thumbs like a tease: was he allowed to open them? He tried one, and two, and then he undid the rest when Sam didn’t stop him. Sam let him push the shirt down off his arms. His undershirt was soft thin cotton, fine-ribbed, and his bare arms were so smooth.

Sam made a noise into his mouth when Steve’s thumbs slid into the hollows of his elbows, and he reached for the bottom of Steve’s t-shirt. Steve didn’t wait to find out if Sam was just planning on sliding a hand underneath: he grabbed it and pulled it all the way off himself. He wanted every advantage he could get.

He got the stare he was hoping for: Sam’s eyes locked onto him, and Steve wasn’t above taking a few extra-deep breaths, which he wanted anyway; he felt overheated, short on air.

“Are you doing that on purpose? You’re doing that on purpose,” Sam said, his voice rising.

“Are you complaining?” Steve said.

Sam said, “Hell, no,” and he put his hands on Steve’s sides and slid them up to his chest, thumbing the nipples, and Steve was suddenly, desperately hard; he wanted, he wanted—He grabbed Sam by the belt loops and went backwards and sideways, pulling Sam down on top of him, and oh Christ, Sam was hard too; he could feel Sam’s cock pushing against his through their pants.

They were grinding together, panting harshly, and Sam was kissing him again, saying, “Steve, damn.” They got their pants open together, shoved everything out of the way, and that was Sam’s cock, rubbing against his, velvety and hard, and Steve came, shuddering over the edge.

“Oh, thank God,” he said gratefully, collapsing back, and Sam stopped and stared at him and then laughed himself into wheezing, his head sinking down against the pillow and pressed against the top of Steve’s shoulder, laughter still stuttering out over Steve’s neck, and Steve didn’t even care; he didn’t care, Sam could laugh at him for—for the rest of their lives, and he put his arms around him and rolled them over and kissed him until he stopped laughing.

#

“Are we seriously going to get married?” Sam said, his arm thrown over his face, the next morning.

“We have to,” Steve said peacefully, floating on a haze of happiness and satisfaction. “That was our third date.”

#

He was packing up his apartment that afternoon when Natasha kicked in the door and shot him. Steve barely managed to smack two of the darts out of the air; the third one caught him in the thigh, and the world went blurry and sideways even as he dived over the couch for cover. He went over hard and smashed his coffee table into pieces, a dull-pain awareness of splinters as he staggered himself up in time for her to slam him in the chest with both feet and knock him back down again, his head thumping against the floor. She pinned his shoulders with her knees, but he gritted his teeth and just brute-force heaved them both back up onto their feet, grabbing her wrists before she could jab him a second time.

She kicked him in the balls. A whimper squeaked out of him, but the tranquilizer was a double-edged sword, dulling the worst of the pain, and he bulled through the rest, slamming her back into the half-empty bookcases. She gritted her teeth, but when he squeezed down her hands popped open and let the darts fall. Then she head-butted him: sparks exploded across his vision, and she pulled her legs up and through their arms, planted her feet on his chest, and shoved him off her. He staggered back, but his head was starting to clear: the tranquilizer was wearing off. He dropped into a ready crouch opposite her, and he saw her pause, eyes narrowing as she calculated the worsening odds.

“What the hell, Natasha!” he said.

“You know what the hell,” she said. “You met him two days ago. Two days.”

“Yeah, and guess what?” Steve shot back.

“Do I even want to hear this?”

“I’m happy,” he said.

Natasha sighed, her face softening into something like pity. “Listen to yourself. You’re seriously planning to move in with him today?”

“Well, I’m marrying him on Saturday,” Steve said.

Half an hour later, they stopped again amidst the ruin of several more pieces of Steve’s furniture. Natasha threw a book at his head—the third volume of Winston Churchill’s autobiography; he ducked—and said, “You know what, it’s your life. Fuck it up if you want to.”

“Thanks for the permission,” Steve said, panting, and she stalked out, leaving the door open. He went to slam it shut behind her, and the tiny disk she’d planted on the knob fired off, electricity crackling paralyzing-bright all over his body. She turned instantly from the end of the hall and fired three times. He hit the ground, everything going dark and cottony. The last thing he saw was her bending down over him, saying, “I swear, Rogers, you had better thank me for this someday,” while he tried to scrabble at her face with an arm going too heavy to lift.

#

He swayed his head up, dizzy and faintly nauseous. He was in a dark basement room, in a heavy bolted-down chair, Natasha closing a final thick metal restraint up around his left ankle. He jerked on them, then on the whole chair, trying to grab her hair with his fingers, but she ducked away and stood up. “Relax, this is for your own good,” she said, disappearing behind him, and then she wheeled up a large cart covered with lab equipment and test tubes and needles.

“My own good!” Steve said, rocking the chair against the floor bolts: those seemed weaker than the restraints. She finished prepping a blood draw needle and swiped the inside of his elbow with an alcohol wipe before sticking him. “Ow! What are you doing?

“Finding out what’s wrong with you,” she said.

“There’s nothing wrong with me!”

“Two weeks ago, I couldn’t sell you a single date with a secretary,” she said, swapping in a second vial as the first one filled up. “Now you’ve up and decided to marry a man who just happens to have a sealed military record.”

“He was a parajumper!”

“A PJ who was seconded to an experimental project so classified I don’t have clearance for it,” Natasha said. She’d been swapping in vials the whole time; now she popped out the needle and took her seven samples over to the rack of lab equipment and started putting them through tests. “Did he mention that?” she added.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of what you’re supposed to do on a classified project,” Steve said. “What would you think if I’d been telling him details of SHIELD operations—”

She turned instantly. “Have you been?”

“What? No, I just meant that if—”

“Has he asked?”

“No, he hasn’t asked!” Steve said exasperatedly. “He’s a good soldier, Natasha.”

“Or he’s a plant,” she said. “I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you that a spouse would have medical proxy rights over you if you were left unconscious in an accident? Not to mention to your corpse, if you died.”

Steve stared at her. “Well, he did say he was only marrying me for my body, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what he meant.”

She snorted. She put a few drops of a chemical into one vial, shook it up, and held it to the light. It swirled madly for a bit and then turned clear as a brownish sediment settled out of it. She frowned and put it down.

“Hey, find any drugs in my system yet?” Steve said.

“We’re just getting started,” Natasha said.

She went through all seven vials — results negative — and then made him do an elaborate psychological test with word associations and inkblot cards. “How long do you plan to keep this up?” Steve demanded.

“Rogers, you need to use your brain here,” Natasha said. “You quit SHIELD, go on a bender, and get set to marry a complete stranger. Who incidentally happens to be a man. Does anything about this scenario make sense?”

Sam does,” Steve said, trying to get her to understand. “Sam makes sense, Natasha. He makes more sense to me than you, and SHIELD, and this entire damn century all put together — ”

She rolled her eyes and held up another inkblot. “What do you see?”

Steve glared at her. “A spider,” he said. “A big, ugly, poisonous spider.

He kept rocking the chair back and forth and twisting his wrists and ankles in the restraints, trying to get something to give. He thought maybe there might be something loosening up on the back legs. Natasha had temporarily given up on finding anything wrong with him and shifted her attention to Sam. She already had a computer program chugging away on a decryption routine trying to break into the project Sam had been on, and now she got busy on a laptop invading every last scrap of Sam’s privacy, ignoring Steve’s protests as she broke into his family and friends’ online social media accounts and scanned through every photo she could find. She looked progressively more annoyed as it turned out the most incriminating thing she could find was a picture one of his squad mates had taken of Sam sprawled fast asleep in the sun across a heap of duffle bags, buck naked except for his silver dogtags.

Steve made a small involuntary noise of protest when she closed that one up quickly, and she had the nerve to turn and glare at him. “You were straight as of three days ago!”

“How would you know?” Steve said, blushing. Natasha just gave him an unamused look and went back to digging.

The back legs were coming loose. Steve started rocking the chair in a little bit of a circle, back and forth, side to side, around and around, and when he thought he’d gotten it far enough, he clenched his teeth and threw his full weight and strength forward, straining. Even as Natasha’s head whipped around he felt the first bolt breaking, and then he had his feet planted on the floor and could really push. The metal screeched as he shattered two more bolts and broke one of the legs entirely as the chair came up off the floor.

Natasha jumped up and grabbed for a syringe, but he threw himself into the air and twisted, and came down chair-first onto the lab cart in a huge smash of glass and metal. The chair frame twisted some more, and he burst it apart. He threw one broken cuff at Natasha, taking out the syringe in her hand, and wrenched the other off his wrist. “I can’t believe you!” he yelled.

“I can’t believe you if you can’t see how fundamentally insane this is—”

“How is this any crazier than anything else that’s happened to me?” Steve said. “I got turned into this, I woke up seventy years in the future, I’ve fought aliens, and this is the part you want me to get stuck on? Why, because it’s good?

“Yes!” she said. “When something looks too perfect to be true, it usually is, and when someone swoops into your life out of nowhere, chances are they aren’t one of the angels.”

Sam’s voice broke in, tinny and recorded: Sergeant Sam Wilson, U.S. Air Force, EXO-7 project, this is test flight number five. Here we go!” They both looked over: Natasha’s computer had just cracked open a video with Sam in combat gear and wearing some kind of complicated backpack, standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a crowd of hopeful-looking engineers and airmen gathered at the rail. “Roger that, clear to launch when ready,” mission control answered him. Sam flipped a cheery salute to the camera, opened up a pair of wings, and flew off into the sky.

Steve turned and fixed a measured look on Natasha. “I’m sorry,” he said, in awful tones. “You were saying?”

She was staring at the screen with a deeply betrayed expression. “Shut up, Rogers.” In the video, Sam was turning loops in the sky, occasionally letting out a whoop of glee.

“No,” Steve said, folding his arms, “no, I think I’ve got a few more things to — wait, what time is it?”

“Six twenty,” she said, mechanically.

Steve said, “Oh my God, Sam.”

He didn’t wait for Natasha to unlock the basement door, just rammed it open with his shoulder and ran up and out of the building: a nondescript townhouse just around the corner from his apartment building—one more reason to be mad at Fury and Natasha—and jumped the fence into his own building’s driveway. Sam had been going to come by at six with a U-Haul truck. There wasn’t any sign of it. If Sam had come, found him missing and the apartment torn up—

Steve was already on his phone dialing as he took the stairs two at a time. Natasha was trotting up behind him saying, “Rogers, relax, the worst he’ll have done is call the police. It can be handled,” like he gave a shit about SHIELD dealing with their mess, instead of how Sam was feeling, what he was thinking—

A matching ringtone was going on the other side of the door as Steve reached his apartment. Steve pushed through the still-ajar door, calling, “Sam?” and stopped just inside, frozen. The apartment looked worse than he’d left it. One of the windows had been completely shattered, glass all over the floor; the couch had a line of gunshot holes along the back with foam exploding out of them. Sam’s phone was glowing out from underneath the near corner of the couch, the screen cracked. There was a smeared trail of blood leading up to the door, right to Steve’s feet, a single footprint of a heavy boot tread in the middle of it.

“Sam,” Steve said, his throat tightening, and he whirled and grabbed Natasha by the arms and slammed her against the hallway wall. “What did you do to him?

She took one look inside the apartment and her face went completely still. “I didn’t do this. Let go,” she snapped, trying to break his hold. When it didn’t work she said, “There’s video surveillance on the front of the building; let go of me and I can pull it up. Unless you would rather just stand here and keep guessing what’s happened.”

He let her go; she darted past him into the room, peered out the windows quick, then went for his tablet. He looked around while she worked, his hands clenched, desperate, and noticed with a jolt that his shield was missing. “Okay,” she said, before he could start to figure that into the picture: he turned and she had video up of the front of the building, the timestamp from twenty minutes ago: a muzzle flare was going off on the roof next door, where the shots had come from. His stomach dropped. There was a U-Haul truck sitting in the driveway.

The shots stopped, and then a dark figure went leaping from the other building and smashed cannonball through the window, glass fragments flying. But a couple moments later, Sam came running out the front door—alive, thank God, alive—with a man slung across his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and the shield on his arm. Natasha drew a sharp breath, and Steve looked at the wounded man’s face and realized it was Fury, of all people. Sam dumped Fury into the cab of the U-Haul truck and turned, firing back at the front door with the shield in front of him as he backed himself up into the driver’s seat and peeled the truck out.

The truck vanished off the screen: the timestamp read eight minutes ago. A dark masked figure came stalking out of the front door: all in black except for one armored silver arm. Natasha straightened up hard and fast. “We need your motorcycle,” she said, grabbing her phone. “Fury’s got a tracker, I can get his location.”

“Who is he?” Steve demanded as they flew down the stairs and got onto the motorcycle. “You recognized him. Who is that man?”

“The Winter Soldier,” Natasha said. “He’s an assassin. Someone’s trying to take Fury out.”

And Sam had just put himself in the middle. Steve pushed the motorcycle as fast as it could go, Natasha clinging on behind him and shouting directions. There were sirens faintly in the distance, and smoke: Steve went flying towards it through traffic and intersections, and then across a park he saw the U-Haul truck over on its side with smoke pouring out. He cut straight over the lawn, dodging a staring pedestrian out with a dog, and squealed to a stop next to the truck. One look inside the cab: it was empty, the windshield splintered and the steering wheel gone. “Sam!” Steve shouted desperately, looking around.

Natasha grabbed his arm and pointed. “That way!” Three police cars were turning down onto a parallel street three blocks over. “There’s no police activity being registered in this neighborhood,” she shouted in his ear as he revved the engine again. “Those aren’t real cops.”

He cut the bike between houses, smashed through a fence and a hedge, and burst out again into a dead-end lane that ended on the edge of a ravine. There were people standing along the edge: six guys in cop uniforms and the guy with the silver arm. All of them were armed with automatic weapons and firing down into the ravine. Steve grabbed Natasha and pulled her off the bike with him and let it slide towards the edge, taking all of the gunmen out like bowling pins except the Winter Soldier, who backflipped over the front wheel even as it sliced beneath his feet.

Steve came up to his feet as the Soldier turned to look at them, raising his gun, and then from out of the ravine the shield came flying like a frisbee and whacked him in the back of the head. He staggered and went down to his knees. Steve charged him full-bore and kicked him in the head, knocking him down; gave him two more blows from side to side, and then Natasha hit him with three of her paralytic disks and he collapsed flat.

“Steve!” Sam’s voice shouted out of the ravine. “Please tell me that’s you up there!”

“Sam!” Steve ran to the edge and looked over. Sam was standing up out of a pile of brush down at the bottom of the hill, shirtless and glistening with sweat, blood streaked across his arms and his forehead. There was a big tarp caught on the trees and shrubs around him with rips and gunshot holes torn in it. “Oh, thank God,” Steve said, heartfelt.

“Yeah, it’s pretty nice to see you, too,” Sam said, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. “Jesus.”

“Where’s Fury?” Natasha demanded, coming up to Steve’s shoulder: Steve looked back and she’d trussed up the guy with the silver arm tightly. “Is he—”

“Here,” Fury’s voice came weakly from under the tarp; Sam bent down and pulled up a corner and helped Fury stand up, one hand pressed to his gut. Pale grey strips ripped out of a t-shirt had been wrapped around his abdomen as a makeshift bandage. A bloodstain was spreading through it, but slowly. “Still ticking.”

Sam looked up at Steve again and waved a hand at Natasha and Fury. “So these are the good guys, right? Because I wasn’t completely sure, and I’d feel pretty stupid if I nearly got myself shot for the people who trashed your apartment.”

“Actually, they are the people who trashed my apartment,” Steve said, shooting a hard look between Fury and Natasha.

She rolled her eyes. “Do you want an apology?”

“Yes,” Steve said, putting his hands on his hips. “Yes, I do.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll get you a goddamn set of china,” Fury growled. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about right now.”

“No kidding,” Sam said. “We need an ambulance here, stat.”

“I’ll call in a SHIELD helicopter,” Natasha said.

“Negative on that,” Fury said. “Don’t call in anything.” He drew a deep breath and then coughed hard, hand digging in to Sam’s shoulder; Sam held him up, frowning, until the coughing subsided. Fury looked at him. “You’re a pararescueman, right? How’s your field surgery?”

“My field surgery is top-notch, but if that shot went through your intestines instead of your liver, you’re either going to the hospital or the morgue,” Sam said. “And I’m not calling that one in the bottom of a canyon in the middle of the night.”

“One thing at a time,” Fury said. “First, we need to get my tracker out. It’s here above the collarbone.” He looked up. “Natasha, we need a ride, and we need to torch this ravine, make it look like nothing got out. Including me.”

She nodded and vanished down the street.

Steve let himself cautiously down the side of the ravine until he could grab a corner of the tarp Sam threw him, weighted down with a broken branch. Sam climbed up it to Steve’s hand and then together they used it as a sling to haul Fury out, his face drawn and tight with pain.

Natasha pulled up with a giant suburbanite minivan and jumped out carrying a gas can. Steve helped Sam carry Fury into the cargo area: they tossed out a bunch of folding chairs and a picnic umbrella and lay him down flat. They both winced as flames exploded up from the ravine behind them with a roar: Natasha had dumped the gasoline into the brush and tossed a mini grenade into the mix. Fury was yanking at his own shirt; Sam helped him get it away from a pale incision scar just over the collarbone. “Here, seriously?” Sam said, looking a question at Steve: are we doing this? Steve eyed Fury.

Fury scowled back at him. “All right, you want to hear me say it? You were right. The helicarrier project is compromised.” He shook his head. “Hell, right now it looks like all of SHIELD might be compromised. Whoever’s behind this, we need to make them think they took me out, and we need to go to ground and do some digging. Before those ships get in the sky.”

Steve shut his eyes, swearing under his breath, and looked back up at Sam: bruised and scratched and bloodied, and still looking at him steadily, with him. Steve wanted to reach for him, wanted to pull Sam into his arms and kiss the hell out of him. “Sam, this—this isn’t what you signed on for,” he forced himself to say. “You should—this doesn’t have to involve you.”

“Yeah, because you know I figured on a quiet life, being Mr. Captain America,” Sam said, not even blinking; he was already rummaging through the car’s half-baked emergency kit. “Baking cookies, long walks on the shore. Grab that flashlight over there and hold it for me. Bite down on this,” he told Fury, putting a broken stick from the brush into his jaws.

They tossed the bloody transmitter into the blazing ravine along with Fury’s coat and shirt and boots. “Yeah, you might as well throw them in, he’s not walking any time soon,” Sam said. “In fact, it’s good odds he’s going to die in the next few hours without treatment.”

Steve nodded. “Where are we going?” he asked Fury.

Fury gave them directions in a thin, exhausted voice that petered out; his eyes were closing. Natasha put a hand on his arm and said, “Stay with me, Nick,” low. He flicked a couple of irritated fingers up at her in answer, waving them on.

Sam shook his head when she looked at him. “No promises. The quicker we get there the better, and the more highly experienced trauma surgeons they have waiting for us the better. Let’s get moving: this damn thing doesn’t even have a box of Band-Aids.”

She nodded. “One last thing to clean up,” she said, and pulled out a pistol and headed for the Winter Soldier, who was awake again and starting to make progress wrestling against his bindings: he’d managed to get up on his knees on the pavement. He stopped struggling as she came towards him, watching her with blank resignation; Steve grabbed her arm just before she could point the gun at the man’s head.

“We’re shooting people in cold blood now?” he demanded.

She glared at him. “He’s one of the deadliest assassins in the world, Rogers. He shot me five years ago, and he just did his best to kill Fury and Sam both.”

“He’s also our best chance of finding out who’s behind this,” Steve said. He reached down and caught the man under his arm and hauled him upright. “Fight us, and we’ll have to shoot you,” he told the guy. “Cooperate, and you get to live. How do you want to play it?”

The Soldier didn’t say anything, just stared at him silently over the black mask. His eyes were—strange. Unsettling, somehow; Steve couldn’t look away.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Steve.”

“Could you give it a second?” Steve said, annoyed, and abruptly the man blinked back at him, frowning, and then some of the tension slid out of his body. “Well?” Steve demanded.

He nodded a little.

“Good,” Steve said.

They loaded the Winter Soldier into the back seat. “You drive, Natasha,” Steve said.

“Oh, no, you drive,” she said, pushing him aside and climbing in. “I’m staying right here. And the second he makes an attempt to get loose, I’m taking him out.”

But the Winter Soldier wasn’t making any move to escape; he seemed stilled, quiescent somehow. He kept watching Steve over the mask with the same weirdly intent stare. Natasha had locked onto him in turn, her eyes sharp.

“This is as stupid as everything else you’ve done in the last month,” she added.

Steve glanced in the rear view mirror as he pulled himself into the driver’s seat: past Natasha’s glare he could see Sam crouched over Fury, pressing down with his hands to slow the bleeding, a determined frown of concentration on his face. As if he’d felt the look, Sam glanced up, gave him a quick smile, warm and sweet as a kiss.

Steve smiled back at him, feeling suddenly, deeply happy, despite fire at their back and who knew what enemies on their tail. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said to Natasha as he started the engine. “I think it’s working out okay so far.”

# End