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The Road Toward

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When Sam reached out to Steve, after Steve approached him, he’d done it because they’d seemed to hit it off right away. He’d done it because he thought he might know a bit about what Steve had been through — not the Captain America stuff or the frozen for seventy years stuff, of course, but the soldier stuff — Sam was pretty sure he could relate to that. He’d sort of thought that’d be it there on the Mall — Sam could relate, sure, but Steve was Captain America, and their encounter that day ended with Steve climbing into a Corvette driven by a gorgeous woman and driving off. Sam’s shared experience only went so far — but Steve took Sam up on his offer anyway, showed up at the VA, and they hit it off then too.

“What makes you happy?” Sam had asked. It was a question that he asked people a lot when they sought him out there. It was a question he’d had to ask himself a lot over the years too.

“I don’t know,” Steve returned.

It wasn’t an uncommon answer, but Sam stood there for a long moment trying to decide where to go with it next. He knew where he should go. He knew professionally what he should say, but Steve Rogers had approached Sam on the Mall and Steve had approached Sam at the VA and Sam was pretty sure Steve hadn’t approached because he was looking for Sam’s professional advice.

“You know what?” Sam asked. “How about this; you ever decide you want help trying to figure that out, you let me know, all right?”

Steve smiled, looked down at his feet, and then he squinted at Sam and said, “Yeah, all right. What are you doing right now?”

“Whatever you want, man,” Sam had returned, his smile wide. “Whatever you want.”

He didn’t think that spending an afternoon lounged in a booth at a dark bar was doing much to help Steve Rogers figure out what made him happy in the long-term, but they talked a lot, sat back and relaxed over a few beers. It was just like it’d been on the Mall, bouncing off each other, easily falling into a comfortable rhythm, a nice give-and-take. Steve didn’t seem to want to talk about himself much. He turned most of Sam’s small-talk questions back around on Sam, and that was fine. If that’s what Steve wanted for now, then Sam was cool with talking about himself for a while. Steve listened as Sam talked about growing up in Harlem, about his parents and his brother and his sister. They talked about New York, about the things that were the same and the things that were so completely different. Finally, Sam downed the last sip of his beer and nodded toward Steve.

“So what else’ve you got on your list?” Sam asked. “If you don’t mind me poking around in your business, that is.”

“I don’t mind,” Steve said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the little book, tossed it across the table toward Sam.

Sam picked it up. “I better make sure there aren’t any glaring gaps in this new education of yours.”

“You’re looking out for me now?” Steve joked, leaned back against the bench of the booth.

“Yeah,” Sam snorted. “You look like you need it.”

The items on the first few pages had all been crossed off, big ones that Steve probably would have found relevant; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, V-E Day. These were mixed in with Vietnam, The Beatles and Chernobyl, the Cold War, 9/11, and Martin Luther King. Later pages got more specific, smaller scale. There were movies and books, albums and more historical events, but even smaller things too. Sam recognized the names of a few restaurants in DC, and the —

“Is this the name of the panda cub over at the zoo?”

“Yeah,” Steve said.

“You’ve never seen a panda before?” Sam asked.

“Actually I have,” Steve said. “At the World’s Fair in ‘39. The Bronx Zoo had — I just made the note to look into it is all. Something to do. I saw it on the evening news. It’s free.”

“Oh, I know it’s free,” Sam nodded. He turned a page. “What’s this? A grocery list?”

“All right,” Steve laughed and leaned forward again, his arms leaning on the table, one hand out, palm open. “If you’re going to make fun of it, you can give the book back now.”

“I hope this is a grocery list,” Sam pressed. “Don’t tell me someone has you researching eggs, bread, and apples.”

“The book is really a catch-all,” Steve explained. “I use it for notes, lists, directions, and then yeah, the things people tell me I should look into.”

“I’m just picking on you. Calm down,” Sam laughed, though Steve didn’t seem like he was actually getting worked up at all. A little exasperated, maybe, but he was smiling, so even that seemed mostly for show, like it was part of whatever game they had going here.

Sam closed the book and tapped it down on the table, pressed his fingers to the worn cover. He took a moment just to study Steve, the set of his shoulders and the way that his throat worked when he took a sip of his beer.

Steve caught his eye and they stared at each other, frozen there until the corner of Steve’s mouth started to pull up into a smile and Steve shook his head and said, “What is it now?”

Sam pressed his lips together. “I have a few of these movies in here on DVD. You wanna go back to my place? Get one or two of them crossed off your list? I mean, if you don’t have anywhere else you need to be.”

“Sure, okay,” Steve said almost immediately. “I have time.”

Sam slid the notebook back across the table toward Steve and wondered what the hell he was thinking. He could have suggested they walk up to the zoo, check out little Bao Bao the panda, or he could have offered to accompany Steve to buy his damn groceries, but he didn’t do any of that. Instead he invited the guy home with him. He wasn’t sure they were even on the same page here. He thought he knew what was happening, but then —

“Okay, I’m just going to say it,” Sam said. “Just, you know, throw it out there, get it all out in the open and see where we stand. This here, what we’re doing — this is flirting, right?”

Steve’s brow furrowed and he looked down. Sam was learning that Steve did that a lot, looked away, looked down, broke eye contact for just a moment, sometimes smiling a little crooked while he did so. Steve wasn’t smiling now, though Sam thought he looked a little flushed, and when Steve looked back up, he said, “Yeah, I, uh —"

Steve cleared his throat, started to trail off. The bar was pretty dark, even in the middle of the afternoon, but yeah, Steve was definitely a little flushed.

“Because it feels like flirting," Sam explained, decided he better keep talking and give Steve some more time to process the direct nature of the question. "It’s felt like flirting since you first sped by me, but sometimes I misread these things, you know. It can be hard to know sometimes, so I just want to throw it out there before it goes any further and I do something that’ll scare you away and make me feel pretty stupid.”

Steve thought about Sam’s words for a moment longer and then he nodded. He still wasn’t making direct eye contact with Sam, but when he spoke again, he didn’t stumble. “Before you do something pretty stupid like what?”

“Like what do you think?” Sam returned, his tone dry, barely missing a beat. Steve's question was pointed, leading, and Sam took the bait, knew right then that he'd received his answer.

Steve let out an audible puff of breath, almost a laugh, and then he nodded again. And then he finally looked back at Sam, his gaze steady.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “This is flirting.”

Sam spent a few seconds trying to control his face. It was a battle he was bound to lose, so he gave in, surrendered and let his smile stretch wide. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Good to know.”

Steve made the first move. He waited until they were alone at Sam’s place, just barely through the front door, and then he leaned in and kissed Sam, his touch tentative, his mouth pressed carefully against Sam’s. Sam reached up, his fingers sliding around the back of Steve’s neck, holding him close, kissing him back. That seemed to startle Steve and he felt Steve freeze against him for a moment, like he hadn’t thought this through and he was unsure what he was supposed to do now that he’d started it.

Steve kissed like — well, not like Sam expected. Not like a national icon, a fucking Greek god who must have women literally chasing him around the National Mall. Steve Rogers kissed a little like he spent the last ninety years playing video games in his parents’ basement, like he hadn’t really believed that anyone would try to kiss him like this at all.

Sam opened his mouth against Steve’s and Steve responded, let out a shaky breath against Sam’s lips. Oh, this was good. Steve Rogers like this — this was very quickly climbing the list of the sexiest moments of Sam’s life, and he leaned closer, kissed Steve’s lower lip, pressed it lightly with his tongue.

Steve started, stepped back and away, stood there and stared at Sam. Steve’s mouth was open just a little, and Sam wanted nothing more than to step in and kiss him again, but Steve’s actions were pretty clear and Sam wasn’t about to ignore that retreat, so he stood where he was and he waited.

“You okay, man?” Sam asked. He was breathing a little heavy, could hear it in his words when he spoke.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Steve admitted. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“Well, I don’t know about what you should be doing,” Sam said, and it was going to sound terrible, lame and cheesy, and he was sure he was trying too hard, but he said it anyway. “And maybe we didn’t figure out what makes you happy today, but this is making me pretty happy, I can tell you that much.”

Steve let out a breath. “I had a nice afternoon,” he conceded.

“Oh, we’re — you sure?” Sam asked. He took a step back toward the front door. “I mean — I’m not trying to be that guy, but you did literally just get here.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. He crossed his arms over his chest, screwed up his face a little. His body language was mocking, trying to show Sam that he realized his own actions were maybe a little ridiculous. “I’m sorry.”

Sam shrugged. So maybe they went too fast. They’d known each other less than twenty-four hours, maybe they needed to slow things down. It was a valid reassessment. There was no reason for Steve to feel like he should apologize for that. And frankly, if slowing things down might lead to another kiss like that — that was probably something worth waiting for.

“Maybe we should do it again sometime,” Sam offered. “Maybe actually watch that movie, go visit little Bao Bao at the zoo or something, you know. I saw you had sushi on that list. I wouldn’t mind being there when you decide to cross that one off.”

Steve smiled politely.

“I should’ve stopped talking after the part about the movie, right?” Sam asked, laughing a little at himself. “I just kept going and now you think I’m a little too eager, maybe kinda desperate.”

Somehow Sam’s self-deprecating remarks seemed to be the right thing to say because Steve relaxed a little and then nodded, one eyebrow quirked at Sam. “Yeah, because following you home and then kissing you right away didn’t seem eager or desperate at all.”

Sam smiled wider, pleasantly surprised by Steve’s quick return. “Well, as long as we’re both on the same page here, I guess maybe we’re doing pretty good. The same page of eagerness and desperation, I mean.”

Steve laughed.

“Yeah, maybe,” he agreed. His arms unfolded from across his chest and he reached out a hand toward Sam. Sam accepted it; a nice firm hand-shake. “We should definitely do it again sometime. I’d like that.”

**

Sam stood beside Steve in front of an apartment that was still a mess, barricaded behind far more police tape than was probably necessary. Steve had just been released from the hospital, looking much better than he had any right to, all things considered, and he stood there frowning at the web of yellow tape.

“I’ve got the spare bed,” Sam offered, plucking at the tape with his fingers.

Steve sighed and wiped a hand over his face. “I don’t know. I don’t want to — “

“You aren’t imposing if you accept,” Sam pointed out, seeing right away where Steve was going with that. “Last year my pal Danny crashed with me for six months while he was down here working a contract position. What’s the point of having that extra room if it isn’t there for a friend in need?”

“Sure, I get that,” Steve agreed. “But you’ve already had to put up with an awful lot from me.”

“I’ve had to put up with an awful lot?” Sam repeated.

It’d gone like this: Steve Rogers approached Sam on the National Mall. Maybe Sam had — all right, so there was that misstep at the beginning when Sam brought up the whole defrosting thing and Steve started to shut down and back out of the conversation. It’d been the wrong thing to ask, or at least the wrong way to ask it, but Sam recovered from that pretty quick, and it turned out the flirting between them was mutual. Steve approached Sam on the Mall and then Steve approached Sam at the VA and then Steve kissed Sam. And then two days later, Steve Rogers approached Sam again, knocked at Sam’s back door with Natasha Romanoff at his side and asked for Sam’s help. And since then… well, Sam’s — let’s just put it this way: no one would be surprised to hear Sam say that it wasn’t really how he’d imagined the last few weeks going is all. Signing on to help Captain America, getting back in the sky after all that time, standing at Steve’s side as Steve’s world started to crumble and collapse around him, and then helping Steve bring down SHIELD, saving the world like Sam Wilson was some kind of freakin’ superhero. And then, after all that, then nearly losing Steve just a few days after they first met.

Sam crossed his arms over his chest, smiling. “Yeah, I guess that’s one way to describe the last week.”

Steve smiled now too and then looked away. “It’d be a shame if I managed to scare you away now after all that.”

“Oh, I see. You think that a few days of you using my towels and eating my food is going to be the last straw for me,” Sam laughed.

Steve shrugged. He was playing his hesitation off as a joke, but he hadn’t looked at Sam as he said it and he wasn’t looking at Sam now. Sam couldn’t help but think there was probably a little truth there too. It was a little surprising, considering everything else they’d been through, but truth nonetheless.

“Look, if you’d feel more comfortable in a hotel, then okay, go book a room over at the Marriott, but I wouldn’t be offering if I didn’t mean it. There’s a bed at my place and it’s yours if you want it.”

It wasn’t like Sam didn’t have his own life here. He’d been living in DC for a few years now. He had his job and a small but solid group of friends. He had his family, though they all lived a good distance away. But the fact was, Sam had spent most of the last four days at the hospital, so it seemed pretty clear, at least to him, that he was ready to make room in that life for this too, whatever this turned out to be.

“I’ll find out how much longer they need,” Steve conceded, finally. “Maybe just a few days.” He started pushing aside the tape, trying to create a gap that he could fit through.

“I’m just going to grab a few of my things. My toothbrush and...” Steve trailed off as Sam watched, still smiling. Sam leaned back against the wall of the corridor, watched as Steve contorted himself through a gap in the tape, nearly falling over when his foot got caught, until finally he stumbled through and into his apartment. He turned back toward Sam, shook his head and straightened his shirt.

“Graceful,” Sam said. “Looks like your friend Natasha could teach you a thing or two.”

Steve laughed. “Stealth isn’t really my — “ He gestured toward the door. “I usually just push right through. Are you coming?”

Steve was being modest. He might not be a super spy, but Sam had seen Steve in action, and Captain America was well ahead of the curve at both stealth and grace. Sam let it go, nodded toward Steve.

“Go ahead, man, grab your stuff. You just let me know if you need a hand in there.”

Steve gave him a look. “Not exactly graceful either, I take it?”

Sam snorted, tipped his head at Steve, eyebrows high. “You should see me in the sky.”

“I’ve seen it,” Steve said. “Wouldn’t mind seeing it again sometime… different circumstances would be nice.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “You and me both. Too bad the pack’s in pieces at the bottom of the Potomac.”

“Too bad,” Steve agreed. He smiled at Sam one more time, shrugged, and then disappeared into his apartment.

**

In the seven days since Steve moved into Sam’s guest room with a knapsack of belongings, Sam had learned a few things. Some of them were things he’d already guessed, some were new, and some of them had more to do with himself than they did with Steve Rogers.

The first thing Sam learned was Bucky Barnes. Steve had told Sam fragments of what had happened on that helicarrier as Sam sat beside Steve’s hospital bed. He’d heard a little more about the history of their friendship, not a lot, but a few pieces here and there. After that, Sam had guessed right away what Steve intended to do. Natasha showing up with the file the same day that Nick Fury summoned them to a cemetery to check out his shiny new headstone was merely confirmation.

“So where should we start?” Sam asked. The Winter Soldier file sat open on Steve’s lap. The light in the guest room had been on when Sam had got up to use the bathroom at 3 AM. Either Steve had passed out without getting up to turn it off, his cheek pressed to the stack of papers, or he’d been up most of the night poring over those pages.

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted. “New York, maybe.”

Sam reached across the couch, slid the file from Steve’s lap, flipped the pages back toward the front. He studied the pictures of Sergeant Barnes; the small one from 1944 where he looked human, like a real complete person, and the larger one where he appeared much less so. Sam remembered the man on the bridge, on the helicarrier, and he worried that there might be no coming back from that, that they were going on a mission that would end in Steve being forced to permanently stop his best friend. How would Steve get through that? Would he even be able to go through with it? What if it came down to Sam? Sam didn’t even want to contemplate — and really, what did he know about any of it? Sam wasn’t there with Steve at the end. Sam hadn’t seen Barnes start to crack.

Whichever way it went — helping Barnes or stopping him — Sam had offered to be there to get Steve through it. Sam had meant it and intended to follow through.

“You think he went home?” Sam asked.

“Maybe,” Steve said. He’d leaned closer to Sam, was looking at the photos of Barnes now too, but after a moment he sighed and shook his head, sat back. “No. That was my first thought, but I’m not so sure now. I think he’s still here.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I think I got through to him,” Steve said. “Or I was starting to. I remember falling from the helicarrier and I felt — I don’t know — but I was done. I was sinking. And Bucky pulled me out of the river and left me there on the bank.”

It was the first Steve had really talked about that part, about how he’d ended up lying there on the edge of the Potomac. Everyone had sort of assumed that Steve had fallen or crashed with the carrier, had made it to the shore from there on his own. He was out when they found him, unconscious, but he couldn’t have been lying there long. Sam had spotted Steve first, screamed for Fury to turn the helicopter around, to go back, Natasha pushing Sam’s shoulder aside so that she could get a look.

Sam listened quietly as Steve continued.

“I opened my eyes, saw the light at the surface getting dimmer as I sank, and then Bucky’s hand reaching for me.” Steve paused for a moment and then he shook his head. “I’m sure of it.”

Steve’s face seemed carefully still, passive. Sam watched Steve for a long moment while he tried to pull everything together, get his head around it.

“So you think, being that you’re probably the only person that he knows at all, he’ll stick pretty close for a while.”

“I don’t know if I know him well enough to say for sure, not anymore, but that’s what my gut is telling me.”

“I haven’t known you that long, but from what I’ve seen, your gut tends to be a pretty good guide,” Sam said.

The second thing was Peggy Carter. Steve went to see Peggy most mornings following his run (Steve had resumed running ridiculously long distances at a ridiculously fast pace as soon as he escaped the hospital. You know, pretty much what you’d expect from a super soldier who’d been shot a few times and had the shit beat out of him, both physically and emotionally, less than two weeks earlier. Apparently).

“I don’t want her to feel lonely,” Steve said, but Sam guessed it was more than that. Sam guessed it was about Steve’s loneliness too. There weren’t many around who had known Steve Rogers before he ended up in that ice. There was Peggy Carter and somewhere out there there might be Bucky Barnes, but that was it. That was all Steve had left. Sam liked to think that Steve had him now too, but he knew it was different. Whatever they were building was still new and undefined. You couldn’t expect to grow roots overnight.

And then there was the third thing.

Sam leaned against the counter, listened as Steve shut off the water in the shower down the hall. Eventually Steve came to join him in the kitchen. His hair was sticking up, like he’d run a towel over it and then forgotten about it, and the smell of Sam’s soap was strong on Steve’s skin, damp and clean.

It was funny, Sam thought. You used something every day, your nose adjusted and you just stopped being able to smell it at all. But then you opened a new bottle or a new bar or whatever and the smell hit you, brand new. Someone else used the same thing, it was like you were smelling it again for the first time.

He nodded toward the mug of coffee on the counter. It was sitting right next to the file on Barnes.

“I made coffee. I’m guessing you could probably use some,” As far as Sam could tell, it was another mostly sleepless night for Steve.

“It smells good,” Steve noted with a nod. He smiled at Sam, that crooked fucking smile.

“Yeah? So do you,” Sam quipped before he could catch himself.

It was fine. It’d probably earn him a smile and a smart remark from Steve in return, but Sam was worried about coming off as too forward, too blatant. Sam had promised himself that he’d pull back, give Steve some time, let Steve have some space.

He opened his mouth to deflect, but just then Steve looked up. The smile pulled a little wider and he shrugged.

“Well, it’s your soap, so if I smell good, I guess it must be because I smell a little like you,” Steve returned. He said it so matter-of-fact, like he didn’t even — but the way he was smiling at Sam, that damn dopey expression on his face. Yeah, Steve Rogers was just as bad as Sam, a blatant flirt, and Sam shook his head, laughed.

So there it was: the third thing. The third thing was that Sam was more than okay with Steve’s presence in his house. The third thing was that there was no chance that Steve using Sam’s towels and eating Sam’s food was ever going to drive Sam away. No chance in hell. Sam wasn’t spending a lot of time thinking too hard on that, but he didn’t really need to. It was all pretty damn obvious, wasn’t it? Eager and desperate, yeah, right from the start.

That was the thing of it though. An afternoon with Steve Rogers followed by some kissing, maybe some messing around; that was one thing. A few weeks ago, if that was all it was — some fleeting afternoon fling with Captain America, one night of comfort, a quick release before Steve’s focus settled entirely on Barnes — a few weeks ago, yeah, Sam would have been on board for that. He’d have been on board for anything with Steve, really, but now — they’d been through a lot together. Steve had things to work out, had Bucky Barnes to find. And Sam — Sam could admit it; the longer he knew Steve, the more Sam wanted from him. The third thing was that Sam was falling hard and fast.

**

He liked to mix up his morning runs. Sometimes he ran the Mall, sometimes he ran the Rock Creek Trail up past the zoo, and sometimes he ran the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac and back. The morning he found Bucky Barnes (...okay, the morning that Bucky Barnes found him) Sam was jogging on the Rock Creek Trail north of Q Street.

He’d left his house at the same time as Steve, but Steve was out of sight before Sam had made it two full blocks. Sometimes Steve circled back around, liked to come up behind Sam like he had that first time on the Mall. He seemed to be trying to turn it into a running joke — ‘running’ joke, get it? — and frankly, it was pretty damn cute. It never failed to get a smile or a retort from Sam, and it was a nice reminder that Steve hadn’t forgotten how this all started, a nice reminder that eventually, maybe they’d even get back there.

Running jokes aside, the truth was that at this point, Sam wasn’t entirely sure where any of this was going between them anymore. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting himself into. And the truth of that was that when you got down to it, maybe it didn’t matter, because just about any direction Sam thought it might go with Steve, Sam was willing to go with it.

It wasn’t a morning for coherent thinking and Sam tried to clear his head, focused on his feet hitting the gravel path instead. It could wait. It would all fall into place or it wouldn’t. And if it waited too long, let’s face it; it was probably only a matter of time before Sam addressed it all head on. Sam was comfortable with honesty, with just being forward about the whole thing. He just didn’t think he should push it yet. Steve had a lot going on; he didn’t need Sam there hovering all, “hey, just so you know, if you ever feel like kissing me again… “

Actually, that could probably work. At the very least, it might earn him a laugh, and if Sam was really lucky —

Damn, okay, so yeah, obviously Sam had it pretty bad. That much was clear. Look at him, so into Steve Rogers that he was running around Washington trying to convince himself that he wouldn’t be crushed if that first kiss was a fluke and Steve really just needed a friend.

A bead of sweat slid down the side of his forehead and he reached up to wipe it away with his arm.

The trail ran along the highway for a while, but eventually dipped below it, just the path and the small gorge cut out by the creek, DC up above on either side. You could still hear the drone of traffic, but the trail seemed quiet somehow despite that, a little secluded, just Sam and the satisfying crunch of the gravel beneath his feet.

That feeling of seclusion was partly why Sam liked to run there. It helped to clear his head, yeah, but he also liked to keep a presence on the trail, keep an eye on things. A wooded bicycle path running through the center of a major city, once in a while things happened. He liked to think things were less likely to happen the mornings he ran through.

He’d just passed the intersection of Q Street when Sam saw movement in the trees off to his left. He turned his head, and yeah, okay, there was a guy in the woods, keeping time with Sam, weaving through the trees. The leaves rustled under his weight and a branch snapped as he snagged it, but the guy kept moving. Sam slowed his pace and the figure slowed too.

Sam stopped on the trail.

“Hey, man,” he said. “You okay in there?” The patch of forest got wider here and he was pretty sure there were a couple more trails off that way somewhere, but this guy didn’t look to be on any trail.

The figure kept moving forward when Sam stopped, but he’d slowed down considerably, and once Sam spoke, he began making his way onto the path.

The guy was wearing a dark blue sweatshirt, a baseball cap, and Sam frowned, confused. Was he about to get mugged here?

The guy shifted and when he did his left hand caught Sam’s eye. It was poking out of the sleeve of his sweatshirt and as Sam watched, the man flexed his fingers, and Sam froze at the flash of metal.

“Shit,” Sam said, suddenly realizing his situation. A mugger he could handle, the Winter Soldier — “Shit, okay. Are we gonna do this then? Right here and now?”

Barnes didn’t say anything. He started moving toward Sam and Sam tensed, fight or flight, but Barnes didn’t attack. Instead he moved past Sam and took a seat on a bench at the edge of the trail.

Sam stood his ground at the center of the trail, just stood there and stared at Barnes. Barnes seemed to be settling in, didn’t look to be standing again anytime soon. Sam looked up and down the trail. There was no one else around and after a moment he moved to take a seat on the bench beside Barnes.

“So…” Sam started. He trailed off and then turned to look at the Winter Soldier’s profile. Barnes had his mouth set in a petulant looking frown. He stared straight ahead as Sam studied him and then finally he tilted his head, turned and looked Sam in the eye.

“What’s your name?” Barnes asked and Sam started, surprised. The last two times he’d encountered Barnes, he’d definitely been no-talk-all-action. Barnes’ voice was different than Sam would have guessed. It sounded younger, a little rough.

“Sam Wilson,” Sam returned.

“Should I know you?” Barnes asked.

“No,” Sam said. “Not beyond, you know, trying to kill me a couple times.”

Barnes nodded. Yeah, bet you remember that, Sam thought. Barnes smelled like wood smoke, sickening and sweet, like he’d spent a good amount of time standing in front of a burning fire.

“Do you know who I am?” Barnes asked next.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “A guy throws you off a helicarrier, you don’t tend to forget him that quick. James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky, right? Yeah, I know who you are. How about this: you planning to attack me here?”

Barnes thought about it for a moment and then he shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so,” Sam repeated. He smiled. He couldn’t help it. “That’s great, man. Comforting.”

Barnes was quiet beside him.

“Listen,” Sam said. “I know you pulled Steve out of that river. You also beat the shit out of him and shot him a couple times, but you pulled him out of the river, and he’d probably be dead if you hadn’t, so I want to thank you for that.”

Barnes still didn’t respond, but he looked like he was processing what Sam was saying. One side of his mouth pulled back in — not quite a smile, but some sort of expression. He looked kind of pained.

“Are you looking for Steve?” Sam asked, figured that it must have been Steve’s name that had pushed Barnes to register an emotion. “The, uh — the guy from the helicarrier? Is that why you’re here?”

Barnes shook his head, shrugged. “I’m here because I wasn’t sure if I knew you.”

“Well, you do now,” Sam said. He pulled out his cellphone. “How about I give Steve a call. Let him know you’re here and you’re okay?”

**

Steve stood on the trail, hands on his hips as he squinted into the sun. “You’re sure it was here?” he asked.

Sam sat down and pressed his fingers to the bruise that was quickly forming on his cheek.

“Yeah, I’m sure it was here,” Sam answered, a tone of indulgence leaking in. It wasn’t fair of him. He got where Steve was coming from. He understood Steve’s frustration. Too late to take it back now though. Steve heard it, sighed, and came to sit with Sam on the bench.

“Stupid question,” Steve guessed.

Sam snorted. It had only been a few hours since Sam had been sitting in this spot beside Bucky Barnes. It’d only been a few hours since he reached for his phone and Barnes attacked him, crushed the phone in his metal hand and then punched Sam in the face. Sam had fallen back, his knees hitting the pavement hard, and when he got back to his feet, Barnes was gone.

Steve leaned over, his elbows propped on his knees as he stared into the trees.

“He just wanted to know if he knew you?” Steve asked.

Sam had already told Steve the story twice, once at his place right after Steve got home from his visit with Peggy Carter, a second time on their way back to the trail.

“That’s what he said,” Sam confirmed.

“Why would he…?”

“I don’t know,” Sam admitted. “I think it’s probably safe to say that you were right. You were getting through to him, so he’s sticking around. He’s been watching you, saw the two of us together and wondered if I was someone he was supposed to remember too.”

Steve nodded, turned toward him on the bench. Steve was still squinting in the afternoon sun. The super soldier serum hadn’t seemed to help much when it came to light sensitivity.

“I’ll book a room at a hotel tonight,” he said.

Sam shook his head. “You don’t need to do that.”

Steve gestured toward Sam’s face.

Sam shook his head and smiled. “Yeah, he punched me in the face. Dude, he’s been souped-up with super strength and a metal arm. He could’ve done a whole lot worse than that if he wanted to. He told me not to call you and I started to do it anyway so he crushed my phone and punched me in the face. I don’t think he’s planning to come after me and attack me in my sleep here. I don’t think he’s planning to come after you anytime soon either, for the record.”

“You don’t need to get involved in this,” Steve countered, leaning toward Sam.

“Yeah, I know,” Sam agreed. “You already told me that. And I told you that I’m in. I’m not changing my mind now just because I ended up a little bruised.”

Steve sighed and settled back on the bench. He stared back into the trees.

Sam’s thoughts turned to the file on Barnes. He pictured Bucky’s face the way it looked back in 1944, the way it looked this morning staring into the woods just like Steve was now. He hadn’t read the file, wasn’t sure he wanted to know the whole story, but Steve had told him a little. He knew enough.

“Once whatever’s happening settles out,” Sam started. “However this works out, we’re eventually going after Hydra, right? If there are more of these guys out there —”

“We’ll get in touch with Nick and we’ll help them go after Hydra,” Steve confirmed.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. He sat back against the bench. “Good.”

**

Sam stood on the Arlington Memorial Bridge and stared out over the wreckage in the Potomac. Helicopters hovered and a few boats navigated through the mess. Pieces of the helicarriers stuck out of the water at odd angles. Once they actually started trying to clean it up, it was going to take months to deal with, probably longer. As it was now, those were still rescue boats out there. Sam guessed there were probably divers beneath the surface.

Somehow they’d managed to keep Sam’s name out of the papers on this one. No one was saying a thing about Sam Wilson stealing wings from Fort Meade. No one had placed him at SHIELD that day at all. Sam could go right back to his life if that was what he wanted. He could have walked away from Steve entirely, gone right back to work, pleaded sick, blamed the accident that totaled his car. He had the bruises; it didn’t feel like a lie.

Sam didn’t want to walk away from any of it, least of all Steve Rogers. He was grateful that he wasn’t being called in to talk to anyone. It made it easier for him, but it wasn’t enough to send him back. Instead he’d taken temporary leave from work, ready for whatever came next.

He hadn’t really expected this, filling his days with Netflix and Steve Rogers, but he wasn’t exactly complaining either. It was probably better. After all, the wings were gone and that left Sam as just another guy with a gun. He’d help Steve as best he could moving forward, but he didn’t know that he had a whole lot to offer. He was a soldier, not some superhero.

Sam looked up at the tower and he felt his heart speed up as he remembered running from the carrier as it crashed into the side of the building, throwing the weight of his body at the window and praying that the glass would break. It had; Sam was lucky. He remembered dodging bullets, swooping around the edges of the helicarriers. He remembered seeing Steve hurtling toward the ground, catching him, the weight of Steve’s body a shock that he was surprised he could still handle. He remembered the fear he felt when the Winter Soldier kicked Steve back over the edge and stopped Sam from going after him, tore off his wing and then sent him flying.

“Hey,” someone tapped Sam on the shoulder. Sam jumped. He’d been leaning on the bridge railing, head propped in his hand and eyes closed. He looked up to find an older couple looking at him. They looked like they’d been standing there a while too.

“You all right?” the man asked.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “I’m okay, thanks.”

The woman nodded toward the river. “Quite the mess,” she said.

“That it is,” Sam agreed.

“Could have been worse,” the man noted. “That’s what I hear anyway. If those things weren’t a wreck in the river, it would have been a lot worse.”

“That’s what I hear too,” Sam agreed. He nodded toward the couple. “Well, I better get moving. Thanks for stopping to check on me.”

“Stay hydrated!” the woman called after him, a reminder to Sam that it’d been too long since he’d called his mother.

**

Sam caught sight of Steve just as he passed beneath the intersection of Q Street. It was the third morning in a row that Steve had skipped out on their morning jog, had chosen to spend the early hours of the day sitting on that bench waiting for Bucky to reappear instead. He was out of the house that morning before Sam had even rolled out of bed, and Sam was up with the sun, so he guessed Steve had been sitting here before that.

Sam slowed to a stop in front of him. “Still nothing?” he asked. He tossed Steve the bag he was carrying.

Steve had a baseball cap pushed down low on his forehead. He looked up at Sam, forced a smile, and then shrugged.

“Not yet,” he said. He held up the bag. “What’s this?”

“Bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel,” Sam said, still breathing heavy. “Bottle of OJ.”

Steve nodded. “You made this?”

Sam sat down heavily onto the bench beside Steve. “No, I didn’t wake up early to cook for you. I stopped at a deli a couple blocks from here. Might still be warm. I thought about bringing you coffee. Then I imagined spilling it all over myself as I was running and thought better of it.”

Sam sat there until his heart started to slow a little, then he clapped Steve on the back, rubbed a little, his hand maybe lingering more than it should, though Steve didn’t say anything about it, just smiled over at Sam, the smile less forced this time, more real. It was probably wishful thinking, but it felt like Steve leaned into his touch, just a little. Sam pulled his hand away.

“How long are we gonna do this?” He shifted on the bench, stretched his arm out across the back.

Steve frowned. “Well, my place isn’t a crime scene anymore. I have contractors coming in tomorrow. They said it’d take them a week or so.”

Sam snorted. “You’ve been sitting on this bench three days and you really think I’m asking you about how long you’re going to be crashing at my place? No, man, how long are we gonna do this?” He gestured toward the bench and the trails. “I’m just asking because if it’s going to be a while, I’m thinking this bench could use some cushions. Maybe get a portable television out here or something. We should upgrade the joint.”

Steve let out a little breath of a laugh and then shook his head.

“I bet you could find someone to deliver us a pizza down here,” Sam noted, taking in their surroundings.

“All right,” Steve conceded. “I get it. You think I’m wasting my time.”

Sam shrugged. “We’re all waiting for something. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do,” he said. “I get that.”

“But you do think I’m wasting my time here,” Steve repeated, pressed.

“You aren’t wasting your time,” Sam said. “But it’s like this, right; either your friend knows you’re here and he has his reasons for why he’s not reaching out to you, or he’s moved on and he has no idea you’ve signed a 12-month lease to this bench.”

Steve shot Sam a look. “It hasn’t been that long,” he said.

“I know,” Sam agreed.

Steve sighed and sat back.

“I don’t want him to think that he’s alone,” Steve said.

Sam nodded. There were things that he wanted to say. He wanted to say that he couldn’t imagine how hard it was, couldn’t imagine losing everyone the way that Steve had. It had been hard enough for Sam losing the people he’d lost: his father, Riley — but Steve — Peggy Carter in that nursing home, and Bucky Barnes out here somewhere, neither of them exactly who Steve had left behind. That was a different kind of loss, painful and in-your-face. Sam wanted to tell Steve that Steve wasn’t alone either, that Sam was here with him, beside him. It wasn’t the same, couldn’t be, but Sam hoped that he filled just a little of that emptiness. Steve had filled in just a bit of Sam’s own.

“He knows you’re here,” Sam said, gently. “You don’t have to sit on this bench to show him that.”

Steve was quiet beside him. He unwrapped the breakfast sandwich and took a bite, chewed it thoughtfully.

Sam’s hand curled on the back of the bench, the tips of his fingers accidentally brushing against Steve’s back again. He pulled his hand back, pressed it flat to the back of the bench instead.

“How’s the bagel?” Sam asked.

Steve nodded, held the sandwich out toward Sam. Sam waved it away.

“Nah, I eat that, I’ll get a cramp and won’t be able to finish my run.”

Steve considered this, shrugged. “How about this: you skip the rest of the run for today, I give you half of this sandwich. Once we’re finished, we get off this bench and walk back to your place.”

Sam smiled. “How about that,” he said.

Steve screwed up his face, shifted on the bench. “Some cushions really would improve things here,” he admitted.

Sam laughed and accepted half of Steve’s sandwich

**

There was nothing quite like flying. When they were first learning, they tried to find things to compare it to, but it wasn’t long before they ruled out just about everything. It was better than roller coasters, better than sky-diving, better than hang-gliding. Better than chocolate cake or fine wine. Riley had protested when Sam had said that it might even beat sex, but he later amended, and they came to a compromise. It was better than a lot of sex, maybe even most; better than all but the very best sex.

“I don’t know,” Riley said, going back on the decision after thinking it over for a while. “I’m pretty good at sex.”

“No, you aren’t,” Sam snorted, countered immediately.

“How would you know?”

“You think I can’t tell just looking at you?” Sam laughed. “No way in hell I’d choose sex with your pasty freckled ass over flying.”

Riley leaned back, shrugged. He ran a hand over his head, scratched his fingers through is hair. Eventually he seemed to realize that keeping quiet might make it seem like he would choose sex with Sam over flying, so he nudged Sam’s shoulder and said, “No way I’d choose sex with you either.”

“You had to think about it for a while first though, didn’t you,” Sam grinned, his eyebrows high. “You really had to weigh the pros and cons of that decision. That’s what I mean, man, you can tell just looking. I take one look at you, I’m like ‘eh.’ You take one look at me, you know it’s probably gotta be pretty good.”

“Wow,” Riley laughed. He reached over and shoved Sam. “That’s the craziest bullshit I’ve ever heard come out of your mouth, and I’ve heard a lot of bullshit from you the last couple months.”

They’d laughed about it for a long time after that.

It was true though, if you removed the war, the danger and the horror, flying really was the most freeing feeling there was. Jesus, Sam loved it. The smell of the air, the wind on his face, the strength of the wings and the push from the pack. He imagined himself soaring over fields, between buildings at sunset, then coasting through the night sky, the lights below his only guide.

And then he heard it: shots going off all around him and he moved fast, turned left and then swooped right. He couldn’t see where the shots were coming from, couldn’t see anything at all and he dove and then turned quick, climbed higher. And then another round and this time there was a noise behind him, the grunt of impact and then Riley’s shout just before he started to plummet toward the ground.

Sam started awake.

The living room was dark. They’d been watching a movie and Steve liked to recreate the feeling of being in a movie theatre. He must have felt Sam’s sudden movement beside him because he reached out, a warm hand firm on Sam’s arm.

“Hey,” Steve said. “You okay?”

Sam wiped a hand over his face. There was a breeze coming in through the open window. Steve had A Beautiful Mind paused on Jennifer Connolly’s face.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “It was — you know that thing that happens where you’re nearly asleep and all of a sudden you feel like you’re falling, like your muscles all relax?”

Steve nodded, but kept watching Sam. The room was quiet except for Sam’s breathing, which sounded loud and labored to his own ears.

“You don’t have to do that,” Steve said eventually, seeing right through Sam’s explanation.

Sam exhaled, shook his head. He was usually the one saying those words.

“All right,” Sam said. “It’s just getting back up in the sky, you know. It brings things back.”

Steve’s hand pressed firm to Sam’s arm. His thumb swiped once over Sam’s shoulder and then his hand fell away. He stared blankly at the television for a moment and though Sam had only known Steve a short time, it was easy to guess what he was probably thinking. Sam got back up there because of Steve, for Steve. If that was bringing things back now, then maybe that was Steve’s fault.

“Do you know how long I’d been dreaming about getting my hands on that pack?” Sam asked.

They’d made breaking into Fort Meade seem like breeze. No one had been hurt. No one had even known it was happening until it was over and done with. Sam had spent a good year of his life day-dreaming about that break-in, about getting those wings strapped on his back. Steve and Natasha; they stood there, thought about it for a whole thirty seconds, and then they got it done. If not for, you know, Hydra and the helicarriers and the Winter Soldier, it would’ve been a dream-come-true moment for Sam.

“Will you miss it?” Steve asked.

Sam shrugged. “I always miss flying,” he said. “There’s nothing like strapping on a set of wings and getting up there.”

“If there was another pack out there somewhere…?”

“What, like break into another government facility and steal it?” Sam asked. He tsked. “Captain America.”

“But if there’s another way —“

Sam shook his head. “That was it,” he said. “The pack at Fort Meade was the last one.”

Riley was gone, the wings were gone, and Sam was here, grounded. And frankly, it wasn’t all bad, grounded here on his couch beside Steve Rogers, even if there was someone out there recommending movies to Steve that put Sam to sleep.

Steve hadn’t unpaused the television, was still just sitting there watching Sam.

“What you said about my gut last week…”

“Yeah, what about it?” Sam asked, trying to remember the conversation, what exactly he’d said.

“My gut’s usually a better guide when it has input from someone else’s gut.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam asked. His face twisted a little as he tried to translate that sentence, to remember the context of the original conversation. He looked over at Steve and shook his head. “Wait, your gut — what? Sorry, I wasn’t — you going back and doubting your gut now or are you proposing we conduct a test of my gut? Or is this about someone else’s gut entirely at this point?”

“What?”

“Or maybe you’re just hungry,” Sam suggested. “If you’re hungry, there’s a bag of pretzels on top of the fridge with your name on it. There’s popcorn in the cupboard.”

Steve laughed. “I’m not hungry. I’m trying to thank you. You were right about the bench.”

“Ah,” Sam said. He pressed his lips together. Now that he’d started it, he wanted to run with this for a little while longer before he cracked. “See I’d never have gotten that. You might have been proposing ritual sacrifice for all I could tell.”

“Ritual sacrifice,” Steve repeated. “Really.” He was smiling at Sam now like Sam was the most ridiculous person Steve had ever met. It was pretty much exactly what Sam was going for. He imagined Riley there with them, nudging Sam the way he always did when he had something to say just between them, something that he didn’t want anyone else to hear.

“What do you think?” he would have asked, his voice low. “Better than flying?”

Sam wasn’t sure, but he definitely wouldn’t mind a chance to find out. He pushed the thought aside.

“Well, yeah,” Sam said, continuing with his stupid joke. “Your gut needs input from someone else’s gut? Like, I don’t know, maybe that’s one of the effects of this serum they gave you. Every month on the full moon, Steve Rogers must ingest the stomach of a worthy virgin, right? The complementary gut of some fine upstanding citizen. I’m no virgin, so I’m feeling pretty safe right now; I’m just saying, I’m not helping you with any ritual sacrifices. I have to draw the line somewhere and that’s where I’ve decided it’s getting drawn.”

Steve was looking at Sam like Sam had completely lost his mind, but he was still smiling, his mouth tugged to the side like he just couldn’t help himself.

“A few minutes ago we were having a serious conversation, and now you’re accusing me of sacrificing virgins.”

“Yeah. You’re smiling though, aren’t you,” Sam said. And beautifully at that. “Look at you.”

And there it was, a nice pink flush that crept up Steve’s neck and across Steve’s cheeks

It just might be up there with flying.

“Okay,” Steve said. He cleared his throat and made a visible effort to try to get himself under control. It sort of worked, though he wasn’t entirely successful at suppressing the smile. “It helps a lot being here with you.”

Sam wasn’t even trying anymore. He was smiling right back at Steve, probably a bit ridiculously. “Good. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. My gut’s here to help your gut out anytime you need it.”

“Is that you saying ‘you’re welcome’?” Steve asked.

“Yes, that’s me saying you’re welcome,” Sam said. “Anytime. It’s also me saying thank you.”

Steve was quiet for a moment and then he said, “What if it’s the upstanding citizen requirement that’s important rather than the virgin thing? You wouldn’t feel so safe then, would you?”

“No,” Sam said. “But I did just help break into Fort Meade, steal property from the U.S. military and use it to help take down a government agency, so I guess that depends on whose definition of upstanding citizen we’re running with here.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “I guess maybe we’re pretty safe either way.”

**

The next time that Sam ran Rock Creek, there was Bucky Barnes, sitting on that bench in Steve’s place.

Sam stopped in the center of the trail, bent, his hands on his thighs. A drop of sweat slipped off his forehead and hit the gravel at his feet. Sam shook his head, paced in front of Barnes for a moment, shook out his legs, and then sat down with Barnes.

“You really don’t want to talk to Steve right now, huh,” Sam concluded.

Barnes was quiet beside him.

“Yeah,” Sam grunted. “Great. You aren’t planning to punch me in the face again, are you?”

“No,” Bucky returned. The word sounded hoarse, a little like a frog’s croak.

“Good,” Sam said, even though Barnes had had a pretty similar answer the last time they met. Sam just hoped he actually meant it this time.

Barnes looked… he actually looked a little better than the last time Sam saw him. He was wearing different clothes. He had gloves covering his hands. His hair still looked a little — well, who was Sam to judge? — but it was pushed behind his ears and mostly covered by the baseball cap he was wearing. His chin was covered in scruff, but it wasn’t a full beard, maybe just a day or two of growth. Sam no longer smelled smoke clinging to Bucky’s skin or clothes.

Sam sat on that bench with Barnes for a good hour, not really talking much, just sitting there together. Sometimes Sam spoke; he talked about the weather and food and the trail. Bucky sometimes nodded, shook his head, but didn’t say much of anything, just a few words here or there.

Eventually Sam sighed. “All right,” he said. “I should get back. Tell you what, how about we start meeting up like this regularly. You know, planned and on purpose, just you and me. We don’t have to talk or anything, just check in with each other, let me know you’re okay. Would that be all right with you?”

No answer.

“Okay,” Sam nodded, continued as though Bucky had responded. “How’s three days from now sound? I’ll be here, same time as today. You can either be here or not.”

Sam started to stand and just as he did, Bucky moved beside him, shifted. Sam froze, hands up, defensive, but Bucky didn’t grab him. He stood from the bench, waited until Sam stood too.

“Thanks,” Barnes said.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Anytime.”

**

Sam watched Steve beat the shit out of three bags before finally Steve’s shoulders slumped and he came to sit beside Sam.

“Damn, Rogers,” Sam said. He’d finished his own workout and showered before Steve had started in on the second bag. There were a few people staring, but no one said anything, no one approached Steve. No one except for Sam anyway.

Steve didn’t take the news all that well. His face had fallen immediately. He’d paced Sam’s living room, sat on the couch only to change his mind and move to a chair, then one of the chairs in the dining room instead. Finally he announced he was going to the gym. When Sam offered to go with him, he expected Steve to turn him down, but after thinking it over for a minute, Steve had nodded and said, “Come on.”

Now Steve sighed beside him. His shoulders were damp with sweat. Sam caught himself wondering how Steve’s skin might taste under his tongue, that salt on his lips, and yeah, it still wasn’t the time or the place for that. He stood up quick, maybe a little too quick, because Steve looked up at him, his brow a little furrowed and a question in his eyes.

Sam grabbed a towel and tossed it to Steve.

“Okay,” Sam said. “Go shower. We’re going home, ordering Indian food — that’s on your list, right? If it isn’t, it should be. There’s a good restaurant right by my place that delivers. We’re going to drink a couple bottles of wine, and then we’re calling it an early night.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said. His mouth pulled up with the hint of a smile. He looked pretty grateful, really, and Sam, thinking just a moment ago that maybe agreeing to come to the gym with Steve was a mistake, was suddenly sure that he’d made the right decision in offering Steve the company.

**

“Can’t sleep?” Sam asked. It was four in the morning. Sam had been lying awake in bed, just staring at the ceiling and thinking about getting up and going for his run a little earlier than usual, when he heard the door to the guest room open, heard Steve pad down the hall toward the kitchen. He listened for a while longer but when Steve didn’t head back to bed, Sam got up to check on him.

“Did I wake you?” Steve asked. He was standing in front of the living room window, just staring out at the street. His arms were folded across his chest, his t-shirt bunched around his waist. His legs actually looked pretty scrawny where they emerged beneath his loose shorts.

“Nah,” Sam said. He moved the throw pillows to one end of the couch and then stretched out on his back, one arm folded behind his head. “I was up.”

Steve didn’t respond, but his arms fell to his sides and he turned to look at Sam.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Sam offered. “I’m really asking here, not just some lip-service. I’m here if you think it’ll help.”

Steve shook his head, smiled at Sam, and Sam was sure for a moment that Steve was going to shut down, turn the conversation toward something else. That wasn’t how it went though, not this time. This time Steve studied Sam’s face and must have found something that confirmed what Sam was saying, because after a moment, Steve’s brow furrowed and then he nodded.

“I feel… useless,” Steve admitted, with a shrug and a smile. “And a little lost.”

Sam nodded. “A lot has changed.”

“When we were standing there in that cemetery with Nick, I thought I — I don’t know what I thought,” Steve admitted. “I thought I was heading toward something, I guess. I had my mission. I was going to go find Bucky, save him, help him, whatever it took. I wouldn’t say that it felt good, but it felt familiar, and I had you with me, and that was starting to feel familiar too.”

“And good, I hope. I hope that part, at least, felt good,” Sam cut in, couldn’t help himself.

Steve shook his head, but his glance was warm, and he said, “That part felt pretty good.”

“Good.”

Steve’s face grew serious again. He swallowed. He seemed a little embarrassed to be admitting any of this to Sam, but he didn’t shut down. Instead he came closer, sat down on the edge of Sam’s coffee table and shrugged. “Since then, I don’t know. It all feels a little like… limbo.”

“I get that,” Sam said. “But if you step back and look at it, you’ve made progress. Your mission, if you want to call it that, is on track. It’s only been, what? A week or two? And Bucky’s here. He’s been found. And you are helping him.”

“I know,” Steve said. “I know. I know it’s selfish to feel this way; it’s my pride talking and I’ve always been… I know. But it feels a lot like rejection from the one person who always — It feels like judgment.”

“Steve —“ Sam sat up, reached out, and hand on the table beside Steve.

“I know,” Steve said for a fourth time. “You don’t have to tell me that it isn’t my fault. I couldn’t have known, but now that I do, why am I just sitting here?”

“You aren’t just sitting here,” Sam said. “This is important for you too, you know. Think about it, you woke up, right, and then what? How much of a break did you have before everything went down in New York?”

“I don’t know,” Steve sighed. “Ten days?”

“Ten days,” Sam repeated. “Man, I thought it was longer. So you’re awake for ten days and then you’re back in a war. And you joined up with SHIELD right after that?”

“Yeah,” Steve returned.

“You’re a soldier,” Sam said. “I get that. I’m a soldier too, but sometimes we’ve gotta stop and figure out who we are outside of the war, you know? We can get lost in it otherwise. I’m on leave from work and you’re on leave from your war. Use the time and let this ground you. Let yourself start to grow some roots.”

**

“Have you got some place to stay?” Sam asked. It was raining, a fine drizzle, but Sam had told Barnes he’d be back in three days, and Sam was damned if he wasn’t going to keep that appointment.

He half-expected to spend the morning sitting on that bench alone, a repeat of Steve’s last week, but when he arrived, Bucky was already there, an umbrella on the bench beside him, though it wasn’t open. He’d shaved recently, had his gloves on and his hair pushed back behind his cap. Sam looked him up and down, wondered how Bucky Barnes was spending his days.

Bucky apparently didn’t feel like filling Sam in on that. He merely shrugged in response.

“Yeah, okay,” Sam said. “I don’t know what this — “ he paused here to mime Bucky’s shrug “— means. That’s all I’m gonna get from you on that today though, isn’t it.”

Nothing from Barnes.

“You don’t trust me not to drop by uninvited,” Sam guessed. “That’s it, isn’t it. You think I’ll stop by, eat all your food, sit on your couch, slouch and belch and just generally crowd the place. Something like that, right.”

Bucky was staring at him and Sam cleared his throat, shrugged. He wasn’t sure exactly what Barnes was getting out of this. He guessed that Sam made a good bridge between Steve and Bucky. It kept Bucky connected without actually having to face Steve, but Sam wasn’t sure and Bucky wasn’t saying, so guesses were really all Sam had at this point. Either way, he thought it was important to talk to Bucky like he would anyone else, even if Bucky said nothing in return.

“What are you talking about?” Bucky asked then, surprising Sam. His eyes looked a little harder than Sam would have preferred, and he definitely wasn’t smiling, but he was speaking, and that was still something.

“I can only hold one-sided conversations for so long before it all starts to go downhill,” he admitted. “Looks like we’ve hit the slope here.”

Bucky still wasn’t smiling, but he continued to eye Sam. Sam shrugged and continued.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here anyway. I wasn’t sure with the rain. You seem to be prepared though. Got your umbrella, found a razor. I was going to say we could help you out with that, set you up in a hotel, or at Steve’s apartment once the contractors are gone if you’d rather. If you don’t have it taken care of, I mean. It sort of seems like you might have that taken care of.”

They were back to nothing. Bucky stopped looking at Sam, turned away to stare down the trail.

Well, either way, it didn’t seem to Sam that Bucky was sleeping under bridges. That was good. That was definitely a good thing, and knowing it would probably help Steve sleep better at night too.

“It’s okay, man,” Sam said after a long stretch of silence. “You don’t want to talk, you don’t have to talk. Like I said, I’m just glad you’re here.”

**

“Today’s the day, huh,” Sam asked as he approached Steve. They were standing outside the entrance to the zoo. “Today’s the day we come to visit little Bao Bao. In the rain.”

He’d felt the buzz of his (new) phone in his pocket while he was on the bench with Barnes, but he didn’t want to alarm Bucky, nor did he want to risk getting punched in the face, so he let it go until they’d parted ways with a promise to reconvene at a later date.

The message was from Steve asking if Sam wanted to check out the zoo and maybe grab lunch (not worded quite like that, but that was the gist of it anyway). Sam shot a message back as soon as he and Barnes parted letting Steve know that he was on his way.

“It’ll be less crowded,” Steve said, squinting up at the sky. “It’s only raining a little.”

Steve didn’t head straight for the pandas. They entered on the opposite side of the zoo and took their time walking through the big cats and the apes and the elephants. Steve was quiet, only really spoke up to make comments about the animals or the size of the enclosures. Eventually he asked the question that Sam had been waiting for.

“Did you… Was Bucky there?”

“Yeah, I saw him,” Sam said. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and shrugged.

Steve took a deep breath.

“Good,” Steve said with a nod. “That’s good.”

“I think so,” Sam agreed.

“How was he?”

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “He didn’t say much. Quiet, frowning. I talked and he might have listened. He didn’t look bad though. He had an umbrella. I think he’s found some place to stay. I told him I’d see him again next week and I think he plans to be there.”

“If I come with you, you think that’ll —“

“I promised I’d come alone,” Sam said. “I don’t think we should try to go back on that now.”

They’d reached the panda exhibit. The park was quiet. It was raining and a weekday, but there was still a short line outside the exhibit. They moved to take their places at the end of it. Steve pulled his cap a little further down on his forehead.

“How was Peggy today?” Sam asked. Steve hadn’t told him a lot, but he knew enough about Peggy’s situation to guess that it accounted for some of Steve’s quiet. Steve didn’t talk about Peggy much and it felt a little forward of Sam to ask, but he felt it was important to reach out, even if Steve chose to push him back.

“All right,” Steve said, and then he stood there, stared ahead at the line of people. Sam figured that was all he was going to get, and he nodded, shifted his weight on his feet. It was a day of having to work at conversations, apparently. First Bucky, now Steve.

The line moved a little and they stepped forward.

“Her kids were visiting,” Steve said.

Sam had been staring at the pavement, but he looked up, surprised that Steve wasn’t trying to change the subject.

Steve’s face twisted a little beneath the hat and then he shrugged and said, “I say kids, but they’re — they’re older than — well, than I look. They have kids of their own. Peggy didn’t recognize them.”

“That’s rough, man,” Sam said. His grandmother had had Alzheimer’s toward the end. It was painful to watch. It was heartbreaking. Sam wasn’t sure if that was Peggy’s diagnosis, Steve hadn’t specifically said, but it sure sounded like it.

“She thought they were SHIELD agents, people that she used to work with. She kept talking about getting a project off the ground. Operation Over Under or Operation Under Over. Something.”

“Sounds… Australian,” Sam said. It earned him a brief smile from Steve. Just a brief smile though. Sam watched Steve swallow, shrug.

“She recognized me. I guess I go far enough back. I look the same. She always recognizes me, but she doesn’t always remember that it isn’t the first time I’ve come to see her. Almost every time is the first time in 70 years all over again.”

“Shit, Steve. That’s — I’m sorry,” Sam breathed. That had to be enough to make a man wish he could drown his sorrows in a couple glasses of whiskey, Sam guessed. Or head to the zoo to visit a panda cub, in Steve’s case.

Everyone’s mood seemed to match the weather that day. It wasn’t until they were standing in front of the pandas, watching little Bao Bao (who didn’t look all that little, except when compared to her mother) eating a seemingly endless supply of bamboo, that Steve seemed to brighten up a little. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket, tilted his head toward Sam. When Sam looked over at him, Steve shrugged and then turned back to watch the bear.

“She’s cute,” Steve said.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “She’s pretty cute.”

**

Sam shifted on the couch, aware that Steve was watching him again. Steve had been doing that for a while now, turning away from the television to stare at Sam instead. Sam couldn’t tell if he should be flattered or paranoid. Finally, Sam gave in, turned toward Steve, giving Steve his full attention.

“Okay. Watching me watch the Nats lose on television can’t be that interesting, so come on. How about you just come out and say whatever it is you’re over there thinking about?”

Steve hesitated for a moment, pressed his lips together, and then made up his mind and nodded.

“The contractors are finished in my apartment,” Steve said. “And I think I’m going to try to get in touch with Nick. If there’s anything I can do to help… “

“Okay,” Sam said when Steve trailed off. “You know whatever you need me for, I’m in.”

Sam remembered his thoughts on the bridge, shook his head and chuckled.

“What?” Steve asked. He glanced back at the television, like maybe the Nats were losing so badly now that it’d taken a turn toward hilarious.

“You wanna talk feeling useless?” Sam asked, going back to their conversation from the other day. “Just wait until we start going after Hydra. Then we’ll talk about useless. I mean, let’s face it, I’m not much good to you without the wings, am I?”

“From what I saw, you’re pretty good with fists and guns too.”

Sam held up his hands. “I’m not saying I can’t hold my own. I know I’m good in a fight. But we aren’t exactly talking regular soldiers here, are we? Most of Hydra, sure, but what about after that?” Sam could think of quite a few people more equipped to fight the good fight beside Captain America.

“Probably not,” Steve conceded. “Either way, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have on my team.”

Sam paused. Okay, he hadn’t actually been fishing for compliments, but if Steve was handing them out, Sam would gladly take them. He liked the sound of that.

“I’m your guy, huh,” Sam rephrased.

Steve smiled, quirked an eyebrow. “You’re my guy.”

“Can’t think of anyone else?” Sam pressed. “Not even, oh, I don’t know, Thor?”

Steve’s head tipped back and forth as he pretended to consider. Sam laughed at that, loud and abrupt, and Steve broke out with a little laugh of his own in response.

“Thor’s pretty good in battle,” Steve admitted.

“Easy on the eyes too,” Sam returned, eyebrows high. “Admit it, dude. Come on, you have to admit to that.”

“Thor’s good looking, sure,” Steve said, and here came the smile. The crooked one, Sam’s favorite. “I don’t know though. I think I’d rather look at you.”

“I’d rather look at you,” Sam repeated, nodding. “That’s — wow. And here I’ve been worried I’d scare you away if I was too frank. What is this? Flirting or flattery?”

“Neither,” Steve said, completely unconvincing. “Just the truth.”

Sam nodded. “Just the truth. All right. So what you’re telling me right now is that you’d rather look at me than at a literal god. He is actually a god, right? That was my understanding from the news coverage.”

Steve shrugged and then amended. “Well, okay, the truth and a little flattery and a little flirting.”

Sam laughed. “There we go. Are we back to this then?”

“They say it’ll get you everywhere,” Steve continued, not really answering Sam’s question. “And look at me now. Free food, free room and board.”

“That it will, my friend,” Sam agreed, playing along. He squinted at Steve. “So now that the contractors are out, when are you moving back to your place?”

“Oh, you’re kicking me out now?” Steve laughed.

“Free room and board, free food, and what do I get? Just a little flattery? You can do better, Rogers.”

Sam reached out and clapped a hand on Steve’s shoulder, still laughing a little. It felt good flirting with Steve, even if they weren’t necessarily planning to take it anywhere.

Whatever this was, wherever it was going, Sam figured that was up to Steve. Sam would keep up the jokes and the flirting, sure, for as long as Steve seemed willing to shoot right back, but Sam wasn’t planning to make any kind of move. A lot of things had changed. Bucky was back and Steve talked about him sometimes, but it always felt to Sam like there were things maybe Steve wasn’t saying. Maybe things Steve wasn’t ready to talk about. Bucky was back and Steve sat by Peggy Carter’s bedside every morning and Sam wasn’t about to interfere with any of that. That was Steve’s life long before that first ‘on your left.’ Sam had no real business there. It was up to Steve to decide if he had room for Sam too. If Steve needed a friend, then Sam would be that friend. If it was a partner Steve was after, that’s what Sam would be. Now that he’d had him for a bit, Sam wanted to keep Steve Rogers in his life in whatever capacity Steve might allow.

Sam wasn’t going to make the first move, but he did think they should talk about it. This relationship had started with a kiss and that had been eclipsed by everything that had happened after, but it wasn’t erased. They should talk about it. He’d been waiting for the right time and the right place. He hadn’t found it yet, but they had things started with Barnes now. Or well, nothing had really been started, but they had contact and that was something.

“Listen,” Sam said. He gave Steve’s shoulder one last squeeze and then removed his hand. “We don’t need to hash this all out right now, but at some point I think we should sit down and, you know, discuss…” he waved a hand between them. Steve caught it, squeezed it in his own.

“— whatever this is. What’s going on, man?” He asked, though from the look on Steve’s face, he thought he might be able to guess, and then Steve confirmed it, glancing at Sam’s mouth and back up toward Sam’s eyes.

Sam remembered that first kiss, how Steve had reacted, how new it had felt. He’d been trying not to think about it too much, unsure they’d ever manage to get back to that place, but shit, suddenly here they were and Steve was leaning in toward him, his movement a little stilted, a little hesitant, and Sam had promised himself that he’d wait until Steve made a move, but this was pretty clearly a move, so maybe it’d be all right if Sam helped Steve out a little.

Sam pulled his hand from Steve’s grasp, brought it up to touch Steve’s face instead, his fingers light on Steve’s neck and then his cheek, and Steve paused at Sam’s touch. Sam waited patiently until Steve focused on Sam’s mouth, and when Steve did, Sam started to smile. He didn’t mean to do it, just couldn’t seem to stop himself. It worked though. Steve let out a little laugh, and then he leaned the rest of the way in and pressed his mouth to Sam’s.

If Riley had asked Sam who he thought would win out, Steve Rogers or flying, and all Sam had to go by was what he’d read in books and what he’d seen on the news, Sam would have chosen flying every damn time. If Riley had asked Sam after that first meeting with Steve on the Mall, Sam would have wavered a little, intrigued by the spark he’d felt between them. If Riley had asked Sam after the first time Steve kissed him, Sam still wouldn’t have been sure. Now though, now that Steve was kissing him again, Sam thought — Sam thought that Steve had the potential to give flying a pretty good fight. Which wasn’t to say that — Steve still wasn’t what anyone would call skilled, but damn, Steve kissed him and Sam thought he could do this forever and never grow tired or bored by it. Sam kissed Steve and he felt Steve’s whole big body shake a little beneath his fingers in answer.

“Shit,” Sam breathed, smiling. “You know I was kidding, right?”

Steve pulled back, just slightly, his brow furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned down in a frown. His forehead smoothed out as soon as he saw Sam’s face though, felt Sam’s hand, still cupping Steve’s jaw, Sam’s thumb caressing his cheek.

“Oh, you were?” Steve asked, his face pulling together to indicate that Sam was probably the biggest liar he’d ever met.

Sam laughed. His fingers slid further back, pushing through the short hair at the back of Steve’s neck.

“Yeah, I was kidding” Sam confirmed. “I won’t actually kick you out if you don’t put out. I’m not that kind of guy.”

“I’d probably put out before you kicked me out anyway,” Steve admitted quietly, hardly missed a beat.

Now it was Sam’s turn to pull away, his hand falling from Steve’s neck. His eyebrows were high and Steve took one look at Sam’s face and laughed.

“Oh, so you’re that kind of guy?” Sam asked, both surprised and delighted by the sudden turn the evening had taken.

“I don’t know,” Steve shrugged, considering. “You know, I think I might be.”

Sam nodded, smile wide, so completely into all of it. “Dangerous admission, Cap. Dangerous admission.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Well, I’m moving back to my place tomorrow, so I’m feeling pretty okay with it. That’s the other thing I was going to say before.”

Sam nodded. He’d assumed Steve would want to go home once his place was fixed up. “You know you don’t have to rush out of here.”

“I know,” Steve said. “I think I should be there though. Just in case.”

“You think Bucky might remember it,” Sam guessed. Steve had mostly accepted it, but it still clearly bothered him that Bucky had chosen to reach out to Sam instead of Steve.

Steve looked down, shrugged. “It’s taking some getting used to. It always used to be me refusing Bucky’s help.” He smiled that smile Steve used to talk about sad things. “I guess now I know how that felt.”

“He’s been through a lot. He’s still going through a lot, but he’s trying to stay connected to you. I mean, that’s why he’s talking to me, right? I’m one step from you, removed just enough, but still a connection. You just have to give it time.”

“I don’t know,” Steve said. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I usually am,” Sam nodded seriously. It worked; it earned him an eye roll and a smile.

“So are you planning to put out before you leave me then?” Sam asked. He didn’t mean it, just wanted to see where they'd take the joke next. Truth was, he didn’t really want to rush this; he really did think they should take their time.

Steve looked like he was actually considering the question.

“Well,” Steve said, eventually. “I said I’d probably put out before you kicked me out. But you didn’t kick me out, did you? I’m choosing to leave.”

Sam squinted at Steve. “So you’re getting me with a technicality? That’s what you’re saying?”

Steve shrugged, his face a little cocky. “It looks like I am, yeah.”

“All right,” Sam nodded. “I guess that’s it then. You’re on the street tonight. Right now, Rogers. Pack your bag.” He reached for Steve and started pushing at him, a half-hearted shove toward the edge of the couch.

Steve laughed and twisted away from Sam’s hands. He shifted and then leaned back in and kissed Sam on the mouth, light and chaste, like they’d been together for years and they did that, just leaned over and kissed each other, casual and familiar, the three-hundredth time instead of the third.

Well, familiar and casual until Steve started to pull back, only to pause, close enough that Sam fell for it and started to lean in for more. Steve chose that moment to continue his retreat, stood and smiled down at Sam. He shook his head, his eyes shining. “Too slow, Sam. Too late.”

“Oh?” Sam asked, nodding. His arms spread wide across the back of the couch. He craned his neck trying to get a look at Steve as Steve walked off in the direction of the guest room, still smiling.

Okay. Yeah, Sam could admit it: he was impressed with Steve Rogers’ game.

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” he said aloud to the empty living room.