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Sam, like pretty much every black kid he knew, fantasized about getting the chance to visit Wakanda someday. His family didn't have a birthright story about how somebody back up the family tree had secretly really been Wakandan, but that hadn't stopped him from imagining that he might someday do something so important, so heroic, that he'd be invited across the border into that never-conquered African paradise.

It was a kid's dream. Long before he was old enough to enlist he had been well aware that getting invited to Wakanda just didn't happen. Anything heroic he'd done in his life, he'd done because it needed doing, not for some childish dream of being rewarded.

When he joined the Avengers, took up the name and mantle of the Falcon full time, it had maybe crossed his mind once or twice that saving the world might be enough, if there were such a thing as enough. He knew there wasn't, anyway. He didn't dwell on it. He did what needed doing.

Somehow it had never crossed his mind that he might end up on Wakanda's doorstep the way Steve and Natasha had ended up on his a few years back: battered and on the run, seeking refuge. Even less had he ever imagined that if he did, he would be welcomed in.

That was pretty much how it happened, though. The Quinjet set down in a courtyard and they were led straight into the palace. Sam answered a few gentle questions, kept an eye on Wanda and Scott to make sure they were being treated right, met Clint's eye and knew that he was doing the same. Sam didn't say a word about Steve going off with Bucky as he was hustled away by his own medical team. He smiled and politely thanked the people who showed him to a palatial room.

He held it together for as long as he had anything to hold it together for. When the door closed, and he was alone, he kept going through the motions for a little while. Took a shower, smeared some ointment on his bruises.

Sam ran out of steam right at the point of putting clothes on. There were some things set out, soft and loose and nothing like his own clothes, if he even owned any clothes of his own anymore. The sun was just coming up, and he remembered that one of the women who welcomed them had said something about a breakfast. He should put his nice new clothes on, go and face the Wakandans who had accepted him as a refugee.

Sam shook his head and shoved the clothes to the end of the big bed. He fell down like he'd been--blackjacked--stunned--hit with a repulsor blast--shot--and lay still for a while in blank, exhausted awareness before he finally found sleep.

Both his arms ached with the tightness of his grip and his breath was coming fast through gritted teeth, but he knew they were falling. His thrusters were dead and the ground was looming up. Sam opened his eyes to see him one last time, thinking at least they were going down together.

He stared for a moment in baffled shock at the blue eyes looking back at him.

"It's okay," Steve said, setting one hand over Sam's where it was gripping his wrist so tightly. "You caught me, it's okay, we're on the ground. I'm here."

Sam blinked a couple of times and made his mouth shape the relevant name. Steve.

It wasn't the name he'd been screaming a second ago, and Steve's eyes weren't the eyes he had been desperate to see one more time.

Riley had had brown eyes, almost as dark as Rhodes'.

But Sam had never let Steve fall, at least. Steve was here, and that was something.

Sam forced his grip to relax. At least he didn't have to worry that he'd break Steve's wrist--though he could see, when he eased his fingers away, that he'd managed a very credible ring of reddened skin. On someone else it might have darkened into a bruise.

Sam let his gaze slip past it to the soft sheets. Steve was lying beside him, in the middle of the huge bed while Sam lay close to the right side, unaccustomed to quite so much space.

"We're in Wakanda," Sam observed, letting his hands open completely.

Steve curled his hands around Sam's and squeezed them both, then let Sam's left hand go to start massaging the right, which was close to cramping from the tightness of his grip. Sam sighed in relief. Supersoldier thumb-strength was a beautiful thing in a hand massage.

"I brought some food up, I thought you might be hungry," Steve said after a while, when he was tugging each individual finger to make Sam's knuckles pop.

That had to mean Sam had missed the official breakfast thing. He couldn't imagine how he would have dragged himself there, but Steve was giving him a really A-plus hand massage right now, so he mustered up words. "Sorry, I should've..."

Steve shook his head. "It's fine. You've earned a rest."

Sam, Scott, and Clint had debriefed to Steve on the Quinjet. It had been Clint who told Steve about Rhodes going down. Sam had gone to check on Wanda as soon as Clint said his name.

"Everybody else settled?" Sam asked, a last burst of responsibility.

Steve gave his right hand a last hard squeeze, his palm and then up his wrist and forearm, then started massaging his left. "Yeah, they're good. A couple of the Dora Milaje are taking Wanda to the Temple of Sekhmet tonight, they think she can get some help there with... everything. They're working on a way for Scott and Clint to get in touch with their families through Wakandan diplomatic channels, meantime I think they're both sleeping off breakfast."

Sam's stomach grumbled at the mention of breakfast, and he opened his eyes again. Steve was looking down at Sam's hand like nothing mattered more, and it occurred to Sam that Steve hadn't mentioned Bucky in there.

He should ask. Bucky had been going to see the doctors, and if Steve was upset about whatever they'd said, he wouldn't volunteer it. Sam would have to ask.

Sam licked his lips and opened his mouth and even that felt exhausting. He said, "Food?"

Steve's gaze darted up to meet his, and he gave a crooked little smile as he worked his thumbs into the sweet spot between Sam's thumb and index finger. "If I go get it I have to stop this."

"I'll allow it," Sam assured him magnanimously, and Steve leaned in to kiss him as he squeezed Sam's hand, wrist, forearm. When he let go Sam pushed him lightly away, and Steve scooted across the vast bed and went to get Sam's breakfast.

Sam closed his eyes and waited for it with his hands open.

Sam slept for what seemed like days after that.

He didn't really know how much time passed, and he didn't spend it all actually passed out in bed. He got up when had to use the bathroom, or a few times when the taste of his own mouth or the smell of his own sweat got so disgusting that he couldn't wait another second to brush his teeth and wash up. Sometimes it was broad daylight, sometimes Steve was sleeping beside him and the sky outside the wide windows was dark, a faint silvery glow of starshine leaking in.

There was food, though he didn't really notice the taste of anything; he just knew it eased the pangs in his stomach so he could sleep again. Steve brought him stuff in bed sometimes, and sometimes Sam would wake up already walking across the room to see what had been left out on the dining table in the far corner.

He didn't always make it all the way back to the bed after those forays, but the couch was as long and deep as some bunks he'd slept on.

His sleep was interrupted by nightmares, too. He woke up again and again to Steve's hand in his, or Steve's wrist clutched in a desperate grip, until he almost stopped being surprised by the sight of blue eyes when he woke up.

Once he woke up and didn't know why right away. No dream had pushed him out of sleep, and no need of his body had pulled him.

He opened his eyes and blinked a couple of times and then smiled slightly at what he was seeing. No need of his own body, no, but Steve was lying beside him with one arm slung over his face, jerking off in slow movements.

Sam knew for a fact that Steve didn't really linger over masturbating--not unless Sam was watching, and told him to slow down so Sam could enjoy the show. Then he would blush nine kinds of red but obey. Right now, Sam would bet anything Steve was only going slow because he was trying not to make enough noise or vibration to wake Sam.

Seemed only fair to tell him not to bother. The place in his head where some smooth or sexy or sweet words should have been was blank, but Sam tried anyway, working up enough spit to say, "Hey, baby."

Steve dropped his arm and looked over at Sam, his hand freezing on his dick. His eyes were startled-wide for a second, and then he rearranged his expression into the same solicitous one Sam had seen more or less every time he woke up. A pink flush rose on his cheeks at the same time.

"Hey," Steve said. "Sorry, do you--"

Sam smiled a little wider as Steve cut himself off, and he supplied the words Steve hadn't said. "Need anything?"

Steve smiled back and tipped his head. Well, do you?

Sam ran a hand curiously down his own body, because he honestly wasn't sure. His dick stirred a little when he ran his hand over it--oh, hey, he was naked--but it still felt as heavy with sleep as the rest of him.

"Nah," Sam said, returning his attention to Steve, only to find Steve's attention riveted on his crotch. Sam worked his hand back and forth a little just to watch Steve watch. "You go ahead, though."

Steve's gaze jerked back up to meet Sam's eyes, and his flush only deepened. "Do you mind if I, uh... if I look?"

Sam snorted and shook his head, stretching both arms up above him to fold behind his head.

Ugh, he was going to have to wash soon. Maybe an actual shower, but that sounded so--

Steve made a little noise, and his hand was moving faster now, making the messy noise that meant he'd remembered to love himself and use some lube. Sam watched drowsily, through half-open eyes. The pretty pink sex flush spread down from Steve's face over his throat and chest, and his right hand was almost a blur, speeding over his cock.

It was a good sight, familiar and normal and home. Sam meant to keep watching, but between one blink and the next it was over; he opened his eyes and Steve was leaning away to grab something to clean himself up with. Sam felt a little twinge of regret about missing the cute dumb face Steve made when he came, but he was too close to falling asleep again to think much of it.

Steve turned back over and looked at him with the pink flush still riding high on his cheeks, and said, "Hey, are you awake enough I can kiss you a little?"

Sam let a little laugh rattle out of him. Of course Steve had jerked off and cleaned his hands before bothering Sam about a kiss.

"Sure," Sam said. He even picked up his hand and reached out for Steve, beckoning him closer in the massive bed. "Come on, c'mere."

"Thanks," Steve murmured, taking Sam's hand as he scooted in.

Sam probably should have teased him about what a sacrifice he was making, staying awake long enough to kiss his boyfriend, but Steve's lips found his before he could figure out the words.

Steve kept kissing him slow and sweet, and Sam felt sleep receding, his body waking up and up. There was a second when he wanted to pull away, roll over and bury his face in the pillow and chase that heavy drowse, that fog that protected him. But Steve tasted good, and his hand was rubbing up and down Sam's back in that way that rode the line between soothing and something else. Sam was starting to get hard.

Someday I'm gonna stop letting you lead me out of my comfort zone, Sam thought. He was too busy kissing Steve to say it, and anyway it was probably a lie.

"You want..." Steve mumbled against his jaw, halfway between a question and an observation.

Sam tugged Steve's hand down to his cock and caught Steve's mouth in another kiss, and Steve took care of the rest. He pressed Sam back into the pillows, kissing him and jerking him off, and all Sam had to do was lie there and let him. The pleasure Steve wrung from his body rose higher and higher, and Sam rode it like an updraft until he went weightless, coming over Steve's fingers in a rush of pleasure that felt strange and new after all this time.

He hadn't jerked off while he was locked up; he couldn't remember, before then, the last time there had been time and privacy for Steve to touch him.

He felt gravity get hold of him again. This time it didn't come in the soft, welcome form of dazed sleepiness, but a tiredness that weighted very limb and left him awake but too exhausted to move. His heart ached in his chest with every beat, and he smelled even worse now than he had when Steve woke him up.

Sam pushed irritably at Steve. Not that it was Steve's fault, really, but Steve was another weight leaning on him right now, and Steve could probably smell how bad he smelled, and--

Steve moved when Sam pushed him, leaning back on an elbow and looking down at Sam.

Sam felt grubby and petty at the warmth in his eyes, and rolled over to put his back to Steve.

"Hey, come on," Steve said, pushing gently at the center of his back. "Come on, let's take a shower. We both need one."

The thought of standing up made Sam want to cry a little, and when he tried to be mad at Steve for suggesting it he just felt tired. He shook his head.

"Okay, well, I'm taking a shower," Steve said, scooting closer and wrapping an arm around Sam's waist. "And I'm bringing you along for something pretty to look at while I do."

Sam groaned and shoved at Steve, but he didn't say No or Put me down when Steve hauled him up off the bed, and walked with him to the bathroom. Sam found himself leaning on Steve as they went, like he--like he was... Like he really needed it.

The shower was huge, and Steve turned it to a setting that was like standing under the warmest rainstorm in the world. Sam turned his face up into the water and raised his arms, letting himself be rinsed clean. He peeked through his eyelashes when Steve started scrubbing him down, but only made a noise in his throat that he hoped came across as gratitude.

Steve hummed back, pressing a kiss to his jaw, so Sam figured that had worked all right.

When they went back to bed, the sheets had been changed, and there was food on a tray waiting for them.

"This is really nice," Sam mumbled, letting Steve guide him to sit down by the food. "Like. I wish..."

I wish I'd had this last time, he wanted to say, selfishly, and I wish my guys could be taken care of like this.

It came absolutely clear to him right then that he was not all right, that he was pretty far down from all right. He was now going to have to either continue being fucked up in these beautiful surroundings, or he was going to have to pull himself together and get better.

"Fuck," Sam muttered, feeling tears slide down his face. "Aw, shit, Steve. This is... this is..."

"Yeah," Steve said quietly, sitting down next to him and slinging an arm around his waist. "Yeah. But you might as well eat lunch while you're up."

He was awake more after that, like he'd broken the magic spell of being able to sleep until this went away when he realized what it was. Depression. Acute stress reaction.

You fucking failed everybody, and now this is what you get.

He recognized that one; he even knew, theoretically, that it wasn't true. He remembered it from before, from after Riley died; he remembered it from textbooks he'd studied since then, from a hundred other vets' mouths. He remembered telling all of them, your brain is lying to you, your illness is lying to you.

Sam had fucked up and failed, though. And now he couldn't stop thinking about every single thing he'd done wrong. The things he hadn't been able to make the guards stop saying to Wanda. The things he'd stood and let the guards say to him. The fact that he still didn't know whether it had been real or a nightmare when he heard Wanda scream No! Don't touch me!, and if it had been hers or his.

Rhodes, falling.

Riley, falling.

The bag closing over his head and the cuffs on his wrists and sooner or later you're going to tell us what we want to know and knowing that it was true, that he could only buy Steve time, that he couldn't promise himself he would really hold out.

It just kept crawling around the inside of his head, over and over. He felt it like a film over his skin, the indelible grubbiness of everything he'd done wrong and every right thing he'd failed to do. Sam didn't let Steve touch him, didn't cuddle up to him in the bed. He sat in the corner of the couch, or out of the way on the floor. He couldn't get comfortable in the wide softness of the bed no matter how fresh the sheets were, so he started sleeping outside, on their private little balcony-porch. It was just long enough for him to stretch out on, and the pounding of rain a few inches away was almost enough to quiet the inside of his head sometimes.

He tried not to look up at the stars when the sky was clear; they were too bright and close. It was too much like flying, and he could only remember one end to flying right now.

But when he woke up, Steve was there, lying across the doorway or sitting at the table. Nearby, waiting, anytime Sam woke up.

The more Sam stayed awake, though, the more Steve went out--or the more aware Sam was that Steve went out. He was around enough for Sam to get silently frustrated with his calm suggestions to eat something or take a shower or watch this thing on TV, but after Sam declined a few times he would say, "Okay, I'll be back in a little while, then," and go... somewhere.

He never said where, but it wasn't like Steve lacked for options: the rest of the team was out there somewhere. Bucky was out there somewhere.

Steve still never talked about Bucky. He would mention Wanda, or Scott, or Clint sometimes, or Wakandan people whose names Sam felt dimly guilty about not remembering from one mention to the next, but he never brought up Bucky.

Sam ignored that until he couldn't ignore it anymore. One day Steve went breezily out the door without saying where he was going. Sam wondered if he was trying to avoid Sam being jealous of him spending time with Bucky, and his thoughts sank directly into the swamp he'd managed to avoid until then.

He knew, distantly, that it was stupid on every level. For one thing, Steve ought to spend time with Bucky, or with anyone who was better company than Sam. For another, Steve and Bucky's lifelong connection was more familial than romantic, and Steve wasn't the cheating kind anyway. He'd told Sam the truth from the start, and Sam knew it.

But he stared at the ceiling anyway, and the thoughts swirled around his head, dark and sticky as tar. What if, what if, what if.

Steve deserved better than him. Bucky had a connection with Steve that Sam could never compete with.

Steve was only sticking around until Sam wasn't so fucked up that it would be really cruel to leave him.

Bucky would steal Steve from him given the chance, and Sam was giving him nothing but chances here.

If it was innocent, why didn't Steve talk about Bucky at all? Steve was hiding something. He had to be hiding something.

Sam was furious and heartbroken and too tired to get up off the floor all at once. He wanted to punch Steve, wanted to cry for hours, wanted to be able to feel either of those things enough that it actually moved him.

He was still lying on the floor in the same spot he'd been for hours when Steve walked back in.

Steve smiled, and Sam rolled over onto his side, putting his back to Steve, and covered his head with his arms. He didn't want to fight, or cry, or leak his shitty thoughts all over Steve in any other way. If he couldn't be any more use than that, at least he could keep his fucked up thoughts on the inside where they couldn't hurt anyone.

"Hey," Steve said softly, and his hand touched the back of Sam's head. "Hey, can I do anything?"

"Tell me," Sam said, before he could stop the words. He didn't want to know, but he had to know. He squeezed his eyes shut and took a breath, trying to sound steady and calm as he said, "Tell me what's going on with Bucky."

"Oh," Steve said.

Sam knew from that one syllable that there was something to tell, when all the time he'd been clinging to that one slender thread of reason that told him there wouldn't be. He recoiled from Steve's touch, pushing himself up to sit facing Steve.

Steve winced and shook his head. "It's okay, it's all right. He's all right. I just... to tell the truth, I was kind of enjoying having one person not looking at me like they expect me to tell them how I feel about it."

Sam felt his own mind go suddenly blank and clear for a second, like a bucket of water had been dumped over his thoughts.

They started up again in the next second: Something was wrong and you didn't even ask. You knew something had to be up for him not to talk about Bucky, but you never let him tell you what, because you were too busy lying around feeling sorry for yourself. You--

"Sam, it's okay," Steve repeated. "If you needed to know, or I needed to talk about it, I would have told you. Bucky's fine, he's safe. He asked--he chose--to go back into cryo until someone can figure out a safe way to get those trigger words out of his head."

Sam stared blankly at Steve; that was so far from anything he'd expected to hear that it took a minute for the words to even make sense, and by then, Steve was hastening to explain, taking Sam's silence for something other than total incomprehension.

"The Wakandans have cryo technology, totally independent of what HYDRA developed. They don't usually use it in this kind of case, but obviously Bucky's problems are... unique. With the serum, there's basically no danger of it hurting him, and--it's what he wanted. Wanda's been working with some of their neuroscience people to come up with plans for how to help him. It's just temporary. Clint told me he was put into a coma once, with sedatives, after he had a head injury, so they could wait for things to settle down a little in his brain without him hurting himself worse. It's the same thing, really. When we're ready to help him, we'll wake him back up."

Sam actually reached out and grabbed Steve's hand to stop him from continuing to explain. "What--when? When did he...?"

"He had his mind made up before we even landed in Wakanda. I guess when we got that message asking for people to state medical needs, he sent a private message of his own asking for it. I went with him to the medical consult as soon as we arrived, and once the doctors understood the need for it, they set everything up immediately. He went in that first morning."

Sam stared at him some more. "You--that first morning, when I had a nightmare, you--he already--"

Steve nodded. "He's okay. He's safe. It was his choice, and it's not forever."

Sam closed his eyes. He knew the sound of words somebody repeated to themselves over and over to battle their own dark thoughts. He used to have his own. I did everything I could. Riley knew the risks. I didn't kill the people I couldn't save, the people who shot them did.

"Do you," Sam said, still holding on to Steve's hand, trying to string together those magic words for himself. "Do you know--Rhodes, is he..."

"Clint's gossip network--which is probably Natasha, but we let him pretend he has other sources--says that he's paralyzed from the waist down, but Tony's working on various things to help him get up and walking again."

Sam breathed in and out. "Wanda, is she--did they..."

He couldn't ask that. He couldn't ask Steve that.

But Steve apparently heard something else, because he said, "Yeah, she's doing a lot better, they've been able to help her so much--Sekhmet, I guess? The gods around here are, uh..." Steve shook his head. "But people are helping her too. Wakandans don't really do therapy the same way it's done back home, she even convinced me to try it."

Sam had to look at Steve, but there was no teasing in his eyes, just a steady, earnest look. "They got you--I'm honestly a little hurt, man."

"Well, you were always insisting you couldn't be my therapist," Steve said, smiling crookedly. "And I guess I didn't want anyone else. But it's not like that here, it's not so one-on-one--"

"I know you know group sessions are a thing, Rogers," Sam insisted, and Steve's smile widened.

"Yeah, it's not really like that either, it's--I like it. You could come with me sometime, see how it is?"

Sam dropped his gaze, the momentary ease he felt dropping away. He recited some words mechanically to himself again. Not your fault. Riley knew. Rhodes knew.

He shook his head. He knew what it took to dig himself out of this hole; he'd been here before. He knew he was going to need help, but he also knew that he had to do most of the heavy lifting himself. It was work--it had been his actual job, back when.

"Not... not yet," Sam said. "I'm glad you're going, though, that's good. And Wanda, I'm glad she--that's good too."

"Okay," Steve said simply. "But come on, get up off the floor at least, we got a perfectly good couch over here."

Sam was too dizzy and drained to argue after all the whiplash turns of the last few minutes. He let Steve pull him up and guide him over to the couch, let himself be snugged in close to the warmth of Steve's body. He let himself rest, just for a little while longer.

Over the next few days, Sam slowly worked out that Steve was spending at least three hours a day doing whatever kind of therapy he was doing. More than once he came back with red-rimmed eyes, but he always seemed cheerful.

Sam knew he had to do it--knew that something intensive like that would probably be at least as necessary for him as it was for Steve--but he couldn't imagine being ready for it. He tried to picture explaining his recent past to a stranger--not even American, not even military. How could he even begin to communicate what was wrong with him and why? And then would come the homework, and the effortful work of putting himself back together, even with guidance.

It occurred to him one day, while Steve was out, that the Wakandans probably had really nice antidepressants. Were Steve and Wanda taking them? Was that how they were doing so much better? Because if they had something that would let him do anything other than lying on the couch, staring blankly at the walls and waiting for Steve to come home, he'd take it. He could just about do that: open mouth, swallow pill.

Except he'd have to go and ask first, and explain, and...

Sam let his eyes close, only to have them flash open at a knock on the door. He picked his head up and looked at the door; whoever was on the other side knocked again, but this time something slipped through the crack under the door at the same time.

It was a flash of red light that took the shape of a bird and flew to him, coming to perch on the back of the couch, tilting its head as it looked at him.

Sam thought of Redwing, thought of his own wings, and abruptly burst into tears.

"Sam?" He heard Wanda's voice from far away, and gestured vaguely at the bird--okay or go away, he didn't even know. He just knew that he was wasting this burst of energetic sadness on a robot bird and his wing pack, which was probably the worst thing he'd done in at least twenty-four hours.

The door opened, and Wanda repeated, "Sam?" and then said, "Oh. Oh."

Sam curled around to face into the back of the couch, hiding his face in the cushion beside the illusion of the bird. He thought it pecked at the back of his head, and cried harder.

He actually did feel a hand on his shoulder then, and Wanda said firmly, "Come on. Sit up and drink some water or I'll have to call for backup. You don't want that, do you?"

Sam shook his head, not wanting Steve to come back with his warm hands and kind eyes to deal with Sam crying about something stupid. Steve hadn't left more than an hour ago, so he had to be still in the middle of his therapy session.

"Sit up, then," Wanda repeated, and something in her voice told Sam that the sternness was bravado. She had been everyone's little sister before all this; it stung to feel grateful to have her take charge of something as simple as a glass of water.

Sam sat up, keeping his head ducked--he hadn't stopped crying, he couldn't, with this shard of grief lodged in his chest. But he took the glass of water, and let Wanda steady his hand as he brought it to his mouth and drank.

He set the glass down on his own, and Wanda settled beside him on the couch. The red light-bird had vanished, and Sam squeezed his eyes shut on the twinging echo of grief he felt at its absence.

"Sorry," he said hoarsely. It was the first time he'd spoken to anyone but Steve in... how long? "Sorry, I know I..."

He waved a hand, trying to sum up every way he had let Wanda and the others down, from the Raft to this very moment.

"There is nothing to apologize for," Wanda said firmly, sounding like she was on more solid ground now. "You have to find your own way, and you have needed this rest."

Sam glanced up at her, wondering if there was a but coming. Was his rest over now? Was Wanda here to tell him to shape up or else?

He remembered her screaming. At the same time he was aware that he needed to know how badly he'd let her down and that if he brought up the worst thing that had happened to her, she might go away and not come back.

"Not this," he said. "On the Raft, when--when you were--I didn't--"

Wanda frowned slightly, and then shook her head. "As well say that I didn't use my abilities to help any of you. None of it was your fault, Sam. I made my own choice to be there."

"But you," Sam could already feel that he wasn't going to get a grip on her to push her away, but he felt a panicked need to try, to prove--something. "I heard you screaming at them not to touch you, and I--I didn't--"

Wanda looked horrified for a second, and leaned in with one hand extended. She'd often used exactly that touch to pass along a joke, a plan, a useful image, but Sam still jerked back from her hand, and Wanda didn't press it, sitting back herself.

"Well, so," she said, with a crooked smile. "They were all a lot more scared to touch me than you are. No one did anything like that to me, Sam. I had a few nightmares, I yelled a few times. There was nothing like you're thinking, I promise you."

"Oh," Sam said, subsiding into numbness. "Good, that's. Sorry. That's good."

Wanda shook her head. She turned one hand palm up on her knee, and a little bird appeared again, a tiny red flame with wings and an inquisitive beak. "A little bird asked me to come and see you. He thinks you might need some kind of special help."

Sam gritted his teeth. Steve, obviously. There was no one else, except the literal damn birds in the trees outside.

"Or you might not," Wanda added, flipping the little illusion into the air, where it became an animated origami thing, a little red paper bird that flapped over and perched on Sam's knee. "You might just need to rest, and wait to be ready, and know that your friends still care, and aren't angry with you for anything you did or didn't do. Up to you."

Sam closed his eyes. He should ask her whether the Wakandans had really good drugs, or what the therapy was like that Steve was so enthusiastically compliant with it. He should ask her to put her hand on him and just fix him.

He didn't move, didn't speak, just stayed still with his eyes closed. After a while he felt Wanda's hand coming toward him, and this time he didn't flinch from it. He'd take anything, if someone would just give it to him and not make him ask, or work for it, or...

But the touch of Wanda's hand, when it came, was just a touch, fingers tracing gently along his hairline from his forehead to his temple. Once, twice, again and again, and then she started singing softly--Sokovian, maybe, but it had the simple rhyme of baby-talk. A lullabye, because Wanda, who could have knocked him out with a touch, was trying to soothe him to sleep the hard way.

It seemed like a thing he would have told someone to try to do, and he mumbled, "Therapy, huh?"

Wanda kept going to the end of a line, then said, without stopping the gentle rhythmic motion of her fingers, "When you're ready. You don't have to be ready yet."

A while after that he was on the couch with Steve, dimly aware that he'd woken up when Steve came home, listened to Steve talk, shared some food with him.

Sam wasn't wearing a shirt anymore, because he'd gone to the bathroom somewhere in there and gotten aware of how crumpled and clammy his shirt was. He had taken it off and gotten no farther in changing clothes. Now he was on the couch again, with Steve. There was some kind of soothing documentary action happening on the TV and Steve's arm was slung over his shoulders.

Steve was tracing a little path over Sam's bare shoulder with his thumb. Sam could smell Steve. Not in a bad way, just in the way where they were pressed close together and Steve had gotten pretty sweaty at some point during the day and was still running hot. That smell usually meant that Sam smelled about the same, and he was tired for some good reason, and it was okay to just relax on the couch together for a while before they got up and showered.

Steve's hand settled warm on the point of his shoulder for a moment and then started kneading gently, the heel of his hand pressing into Sam's trapezius. Sam's eyes slipped shut and he let his head fall forward, inviting more. He didn't know how he could be this sore from doing nothing, but he was suddenly aware of the ache of every muscle in his body; he remembered the first time he'd woken up here, and Steve massaging his hands.

"Yeah," Steve murmured. "Here, let me do this right."

Steve pulled away. Sam opened his eyes, feeling unmoored and looking around for where he needed to move.

Steve was just at the end of the couch, sitting sideways with one leg hanging off. He got his hands on Sam, guiding him closer, and Sam closed his eyes again, going where he was put. He sat between Steve's thighs as Steve's hands settled on his shoulders, rubbing firmly and steadily. He pushed back into the touch, letting Steve's hands work over the columns of muscle down either side of his spine, knuckles digging in just right at the small of his back before Steve's hands started working their way back up to his shoulders.

Sam let his chin drop, and was rewarded with Steve's hands on the back of his neck. He let out a noise of pleasure and pushed back a little further between Steve's thighs. Steve's hands stilled on him, but it wasn't actually a surprise to find that Steve was hard, his cock pressing against Sam's ass.

Sam opened his eyes and considered what could happen next while Steve was holding still and quiet behind him. He could scoot forward again, tilt his head back into Steve's grip, silently demand more attention and care. Steve would give him as much as he wanted, rub and pet and soothe Sam right back to sleep.

Or he could ask for something else, something that would keep him awake and present here, and maybe Steve would give him that.

Sam let his eyes slip shut again and wriggled his hips, rubbing himself deliberately against Steve's erection. Steve let out a shaky breath, almost a laugh, and said, "Is that how it is?"

"Yeah." Sam's mouth turned up, though the reflex of a smile felt strange on his face. He wanted to smile for Steve, he wanted to feel like flirting and teasing and fucking. So why not just do it, and figure out how to feel it later? "How it could be, anyway, if you want a piece of this."

"Mm." Steve's hands slid down from his shoulders to his hips, and then Steve's arms closed around him as Steve pressed up against his back, rocking his hips against Sam's ass. "But I don't want just a piece. I want all of you."

Sam exhaled an almost-laugh of his own, eyes prickling with tears. He should've been used to it by now, the way Steve just said things like that, but it felt new today--or Sam felt new, all raw and unprotected. "Have me, then. Come on, I want you to."

Sam wiggled in Steve's firm grip, hooking fingers into his loose, soft pajama pants to tug them down. Steve kissed the back of his neck and slid his hand down Sam's belly to his crotch, making Sam freeze.

Steve didn't particularly react, just closed his hand gently on Sam's limp dick through his soft pants. "Just seeing what we're working with," Steve murmured.

There was no hint in his voice of are you sure or you're not ready. Sam felt off-balance and helpless for a second, like maybe it was a bad idea, maybe he did need Steve to be Concerned and talk him out of it.

Steve let go and closed both arms around Sam again, holding him firmly and grinding against him. "Here? Bed?"

Picturing it brought back his certainty that he wanted this: wanted to feel Steve wanting him, Steve's body pushing sensation and life back into his. And God knew, if it were physically possible, nothing would stop Steve from getting him off in the process. All Sam had to do was let it happen.

"Here's good." Sam wondered if Steve could hear the little shake in his voice, and he thought, from the trail of kisses Steve planted along his jaw, that he probably had.

Steve stayed just like that for a moment, grinding against Sam's ass and holding him tight, kissing and nuzzling and not asking anything more of Sam than to be there. Sam closed his eyes and let himself feel it, trying not to think, not to be aware of anything but Steve's body wrapped around his and the promise of Steve's cock against his ass.

"How about..." Steve's low murmur was all the warning got before Steve lifted up under him, taking Sam clear off the couch and then tipping him forward. Sam gasped a little--he was the one who carried people, never the one carried, not until now--and then Steve was pushing him onto the couch, face down with Steve still plastered against his back.

Sam exhaled, relaxing into the thick cushions and letting Steve's weight push him down and hold him there. Steve's knees fit between his, and Steve rutted against his ass for a moment, then sighed.

"No helping it," Steve said. "Gotta go get lube. Should've put some out here before. Get those pants off for me, okay?"

Sam nodded. If it took him nearly as long to wriggle and kick his way out of a pair of pajama pants as it took Steve to go and find lube and come back... well, that just meant he hardly had time to notice the lack of Steve's body against his.

Steve settled over Sam again, naked this time, holding himself up just enough that he could move. Sam swung one leg out, foot on the floor, and Steve made a little appreciative noise, touching him with slick fingers, stroking over his hole.

Sam tilted his hips up, his forehead pressed against the couch cushion. "Come on, man, stop stalling."

Steve hummed a little noise of agreement and slicked himself up, and Sam felt that same burst of uncertain relief at Steve listening to him again. But he wanted to fuck how he always liked getting fucked, without a lot of fucking around with fingers and slow patient prep. More than ever now, he wanted to feel it hurt a little and know that he could take it.

Steve's cock was pressing at him then, hot and thick and slick, and Sam pressed his hands into the cushion and remembered to breathe, to relax. He couldn't help a groan when Steve got inside him that first little bit, the burning stretch feeling more real than anything had in a while. His whole body felt suddenly lit up with adrenaline or something even better.

Steve pushed deeper, stretching him open inch by inch in a relentless slide, and Sam was struggling for breath, fighting his body under control. Steve's hand squeezed his hip, his stretched-out thigh, and Sam growled and pushed back, taking him to the hilt. For a second he really couldn't think at all, and there was nothing in the world but this, a hot cock inside him and a weight holding him down and his body struggling to accept it.

Then Steve leaned into him a little, his chest on Sam's back as he pressed kisses to Sam's neck and rocked his hips in tiny motions.

Sam moaned as everything snapped into place at once: this was sex; this was the guy he loved. This was good even if he wasn't hard. He could breathe again, knew how to move, how to take it, and when he rolled his hips under Steve, it was Steve's turn to groan.

Steve started really moving then, thrusting into him slow and deep. Every push seemed to wake up his whole body a little more, waves of sensation washing through him until Sam was grinding against the couch, rocking his ass back to meet Steve's cock, panting out wordless, needy sounds.

When he did manage words they were the important ones. "Touch--Steve, touch me, I need--"

Steve rammed harder into him, breaking Sam's words into a groan, but his hand slid down Sam's hip to find his cock. He was hard now, throbbing as Steve's grip closed on him. Steve made a smug little noise behind his ear and Sam tried to snarl, but it felt too good, Steve in him, Steve stroking him. "Yeah, yeah, oh--"

Sam couldn't speak at all after that, just letting out the noises Steve forced from him while fucking him exactly right, so he couldn't think at all. He lost track of time as the pleasure wound his body tighter and tighter--he only knew that it was more, and more, and close, and then he was coming, pleasure cresting like a storm breaking. Steve kept fucking him through it, and after, with his hand cupped gently around Sam's oversensitive cock.

Sam was floating, making little vague encouraging sounds as Steve fucked him. When Steve's motions lost their perfect discipline, Sam twisted under him, turning his head. Steve was a romantic at heart, and kissing worked for him.

Sure enough, he surged over Sam, driving his cock deep as he cupped Sam's cheek in his hand and kissed him, a little rough and clumsy. Sam only had to stay twisted around for a minute, because Steve gave a few last thrusts with his lips dragging over Sam's and then he dropped his head to Sam's shoulder, shuddering as he came.

Sam put his head back down on his arm, feeling dazed and sleepy in a good way for the first time in... way too long.

"Thanks," Sam muttered, as Steve came to rest sprawled over his back.

"My pleasure," Steve muttered, nuzzling Sam's shoulder, and Sam didn't know whether Steve thought Sam was thanking him for the fuck or for being so patient while Sam wasn't up to fucking or anything else.

Sam thought about asking, but it didn't really matter. If he actually gave a damn about Steve's patience and everything Steve had done for him so far, he knew what he needed to do. He wasn't ready, he didn't want to, but he knew that sometimes you just had to make the leap.

"When do you have therapy again?" Sam asked.

Steve tensed a little on top of him, then kissed the nape of his neck and relaxed again, snuggling down. "Not until tomorrow."

Tomorrow. That was all right then.

"I'm gonna come with you," Sam said, as firmly as he could with two hundred pounds of supersoldier on top of his lungs. "I'm not... Don't let me miss it. I'm going with you."

"Sounds like a plan," Steve agreed, and Sam didn't feel so bad about letting Steve peel him off the couch and take him to the shower after that.

Sam didn't bother whining or resisting when Steve woke him up in the morning and told him it was time to go, herding him through showering and putting on clothes and eating breakfast. He could see from the moment Steve woke him up that I don't want to wasn't an option.

That made it easier. Sam was good at doing things when there wasn't any choice. It didn't matter how he felt, or what he thought. He stumbled half-awake through all the motions Steve insisted he should go through.

He let himself think about how he couldn't depend on Steve personally supervising him through getting out of bed in the morning. He told himself he wasn't ready for any of this, that he was only going to Steve's therapy to prove to himself and everyone else that there was no way he was ready for it. He would probably check out completely and not even hear what anyone said, or else he would freak out and punch someone and ruin it for Steve, or...

Somehow, they were walking out of the room, down an airy corridor to what seemed to be a sort of back way out of the palace compound. Not that Sam knew shit about the palace compound; this was the first time he'd left his own room since going into it.

"How long have we been here?"

Steve glanced over at him, looking him up and down thoughtfully, and Sam wondered how Definitely Okay he would have to be for Steve to give him some ridiculous answer. Steve's train of thought must have run in a similar direction, because he turned his gaze front again as they approached a glass door leading out into dappled sunshine and said, "How long does it feel like?"

"What, you want me to guess?" Sam hoped that hadn't sounded exactly as petulant as it felt coming out of his mouth, but the alternative was that it sounded angrier.

"Yep," Steve said, opening the door and gesturing Sam through it. "You don't have to or anything, I'll tell you the date if you want to know, but I want you to guess."

Sam looked at the stairway Steve was leading him to--they'd come out on a wide upper-level porch or balcony. He didn't know how far they were going, but he already wanted to sit down right here in the sun and refuse to go further. He wanted to tell Steve he couldn't guess, either, couldn't put in the effort. He wasn't ready for this.

"I'll start," Steve said, bumping his shoulder gently against Sam's as they started down a staircase. At least it was downhill--but Sam would have to climb back up at some point, and...

"More than six hours," Steve said. "Less than ten years."

Sam snorted, though he raised a hand to touch his face at the same time. "More than three days," he put in. "Less than three months."

Steve nodded. "Less than one month."

Sam kept moving, holding on to the railing, already feeling a little relieved. He hadn't lost a lot of time to that gray haze, then. Not weeks gone without a trace, just days, and maybe not that many days--Steve hadn't given him a new lower bound, though Sam knew it had to be more than three days.

"More than seven days," Sam tried, going off a vague sense of how many times he'd shaved. His goatee was untidy right now, but hadn't lost all definition, even with only careless upkeep. "Less than twenty."

Steve nodded. "Thirteen, actually. But that's not an unlucky number in Wakanda, don't worry."

"Guess that makes sense," Sam agreed, and realized they'd reached the ground. Steve immediately set off down a path among towering trees. "They like their black cats around here, too."

"Black cats are definitely good luck," Steve agreed. "Broken mirrors aren't such a big deal, but tearing curtains seems to take the place of that. Don't tear anything that's hanging up."

"I'll do my best," Sam agreed dryly. "You go around ripping up people's mosquito netting while I wasn't here to keep an eye on you?"

"Not more than once." Steve flashed an easy, sunlit smile that made Sam think, for just a second, that they were back on the Mall, talking for the first time, with none of the past two years hanging over them.

Sam smiled back, despite the nightmare dread of knowing everything was about to go wrong and being helpless to stop it, to warn anyone. Sam looked away sharply, squeezing his eyes shut--that was stupid, everything had already happened and Steve knew a lot more than Sam did about what their strategic situation looked like right now.

Steve didn't say anything, but his hand came to rest lightly at the small of Sam's back, guiding him down the path. Sam had to open his eyes and watch where he was going after a couple of steps, but Steve's hand stayed where it was.

Sam shook his head, looking down at his feet. He was going to stop in a minute, turn around and go back--hell, could he even find his way back alone?--but he kept walking forward and didn't know why. His feet seemed to belong to someone else. To Steve, probably. Traitors.

"Steve," Sam said, gesturing vaguely with both hands. "I can't--this is--I'm not ready for this."

"Yeah, me either," Steve said easily. "I don't even speak Wakandan."

Sam did stop at that, looking over at Steve. He hadn't even thought about that, he couldn't--

Steve's mouth turned up at one corner. "It's okay, they're teaching me. But according to them I'll never get as healthy as a Wakandan until I can speak Wakandan. They're grading me on a curve." Steve started walking again, gently tugging Sam along.

"Apparently I'm also never going to be as happy as somebody who doesn't look like a semi-transparent ghost," Steve gestured at himself, and it honestly took Sam a second to understand that it was a reference to Steve's fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes.

Sam had been in Wakanda for thirteen days and hasn't talked to any actual Wakandans in all that time. They ought to kick him out just for that.

"But hey, at least if I bring you along they'll know I wasn't lying about having already persuaded this gorgeous guy to fall in love with me," Steve's arm curled more firmly around Sam, tucking him close to Steve's side. "So they can stop bemoaning my fate to never be able to attract anyone who's not as ugly as I am."

Sam frowned at the ground and then over at Steve, trying to get his head around what kind of clinical relationship Steve had with multiple people who talked to him like that. "What the fuck kind of therapy is this?"

Steve grinned. "I told you, it's not like you're used to."

They came to a smaller path branching from the wide, paved one they'd been walking down, and Steve turned down it, keeping Sam tucked close to his side as they walked along a path that was more like a tunnel roofed in green. They hadn't gone too far when it opened out into a stone-paved courtyard with a fountain in the center surrounded by low benches, and cultivated trees growing at tidy intervals and casting patches of shade.

There was an old woman sitting by the fountain--her skin was darker and of a cooler shade than Sam's, and her wiry hair, cropped as short as his, was pure white. She had her head back, showing her wrinkled face to the morning sun, but she smiled as Steve and Sam approached, opening her eyes as she said, "You brought him, finally?"

"Yes, ma'am," Steve said, pushing Sam forward a little. Sam offered his hand, and the woman took it and pulled herself up by it instead of shaking; she was nearly as tall as he was, and he could tell that she was far from frail.

"Sam, this is Lindiwe. She was one of the Dora Milaje to King T'Chaka's father, and now that she's retired from that, King T'Challa gives her interesting projects for time to time, like rehabilitating weird foreigners with weird foreign problems."

Lindiwe raised her eyebrows at that, but didn't argue with Steve's summary.

"Lindiwe, this is Sam. Now come on, you have to admit he's good-looking enough for both of us."

Lindiwe studied Sam closely, and Sam looked back like she was a drill sergeant trying to spook him into breaking out of attention. His heart was beating fast, and he realized that he wanted her to say yes, to think well of him.

Here he was in Wakanda, and this was the first Wakandan who would pass judgement on whether he was worthy to be here or not.

"If we could persuade him to smile more," Lindiwe allowed finally, looking over at Steve. "But he needs a haircut. Go and fetch the clippers from Onke."

Steve looked at Sam, silently asking if he would be all right if Steve left him alone with Lindiwe in this sunny courtyard. Sam was tempted to keep him there and ashamed of the impulse at the same time--but once Steve left him alone with Lindiwe, it would be time for the casual-seeming probing questions, the oblique pressure to explain himself.

Well, if he couldn't answer he wouldn't. Lindiwe was in charge of Steve's therapy, and Steve could still come back here tomorrow after Sam proved that he wasn't ready to be rehabilitated by anybody, however fearsome.

Sam gave a tiny nod.

Steve leaned in and kissed him lightly before striding off toward one of the buildings facing onto the courtyard.

"Come and sit," Lindiwe said. "You'll get as pale as that ghost of yours if you don't get some sunshine."

That much sounded good, at least. Sam went and sat down on the sun-warm stone, turning his face up into the light the way Lindiwe had been sitting when he and Steve walked up. He heard her sit down again where she had been before, and he braced for whatever she was going to ask him, but she didn't, and didn't, and after a couple of minutes he realized she wouldn't. They were just going to sit here in silence in the sun.

He let himself relax a little then, half-opening his eyes to look around.

A young woman with brown skin lighter and warmer than his--bearing so little resemblance to Lindiwe that he was sure they weren't close family--came out of a door to his left, more or less opposite from where Steve had gone in, carrying clippers and a canvas bag.

Lindiwe made a noise somewhere between amused and annoyed, and spoke in a quick rush of Wakandan; Sam picked out Steve's name from the flow, but nothing else. The young woman flipped her hand the way Steve had gone and made an elaborate exasperated gesture, setting down the clippers and bag on the bench between Lindiwe and Sam.

"Well," Lindiwe said, switching to English. "This is Sam. Sam, this is Funeka; she was once new to our tribe, and now she is so sure of her place that she does what she likes no matter what an old woman says."

Funeka rolled her eyes and turned to Sam. Her Wakandan accent was thicker than Lindiwe's, her words a little more halting, but she was still a hundred percent better in English than Sam was in Wakandan.

"I am sorry. Steve is with Onke now, and will be for some time. I assumed that Lindiwe had asked for the clippers for some real purpose, and not only so that Steve could spend the next two hours being lectured on his pronunciation and the history of hairstyles in Wakanda and whatever else Onke decides to teach him today."

Lindiwe laughed a little. "All right, all right, you have a point. You can give Sam a trim, then, he hasn't had a chance for a haircut in weeks, he's getting like a spring sheep."

Sam reached up and touched his hair, feeling the extra depth of springy fluff. Steve wouldn't have noticed until Sam was edging into afro territory; he wasn't sure how Lindiwe knew how short he usually wore it. Pictures, maybe.

"That all right with you? Being shorn?" Funeka checked with him.

Sam summoned up a smile and nodded. "Leave me a little to cover my head?"

"I'll see what I can do," Funeka promised, and pulled a brightly patterned cloth out of the bag to drape around his neck and shoulders before she started the clippers. Sam bowed his head under her gentle hand and let his eyes close, listening to the soft splashing of the fountain, the rustling leaves and the birds calling. He felt the warmth of the sun in different places as Funeka moved around him, shading him from different angles.

"There," she said, and Sam opened his eyes, accepting the small mirror she held out to him.

He only realized when he looked how long he'd gone without really looking at his face, more than a glance or two to guide him in his rare efforts to shave. His bruises were gone, and his hair looked good, but the sight of himself wasn't good news otherwise. He looked like he'd been living on MREs in the field for long hard weeks, and--if not anywhere near as pale as Steve, definitely unhealthily washed out.

He mustered up a smile and a, "Thanks," as he handed the mirror back to Funeka, and she just nodded, gathering up everything and bundling it back into the bag before she went off across the courtyard again.

"There," Lindiwe said. "Now you are an ornament to the courtyard. Sit and soak up the sun, Sam."

Sam nodded and tilted his head back, feeling the warmth on his face and trying to let his mind be as quiet as the space around him. Not silent--only a sterile place was truly silent, and the courtyard held too much life and openness for that--but quiet, at ease. He caught the faint sound of Steve's voice, broken into unfamiliar cadences.

The thought drifted slowly, softly across his mind that that must be the real therapy Steve was getting. The "lessons" from Onke must be some kind of therapy, probably more roundabout than a straightforward cognitive behavioral approach. Grounded in the Wakandan religion, no doubt, which made sense since the Wakandan gods were more of a straightforward fact of life than anything Sam had ever encountered in the Bible.

They were probably softening it to a cultural thing, for Steve, couching it in history and traditions rather than pressing on religion so hard. It was a good approach, if not one Sam was usually involved with--working with a client's religious beliefs to help them.

All of which meant that Steve was getting real therapy, even if it seemed different to him than anything he'd been offered in America. Sam had only come with him as far as the waiting room.

Well, so. He could wait. The sun felt good. He half-opened his eyes when someone called for Lindiwe, but she patted his shoulder as she passed. "Stay a while, you're not in anyone's way."

Sam nodded. He could say that much for himself, at least. He wasn't in anyone's way. Steve was getting better, Wanda was getting better, and at least he wasn't dragging anyone down. If Steve wanted Sam to keep coming with him like this... it might not be such a bad thing.

But it was a little bit of a bad thing, he realized, registering the sinking feeling. He wasn't ready to do the work, wasn't ready to talk, but he had still hoped that somehow he could start getting better anyway. He had believed the Wakandans could help him despite himself, even though he knew better than anyone that it didn't work that way.

But instead there was just this: a haircut, and the gentle touch of a stranger's hand, and a sunny place to sit alone. He was tempted to lie down on the bench, or at least cover his face, but he had the feeling that if he just held still enough, the disappointment wouldn't land on him. If he could make his mind quiet and empty again, if he could just appreciate this...

He heard footsteps approaching, and opened his eyes again to see another man, this one bearing enough general resemblance to T'Challa that Sam thought he must be from around here. He wondered vaguely when he was going to stop being surprised that everyone around him looked more like him than like Steve, and then the man's arm swung in such a way that Sam noticed the blood beading on his wrist, and he was on his feet without a thought.

The man's head turned and he gave a look of pleased recognition like he'd been looking for Sam. He beckoned to Sam. "I have a job for you, if you will come with me."

"Is it first aid?" Sam asked, walking quickly to his side. "Because you're bleeding."

The man frowned and lifted his wrist, making an annoyed noise when he saw the blood. It was only a trickle, though, coming from a long scratch. The man licked the blood away absently and said, "I promise, your part will not be so dangerous. Come this way."

Sam felt all bright and sharp-edged with adrenaline--what was it, what was happening here, where was Steve, what were they going to do?

The man led him through a door and into a dim, cool room. In the moment it took his eyes to adjust Sam realized that he could hear Steve more clearly--he had to be only a couple of rooms away. He was still speaking halting Wakandan, so Sam wasn't in any danger of understanding what he was saying. But how could Steve still be going on with his therapy session when Sam was...

"Here, if you could just sit here." The man guiding him pointed to a cushion near the corner of the room. Sam blinked and looked around and realized that the room was decorated in bright colors, and that there were cushions scattered around as well as knee-high tables and tiny chairs, books and toys.

Sam looked down at the cushion, and realized it was between just one set of shelves and the rest of the room. And the lowest shelf was occupied by a puddle of black fur that opened very green eyes and stared at them, unimpressed.

"I saved most of the toys, but the children will just have to live without the rest--our little queen has chosen her place to give birth and that is that. The little ones will be up soon from their naps, and it's simpler to have an adult here to keep them away from her. If you don't mind?"

"Sure," Sam said, because it didn't seem like there was any good alternative. He sat down with his back to the cat, sparing a quick glance over his shoulder to see that she had closed her eyes again, apparently willing to be encroached on as far as this.

Sam criss-crossed his legs to make a wide barrier of his knees, and checked that he could reach the wall on his right and the shelf that made a barrier on his left, to stop any charging toddlers. The motion made him feel the tightness of his unused body. When the man who had brought him in departed from the room, Sam did a few stretches, limbering up.

He was just in time; he heard tiny running feet a moment later, and a toddler ran in through one of the doors only to stop short at the sight of Sam. The kid was wearing multicolored shorts and a red shirt, hair a slightly lopsided puff around their head, flattened on the side that also still had a sheet-imprint on the round brown cheek. No useful gender cues there.

"Hi," Sam said, and the little one edged sideways into the room, watching him with wide dark eyes.

"Okay," Sam said, and reached over to the nearest shelf for something to pretend to be occupied with so the kid could ignore him. He caught a pile of sturdy cloth that turned out to be a fabric book, the kind babies could cuddle with or chew on; all the text was in what he guessed was Wakandan. Sam studied it curiously, wondering if he could decipher anything from context.

He looked up again at the sound of adult-sized footsteps. Funeka came to the doorway, carrying a toddler on her hip and leading another by the hand. Sam looked around and discovered that the first one had crept into the far corner of the room from Sam and was peering at him from behind a basket of stuffed toys.

Funeka laughed and said something in Wakandan as she brought the other two kids into the room, setting down the one on her hip and shooing them toward the various toys. Another kid came running in while Funeka was standing in the middle of the room, looking them over.

"They're all clean and rested," Funeka said. "Lunch will be soon, but if there is any loud crying before then I'll be back. Don't worry, they'll entertain themselves."

"Think any of them can teach me the alphabet?" Sam asked, holding up the book he couldn't read.

Funeka grinned. "You'll have to ask them that."

She walked out without explaining anything more--like the kids' names, or who they belonged to, or why anyone thought leaving them under Sam's supervision was a good idea.

They didn't actually seem to require supervision. All of the kids settled down to play, stealing variously wary or curious glances at Sam. One of them--Sam had instantly lost track of which one was which and was only about 75% sure that there were exactly four of them--came over to Sam and offered him a ball of flexible interlocking rings.

"Thanks," Sam said solemnly, offering the cloth book in exchange. The kid took the book and dashed off on chubby little legs.

That turned into a game: every couple of minutes one of the kids would bring him something--a lightweight metal sphere, a soft plastic sheep, another book--and trade him for whatever he was holding. Sometimes they said something about it, but Sam didn't know if he would have understood them even if he did speak Wakandan; he had an impression of semi-intelligible baby talk even through the language barrier.

Each time he said, "Thanks," and made the trade. He glanced back at the cat every so often, but she showed no sign of intending to budge from her spot. With Sam as a distraction as well as a barricade, the kids didn't seem to have any interest in intruding on her.

Sam tried to figure out whether there was a deeper therapeutic purpose to this, but even at his most spectacularly self-absorbed depths it was hard to imagine that somebody had set up four toddlers and a pregnant cat for his sake. Occam's Razor argued that they really were just making use of Sam as an extra warm body in the household. If it felt good to be surrounded by babies who didn't know a thing about him and didn't care what he'd ever done as long as he kept trading their toys back to them, that was just his good luck.

Or exhausting luck. He wasn't doing anything but sitting in one spot and handing over toys to toddlers, but Sam was feeling more and more tired every time. He still smiled and said, "Thanks," without fail, but he was losing feeling in his feet and just watching the kids run around seemed like more than he could do for much longer. He wanted to lay down on the floor, but if he did the kids would probably climb all over him and wind up getting in the cat's space. The only thing he was supposed to do was keep the kids away from the cat, and if he screwed that up--

"Hey, there you are." Sam jerked his head up and found Steve leaning in the doorway, smiling fondly. Two of the kids ran over to grab Steve, wrapping arms around his legs. Sam felt faintly vindicated to spot the suspicious kid crouching in the furthest corner from the door, watching Steve with a look of ferocious concentration.

The kid might also have been pooping. Sam wasn't entirely sure.

Steve looked down at his little fans with bemused fondness and took stiff-legged steps into the room, dragging them along, which raised shrieks of delight from the kids. A third one ran up then, and Steve swung that one up in his arms and faux-laboriously turned back toward the door just as the guy who had recruited Sam stepped through.

He made an exasperated noise and came over to pick up the kid in the corner, who immediately wailed.

"Be right back, Sam!" Steve called over his shoulder as he followed the guy and crying kid out, and then Sam was alone in a quiet room, except for the presence of the cat behind him.

He let himself list over a little then. Steve had seen worse. But he snapped upright when he heard footsteps; there was no knowing who it would be coming through the door. Before he could follow that train of thought anywhere, Steve stepped through, carrying a tray.

He beamed at Sam and came over to sit beside him, settling the tray in front of them. "Lunch. I didn't cook it, I promise."

Sam blinked and then reached out and picked up a piece of the flatbread that he'd gotten to like. "You cook when you come here?"

Steve shrugged. "Sometimes. I do what I'm told, mostly."

Sam tore off a piece of the flatbread and used it to scoop up something dark green, thinking that over as he chewed.

"Like I said," Steve went on easily. "They don't really do therapy here like we do at home. It's not so much you sit in a room and figure yourself out, it's... they find you somewhere to belong, because if you've gotten into a bad place you're probably in a literal bad place, a situation that's not giving you what you need."

Sam frowned and chewed, imagining some of his clients being taken away from their families--their messed-up marriages, their parents who wanted to help and just didn't understand, their kids who they were afraid of hurting. Would it help more than it hurt?

But then it wasn't like Steve had had anything to lose when he got here. Bucky had gone into cryo, Sam hadn't been able to get out of bed. Of course Steve needed a Wakandan foster family. Maybe that was all Steve needed; unhappiness and isolation had always been the worst of what Steve struggled with.

Like you'd have noticed if there was anything else, Sam found himself thinking. Like you're any kind of use to him or anyone right now.

"I guess it works better if you're Wakandan," Steve said blithely, waving one hand. "Then there's some stuff with the gods and all this business about whether you stay within your own tribe or move to a new tribe, depending on what's already been tried and what the gods say. But I'm sticking with the God I got already and I didn't have a tribe to start with, so it's all kinda improvised. It's nice, though, isn't it?"

Even at his worst Sam couldn't fail to hear the hopefulness in Steve's voice, or forget how happy he was every time he came back from "therapy." Of course he wanted the same thing to work for Sam, for Sam to be able to share his happiness at having people to belong with here.

"Yeah." Sam shaped his face into a passable smile and met Steve's eyes. "Yeah, Steve, it's nice."

Steve's smile faded a little, but he just bumped his shoulder against Sam's and went back to eating.

Sam trailed after Steve to the kitchen with their dishes; he could hear a loud family meal going somewhere nearby, though he couldn't see which room they were in.

"It's okay," Steve said, rinsing dishes and loading them into something that Sam figured was the Wakandan version of a dishwasher. "We don't have to stay the whole day, I just wanted you to come and meet some people."

Sam wanted to argue that he had to stay and keep the toddlers away from the cat, but the words turned to dust on his tongue. It was a task they'd given to him because he had literally nothing else to do; they could just as easily fence that corner off or keep the kids in another room. Sam hadn't actually been doing anything that couldn't be accomplished another way.

He felt exhausted suddenly, the quiet pleasure of the morning evaporating, and at the same time he was just aware enough to be wearily angry with himself for wrecking a perfectly nice morning with his uselessly circling thoughts.

"Yeah, okay," Sam agreed, handing over the last of the dishes for Steve to rinse.

They both washed their hands, and then Steve laced their fingers together and led Sam to an inner courtyard where a noisy, chaotic meal was going on. Sam hung back, keeping Steve between himself and the crowd, but Steve just called out something in Wakandan and waved with his free hand. There was a chorus of calls and waves back immediately followed by a flurry of scolding as children tried to leave their seats to say goodbye to Steve.

Steve turned back to Sam with a sheepish look and hurried him out before any of the kids made a successful break for it.

They jogged across the bright front courtyard, only slowing to a walk when they reached the cover of the trees on the path back to the palace. Sam grimaced as he did, feeling how even that little burst of movement felt like an unaccustomed effort. Two weeks of barely moving at all, after all his time in the Raft with no more than the space of a cell to pace, and he was getting all out of shape.

That probably meant that he should take a longer walk, but in truth Sam was eyeing the trail ahead of them, looking hopefully for the turn back toward the palace. His limbs felt heavy, and he was sweating in the jungle heat.

"Who wound up cutting your hair?" Steve asked, bumping his arm gently against Sam's.

Sam looked up from the path, blinking for a second as he forced his brain to shift gears, back to sitting in that quiet courtyard, enjoying the sun. "Uh. Funeka? She brought the clippers out, said you were gonna be busy a while."

Steve nodded. "Onke was trying to make me ask for them in Wakandan, but he wouldn't tell me the word, he had to tell me the whole history of things you call hair-cutting stuff so I would understand why they're called--" Steve said a word that had a click in it, which Sam guessed meant hair clippers in Wakandan for some really good historical reasons.

Sam tried to move his mouth around the shape of the word, and Steve squeezed his hand and said, "Let's try an easier one, huh? This is hello."

Steve was almost satisfied with Sam's pronunciation by the time they got back to their rooms in the palace.

"Want to try learning to introduce yourself?" Steve asked, tugging Sam toward the couch.

Sam looked at the couch and knew without a single doubt that if he sat down on it he wasn't going to try anything but a nap. He could just go to bed, but Steve was looking all bright and expectant and Sam didn't want to puncture anyone else's good mood.

"I think, uh," Sam gestured toward the bathroom. "I'm gonna hit the shower, actually."

Steve nodded, letting go of Sam's hand, and it was reflex to lean in and catch Steve's hand before it fell away. Steve gave him a searching look, and Sam managed a little smile as he tugged Steve with him a half-step in the right direction.

"Come with me?"

Steve grinned. "I mean, if you think that would be more fun than Wakandan 101..."

"I bet I can make it fun," Sam assured him, more bravado than real certainty. He kept backing up, towing Steve along; Steve matched every step he took and let Sam steer.

Steve took his shirt off when they got into the bathroom but stood back, letting Sam run the show. Sam leaned into the shower and fiddled with the settings until he had just the right fall of barely-warm rain to feel refreshing. He stripped out of his own clothes a little carelessly, piling them by the sink, and when he turned around again Steve was standing there, all flushed-pink skin and a warm smile.

"I gotta do everything around here, huh?" Sam caught Steve's hands again and towed him into the shower. Steve finally pushed instead of letting himself be pulled, backing Sam up against the tiled wall to kiss him with the warm water running down both their bodies.

"Not every single thing," Steve murmured. "But I do enjoy following your lead."

Sam smiled back, remembering the first time he'd told Steve come on, just follow my lead, you can do this. He'd been right, too. Steve could dance; it just helped if he was more focused on Sam's hands on his ass than what the rest of his body was doing.

"No dancing on wet surfaces," Sam admonished him, stealing another kiss, but he got his hands on Steve's ass at the same time, drawing him that last inch closer. Steve wriggled his hips in Sam's grip and rubbed up against him, and Sam made a startled noise as his dick started getting with the program.

Steve made a low encouraging noise and nuzzled at Sam's cheek, kissing along his jaw, and Sam peeled his hands off the sweet little handful of Steve's ass to push him back against another wall. Water fell down between them, barely cooler than Steve's skin, and then Sam stepped in close again so he could see and touch. He felt like he'd hardly seen Steve in the last weeks--even when they'd had sex, he'd left it to Steve to run things, and suddenly Sam was starving for the feel of Steve's body under his hands.

He kissed along Steve's jaw and down his throat, sucking and rubbing the rough hair of his goatee against that impossibly pale skin. The marks wouldn't last longer than the sex, but Sam loved seeing how easily Steve showed what he felt. His hands followed the heat of Steve's blush down his chest, over the perfect smooth curves of his pecs to his nipples. Steve's breath caught when Sam's thumbs teased him, and the sound of it shivered over Sam's skin, better than the shower for chasing away the grimy feeling from his skin.

Steve's arms came around him then, tugging him closer, and Sam gave up and pressed against him, all slick skin and heat. His cock was getting hard and Steve's was already standing up between them; just rutting against him felt like discovering sex all over again for the first time. Steve held mostly still, his hands on Sam's ass encouraging but not guiding him. Sam let his own hands wander over Steve's body, rocking against him just enough to tease them both until Steve was making those pretty pleading sounds.

Sam tilted away enough to get his hands around both of them, their cocks pressed together in his grip, and Steve's head went back as he let out something close to a sob. Sam kissed his bared throat as he jerked them off, pulling back to admire each mark, to look down at the sight of their cocks together in his hands. Steve's hands were clutching rhythmically at his ass, harder and faster as he got closer, his chest moving fast with his breaths. Sam kept jerking them off together, faster and tighter until Steve went rigid and silent and came in hard pulses, shooting up into the shower spray.

Sam groaned at the feeling of Steve's cock jerking against his, and grabbed at Steve's shoulders to steady himself, thrusting against Steve's hip to finish himself off with Steve's arms around him. He didn't last much longer before the pleasure swept over him in a deafening rush, leaving him leaning heavily against Steve.

After a while he realized that he'd been standing there maybe a little too long. Steve was breathing quietly under him, running a gentle hand up and down his spine. Sam hid his face against Steve's shoulder and said, "So I think I'm gonna take a nap."

Steve laughed a little. "Come on, not here. Let's finish the shower first."

Sam nodded, and managed to push back and finish rinsing himself clean, even dried himself off and walked over to the bed under his own power, sliding naked between the crisp, clean sheets. He smiled when he realized Steve was lying down next to him, and reached out a hand. He was asleep before he could tell Steve he didn't have to stay.

Sam woke up to the sound of Steve trying to stifle a laugh, and he smiled before he opened his eyes. The room was dim, and he could hear a pounding rain falling outside. Steve was lying on his belly, still in bed beside Sam, and he had a tablet propped up against the headboard. He was drawing something with a stylus, and kids' voices were calling out from the tablet in a mix of English and Wakandan.

They were trying to identify what Steve was drawing, Sam realized after a moment. Steve was playing Pictionary with the local kids, spending quality time with them even when he was here in bed with Sam in the middle of the day.

Sam thought about moving so he could see what the hell Steve was drawing--the English words he caught varied from zebra to electricity--but he burrowed deeper into his pillow instead. That way all he could see was Steve's face, lit up by reflected light from the screen, and lit up the other way, too, full of delight and amusement. Sam lay still, soaking up Steve's happiness like he could absorb it, use it to recharge his own like a battery.

Steve glanced over a moment later and caught his eye, and his smile stayed just the same. He looked back to the screen and said, "Racehorse, you guys. That's showing that it's fast."

"Cheetahs are faster!" One small voice argued from the screen, while a few others dutifully repeated racehorse.

"I know, I know, cats are always the best at everything," Steve agreed, grinning. "I'll see you guys later, okay?"

A little chorus of groans and complaints quickly converted into, "Thanks for playing, Steve! Goodbye!"

Steve set the tablet aside and curled onto his side, facing Sam. "Hey. I'm gonna eat dinner soon, you in?"

Sam nodded, simultaneously aware that it was kind of a weird question and that he had said no to it more than yes in the last several days. He wasn't exactly hungry now, but he thought he might be when there was food in front of him.

"Everybody was glad to see you today," Steve said quietly, running a hand over Sam's freshly trimmed hair. "I was thinking I'd go back later, once the rain stops. Lindiwe and Onke and some of the others tend to sit a while in the courtyard once the kids go to bed, and once it clears up you can see so many stars it's like being in the middle of nowhere."

Sam was already smiling when the thought of Riley hit him, the sound of his voice saying, "Well, you really can't beat the view," as they flew over the dark desert under a sky full of brilliant stars. Riley had grown up near Atlanta--a city kid by Georgia standards, if not New York--and he had been as awestruck as Sam was at the sight of the sky out there.

"Hey," Steve said softly, scooting closer and gathering Sam to him. "Hey, what's up?"

Sam shook his head--if he tried to get Riley's name out of his mouth right now he wouldn't be able to do it without crying, and he was so damn tired of crying. He snuggled closer to Steve instead and swallowed a few times before he said carefully, "Sounds nice."

Steve hummed low in his throat, nuzzling at Sam's temple, but he said only, "Yeah, it is," and lay there with him, holding him close, until a gentle knock at the door announced the arrival of dinner.

It was dark under the trees when they headed back to Lindiwe's, though the sky still held color, a startlingly deep, vivid blue. The trees made black silhouettes against it, and all around them small things were chirping and clicking in the trees, the local versions of fireflies lighting up the darkness in occasional flashes of yellow and green.

The courtyard's pale stone seemed to glow with reflected starlight when they reached it, though Sam knew it was mostly that his eyes had fully adapted to the darkness by then. A handful of people were sitting on the stone benches by the fountain and rugs on the ground. Sam recognized Lindiwe by her bright white hair and the imperious gesture by which she directed him to sit beside her.

The stone was still warm from the day's sun, pleasant to sit on as the evening cooled; the drink Lindiwe passed him was warmer and had a promising bite to it. Sam felt a little frisson of oh, yeah, why haven't I been doing this the whole time? and resolved not to actually get drunk.

No one bothered making introductions, just picking up what seemed to be an ongoing conversation once Sam had taken his place on the bench, Steve relegated to a rug nearby. He extended one leg so that his foot leaned against Sam's, and Sam smiled at him, noticing all over again Steve's paleness compared to everyone else--he seemed to glow like the stones in the starlight, only his eyes disappearing into darkness under his brows, while everyone else was veiled in comfortable shadow.

The conversation was in Wakandan, though Sam thought it went sideways into French a few times. He watched Steve's face as Steve listened, sipping his drink and letting the voices wash over him.

After a few minutes Lindiwe leaned toward him and said low in his ear, "Onke is making an argument most of us have heard before about a skirmish fought when King T'Chaka was newly come into his power as the Black Panther."

Sam tried to sound intelligently interested without saying an actual word. Apparently this was just how Onke talked to everyone, though, or else everyone gathered here was part of the family for therapeutic purposes.

Lindiwe shook her head. "I was there, and I assure you, you are not missing much."

Sam turned his head to look at her, remembering that she had been one of the Dora Milaje.

"We were all trained not only as guards but as possible future queens of Wakanda," Lindiwe murmured with a small smile. "I was very determined not to be chosen for that duty though I feared none other, for I had already given my heart to Marika. I wanted nothing but to fight at her side until we were both sent to train the next generation of Dora Milaje."

Sam hadn't heard anyone say the name Marika; he hadn't seen any sign of a partner Lindiwe had retired with. He didn't dare to look over at her, turning his eyes down at his drink.

Steve's foot tapped against his, and Sam jerked his gaze up to see that Steve had tipped his face up enough for Sam to see his eyes, though in this light he couldn't see their color; they could have been as brown as Riley's. As Rhodes'.

"Did she," Sam said finally, very low.

"Not that time," Lindiwe said, shaking her head. "We had a few more good years together--and then an accident in training, of all things. I thought sometimes it was better to know for sure that I had lost her for nothing than to be always trying to judge whether the cause had been worth the cost."

Sam swallowed hard and didn't tell her that he had completed his mission the night he lost Riley, saved a life for the one taken away and to this day couldn't remember the man's name. He had wondered sometimes, whether that guy had been worth Riley, and he had been so glad not to know, not to be able to find out who he was and do the math. Better to know that he had completed his mission, the same as Riley would have if it had been Sam who went down, because that was what they were there for.

Sam took another sip of his drink and tapped his foot against Steve's. Lindiwe leaned gently into his side and didn't say more, or press him for a response. But when his cup was empty she refilled it for him, and Sam didn't tell her not to.

After a while he leaned back and looked up at the stars, dazzlingly bright above him. The conversation drifted into English for an argument about American football, and for the first time Sam realized that he recognized the voice of one of the men sitting on the ground: T'Challa was sitting there with a cup in one hand, patiently explaining how downs worked.

Sam looked down at Steve, who was weirdly impervious to all explanations of what was great about football--which was everything, compared to watching other people play baseball--and who had not mentioned to Sam that they would be hanging out with the King of Wakanda tonight.

Steve smiled up at him and tapped his foot twice, and Sam shook his head and pushed down off the bench, moving to sit by Steve. He set off a little flurry of people rearranging themselves--his spot by Lindiwe got claimed immediately by a young woman popping up off a nearby rug, making Sam feel vaguely guilty about monopolizing the space for so long.

Conversation broke up into people refilling drinks and remarking on the time, and the guy on Sam's other side leaned toward him and said quietly, "And how are you enjoying Wakanda, Sam?"

Sam looked over at T'Challa and tried to remember being sure enough of himself and his anger to give shit to a king with superpowers about dressing up like a cat. He tried to think of things he was enjoying here, and his brain promptly served up that afternoon's shower with Steve.

Sam looked down, glad of the darkness, and nodded. "It's... thank you. It's good." He knew enough not to say sir, let alone Your Majesty, in this company.

T'Challa nodded like Sam had managed to say something minimally coherent and polite. "If there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to ask."

Sam nodded again and leaned cautiously into Steve, who immediately wrapped an arm around his waist. Sam felt steadier that way.

He looked up at the stars again and thought I'm sitting on the ground in Wakanda and the king just offered me an unspecified favor.

It was actually not the weirdest thing that had happened to him in the last couple of years, but it would have blown his younger self's mind in a very specific way. He thought of Riley as he looked up at the stars, and then he thought of Rhodes. They had never talked about Wakanda, but Sam had a feeling that for all their differences, they had one thing in common.

Sometime long before the Air Force, Rhodes had also been a little black boy dreaming of being a big enough hero to be worthy of Wakanda. Sam had come as a refugee, and he still needed every bit of help everyone around him could give him, but he could spare T'Challa's favor for Rhodes, give something back. It wouldn't make up for missing his catch and having to watch another friend fall out of the sky, but it was the thing Sam could do right now.

"Actually," Sam said.

T'Challa turned toward him at once, and he felt Steve's attention turn to him as well.

"Would you... maybe, since you're going to allow more visitors anyway, could you..." Sam pushed the words out with an effort not unlike jumping out of a plane, "could you invite Rhodes to come and visit? Not... not just allow him, but ask him to come?"

T'Challa tilted his head. "I do not know that he would permit us to help him over Stark. Colonel Rhodes is a loyal friend."

Sam's stomach clenched a little at the thought of that particular package deal, the glimpse he'd had of Stark kneeling over Rhodes before Stark knocked him ass over teakettle pushing him away.

Sam shook his head. "Not for that. I just think he'd like to be asked. To have a chance to see this place."

T'Challa's smile was bright suddenly in the dimness, and he nodded. "I see. I think an invitation for a friend is not beyond my powers, then."

"Thanks," Sam said, and tilted his head back against Steve's shoulder, looking up at the stars again, listening to the conversations starting up again around him. There really was nothing like this view.