Sam starts to notice a pattern after the third time. He would wake up, glance at the clock- it was always 2:30 or 3:00 am or some other ungodly hour- and then choke slightly as thick clouds of steam wafted over his bed.
He would sit up to find the other bed empty, and the lights from the bathroom casting a dim glow throughout the entire motel room.
About half an hour later, just when Sam had finally started to drift back to sleep, Steve would come out of the bathroom, trying to be quiet-- and seriously, either the meaning of the words ‘’covert operations’’ had changed somewhat in the last seventy years, or Steve had figured out a way of eking out grace from his ungraceful body on the battlefield that he couldn’t find at home, but. The dude was about as stealthy as an ox.
Sam would crack his eyes open to see Steve, skin rosy pink, rubbing a towel roughly on his head. He would put his sweats back on, pull on another sweatshirt, and leave the hotel room. When he came back, clutching a local newspaper and their breakfast, he would have another shower.
By that point, Sam would notice that dawn was breaking and would give up on pretending to be asleep.
As soon as he noticed Sam was awake, Steve would smile broadly. “I took first shower,” he’d say with his best apple-pie-and-America grin “I didn’t think you’d be awake this early.”
The first time, Sam let it pass. They all had their idiosyncrasies, and if a grown man wanted to shower in the middle of the night-- well, it was kinda weird, but mostly harmless.
The second time, Sam felt a touch of his good will disappearing. It was all fun and games until someone lost their valuable sleep.
And by ‘someone’, he meant himself. Steve could probably go a week on three hours of sleep. He would, if Sam would let him.
The third time, in contrast, was not in the middle of the night. They had gotten caught up in a firefight just outside Prague- a former Hydra base that turned out not to be quite so former.
It had been close. Were it not for the suspicious tendency of Hydra operatives targeting Cap to die just before they got him, and by extension, Sam-- well, Sam isn’t quite sure they would have made it out of there alive.
As it was, Sam was bruised and scraped all over, and Steve was nursing a bullet graze on his left knee. It had bruised the bone, and the knee itself was a dark purple and swollen. It hurt Sam even to look at it, and he had managed to convince Steve that saving the data contained on the computers to their hard drive was enough, honestly, they didn’t need to go through all the paper stuff by hand , especially since this facility didn’t seem to be heavily connected to the Winter Soldier. There was no reprogramming chair there, for once.
Steve acquiesced relatively easily, which was a red flag if there ever was one. Sam sighed in relief and tried to look away as Steve soaked the operatives’ bodies and the facility floor in gasoline. Sam is under no illusions about what ‘Captain America’ will and will not do-- he has seen him kill so many times now, and he shows no mercy when confronted with a Hydra operative. In other circumstances, with other villains- Sam has seen footage, there was enough of it in SHIELD’s database that got loaded onto the internet- Steve is merciful, always willing to capture rather than kill. With Hydra, once he has discovered all they can tell him about the Soldier- and his methods of interrogation are harsh enough, not torturous but harsh- he has no use for them, and no mercy.
It is frightening, because it is human. In the hours after those battles, Steve is pale and withdrawn and young, and he will sit on a park bench or in a café and stare at the coffee and sandwiches Sam insists on buying, his right hand tucked inside his jacket pocket. Afterward, they will return to their hotel, and Steve will tell Sam that he should shower. Often, when Sam comes out of the bathroom, he will see Steve kneeling in the space between his bed and the wall, the soft click of rosary beads sliding through his fingers the only sound in the room.
This time is no different, except that Steve does not kneel- probably cannot kneel, with his knee the way it is- and he pauses at the bathroom door. “Mind if I take first shower?” He asks, with what he thinks is well-disguised desperation.
The man can’t lie for shit, but Sam isn’t gonna be the person who tells him.
“Sure, man, be my guest,” Sam says, waving his arm in what he hopes is an encouraging manner. He feels like shit, and is so tired that his vision is starting to wobble- he focuses on eating the two Big Macs he had ordered , primarily by doing a lot of smiling and pointing at the bored Czech teenager manning the counter. He hadn’t quite managed to communicate the “just the burger” part, leaving them with 6 Big Macs, 6 Cokes, and 6 large fries between them. Steve had chuckled at his efforts, but the bastard didn’t know any Czech aside from “run!” and “where is the road?” and that was not at all helpful in a food-ordering situation. Compared to that, Sam’s quickly-googled “Please” and “Thank you” were fucking miraculous, okay?
Sam finishes his burgers and flops on his bed, reaching for his laptop. He has an e-mail from Natasha, but it’s not marked urgent and so can wait until Sam has showered. There’s another from Marni, the therapist who's taken over his group, but the subject line is pretty innocuous- “coffee requisitions???”, and Sam chuckles as he remembers that, for the next little while, the aggravation of filling out forms to requisition coffee and donuts for their meetings is no longer his and his alone- and so it, too, can wait until he is clean.
One from his mom, who is reminding him to call Jeannie, it’s her 18th birthday tomorrow-- that gets answered right away. It doesn’t matter if he’s asleep, dead, or on a date- an email from Mama gets answered in 18 hours or less, or there will be hell to pay. She knows.
Inbox dealt with, Sam opens up Youtube. In Afghanistan, their internet access was spotty or non-existent at times, and so ain’t nobody allowed to judge a man for a little post-mission r&r, provided it’s legal and not hurting anyone. Watching videos of cats trying to fit into small spaces is better than drinking, right? Right.
By the time he’s hit his sixth video, his eyes are drooping. He can’t fall asleep yet, though-- he’s still in his clothes, and he smells like gasoline and gunpowder.
Rogers has been in the bathroom for over an hour.
Sam sighs and pushes himself out of bed with a groan. Limping to the bathroom, he raps sharply on the closed door.
“Rogers! You still alive? My teenage sister takes shorter showers than you!”
There’s no reply. Sam is actually worried, now, and so he opens the door.
A cloud of steam billows around him, and when it has cleared slightly, he can see Steve in the tub. He is curled on his side, his long limbs nested together so as to fit. It’s a shallow hotel bathtub, but goddamn if Steve hasn’t managed to submerge nearly his whole body.
His head is lolling against the tiled wall.
Sam would find the scene adorable, if (a) he was the kinda guy who called his friends adorable, which, actually, scratch that, he kinda was and (b) he wasn’t desperate for a shower himself. Plus, this was probably some kind of drowning hazard, and curled up like that-- the kid looked young, real young, and it shook him a little. War makes a person grow up fast, but Sam gets the feeling that the Depression had already done that job long before Hitler had a chance to.
He clears his throat. “Uh, Steve?”
Steve’s eyes snap open. “What? What’s happening? Do we have to move?” His brave words aside, he made no attempt at untangling his limbs or getting out of the bath.
“Nah, it’s cool, we’re good, no emergency,” Sam says soothingly. “Except the emergency of you, sleeping in the bath, when you came in here an hour and fifteen minutes ago.”
“-- the heat. It helps.”
Sam nods, deliberately misunderstanding. “Yeah, it’s great for your bones. Your knee probably needs it.”
“No, I mean-- we didn’t have this kinda thing when I was growing up. It’s a real treat, and it sorta-- it’s very 21st century.”
Sam sits on the bathroom counter. This was clearly gonna be one of those conversations. He was not nearly awake enough for one of those conversations.
“Oh yeah? I figured running water’d been around a bit longer than that. They’ve got it in Downton Abbey.”
Steve laughs. “Yeah, they might’ve done. And we had a cold tap in the bathroom. Lotsa places in Manhattan had it, and some of the newer buildings in Brooklyn, hell, a couple in Queens. But our tenement was all cold water flats, no heat, no hot water. Shared bathroom on the main floor, and a pump in the kitchen if you’re lucky. A bunch of those buildings were condemned in the 20s, but then the stock market crashed, and-- well. Guess the city figured they didn’t need help in creating more homeless.” His mouth twists a bit. “Bucky’s place had it, but his folks were a bit better off than us-- they even had their own bathroom! But they had about seventy kids in three rooms, which I guess made up for it. They’d probably have traded their bathroom for a bit of peace and quiet.”
He shrugs. “It’s just- it’s not something I woulda had. Coulda had, and it’s just-- I was never very good at the cold, even before I got frozen for seventy years.” His eyes grow darker, and Sam watches him intently. It’s never the things that you think. Sam ought to be triggered by heights, or falls, or flying-- but it’s Marlboro Reds, the only cigarette Riley smoked, and which he went through a pack of every time they went out, whether or not the rescue was successful.
Steve is quiet for a moment. He is clearly exhausted, his eyes bleary at the edges, his mouth slack. “Sometimes...” He sighs again. “Sometimes, I... I’m so sure this isn’t real. That I ain’t real. That I’m, I’m having a dream and I’ll wake up in the TB ward, or on-- or like Buck, on Zola’s table, maybe that’s it, maybe he’s experimenting, trying to get me to give him classified information with my dreams--” His voice is rising, growing tighter with each word, but Sam just nods. He’s learned that, in conversations like these, you let the vet take the lead. Steve is looking at him, though, expecting him to say something, so he does.
“That sounds tough,” he says honestly.
Steve let out a shaky breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess that’s one word for it. But I’d never-- this ain’t something I could dream or hallucinate. The showers on base weren’t hot, and there sure as hell weren’t any in the trenches. Maybe on leave, you might go to a hotel or a brothel, and once we were billeted in this English country house, but it isn’t something I’d ever got used to. So-- so this must be real. I couldn’t imagine it.” He looks uncertain, so Sam forces himself to smile.
“You couldn’t imagine yourself in a hot bath with a beautiful Black man next to you? Rogers, you need to dream bigger.”
Eventually, they go back home. They have chased a ghost through Europe and Northern Asia, until there are no more places for them to follow him to. Hydra has been wiped off the map, at least on this continent, and the few brief interactions they’ve had with the Soldier had been enough to convince Sam. Barnes’ mission wasn’t about Hydra anymore-- it was about Barnes, and the last few places they follow him to are grassy Belgian villages and German forests, and Steve gets tenser and tenser until he is forced to admit that four years ago, the ground here had been slick with mud and he had been with the Commandos.
Sam makes the decision, then. Barnes is finding himself, walking through the battlefield in his mind, and that’s not something they needed to be there for. You can’t save people if they don’t want to be saved.
At this point, Sam is of the opinion that Barnes doesn’t need to be saved. He seems lucid, the few times they see him-- mostly when he is pulling Steve out of the line of fire, cursing as he does so-- and if the locations and memorials here mean as much to Barnes as they do to Steve, well. Those memories have to be pretty strong.
Steve isn’t doing well. He isn’t sleeping-- and he may not need to sleep as much as a normal human, yeah, pull the other one-- but he does need some sleep. More often than not, Sam will roll out of bed at 7:00 and walk past the living room, where Steve will be sitting on the couch under a half dozen blankets, watching the shopping channel.
Other than that, he’s a great roommate-- he cleans daily, and cooks most nights-- he is slowly expanding his repertoire, and Sam only has to rescue him from a supermarket-induced panic attack twice before he teaches him about the great miracle that is online grocery delivery.
Sam isn’t entirely sure what he does during the day. He knows that he goes to the library, because books keep appearing in his living room that he definitely did not buy or borrow, ranging from history to science to Terry Pratchett to a GED study guide.
Sam asks him about the last one, and Steve shrugs. “I got my 8th grade; that was a lot back then. Ma wanted me to go to high school, but she was too sick. We couldn’t pay the Parish, and anyway I had to work.”
“So why now?” Sam asks.
Steve shrugs again. “The librarian. She was real nice, and we were takin’ about Asimov-- and she asked me where I went to school. I said St. Cecilia’s. She asked me if I’d thought about college, and then when she found out I didn’t finish high school... she suggested I study for my GED.”
“She know you’re Captain America?”
Steve shrugs. “I mean, my face has been in the papers, so she might’ve done. But I think she just thought I was a serviceman who was a bit down on his luck.”
Well, wasn’t that an understatement for the ages?
“You gonna do it?” Sam asks, curious.
“I might. It’d be good, having some qualifications. The world don’t need saving that often, I ought to have something else to do. I can’t sit on your sofa for ever.”
That seemed like progress, and Steve was smiling more-- but he still wasn’t sleeping, and Sam would often find the telltale traces of steam in the bathroom when he went in at 6:00 for his morning shower. Sam doesn’t mind, but his water bill is gonna be enormous.
Steve is... strange with money. Every now and then, he seems to remember that he has it, and goes on a wild spending spree on the internet and Sam ends up with 25 pairs of brightly coloured socks that he didn’t need, but which Steve would present to him with a bashful grin as though he had knit them himself.
Immediately after that, he becomes withdrawn, and Sam politely pretends not to notice the presence of a lockbox in his guest room. Sam has never seen a run on a bank, but he’s smart enough to know that it wasn’t pretty, and his Grandma had kept her savings in a lockbox like Steve’s until the very end.
He insists on paying Sam above market rent for his room, and buys half the groceries. Sam doesn’t need the money- his salary isn’t anything to write home about, but it pays the bills. The house used to be his grandma’s before she had to move into a nursing home. Sam had just got out of the army and was wearing a spot into his mother’s living room sofa, so he agreed when she offered him the place. With no rent, no mortgage, and no family to support, Sam figures he’s doing a lot better than most.
Thing is, Steve doesn’t want charity. Sam can understand that. The problem is, charity to Steve seems to extend to many things Sam would consider basic human kindness, like picking up your friend’s tab once in a while. He has no such hangups about doing things for others, and would never call those acts of friendship charity. It’s something deep, clearly, something ingrained, and Sam doesn’t have the time, the energy-- or frankly, the right, to go tearing about in his friend’s subconscious, looking for the root of this neurosis. Besides, it doesn’t take a smart guy to figure that growing up disabled in the Great Depression probably fucked a guy up pretty good.
None of that seems to apply to the use of water. When Sam gets home from work, the house is slightly steamy more often than not, and Steve is sitting on the couch, his damp hair sticking up in cowlicks. Sam has to resist the urge to ruffle it.
“Do you think Senator McCarthy was Hydra?” Steve asks that night over mac and cheese.
Sam pauses, swallows his macaroni, and sets down his fork. “I mean, probably? It would make sense. But I wanna be a bit careful, because not all the guys like that could have been Hydra- some of them were just weak, or bad people, you know? Like, I don’t think that Hydra founded or propagated the KKK- those were just regular shitty people.”
Steve nods and plays with his fork. “I get that. It’s just, a lot of the books I’ve been reading-- I’ve basically had to give up on 20th century history or politics, because I just keep thinking ‘is he Hydra’? Is she? Did he know? It gets a bit exhausting.” He smiles tightly. “You know, the only reason I got the serum was because I said I didn’t want to kill Nazis.”
Sam raises an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound like any World War Two that I’ve ever read about.”
Steve laughs softly. “No, I’d guess not. But that was what Dr. Erskine asked me-- if the reason I kept trying to join up was because I wanted to kill Nazis. I didn’t know what to tell him. So I told the truth.”
“And that was?” Sam asks, when it becomes apparent Steve isn’t going to say anything else of his own accord.
“That I didn’t want to kill anyone. But that I didn’t like bullies.” He chases a noodle around his plate. Sam has to force himself not to find it endearing.
“I hate thinking about that. It’s a lie now, anyway.” Steve looks up from his plate, and his eyes flash. “I want them dead. I want all of them dead. Before I-- before I died, I thought that I-- I burned them to the ground. That’s what I wanted. All I wanted.” His smile twists a little. “It’s a good thing I didn’t die, anyway. Or that Buck and I didn’t. We wouldn’t have gone to the same place, after that. He’d never wanted to be there- he got drafted, and God forgives killing in the name of a just war, as long as you don’t take pleasure in it. But wrath? That’s a fucking mortal sin.”
He falls silent, and Sam lets the silence fill the room. Some things just need to be said.
It should surprise no-one that Steve is a fan of strategy games. His laptop is more than decent, one of his periodic concessions to extravagance, and Sam will occasionally walk by the living room to see Steve frowning in concentration and muttering under his breath. Once, he hears a string of violent curses that has him mentally preparing for a battle before he gets to the doorway and sees Steve glaring daggers at his computer screen.
“The fucking English invaded again,” Steve says without looking away from his screen. “Goddamned Proddie bastards.”
Sam arranges his face into what he hopes is a serious and sympathetic expression. “Right. What game is this, again?”
It’s some kind of empire building game, and Steve is currently fighting a fictional Oliver Cromwell for what he informs him is the third time that century.
The level of bile is frankly hilarious, as is the seriousness with which Steve assures him that the English cannot be trusted.
‘Wasn’t your girl English?” Sam asks, trying to hide his laughter.
Steve glares at him. “She’s an exception.”
Sam tells himself he should let it go, but it is honestly the funniest thing that has happened to him all week. “And one of the Commandos was English, right?”
“Falsworth,” Steve says seriously. “Was also an exception.”
They both get invited to Jeannie’s graduation ceremony. Or rather, Steve got invited, and Sam got ordered to come along and ‘bring his roommate with him’. Neither of them have much in the way of formal clothing, and despite Steve’s clearly reluctant offer to wear his dress uniform, they both end up in Macy’s on a Saturday afternoon, poking through racks of suits.
Steve is clearly looking for something- every suit he picks up gets inspected, the label carefully read, before it is returned to the rack. After five minutes or so of this, Sam can’t resist any more.
“What are you looking for?”
Steve glances up from the label he was inspecting. “What? Oh. Union bug. Can’t find them anywhere.”
“The label. It looks a bit like a bug, I guess.” Steve straightens and puts his hands on his hips, frowns slightly. “None of them have it, though.”
Sam raises an eyebrow. He’s never really looked. He is hit with a sudden flash of memory-
following his Grandma through a Kohl’s, Christmas 98 or 99, 15 and full of anger. She had taken twice as long as they needed to, easily, going through each and every garment and checking the labels. When Sam had groaned, she had fixed him with a sharp glare.
“The ILG got me where I am today, paid for your Momma’s fancy education and the roof over your head. Least I can do is return the favour.”
He had forgotten that. Not for the first time, he is struck with the thought that Grandma would have loved Steve.
“Yeah, there’s probably not too much of it here, man. Most of this stuff is made overseas.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I know that, I just hoped-- I don’t know. They’ve got unions overseas, we didn’t invent them or anything.”
Sam presses his lips together and avoids mentioning that, well yes that is probably true, it would kinda defeat the purpose behind multinationals moving their production overseas in the first place. While he personally finds Steve’s rants endearing, he doesn’t really feel the need to inflict them on the unsuspecting Saturday shoppers.
Instead, he studies him carefully. “This is really important to you, huh?”
Steve frowns. “Well, yeah. If my mam knew that I was about to spend five hundred dollars on a suit that wasn’t even union made, she’d come back to earth just to box my ears.”
Sam raises his eyebrows. “That intense, huh?”
Steve looks at him seriously. “Sam, Ma was a great lady, but she taught me precisely three things. Always look out for your neighbour, go to Confession even if you’ve done something embarrassing, and if you’ve got money, you buy union.”
Well, that was that, then.
They end up getting an ice cream so that Sam can fiddle with his phone. He vaguely remembers his grandma getting newsletters every year that had lists of places that sold union in them, and they probably still exist somewhere.
Steve is concentrating pretty heavily on his small mountain of hot fudge, and Sam has to cough to get his attention.
“You found one?”
“Sorta. Well, I got good news and bad news. The good news is that Hart Marx suits are union made, and they sell them at the Nordstrom in Arlington. The bad news is that I’m boycotting that Nordstrom, so we’re gonna have to figure out something else.”
Steve finally looks up from his ice cream. “Why are you boycotting it?”
“Last time I was in there I was trying to buy Lucy some earrings for Christmas. I say trying ‘cause they had a guy tailing me around the store, so I left without actually buying anything.”
Steve lets out a low whistle. “No shit? Guess we gotta find somewhere else, then.”
They end up deciding to order online, and spend the rest of the afternoon wandering through the park like the old men that Rogers, at least, definitely is. They are sitting beside the fountain, watching little kids run around, on, and sometimes in it, when Sam decides to ask a question that’s been bothering him a lot recently.
“Dude, are we dating?”
Steve sits up straight, eyes widening. “Uh-”
“-I mean, it’s fine if we are, that’s cool, you’re a very attractive man, and this wouldn’t even take the record for the least sex I’ve had in a relationship, my high school girlfriend was one of those promise ring types, but I just thought we should clear that up.”
Steve looks slightly scared. “I don’t think we’re dating,” he says slowly. “Have I been leading you on?”
Sam waves a hand. “Nah, it’s all good. Just making sure so that when mom tries to accuse me of hiding something from her, I can honestly assure her that I’m not. She’s always had a suspicion about me, when Lucy came out I was 13 and she spent about half the evening assuring her as loud as she could that she would love all her children no matter what. She then had the same discussion with me the next day when she dropped me off at school.”
Steve laughs. “That’s actually really sweet.”
“I mean, in retrospect, hell yeah it is. At the time it was incredibly embarrassing.”
Steve sits back on the bench. “Mam wondered about me, I know she did. She said-- well, every Catholic mother hopes her son’ll be a priest, but she said that that was the best thing for me to do, what with my lungs and my back, and that I ‘wasn’t the marrying kind’.” He laughs softly. “Look at me know, Ma!”
Sam looks at him steadily. “Not the marrying kind?”
Steve fidgets. “I mean, I wasn’t much to look at, girls weren’t interested. She meant it kindly.”
He is visibly searching for the right words to say, and so Sam averts his gaze.
After another minute or so, he speaks. “When I was real little, 5 or 6, I told her that Buck and I were gonna get married when we grew up. She laughed, and said that all little boys think they’re gonna stay with their best friends forever. But I think-- by the time she died, I think she knew.”
He takes another deep breath, and his face is tight. “I loved Peggy, I really did. Ma would’ve liked her. But it was always gonna be Bucky. We had this-- this impossible dream--” He cuts himself off, and Sam reaches into his bag and offers him a water bottle. He grasps it like a drowning man with a life preserver.
“--It was just a story,” he says after a minute. “After the war, that kinda thing. Everyone did that.”
“Still do,” Sam says when it becomes apparent that he is not going to continue without prompting. “We did it all the time. What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you get back home, et cetera. Usually involved a lot of beer and strippers.”
Steve snorts. “Yeah, us too. Maybe less with the strippers and more with the cathouses, but sometimes it was more serious, you know? Morita was gonna get his family out of the camp, Gabe was gonna finish his degree-- Falsworth was gonna run for Parliament of all the damn things--”
He stops again. “But Buck and I-- We were gonna get married. To different people, obviously. Buy houses on Long Island, right next to each other. He’d be a mechanic, he was always real good with his hands. I’d go to art school. We’d have a baseball team’s worth of kids between us.” He shrugs. “It was dumb, but it got us through.”
Sam heart breaks a little. “Hey,” he says, placing his hand lightly on Steve’s shoulder. “It’s not dumb. Whatever works for you, you do it. That’s the only rule.” He squeezes gently. “And I’m real sorry. I wouldn’tve made the joke if I thought it was gonna bring up some stuff for you. I didn’t know.”
“Nobody knew,” Steve says after a minute. “Well, that ain’t quite true. The people who mattered knew, or at least suspected. Buck’s sister knew. Some of the guys in the bars. The Commandos—I don’t know if they knew, but I like to think that they would have approved, if they had.”
Sam nods, and they fall into a companionable silence.
“It feels good, saying it out loud,” Steve says eventually. “When they—after I woke up, I had to go through these, these checklists, you know, have you experienced x y and z, and if so to what extent. Nightmares, flashbacks, that kinda thing. One of them was for risky sexual behaviour.” He smirks. “I wanted to ask the shrink if going to queer bars in the 30s counted, but it didn’t seem the time.”
Sam laughs, and feels a weight lift off his shoulders. Steve is gonna be ok.
Jeannie’s graduation is beautiful. She is valedictorian, and her speech is funny and warm. With her hair drawn up off her face in elaborate braids, she looks much older than her years, and Sam’s smile stutters when he realises that his baby sister is growing up.
The whole family is there, a small crowd of Wilsons that takes up an entire two rows of chairs. Lucy’s partner Julie is heavily pregnant, and his mama keeps stealing half-affectionate, half-amazed glances at her belly. Devin is in his Navy dress uniform, the cocky jerk, and Selina’s makeup is done up so well you’d never know she’d just pulled a 12 hour shift in the ER.
Steve has been absorbed into their midst, despite his protestations that he could just stand in the back, no really, he didn’t want to be a bother. Lucy had grabbed his arm and escorted him firmly to the chair between her and their mom, who had smiled gently at him and offered him some of the chocolate covered almonds she kept in her purse. Devin kept staring at him, then catching himself and looking quickly away. It was adorable, frankly.
Dinner that night was a rowdy, raucous affair, and Sam quickly found himself absorbed in the ebb and flow of the conversation. He had missed this.
Steve is quiet, watching the interplay with a soft smile on his face. Lucy, ever the good hostess, keeps trying to draw him into the conversation- but he answers her questions simply, politely, and then listens with a smile to their responses.
Dessert is Jeannie’s favourite- angel food cake piled with peaches and whipped cream, and the late summer evening is dusky and warm. Half the block, it seems, have dropped by to congratulate Jeannie- and her Mama for finally getting the last one out of the nest- and the backyard is buzzing with people.
“So, Steve,” Mama says at one point, “Sam told us you’re from Brooklyn.” She is very good at speaking as though Steve isn’t Captain America, because while it’s true that he had mentioned Steve and Brooklyn in the same sentence, it’s also true that every high school history textbook in the country mentions that Steve is from Brooklyn.
Steve smiles genially. “Yes Ma’am. Born and raised.” He takes a sip of his drink. “Well, raised anyway. I don’t know that Ellis Island necessarily counts as Brooklyn.”
And that is just ridiculous.
“You were an Ellis Island baby?” Sam asks incredibly. “Dude, how did that not make it into the propaganda. Born on the Fourth of July on Ellis Island, Jesus Christ.”
Mama smacks him on the arm. “Sam!”
She turns back to Steve. “Where were your parents from, then?”
Steve smiles. “Mam actually came over by herself, during the Rebellion. Cork was destroyed, the English had burned it to the ground, and her husband—my father—had died in the war. The Rogers knew the Dunleas from the old country, and they had a bit of money. They hired Mam to nurse their son, and they fell in love, so the story goes. He adopted me, but I don’t remember him well. He died when I was five.”
“Your mother raised you by herself, then? She must have been a very impressive woman.”
Steve smiles sweetly. “She was that. She worked in a TB ward at the beginning of the Depression—but they let most of the nurses go in ‘32. She took in washing, but her lungs weren’t great. Ain’t much you can do for TB except fresh air and rest, and she didn’t have any of that.” He shrugs. “Great lady, though.”
“She passed away? I’m sorry to hear that, Steve.” She looks genuinely concerned, and Sam once again feels a swell of affection towards the woman who raised him.
“Yeah, but I was almost grown. Could’ve been a lot worse.” Steve looks down at his cake. “I like to think she had a good life.”
The table is silent for a moment, the air heavy with ghosts. Sam thinks of his dad, who was a good man, a good preacher, who had been killed too soon and too needlessly. He would’ve liked Steve. It was hard not to like Steve.
His mom nods decisively, and changes the subject. “My mother- Sam’s grandmother- was from New York, actually. She worked in the garment district most of her life—do you know Victor Garments?”
Steve furrows his brow. “You know, I think I do…” He says slowly, and just like that, they are off.
They drive home that night in a companionable silence. Sam is slightly tipsy, and full of the warmth that only comes from far too much food and pride. Even Steve, who is driving, seems more relaxed. His shoulders are loose, and he seems almost happy.
Which is, of course, when it all goes to hell.
They pull in the drive of Sam’s house—of their house, Sam guesses, although that’s weird as hell to think about—and Steve tenses. “There’s someone here,” he hisses.
Sam feels all of the warmth leave him immediately. “Where?”
“Bushes. 10 o’clock. Just the one, I think.”
He reaches into the backseat where his shield is lying in its carrying case. “I got this,” he says in the same tone of voice as before. “You stay here.”
“Oh, like Hell am I staying here,” Sam begins, but he stops when Steve gets out of the car. In the entire length of their friendship, Steve has proven to not be very good at waiting for the ends of sentences.
He hears Steve’s intake of breath from inside the car, and suddenly, desperately wishes he had his firearm, but it’s locked up inside the house. Maybe if he runs, he can get inside fast enough—
He stops, because Steve isn’t running, or jumping, or winding back to throw the shield like some kind of decapitating Frisbee. He is still. In the moonlight, he could be made of marble.
Bucky Barnes is standing in front of the bushes. His greasy hair has a dead leaf in it, and his sweats are ripped and several sizes too big.
Sam opens the door of the car just in time to hear Bucky say “Surprise?”
They bring him indoors, and while Steve goes upstairs to find Bucky some new clothes and draw a bath, Sam heats up some soup on the stove and makes a pot of coffee, keeping up a low, meaningless babble the whole time.
“Steve’ll be so happy, it’s about time he has someone to complain about to. Hot water and kids these days, with their wild haircuts. It’s been a long year.”
This makes Bucky laugh. “He doesn’t have a leg to stand on if he’s complaining about haircuts. He refused to put anything in his when we were younger, said it gave him a rash.” He looks slightly worried as he says this, as though he is uncertain that he is correct. “He had hair like a – like a baby duck.”
Sam snorts. “I’m gonna like you,” he decides. “And Steve likes you too, I bet he wouldn’t make you go on an afternoon-long search for union-made suits.”
Bucky laughs, a dry, cracked sound. “Oh yes, he would,” he says shortly. Sam slides a bowl of hot tomato soup in front of him, and he begins to inhale it greedily before Sam slides the bowl away again.
“If you don’t go slow, you’ll puke on my nice clean carpet. Nobody wants that, right?”
Bucky makes a noise deep in his throat. Sam chooses to take it as agreement, because the alternative means that Bucky Barnes, an assassin and a fully grown war hero, just growled at him.
He slides the soup back, just in case.
Finally, Steve comes downstairs. His face is red and slightly damp, as though it has been ran under the tap. He sits down across from Bucky, and Sam hands him a mug of coffee.
“They stopped publishing the Daily Worker,” Bucky says after a minute. “Bet your old boots are worth a mint now, they must’ve had half the catalogue in them by the end.”
“Catholic Worker’s still publishing, though.” Bucky continues, and looks up at Steve through a curtain of hair.
Steve looks at him, really looks at him, and suddenly Sam feels like an outsider in his own home. He considers retreating to the living room, but decides against it. He’s pretty sure these guys have always been explosive, and that giving Barnes literal firepower probably didn’t help.
“Yeah,” Steve says quietly. “Yeah, there’s a chapter nearby, but I didn’t think—they were against the war, you know.”
Bucky looks away. “Yeah. Yeah, I remember.”
“Do you?” Steve asks quietly.
Bucky does not answer.
Steve sighs and runs a hand over his face roughly. “Look, Buck, I don’t—you don’t gotta do this. You don’t gotta be here. For me, I mean. If you—if you need more time, or if you want someone else to—it ain’t about me.”
Sam is struck, once again, by the innate goodness that is in Steve. He knows how much it’s costing him to say that, to stand there, braced for a response.
Bucky finishes his soup and reaches for his coffee. His movements are slower, heavier than they were—He’s probably feeling nauseous. It had just been half a bowl of soup, but who knew how long it had been since he had last eaten.
“Where else would I go, Steve?” he asks quietly. “Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t want me here, one word an’ I’m out the door. But I- I do remember. Some things. Most things. Not much from—after—not yet, but most of before.”
“Yeah?” Steve asks hoarsely. His expression is guarded.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, “Like that time in ‘34 I hid a dollar in your library book and tried to convince you some rich guy must’ve used it as a bookmark.”
Steve’s mouth twitches. “I told you not even rich guys were fool enough to do a thing like that. Where’d you get the money, anyway?”
Bucky shrugs. “I dunno, that part probably wasn’t that important. Might’ve swiped it, to be honest.”
Steve shakes his head a little. “You were such a moral degenerate, that’s what Sister Catherine always said.”
Bucky presses his lips together. “Yeah, well… Point is, I’m not so good now, but I know what’s real. More or less, I mean. And you, all the stuff from then? Your Ma? The twins writin’ down everything that happened at the baseball game when you was too sick to go yourself? That ain’t gone away. Reckon that was down so deep not God himself could touch it.”
“James Barnes, bite your tongue,” Steve murmurs wonderingly. “I don’t know if I want to kiss you or kill you.”
“Well, I figure we’ve about done with the killing part,” Bucky says uneasily. “Guess we could try some of the kissing, though.”
And… oh. Sam really didn’t need to be there. They weren’t about to kill each other, and any physical or mental first aid that he could provide probably paled in comparison to whatever… this was. It seemed to be working, anyway. Barnes looked, if not relaxed, then a pretty close approximation of comfortable. For the first time since they’d met, Steve didn’t seem like he was about to shatter into a thousand pieces. He should—oh, yep, they’re kissing, cool, that’s fine, Sam is cool with that, they’re attractive men and older than Methusaleh, what they want to do in the privacy of their own—well, the non-privacy of Sam’s kitchen is up to them, Sam is leaving now.
He pauses in the doorway to announce, generally, to the room at large, that he is going upstairs to watch a movie with his headphones on, and that if there isn’t any hot water left the next morning I will personally end you, Rogers, before going to his room and doing just that.
If this were a movie—if life was a perfectly crafted narrative structure, well. Steve makes a pretty good hero, but Barnes is a shit damsel in distress, and Sam is pretty sure that in the films the damsel never wakes up with her hands around the hero’s throat, and the hero doesn’t lose track of himself and the exit points in a supermarket until he emerges, tight with anxiety, with a block of cheese he almost certainly didn’t pay for. Also, in that movie Sam is probably comic relief, not the star of his own, heartwarming redemption flick.
The point is—the narrative doesn’t end there, the heroes full of hope for the future and finally shaking off the burdens of the past. Sam doesn’t bat an eyelash when Bucky moves in with them, the guy’s been sleeping under a bridge and he and Steve are both due a hell of a lot of outpatient therapy on the government’s dime. He hooks Steve up with Sara, a charming Latina who takes precisely no shit, and puts in a good word for Bucky with Chuck, a Vietnam vet with greying hair and a permanently genial expression.
He puts up with them, and their fighting and kissing and frankly appalling flirting. He allows spies- multiple spies- into his home voluntarily, although when he says that to Steve he pushes him on the shoulder and tells him to relax, it’s just Natasha, and Sharon’s a sweet girl, really.
(Sharon is very sweet. Sharon works in DC. Sam might have a date with Sharon on Tuesday night. Sharon can stay, he guesses.)
The only thing he asks is that they not fuck in the bathroom. That’s it. He’s not a rich man, although the rent Steve pays more than covers food and utilities. He just can’t afford to replace his bathroom when two supersoldiers inevitably destroy it. Is that so wrong?
To their credit, they agree, and they even abide by the rule for a whole six months. And when they break it, they only do some very minor damage to the faucet and taps, which Bucky assures him he can have fixed the next day.
The worst part of it is, looking at their damp and earnest faces, and they’re 95 and 25 and neither all at once—well, damn it, he can’t even find it in himself to be mad.