In the end, they don’t find Bucky. They’re in Phoenix, chasing a lead Natasha sent them on a guy seen lurking around a senator, when Bucky finds them. Just shows up in the room they’re renting one day, like it’s normal for a guy in a coat too heavy for a Phoenix summer to break into a Holiday Inn room.
Or maybe he came through the window. The doorknob’s not ripped off or anything, which Sam is grateful for, since they’re paying for the room and all.
“Hey,” Sam says, taking a shuffling step towards the desk - more specifically, the gun in the desk drawer.
“Bucky.” Steve sounds stunned. “Bucky, are you - is it you?”
“No,” the Winter Soldier - Bucky? Sam doesn’t know - says in a raspy voice. “Not yet.”
That sounds promising. It almost sounds like he’s not planning on killing them. “Why don’t we all sit down,” Sam says, “and we’ll talk about this.”
That’s how he and Steve end up sitting on one bed, shoulder to shoulder, while Bucky sits cross-legged on the other bed. He’s not picking at the comforter or avoiding eye contact, two classic avoidance maneuvers Sam’s seen in dozens of vets. Then again, Bucky’s not exactly a typical vet. It’s been weeks since Natasha sent them intel on the Red Room, equal parts purloined SHIELD files and her own experiences, laid bare for Sam and Steve to learn. Sam’s pretty sure they don’t let you fidget in the Red Room.
“What happened?” Steve says. “Why are you here?”
“Senator Longhorn might be HYDRA.”
“You can’t just kill him,” Steve says. “Bucky -”
“That’s not my name.”
“Then what is?”
Bucky’s silent for a long time. Finally he says, “Call me Bucky. But I’m not him.”
Steve’s face goes soft. A little too soft, Sam thinks, for this kind of work. “I know.”
“I wasn’t going to kill him.” Bucky looks at Sam this time, a glare that almost makes Sam recoil. “I wanted information.”
Sam’s pretty sure that means torture. Then again, the Winter Soldier’s done worse, something he and Steve are now well aware of.
“What kind of information?” Sam says.
“HYDRA bought me.” Bucky looks away from them both, nervousness finally showing on his face. “Bought and sold from the Soviet Union in the 80s. I found files. They were left for me.”
"Natasha," Steve says.
“Most likely,” Bucky says. “The Widow.”
“She’s gone straight,” Steve says. “You could, too.”
“I have,” Bucky says. “I haven’t killed anyone.”
“But you wanted information,” Sam says.
“Who I am. Who I killed.” Bucky looks at Sam again. “You already know.”
“You’re not gonna get it out of me,” Sam says, making his voice as gentle as possible. “Not until you’re ready.”
“And who’s to say when I’m ready?”
“Tell you what,” Sam says. “I’ll let you know.” He can feel the weight of Steve’s gaze on him, but he just looks at Bucky steadily, until Bucky looks away.
“I wanna go back to New York,” Bucky says. “If I can remember anywhere, it’ll be there.”
“It’s all changed, Buck,” Steve says. “Mama Lena’s pizza is gone, that ice cream parlor, even the tracks are different. Everything’s changed.”
“I know,” Bucky says. He stands then, abruptly, his fluid movement a little scary even though Sam knows they’re not in danger. “Go back to New York,” Bucky says. He stops, half-looking over his shoulder. “I’ll find you.”
Sam lets out a breath when the door clicks behind them. “Wow,” he says. “That guy’s scary.”
“Do you think he’ll ever remember?”
Sam looks over at Steve. The guy’s a hero, and he’s not naive. But in spite of that, the hope in his face breaks Sam’s heart. If Riley ever came back -
But Sam’s not gonna think about Riley. “Maybe,” Sam says. “All we can do is try.”
Steve nods heavily. “And try, and try.”
“You got it.”
Steve stands. “I’m gonna get Chipotle,” he says. “You want your usual?”
“Sure,” Sam says. “I’ll get online, buy us tickets back to New York.”
“We can stay at my place,” Steve says.
“You think that’s safe?”
“My new place.” Steve pulls a face. It’s cute, Sam thinks before he can shove the thought down. “SHIELD doesn’t know about it.”
“Cool,” Sam says. “Well, we can fight off HYDRA if we need to, anyway.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Steve says. But he leaves with a little smile on, which Sam figures is as good as it’ll get for awhile.
Sam half expects to see the Winter Soldier on their flight back to New York, but of course they don’t. It occurs to him to wonder how Bucky’s going to track them down if Steve’s apartment is off the HYDRA-grid, but the sensible part of him figures the Winter Soldier’s better than the guys who comprise the world’s most ambitious wannabe dictators.
He’s not sure what he’s thinking Steve’s apartment will be like, but somehow, he wasn’t expecting a totally normal third-floor walkup in Brooklyn. Steve’s furniture is from IKEA, and his appliances are modern. He moves with ease, going to the kitchen to get some water from a Brita pitcher in the fridge.
“I don’t come here often,” he says, “but a friend down the hall housesits for me.”
“A friend down the hall?”
Steve hands Sam his own glass of water. “Not a SHIELD agent - or, she wasn’t, when SHIELD still - anyway. I have a lot of back pay.” He looks out the window above the sink. “I just couldn’t quite let Brooklyn go.”
“I hear you,” Sam says. He takes a sip of water. “I’m gonna do my best with Bucky, but I can’t make any promises. Even if it seems like I’m making progress - sometimes, when people get a little better, they get a lot worse.”
Steve nods. “And commit suicide.”
Sam blinks. He wasn’t expecting Steve to actually say it.
“I have a membership on the internet,” Steve says, “to a library that has journals. I did some reading on shell shock.”
“Post traumatic stress,” Sam says. “That’s some heavy reading.”
“I needed to know,” Steve says.
If Sam wasn’t already harboring less than innocent thoughts, he’d touch Steve right now. As it is, he knocks back some water and says, “Makes sense.”
“I’m scared,” Steve says. He looks over at Sam. Most soldiers would be challenging, ready to be belligerent based on the other person’s reaction. Steve just looks honest, as honest as he did that first day in DC. “He wants to remember. What if he never does?”
Sam considers it. It’s as big a question as he can think of, the kind of question that it never would’ve even occurred to Sam to ask before the pararescue: can a brainwashed soldier treated with a magic-seeming growth drug recover who he was before all that? Sam’s had to ask himself some hard stuff since being fitted with his wings, but this is a little much even in terms of the new way he’s had to think.
Finally he says, “Well, you became friends with him once, didn’t you?”
“We were kids.”
Sam gives in this time and nudges Steve a little. “I know, I went to the exhibit,” he says. “But you stayed friends up ‘till he - fell. Whoever he is now, you can try being friends with that man, too.” He sets his now-empty glass in the sink, then goes into the living room. “You’re easy to be friends with,” he says, sacking out on the couch. “Do you get ESPN?”
“The sports channel?” Steve makes a face. He’s refilled his water, probably because it takes a lot to fuel him. That body. Which Sam is definitely not thinking about in those terms. “It’s very…busy.”
“You wanna be a modern man, you should watch it,” Sam says. He grins at Steve, trusting Steve to know they don’t have to.
Sure enough, Steve hesitates before smiling a little. Well, more like twitching his lips, but Sam’ll take it. “Sure, why not,” he says, settling down on the couch.
He takes the other end, but they both end up sprawling by the time they’ve watched most of the Bulls-Knicks game that’s on. Steve’s interested in basketball, asking Sam all kinds of questions. Sam’s only ever half followed it, so he can’t answer all of them. But he does his best.
“I’m a football kind of guy,” Sam says.
“What about baseball?” Steve says.
“You a Yankees fan?”
Steve makes such a face that Sam laughs. “I know you’re not,” he says. “But the Dodgers are in LA now.”
“I could be a fan of an LA team,” Steve says. “It’s better than the Yankees.”
“Baseball’s not bad,” Sam says. “I could be convinced to go to a game.” He nudges Steve’s calf with his foot.
“There’s plenty of time,” Steve says. “Though I understand the experience is a little different now.”
“Remind me to tell you about the tax status of sports teams sometime,” Sam says. “There’s a fun topic.”
Steve nods. “After I’ve read a few more economics books.”
Sam blinks. “Seriously?”
“Stark pointed me to them,” Steve says. He sounds kind of wondering. Sam shares that emotion. The idea of Tony Stark giving economics recommendations is weird. “He’s trying to help me out.”
“That’s nice of him,” Sam says, trying to sound casual. Neutral, even.
“I’m not sure I want his help,” Steve says. “But it’s a start, I guess.”
“It’s not all Republican, pro-business, Alan Greenspan stuff, is it?”
Steve laughs a little. “He told me I wouldn’t like that. No, it’s more - neutral, I suppose. Though I can’t say I like what the government’s doing now.”
“You and me both,” Sam says. He yawns. “I’m guessing you don’t have any beer.”
Steve shakes his head, then says, “Oh - or food.” He looks around, like it might just materialize. “We could order?”
“Get your iPad,” Sam says. “There are a million places in Brooklyn. Pizza and beer work for you?”
“I can’t -”
“Get drunk, I know,” Sam says. “I’m not looking to throw a rager. But it still tastes good, right?”
“Good point,” Steve says. He gets up and rummages through his bag, pulling out his iPad triumphantly. “I’ll order.”
He’s done this a lot since Sam started hanging out with him, being the one to do whatever requires technology. Sam’s not gonna argue. For one, he’s lazy. But also, he knows how much it helps Steve.
And he did a version of it, back when he was still figuring out how to live without Riley. For awhile his mom wanted him to go to the hospital, but instead Sam stubbornly cleaned his apartment, ran all his own errands, refused to get delivery. Left the house every day, until finally he started being bored, through the grief. Then he started working with the VA.
And now he’s Captain America’s - what? Partner, he guesses. It’s kind of hard to think of Steve as Captain America right now, though, when he’s sitting cross-legged in slacks, scrolling on his iPad.
“Pepperoni okay?” Steve says.
“Put some olives on.”
Steve gives Sam a look.
“Okay, man, pepperoni,” Sam says. “Someday I’ll drag you into the twenty-first century of pizza.”
“We had olives when I was a kid,” Steve says. “I just didn’t like them.”
“True,” Sam says, “But the modern American is all about options.”
Steve puts the iPad aside. “Delivery in an hour,” he says. The iPad goes dark. Sam’s never known Steve to use a computer for longer than it takes to complete a specific task. “I don’t like American supermarkets.”
“Who does? You know, they have that lighting to trick you into buying more. You get all dizzy, then you make bad choices.”
“I do like mac and cheese, though,” Steve says, even as he’s nodding in agreement with Sam. “That’s a good invention. We never used to buy it - it didn’t taste that good.”
“I’ll bet,” Sam says. “Well, it’s good now, if you like your food addictive and terrible for you.”
“I like food, period,” Steve says.
“How many’d you order?”
One for Steve, and part of one for Sam, with leftovers. Sounds about right. “Cool.”
Steve hesitates, then says, “This apartment’s a three-bedroom, you know.”
“Me, you, and the Winter Soldier? Sounds dangerous.”
“That’s what I mean,” Steve says. “You’re dangerous.”
“Not as much as the two of you.”
“No. But you’ve got my back.”
Sam does. “Sure,” he says. “I’ve just got a couple duffels, anyway.”
After about forty-five minutes, there’s a knock on the door. Sam gets up to answer, saying, “Coming!” But when he looks through the peep hole, a zitty kid with two pies isn’t standing there. Bucky is.
Sam opens the door, obviously. “Come on in,” he says.
“I brought things,” Bucky says. He takes a step in and stands in the entryway, stiffly. “Clothes. Gloves.”
“You don’t have to wear gloves when you’re here,” Sam says. “Hell, we might be able to fit you with a better prosthesis. Stark tech means they’ve got ones that look like the real thing.”
Bucky gives him a flat look. “I don’t want that.”
“Okay,” Sam says.
Bucky hesitates visibly, then says, “A better prosthesis might be good.”
“Noted,” Sam says, nodding. “I think we can do that.”
“Good,” Bucky says.
“Come on in,” Steve says, standing up. His gaze darts from Sam to Bucky. He’s obviously wondering if Bucky’s planning on staying.
Bucky lifts his bag. It’s a military bag, made of rough canvas. “This is an adequate safe house.”
“Great,” Steve says. “That’s why I picked it.”
“Good,” Bucky says. “I looked at the schematics.”
“The room at the end of the hall has the most windows,” Steve says.
Bucky nods and goes down the hall, not even looking at Sam.
“Well,” Sam says. He’s starting to question the wisdom of this plan. Steve’s watching Bucky with wide, sad eyes, like Bucky took his favorite toy. And Sam - Sam’s not the type to get hung up on a guy who’s taken. But if they’re going to help Bucky, part of that will be Steve realizing that the Bucky he knew is gone. Permanently. Even if they can help Bucky be a new version of himself.
“I’m gonna talk to him a lot,” Sam says, as gently as he can. “I know you love him, but -”
“You’re a counselor,” Steve says. “And I’m too close to him. I know.” He closes his eyes briefly, then pinches the bridge of his nose. It’s a deliberate movement, and Sam wonders what kind of outburst he’s holding back. “I know I can’t - I know. Okay?”
“All right,” Sam says. “As long as we’re clear.”
“Crystal,” Steve says.
The pizza chooses that moment to arrive. Sam answers, gives the guy his tip, and then brings the pizza to the kitchen island. Steve’s got plates in one of his cabinets, ones Sam’s pretty sure also came from IKEA. Sam serves Steve two slices, all that’ll fit on his plate, then serves himself. He’s taking a bite when Bucky comes in.
“I already ate,” he says when Steve opens his mouth.
“Okay,” Steve says, and folds his pizza, taking a huge bite.
Bucky focuses on Sam. “You were a VA counselor. Are you going to continue?”
“Steve and I are laying low for awhile,” Sam says. “Since SHIELD’s gone and HYDRA’s looking for the culprits, it seemed smart.”
“Steve can help me,” Bucky says. “You can help me, too.”
“That’s what I was thinking.” Sam doesn’t mention what a good sign it is that the thought occurred to Bucky, too. “We can start tomorrow.”
Bucky nods. He gives Steve another long look, totally opaque, then goes back into his room.
Sam lets out a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding. This is what happens, he can imagine Riley saying, when you get involved with guys. Riley was a white boy, loud, and made Sam laugh more than anyone else in the regiment. He was carefree, open as a book, didn’t even blink when Sam came out to him. And now? Now he’s gone.
Sam’s going to try to be a therapist for the Winter Soldier. He’s not even licensed. He takes another deep breath.
“It’s not too late to back out,” Steve says. He’s gotten two more slices of pizza, but is watching Sam with careful eyes.
“I know,” Sam says. “You ever back down from a fight?”
Steve makes that little not-quite-a-smile again. “No.”
“We have that in common,” Sam says, and takes his pizza to the kitchen table. Something tells him Steve’s not the type to eat sprawled on the couch.
Steve sits down across from Sam. “This is a good pie.”
“You ordered from here before?”
Steve shakes his head. “But it had stars on Yelp.”
“Cool,” Sam says.
They’re making small talk, and Sam knows it. But this is part of figuring out how to be friends with someone - never mind the fact that that “someone” is Captain America. Things are kind of tense right now, because neither of them is perfect, and Steve’s going through a lot. And, well. So is Sam. He looks at Steve and he feels like he did with Riley, only worse; he never wanted to fuck Riley, for all that their relationship was pretty gay otherwise.
Sam’s bi, and he could go find a stacked blonde woman - or guy - if he thought it was just about getting Steve out of his system. But he knows it’s not. This kind of connection is rare, and Sam wants to keep it, even if it means he ends up having an inconvenient crush.
“So,” Sam says. “What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”
“Going for a run,” Steve says. “And the building has a weight room, so I thought I’d use that. After that -” He shrugs. “I figured I’d go to Central Park, do some character studies.”
“You draw for real? I figured that was a PR thing.”
“I wanted to be an artist,” Steve says. He shakes his head a little, self-deprecating. “Then the war came.”
“Can I see them?” Sam says, then instantly regrets it.
But to his surprise, Steve says, “Yeah, sure. Hang on.” He rinses his plate and puts it in the dishwasher, then goes to his room. He comes back out with a notebook. It’s just a plain sketch pad, but Sam feels a little nervous when Steve slides it across the table to him.
“Let me put my plate away. I don’t want to get pizza sauce all over your drawings.” Sam stands up and puts his plate in the dishwasher. He’s going to put the pizza away, but Steve hops up. “I’ll get it,” he says. “I’ve got some bags, I can put them in those.”
So Steve’s nervous, too. Huh. Sam says, “Sure thing,” and sits back down, pulling the sketch pad to him.
The first drawing makes his throat catch. He doesn’t need the Smithsonian exhibit to know that the woman depicted with clean lines and gentle shading is Peggy. “Nice,” he says, trying not to let any emotion bleed through in his voice.
“First thing I drew,” Steve says. “A year ago now.”
Sam nods and turns the page. There are buildings he doesn’t recognize on this one, what he assumes are places in New York. “Nice lines,” he says. “Ever think about going into architecture?”
“You’ve got to get schooling for that,” Steve says, and Sam can hear the ghost of growing up poor, with almost nothing.
It’s an experience he can’t really imagine, so he just turns another page.
More buildings, people in a park that Sam assumes is Central Park. A drawing of Bucky, which Sam passes without comment. Oddly enough, lots of drawings of electronics - robots that Sam assumes are Stark’s, plus tablets and televisions. It’s Steve’s way of exploring, Sam thinks - making sense of a world he’s not familiar with yet.
Sam’s coping mechanisms mostly involve reading all the books he can get his hands on, and avoiding the ones that strike too much of a chord. That, and old cars - which, he thinks with a slight sense of wonder, are still newer than the cars Steve grew up with.
“Nice,” he says when he reaches the blank pages. “You’re really good.”
“I had a lot of time to practice,” Steve says. He takes the sketchbook when Sam offers it. “Since I spent so much time sick in bed. It probably didn’t help that I was bookish. Bucky always said -” He shuts his mouth, glancing towards the hallway.
Sam knows when to not push. He says, “Hey, there’s a park near here, right?”
“I think so,” Steve says.
“Want to go kick a ball around? I played varsity soccer.”
“Soccer,” Steve says. “Bucky -”
“Can probably take care of himself,” Sam says. “And might appreciate the space.”
Steve stares at Sam for a long moment, then very deliberately shrugs. “Why not? Sure.”
They buy a ball and go to the park. Sam’s long since given up on the idea that he’s going to beat Steve at any kind of athletic event. But he’s got the advantage of having played soccer before, and while Steve figures it out quickly, they’re not exactly competing. Just kicking it back and forth, stealing it from each other, laughing when it goes over the fence. Steve’s the one who hops the fence - a seven-footer - and retrieves the ball from the street.
They play for a long time, until it gets dark, the park’s mostly deserted, and Sam’s getting tired. Steve doesn’t look particularly winded, but when Sam plops himself down on the ground, leaning against the fence, Steve sits next to him.
“This is nice,” Steve says. “Kind of - almost familiar. Even though I don’t play soccer. Didn’t.”
“Things change,” Sam says. “The whole world changed for me when I started doing pararescue stuff. They teach you how to salute and fly a plane, and that hasn’t changed much even with all the aliens, war on terror…” Sam waves a hand. “All of that.”
“But?” Steve says.
“But then I got the wings,” Sam says, “and suddenly, aliens coming through the sky and Stark’s Iron Man suit weren’t just stories on the news. It was reality, strapped to my back.”
Steve nods, but there’s still a question in his expression. Which is fair; Sam’s not explaining himself that well. “Things change,” he says again. “But the guys I was flying with, they were just like the guys I flew with before. Aliens and all that shit, that’s rough stuff - but wars are still wars. People are people, even if they’re from Asgard, even if they suddenly have ten million dollars of tech strapped to their backs. I’ve never time traveled, but I assume it’s the same for you. The whole world changes, but people don’t. Not really.”
He’s not uncomfortable with making a bit of a speech; he runs therapy groups, after all. But he’s never felt as justified, as rewarded, as he feels when Steve nods, shoulders losing their tension.
“Exactly,” Steve says. “That’s exactly it.”
Sam nudges him a little instead of answering out loud. They sit against the fence for awhile, shoulder to shoulder. Finally, Steve says, “We should get back.”
He sounds a little reluctant, which isn’t a surprise. Bucky’s a big burden to carry, even if Sam knows Steve’ll carry him the rest of his life, if he has to. Sam would’ve, if he could’ve. He knows what it looks like. “Sure,” he says, and stands up, offering Steve a hand.
Steve clasps his hand, warm and solid, and pulls himself to his feet. They walk back to Steve’s apartment together, the soccer ball under Sam’s arm.
Sam nearly drops it when they get inside, because Bucky’s standing at guard five feet from the door, a knife in his hand.
“Bucky,” Sam says, slowly shifting into a defensive stance.
Bucky looks at Sam, then at Steve, then back to Sam. Steve’s standing there like a deer in headlights.
“You left,” Bucky says finally. His voice is lighter than Sam would expect. Almost vulnerable.
“We did,” Sam says. “We should’ve told you where we were going, huh.”
Bucky tucks the knife back into a high holster. “And when you’d be back.”
Good; Sam’s guessed right. “Next time, we will,” he says. “I’ll tell you every time one of us leaves, okay? And we’ll knock before we unlock the door.” He glances over at Steve.
Steve nods quickly. “We will.”
“Good,” Bucky says, and stalks back to his room.
Steve walks through the opening leading to the kitchen and leans down, elbows on the countertops, head in his hands.
Sam puts the soccer ball behind the couch, then goes into the kitchen. He’s careful to make every movement slow, unhurried, even when he puts a hand on Steve’s back.
Steve shudders. He’s not crying, not yet, but Sam can see it just under the surface. It’s like an animal clawing at Steve’s throat, a helpless rage trying to get out. Sam knows that look. He still gets it, some nights.
They stand like that for a few minutes, together. Then Steve straightens, with perfect posture, and looks at Sam. “I’m going to go to bed.”
It sounds almost like a question. Sam doesn’t let his mind run wild thinking about what kind of question it might be. “See you in the morning, Cap.”
Steve nods once, then makes his escape. That’s what it is: a hurried rush towards his room, closing the door a little too hard.
Sam sighs and looks up at the ceiling. The ceiling doesn’t have any answers for him, so he goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth. It’s only nine-thirty, but he’s going to put himself to bed. Steve’ll be up at dawn; Sam might as well get up then, too.
By the time he gets up the next morning - his body wakes him up at dawn, like clockwork, and he rolls out of bed right away - Steve’s already mostly through making eggs and toast. Without comment, he slides some eggs and toast onto Sam’s plate, though he reserves most of the massive omelet for himself. “I thought about making Bucky food,” Steve says in a low voice, “but…”
“He can handle himself,” Sam says, to comfort Steve as much as anything else. He’s not totally sure that’s the truth, but sometimes the truth isn’t the most important thing.
“Sure,” Steve says. “I just wish I could help.”
“You’re helping,” Sam says. “Let’s eat, then we’ll go for a run.”
Steve nods. Sam digs into his eggs, relieved.
Before they leave, Steve knocks on Bucky’s door. Bucky yanks it open, looking at Steve expressionlessly.
“We’re going running,” Steve says. “You can come, if you want.”
“I already went,” Bucky says.
“Okay,” Steve says. “We should be back in an hour.”
Bucky nods and slams the door in Steve’s face.
“That went well,” Sam says as they go downstairs.
“I think so.” Sam bends down when they get to the street, stretching. “Eight blocks north, three west, eight south, three east?”
“Works for me,” Steve says.
“See you on the flip side,” Sam says, and starts running. It’s less than a minute before he loses sight of Steve.
It’s kind of nice to have some time to himself. He’s not going to beat himself up for thinking that; Steve’s present in a way most people aren’t, period. He’s there, aggressively, and draws your eyes like a human sun. Part of that is the legend, but part of that is that Steve carries the legend really, really well.
Loud noises still make Sam flinch. He still has dreams about losing Riley, about watching blood fly through the air as Riley plummeted to the earth. He’s not whole, healthy, or hale; on a good day, he manages two of the three. And yet here he is, chasing after Steve Rogers. A roomful of Iraq and Afghanistan vets who watched their buddies die in humvees is less intimidating than trying to head-shrink the Winter Soldier, and yet Sam’s going to try. For Steve. Not for Captain America, even, but for Steve Rogers, his friend.
Damn, Sam thinks, and tries to pick his pace up a little.
Steve passes him four times. They meet in front of Steve’s apartment just as the hour is expiring. Sam’s dripping sweat; Steve looks chipper as a baby bird. He practically bounces up the steps. Sam can see the exact moment when the endorphins fade and Steve remembers who’s waiting upstairs.
Oh, well. At least they both got a bit of a break.
Bucky’s sitting on the couch when they walk in. Well, technically he’s sitting. His legs are crossed and his back is ramrod straight, and he’s staring out the far window like he can kill the pigeons on the balcony with his gaze. “Hey,” Steve says.
Bucky nods once, not looking their way.
“I’m going to go out,” Steve says, “to Central Park. I’ll be back by dinner time.”
“What time is dinner?” Bucky says.
His voice isn’t raspy at all. Sam wonders if he talks to himself.
“Let’s say seven,” Sam says. “I’m gonna hang out in the apartment.”
He half expects Bucky to bristle and protest that he doesn’t need a babysitter, but he just nods again. The nods are rough, like his head is being jerked by a string. Sam says to Steve, “You want first shower?”
Steve nods. “Be right out,” he says, and goes down the hallway.
Sam’s starting to see that hallway as some kind of symbol. Of what, he hasn’t quite decided yet.
He doesn’t sit on the couch, out of respect for the fact that it’s relatively nice and Sam’s covered in sweat. Instead, he settles on the floor against the TV stand and says, “He has a nice place.”
Bucky stares at him. Sam looks back. It’s not that he’s not scared; he is, of course, scared of the Winter Soldier, who could kill him before Sam could make a move to defend himself. But if he acts scared of Bucky right now, all that’ll prove - to Bucky - is that Bucky’s too dangerous to be seen as a person.
“Modern,” Bucky says finally. “It’s modern.”
“That’s a positive sign,” Sam says.
Bucky’s lips curl. It’s not enough of a facial expression to be a sneer, but it’s an expression that definitely wants to be a sneer. “Are you his therapist?”
“I’m his friend,” Sam says. “I can be your friend, too.”
“You want to head shrink me.”
“Sure,” Sam says. “But that’s better than the alternatives.”
“Threatening me won’t work.”
Sam holds up his hands. “That’s not a threat. I couldn’t get you in front of a real psychologist with an army, I’m pretty sure. But whatever your alternatives are - this is a decent one, you see what I’m saying?”
“Why does Rogers trust you?”
That’s a pretty heavy question, and Sam gives it the consideration it deserves. “We’re soldiers.”
“So am I.”
Sam knows that pointing out that Bucky’s been fighting on the wrong side would be pretty counter-productive. Instead, he says, “That’s why you’re staying with us.”
Bucky looks at Sam. “I’ve killed countless people. They put the missions in my head this time. To remind me if I fail.”
“I was a very convenient killer.”
“You’re not going to kill Steve,” Sam says.
“How do you know that?”
“You missed your chance, man. You could’ve killed him. You were stalking him. Instead, you pulled him out of the water. Unless the serum means he was gonna magically grow gills, you saved his life.”
“I know,” Bucky says. “I was there.”
“My point is, you’re not gonna hurt him, and I doubt you’ll hurt me. We’re here to help you.”
If Bucky glared any more, his eyes might fall out of his head. “And if I’m beyond help?”
Bucky might’ve had the roughest time of anyone Sam’s counseled, but that doesn’t mean he’s never heard the question before. “Then you’ll find a different road.”
Bucky might be thinking the question over. Then again, he might just be glaring at Sam to glare at him. Finally, Bucky says, “I thought about just ending it.”
“Most people do,” Sam says. “Sooner or later.”
Bucky shakes his head. “Not a man like me.”
“From your time? A lot of people did. You missed a lot of history, being frozen and all.”
Sam decides to drop that for now. “Steve doesn’t have any food. After I shower, wanna go buy him some?”
“I’m not particularly inconspicuous,” Bucky says.
“Toss a coat on,” Sam says. “Don’t tell me you’ve never done undercover work before. I won’t believe you.”
Bucky opens his mouth to answer, but Steve pokes his head out of the hallway. “Shower’s free,” he says. He looks between the two of them like he wants to ask a question, but disappears before Sam can attempt a non-verbal answer.
“Catch you in a few,” Sam says, and goes to the bathroom.
As it turns out, Bucky’s kind of a mess when it comes to the grocery store. He glares at the overhead lights and turns the oranges around in his hands like he thinks they’re loaded with cyanide. Sam keeps it as normal as possible, getting pasta and tomatoes, green peppers and rice, all the things he can use to assemble simple meals. He avoids both the Hamburger Helper and the fancy steamer meals; he figures there’s plenty of time to introduce Cap and Bucky to 21st century cooking.
Bucky glares at the pasta sauces as they pass them for olive oil. But Sam figures he can’t totally insulate the guy.
“I could pay,” Bucky says when they’re at the self check-out.
Sam can’t hide his double-take. “You have a debit card?”
“I have four,” Bucky says. “And they all have money.”
Sam’s not even going to ask. “Thanks, but I’ve got it,” he says, and pays the bill.
It’s pretty funny to see Bucky carrying six plastic bags of groceries to Steve’s apartment. Sam’s got his own bags, but Bucky insists on carrying a bunch of them. Sam figures it’s one way the guy can pull his own weight.
They pull all the groceries away, and Sam says, “So, I’m guessing you don’t really have any hobbies.”
Bucky eyes him suspiciously.
“Right,” Sam says. He tries to think of what he should do, something that’ll get Bucky to open up more than he did before. Maybe he shouldn’t push it for now.
“The water,” Bucky says, just as Sam’s getting ready to hang out on the couch with a book and ignore Bucky entirely.
Sam looks up from Steve’s shelves. “The water?”
“It’s dirty here.”
“Yes,” Sam says slowly, not sure where Bucky’s going with it.
“I like it anyway. I might remember it.”
Sam turns the information over in his mind, then says, “We’ll go down there tomorrow. How about we just chill today?”
“Yeah. You know, hang out.”
Bucky looks like the concept has never occurred to him in his entire life. But finally, he nods and settles down on the floor, at the end of the couch farthest away from Sam. Sam picks up a book of poems and settles down on the couch, thumbing it open. It’s a post-WWI anthology, civilian poetry. It might strike too much of a chord, it might not, but Sam’s interested in poetry.
And - yeah, okay, he can admit it to himself. He likes knowing that Steve has this book. Maybe he’s read it. It’s contemporary to him - maybe he read these poems as they came out, in magazines and books.
Or maybe Sam’s just dreaming. But they’re good poems.
Bucky’s been sitting still and not doing anything for about an hour when he says, “Television.”
“You wanna watch?”
“A movie,” Bucky says, “or the news.”
Sam wonders if Bucky watched TV while tracking them, alone in his hotel room. “Sure,” Sam says, and grabs Steve’s remote, flicking through until he finds TCM. It’s midway through Roman Holiday, which seems as good as anything else. “This okay?”
“This movie is old.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Would you rather watch something new?”
Bucky stares at the TV for a long time, then shakes his head.
“Cool,” Sam says, and goes back to his poetry.
He finishes the book by the time the movie’s over. Bucky stares at the credits like they’re gonna tell him some secrets, then looks over at Sam.
“Venezuela,” he says. “1960. There was a possibility that guerilla movements were going to be persuaded to lay down arms. I killed the leader of that movement in his bed, and slit his four children’s throats.”
Sam’s been expecting something like this, a defensive attempt to push him away. So he says only, “You were ordered to.”
“I should’ve fought it off.”
“I’m not an expert,” Sam says. “Far from it. But my understanding is that you were brainwashed. Your memories were taken away, and then you were trained, tortured, into being a weapon.”
“The way I see it, that stuff’s not your fault,” Sam says.
“I feel the guilt.” Bucky says it in a flat voice. “It was easier when I just had the mission.”
“Sure,” Sam says. “But if you feel the guilt, you have a chance to do good now. You want to throw that away?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky says. “Can a tool want things?”
“A person can,” Sam says.
Bucky doesn’t reply.
Sam makes them lunch, and has dinner started by the time Steve gets back. Bucky reluctantly eats both, sniffing the fish at dinner like he thinks Sam might’ve slipped some poison on it when he wasn’t looking. Steve doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask how their day was, just eats and then watches as Bucky goes back to his room.
“It was a productive day,” Sam says in response to Steve’s questioning look.
Steve nods, minutely. “I’ll do the dishes.”
They watch ESPN until it’s time for bed. It’s repetitive and dumb, but in a comforting way, Sam thinks; a part of the 21st century in easily digestible chunks. Around nine, he stretches and says, “All right, I’m heading to bed.. You good?”
“I’m good.” Steve hesitates, then stands up with Sam, clasping him on the shoulder. “Thank you,” he says, staring at Sam intently.
The full weight of Captain America’s thanks is a little much to handle, Sam thinks. “Hey, no problem,” he finally says. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
Steve looks at his hand on Sam’s shoulder and removes it, very deliberately. Sam goes to his room before either of them can make things more awkward. He’s very deliberately not going to wonder what that was all about; it’s most likely that it was just Steve reaching out, anyway, searching for a connection. Not what Sam wants it to be: a come-on, or at least the beginning of working up to a come-on.
Sam has two types of nightmares. The first type are the more straightforward ones, the ones where Riley dies and Sam’s powerless to stop it, reliving reality over and over. The second ones are hauntings, faceless terror and pain. Sam imagines it’s a little slice of hell, all for him.
He has both kinds that night. He doesn’t even realize he’s yelling until he wakes up with a metal hand over his mouth.
That makes him start. Bucky lifts his free hand to his lips in a shushing movement. Since he can’t do anything else, Sam nods.
Bucky takes two very deliberate steps back and stands with his arms at his side. “You were yelling.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Sorry, man. Sometimes I have nightmares.” This is a good opening for Bucky to tell him if he has nightmares - only, Sam’s not exactly up to being a counselor right now.
“You should be quieter,” Bucky says. “I am.”
“Okay,” Sam says. “Cool. I’ll try.”
Bucky nods and leaves, closing Sam’s door behind him silently.
Sam rolls over. He’s been sweating, like he does a lot with nightmares, and sleeping on his side will let him air out a little. He closes his eyes again and tries to think of things that aren’t shapeless terror - or terror in the Winter Soldier’s shape.
He and Steve go running again that morning, after letting Bucky know where they’ll be. Sam’s ready to immediately go back into Steve’s apartment, but Steve stops him with a hand on his arm.
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay with him,” Steve says.
“You’re not just my support,” Steve says. “You’ve got your own stuff to deal with. I want you to know - that’s okay, and I’m prepared to spend time with Bucky if you need to leave the apartment every now and then.”
“Thanks, man,” Sam says finally. “I’ll take you up on that.”
Steve nods. “Good.”
They go upstairs together. Bucky’s sitting on the couch, writing in a spiral-bound notebook. He doesn’t look up when they come in, so Sam leaves him alone for the time being. He gets first shower today, and when he comes out, Bucky and Steve are occupying opposite ends of the couch.
“How are things going?”
“I’m recording missions,” Bucky says, still without looking up. “Steve’s drawing.”
“Okay,” Sam says.
“I’m going to take a shower,” Steve says. He gives Sam a worried look - one that Sam’s not sure what it’s supposed to communicate - and brushes past him.
“You should go out today,” Bucky says. “I’ve done reconnaissance. There are no hostiles of note.”
“Thanks,” Sam says. “You want to spend time with Steve?”
Bucky finally looks up then, pen stalling on the notebook. “I knew he liked to draw.”
Ah. “Sure, I’ll go out,” Sam says. “Probably do me some good.”
Bucky nods, then goes back to writing.
Sam’s not really sure where he’s going. He doesn’t know New York, and he could look up coffee shops or whatever on GMaps, but he kind of wants to let the spirit of the moment guide him. He’s cutting through an alley to avoid the mass of tourists at the corner when he notices he’s walking past the back of a mechanic’s.
What the hell, he thinks, and walks up to them. “Hey,” he says. “That a 2006 Corolla?”
“It is,” the mechanic says. He’s white and grizzled, but he doesn’t look at Sam like Sam’s an intruder. “You know cars?”
“I like ‘em older, but I can fix up the newer ones,” Sam says.
The guy nods at the chain on Sam’s neck. “You a vet?”
“Two tours,” Sam says.
“Gulf War, myself,” the guy says. “You know, one of our mechanics cut and run yesterday.”
“How would you feel about giving me a shot?” Sam says.
“I could do that,” the guy says. “I’m Jerry.”
“Sam,” Sam says, and steps into the garage. “What do you need working on?”
“Lee’s working on a 2011 Escalade,” Jerry says. “Transmission’s shot. We’ll see what you can do with that one.”
Sam nods and goes further in. He’s not expecting to see a white woman, but that’s who he finds bent over the Escalade on the far end of the garage. “Hey,” Sam says.
“Busy,” she says. Then she looks up. “Did Jerry just hire you off the street?”
Sam’s not sure if he’s supposed to be offended. “Something like that.”
“He’ll do that,” she says. She’s got a bandana over her hair; she holds out her hand. “Lee. How much do you know about transmissions?”
“A bit,” Sam says. “Let’s get to work.”
He leaves four hours later, greasy and tired. He goes straight back to the house without texting Steve, figuring he and Bucky are still doing buddy catch-up, or maybe just staring at each other; Sam’s not sure what to expect. But he knocks carefully before going in.
Bucky’s gone. Steve is on the couch, drawing something that looks an awful lot like Sam’s wings. “Hey,” Sam says. “Rough day.”
“Bucky left,” Steve says. “He says he can take care of himself.” Steve looks up at him, and his eyes widen. “What happened to you?”
“I’m a part-time mechanic now,” Sam says. “See? I told you I have hobbies.”
Steve looks away. “Bucky doesn’t.”
“Let me get changed, and we’ll talk,” Sam says.
Ten minutes later, he’s back in the living room. “You know, the second time we met, you told me you don’t know what makes you happy.” He nods at the sketchpad. “Is this one of them?”
“At first I just drew to figure things out,” Steve says. “You know that, you’ve seen them.”
“I have.” Sam sits down on the couch - the middle cushion, close to Steve. “You know, when they recruited me, I thought I’d just be doing a bunch of suicide missions.”
Steve smiles a little. “You think what we did on the helicarriers wasn’t a suicide mission?”
“That’s the thing about them,” Sam says. “I went behind the lines exactly twenty-three times, and I made it back after each of them. After awhile, I started feeling…off. I’d gotten ready to die too many times.”
“So that others might live,” Steve says.
“Is that also the motto of the Falcon project?”
“It is for all pararescuers, and that’s what I was,” Sam says. “So the question you gotta ask yourself is, when you live - if you live - what are you gonna do? You have to have a reason to get out.”
“I had a reason,” Steve says. “I just couldn’t leave without Bucky.”
“I’m seeing that,” Sam says.
And then - it’s selfish, and he knows it’s selfish. But he has to know. He’s not going to hang his heart on Steve Rogers, not now or ever. But he still has to know. “Are you in love with him?”
Steve’s not the type to give an old-timey anti-gay outburst. And sure enough, Steve just says, “There were men, a few. But not with Bucky. He was a brother to me.”
“Plenty of brothers-in-arms get the lines mixed.”
Steve shakes his head. “Not me and Bucky.”
Sam resists the urge to push back more. Now’s not the time and he knows it. “Sure,” Sam says. “Well, for what it’s worth, neither were me and Riley.”
“It still hurts, though,” Steve says.
“I hate to break it to you,” Sam says, “but it always hurts.”
“I’m getting that,” Steve says. For just a second, Sam sees the sadness he saw that first day, the loneliness. He wants to erase it.
Keep your eyes on the mission, soldier, he thinks to himself. Out loud, he says, “What do you want for dinner?”
“What can we have?”
“Figured I’d make a hash.”
Steve makes a face. “Not corned beef?”
Sam laughs. “It doesn’t have to be.”
“Then please, no.”
Sam cooks up the potatoes and the meat, chopping enough vegetables to feed a small army. It’s probably hoping a little too much that Bucky’ll show up to eat his home cooking. Who even knows what the guy’s eating on a day-to-day basis. They barely have him on a leash at all; Sam gets the feeling it would be more than a little easy to spook him. It’s not until the vegetables are cooked down and the potatoes are soft and crispy that Sam says, “So what’d you guys talk about?”
“He made me close the window,” Steve says. “Said the air was getting to him.”
“It can’t smell like Brooklyn did in the 40s.”
“Believe it or not, the breeze off the Hudson hasn’t changed much,” Steve says. “I’m not sure if he was remembering, or - not.”
“Who knows, with his type of memory loss,” Sam says. “Natasha’s file was incomplete on that.”
“The tech’s been kept secret.” Steve shakes his head. “We should’ve known. We should’ve done something.”
“I’ve had four men die on my watch,” Sam says. “I’ve got the best medical training you can get outside of being an actual doctor. Bullet wounds, shrapnel - all kinds of stuff. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do.”
“Do you think he’ll ever be Bucky again?”
Sam’s the one who was trying to push Steve into killing the guy - or at least saving his own skin, even if it meant killing the Winter Soldier. He’s spent more time with Steve now and understands that the idea didn’t even cross Steve’s mind as something he’d ever be willing to do. Steve’s not a realist when it comes to Bucky, but -
“No,” Sam says. “He might be Bucky again, but he won’t be your Bucky. You’re probably not the same as you were before your war, either. And that’s leaving aside the memory loss.”
“I wish he’d tell me.” Steve takes the fork Sam hands him and stabs his hash a little over-zealously. “He won’t talk about his memories.”
“Maybe there’s nothing to talk about,” Sam says. “Little flashes her and there - he might just want to put the pieces together a little more.”
“Maybe.” Steve shakes his head. “Look at me. I send you out so you can get away from us for awhile, and the second you’re back, I’m dumping all over you.”
“It’s fine,” Sam says. “That’s why I’m along, right? Support.” What he doesn’t say is that Steve’s issues are a great way for Sam to not dwell on his own. “I met a mechanic today. Jerry. He saw my tags and gave me a job.”
“That’s great,” Steve says. Sometime in the last minute, he’s eaten nearly all of his hash. Good thing Sam made a double batch. “So you’ll be fixing cars during the day?”
“Part-time,” Sam says. “Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. It won’t pay all our bills.”
Steve shrugs. “I know how expensive therapy is,” he says. “Fury told me.”
“When he was trying to pressure you to go?”
Steve’s wry smile is all he needs to know. “How’s he, anyway?”
“No dispatches from Europe,” Steve says. “And I haven’t seen or heard from Natasha, either.”
“You said this was a safe house.”
“Not from her,” Steve says. “If she wanted to find me, she would. She’s the one who moved all my money from SHIELD accounts into my own.”
“So she could track you?”
“She keeps tabs on me,” Steve says. “Like a sister, I guess.”
“Everyone’s got their talents.”
Sam’s going to make some reply, maybe even witty enough to startle a laugh out of Captain America, when the front door opens and Bucky slips in.
“Food,” he says.
“There’s plenty for you,” Sam says. “I don’t eat like you serum guys do.”
“It’s just nice to be able to eat without worrying about indigestion,” Steve says. “I had all kinds of problems, back then.”
Bucky has a plate - apparently recon included getting the layout of the apartment - and is spooning food onto it, his back not quite to them. “Food was worse,” he says without making eye contact with either of them.
“It was,” Steve says. “Though it hasn’t gotten that much better for the poor.”
“Speeches later, eating now,” Sam says. “We’ll start the Captain America food bank after we get rid of Hydra, okay?”
“Is that what you’re doing?” Bucky says. He takes a defiant bite of the hash. “In this apartment, with me?”
“Call it a stretch goal,” Sam says. “The end-game after the end-game.”
“I’m not totally sure that makes sense,” Steve says.
“Just go with it,” Sam says. But Steve’s making that little half-smile again, so Sam grins back at him.
The next week passes exactly like the first few days did. Sam’s not sure if Bucky’s getting better or not. They haven’t had a heart to heart since that second day, and Steve doesn’t seem to be getting much closer. Steve and Sam go for runs and use the weight room, Sam works on cars and tries not to be too loud when he has nightmares, and Steve draws and sticks close to Bucky, a shadow Sam’s not sure Bucky wants to shake. Sam can feel them building up towards something, and he doesn’t like the feeling in the air. He’s validated when he comes home from the garage one day and Bucky’s got Steve pinned to the wall, his metal hand around Steve’s throat.
“Okay,” Sam says slowly, edging into the apartment and locking the door. “Why don’t we talk about what just happened here.”
“He wants to turn me in,” Bucky snarls.
“That’s not what I said,” Steve says. He looks over at Sam, a note of panic in his expression. “It’s really not.”
“He mentioned Stark.” Bucky’s hand tightens. Steve gags. “I know who Stark is.”
“Why don’t you put him down,” Sam says, “so this doesn’t get ugly.”
Bucky doesn’t move.
“He’ll fight you,” Sam says. “And he’s stronger than you. He’ll win. You don’t want that.”
Bucky turns to glare at Sam. It’s the perfect opportunity for Steve to get free, but he just waits, gasping for air.
Bucky lets him go. Steve thumps to the floor, and Bucky steps away.
“Why did you mention Stark,” Bucky says in a flat voice.
It’s not a question - at least, his tone doesn’t say it is. But Sam can recognize an interrogation when he’s in the middle of one. “Steve?”
“I thought it would help,” Steve says. “The arm, it’s not great, and Stark’s prosthetics are the best on the market.”
“That’s a big step,” Sam says. “One I’m guessing you weren’t ready for,” he adds, nodding to Bucky.
Bucky stays utterly still.
“Right,” Sam says. “Well. How about you and me talk once every couple days, and then if you want a better prosthesis, you can bring it up to Steve. Does that sound okay for everyone?”
Steve nods. “Sorry, Buck,” he says quietly.
“I’ll be back by tomorrow morning,” Bucky says, and stalks out.
“Do I even want to know where he’s getting his cash?” Sam says.
“My guess is no,” Steve says. He’s slumped a little, like he’s trying to curl in on himself.
Sam knows it’s a risk. Not just that Steve will turn him down, but also that he’ll call Sam on his crush, or whatever this is. But he didn’t get into pararescue because he’s one to back down from a challenge, so he says, “How about we go out? Just you and me. Hit up a bar, maybe do tapas. Live a little.”
“Is that safe?”
Sam shrugs. “Bucky seems to think so. Wear a hat if you need to. We’ll just be two guys.”
“Just two guys,” Steve says. “Okay, yeah. I can do that.”
“Great,” Sam says. “Let’s roll.”
Sam just threw the idea of tapas out to catch Steve’s interest; he’s still not exactly well versed in what this corner of Brooklyn has to offer. But they’ve only gone a couple blocks when they stumble onto a tapas place.
“I’ve never had tapas,” Steve says, looking hopefully at Sam.
Sam’s stomach flips over, but he also can’t help but laugh. “That routine work on the ladies?”
“I haven’t tried it on the ladies,” Steve says. “But I figure it would, yeah.”
“Well, it’s working on me,” Sam says. He tells himself that Steve doesn’t know what he’s doing. Maybe he’s just one of those guys who flirts with everyone. “Let’s go.”
They get intimate seating in a candle-lit corner. It’s not quite dinner time, so it’s quiet, and suddenly Sam is fiddling with his napkin and trying to ignore how awkward he feels.
Steve, luckily, doesn’t seem to notice. “This is a nice place,” he says. “I’d like to draw it.”
“Maybe they’d let you, if they could hang it up.”
Steve shakes his head. “My drawings aren’t that good. I sketch, I don’t paint or anything.”
“But you could,” Sam says. “The world’s your oyster.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Do I?” Sam takes a sip of water, then looks Steve straight on. “We found Bucky. That was your mission.”
“Sure, for now,” Steve says. “But sooner or later Natasha will come back, or Fury, or even Hill. And then there’ll be another mission. One where I need to be Cap, not Steve.”
Sam’s got a few choice words regarding superheroes who try to separate the two concepts, but now’s not the time or place. Instead, he says, “I miss the wings. So I hear you.”
“We could talk to Stark,” Steve says.
“You’re really just farming out Stark’s favors, huh?”
Sam doesn’t think he imagines the way Steve flushes. Blonds. “He’s offered. And he loves breaking the rules.”
“I’d imagine so,” Sam says. “Maybe someday, when we get back on the horse. Right now my plate’s full.”
“Your soldier,” Sam says.
“I am sorry,” Steve says. “You know that’s not what I - it’s not just about me and him. Or him.”
“Why do you think we’re out?” Sam says. “I’m your friend, Steve. Right now that means dealing with some pretty rough stuff, but I’m ready and willing. This isn’t me hesitating.”
Steve nods. “I’m getting that.”
“Good,” Sam says.
Tapas were made for a guy like Steve. He inhales so much food the staff seems mildly concerned - Sam jokes with them that he has a tapeworm, which is honestly more believable than the truth to the average layperson. After, Steve leans back with a glass of wine, taking a deep breath.
“This is the kind of thing I never thought I’d have,” he says. “Before.”
“What, the internet? Indoor lighting?”
Steve makes a face. “I’m from the forties, not 1805. We had electricity.”
“But it wasn’t as beautiful as all this,” Sam says, spreading his hands.
Steve watches him closely. “I guess you’re right,” he says. “It wasn’t.”
Sam clears his throat and sips his own wine. The check’ll be coming at any moment, but Sam doesn’t want this night to be over. Which is a sign that it should be, as much as anything. Steve couldn’t be less on the market if he physically couldn’t get it up.
Which, presumably, he can. Not that Sam’s gonna ask.
“I’m glad we could do this,” Sam says. “Get out of the house a little.”
“Yeah.” Steve sighs. “I feel like a traitor for being bored. I know that we’ll have work to do, and I can’t even suit up right now, not without making myself a target.”
“I have it,” Sam says. “Natasha found it for me. Or, someone who mails things anonymously did. But I’m not just the shield.”
“You’re the symbol,” Sam says. “I know.”
“I should enjoy this. But I’m antsy.”
Sam considers it. “There’s a gym near here,” Sam says. “With martial arts space. We could buy guest passes.”
“I like my building’s weird room.”
“And fight,” Sam says. “Let me finish my thought, Rogers.”
To Sam’s delight, Steve actually turns red again. “Sorry.”
“As I was saying,” Sam says, spreading his hands for extra dramatism, “I’m no Winter Soldier, but I’m not a slouch in hand-to-hand. Get your blood pumping a little, so you know you’ve still got it. It might help you sleep easier at night.”
“Have you noticed? I try to keep it down. I don’t sleep much.”
Sam had noticed, though that wasn’t meant to be a veiled reference. Still. “It’s fine,” he says. “You in?”
Steve nods. “That sounds good.”
They pay the check and leave. Sam navigates to the gym from memory, and they pay for two guest passes. The gym has areas for martial arts; they reserve one of the little rooms, and then face off. Everyone else in the adjoining rooms is wearing fighting gear; him and Steve are just in jeans. But that makes it better, in a way. Sam’s not a soldier anymore, not really. But he still knows how to make do.
That night, he dreams about Riley. But for the first time, Riley doesn’t die. Instead, they’re sitting on the hood of a car in Kabul, biding their time until another mission.
“Dude, what are you doing?” Riley says.
“Nothing,” Sam says. “Isn’t that the point of this? Finally we get a break.”
Riley laughs. “I’m not talking about here. This is your dream. I’m dead.”
Sam’s had dreams like this before. He looks over at Riley, expecting to see a broken body, a decaying corpse, whatever his brain has conjured up for him that night. Instead, he just sees Riley, hair brilliant blond in the sunlight, grinning at him.
“What?” Sam says.
“With Cap,” Riley says. “You know, Captain America. Big, muscley guy, star spangled, he even draws…you’ve got a crush.”
“This is my subconscious,” Sam says. “You’re not really here.”
“Pretend I am for a minute. What the fuck are you doing?”
If Sam threw himself under a humvee or shot himself in the face, he’d wake up. But he can’t let go of the temptation to talk to Riley, even though he knows it’s a dream. “Nothing,” Sam says. “He’s half in love with his fucked-up friend. I’m just helping them out.”
“You’re not that self-sacrificing. No one is.”
Sam stares at the well-worn dirt in front of them. “He’s the best man I’ve known,” Sam says. “I can’t just let him run off into the world, dragging his best friend along, not knowing how to help. He’s - I just can’t. Okay? Any more than I can let you go.”
“You should let me go, though. I’m the downer around your ankle right now, dragging you down.”
“You’ll never be that,” Sam says. His voice cracks, and he feels his eyes fill up with tears. “Damn it, Riley, you never drag me down. You never did, and you’re not gonna start now.”
“Better make a move on Cap, then,” Riley says. “If that’s the road you’re determined to go down.”
“No,” Sam says. “Not until I know. How things were with Bucky, how he wants them to be. When I get that mess figured out, then I’ll make a move.”
“You were always the brave one,” Riley says.
Sam turns to crack a joke, but Riley’s gone. He wakes up with eyes dry, clutching a pillow.
He rubs a hand over his face, checking the clock. 3 AM. He wakes up around that time a lot, like his brain’s picked its favorite time to freak out and not let him get a moment’s peace.
He rolls over just to have something to do, punches his pillow into a better shape and wiggles his toes out of the blanket. Nothing helps. He knows this feeling, the jittery, wired bit of his brain that means he needs to move around before he’ll be able to fall back to sleep. Groaning, he rolls out of bed and opens his door, not bothering to put a shirt on.
Steve’s sitting in the living room, cross-legged on the rug, sketching by the dim light of the street lamps. Of course he is. “Oh,” he says when Sam clears his throat, looking up. “Sorry, did I wake you up?”
“With your pencil? Nah,” Sam says. Then, because there’s no sense in hiding it, he says, “Had a weird dream.”
“According to my biometrics, I only need about three hours of sleep a night,” Steve says. “And yet somehow, I still manage to squeeze some bad dreams in.”
“Does he sleep?” Sam says, nodding back down the hallway.
“I don’t know,” Steve says. “It hasn’t come up. But.” He hesitates visibly, tapping his pencil against the pad a few times before saying, “Not everything is about him. For me, or you.”
“I know, believe me,” Sam says. “I’m here of my own free will, all right? No one’s forcing me.”
“Duty and obligation -”
“That’s not what’s going on here. I help people, Steve. That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve done for seven years. You’re my people, by extension, so’s he. Even if he’s so crazy he doesn’t know up from down. Right now, my mission is to get him to where he does.”
Steve looks at him for a long time. Sam’s senses shift and expand, until he hears the quiet murmur of the fridge, the traffic outside - everything he was ignoring to focus on getting his mission across to Steve.
“Thank you,” Steve finally says. “I can’t say it enough. I’m not going to try. But thank you.”
Sam doesn’t answer by telling Steve that he can thank Sam by figuring out why Sam’s so devoted. Instead, he says, “Three hours of sleep. What do you get done?”
“Lots of movies,” Steve says. “Lots of books. I read Stephen King, but it was a little vulgar.”
“Who told you to read that?”
“Stark,” Steve says. “I think he thought the horror would be comforting.”
“I’m guessing not so much.”
“No,” Steve says.
Sam’s starting to feel weird just hanging out - weird, and tired. So he says, “I’ll talk to you later. Thanks for the talk,” and goes back to bed.
He doesn’t wake up until eight in the morning, criminally late for him. He groans when he sees the clock, yawns and stretches - and almost falls out of bed when he sees Bucky sitting at the end of it, watching him.
“Jesus Christ,” he says. “You ever hear of knocking?”
“I knocked. You didn’t respond.”
“You ever hear of knocking louder?”
Bucky shrugs. It’s an oddly human motion, all things considered. Maybe they’re making progress. “Sessions,” he says. “I prefer mornings.”
“You were out all night.”
Bucky doesn’t answer.
“Okay,” Sam says. “Let me shower, and then we’ll start. All right?”
“In here,” Bucky says.
Where Steve can’t hear. “Sure,” Sam says, and gets up, grabbing a change of clothes. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Bucky’s sitting in exactly the same spot as he was before when Sam gets back from his shower - and telling Steve he won’t be out for awhile. Luckily, Sam’s room comes equipped with a small corner table and a chair (which he doesn’t bother wondering why Bucky didn’t use). He pulls the chair out so that he’s sitting across from Bucky, then says, “Memories coming back to you?”
“What do you think?” Bucky says.
Sam’s at least half sure it’s not a teenage rebuke, so he says, “I don’t have memory loss, but I’ve known some soldiers who have.”
“Not with Soviet technology.”
“Or HYDRA technology, for that matter,” Sam says. “No, I’d imagine it’s not the same. But Steve said you didn’t like the air off the Hudson.”
“And you remember, huh?”
Bucky doesn’t answer.
“It’s okay to get bits and pieces,” Sam says. “My guess is this is the first time you’ve slept in a bed since you went overseas.”
“I slept in beds on missions.”
Good. Intel. “How long’d they last, usually?”
“A week. Two. Find the target, find or make an opening to kill them. Bring back a bloody knife or slugs. Freeze again.”
“They mind-wipe you often?”
“I don’t know.”
“Feeling a little like a Connect Four board?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“We’ll play it sometime,” Sam says. “I’m saying your mind is like Swiss cheese.”
“Yes.” Bucky hesitates, gaze playing all over the room - everywhere but at Sam. “But I remembered he likes to draw.”
“I’ll be honest with you,” Sam says. “The stuff I do? It’s not memory recovery. Maybe that tech’s out there, maybe Natasha or Stark or someone could find HYDRA tech, or invent their own stuff, that does it for you - but that’s not in my wheelhouse. I’m not here to help you remember.”
“Because that’s Rogers’s job?”
“No,” Sam says. “Because that’s no one’s job. It’ll happen, or it won’t. Bit by bit, day by day. I’m here to help you figure out how to live as you are, as a person. I’m here to get you back into the world.”
“I can’t be in the world.”
“C’mon, man,” Sam says, deliberately flippant. Bucky’s on edge right now; this is the moment that Sam either hooks him, or loses him. “Gods flying around, idiots in metal suits, guys that go all big and green, Red Skull back in the day - there are all kinds of freaks around, and you really think a metal arm and a hell of a cryo-freeze hangover is enough to make you unfit for society?”
Bucky’s silent for so long that Sam starts to think he’s lost the guy. But then Bucky says, “I ate at a diner on my last mission.”
Sam doesn’t ask what that mission was. “You want to go to a diner again?”
“Yes,” Bucky says. “Without Rogers.”
“Sure,” Sam says. “Let’s take a walk.”
Since this is Brooklyn in 2014, there are plenty of diners to choose from. Sam lets Bucky lead, though, until finally Bucky stops in front of a nondescript place called The Corner and says, “This one.”
“Let’s go,” Sam says. He holds the door open for Bucky. Bucky goes in and sits down at a booth without prompting. He doesn’t take off his coat or gloves, but in New York, that’s nothing.
“What’re you going to order?” Sam says.
Bucky looks at the plastic menu in front of him. “I had an omelet. Before.”
“Omelets are good,” Sam says. “There’s also eggs and bacon, biscuits and gravy…” He scans the menu. “Hash browns. You’ve got to get a side of hash browns. Trust me on this.”
Bucky looks wary, but he says, “Fine. An omelet and hash browns.”
They order - Sam gets the same thing, but Bucky picks two of the farmer’s omelets and Sam gets the ham and cheese - and then Sam kicks back. PJs are good in high pressure environments; he’s not concerned.
Well, okay. He’s not that concerned.
“I don’t know how to make conversation,” Bucky says when the waitress is gone.
“Well, if it helps, ladies like ‘em silent, sometimes,” Sam says.
“You think I’m going to date? Like this?” Bucky taps his metal hand on the table.
“It was a joke,” Sam says. “But again, there are stranger things in the world.”
“And most of them are laying low because of what I did to SHIELD.”
“It wasn’t exactly just you. I know you were an important component, but that was a massive conspiracy.” Sam shuts himself up before he inadvertently points out that there are probably still a lot of HYDRA agents out there.
Bucky tilts his head. “Then why do I feel responsible?”
“Because you’re human, and that’s what we do,” Sam says. “We take on burdens we don’t deserve.”
“Because we want to feel like we have more control than we do.” Sam shrugs. “Or that’s what I’ve learned, anyway.”
“Why are you here?”
“You wanted to go to a diner.”
Bucky fixes him with an unamused stare.
“Steve’s a friend,” Sam says. “And he couldn’t do this for you.”
“What was Bucky to him?”
Trust Bucky to get him out in public only to grill him on the difficult questions. “That’s a question you’ll have to ask Steve.”
Bucky’s expression actually changes a little at that, from his standard glare to a slightly more disgruntled expression. “I tried.”
“With a knife to his throat?”
Bucky’s back to just a glare at that.
Luckily, their food comes soon. Bucky pokes at his omelet like it’s a foreign object before taking a small, careful bite.
“Hmm,” he says.
Bucky reaches for the ketchup bottle and squirts it all over both omelets and the hash browns. Sam averts his eyes. That kind of sin deserves privacy.
They don’t talk as they eat, which Sam is pretty relieved by. His counseling sessions at the VA have a start and a finish, and he’s not living with his patients. Also, he has training to deal with combat vets, not mind-wiped HYDRA-and-Soviet assassins. Not that he’s thinking about moving out, or anything; at this point, change would just freak Bucky out. But he’s planning on spending awhile at the garage this coming week.
Once they’re done, Sam puts some cash down and they leave. They’re halfway back to the apartment when Bucky stops dead, staring down an alley.
“Bucky?” Sam says, careful to keep his tone even, his voice low.
Bucky starts and shakes his head. “It’s nothing,” he says.
It didn’t look like nothing, but Sam knows better than to push. He leads them back to the apartment, not commenting on it.
Two days later, Bucky’s gone out again. He hasn’t specified where he’s going, but he at least looks cleaner this time. He’s bought, or stolen, clothes that actually fit. The jacket’s still baggy and ragged-looking, but - one thing at a time, Sam thinks.
Bucky’s gone for the night, and Sam and Steve are sitting on the couch, watching TV, Sam with a beer in hand.
“I had an idea yesterday,” Steve says, playing with the page of his book. He doesn’t like just watching TV, which Sam figures is a relic of growing up before there was a television in every home.
“Yeah?” Sam says.
“I never did get to figure out if I like dancing,” Steve says. “Peggy -”
“That part of the story’s legend,” Sam says. “It was in my comic books growing up. She was gonna take you out dancing. I know.”
“I was going to take her,” Steve says, a little defensive.
Sam laughs. “Sure, if you wanna look at it like that.”
“I don’t much want to go to one of the clubs,” Steve says. “I don’t think that’s a good introduction to dancing for a fellow like me.”
“Oh? No bumping and grinding for Captain America?”
Steve flushes, and nope, Sam still hasn’t gotten over the thrill of being able to make him do that. “I just don’t think I’d be good at it,” Steve says. “And it’s still a little jarring. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Relax,” Sam says. “Contrary to the stereotype, I can barely dance. It’s cool.”
Steve gives him a tiny smile. Sam’s heart doesn’t flip-flop; he’s beyond that middle school stuff. Or at least, that’s what he tells himself. “But there’s a dance class,” Steve says. “Foxtrot, ballroom dancing…a little bit of a lot of different sorts of things, at a studio near here. I was thinking of signing up, but I don’t have a partner.”
And, okay, he’s looking at Sam like that on purpose. He has to be. Lashes all long, pleading look on his face. “They’re cool with same-sex couples?”
“Well, one of us has to lead,” Steve says. “But it said it was same-sex-friendly.”
“21st century Brooklyn,” Sam says. “Let me guess: you want me to be your partner.”
“I think it could be fun.”
“You know everyone’s going to assume we’re dating, right?”
Steve shrugs. “I’m not too concerned about other people.”
This is a bad idea. This is a bad, bad idea, and Sam knows it, and yet. “Sure,” he says. “Why not.”
Steve brightens. “Great, I’ll sign us up. You can do it over the internet. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” Sam says, smiling weakly.
This is not the way to not fall in love with the guy. But he’s such a sucker for Steve being hopeful, for Steve trying out new things, that he can’t see that conversation going any other way.
“Thanks,” Steve says. “I appreciate it.”
“I’m not doing you a favor,” Sam says. “Who says I won’t like ballroom dancing?”
Steve smiles at him, like he knows Sam’s twisting the truth a little. They go back to their comfortable silence, and Sam tries not to think about how badly he needs to get over this crush of his.
He does a long shift at the garage the next day. “What’s going on in your head?” Lee asks him as he tries to figure out what’s going on with the a/c in a ‘97 Volvo.
“Nothing,” Sam says. Then he says, “Hey, why do you work here?”
“Jerry’s my uncle,” Lee says. “It was this or college, and I’m not much for books.”
“Huh,” Sam says, and goes silent again.
“Seriously, though,” Lee says. “What’s up?”
“There’s a girl,” Sam says.
“Not a guy?”
Sam goes very still. “What?”
“That guy who shows up here sometimes, Steve? I just kind of figured.” Lee shrugs like she couldn’t care less. “It’s New York. No one cares, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Well. Guy troubles.”
Lee, to her credit, genuinely looks like she doesn’t care. “Good luck,” she says, and claps Sam on the arm, before going back to her own job.
That wasn’t exactly a heart-to-heart, but it makes Sam relax marginally anyway.
That night, he comes home to a fully cooked meal and Steve saying, “We’re in the class!”
“I peeled vegetables,” Bucky says. “With a peeler.”
Sam was kind of wondering if he just whipped a knife out and offered to be useful, so he says, “Congratulations to both of you. When’s the first class?”
Bucky’s looking between them like he’s figuring something out, which is not what Sam wants to be happening, here. But Steve’s totally clueless. He just smiles and says, “Next Saturday. How much pasta do you want?”
“As much as I can have,” Sam says. “I know you’ve both got big mouths to feed. Metaphorically speaking,” he adds when Bucky looks vaguely offended.
The guy’s starting to actually have expressions Sam can decipher. Either that’s a good sign, or they’re spending too much time together.
“Here you go,” Steve says. It’s a heaping bowl of pasta with vegetables and red sauce. Steve and Bucky’ll probably go back for thirds. But Steve’s time spent in an Italian neighborhood really shows; it’s old-school pasta, and it’s delicious. Sam goes back for seconds, then does the dishes while Bucky disappears into his room. It’s not until he says, “Going out,” and leaves, that Steve says, “He called me ‘punk’ and grabbed my shoulder.”
“Yeah?” Sam says, dropping a pod in the dishwasher and starting it.
Steve nods. “He used to do that,” he says, which Sam kind of figured. “This time he stopped and jumped away. I think it freaked him out.”
“It’s a good sign,” Sam says. “Even if it might be a setback with you two. Little things coming back, that’s good.”
“I miss him,” Steve says. “Is it - with Riley, do you ever just turn and expect him to be there, and he’s not?”
“Every day,” Sam says.
“It’s like that with Bucky,” Steve says. “Only, he’s here. His body is. But the person he is…I don’t know that person.”
“It gets better,” Sam says. “You know that as well as anyone.”
Very, very quietly, Steve says, “Sometimes I wish it’d never happened. I was getting better.”
Sam doesn’t answer. Steve sighs, shoulders drooping a little, then says, “I’m going to watch stuff on Netflix. They’re good at telling you what to watch,” and grabs his iPad, disappearing into his room.
Sam never appreciated Riley as much as he should’ve, he thinks. Riley never laid the white boy angst on him, and now he’s getting it from both directions. Knowing he chose this doesn’t make that easier, sometimes.
He’s at the garage next day, working on a Ford - never buy American, Sam thinks without a twinge of mislaid patriotism - when Jerry says, “Holy shit.”
“I need an oil change,” says a very recognizable, very bewildering voice.
Sam straightens and turns around. “Tony Stark,” he says to the guy who’s getting out of his Lamborghini, mirrored sunglasses on despite the fact that it’s late afternoon and the garage is mostly lit by dusty overhead lights.
“Sam Wilson,” Stark says. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Sam raises his eyebrows. “Have you.”
“Well, I’ve read a lot of files about you.” He takes the sunglasses off, thank God, but being pinned with a look by Tony fucking Stark isn’t that much better. “How’d you like being a pararescuer?”
“I left the Air Force for a reason,” Sam says. “No disrespect intended.”
“None taken. They seem like killjoys. But you liked flying, yes? You’d do it again if you could?”
Sam really, really doesn’t like where this is going. “Sure, but -”
“Excellent,” Stark says. He puts the sunglasses back on. “I’ll have the package shipped to you. Meet me at Stark Tower tomorrow. They’ll let you in.”
“Whoa, hang on,” Sam says. “I said hang on,” he adds when Stark continues back to his car.
Stark stops and turns.
“I don’t think I’m licensed to operate military equipment in New York City airspace,” Sam says.
“Technically speaking, it’s Stark equipment. I need a flying partner, and you need a hobby that isn’t - this.” Stark smiles. It’s just as sleazy as it looks on TV. “The military doesn’t like it when I pout. Trust me when I say you won’t get shot out of the sky. Tomorrow, four o’clock. We’re doing daytime and nighttime training. Time to get back in the saddle, Wilson,” he says, and gets into his car.
Well, Sam thinks as Stark peels out of the garage, at least now he can say he’s been personally steamrolled by Tony Stark. That’s got to be worth something. Steve’s sympathy at the very least.
Steve’s not sympathetic. “You’re doing what?”
At least Bucky’s out. He has to know of Iron Man; that seems like the kind of intel HYDRA would shove in his brain.
“He conscripted me,” Sam says.
“He bullied you,” Steve says flatly.
Sam raises his eyebrows. “I’ve never seen you act like this much of an old man. What’s he to you? I thought you liked the guy.”
“He's not completely terrible. But he's never met an ego boost he didn’t like.”
“Okay,” Sam says. “But he’s gotten me new wings. That’s pretty huge.”
Steve stares at him, then sighs, hunching his shoulders. “I know,” he says. “I'm still not sure about Stark.”
“Neither am I,” Sam says. “But I’ll be able to fly.”
And - Stark reminds him of Riley, a little, if Riley was a spoiled rich kid. Sam knows the dangers of going down that road. He’s well versed in them. That doesn’t mean the desire to fly with someone at his side just disappears, though.
“Fair enough,” Steve says. “Just don’t let him get you drunk, or take you to a strip club, or anything.”
That makes Sam laugh. “I can handle that,” he says. “And besides, if I do, no one will care. I’m not famous.”
Steve rolls his eyes and shakes his head, but the tension is diffused after that.
Sam's not sure what to expect when he goes into Stark Tower the next morning. The first floor is the same as every other skyscraper in town - nice, modern marble floors, exposed steel beams, and a reception desk with some pretty badass-looking security guards around it. "Can I help you?" one of them says when Sam walks over.
"Yeah, I'm Sam Wilson? Tony Stark should be expecting me."
Sam hands it over. After a black-light investigation and a frisking with a metal detector, Sam's allowed up. "Top floor," the guard says. "You want the elevator on your far right."
Okay, so maybe if you're going to see Tony Stark himself, the security's a little tighter than your average office building. Sam shrugs and goes to the correct elevator, hitting the button for the top floor.
Two glass doors and another reception desk later, and Sam's standing in what looks like a cross between a garage and a lab. He's more comfortable with the former than the latter, but he's been in scarier situations than this, so he just says, "Stark?"
"Here," Stark says, and comes out from around a corner. "You're on time."
"Yes," Sam says.
"That could be considered a character flaw." Stark's wearing a shirt that's seen better days and jeans that Sam can't help but wonder about. There has to be some kind of bunching problem in the suit, right? "Do you need a flight outfit?" Stark says.
"A uniform of some kind," Stark says. "Tighty-whities, military-grade kevlar, anything like that."
"I thought you said no one would be shooting at me." Sam smiles to show that he's joking, and also to try and make Stark look less...wired. It doesn't work. "I should be good in this."
"Your funeral," Stark says. "JARVIS, are the wings on the roof?"
A disembodied voice says, "I've had them delivered, sir. They are fully operational."
"Great," Stark says. "Let's go for a ride."
Strapping the wings back on this time is easier than it was before, when they'd been stolen from lockdown and Sam was half sure he'd be tossed into jail when the dust settled. This rig fits perfectly, and Sam laughs in sheer joy when he hops off the top of Stark Tower.
"Easy, flyboy," Stark says over the comm. "We're doing combat maneuvers, not going for a joy ride."
"You know people catch your joy rides on the news, right?" Sam says. "Give me a minute, let me enjoy myself."
"I've settled now. I'm more serious. One suit, one mission - fuck it," Stark says, and Sam sees the suit arcing past him, diving and looping.
Sam lets himself fly, gaining altitude and then dropping again, trusting the wings to react to his movements. The comm link is better than his old one, so he does complicated maneuvers, drops and recoveries. He doesn't have a wingman and that hurts, a little, until Stark says, "Okay, enough playing. I'm going to cut my power. Catch me."
"I want to see how much weight you can carry," Stark says. Then he starts dropping like a rock.
Jesus. Sam tightens his wings and plummets. The suit's not as heavy as he expected - well, Stark and the suit. He catches Stark under his armpits and locks his core, using the power of the wings to bring them back up, up, until they're above Stark Tower.
"Good," Stark says. "Now let me go. I don't like you that way."
"That's not what the people I save say," Sam says, but he lets Stark go.
"About that," Stark says. "Let's pretend, oh, I don't know. Aliens are attacking New York." His voice gets a little tense, then, more bravado than Sam's heard before. "Pretend there are a bunch of killers shooting at us. Fly like you're covering me."
He takes off, and it's all Sam can do to keep up.
By the time they're done, Sam's sweating buckets and his legs are a little wobbly. He still makes a clean landing, though, and shrugs the rig off. "You need this?"
Stark looks at him like he's got a screw loose. "It's yours," Stark says. "It's keyed to you."
Sam doesn't know how to answer that. "Thanks?"
"It's not a favor." Stark puts his mirrored sunglasses on, despite the fact that it's dark and, this high up, there's not even that much light pollution. "You know, you hang around Cap long enough, you're gonna end up with adoring fans and a fun new nickname."
"And death and destruction?" Sam says.
"Something like that." Stark opens the roof door and gestures for Sam to go in first. "Are you sure you're ready for that?"
"I saw plenty of death and destruction in the military," Sam says. "High risk, high reward."
"You think Rogers is a reward? The man's a fossil." Stark lets them into the rooftop, then leads Sam out to the elevators.
"He's okay," Sam says finally.
"If you're into antiquing," Stark says. "Come by again this weekend. I'll have JARVIS send you an invite."
"You know my email?"
"I know a lot more than that. Oh, look, your elevator."
"Thanks, Stark," Sam says, getting into it.
The doors close right as Stark says, "Call me Tony."
Steve’s sitting with Bucky when Sam gets back, a bag of Chinese carry-out in his hand, and another bag under his arm. The super soldier serum will get you like that. “Hey,” he says to them. “What’s up?”
“We’re watching PBS,” Steve says.
He sounds vaguely agitated. Sam looks at the TV. Tim Allen’s doing a bit. “What’s this?”
“It’s about sitcoms,” Steve says. “I prefer…not sitcoms.”
Bucky snickers at an old Home Improvement clip. He still hasn’t looked at either of them.
Sam’s still feeling flushed from the flying, and is going to count this as progress. “Well, turn the TV off,” he says. “I brought food.”
It doesn’t occur to him until they’re all leaning over the island, Bucky perched on one of the stools and Steve standing on the other end, stiffly - it doesn’t occur to him until then that this is the first time Bucky’s eaten with them. In the kitchen. Like a person.
He knows better than to say anything, but it makes his sesame chicken taste a little better.
So of course, the next day, he wakes up with Bucky standing in his closet.
The almost-deadly-menace thing is just getting old at this point. “What the hell,” he says, sitting up.
“You don’t own a suit,” Bucky says.
Sam’s never been slow to wake up, and he’s definitely not since he spent two tours overseas. But it still takes him a minute to process that. “What?” he says again.
Bucky turns to him. His hair is wet. It’s also cut short, like it looks in old pictures. Sam closes his eyes briefly, sending up a prayer that he won’t have to clean up wet assassin hair in the bathroom.
“A suit,” he says again. “Your dancing lessons are today.”
“Good. He’s the one who signed up.”
“You don’t have a suit,” Bucky says again. He sounds increasingly agitated, like Sam should’ve somehow intuited his meaning by now.
But - a suit. The 40s. Right. Bucky thinks Steve’s going to have expectations, because everyone wore suits? That can’t be right. “The thing said slacks,” Sam says. “I have slacks.”
Bucky snarls a little and stalks out. Sam’s never been more torn between laughter and worry.
He brings it up at breakfast, as casually as he can. “So, is there a reason Bucky thinks I should wear a suit to this dance thing?”
Steve frowns a little. “You’d wear a suit to some places back when - if you wanted to impress a lady, or if you were a fellow who liked to dress nicely.”
“I just figured I’d look kind of weird.”
“You would,” Steve says. “It’s not 1942 anymore.” He smiles at Sam, a little. Almost like he’s happy. Sam smiles back and eats some more of his eggs.
It’s only later, when he’s putting on his nicest, just-ironed slacks and fussing with a button-down, that he lets himself freak out a little.
The VA doesn’t make you have a degree in social work to lead those groups - no one would make it that far if they did. But you have to do a training program, an 8-week course with role play, classes, the whole nine yards. Sam’s been doing it long enough that he knows he has to leave his personal shit at the door. He’s there to share, but more importantly, he’s there to support. He shouldn’t be airing out his issues in front of Bucky. For all that Sam’s got problems, Bucky’s are way worse, currently.
And he thinks he’s been pretty circumspect, considering he technically lives with both Bucky and Steve. So why is he so worried Bucky’s picked up on his thing for Steve?
He does his best not to check Steve out in front of Bucky. He does. For all that Bucky’s a brainwashed assassin, he’s kind of - he’s like a kid, almost, in some ways. So Sam behaves himself. Maybe he’s looked at Steve’s ass once or twice, but it’s really nice and it’s there, constantly. Has Bucky really picked up on that? He wouldn’t have pegged the guy as being sane enough to notice that kind of thing.
Maybe Sam can write this whole thing off as mental health progress.
He’s been staring at the mirror for too long. He shakes his head at himself and finishes buttoning up his shirt.
He makes a total idiot of himself when he sees Steve in the living room, though, stopping dead at the totally normal sight of Steve in slacks and a button-down, just like Sam. His hair’s all spiky, there’s nothing special about it at all, and yet suddenly Sam’s mouth is dry. Because he’s going to be dancing with Steve, this Steve, and suddenly his boyhood comic-book crush is absolutely nothing compared to this reality.
“Um, hey,” he finally manages to say.
Steve turns and smiles. His shirt is too tight, again. Sam wants to find out how strong he really is. “Ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Let me get my coat.”
Steve takes a deep breath as they walk outside, tapping his hands against his (really nice, look away, Sam) thighs. “Is it silly if I’m a little nervous?”
“That depends. Is it silly if I am?”
“No,” Steve says, smiling. “Let’s go.”
Sam's half expecting them to be the only same-sex couple, or that he'll be the only black guy in the room. But when they get there, there's three black people and two lesbian couples. It's not a bad spread, out of fifteen couples. He can feel some - not all, but some - of the tension leak out of his shoulders.
They're led through a demo of the waltz, and then told to partner up. Steve smiles at Sam, clearly nervous. "Do you want to lead?"
"This was your idea," Sam says again.
"You can lead," Steve says.
Sam's sister used to be obsessed with those corny romance novels where people dance and fall in love in two days. Part of him - the part that stole her books and read them in morbid fascination - is expecting the entire world to fall away when he dances with Steve. If anyone could make that happen, it's Steve Rogers. But instead, it's just them moving together, trying not to bump into anyone else, Steve's hand warm in his. It's a dialogue, and Sam can feel something in him shift and click into place.
He's in too deep. And there's no way he's going to get out of this easily. Or maybe at all.
The class passes in a blur. Steve's a quick study. Sam's not sure how he feels about the waltz, but the way Steve smiles at him, warm and sure, makes it worth it. Even if it's also a really specific variety of torture, the kind he wasn't taught to resist in the military.
After the instructor announces that they'll be doing the foxtrot next week, they're free to go. Steve steps away from Sam on the way out, so that they're not so close. Sam misses the warmth of his body immediately.
"That was fun," Steve says brightly.
Sam has a million questions, starting with whether Steve means for this to be a date. But he doesn't ask any of them. Instead he says, "It was. You ready for the foxtrot?"
"Oh, I don't think I ever will be," Steve says. "Do you want to get dinner? I want to cross Korean food off my list."
Sam takes a deep breath. He could back out now, make this totally platonic. Steve would accept that. He'd go with it. He's a good guy like that.
Sam doesn't want to do that, though.
"Sure," he says. "Why not."
Steve must've planned this, because he takes them right to a midsized restaurant, the kind with tablecloths under plastic coverings. Steve tries half the menu, eating and blushing when Sam laughs at him. Once he's had two plates of food, he leans back and smiles at Sam. "Thanks for this."
"Hey, I'm not paying your portion," Sam says. "My pension's not enough for that."
"What about the hotshot mechanic job?"
"Not that, either."
Sam snorts. "I didn't get the impression he liked you that much."
"No," Steve says. "That's probably both our faults."
"Well, I'm around him for professional reasons. We don't all have to be best friends."
It's the wrong choice of words. Steve goes quiet.
"Sorry," Sam says. "How's he doing?"
"I don't know how much he remembers," Steve says. "He doesn't talk to me about it."
"It's not always about the memory."
"I know," Steve says. "He needs connections, a life - I'm starting to think he can't get that with me."
Sam doesn't say anything. Steve's not wrong, is the problem.
"I want him to remember so badly," Steve says. "But that's not what he needs. Or wants."
Sam reaches over and squeezes Steve's hand.
"I'm sorry," Steve says.
"Don't worry about it," Sam says. "I knew it'd be rough going, you know that."
The mood's pretty much killed, though. They walk home soon after that, side by side. When they get back, Bucky's gone.
The next day is a Sunday. Steve goes out early, a silent indication to Sam to talk to Bucky. Bucky sits on Sam's bed again, stiff, looking at Sam with an expressionless face.
Sam takes a deep breath and says, "Do you think Steve's pushing you too much?"
Bucky shrugs. "It's better than it was. Before."
"One of the things you're gonna have to learn is that not being tortured doesn't mean everything's cool," Sam says.
"I know that," Bucky says.
"This is better than following you. Being alone."
"Forming connections is important," Sam says. "Steve's had to learn that, too."
"Sometimes his voice is familiar," Bucky says. "Sometimes it's not."
"That's normal," Sam says. "Or - I think it is, anyway."
Bucky flexes the fingers on his metal arm and doesn't respond.
"I'm going to leave," Bucky says. "I have to. Sometime, I have to leave."
"What's keeping you here?"
"He's the only tie I have," Bucky says. "You're helping. For now."
"Got it," Sam says. "Well, you living your own life is a good thing."
Bucky jerks his head in a nod.
Sam thinks about asking Bucky what he does with his time, but in the end, he doesn't. Instead he says, "Want to watch PBS?"
That night, Sam lets himself enact a single, very bad idea. Steve had put his hand on Sam's shoulder that night, squeezing for an amount of time that just plain felt inappropriate, and Sam can still feel it, a phantom weight.
He jerks off. Fast and messy, thinking about Steve’s hands, the beads of sweat that run down his back when he works out. His ass, his arms - there’s no part of him that’s not perfect, and Sam imagines fucking him, jerking him off, Steve on his knees for him. All of it’s almost too much, and he comes quickly, gasping and gritting his teeth to be quiet.
After that, it’s just a matter of wiping his hand off and going to sleep.
Sam spent too much time in the military for a single jack-off session to make him weird around a guy. So there's no explanation for why he feels like a teenager the next morning, sweaty palms and avoidance of Steve's gaze included. This thing with Steve, it doesn't need to mean anything weird. Steve's just a friend. A friend with a perfect body, who's probably the nicest guy in New York. But still: just a friend.
Sam maintains this fiction all morning, through his shift at the garage, and that night. He's doing such a good job at maintaining that fiction, in fact, that by eight or so, he's finally starting to relax.
Then Bucky shows up at their door with a dead body.
"HYDRA," he says in a flat voice, throwing the body to the floor.
"Um," Steve says, staring at the body.
"I didn't kill him," Bucky says. "I took out his cyanide capsule and shoved it down his throat."
"Pretty sure that counts as killing him," Sam says.
Bucky shrugs. It's an awkward, deliberate motion. "Then he shouldn't have been carrying it."
"Did you get any information from him?" Steve says.
Sam's almost shocked at how cold a question it is - but HYDRA killed Bucky, and for Steve, that pain is with him every day.
"Yes," Bucky says. "There are two more. They're hunting us."
"Us, or you?" Sam says.
"Us," Bucky says, pointing at himself and Steve.
Sam knows now's not the time for a chopped liver joke. "Right," he says. "How much do you guys know about getting rid of a body?"
"Everything," Bucky says, at the same time Steve says, "Sam!"
"There's no better solution," Sam says. "Someone has to be practical about this."
"I've been practical," Bucky says. He holds up his hands: he's wearing gloves.
"I'll dump him in the alley," Bucky says. "They won't question the entire building."
"There are only six apartments," Steve says. "They might."
Bucky pins him with a glare. "Lie."
"I don't know if I can do that, Buck," Steve says quietly.
Bucky hoists the body up in a fireman's carry. "You'd better learn, pal," he says, and leaves.
Steve sits down on the couch, visibly shaken. Sam sits next to him, but doesn't say anything; he doesn't have it in him to be a counselor right now. That's the first dead body he's seen since Afghanistan.
"He called me pal," Steve says. "He - am I going crazy? Did he sound -"
"Brooklyn," Sam says. "Yeah."
Bucky doesn't come back that night, or the next three nights. Sam watches Steve quietly go crazy and does his best not to dwell on how helpless he feels. He goes flying with Stark twice and doesn't mention that Bucky's gone. On the fourth night, Bucky comes inside, silent as usual. He says, "The other agents are dead," and goes directly to his room.
Steve lets out a ragged breath and buries his face in his hands, his drawing of a penguin forgotten.
Sam scoots closer, puts a hand on Steve's back. Steve breaths: in, out, in, out, in a staccato rhythm that makes it obvious that he's crying.
"I don't know what I'd do if Riley came back like that," Sam says. "Go crazy, probably."
"I already did," Steve says. "I have. It's so hard, it shouldn't be this damn hard."
Sam leans in and puts his arm around Steve more firmly. "We'll make it through."
Steve lifts his head at that, and looks at Sam with red-rimmed eyes. "Why are you here?"
Because I love you, Sam doesn't say. "Because you need my help," he says instead. "And because this helps my demons get quieter, too."
That night, Sam's nightmares are worse than they've been in a month. He sees the people he failed to save, mangled on the rocks in the Afghanistan mountains, eyes accusing as they stare into space. He sees Riley falling, over and over, dreams of his broken, burned body on the ground. And then, after he wakes up in a cold sweat, he falls back asleep again only to dream about Steve. Steve, kissing him. Steve, looking at Sam like he wants him. The dumbest thing in the world is to fall in love with Captain America. It's dumb to fall in love with a white boy, generally; Captain America, specifically; and Steve, individually. But in the dream, Steve loves him, holds him and helps him heal.
It makes waking up that much worse.
He's down the next day, but he makes himself go to the garage anyway. "What's up?" Jerry says when he sees him.
Sam forces a smile. "Nothing, just having an off day."
"Need to go home early?"
"I got it," Sam says.
Jerry nods, but he looks suspicious. Sam's poker face is slipping.
When he gets home, Steve's cooking and Bucky's nowhere to be seen. "Bucky?" Sam says when he gets in.
"He's taking the night off," Steve says. "In his room."
Steve looks at Sam apologetically. He looks ridiculous in an apron, Sam thinks. "He told me you were having trouble."
"He - what?"
"He checked up on you at the garage," Steve says. "He said you looked...off. He said your dreams were bad."
"He needs to stop sneaking into my room," Sam says. "And following me around. What the hell?"
"I'm making you dinner, and we're not going to talk about Bucky or any of my other problems," Steve says. "I thought I'd listen to you instead."
It's thoughtful and exactly what Sam needs, and yet at the same time it kind of pisses him off, because it's a boyfriend move. He wants to grab Steve and shake him, to tell him to just be straight with Sam and tell him what's going on. For a split second he's teetering on the edge of actually doing that. But Steve looks so hopeful, and in the end, Sam can't bring himself to do it.
Instead, he says, "That sounds good. What's for dinner?" and sits on a stool across from where Steve's prepping vegetables.
"Stir-fry," Steve says, smiling a little. His lips are so full and really improbably pink. Sam looks away.
"Awesome," he says, and smiles. It's only partially forced.
They're most of the way through dinner, watching AMC, when Sam finally gets the courage up to say, "I was having bad dreams."
"Riley. The people I couldn't save. It doesn't seem fair, you know? And I'm not sure I'm making any progress with Bucky."
"More than I've made," Steve says. "You can't work miracles, but you're a darn good counselor."
"Thank you," Sam says. "That might not be enough, though."
"You're enough," Steve says. He sets his plate on the table and turns to Sam. "Sam. You're enough."
Sam doesn't get it. He looks at Steve, searching his eyes. "What are you trying to say?"
"You're doing fine," Steve says. "You're strong, impossibly - you're doing fine."
Sam feels like he's been caught. He shakes his head, not even sure what he's doing. "Steve -"
Steve leans forward and kisses him.
Sam's the one who jerks back. "What was that?"
"During the war, guys would help each other out." Steve looks at him seriously. "This isn't the war, but I think we could both use some help."
"That's it? Just - help?"
"I've done it since being unfrozen," he says, like that's going to be the deciding factor for Sam, and not the fact that a guy from the 40s is proposing casual sex and Sam's the one who's worried he'll get too attached.
But in the end, he feels ripped apart, and he doesn't want to say no. He won't say no. But he also doesn't trust his voice, so he leans forward and kisses Steve, slowly, curling his hand into a fist at the side of Steve's neck.
No strings attached, Sam thinks as Steve pulls his shirt off, kisses his neck. Yeah. No problem.
The sex is good, but Sam goes back to his own room after, telling himself that staying the night would only complicate things. He slips out of bed the next morning, deliberately avoiding Steve, and gets his coffee at a Starbucks down the street. He keeps feeling the ghost of Steve's hands on him, Steve's mouth on his dick, Steve's fingers all over him. 'No strings attached' - and he can't stop thinking about it.
Eventually, he goes to Stark Tower almost an hour early. He figures maybe he can loiter, but the desk guy tells him to go straight up.
"Why are you always on time or early?" Tony says. "Is it really that bad, living with Cap and his assassin?"
That's exactly the wrong question to ask. Sam winces. "I just didn't have a lot going on today."
"If you say so," Tony says. "Well, I was just going to try and convince Pepper to make Stark Industries branch out into acquiring distilleries, but that can wait. Let's go."
It's a relief to be in the air. Here, Sam can let it all go. He and Tony fly formations, and it's soothing. It's the best thing that's happened all day. When Tony says, "Okay, let's go nuts," Sam lets himself go into freefall, catching himself a hair before it's too late, tumbling onto the roof of Stark Tower only to leap off it, wings unfurling. It's a relief, it feels like freedom. The lightness lasts until he lands.
It would last longer than that, except when he lands, Tony pops his faceplate up and says, "You've got to get out of there."
"You're skinny, JARVIS says your vitals are all fucked up, and it looks like you haven't been sleeping," Tony says. "And trust me, I know from experience when someone's burning the candle at both ends."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Sam says. It's a bad lie. He doesn't expect Tony to buy it.
Tony doesn't. "I know you want to save the world," Tony says. "Or Cap's heart, at least. But even God took a vacation. Get out of New York for awhile. See the world. I'll wire you money if I have to, but you need to go, before you turn into a liability."
It's the last part that makes sense to Sam, that makes his indignation disappear. "I have the money to travel," he says. He's been saving a lot, and there's no way he's going to be Stark's charity case. He's not that pathetic. Not yet, anyway. "Thanks," he says finally. "I'll let Steve know I'm leaving."
"Tell Rogers if he really wants someone to fix Bucky, I know some people," Tony says. "Actual therapists. Very discreet."
Sam nods. Then, because he can't help himself, he says, "Why are you doing this?"
"You know how sometimes you can look at a person and just tell there's nothing interesting about them?"
"No," Sam says, already going on the defensive.
"You're not like that," Tony says. "I told you. You're going to wind up with a special name and an action figure. For that to happen, Captain America's problems need to not bog you down." He steps out of the suit, and it folds up in front of them. "Now go. Get out of here. Tell Rogers if he gets separation anxiety, I'll make him a Real Doll."
Sam shakes his head, but he follows Tony down into Stark Tower.
He's not sure when to break it to Steve. He mulls the problem over on his way home. As it turns out, he shouldn't have worried. He makes it two steps inside before Steve says, "What's wrong?" And Sam can't lie to Steve - not directly, anyway.
"Tony thinks I need a vacation," Sam says. "And I'm inclined to agree."
He's not sure what to expect, but he's surprised when Steve just nods, looking thoughtful. "Okay," he says. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I'm not sure where I'll go," Sam says. "I'll probably buy tickets tomorrow, then be out of your hair."
"Okay," Steve says again.
Then, because he can't help himself, Sam says, "That's it, really?"
Steve looks a little wounded. "I know what you've been doing is stressful. I'm not going to try and make you stay. You should go, figure some stuff out. It'll be good for you."
"Yeah," Sam says.
"But." Steve pauses. He looks over Sam's shoulder, then back at Sam. "I would appreciate it if you eventually came back."
"Oh, I will," Sam says. "Trust me. After awhile."
"Good," Steve says. He smiles awkwardly, then goes to the couch, grabbing his tablet.
His sketchpad is nowhere to be seen. Weird, Sam thinks, and goes to get his computer.
He toys with all kinds of ideas about where to go. London, where he and Riley spent their last leave; Japan, which he and Riley always wanted to see; Alabama, where Riley's from. But in the end, he knows what his thoughts are avoiding, where he really needs to go. First, at least; then maybe he can do the other things.
He buys a Southwest ticket to Baltimore.
"So," Steve says when Sam puts his computer away. "Where are you headed?"
"Baltimore," Sam says.
"Someone special in Baltimore?"
Sam swallows around a sudden lump in his throat. "Someone I haven't seen in awhile," he says. "My mom."
It would almost be easier if Steve had tried to make him stay. Then Sam could leave and be pissed. As it is, Steve takes the train with him to the airport the next morning, smiles and hugs him. "Take care of yourself," he says. "Have a good trip."
"Thanks," Sam says. He'd emailed Jerry that morning. He feels bad about it, but he gets the feeling Jerry will understand. "I'll send you a postcard?"
"From Baltimore?" Steve makes a pooh-pooh noise. "I've seen Baltimore."
"Hey, don't talk shit," Sam says, but it makes him smile back at Steve. "I'll see you," he says, and leaves before it can get awkward.
He's nervous on the flight down. It's kind of a blessing that it's so short. He gets his rental car and drives out, getting stuck in traffic for just long enough for nostalgia to rattle around in his chest. Then, finally, he's parking in front of the tiny house he grew up in.
He didn't call ahead, and at the time he thought that was a good idea. Now, though, he's regretting it. He knocks on the door and waits.
His mother opens it. "Hi, Mama," he says, smiling weakly.
She puts a hand to her mouth, tears welling in her eyes. She's lost weight; she looks older. "Oh, my boy," she says. She pushes the screen door open and pulls him into a hug, roughly. "My boy," she says again, stroking his hair.
Sam closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
Twenty minutes later, they're sitting at the kitchen table, drinking cold iced tea. "I understand why you wrote me that letter," she says. "I understand your heart was broken. But it's been almost a year."
"I couldn't," Sam says. "I said -"
"'I need time to figure out what I'm doing'." She gives him a level look. "If you think I haven't memorized that letter, you don't know me very well."
Sam nods. "Well. Here I am."
"I saw you on the news," his mother says. "My boy, flying around, with Captain America."
She says it with a little distaste. Sam knows why. "He's all right," Sam says. "He's -" He swallows. "We're friends," he finally says.
"He'd better be good to you," his mother says.
"He's why I'm here," Sam says. "I needed time. And now I need to see people."
She reaches out and covers Sam's hand with hers. The squeeze is very deliberate. "You're not being fully honest with me, boy," she says, like he's 7 and has stolen one too many cookies that day.
She's known he was bi for almost fifteen years, and Sam still has to force himself to say, "I love him."
She leans back, letting the silence draw out until Sam is deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
"Captain America?" she says finally. "You love Captain America?"
"I know," Sam says. "He's -"
"White," Sam says. "Catholic."
"And Captain America."
"He's a hero," Sam says.
"You're a hero. And you didn't need a special serum to be one."
"I love him," Sam says again.
His mother shakes her head. "Well," she says. "I always knew you wouldn't fall in love with someone ordinary. Even before I knew it would be a boy."
Sam ducks his head.
"He is handsome," she says.
She smiles. There's forgiveness, there. Not for Steve, so much, as for the year Sam spent hiding, avoiding anyone who reminded him of how easy it is to lose someone. "Tell me about him," she says. "And set the table. Dinner will be ready soon."
Even though Sam's been gone for a good seven years and Dad's been dead for nine, Sam's mother still cooks a full meal. "That's what the freezer is for," she tells Sam if he protests. It's lucky in this case, though, because it means there's enough chicken pot pie for both of them to have generous servings. "I've been following the news," she says as they eat. "What have you been doing since you were in Washington?"
"Hiding, mostly," Sam says. "Trying to help Steve." He explains the Winter Soldier situation as best as he can. He expects horror from his mother, but when he talks about the brainwashing, she just shakes her head.
"Medicine should never be used to harm," she says. "And yet science is abused to do so, every day."
She's a nurse, and she's the one who taught Sam about Tuskegee. She'd know. "I know," Sam says. "So I'm just trying to help. But I don't think I'm getting through with him, and - I needed a break."
"Well, of course," his mother says. "You need to heal, too."
Sam looks down at his plate.
"It's not shameful." There's steel in her voice now, like she won't even hear Sam if he argues. "I've known people who still feel phantom limbs decades later. And you didn't lose a limb, you lost your best friend. Healing isn't about waking up one day and feeling better. It's not about pulling yourself out of it. It's about connecting yourself to the world and letting the world help you get better, bit by bit. You know that."
He does. It's what she said in her only letter to him, from last year.
"I left you alone, because I knew you needed it," she says. "But I won't let you lose yourself to help Captain America, no matter how many boxes of those comics are still in your room."
"It's not like that," Sam says. "I needed to help."
"Just like him, according to you," his mother says. "It was smart to take some time off."
"Thanks," Sam says, and takes a bite of his food.
"And you seem suited to him," she says.
He hears the question. "He doesn't know. I haven't told him."
It's been so long since he talked to her that he'd forgotten her unshakable faith in him, the absolute solidity of her love. He closes his eyes briefly so he doesn't embarrass himself, then takes another bite of food. The flavors explode in his mouth, salt and chicken and carrots and cream, and he chews and swallows, savoring it, in the kitchen where he grew up.
Sam only means to stay a couple days. He knows his mother will want him to stay longer, but he’s worried about it hurting too much. Maybe that’s a dumb thing to worry about, but that doesn’t really dissuade him. But staying for three days turns into staying for a week.
Things were tense after his dad died. Sam fought with his mother a lot, because he was angry at the world and so was she. They’re too much alike, really; that’s probably how she knows so well that he needs to be fed, listened to, and told to go the fuck to bed early, so that the nightmares hurt less when he has them.
On the fourth day, Sam says, “I’m going to buy a ticket for Friday.”
His mother’s knitting in front of the TV, and doesn’t look up. Her hands go still very briefly, though. “Oh?”
“I’m going to London,” Sam says.
He might as well just say it. “That’s where me and Riley had our leave last. London.”
“At least it’ll be warm this time of year,” she says. “You hear terrible things about the weather in England.”
“I know,” Sam says.
“You’ll miss the fourth of July.”
“I think I can handle it. I’ll feel plenty patriotic, you know, mourning my dead PJ wingman.”
She laughs a little, which is good. Sam couldn’t handle pity.
“Will you send him a card?”
For a second Sam thinks she means Riley. Then he realizes. “I don’t know,” he says. “Now that you know I love him, you’re gonna throw me at him, aren’t you?”
“You know it,” she says. “You deserve to be happy, and Lord knows Captain America can’t do better.”
Sam shakes his head. “Thanks,” he says.
“You’re welcome.” She starts knitting again, needles clicking comfortingly as Sam drowses on the couch.
The night before he leaves for London, he doesn’t have a single bad dream. He dreams about Steve, but it’s not sexual or even the kind of longing Sam’s gotten used to. Instead, he dreams about their first meeting, how he felt it was the start of something big. It’s a nice dream, mostly memory, but memory that doesn’t hurt. When he wakes up - at 4 in the morning, because BWI waits for no man - he feels almost at peace.
On the flight to London, his thoughts are full of Riley.
Riley would’ve laughed to see him crammed into coach, knees knocking against the seat in front of him. He’s not traveling as a vet; his dogtags are safely hidden under his sweatshirt. He naps for most of the flight, then takes the airport shuttle to the Marriott he’s staying at while in London.
He thinks he’ll walk around, see the sights. But as soon as he’s alone in his room, with its single king bed and heavy, hotel-specific silence, he collapses onto the bed, a heaviness settling into his chest. Riley. Last time he was here, they had a room with double beds. Riley jerked off obnoxiously in the shower, and Sam threatened to throw a Molotov cocktail into the bathroom if Riley wouldn’t stop taking forever taking a shit. It was only a year and a half ago - a year and seven months, actually - but it feels like forever ago. Sam was a different person then.
He can feel grief, the grief he tried so hard to shove down, and then to process. He knows what to do. He lets himself feel it, and when the thought comes that he wishes Steve were here, to support him and distract him when he needs it - when that thought comes, he lets himself think it. He’s not going to get rid of being in love with Steve by trying to repress it.
Eventually, he gets up and goes outside. He could do all the tourist destinations, but that’s not what he and Riley did the last time they were here. Acknowledging the sadsack nature of it all, he takes his wad of English cash and goes to a pub.
Three hours later, it’s 4PM Eastern time, 9PM London time, and Sam is drunk. So drunk that he thinks it’s a good idea to pull out his phone, with its new international SIM card, and call Steve as he stumbles back into his hotel room.
“Sam?” Steve sounds delighted. “Hey, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m good,” Sam says. He flops down on the bed. It’s soft. Soft beds are nice, even if they’re also terrible. “I’m in bed.”
“It’s a little early, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I’m in England,” Sam says. “In bed, in England. Soft beds are nice for some things, you know.”
“I, um, oh. Yes. Yes, that’s true.”
Sam was talking about sleeping off a hangover. He’s not sure what about that is making Steve stammer, but the room is spinning too much for him to try and figure it out.
“I miss you,” Sam says. He can say that without Steve knowing things, right? Steve doesn't need to know that Sam can't stop thinking about them sleeping together, about how much Sam wants to do it again, only with feelings this time. “You’re so…sunshine.” He hums a few bars of a song he’s not sure he knows the name of.
“You’re drunk,” Steve says. “Really, really drunk.”
“Just a little,” Sam says. “Hey, are you okay?”
“I’m - you know what? Yes,” Steve says. “I’m good. You’re going to drink some water, right?”
“Of course. I’m not a rookie, Steve.”
“I know,” Steve says. “It’s one of the best things about you.”
Sam closes his eyes and sighs happily.
As though he can tell Sam’s getting ready to doze off, Steve says, “Goodnight, Sam.”
“Goodnight,” Sam says.
There’s an absence there, something Sam knows he should say. But Steve hangs up before he gets a chance to say it.
He’s not that hungover when he wakes up the next morning, mostly because he does a really solid job of drinking a shitton of water before he goes to sleep. He takes the day to wander around the city. He remembers their last leave vividly; he remembers most of the last few months of his service vividly. He’s not sure why. Sometimes he wonders if part of him knew that him or Riley was going to die. That’s impossible, obviously, but there’s no logical reason for him to look down normal London streets and almost be able to see himself and Riley wandering down them, like they had the whole world at their feet.
He has to stop several times that day, ducking into alleys and taking bathroom breaks, to get himself together. He doesn’t even go anywhere in particular; he wanders past Big Ben and goes into a department store to buy a hat, because of course it’s raining. But he keeps half-hearing Riley, seeing him in people’s profiles, the hair at the backs of their necks. So he stops, and pulls himself together, and keeps going.
That night, he stays in the hotel, orders room service and buys a ticket to Alabama. He’s done here; he knows where he needs to go.
Riley always told Sam he’d hate Alabama. A year and a half too late, Sam’s going to find out if he’s right.
Alabama is hot and humid, and Sam immediately takes off the light jacket he was wearing, bundling it into his laptop bag. He again takes a shuttle to a local Holiday Inn.
He sleeps after that, jetlagged and unwilling to do the hard stuff on so little sleep. The next day, he gets up, rents a car, and sets his phone’s GPS to Rosebud Cemetery.
It’s easy to locate Riley’s grave, even though he hasn’t been here before. His family is in a little cluster under the only willow tree in the cemetery, just as Riley told him. His tombstone is shiny and new, and when he sees it, Sam takes a deep, shaky breath.
“Hey, man,” he says. “Things have changed a lot since you left.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “I wish I had something to bring you, something to leave behind. But I don’t. I just needed to see for myself, to…I don’t know. Get some closure, I guess.” He pauses. “I miss you. You’d laugh at me now,you know. I’m in love with Captain America. I’m a borderline superhero. It’s ridiculous.”
He talks for a little while longer, just letting his thoughts out in a way he never has, not even with the VA therapist they assigned him for awhile. Finally, he says, “I’ll see you later, Riley,” and goes to get back in his car.
He’s kind of surprised he didn’t cry. But then, those things aren’t always predictable.
He goes straight back to the hotel. Riley’s aunt is somewhere in the area, and Sam could stop by and see her. She’s the only reason Riley ever even wanted to come to Alabama. He insisted she was the sweetest old lady in the world, wished it was still the 70s, a giant hippie who would love Sam. Sam’s still not sure he believes that, but he doesn’t want to intrude now. Who knows where she is in the grieving process; Sam might just be getting in the way. Maybe someday he’ll contact her, but not now.
He buys a ticket back to New York for the next day, and calls Steve.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hi,” Steve says. He sounds surprised. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” Sam says. “How are you?”
“Good, we’re good,” Steve says. “Where are you now?”
“Alabama,” Sam says. “Listen, I’m coming home tomorrow.”
Something about that makes Steve inhale a little sharply. But when he speaks, his voice is smooth. Calm, even. “Great,” he says. “I’ll make sure Bucky knows.”
Sam half wants to ask how he’s doing, but he kind of figures that can wait. “Good,” he says. “I’m glad.”
There’s a silence that borders on awkward, then Steve says, “I guess I’ll see you then.”
“Yep,” Sam says. “Bye.”
Sam hangs up and looks around his motel room. It hasn’t even been two weeks yet, and he’s not going to kid himself about why he wants to go back. He misses Steve. He even misses Bucky, in a roundabout way. He knows that makes him a sucker of the first order, but that doesn’t really change how he feels. Or how much he wants to see Steve again.
His chest still feels a little tight, a souvenir of the day. He lies back in bed, taking deep breaths. Peace is a hard commodity to come by, and Sam knows it. He doesn’t expect to be truly peaceful any time soon, doesn’t really think he’ll be freaking out like he was before. He’s gotten a little closure, finally, a year after he should’ve been working on it.
He sleeps easy that night. The next morning, he goes to the airport, checks his bag, and prepares to go back to Steve’s house. Back home, or as close to a home as he has right now.
He arrives back at the apartment at one in the afternoon. Steve greets him at the door - he probably heard him on the stairs. That, or he was watching the streets like a creep. “Hey,” Steve says. His face lights up, and Sam’s stomach twists.
This is a problem that didn’t go away with a short vacation. “Hey,” Sam says. “What’s up?”
“Not a whole lot,” Steve says. “You?”
“I’m good,” Sam says. “Traveled a bit. It was nice.”
“Good,” Steve says. “That’s - really good.”
Sam hefts his bags a little, and Steve jumps. “Sorry. Come on in.”
“Bucky?” Sam says as he heads to his room to put his stuff away.
“Not here right now,” Steve says. “He went out to get groceries.”
Sam blinks, coming back out into the living room. “He did what?”
“I know,” Steve says. “But he seemed to think it’s important.”
“Sounds like he’s getting better.”
“Bit by bit,” Steve says. “He’s still a mess, but he’s in the world a little more now.”
“Good,” Sam says, and means it.
They hang out for awhile. Sam e-mails Jerry, though he doesn’t expect much of a response, after he cut and run. Steve reads. “Where’s your sketchbook?” Sam says.
Steve, shockingly, looks a little shifty. “I’m working on something.”
Something private, obviously. “Cool,” Sam says, and goes back to his computer.
Bucky gets back with groceries and puts them away on his own, silently. After that, he goes back to his room - but Sam knew about that part.
That night, Steve makes dinner while Sam hangs out and Bucky watches him, staring. Sam does his best not to check Steve out, but he still ends up watching Steve a few times when Steve’s back is turned - the expanse of his shoulders, his ass. He feels guilty when he looks away and Bucky’s staring at him, gaze hard.
Sam shrugs a little, as though to say, ‘what can you do?’. But instead of letting it go, Bucky says, “Sam. I need to talk to you.”
“Um, okay,” Sam says.
Bucky gets off the stool and goes into Sam’s room. Sam follows, feeling guilty.
As soon as he shuts the door and sits on his usual chair, Bucky says, “You love Steve.”
“I don’t know that I’d put it that way,” Sam says. “I appreciate his company. He’s a good guy.”
“The person I was before,” Bucky says. “He loved Steve.”
Sam waits, but Bucky doesn’t seem inclined to elaborate. “Do you still love him?” Sam says. “Is that what this is about?”
Bucky shakes his head. “That person is dead,” he says, cold and matter of fact. “But I remember what it feels like. He doesn’t know. He’ll never know, unless you tell him.”
Bucky looks flat-out murderous now. “He’s a good person.” He says it like the idea is foreign to him. Maybe it is. “You have to tell him.”
He leaves before Sam can formulate a response.
Sam would really prefer to not say anything to Steve at all. "Give me two days," he says. That's as much mercy as he thinks he can expect from Bucky - especially if Bucky remembers enough about Steve to know he loved him.
Though, Sam thinks, that might be one of the first things that's come through. He did save Steve, and he seems to be looking out for him now. Maybe Bucky doesn't remember his life, but Steve is still someone he cares about.
Or maybe Sam's making shit up to feel better about Bucky's progress. It's a toss-up, really.
But he feels calmer now that he's had time away. He doesn't say anything that night, but he's working up to it, and he's not really scared anymore. Steve will let a guy down easy, and - maybe, Sam thinks, maybe he won't let him down at all. They did sleep together, and Steve likes him. He might not be ready to make Sam Mrs. Cap, but that doesn't mean he's going to totally shoot the idea in the foot.
Maybe, Sam thinks, and bides his time.
The next evening, Bucky leaves, with a very pointed look at Sam. Sam could argue with him, say he has one more day, but he's finding he doesn't want to. He and Steve eat dinner and then, as Steve's finishing up the dishes, Sam says, "Can I talk to you?"
"Sure," Steve says. He dries his hands, looking politely concerned. "What's up?"
The phrase sounds slightly foreign coming from him, which just really drives home what Sam's about to do. He takes a deep breath. "You know how we slept together? Buddies, helping each other out?"
Steve winces, which isn't exactly promising. "Yeah. Maybe in retrospect, that wasn't such a good idea."
"Maybe not," Sam says. "Because I've kind of got a thing for you."
"A crush," Sam says. "Well, more than a crush. I'd take you out in a second, wine and dine you. Sleep with you again."
Steve blinks again.
"Please tell me you know where I'm going with this," Sam says.
"Oh," Steve says. "Well. I..." He squares his jaw, looking determined. Sam braces himself for rejection.
"I think you should see something. Wait here," Steve says, and gets up, going into his room.
No pressure, Sam thinks. He links his hands together, squeezing to keep himself grounded.
Steve comes back with his sketchbook. Sam doesn't get it until Steve flips forward a few pages, then sees himself. A perfect likeness.
There's more, pages and pages more. His hands - unless Steve's been sketching another black dude's hands, which Sam kind of doubts. A few of his profile, one of Sam and Steve together in the kitchen. Sam gets to the end of them and stares at the blank page, processing.
"I'm sorry," Steve says. "It's probably intrusive. I was trying to figure some stuff out, and I thought you weren't. Well. Interested."
"You really don't know how to read signals, do you," Sam says.
"Maybe not," Steve says. "You're not the first person to say something like that."
"Even he knew," Sam says. There's no need to specify exactly who.
"He's good at that kind of thing," Steve says. "He was always better at it than me. Even...before."
Sam doesn't really want to talk about Bucky right now. In fact, he doesn't want to talk about anything. He leans forward and kisses Steve, catching Steve's jaw with his hand.
Steve presses himself against Sam instantly, climbing into his lap. One of the benefits of him being a super-soldier is that he mostly holds himself up via the back of the couch as he kisses Sam, deep and eager. He moans when Sam palms his ass, and wiggles when Sam slips a hand up his shirt.
“Bed?” Sam says. “And no, I’m not carrying you.”
Steve laughs at that, climbing off Sam and offering him his hand. Steve drags them into the bedroom, and he kicks the door shut behind them, looking at Sam with a suddenly intense expression.
Then he drops to his knees. Right there, in the middle of the bedroom, feet from the bed.
“Steve,” Sam says, a little uncertain, as Steve unzips Sam’s jeans.
Steve looks up. “Is this okay?” he asks. He licks his lips, and, fuck, that mouth. “I want to, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
It was, but this is pretty convincing. So Sam takes a ragged breath and says, “Yeah, that’s good, then.”
Steve smiles - so fucking sweetly - and then pulls Sam’s dick out of his pants.
He’s not totally hard yet, but that doesn’t phase Steve. He strokes and sucks, licks gently, until Sam’s aching for it, desperately wishing he had something to hold onto. Even as he has the thought, though, his hands grasping empty air, Steve reaches out and puts one of Sam’s hands in his hair.
“I like that,” he says, and sucks on the head of Sam’s dick.
It’s all heat and friction after that, Steve doing an impressive job of deep-throating him, Sam just trying to hold on. When Steve starts playing with his balls, that’s the end of it for Sam - he says, “Steve, I’m -”
Steve squeezes his thigh, and it’s so strong it hurts just a little - and that’s what sends Sam over the edge, coming in Steve’s mouth.
Steve jacks him through it and then, when Sam makes to stagger for the bed, gets up and spits into a tissue. “It’s a texture thing,” he says, half-apologetically.
Sam waves a hand. “Trust me, I’m not complaining.”
“Good,” Steve says. He stays smiling as he strips, then gets into bed with Sam, arching against him shamelessly. It's just like last time - Steve's so fucking eager, so happy to do this - only better, because Sam knows a bit about what Steve likes, and he's not lying anymore.
“You want some help there?” Sam says.
Steve flushes, but he’s still smiling when he nods.
Sam grabs some lotion - just hanging out on the nightstand, Steve, you perv - and slicks his hand up. From there, it’s just a matter of jerking Steve off, kissing him and learning more about which movements make him moan, twisting his hand, running his thumb over the head of Steve’s dick. Steve kisses him more this time, holds him close like he's desperate, and Sam can barely believe they managed to fuck last time, because this is so different. It’s messy and too quick, and perfect, when Steve comes gasping against Sam’s neck.
Sam's not sure what to expect in the aftermath, since Steve practically threw him out last time. But apparently Steve's interesting standards for 'helping a buddy out' don't apply anymore, because he clutches Sam to him like Sam's a particularly large teddy bear.
"I wasn't going to say anything," Steve says. "I'm not that brave."
Sam snorts. "You're plenty brave."
"In a fight, sure," Steve says. "But when it's someone I really care about, I need a little push."
Now's as good a time to admit it as any. "Bucky told me I had two days."
"I'm not sure, actually," Sam says. "Before he told you, hopefully."
"I can't even imagine that conversation." Steve sounds appropriately befuddled.
"Me neither," Sam says. "Good thing we'll never have to hear it, huh?"
There's a knock on the door.
"Yes?" Steve says, at the same time as Sam saying, "I told him!"
Silence. Then Bucky says, "Good," and there's the sound of footsteps moving away from the door.
"Considerate of him to let us hear him," Steve says.
Sam huffs a laugh against Steve's neck. "Yep. That's Bucky."
Not knowing what to expect is something Sam's familiar with, but this is a different variety of not knowing. This one is excitement - coupled with a little concern about living with the guy he's trying to date, but not that much. He'll bring up moving out in a couple weeks, now that he's mostly certain Bucky's not going to flip out and kill Steve. Right now, though, he's just enjoying the feeling of having something exciting, something good, happening. The next day, Steve smiles at him, and it's a different smile. A little shy, and earnest, and one that makes Sam pretty sure he'd do anything to see it again.
"I've never had gelato," Steve says. "We should get some. Together."
"Are you asking me out on a date, Rogers?"
"Yes," Steve says, smile widening. "Yes, I am."
"Well," Sam says. "I happen to have some time free today."
"Good," Steve says. "Let's go, then."
Steve leads them right to a gelato place. "I looked it up on Google Maps," Steve says. "And Yelp."
"Good job," Sam says. He means it. The place looks nice, and it's early enough that there are still tables free.
Steve gets mango; Sam gets raspberry. They sit down, knees knocking at the tiny table.
"This is romantic," Steve says. It's a confirmation more than anything, but Sam finds himself nodding.
"Nice pick," he says.
"I want this to be good." Steve takes a bite of gelato, sucking it off his spoon. That's - a really nice image, Sam thinks.
Steve's smiling a little. It's not quite a smirk, but it's close enough. Sam knocks his foot against Steve's under the table. "Dirty pool."
"Just a little," Steve says. "But I mean it. I want us to be good."
Us. There's an 'us' now. "Me, too," Sam says. Then, because he's feeling a little weird about it all, he takes a bite of gelato and shuts up.
When they're done, Steve says, "Want to go for a walk?"
This part of Brooklyn is full of side streets with shade and not too many cars. And Sam's feeling a little romantic. So he says, "Sure."
He doesn't know why he's surprised when Steve takes his hand.
"You know," Sam says, "you're smoother than you give yourself credit for."
Steve laughs. "Is that a fact?"
"When you can be bothered to be, anyway."
"What can I say?" Steve says. "I like to live in the moment." He lifts Sam's hand and kisses it.
Sam doubts he'll get more from Steve than that. Exhibitionism isn't Steve's style. But a thrill shoots down his spine anyway.
It's not all sweetness and light. That night, Sam sleeps with Steve, a little over-warm but figuring he'll adjust. Or they'll turn the a/c down. At one in the morning, though, he wakes from a shapeless nightmare, drenched in sweat.
He starts when he sees Steve watching him, eyes glinting in the street lights. "You and Bucky have more in common than you're aware of," he manages to say. He lifts a hand to wipe sweat off his brow.
"Are you okay?" Steve says.
"It's been a few days," Sam says. "I guess I was overdue."
"This doesn't fix anything," Steve says. He waves his hand to encompass them and the bed. "I wish it did."
"Of course it doesn't," Sam says. "You're too smart to think that it does."
Steve smiles a little, rueful. "Yeah. I guess I am."
"It can help some things, though," Sam says. He leans in and kisses Steve. Steve kisses back, pressing against him.
"I could," Steve says when they pull apart. He puts an arm over Sam.
"Nah, I'm good," Sam says. "You're too warm for that, anyway."
Steve pulls a face, but he doesn't seem offended. Sam rolls over to his side and tries to fall back asleep.
Falling into a relationship with Steve is easy. After another day, Jerry emails him back, calling him a flaky asshole, but inviting him back. Sam works at the garage and hangs out with Steve. Sometimes Bucky's there, never saying anything, but seeming a little less on edge than he did before. At night, he and Steve fuck and sleep together. It's even easy to bring up Sam getting his own place. He says, "So, I was thinking about renting a place of my own for awhile, since we're doing this."
Steve doesn't even blink. He just says, "Great, I'll look into some ads."
Which, of course, makes Sam say, "It's called Craigslist, old man." And Steve laughs at that.
He's got three showings lined up when they get the call.
It's Fury, Sam can tell that even though Steve's the one Fury calls. Steve's face goes from relaxed and easy to tense and concerned in roughly ten minutes. "Denver, you said? Send me the coordinates. Got it. Thanks. Bye," he says, and hangs up.
"Let me guess," Sam says. "We're taking a trip."
"It's Natasha," Steve says. "She's been captured. She's in a HYDRA base near Denver - Bucky!"
Bucky freezes at the front door.
"You don't even have the coordinates," Sam says. "We're going with you."
"What, in a car?" Bucky says. "I can get there faster."
"Actually," Steve says, "A charter plane that Fury set up for us. So I don't think you can."
Bucky stares at them. "Fine," he says. "But hurry."
They do hurry. Sam's tense as hell on the flight to Denver. It's helped a little by the fact that as soon as they're buckled in, Steve grabs Sam's hand and holds it in a crushing grip. Sam would prefer his bones not get ground to dust by a nervous super-soldier, but he'd be lying if he claimed he doesn't want a little comfort, currently.
How badly did Natasha fuck up, that she got captured?
Bucky occasionally glances at them. He's tense, too, looking like he's on the razor's edge. Sam can't tell if he approves of the hand-holding or not. Actually, Sam's not sure he's even seeing the hand-holding, or anything, aside from his need to murder the people who took Natasha.
Sam hasn't asked how Bucky knows her, or what she is to him. He's pretty sure none of them is ready for that particular revelation.
Steve drives them to the base once they land. He doesn't go 100, but only because, he says, "The last thing we need is a trail of bodies, or tickets, showing we've been here."
It's a good point, so Sam shuts up and lets him do 75 in a 70.
There's smoke rising from the trees when they get close. "Okay," Steve says. "Google maps can't help us from here, so look for -"
"There," Bucky says, pointing to a barely visible dirt road off the state highway.
Steve slams on the breaks and turns, tires squealing as they bump onto the road.
But something's not right - even more not right. The smoke gets thicker, then clears as they come to a stop in front of a fenced-in facility. It's not exactly subtle, Sam thinks.
"Let's go," Steve says. He's wearing his uniform; Sam straps on his wings. Bucky has guns in both hands. The three of them walk up towards the burning building together.
When they get close enough to reach up and touch the outer concrete wall, the front door opens, and Natasha steps out.
"Natasha!" Steve says.
At the same time, Bucky snarls and puts one of his guns to her temple. "Liar."
She looks at them calmly. "Gentlemen."
"Natasha," Steve says. He sounds lost. "What is going on?"
"Just taking care of some old business," she says. She looks at Bucky steadily. "Want to put that gun away?"
"Explain," he says, shoving it more firmly against her head.
"I have the names of ten highly placed HYDRA agents, and three facilities like this one," she says. "I know you've been having fun hanging out with the do-good twins here -"
"Hey," Sam says.
"- but I'm offering you a chance at something a little different. Revenge."
"Why should I trust the Widow?" Bucky says. His words have gone thick, suddenly, wrapped around a Russian accent.
"Because no one else has these names, not even Fury," Natasha says. "And because I know what you've been through." She speaks Russian, then. Whatever she says makes Bucky stiffen even more, before he whips his gun away from her head and puts it back in its holster.
"Fine," he says. "Let's go."
"Buck," Steve says, but he sounds resigned.
Bucky looks between Steve and Sam. He locks eyes with Sam. "Thank you," he says. He looks at Steve. "I'll be back." That, he says a little quieter, like he's willing Steve to believe it.
"My car's this way," Natasha says, pointing to the other side of the building. "Good seeing you guys," she adds, and leads Bucky away.
"Well," Sam says. "And here I was geared up for a fight."
Steve hunches his shoulders.
Sam steps forward, then, puts a finger under Steve's chin and kisses him. "You let him go," Sam says. "That was the right thing to do. I don't know what's going on between them, but they have some kind of connection. We helped him. She can, too."
"I know," Steve says. It's hard to read his expression through the mask, but Sam thinks he might feel a little better. Marginally, anyway. "Let's go home."
In the end, Sam does move out. He goes back to working for Jerry, and in a month, when it becomes obvious he's not going to run off again, Jerry makes him full time. Sam starts going to local VA meetings again. He's still flying with Stark, and he's starting to get the feeling that when shit goes down, he'll be given some kevlar and told to put his wings on again. He's also starting to get the feeling that he'd be okay with that.
Steve takes art classes and volunteers at a local writing center, helping kids with essays and leading art classes of his own. He and Steve date. Sam stays over more nights than not. Steve looks at him sweetly, kisses him, and occasionally gets flushed and annoyed when Sam fucks with him a little too much about being an old guy. Eventually, they drive down to Baltimore so Steve can meet Sam's mother.
Sam still has nightmares; Steve's still a little lonely. But they figure it out. And really, that's all Sam can ask for.