Sam wasn't sure when his apartment had turned into a hangout for chronologically displaced superheroes, unemployed spies, and rogue assassins. They just started turning up like stray cats and he made the mistake of feeding them, so then they didn't leave. At least not permanently. And he was mostly okay with that.
It probably started with the Rogers-Wilson World Tour of Cold War Torture Chambers ("I said we're not calling it that, Sam"). They didn't find Barnes on the Tour de Trauma, but they kept getting interrupted by Steve's various acquaintances/work buddies/friends-of-friends needing help, which meant that by the time Sam's vacation time from the VA ran out, he'd kinda-sorta gotten to know:
- A pleasant scientist type named Bruce, who Steve warned him repeatedly not to upset, which was kind of ridiculous since Bruce was about the mellowest guy Sam had ever met, but whatever, apparently there was some history there;
- Clint, a buddy of Natasha's, who seemed like an okay guy except for having absolutely no sense of humor and a tendency to sit on top of the refrigerator, kitchen counter, and other places that really shouldn't have people on them;
- Nick Fury, who didn't improve on repeat exposure, even if he did save Sam's ass that one time with his mad helicopter flying skills, and that one other time in Hungary with his mad knife-throwing skills;
- And a CIA lady named Sharon, who was way too classy for Steve. ("She's just a friend, Sam, stop implying things, you're worse than Natasha.")
Then they got back to DC to discover that Natasha had apparently found Barnes in their absence, or he'd found her, or tried to kill her, or something; anyway, Barnes was back, alive, and going to therapy three times a week, in between disappearing for long intervals (which made Steve go distant and weird) and then showing up again to hang around Steve like a silent, poker-faced shadow.
Sam didn't see that much of him at first, but as it became more and more of a thing for Steve to come over to Sam's place (they generally hung out at Sam's, because Sam had a big-screen TV and an Xbox), it also became more common for other people to be dragged along in Steve's gravitational pull. Sam really didn't mind. He'd never thought of himself as lonely, but for a long time now, his social life had mostly consisted of the VA and occasional poker nights with some of his work buddies. He had been a part of something once, and then it was gone (gone forever, gone in a blossom of fire in a clear blue desert sky). He'd thought he was dealing pretty well -- he'd found a new thing to be a part of, he had a routine, he had a life. Except his life consisted basically of going to work and running and watching SportsCenter with a beer in the evening. He liked people, he just didn't really seem to want to have them around that much.
And then an increasing number of people decided to attach themselves to him. They were all horribly broken in various ways, which meant everyone had that in common, at least. Steve occasionally chipped in on the groceries, especially when Natasha showed up in the middle of the night and drank all the alcohol in the house. They watched movies and Barnes camped out on the chair farthest from everyone else (and always, always facing the door). He'd traded his black leather duds for black jeans and an endless parade of solid black T-shirts, and he never really talked, but neither was he abusive or outwardly homicidal. He was unobtrusive and polite and just kind of ... there.
The first full-scale superhero/spy/rogue assassin sleepover was probably inevitable. Sam had gone to bed shortly after midnight (because some people have jobs, thank you very much) and they at least managed to be quiet, but he got up to find that none of them had left. Steve and Natasha had fallen asleep on the couch in a limp-limbed puppy pile with Steve's head on Natasha's shoulder and her arm in his lap. Barnes was still awake, halfheartedly watching a talk show with the sound turned off. He tensed when Sam padded out of the bedroom, then slowly relaxed, though not to the point that he couldn't have reached on a split second's notice for any of the knives undoubtedly hidden around his person. Sam nodded to him. Barnes nodded back.
... and then Sam went back into his bedroom to get his phone, because opportunities like this did not come along every day. Aware of Barnes' solemn, curious eyes on him the whole time, he took a couple blackmail-worthy photographs of the supersoldier and superspy draped on each other like tired children. Then he glanced over at Barnes and managed to catch a tiny smile. Sam had never seen Barnes -- Bucky -- smile before. It softened the sharp planes of his face and made him look younger, closer to what was probably his actual biological age.
Sam had been planning his usual morning routine -- jogging with Steve, a quick breakfast and off to work -- but instead he opened the fridge and did an inventory. He hadn't intended to feed this many people, but he could probably make it work. The two Sleeping Beauties were still sacked out, so Sam jerked his head at Barnes, who merely looked back at him with a blank, watchful stare.
"Come on, give me a hand, man," Sam said quietly.
The blank look didn't get any less blank; then Barnes spoke softly. "I'm ... not a good cook."
Sam had no idea if this was something he'd remembered about himself, something he was assuming on general principles, or a polite way of blowing off the request; regardless, Sam didn't plan to give up that easy. "Even you can probably manage to mix some eggs without destroying the kitchen." He hoped.
Barnes continued to look blank. One of the things that had taken some getting used to was that he tended to forget to change his facial expression; it was one of the many social nuances that wasn't quite automatic for him -- not yet, maybe not ever -- and he often didn't bother, or else he had enough mental work keeping up with the rest of his fragmented psyche that he couldn't spare the attention.
However, he raised his flesh-and-blood hand slowly, and flipped Sam off.
"Is that a yes or a no? Because Mrs. Wilson didn't raise her boy to coddle freeloaders." But Sam grinned to make it clear that he wasn't serious, and this managed to coax out another tiny grin before Bucky rose from his chair with a catlike flip: sitting one minute, standing on the balls of his feet the next.
"Hair," Sam said, and Bucky stopped and looked at him. "Come on, you look like you're trying out for a metal band. It'll get in the food. You got anything to tie -- oh, I'm sure I've got something ..." There was a stray rubber band in the junk drawer beside the sink. Sam tossed it to him. Bucky snatched it out of the air without having to look at it, paused again, and then slowly and obediently tied his hair back in a ponytail. He took the mixing bowl that Sam handed him, his face still blank, and Sam wondered if he was going to have to explain every step of the process -- but then Bucky got with the program and began cracking eggs into the bowl.
Sam got out the pancake mix. "You like pancakes?"
"I don't kn --" Bucky stopped in midsentence. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I do." Weirdly, there was still no expression on his face; then he seemed to remember how faces work, because his expression flickered and for a startling instant Sam thought he might have glimpsed the Bucky that Steve had known all those years ago in Brooklyn, or the modern version of him, anyway -- it was a bright expression, a flash of light and life. "Yes," he repeated, and the words came out slowly as if he was tasting each one. "My mother -- used to make ...." He trailed off and then said, "Sundays."
"Hell, really?" Sam said. "Mine too. Every Sunday morning, after church -- she didn't make 'em from scratch, though. Everything came out of a box. Mom's a lawyer and Sunday was usually the only day she did any cooking at all." He snorted. "Dad says now that she's retired, she's gone full-on domestic and it's terrifying, especially since she's not very good at it. I've only caught the edge of the hurricane when I'm home for holidays."
Bucky opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before he asked hesitantly, "Did you have ... fruit? On it?"
"Hey, yeah we did." He hadn't thought about that in years -- the neat little bowls of strawberries and fresh raspberries and sliced bananas, all lined up on a crisp tablecloth. "You?"
"We did when we could." There was soft wonder in Bucky's tone, and his voice got steadily more clear and sure; again, Sam was aware of the sense of someone else, someone much more dynamic and aware, behind the ironclad wall of Bucky's confusion and emotional defenses. "You couldn't get fresh fruit year 'round the way you can now. I mean, I guess there was some, but mostly it was fruit carts in the summer, and then in the winter you got by with an apple here and there. Or bananas -- there were bananas, I don't know why."
"They grow in the tropics, so you'd have them all year 'round, I guess," Sam said. "Hand me a couple eggs?"
It was his first real glimpse of the person under the Winter Soldier mask, the person Steve was willing to die for. (And if Steve could be believed, the converse was also true, though Sam had yet to see evidence of that.) Sam was thinking about it a couple weeks later when he happened to notice that 2-pound flats of strawberries were on sale at Safeway. They weren't in the best shape, a little bruised and banged up from their trip up from sunny Florida climes to DC's gray winter, but hey, strawberries in January -- he'd honestly never thought about it before. You go to the store and there's fresh fruit. That's how it works, right? Not for guys who grew up in the Depression, apparently.
Sam picked up a few boxes of fruit, a pound cake and some spray whipped cream. He didn't remember 'til he'd taken them out to the car that Steve had gone out of town a couple of days ago for something he was doing for Definitely-Not-S.H.I.E.L.D-Anymore that Sam probably wasn't supposed to know about. He shuffled the contents of the fridge to make room for the stuff anyway. If Steve didn't get back in a day or two, Sam could take strawberry shortcake into the VA and be the most popular person in the room for an afternoon or so.
But a few hours later, as he was sacked out on the couch watching ESPN, Steve texted him to say, Mind if I drop by? With friends? We'll bring beer.
Only if it's the good stuff, Sam typed back lazily. None of that Milwaukee shit.
Sam had given Steve a key, because Steve was always over here anyway and it was nice to have someone to water the houseplants when Sam himself had to go somewhere, but Steve knocked anyway, because Steve. (He'd finally gotten comfortable to come in when he was alone, but usually knocked when he had some constituent parts of Team Spy with him.) Sam was expecting Bucky, maybe Natasha, and wasn't disappointed. They had Sharon with them too. All of them were a little singed around the edges, and there was a deep cut over Natasha's eyebrow.
"Everyone we know is trying to kill us," Natasha said as soon as he opened the door.
Sam opened his mouth.
"Just kidding," she went on, perfectly deadpan but now with the faintest trace of a smile.
"Steve, you need new friends," Sam complained, holding the door for them. Sharon was favoring her left foot and leaning on Bucky, who looked extremely nervous about it and held her as far from his body as it was possible to hold someone while still serving as a human crutch. "Does anyone need a, uh ... hospital?"
"I think everyone is okay," Steve said, although the half-dried blood clotted around Natasha's eyelashes made the reassurance somewhat less than convincing in Sam's opinion. "It's been a long day -- a really long day."
They'd brought a couple six-packs of a really good microbrew, so Sam fetched the first-aid kit as a proper host offering. Sharon and Natasha vanished into the bathroom with it.
"If you had plans --" Steve began apologetically.
"You see my plans." Sam waved a hand at the TV, where stock cars were zipping silently around a track. "You guys hungry?"
"We ate on the way back to DC."
"Guess I'm just gonna have to throw out the strawberries and cake I got, then."
Steve blinked. ".... wait."
"I just distinctly heard the words 'strawberries and cake'," Sharon said, coming back from the bathroom with a towel slung around her shoulders. "Steve, I like your friends."
"You can sit down," Sam told Bucky, who'd been standing in place like he'd forgotten what chairs were for, or how his legs worked. Bucky promptly dropped onto the couch like a puppet with cut strings. When he was tired, he sometimes zoned out -- forgot what he was doing, or maybe who he was, or simply forgot how to think at all.
Sam thought it was a terrible idea to take someone that fundamentally messed up into combat, but when he'd broached the subject with Steve, Steve had claimed that a) Bucky was more collected and competent under fire than at any other time, and b) leaving him behind would have most likely involved chaining him to something very large and very heavy. So, well, that was a thing that happened. They were both grown-ups, after all.
"Can I help, Mr. Wilson?" Sharon asked.
"You can call me Sam, and you can also sit," Sam said. They all looked in need of some sitting time. "You can help," he informed Steve, as if Steve didn't look as beat as the rest of them, but Steve grinned and joined him in the kitchen.
"You know, I've been thinking about getting back out in the field," Sam said casually as he sliced cake and Steve chopped up strawberries.
"You don't have to," Steve said. "You have a life here."
"I know. I don't plan to give it up. But ..." He couldn't quite explain; it just felt wrong to sit on the sidelines while his friend (friends, really, who was he kidding) went out and risked their lives in far parts of the world. He'd thought he'd dealt with that particular guilt when he got out of the service. But now it was back, a hard heat in his chest. He didn't want to get a phone call about Steve -- or, worse, to just never know, when one day Steve failed to show up on his doorstep. It wasn't like that Fury dude was going to tell him anything.
"If you're serious about it, I bet Stark would make another pair of wings for you," Steve said. "You want to fly again?"
"Are you kidding?" Another thing he hadn't realized how much he'd missed -- but that rush, God, that rush. Being grounded was harder the second time than the first. "Wait, the Stark? You -- of course you know Stark, he's the guy in the iron suit after all." Steve was so down-to-earth most of the time that it was easy to forget his circle of acquaintances was a virtual Who's Who of the superhero world.
"I can call him in the morning if you want," Steve said. "I could do it tonight, I'm sure he's still up, but I don't think I have the energy to deal with Stark right now. Sam --" Steve caught his arm, but it was those blue eyes that held him. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Sure as I've ever been about anything."
Steve nodded slowly and let him go. Maybe he'd liked the idea that Sam was safely out of harm's way, but damn, if the last couple of years had proven anything, it was that nowhere was truly safe. Sam would rather go out fighting than get nailed in his bed by a piece of falling building the next time an alien spaceship crashed into the city or whatever.
And the idea of flying again -- he didn't want to hope too much, didn't want that leaden feeling to drag him back to earth again, but -- yeah. That would be good. Better than good.
But for now, he laid slices of cake on plates and served them to a roomful of slightly-dented-around-the-edges, would-be superheroes. Sharon sprawled on the chair that was usually Bucky's, hooked a leg over the armrest, and made happy noises as she dug into her treat. Steve planted himself beside Bucky on the couch, and Bucky, somewhat unusually, let him. It was actually the first time Sam had seen Bucky settle himself in the center of the room rather than hovering around the periphery, though he wasn't about to say anything and ruin the mood.
"You know," Steve said quietly, nudging Bucky's shoulder, "your mom used to make pancakes for us, with strawberries. I think it's the only time I ever ate them, growing up."
"I know," Bucky said with a trace of impatience, and smiled that disarmingly sweet smile. This time it touched his eyes. "I remember that."
Sam took his plate over to the window and looked out on the winter-dead backyard. A little snow had started to fall, a tiny tracery of flakes glittering under the porch light.
"I've never eaten this before," a quiet voice said at his shoulder, and Sam nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Don't sneak up on a guy," he snapped at Natasha. She was utterly unmoved, but her eyes were laughing at him. "Wait," he added. She was licking crushed strawberries off her spoon. "You've never had strawberries?"
"Of course I have. Don't be absurd. Just never on cake." She shrugged. "I don't recall if I ever had cake as a child. And catching up on tastes of the world's cuisine has never been high on my list of priorities."
"I suppose it wouldn't be."
She was still watching him out of the corner of her eye, and Sam belatedly caught up with the fact that she'd never told him anything personal about herself before. It was the tiniest of tiny things. And yet, that little fact -- I never had cake -- seemed to contain a multitude of meanings within it, not the least being I trust you enough to tell you these things.
Before the moment could get too heavy, she scooped up another bite and licked it off her spoon, making sure to curl her tongue around it obscenely. The corner of her mouth tugged up as she watched him watching her.
"Just for that," Sam told her, "you're doing the dishes."