"Fancy seeing you here," Natasha says, sliding into the empty seat across from Sam with her back to the plate-glass window that takes up the front of the coffee shop. The midday lull has hit—the tables on either side of them are vacant and the employees are all behind the counter, restocking cups and straws, refilling milk carafes, prepping for the after-work rush. "What are you up to these days?"
Sam sighs and lowers his phone. "You know exactly what I'm 'up to,' don't play with me."
"The army offered you wings, Stark offered you a spot on his payroll." Natasha thumbs the join of the cardboard sleeve on her cup. "You've declined. I wondered why."
It's been a few months since they got back from Europe, since the extraction; Sam's still settling back into his daily routine. He can run his favorite route through the Capitol on autopilot, but it's difficult to shake the pervasive sense he's in enemy territory. At night, he sweats and dreams about Riley, and sometimes about Steve, the way he looked at the very end of their mission.
"I have a job to do here," Sam says. He pushes off the floor with one foot, rocking his chair back against the wall. "Pretty important one, actually."
Natasha nods, taps her fingers on the table, gets to her feet. "I'll be seeing you."
Sam watches Natasha walk to the curb, where she gets picked up by someone in a purple sportscar. He has a clear line of sight the whole way—the only good cover in this place is the counter. The tall guy who made his latte is rearranging the pastry case now, laughing at something the girl on register is saying. They look like nice kids.
Steve is still in DC. They jog together on Mondays and Wednesdays. Every now and then, Steve pops his head in at the VA and Sam manages to steal him away for lunch. Steve tries real hard, but he's not subtle, checking his watch like most guys fiddle with their phones. Sam usually gives him an out before it gets too bad. Let Captain America have a little dignity.
He's been down this road before with guys at home, guys in his unit, and, hell, Benny who works down the hall now. It's the same old story. Stand-up guy with a little baggage, can't help falling for someone who needs him, someone who needs him to be all the best parts of himself—it's a one-way trip toward midnight sobbing phone calls, pregnancy tests, and bail money. Except Barnes doesn't like phones, doesn't have the equipment, and he's already on house arrest.
One night—this was before Barnes was Barnes, back when he was just The Winter Soldier to everyone but Steve—Steve and Sam were bunking down for the night in the woods while Natasha took first watch for their camp. "Bucky took care of me, after my folks died," Steve said softly, maybe to the tent pole overhead, maybe to Sam. "He was my whole world, you know? I'd do anything for him."
"He sounds like he was a good friend," Sam said for the fortieth or fiftieth time since they'd shipped out of DC. Not that he was keeping track. He knew how to have this discussion, anyway: he had it almost every day at work, and he'd lived both sides. But Steve wasn't making any progress. The longer the mission went on, the more they seemed to be heading backward—into Steve's past, even as they moved closer to the Russian border.
Steve sighed. "He was more than that, Sam."
"Were you—" Sam hesitated. "…Boyfriends?"
Steve was quiet for a moment. "No, I never—and Bucky loves girls, he was always a hit with the—" Abruptly, he fell silent.
Sam cleared his throat. "You know, it's okay if you—"
"I know," Steve said.
Then they got Barnes back. Natasha shot a lot of people and spent five grand on duty-free vodka in the airport. They went home.
Natasha's voice is all tinny treble on the voicemail. "Stark calls him 'The Asshole,'" she says. That's it—that's the message.
"What are you grinning about?" Cammy says when she comes into the breakroom, heading straight for the sludge masquerading as coffee. She dumps about half the container of nondairy creamer into her Bruins mug before she reaches for the pot.
Sam shoves his phone into his pocket. "Oh, nothing."
He has a late night—a counseling appointment at four, paperwork to catch up on, a group meeting at six. On the way home, he swings by the Chinese place down the block.
"Hold your fire," Natasha calls out when he opens the door to the apartment.
Sam says, "I got General Tso's chicken and two kinds of lo mein."
They eat in the living room in front of the TV. Sam tries to eat with chopsticks with limited success; Natasha just uses a fork. "This is cute," she says around a mouth of noodle, gesturing toward the screen. "What is this?
The bubbly woman with curly hair drops another pan. "Gilmore Girls, I think."
Natasha watches until the episode cuts to commerical, toying with the noodles on her plate."Do you think he's getting better?"
"Barnes?" Sam says.
Natasha rolls her eyes. "Steve."
Sam chews for a few moments. "Steve's had a lot of shit go down," he says. "I don't think Barnes is helping. What is he doing, anyway? Does he have, like… hobbies?"
"He likes Animal Planet," Natasha says.
The thing is, Barnes is an asshole. Pretty much everything he remembers about his past is murder and Steve. Unless you're Steve, a target, or Steve, he just doesn't give a shit. The one time Sam went over to Steve's apartment after Barnes got remanded into his custody, Barnes stared at them from the chair in the corner where Fury got shot the entire time. Sam didn't realize until he got up to take a piss that Barnes wasn't staring at him. Just Steve.
"I think—after we've gotten the military and the CIA to declare him not a threat—" Steve spreads his hands wide. They're sprawled on the lawn in front of the Smithsonian while Sam catches his breath, Sam on his back and Steve sitting cross-legged in the grass. "He could work with us, you know? He has the skill set."
"Maybe he doesn't want to kill people anymore," Sam says.
Steve goes silent.
He's gone the next week, up to New York for some Avengers business, so Sam runs alone. He could be up there in New York, too—he could be up in the sky, if he wanted, but he's not. He's a civilian now.
Cammy lost most of her foot in Iraq. "IED, then gangrene," she says cheerfully when she talks about it. In the break room and the back office, she usually kicks off her orthopedic shoes and wanders around in fuzzy socks. She's a case manager, a Federal Recovery Coordinator who works with catastrophically ill and injured veterans, coordinating with the recovery center in Richmond. Cammy and her wife have a son, who's three. Kevin was Captain America last Halloween.
"Wonder if they'll make a Falcon costume next year," Natasha says when she finds that photo, scrolling through the Facebook photos Sam's been tagged in. "I bet there's a Pinterest page for the wings."
"God, don't," Sam groans into his arm. It's 8AM, the sunlight is streaming through his windows, and he's hungover as hell. He also doesn't remember letting Natasha in, but maybe he didn't—it's Natasha. "Can you shut the blinds?"
Natasha studies him for a moment before she grants him mercy. "Was it an anniversary last night?"
"A birthday," Sam says. Riley never got on Facebook. "Today."
"You want to get a cake?" she says.
"Fuck off," Sam says.
He takes a shower, puts on sunglasses, and they go to Shoppers and buy a quarter sheet cake, yellow with chocolate buttercream frosting. Natasha picks out a tube of blue icing to go with the roses on top, and Sam writes it himself at home: Happy Birthday, Riley. "Where's he buried?" she says.
"We're not going to eat cake on his grave," Sam says.
Natasha huffs. "I just meant—he's not here, right? Or you'd be there."
"Arkansas," Sam says. "With his family."
The cake tastes like grocery store sheet cake, so all right. Sam smudges the inscription and brings it into the office the next morning, fobs it off on Jeremy and Sutro and Cammy. When he gets home, the gold-foiled cardboard base is still on the counter, smudged with buttercream that Sam scoops up with his thumb. It's dry and too sugary: he'd have killed for something like this out in the desert.
On the plane back to the US, Barnes was sedated—Natasha shot enough thorazine into him to knock out a cow—and his head lolled against Steve's shoulder for most of the flight. He was a little congested, so he breathed loudly through his mouth and drooled on Steve's shoulder. Steve held Barnes's hand the whole way back. The other one rested in Barnes's lap, gleaming and dormant. That was when Sam saw the way this was going to go when they got back home.
Sam's straight-but-not-narrow—he had a questioning phase in high school, but that was more about Usher and less about Sam—and he met Riley when they were both fresh-faced kids plucked from prestigious college ROTC programs and dumped into basic training together. They didn't grow up together, and Sam never met Riley's parents, let alone the rest of his sprawling family—he couldn't just leave his mission to go home for the funeral. But he knows all Riley's secrets, just as Riley knew all of his—they spent years sleeping scant feet away from each other at night, always close enough to touch. Could finish each other's sentences. In the air, that first time, they whooped like children. Free.
When Sam agreed to help Steve, it seemed simple, in a way. Like that endless dive down to the ground, which Riley inevitably reached before him for one last, permanent landing. Sam still dreams about making the catch, even though he knows Riley was already dead—took bullets to the head, the heart, the gut, the spleen. He'd do it anyway if he got a second chance. Just to hold him on the way down.
Steve shows up at the end of Sam's last group meeting with his face drawn and grim. Sam takes one look at Steve and drags him back into his office, sits Steve down at his messy desk and parks his own ass on Vivi's impeccable one. "What is it?" Sam pitches his voice low. "Is there—do you need me to—?" He's thinking, Hydra, Pierce, the great firefight that happened overhead. He's thinking, you need me to re-up?
"Bucky," Steve says. "It's just Bucky."
With clients, Sam waits a while, lets them talk it out, eases them into it before he says, do you want me to call a social worker. He doesn't know who he should call now. Natasha? Stark? The Pentagon? "Tell me," he says.
"He keeps having nightmares. He can't wake up. He—" Steve folds his arms, frowns at Sam's knees. "He says my name."
Sam waits for a moment, but Steve doesn't go on. "Like he needs your help?"
Steve shakes his head. "No. Like he's—afraid."
Jesus. "For what you've been through, it's pretty normal to have bad dreams," Sam says lightly. "I have them. Do you?"
The light outside is dwindling, but the streetlights aren't yet on; Sam can barely make out Steve's expression in the dim room, but he sees the moment Steve's head snaps up, spine straightening. "I do," Steve says. "I—it was easier, before. I didn't think it would be so hard. I don't want to hurt him anymore. I don't want him to hurt, Sam."
The Winter Soldier yanked the steering wheel out of a car Sam was driving; that's one of Sam's bad dreams. It's hard to reconcile what happened that day with the scruffy guy who sits in Steve's apartment and stares at Steve and, apparently, Animal Planet. "You can't fix him," Sam says. "That's not your job, okay? You're his—friend. You're not a wizard."
Steve's face twists—a grimace, maybe, or a wry smile. "I'm Captain America."
"Yeah," Sam says. "You are." Then he swallows his pride and his judgment, leans across Steve to power up his computer. Barnes is a veteran, too. They can help him here.
The next time Natasha shows up at Sam's favorite coffee shop, he's sitting at one of the tables outside, his back to the big plate-glass window. There's no cover at all, but Sam's taking his chances. He says, "Fancy seeing you here."
"I was in the neighborhood." She drops into the chair across from him, gives him a tentative smile.
They sit like that for a while, with the patio table and a comfortable silence between them. A stray napkin flutters past in the wind and Natasha grabs it, pins it beneath Sam's empty plate so it won't float away. The sky is growing dark and the air's a bit chill, but Sam wouldn't trade his place for anything less than the world.