They were about fifty miles from Atlanta when Sam stirred and yawned awake in the passenger seat. “Morning,” Steve said: the sun had come up, but the two-lane road was still pretty empty, a little morning mist hanging low over the asphalt and in the trees.
Sam squinted out the window at a passing sign. “We’re near Canton? Since when did we head south?”
“Since I got a call from Natasha about four hours ago,” Steve said. “Reliable sighting of a man with a steel hand in southwest Atlanta. He broke up a fight in a bar parking lot—beat up some of the guys on one side, put a couple of them in the hospital.” He made himself say it calmly, easily; he wasn’t going to believe just yet. Most of the witnesses had probably been drunk. But in his gut, he couldn’t help hoping. It was Bucky all over, wading into a fight that wasn’t his, maybe because he saw some little guy getting his ass kicked. The news was four days old, but that was a ten-year improvement on the next-freshest lead they’d found so far. “Sounded worth following up.” He jerked his chin at a billboard for a roadside joint a few miles away, saying People say we haven’t kept up with the times, but we’re open 24 hours a day. “Want to stop for some coffee?”
Sam shook his head, yawning and twisting side to side in the seat to loosen up. “Nah, keep going. We’re going to have to stop anyway, closer to the city. I should’ve warned you about Atlanta.”
“What?” Steve said, shooting Sam a look. “You think there’s some kind of Hydra base here?”
“No, dude, my grandmother’s here,” Sam said. “We’ll get breakfast at her place.”
“She won’t mind us just showing up?” Steve said.
Sam snorted. “We don’t show up, my life will not be worth living. Oh,” when Steve laughed, “you think that’s funny? I’d be hearing it for the next five years. ‘Please pass the grits, Grandma,’ at Thanksgiving and I’ll get ‘You sure? I figured you didn’t like ‘em that much, seeing how you couldn’t be bothered to stop in and get some.’”
“How would she know if you don’t tell her?” Steve said, but he was grinning. He’d known guys with family like that: if you got a furlough and didn’t come home, you’d better have been bleeding in a ditch somewhere.
“Remember that guy who tweeted that photo of us from Boston last week?” Sam said. “It showed up on her facebook fifteen minutes after it went up. No way am I taking a chance like that. I have cautionary tales. My cousin Mark, he went to Cancun instead of coming to the family Christmas three years ago, and he hasn’t had a piece of my grandma’s pecan pie since. She doesn’t bring it out until he’s in another room and there are enough mouths around that it’s all gone before he gets any. My people know how to make you regret your misdeeds.”
“Okay, then,” Steve said, smiling. “Breakfast at your grandmother’s place.”
The house was out in the suburbs of the city, in a quiet neighborhood on a quiet street. Steve climbed out of the car and looked around, feeling oddly out of place and comfortable at the same time. The house looked big to his eyes, but he was pretty sure that was the city kid in him; it wasn’t fancy or anything, just a nice place, a lot like the houses on either side, with grass and trees and a simple front yard. Ordinary, in a good way; a place that was about family.
There didn’t seem to be a lot of families around his place in D.C.: sometimes you saw strollers with little kids in them being pushed on the street, or college kids, but not much in between. Playgrounds but no kids running around loose in the street playing stickball and yelling. He hadn’t noticed before how it made things feel wrong. Here, maybe there weren’t any kids running around outside right this minute, but you could still feel their presence: a football lying half-buried in the grass, a couple of toys on the front step.
Sam was ringing the bell, and there was a commotion from inside the house; four women across a range of ages coming out to hug him, and he could hear kids’ voices, raised, “Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!” a bunch of them yelling at once, and when Sam turned around again, a big-eyed two-year-old girl with tight braids had gotten attached to his neck. “Hey, man, come up here. Grandma, I brought my friend Steve for breakfast.”
They ate with eight people all told: Sam’s grandmother, Ruth; his aunt Lena who lived with her, and Lena’s daughters both visiting with their kids for the weekend. Breakfast was eggs, two kinds of ham, bacon, homefries, biscuits, gravy, “Would you boys eat some chicken-fried steak? Maybe I’ll make some,” and both of them saying they were full, which didn’t stop the steak from appearing about fifteen minutes later, hot cakes, and coffee; and the cheese grits, which were more than good enough to be worth a visit. More kept getting dished out. Steve ate for about an hour straight and finally had to give up with food still on his plate, the first time since the serum that had ever happened. Sam was already sprawled back in his chair refusing fourths.
“Well, if you’re sure you don’t want anymore,” Sam’s grandma said, with a faint suggestion in her voice that she was deeply disappointed in them, “I guess you can clear up.”
Sam groaned faintly and then heaved himself up. Steve helped carry dishes to the kitchen. They washed the dishes in the sink, a big window looking out over the backyard: the kids were out there running around a swingset, playing some kind of game. After a few minutes watching, Steve realized the game was blowing up the helicarriers: the oldest one was flying around with his arms spread, and the five-year-old girl was jumping around with a round plastic lid on her arm.
They finished the dishes and got shooed out to the back. “Go on, I’ll put up another pot of coffee,” his Aunt Lena said.
Sam glanced a question at him. Steve had pulled into the driveway hoping to get back on the road as soon as they could without being rude, but somehow now the words didn’t want to come to his mouth. Instead he followed Sam out and sat on the deck, cool green shade trees blocking the sun, the kids running around and playing. The coffee came out, along with pie. Sam’s aunt rubbed Sam’s shoulder with a hand in passing as she went back inside, just a small loving gesture. His grandma was in a rocking chair with knitting, and an ipad on the table next to her that made a new-email ping every ten minutes or so.
“I hear you grew up in New York City, Steve,” Ruth said, without looking up from her knitting, exactly as if she weren’t talking about something that had happened a century ago. “We’ve got people up there ourselves; one of my sons and Sam’s mother. You’re from Brooklyn?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Steve said, and answered questions about his family, his church, his old neighborhood and his new one. The questions about church made him feel vaguely guilty: it had been a long time. But he’d tried, and he just — he hadn’t felt comfortable. The church had been a lot fancier than his old one back in Brooklyn, and there had been a lot of people in expensive clothes staring at him in the aisles. Afterwards the priest wanted to talk to him in his office, which made Steve feel at first like he’d done something horribly wrong, and then just weird: the guy mainly had seemed interested in getting a picture of him in uniform, in the church, and having him promote some kind of group trying to get politicians to make abortions illegal again.
It hadn’t felt good; it hadn’t felt anything like talking to old Father Mack, who’d picked Steve up out of alleys once in a while and taken him back to the church to clean him up. This guy with his big fancy polished-wood desk and expensive suit sure wasn’t setting foot in any alleyways, and as for the abortion thing, Steve asked Peggy about it and got about five earfuls about girls dying on coat hangers and men minding their own damn business, so that was that. He hadn’t gone back.
But this did feel good. Even the squirm at being asked about church was familiar, and he didn’t mind it; he didn’t mind any of it, even though Sam tried to fend off some of the questions for him. “Sorry, man, I didn’t know I was bringing you in for the third degree here,” Sam said, glaring at his grandma indignantly.
She didn’t bat an eye. “An old lady’s got a right to be nosy,” she said firmly. “So your ma’s folks were from Ireland? I think one of Sam’s cousins on his dad’s side married a girl whose father was from Ireland — isn’t that right, honey? Your cousin Paulie.”
“I have nineteen cousins, damn if I know,” Sam said, laughing.
Ruth was nodding to herself. “No, that was it; I remember. I talked to her grandma at the wedding. She came over for it, from Kilkenny, that was it. Nice folks: it was a nice wedding. Whereabouts were your people from?”
Steve excused himself after a bit to go to the bathroom, and while he was there he abruptly bent down and washed his face with cold water, feeling hot and tired and sad. Or more like — noticing that he was hot and tired and sad, because it was the first time in a long while he’d felt anything else. He laced his cold wet hands on the back of his neck and breathed in and out a few times, and then he wiped his face and went back outside.
Sam’s aunt was standing with a hand resting on Ruth’s chair, her face a little drawn and worried. Sam was saying, “ —do the same for me, if it was Riley out there,” flat and a little bit angry, and he cut it off when Steve came out the door. “We should probably get going,” he said, standing up.
“Be careful driving,” his grandmother said equably, lifting her head so Sam could kiss her cheek. His aunt didn’t say anything, just hugged him tight one last time.
“Sorry about that,” Sam said, in the car; he’d taken the wheel. Steve stared out the window at houses rolling by, ordinary lives: more swingsets, more kids, people sitting on their front porches, American flags waving here and there.
“Don’t be,” he said, his throat tight. “You’ve got people who worry about you. Don’t be sorry.”
He felt Sam’s eyes on him; he didn’t look back to meet them. After a minute, Sam patted his thigh, and then kept on driving.
They found the bar; it was only about fifteen minutes drive away. The bartender had seen a bunch of the fight. Steve showed him the sketches he’d made, pictures drawn in the front seat of the car over the last few weeks: Bucky’s face, or what his face had become, hollows under too-wide eyes, a mouth set permanently down, long stringy hair, and the arm, the hand: all the silver gleaming parts of it.
“Yeah,” the bartender said immediately, positive. “Yeah, that was it,” pointing at the drawing of the hand. “I know, because I was going to tell him no brass knuckles, and then I got close and figured it was a prosthetic, so I backed off. And then outside, I saw him put it through the freaking hood of a car.”
He let them watch the tapes from the parking lot security camera, blurry footage of a guy with dark hair moving faster than the cheap camera could follow, going through a group of people who seemed to be standing still to be hit.
“Hey,” Sam said, nudging him, and Steve looked up from the black and white screen to follow where he was looking: through the front window of the place and across the street, at a cheap motel with a lit-up Vacancy sign.
They caught a break: Bucky had paid in cash for two weeks in advance and left the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. The room hadn’t been cleaned up yet. The mirror in the bathroom had been smashed in, cracks spiderwebbed out from an impact the size of a fist; the garbage can was overflowing with trash.
Steve couldn’t help the first surge of excitement, hope. Then they spent hours piecing together garbage: crumpled newspapers, fast food wrappers, packaging for a mini-USB cable, receipt for a power screwdriver. Nothing that pointed anywhere; the newspapers were all recent, and Bucky was long gone. Steve sat down on one of the beds, heavily. They were both still made: Bucky had probably slept on the floor. He put his face in his hands. After a moment, he felt the bed shift as Sam sat down next to him, put a hand on his shoulder.
“He’s got to know I’m looking for him,” Steve said. He could barely hear his own voice. “Why wouldn’t he—” He stopped. He’d read the file. He knew the reasons; all the reasons it could be. He just didn’t want to believe in them. Steve looked around the room: dark, faded walls, cheap bedspread made out of something that felt weird and unnatural, almost waterproof. “Why would he come here? Sit in a motel room, start a bar fight, take off again — ”
“Hey, hang on a second,” Sam said. He was smoothing out the hardware store receipt. But it was just a small tickertape receipt, useless; even the top where the store name might have been listed was obliterated where mustard had smeared across it and disintegrated the paper. “Look at this, man. There wasn’t any change given, and it’s $65.93. I’ll bet you he paid for this with a credit card.”
“It doesn’t have the number,” Steve said, tiredly.
“No, but the store would have it,” Sam said. He looked at his watch and shook his head. “Too late now, and around here the stores mostly close on Sunday. On Monday we can call around the neighborhood, try and find the place. Might take us a while, but chances are we’ll find it. If we get Natasha that number, maybe she can dig something else up for us.”
Sam drove them back to his grandma’s place, and ordered Steve out to the backyard to play with the kids. The oldest boy, Caleb, studied him with a skeptical expression; he was clearly in charge. “Okay, you can be the helicarrier,” he finally allowed, and Steve spent the next two solid hours being crashed by one elaborate scheme after another, including the one where Caleb was a dinosaur, Miriam was someone named Elsa who had ice powers that Steve made a mental note to find out about, Jeb was Spider-Man, and little Jerusha was a pony, who dealt the final crushing blow with a stick she picked up and declared was a magic wand. That led to a long yelling argument over whether ponies could use magic wands, with Miriam insisting that magic ponies could, and Caleb insisting that ponies didn’t have hands even if they were magical. They finally compromised on a complete do-over.
“Maybe we could play hide and seek instead,” Steve tried.
“A helicarrier can’t hide, it is way too big,” Miriam said firmly. “Death to Hydra!” The kids all yelled and jumped on him at the same time.
After another hour, Steve called a halt. “Okay, that’s it,” he said, flattened out on the grass, “I’m down. I’m in the Potomac. Done.”
The kids all sighed noisily. Caleb nudged him in the side with the inflatable bat he’d been using — he was being Thor, this time around. “Maybe you have one engine left?” he said hopefully.
“Nope,” Steve said, refusing to open his eyes. “It’s on fire.”
“Okay, you guys, lay off the old man,” Sam’s voice said. “Time to go wash up, dinner’s in ten.”
A chorus of awwws and a half-hearted wail from Jerusha, and they marched off. Steve opened his eyes as Sam settled down in the grass next to him, grinning. “Captain America brought down at last.”
“I’ve been on forced marches that took less energy,” Steve said ruefully, propping himself on an elbow. But he was smiling up at Sam, and it wasn’t an effort.
“I’d better warn you, we might be getting volunteered for a trip to the zoo tomorrow,” Sam said. “After church, which you can bag on account of being a Catholic heathen, if you want.”
“No,” Steve said, “No, I’ll come. If — that’s okay.”
“Tell my grandma you’re coming and maybe she’ll even lay off you after dinner,” Sam said.
She didn’t lay off after dinner. It wasn’t a fair fight: Steve could barely move. There had been four courses and three kinds of pie. “Well, we thought you boys would maybe be back,” she’d said, “so we made a little extra just in case. Here, you haven’t even tasted the peach pie; take it with some ice cream,” and afterwards Steve collapsed next to Sam in the porch rocker and gave up everything: details about his family he hadn’t even known that he knew, a description of his old apartment back before the war, and the block after that; the kids he’d used to run with. Seventy years ago; three years ago for him. He could almost see their faces in front of his eyes, a game of stickball, Bucky looking around to grin at him.
Then Ruth paused and said, “Any of your people from back then still around?” and Bucky’s face changed, hair lengthening, hollows shadowed in his cheeks, murder in his eyes. Steve flinched hard.
“Excuse me a moment,” he said, and got himself upstairs and shut himself into the bathroom again. It was a nice bathroom. Dark blue tile and white paint, fresh, clean lines. Steve opened the window for some fresh air and braced himself against the sill, half hearing Sam snapping at his grandma below. Steve was sorry; he didn’t want to put Sam in that position. It wasn’t even like he hadn’t been asked the questions before. It just hit harder here, somehow, to remember that he didn’t have — any of this. A place to belong. People who were his.
“ — bring my friend here, and you’re going after him like a tabloid — ” Sam was saying, really angry, and even though Steve felt bad about it, he shut his eyes and let himself feel grateful anyway: for my friend; for one person Steve could halfway feel like was his, even if he didn’t have a right to him.
Then Ruth said, “Samuel Thomas Wilson,” low and sharp, cutting Sam off. “I’m not asking him questions because he’s Captain America, and you know it.”
Sam didn’t answer her, abruptly gone silent. Steve lifted his head, puzzled, and then realized he was eavesdropping; he put his hands on the window, and then he didn’t shut it after all, because she was going on, “You think I don’t know what it means when you bring a friend to this house with that look in your eye?” and Sam still wasn’t saying anything. “I’ve had four children and seven grandchildren married before you, so don’t talk to me like I’ve got no business asking that young man questions.”
And Sam still didn’t say anything; Sam didn’t tell her she was wrong, and then Sam finally said, quietly, “Grandma, you need to back off. It’s not like that, all right? I’m not putting anything on him right now. He’s — he’s in a pretty dark place.”
She snorted. “What do you think marriage is even for? I suppose you think raising a family’s nothing but good times, year in and year out.”
Sam groaned, a muffled sound, like he’d put his hands over his face. “I should’ve taken my chances with twitter,” he said, still muffled.
Steve made himself shut the window, slow and quiet.
It was too late, though. He spent most of the night awake, staring at the ceiling thinking about it: about Sam, breathing steadily in the twin bed on the other side of the room, so close. He could get up and go to him, right now; kneel next to Sam’s bed and put a hand on his arm, and Sam would wake up and look at him. And then Sam — Sam would let him in.
Steve pressed his palms to his eyes, helplessly imagining. Sam’s hands skimming up under his shirt, over his skin; Sam murmuring, low, “I’ve got you.” Squeezing into a bed that was already too small for either one of them, Sam’s arms around him holding him on, and knowing the whole time that it meant something. That he was asking a question, getting an answer.
He’d thought about Sam the other that way before; hell, the first time he’d passed him going around the Mall. But he had plenty of practice with that stuff, with guys and girls both. In his book, a decent guy kept that stuff to himself. Sure, he’d needed a few moments of privacy now and then, three months on the road together — Sam coming out of the shower naked, a last drop of water rolling down between his shoulders as he bent over the suitcase to get out fresh clothes. Sam laughing full-out in the car, an arm stretched out behind Steve in the driver’s seat, highway sunshine glowing warm on his skin through the windshield. Feeling Sam’s eyes pausing on him, warm and just a little heavy-lidded, when Steve was pulling off his shirt at night.
But that wasn’t the same thing as asking somebody for a dance, for a date, for their hand in marriage. Not that Steve had ever figured out how to do any of those things; he’d privately been hoping, back when, that Peggy would let him know when it was time to propose. But still, that was how things were supposed to go as far as he was concerned. He didn’t like how they seemed to work these days, where people dated for years sometimes, having sex and even a good time, but not really getting anywhere — not putting their cards on the table, saying they were all-in, ready to be part of something bigger. And even when they did go all-in, they left themselves an out.
That wasn’t anything he wanted. This, though—Christ, did he want this. Steve didn’t care who’d make fun of him for thinking marriage before he’d even gotten a kiss. What the hell had waiting ever got him? He knew how Sam took his coffee, the quiet sound he made right when he was falling asleep, that he used a suitcase instead of a duffle and kept it packed in a crisp exact order, so he could lay his hands on anything he needed under a count of five. He knew Sam would follow him into a firefight straight out of hell, and die trying to catch him if he jumped off a plane. He knew Sam would go all-in, when he went, and now he knew Sam would go for him.
Except it would be selfish as hell to ask now. Sam could go all-in, but he couldn’t, because Bucky was out there — alone, so hurt it made Steve sick if he thought about it too hard. Steve had no idea what it was going to mean, when they finally tracked Bucky down. There was room in that grotesque file for a whole lot of worst-case scenarios, spending the rest of his own life trying to help Bucky put together the jigsaw pieces of his, with not a lot of him left over for anything — for anybody — else. But whatever it took, he was still on the hook for it. There wasn’t a choice about that, not one Steve could make.
He knew Sam got that: Sam who still had Riley’s half-melted dogtags, the ones he’d dived through fire to bring home. That didn’t mean Sam was going to be in the market for whatever leavings Steve had to give. Or that it was fair to try and sell them to him. Steve hadn’t blamed Ruth for asking questions to begin with. Now he got it completely — what else was she supposed to do? What would she think, any of Sam’s people think, about Sam getting himself tied up with a guy who was taking everything he had to give, giving nothing back, no odds of that changing anytime soon. Nobody who loved Sam would want that for him.
So that was the answer, final and brutal: if Steve asked, he couldn’t love Sam worth a damn. Steve turned over with his back to the room, to Sam’s bed; he shut his eyes.
It was hard to act normal in the morning and not let on about any of it. He felt like shit, but at least his supersoldier body kept ticking on, happy to eat more eggs and bacon and sling a couple of gleefully shrieking kids over his shoulders for the walk out to the cars. But he caught Sam’s eyes on him a couple of times, and did his best to avoid them.
It wasn’t like going to Mass: the church was plain and simple, just a single big cross on the wall and a podium for a pulpit, but the singing was amazing; the whole room knowing all the words, clapping, moving with the music. Steve could’ve felt awkward and out of place, except Sam was right next to him, and Sam belonged here. Even the sermon was like music, full of rhythm, people shouting out, calling to join in.
By then, a murmur was going around the room: people had looked first just because he was one of maybe four white guys in the place, and then they’d started double-taking, at him and Sam both. Steve squared his shoulders, ready to put up with it, but instead the pastor said from the head of the room, “All right, I know y’all can’t help whispering: that’s right, we’ve got a couple of our country’s heroes in the room today. Now let’s all thank the Lord together that He brought them safe to the shore; and let’s pray He keeps on bringing them in, and all their brothers and sisters in arms with them.”
The amens rang off the walls, and Steve felt his eyes stinging, painful and hot: someone in the choir started singing again, spontaneous, and everyone picked it up: full-throated praise, the storm is passing over. Steve couldn’t see anymore, the floor he was staring at a blur. But Sam put a hand in the small of his back, warm through his thin dress shirt, and it was like being grounded enough to take a lightning strike.
But afterwards it only made things even worse. In the friendly milling around after the service, Sam stayed close, keeping a hand on him: connected. Steve wanted to step away; or wanted to be able to step away, knowing it was the right thing to do, but he couldn’t bear to. He went through the motions: talked to people, shook hands, said thank you a lot, without really knowing what he was doing. Only that he wasn’t lonely; that he wasn’t alone, except he was.
With everything, it took nearly an hour to get back to the parking lot after the service. Steve mechanically helped load up the kids, then got back into their car; Sam slid into the driver’s seat and said quietly, “Tell me honestly: you up for the zoo? It’s fine if not, they’ll go without us.”
Steve stared out the windshield and said, “No.” His throat felt thick.
Sam just nodded, sent his aunt a text, and then drove them straight back to the house. It felt strange and empty, just the two of them coming into it; Steve went straight through to the back without pausing and sat on the steps of the deck, half hunched over. Sam came out and sat down next to him. Their thighs were close together, shoulders brushing. Steve wanted to lean into him. He wanted to turn and bury his face in Sam’s chest; wanted to drag Sam down into the soft grass of the lawn and put his hands all over Sam’s body, stake a claim. He balled his fists up on his thighs to keep from touching, and Sam said, "Okay, hell no. C'mere," took him by the shoulders to draw him up, and kissed him.
Steve kissed him back desperately. He felt guilty even while he did it: a thief taking something that didn’t belong to him. His clenched hands were resting on Sam’s chest. But Sam was holding on to him, murmuring softly between kisses, “I’m here, I’ve got you,” and Steve shuddered all over. His hands slid open, shaking, to wrap around Sam’s body.
Sam stroked his back. “Come on. We’re going upstairs,” he said, and stood to haul him to his feet.
Steve stumbled after him up the stairs, giving in to his own selfishness, trying not to think. Sun was coming in through the window, the sheets warm on the narrow bed. Steve lay back and helped Sam strip him with shaking hands, spread his thighs and raised his hips for Sam’s hands, panting and desperate.
“You ready for this?” Sam said, softly, leaning over him, his whole face serious.
“Please,” Steve said, because the least he could do was ask, acknowledge the gift. “Please, Sam, oh God,” and Sam was lifting Steve’s hips up, hooking Steve’s legs over his own thighs, and pushing into him. Sam was taking him — do you take this man, Steve thought suddenly, dizzy and overwhelmed, and he gasped out once and just came: a shocking full-body climax that shook him all over, almost convulsive, and then dropped him limp back against the pillows.
He felt a little calmer after, easier; he could breathe again, and Sam was still in him, gently rocking in and out, waiting, strong hands rubbing Steve’s thighs. Steve groaned and sat up in one heave, settling down on top of Sam to grind down on him, already turned on again. He bent down and kissed the gasp out of Sam’s mouth.
“Oh, there we go,” Sam murmured breathless up into his mouth, warm and smiling, his hands secure on Steve’s sides, and God, there was no way Steve could say no to this. He couldn’t imagine how he’d held out for — well, less than twenty-four hours since he’d figured out he could maybe have it, but even that seemed completely improbable now.
“I shouldn’t let you,” Steve said, resting his forehead against Sam’s. “Sam, you deserve—”
“To choose what I want for myself,” Sam said, calm and steady, stroking Steve’s back. “Not that you can’t show your appreciation.” He gave Steve a good healthy thrust, meaningful, and Steve half laughed, a gasp, but okay: he had a mission objective now, he could handle that, and he braced himself on Sam’s shoulders and started to slide and fall on him.
They fucked for nearly two hours straight. At one point they fell off the bed onto the floor, and just kept going. Steve was drunk on it, on happiness; another burst of joy every time Sam nuzzled him, ran possessive hands over his thighs and chest, murmured “Man, I have no idea how I’m ever going to let you out of bed in the mornings.”
“So don’t,” Steve said, dizzily, sprawled on his back on the floor with a leg flung over Sam’s shoulder, getting fucked again. He loved it so much: Sam a palpable presence on him, inside him, every stroke saying yes; you’re mine, yes.
“Mm,” Sam said, low and amused and a little gravelly. “Maybe only on special occasions.”
“Works for me,” Steve said.
Finally they had to give up. They couldn’t be bothered squeezing into one of the tiny beds; they just lay sprawled out on the floor together, a sweaty mess, atop the bedclothes they’d pulled down with them. Sam was stroking Steve’s back with his fingertips, gently gliding over. Steve lay his head against Sam’s shoulder, breathing deeply, feeling a steady peace. “So what flipped the switch for you?” Sam said, his voice rumbling through his chest. “Not that I’m complaining.”
Steve winced guiltily. “I, uh. Yesterday. I overheard you and your grandmother talking — ”
“Steve Rogers, you’re an eavesdropper? I'm shocked,” Sam said. “How did you even manage it? I didn’t hear you.”
“I opened the upstairs bathroom window,” Steve admitted.
Sam frowned up at the ceiling. “That thing’s been stuck shut since I was nine years old,” he said. Then snorted. “Yeah, look who I’m talking to.”
“How did you know—”
“You give me that hello airman look through your lashes ten times a day before breakfast; suddenly you go cold turkey and look like you’re fighting yourself not to touch every time I get in arm’s reach. Let me tell you how much rocket science was involved in figuring that one out.”
Steve groaned. “Sam,” he said, and stopped; he couldn’t apologize, he couldn’t be sorry.
“I know you’re in a tough place right now,” Sam said. “That’s why I figured I wasn’t going to start this now. But what I want from you, it’s for better and worse. Right now, it’s worse for you. Someday it’ll be worse for me. I told my folks you’d be on the road next to me, if it was Riley out there lost as hell. Was I lying?”
“No,” Steve managed, throat tight.
Sam nodded. “All right, then,” like it was that simple, and Steve could just about believe that maybe it could be. He kissed Steve again. “Come on. We better get cleaned up before they get back. There are some things a man’s grandma doesn’t want to know about.”
They took turns in the shower and ran a fast load of laundry. The door started opening just after the dryer buzzer went off, and Steve grabbed the sheets and made it upstairs in a desperate rush: they got the beds made not quite to regulation spec just as the pack of kids appeared in the door of the bedroom, all of them in face paint and loaded up with mylar balloons. “Why are you making your beds again?” Miriam asked loudly, just as Lena showed up behind them, and Steve caught Sam glaring at him, but it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t control the blushing.
“Hey! Who wants to play helicarriers again?” he said hurriedly, and took the fastest escape route. He had to pay for it with another two hours of mortal combat, but it was worth it not to have to look any of the grown-ups in the face.
Sam put his head out after a while and said, “Hey guys, I’m going to go get pizza for dinner — ” There were cheers and immediate cries for about twelve different kinds of toppings, until Sam held up a hand. “One topping each, go,” and pointed to each of the kids in turn, which yielded mushroom-pepperoni-sausage, and then Jerusha said, “Anchovies!” and the others all groaned.
“You don’t like them!” Miriam said. “You just like saying anchovies!”
“Anchovies!” Jerusha said militantly.
“We’ll get a slice with anchovies,” Sam said, grinning, and looked at Steve.
“Broccoli,” Steve said, which netted him four disgusted looks. “You know, you guys don’t even know how good you’ve got it. When I grew up, you couldn’t get green vegetables all year round.”
The kids were all unimpressed. “Yuck,” Jeb said.
“You can take it out on him until I get back,” Sam said cheerfully.
“Thanks a lot!” Steve yelled as they all attacked his legs and toppled him over. Sam just waved a jaunty goodbye at him, going.
A few minutes later he got rescued, unwillingly: Ruth appeared on the back porch and ordered the kids inside to wash up before dinner; and ordered him to “sit down and keep an old lady company.” She settled herself in her chair with her knitting. Steve nervously took another one and tried to think of a conversation topic that wouldn’t lead him into danger.
He didn’t have time; she said, “You met Sam’s ma already, I know.”
“A month ago,” Steve said. There had been a few reported sightings in New York. But they’d all come to nothing: unreliable witnesses, glimpses based on the missing-person sketch of Bucky’s face that Steve had given the police to post; the locations hadn’t even been in Brooklyn.
They’d stopped by Sam’s mom’s place to say hello, on their way out of town, but Steve hadn’t been much for company. The city had been his private, secret hope all along: the chance that there was enough left in Bucky’s head to draw him home, and with three different sighting reports in his pocket, Steve had stepped off the El half-hoping to see Bucky standing there waiting for him, in the shadows under the tracks. But there hadn’t been any sign of him anywhere, and nobody in the old neighborhood had seen a man with a silver hand.
It had hurt to lose that last lingering hope, to have to face the odds that whatever misfire had stopped the Winter Soldier from killing him had been just that, a temporary blink in a program that Hydra had written over the man underneath. Steve had spent that night sitting on the floor between the motel beds, crying, mourning Bucky all over again, trying to dull the pain with three bottles of whiskey and Sam’s arm around his shoulders. The whiskey hadn’t helped; Sam had.
Steve looked down at his hands. “I know,” he said haltingly, because Sam’s family deserved it from him, “I know I’m not — who any of you would’ve — picked for him.”
“A white Catholic boy from 1918?” Ruth said dryly. “Well, no, honey, I can’t say we saw that one coming. That doesn’t really matter, though; not for you two.” She put down her knitting and sighed. “That big mess up in New York that you were in — well, the second it was on the news, Sam was on his way up there. He got there in time to help dig people out, spent three months there, counseling, helping people get into the programs.”
Steve nodded. He hadn’t known, but it wasn’t anything like a surprise.
“He’s the kind that runs toward, when everybody else is running away,” she said. “And so are you. I don’t really feel the need to worry about how your neighbors are going to treat you when there’s Nazis and aliens shooting at you. The kind of people would give you a hard time, they’re going to be too busy hiding behind you. That’s not my concern.”
Steve took a deep breath. “But you’ve got one,” he said.
She was silent a moment. “I don’t know whether to say,” she said. “Sam would be angry with me, and for this he’d have a right to be. He’s a grown man, and he has a right to expect me to trust his judgment; and I do.”
“If there’s anything you can ask me that would make you feel better,” Steve said, “I’d like you to. I’d like to feel better about it myself. If I could.”
“I know you’re a good man,” she said. “And the things you’ll put before Sam, he’d put before himself. But that’s a long list on his side. I guess I worry that means he never gets to come first with you.”
“I want him to,” Steve said, low. “I want — to give him everything.”
She nodded. “Well, that’s a start.”
The front door opened. “So you all wanted broccoli-anchovy-pineapple, right?” Sam called, and the kids spilled downstairs yelling protests that silenced only when they got the boxes open; Sam had brought one large with broccoli just for Steve, and the kids had their solid meat pizza unsullied. Jerusha’s plain slice had one tiny piece of anchovy; she ate it and triumphantly said, “I do like anchovies,” and then spat the anchovy bite out on the plate before going on with her slice.
Sam grinned at Steve and passed him a cold beer, letting his thigh press up along Steve’s under the table, a secret connection that made Steve flush pink all over again and dart guilty looks across the table, where all the women looked like they were struggling between being half-embarrassed and trying not to laugh.
“I can’t take you anywhere,” Sam murmured in his ear, suppressed laughter in his voice, too.
“I can’t help it,” Steve hissed back, and bent down over his pizza to hide his face, blinking back a sudden bright stinging feeling in his eyes, because maybe it really could be this simple, after all.
In the morning — the night before, they’d closed the door and looked at each other, at the wall separating them from the kids’ bedroom, back at each other. “Think we could keep it quiet?” Sam said doubtfully.
“No,” Steve said.
“No,” Sam agreed, sighing. So they’d gone to bed. In the morning they woke up and looked at each other across the room, and Sam smiled at him, sleepy and warm. Steve couldn’t help getting out of bed and going to him for kisses, Sam’s hand cupping his head. He ended up in the bed, and they both groaned very softly, moving against each other, recognizing how bad an idea that had been.
“Okay,” Sam said, “we’ve got to get up.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. They kept kissing until a sudden furious banging on the door started, complete with giggling and Jerusha’s voice faintly asking, “Now can we go in?” Steve nearly levitated off Sam and across the room just in time to grab the covers before the kids burst through. Lena’s oldest daughter Arpah was there behind them smirking, and Sam glared at her.
“Don’t give me that look,” she said, laughing as she walked away. “You know the house rules.”
“What are the house rules?” Steve said, trying to keep the covers over himself: the kids were all jumping wildly on the beds.
“You don’t get a door that locks unless you make it official,” Sam said, sourly. “Can’t even do it in this state!” he yelled after her.
“Excuses, excuses!” floated back from downstairs.
They went down for breakfast and then settled in the living room with the Yellow Pages and a local map, calling hardware stores one after another in widening circles around the motel. They made it nearly fifteen miles out, and Steve was starting to quit hoping when the guy on the other end said, “Power drill? For $65.93? That’s what we charge for the B&D after tax, I think I just had to restock that one. Hang on, I’ll have a look. This past week?”
“Since Wednesday,” Steve said, sitting up on the couch, his heart pounding, and after about ten minutes the guy came back and said, “Yeah, we sold our next-to-last one on Thursday. Hey, Ricky!” he was calling to someone on his end. “You remember ringing up a B&D on Thursday?” and after a pause he was back, saying, “Yeah, he remembers it, said the guy was a weirdo, wearing a glove, like Michael Jackson or something.”
“Do you — do you have the records?” Steve said, his hand almost shaking.
The guy hesitated. “Well — who did you say you were with? Is this, like, a police thing?”
“You know what,” Steve said, “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, and you can decide if you’re comfortable showing it to me.”
“Or if you’re going to have to knock over a hardware store and steal their records?” Sam said dryly after Steve hung up, already getting the car keys. “No, dude, I’m driving. You sit your ass in the passenger seat and try not to hyperventilate yourself out the window.”
The hardware store owner decided he was fine showing Captain America the sale record. Steve snatched it and called the credit card number in to Natasha before he even said thank you. “I’ll look into it,” she said. “Don’t get your hopes up too high, Rogers. He hasn’t shown any signs of incompetence so far. He won’t have used it more than once.”
“If he hasn’t, can you find out anything else?” Steve said.
“When I know, you’ll know,” she said, and hung up.
Sam put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll take the kids to the park.”
They fed ducks and played tag and soccer for hours, until Jerusha abruptly switched off around 2pm and had to be carried back to the car already fast asleep. Back at the house, Steve quit trying to pretend he wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring and just sat on the couch staring at it. He ate dinner because he could always eat; afterwards he went back to the living room, the sounds of the kids’ bath and bedtime in the background. They quieted at last, and Sam came in and settled next to him with his laptop, in comforting silence, his hand on Steve’s thigh. Steve closed his eyes and leaned back against the couch and let his head rest on Sam’s shoulder.
He drifted off, and jerked up about an hour later, darkness outside and the hallway light off, faint noise of a television from upstairs. Next to him, Sam was sitting up, blinking, rubbing a hand over his face. The phone was ringing, an untraceable number. Steve grabbed it. “Natasha?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Congratulations. You hit the jackpot.”
“He used it again? Wait,” he said, and switched it to speakerphone, so Sam could hear. “Okay, go ahead.”
“No, of course he didn’t,” she said. “But I tracked the number to a data breach at an online retailer from three months ago. They were hacked by a credit card trafficking group: a small Russian mafia group operating out of Florida that distributes numbers along the east coast.”
“Where in Florida?” Steve asked, grabbing pen and paper.
“Don’t start planning a trip,” she said. “They have a reputation for being protective of their clients, but I was able to persuade them to cooperate.”
“How?” Steve said.
“I paid them a lot of Stark’s money,” she said. “Not everything has to be complicated.”
“Oh,” Steve said, a little dismayed — these guys were crooks, stealing from regular people —
“Is that a complaint?” Natasha said, with an edge, and Steve winced. “No,” he said meekly.
“Good,” she said. “Because your pal bought in bulk. He got more than a thousand numbers with a single lump payment he transferred to them from an offshore account I’m pretty sure was Hydra. They gave me the whole list. Do you have a printer there?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, glancing over at a printer next to the computer on a small desk in the corner of the room. “You need me to do something?”
“Is your laptop on the network with it?” she said. “Nevermind, I see it. Say yes to that,” she added, as a dialogue box popped open on Sam’s screen. He clicked OK and after a moment the printer whirred up. “I’m sending you a map of the transactions on all the cards he’s already used.”
Sam got up to get it while she went on. “I have the remaining 23 numbers from his last batch all flagged. When he uses one of them, I’ll get a notification.”
“How soon will it be?” Steve said urgently, leaning over the phone.
“No way of knowing,” she said. “It’s been as much as two weeks between transactions. He probably uses some of them for cash withdrawals.”
“What about the last one?”
“It was the night before the bar incident — hold on, I’ll get the details.”
The phone went mute. Steve shoved his hands into his hair. They were so fucking close — Abruptly Sam shot past him, across the room, to the hallway, shouting, “Arpah! Maya! Get the kids up right now! Aunt Lena!”
Steve stood up, his heart pounding. “Sam, what the — ”
Sam turned, his face grim, and shoved the sheet from the printer at him. Steve took it and looked down. Natasha had made a key shaded by date: there were older faded points scattered up and down the east coast, in obscure places. But the more recent ones, the darker points, were concentrated in three big clusters: New York, Atlanta, and a place just outside Philadelphia, each one roughing out the shape of a circle.
Sam pointed to the centers. “That’s my mom’s house. That’s my sister Darlene’s place. And that — is here.” He spoke flatly.
The sheet was crumpling in Steve’s hands. He couldn’t look up at Sam’s face. Horror was a sick knot in his throat. Every worst-case scenario he’d ever dreamed of was crumbling away, like a child’s fear of ghosts or shadows, silly and almost a little laughable: he’d never been able to imagine anything as bad as this. Voices were calling questions downstairs: Ruth, Lena, the others. Sam was turning, going out into the hallway, calling up to them. Steve stood frozen, unable to move.
“No luck; last charge was two days before the bar incident,” Natasha’s voice broke in. “He went to an army-navy store, bought a laser sight and a knife and a pair of pants. Nothing useful. It was about five miles from your current — what’s going on?” she said sharply.
Steve almost couldn’t speak. “It’s — Sam,” he said, his voice cracking. “The clusters. They’re Sam’s family. Bucky is — he’s — ”
Natasha said, “Stop him!” Steve flinched, the world swimming nauseous around him. “Sam!” Natasha was shouting, crackly over the phone. “Sam! Stop him!” she said to Steve. “Don’t let him turn on the lights, don’t let him get them moving.”
Sam appeared in the doorway, frowning. “What’s she saying?”
“Sam! Don’t change anything,” she said. “Don’t give any indication that you’ve discovered the surveillance. That can be an automatic kill trigger, depending on what he thinks his mission parameters are. For the moment, you all need to act exactly as you normally do.”
“That’s not an option,” Sam said. “There are kids in this house, Natasha!”
“Do you think you’re going to keep them safe by triggering an attack by the Winter Soldier?” she said, and Sam put his hands on his hips and dropped his head, taking a deep breath. “Now listen to me. Do you have a basement room there? Preferably one with no windows.”
“Good,” she said. “Keep the lights exactly as they are. Close the blinds in the children’s room and then move them into the basement, keeping them out of sight of any windows. Do the same for the adults, but only when it’s the usual time for them to go to sleep. Then cover the entrance to the basement and sit tight. I’ll be there with a full extraction team in four hours, and I’m sending teams to your mother and sister’s addresses now as well. Don’t do anything else until I get there. I’m on my way.”
The plan helped, a little. Steve locked in on it with single-minded desperation. He and Sam worked quickly, no words wasted, slipping into the grown-ups’ bedrooms out of sight of the windows to tell them what was going on. “I’ll go close the blinds in the kids’ room,” Maya said. After she was done, they moved them downstairs. Jerusha didn’t even stir as Steve carried her; Miriam said drowsily, “Are we having a slumber party?” All four of them went back to sleep in the nest made out of rugs and sleeping bags and winter coats, whatever Sam had dug up out of the basement storage.
By then it was getting late, after eleven. One by one the rest of them all turned out their lights and crept carefully out of their dark bedrooms and down into the basement. Steve sat in the hallway next to the basement door, arms resting on top of his knees, head bowed. He could hear Sam’s voice down the stairs. He’d gotten a shotgun and a hunting rifle out of the locked gun safe in the basement: he was telling Arpah and Maya how to hold and fire the rifle.
Steve almost couldn’t breathe, his whole body a clenched fist. He remembered this feeling, his lungs struggling against his ribs, closing in on himself, trapped. It felt the same. It felt the same. His mind circled around and around. He’d told himself Bucky had spared him, saved him; had he been lying to himself all along?
Sam came up the stairs slowly and settled in next to him, the shotgun resting against the wall between them, in easy reach. The front porch light filtered in through the glass panel and gleamed on the metal barrels. The house was still and quiet, the faint whir of the ceiling fan in the living room gently stirring around, the big old clock in the hallway ticking and occasional headlamps going by in the street outside.
The phone buzzed in Steve’s pocket, and he yanked it out: Natasha calling again. “You can relax a little,” she said. “He’s not there right now. Another number just went through two miles from you — ”
“Where was it?” Steve said sharply, and Natasha hesitated. “Where?”
“An ATM at the Royalton Motor Home on Belleview Lane. Rogers, wait for me — ”
“Get here as fast as you can,” he said, and hung up the phone. His hand closed tight around it. He stood up; Sam stood with him. Steve swallowed. “I’m going after him,” he said harshly.
“I know,” Sam said. “I’m sorry I can’t come with you.”
Steve still couldn’t look Sam in the face. “I won’t let — I won’t let him hurt them,” he told the floor, his voice tight. “I promise, Sam.”
Sam didn’t speak for a moment. “You think I need you to tell me that?” he said.
Steve flinched. Sam reached out, turned him and raised him up to meet Sam’s eyes: not angry at all; a worry that was almost worse than anger. “I know you’ll stop him,” Sam said quietly. “The guy we’re out here looking for, the guy you loved, he’d want you to stop him. You’ll do that for him. That’s not what you’ve got to promise me, Steve. You’ve got to promise me you’re coming back after.”
And Steve was abruptly back in those horrible moments on the helicarrier, that brutal fight, having to — having to hurt Bucky with his own hands, knowing everything that had happened to Bucky, everything that had been done to him, and after all that now even Steve was hurting him; the one person Bucky should have been able to trust, to rely on; the one person who should have comforted him, and instead the sickening crack of Bucky’s arm, hearing him scream —
He’d wanted to be sick. He’d wanted to — The guy who’d done that to Bucky didn’t deserve — didn’t deserve to — Steve dragged in a breath, a sob.
“I know what I’m asking you,” Sam said. “Everything you had got taken; I know this was one more thing than you could bear. But I’m asking anyway. I know it’ll be hard. It can be hard, it can be hard a long time. But I need you to come back to me. Can you promise me that?”
There were tears running hot down Steve’s face, and God, it would be hard forever. He hadn’t imagined anything like this, because he couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear to be left behind, alone again, after he’d had to shove Bucky off into the dark. He wanted to despair; he wanted to let go. Except he wasn’t alone. He wasn’t alone anymore, if he was faithful; if he’d meant it, when he’d asked Sam for everything he had to give.
Steve took a ragged step forward into Sam’s arms: and Sam held him, Sam wrapped him close. “I promise,” Steve said, his voice shaking. “Sam, I promise.” He cupped Sam’s head and kissed him once hard, desperately, and then he wrenched himself away and slipped out the front door, taking the car keys from the basket.
The motel was dingy and run-down, cheap. The clerk was a yawning teenager, playing a noisy beeping game on his phone. The grimy ATM in the corner had a small plaque posted at the top saying $5 fee. “Someone just rented a room here,” Steve said. “Ten minutes ago, with cash he got from that machine.”
“Dude, that’s super creepy; are you, like, the NSA or something?” the kid said, without looking up. “Ever heard of privacy?”
Steve slammed his fists on the counter. The whole thing shook; the goldfish bowl holding business cards jumped. The kid jerked up, back, wide-eyed, and then stared at him. “Which room?” Steve said, ferociously, and the kid swallowed and squeaked out, “Number 14,” and gave Steve the housekeeping master key with a shaking hand.
Steve slung the shield onto his arm and circled around to the room. The blinds were down, and the door was locked. He opened the bottom lock and waited, but nothing came; he jammed the edge of the shield into the doorframe and levered it open fast. The bolt burst off the wall and the door swung open, letting the parking lot lights into a dark room: a single duffle bag on the bed, a hooded jacket and gloves thrown next to it, a laptop sitting on the desk. The shower was running behind the closed bathroom door. Steve stood inside Bucky’s room, his heart pounding.
He turned on a light and looked into the duffle. There was a thin layer of clothes, a ziplock bag full of cash, another full of passports. The rest was weapons: a sniper rifle in parts, three handguns, six knives in varied sizes. There were some ropes and zip ties and handcuffs. Steve took the zip ties and cuffs and one of the guns. He unloaded all the others and tossed the whole duffle outside the door. He shut it and locked the bottom lock again.
He touched the laptop. It hadn’t been asleep long enough to go behind a password prompt. There were folders on the desktop full of photographs, documents: tax returns, property deeds, bank accounts and utility bills; birth and death and marriage certificates; detailed reports and thousands of photographs covering the most ordinary errands, grocery shopping to laundry; the lives of Sam’s family slid under a microscope. There were photographs of the kids at the goddamn zoo, Jerusha’s face tilted up to be painted into a tiger. Steve swallowed around the sick knot deep in his throat and closed the lid.
The water shut off. Steve went to stand in front of the lamp, the shield ready. A few moments later, Bucky whirled around out the bathroom door, a knife flying straight for the lamp: Steve knocked it away with the shield and pointed the gun straight at Bucky’s head. He was less than ten feet away across the tiny motel room. It wasn’t a shot he could miss. “Stand down,” he said, his voice tight. “Stand down.”
Bucky held motionless a moment, crouched. He had pulled on his pants and boots, but his hair still hung long and dripping around his head; he had another knife in his metal hand. And then abruptly he relaxed, straightening. “Shit,” he said. “The credit cards, huh? Thought I paid them enough to keep their mouths shut.”
Bucky sounded — he sounded so much like Bucky. Steve didn’t trust himself to answer. He jerked his chin towards the bag of zipties on the bed. “Throw the other knife on the bed. Zip-tie your ankles and cuff the metal wrist.”
Bucky shrugged a little with one shoulder and didn’t move. “Then what?”
“I’ll figure it out when we get there,” Steve said grimly.
Bucky huffed a short laugh. “Star-spangled man with no plan,” he said, the corner of a smile crossing his face, brief and gone. “It’s not a good idea, Steve.”
“You can talk me out of it after you’re restrained,” Steve said. He didn’t let the gun waver, but he couldn’t help saying, “Please. Please don’t make me — ”
Bucky muttered something under his breath: in Russian, but Steve could tell it was cursing anyway. Then abruptly Bucky threw the knife — end over end, thunking solidly into the wall above the bed, and he picked up a ziptie and bent down to get his ankles. Steve watched close, but Bucky wasn’t trying to cheat it; he got the tie tight, and after he cuffed his metal arm, he turned around to offer his wrists together behind his back. Steve edged in, slowly, watching for any twitch of movement. His hand wanted to shake. He reached out and got the other cuff closed around Bucky’s wrist, squeezing tight.
“Hey, ow,” Bucky said, grumbling, just like himself, and Steve suddenly wanted to — to punch him in the face; he grabbed Bucky by the shoulders and turned him around and shoved him down on the bed.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said. “What are you — ” He stopped and gulped air and said, levelly, “Do you remember me?”
Bucky actually rolled his eyes. “James Buchanan Barnes, serial number — ”
“Jesus Christ!” Steve yelled.
“Yeah, I remember,” Bucky snapped. “I remember a whole fucking lot of things, because it turns out one of the things this super-soldier juice does to you is, it fixes you and it keeps fixing you, and once your brain stops getting fried every few months, it starts working again just fine. I remember you, I remember Mamma Leone’s, I remember my forty-eight digit Hydra passcode. I remember murdering sixty-three civilians, okay, you fucking asshole, I remember. That what you want to hear?”
He was yelling by then, too, and Steve was shaking, sick at heart. “Yes! I do want to hear it! I’d have given anything to hear it, you jerk! Months now, and you’ve known — You know I would’ve—”
“You would’ve what?” Bucky said. “Helped me? I don’t need help, okay. I’m fine. The stuff I’ve got to do, you’re not going to be a part of.”
“And what’s that?” Steve said. “What’ve you got to do?”
“Burn Hydra to the ground,” Bucky said flatly.
“Oh, right,” Steve said, his voice rising again, “because I sure wouldn’t want anything to do with that—”
Bucky looked straight up at him, his mouth a hard line, his eyes utterly unfamiliar; he was someone else suddenly, a man who had murdered sixty-three people. “You wouldn’t,” the Winter Soldier said, cold as thirty below. “Not the way I’m going to do it.”
Steve pulled himself back in, trying to calm down. Bucky wasn’t okay; he might sound like himself, he might almost be himself, he might be all in one piece and his brain might even be working fine; that was still a long way off from okay, and yelling at him wasn’t going to make him better. He was abruptly sorry he hadn’t waited for Natasha, that Sam wasn’t with him, feeling the sudden sharp painful certainty he wasn’t the guy Bucky needed doing this. He was almost as twisted up by what had been done to Bucky as Bucky was himself.
Except there was a reason Sam wasn’t with him, and that had to come first; Bucky would’ve put it first himself, if he was really okay. “Why are you following Sam’s family?” Steve said, low and level.
“What do you think, I’m planning to assassinate a bunch of schoolkids?” Bucky said, a bitter edge to the words. “I was gathering intel.”
“Yeah, on Sam.” Bucky shook his head: exasperation. “Christ, Rogers, you knew the guy for a week and you started living in his pocket. You didn’t know shit about him.”
“He’s my friend!” Steve said.
“Oh, bullshit,” Bucky said.
“He saved my life — from you, you dickhead!” Steve was yelling again. “If it wasn’t for him, Hydra would have gotten those helicarriers — ”
“No, I mean, bullshit,” Bucky said, glaring up at him. “Am I a moron? You think I can’t spot you making a goddamn idiot out of yourself from a mile away? I saw you with him outside Jersey six weeks ago, you were practically doodling Mrs. Sam Wilson on your notebooks.”
Steve gawked at him. “What?”
Bucky shrugged. “Somebody had to check the guy out. You sure as hell weren’t going to do it, unless you mean checking out his — ”
“I’m going to kick yours!” Steve said, turning red all over.
“ — adorable face,” Bucky finished, pitched saccharine sweet. He snorted. “Even in the twenty-first century you can’t just get yourself laid like a normal guy, it’s all or nothing with you.”
Steve braced a hand behind his head, staring around the room, almost wildly. He didn’t even know what to do. “That’s — why. That’s why you’ve been stalking — his entire family.”
“They weren’t supposed to know about it, dumbass!” Bucky said. “I bet you freaked all of them out, too.”
“Yes!” Steve shouted. “Yes, I did! How was I supposed to know? I thought you — I thought — ” His voice was breaking.
Bucky scowled and looked away. “You can’t look after yourself, so somebody’s got to do it,” he muttered after a moment. “I didn’t know if he was up to the job.”
Steve turned away, shoving his hands into his hair. “So what did you find, on this critical information-gathering mission?”
“He seems okay,” Bucky said grudgingly. “He’s got nice folks.”
Steve huffed out a laugh, helpless, and then he was laughing full out, and then he was sinking into the one creaky chair and covering his face and crying, and then Bucky was there, the broken cuffs dangling from his wrist, gripping his shoulders, saying awkwardly, “Jesus, Rogers, you don’t see me getting fucking weepy.”
Steve grabbed him by the shoulders. “You’re coming home,” he said. “Bucky, you’re coming home with me.”
“Yeah?” Bucky said. “What’s your boyfriend is going to think about that?”
“He’s going to punch you in the face,” Steve said, “and then he’s going to let you stay.”
“Oh, really,” Bucky said.
“Yeah, really,” Steve said. “He loves me.” He wiped his face on his sleeve and gasped a little, catching his breath. “He loves me, Buck.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said, and sighed. “All right, fine already. Take me to meet the in-laws.”
Sam was quiet for almost a solid minute after Steve told him. “Uh, are you okay?” Steve said, a little nervously.
“I was at DEFCON 2, Rogers, it’s taking me a while to wind back down to — to whatever this calls for, which I don’t even know,” Sam said. “Did you maybe punch him a couple of times?”
“I thought you might want to do the honors,” Steve said.
“You hit harder,” Sam said dryly. “Okay, I’m going to go let everybody get back to their beds and call off Natasha. Bring him for breakfast tomorrow if he can behave like a civilized person and eat at the table instead of up in a tree outside or something.”
He was waiting outside the house the next morning, leaning back against the doorframe with his arms crossed and his face a little hard and worried. Bucky eyed Steve calculatingly, like he was hoping to find some way of getting out of this, and then he gave up and climbed out of the car. Steve followed him up the stairs, covering the escape route, and Bucky stopped in front of Sam, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunching in a little. It hurt to see: Bucky, who’d always stood wide-open and cocky, chin up at the world and smug about it, and Steve looked away to catch Sam looking at him, softened.
Sam looked back at Bucky. “Three months, dude,” he said, but mildly.
Bucky’s shoulders uncurled, going back instinctively to answer the challenge. “What, you would’ve rather had a third wheel?”
“I would rather not have been chasing your spying ass across the entire country,” Sam said. But he was smiling a little, and then he held out a hand. “Sam Wilson.”
Bucky stared at it a long moment, and then slowly he put out his own and took it. “Bucky Barnes,” he said, a little roughly, and Steve felt a breath ease out of him; it was going to be okay. "Sorry," Bucky muttered.
“Seriously, though,” Sam said, opening the door, “what kind of a spy are you, anyway, it took you more than a month to check out a bunch of grandmas and kindergarteners?”
“Yeah, well, it got you under Rogers’ skirts, so I don’t see why you’re complaining,” Bucky retorted.
“Bucky!” Steve squawked, blushing.
“Oh, just wait, you’ve got plenty more complaining coming,” Sam said. “My entire family was up in the middle of the night; you’re going to be getting a hard time every holiday for the next ten, twenty years or so.” He held the door open. “Come on in; coffee’s ready.”