Coverart by paraka
When Sam had said he went where Cap did, he had meant it. Steve, apparently, had not.
Sam knew something was wrong as soon as he came out of the shower to find Steve standing against the kitchen counter, his arms crossed, his eyes on the floor. He didn’t look up when Sam came in, so Sam didn’t say anything as he crossed the kitchen to pour himself some coffee; the pot was full and hot, even though he’d forgotten to turn it on before he got in the shower.
Sam took his time pouring the coffee and adding just the right combination of cream and sugar. When he could stall no longer he turned to lean against the counter at a right angle to where Steve still hunched. “So,” he asked, “did you figure out where to start?” It had been just over twenty-four hours since Natasha had given Steve the file on the Winter Soldier and disappeared. Steve had spent that time alternating between pouring over the file, looking up news reports on Sam’s computer, and disappearing to make mysterious phone calls.
“Yeah,” Steve answered haltingly, “I’m… ready to go.”
Sam didn’t miss the singular pronoun. He swallowed the sip of coffee he’d taken, and though it had only finished brewing minutes ago it went down his throat to settle in his stomach like ice. Steve fidgeted slightly, and for the first time Sam noticed the small dufflebag waiting at his feet; at least he hadn’t snuck out while Sam was on his run like every terrible cliche in the book.
“Sure, just give me a minute to grab my bag-” Sam started, but Steve was already shaking his head. Sam had to try, he had to, because he was already so far in this thing, whether Steve liked it or not.
“I can’t ask that of you, Sam.” Steve’s voice was low, but firm, and Sam knew that pointing out the fact that he had volunteered wasn’t going to work this time. “You have a life here, a house, a job, friends and family. I can’t ask you to leave all that behind when there’s no reason for you to.”
No reason for you to that cut deep, stupidly, childishly. Steve was a reason; for Sam, Steve was reason enough.
“Officially, you weren’t involved in the events with S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Steve continued, his voice level and factual. “Someone caught a few photos, but they’re poor quality, and a… friend of mine is working on limiting their exposure anyway.” Steve shrugged a little, lopsided and half-hearted. “You weren’t compromised.”
Steve pointed all of this out, his shoulders a little hunched. He’d finally turned to look at Sam, if only so that he could stare at Sam with those big, earnest blue eyes like he was doing Sam some kind of fucking favor. Steve was so ridiculously courteous about it, and that was the worst part. He was so absolutely grave and earnest; like it hadn’t even really been Sam’s fight, he’d just gone along for the ride, because Steve had asked him to, because Steve had pulled him into the whole mess. That’s what Steve was saying, without coming out and saying it. It was fucking annoying.
“The work you do with the VA, it’s good, and important.” Steve pressed on. Anything Sam might have said was stuck in his throat so tightly it nearly choked him, and he was just standing there, clutching his cooling coffee and watching Steve in disbelieving frustration. “Probably now more than ever. You shouldn’t abandon your life just because-” Steve broke off, head ducking and feet shifting on the cracked linoleum of Sam’s kitchen floor. He sighed.
When Sam finally unstuck his throat, he expected something angry, and probably a little - justifiably - rude to come out. He fully intended to tell Steve exactly what kind of an idiot he was being, and explain to him, with expletives if necessary, that Steve did not get to make decisions about what Sam should and shouldn’t do with his life. Instead, he asked, “do I at least get to know where you’re going?”
“New York, first,” Steve answered. He sounded relieved by Sam’s lack of resistance, and Sam wanted to punch him in the face. “I have to check on some people, make sure Hydra didn’t-” He broke off; it was hard to watch him struggle for words.
There were a lot of things that Sam wanted to say, but he didn’t. He just nodded, forced himself to take another sip of coffee.
“I’ll, uh, keep in touch,” Steve offered, almost hopeful in a way that made Sam really, really want to be mad at him. “If you want,” he added quickly.
A part of Sam wanted to say no. A part of him wanted to tell Steve to take his stupid, self-deprecating ass and go to hell. He didn’t. The words were leaving his mouth before he’d even actually decided what he was going to say. “Of course,” he’d agreed. “My door is always open, Steve. Don’t be a stranger.”
Steve smiled, small and grateful and tired. And that was that. Steve lingered awkwardly for a few minutes more, then he just picked up his bag and left.
Sam continued through his usual daily routine, like nothing had happened. When it actually hit him that Steve had gone and left him behind, he’d had to sit down and laugh for at least fifteen minutes. Because this was the most painful and ridiculous breakup he’d ever been through, especially since he’d never come even remotely close to dating Steve.
It didn’t matter, it hurt the same.
Luckily, if there was one thing Sam Wilson was good at it was putting the pieces of his life back together. In some ways it was easier this time. He already had his life, his routines set up, he just had to stick to them.
So he put away his military file again, stashing it back in the safe in the back of his closet. He tucked the hair straightener that Natasha had left behind in a dark recess under the sink. And he continued living his life, as though it hadn’t been interrupted, as though the world hadn’t nearly been taken over by nazis, as though he wasn’t feeling the agony of losing his wings all over again.
It took effort, but days passed by. His morning runs got a little longer; he started to wear headphones with the music turned up just a touch too loud, so that his brain couldn’t trick him into hearing the phantom echoes of ‘on your left.’ And his hours at the VA got a little longer. He didn’t say anything when a few former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents started to show up at his support group meetings. He wasn’t sure if it was a coincidence, but none of them ever said anything directly about it, so neither did he.
He doesn’t think about Steve; much.
For two months Sam kept himself on task, focused on the here and now. With every passing day he convinced himself more and more that he was genuinely adjusting to a normal, civilian life. Sam stayed at the VA doing paperwork until well after dark most nights. It was easier than going home to a dark, empty house, easier than thinking about everything he wasn’t doing.
It was raining for the third day in a row, a light but steady downpour that crept into everything. By the time Sam got home he wanted nothing more than to take a hot shower and curl up on his couch with a beer and a bowl of leftover soup. Sam wanted it so bad that he was literally fantasizing about it as he pulled up outside his house. He was pulled suddenly and rudely from his thoughts when the motion detector turned on his porch light as he approached the door and a movement caught his eye.
If nothing else, it proved as a testament to how well he really was fitting back into civilian life that he hadn’t noticed the man sitting on his porch steps sooner. Although apparently the man hadn’t been paying much attention either, despite all the noise Sam’s car had made pulling up, because he’d started in surprise when the light came on. He didn’t leave though; he didn’t budge from his seat on Sam’s porch steps, heedless of the rain steadily soaking him.
Most of his form was hidden by a bulky jacket and a baseball cap pulled low over his face. His shoulders were hunched, his feet braced on the step below him, his elbows resting on his knees. The way he slumped made him look as though he could topple at any moment, except for the rigid line of tension that coiled in every muscle of his body right down to his hands which were clenched into fists where they hung between his legs. It’s a posture that Sam knows well; he’s seen it too many times in the vets who got lost in themselves and ended up on the streets. This wasn’t one of the vets Sam knows, though, no one from his support groups, or anyone else he’s worked with through the VA. The man’s head is tipped forward, loose, dirty strands of hair poking out from under his baseball cap to hide the parts of his face that the cap itself doesn’t. But Sam didn’t need to see his face; the security light glinted subtly off of the metal hand poking out from under the sleeve of the Winter Soldier’s jacket.
Sam’s first instinct was to call Steve. He is so not equipped for this. Except, despite Steve’s promise to stay in touch, he hadn’t, and Sam didn’t have a number to reach him at.
Sam’s movements slowed as soon as he saw the man, but he never quite stopped. One hand reached for the phone in his pocket automatically, the other reached for where his gun holster would be, if he’d been carrying one.
The Winter Soldier didn’t move, but he knew that Sam was there; Sam could see it in the subtle way his metal hand flexed before clasping around the flesh one again.
Sam should have been terrified, and a part of him was. This was the Winter Soldier. He read the file; Steve had left it laying on the table a one point while he went outside to make a mysterious phone call. Sam had felt like he was snooping, but he’d read through it quickly anyway. So he knew. He knew the terrible things that that metal hand had done, he knew how much blood was on it; the blood of civilians, of children. And yet, it didn’t even cross his mind to call one of the various government agencies that might have been equipped to handle the world’s greatest super powered assassin.
Sam stopped a few feet in front of the step, dropping his hands so that they hung loose at his sides, as non-threatening as he could manage. “You gonna pull a rocket launcher on me?” Sam asked, and he couldn’t stop one corner of his mouth from tilting upwards, just a little, because this was his life now. Apparently. A month ago he was just a vet putting his life back together. Now, twice in two weeks, he’d had super powered people just appeared on his doorstep and he found himself about to offer one of the world’s deadliest assassins a beer. It was more than a little insane, but what else was he supposed to do? If the Winter Soldier had come here to kill him, Sam knew he would already be dead.
After a moment the Soldier shifted, no more than a subtle flick of the wrist as far as Sam could tell, and a knife landed point down in a crack in the sidewalk inches from Sam’s toes. “That’s all I have,” the Soldier said, and his voice sounded like gravel over broken glass.
Sam eyed the knife, then picked it up. He shrugged, using the motion to roll some of the tension out of the muscles between his shoulder blades, then he forced himself up the stairs. He took them two at a time, his leg passing just inches from the Winter Soldier. “I hope you like Blue Moon,” he muttered as he passed. He didn’t look back to see if the Soldier would follow him, instead he focused on not letting his hands shake as he unlocked the door and flicked on the hall light.
It took a moment, but the Winter Soldier followed him inside without a word.
Sam went straight to the kitchen, because whatever was coming he was going to need a drink first. He set the knife on the counter and bent to grab two beers out of the fridge, taking just a little longer than necessary because he needed those extra few seconds to keep himself together. Sam knew that the Winter Soldier was behind him, hovering in the kitchen doorway, and it took effort not to twitch at the idea of having his back to a living weapon.
Except, he’s not the Winter Soldier now, not really, Sam reminded himself. The broken, slumped form that had been sitting in the dark, in the rain, for god only knew how long, was not the weapon that HYDRA had forged in their own likeness. That was Bucky Barnes, or at least the pieces that were left of him, the pieces that might, just might form back into a semblance of the man he used to be, with a little help.
When Sam turned back around, beers in hand, the Winter Soldier was standing facing him, his legs braced wide and shoulders set, a steady drip of water off of his clothes forming a puddle around him. Sam didn’t say anything, he just moved close enough to hold out the beer.
The Soldier’’s face was closed off, his entire expression blank and motionless except for his eyes. His eyes studied Sam’s face, and then the beer in Sam’s hand before slowly reaching out and accepting it. He took it with his left hand, the metal one, and the tips of his fingers were so cold when they brushed ever so slightly against Sam’s that it sent a chill down his spine.
The silence in the kitchen was deafening. Sam leaned back against the counter next to the fridge, his posture a determined brand of casual, while the Winter Soldier just continued to stand facing him. Neither of them actually drank their beers. After a long, awkward minute, Sam forced himself to lift his to his lips, but instead of drinking he ended up setting the beer down on the counter beside him with a clink that made him flinch.
“You look like hell,” Sam finally said, and he could feel the line of tension between them snap so viscerally that he could swear it smacked him in the face.
For a moment, Sam half expected the Soldier to hit him, but instead his face twitched, like he was trying to smile and didn’t quite remember how. He didn’t answer. His eyes roved the room, slow and calculating. It wasn’t the frenzied, panicked sort of look that Sam might have expected, but it was professional, like the Soldier was memorizing escape routes and cataloguing potential weapons. When he was finished, his gaze settled squarely on Sam’s face. The silence stretched again. The Soldier said nothing, and the intensity of his blank gaze made Sam desperately want to fidget. It was disconcerting, how unreadable the Soldier’s scruffy face was.
Eventually, Sam said the only thing he could think of to say. “He isn’t here.” The Soldier’s head tilted slightly, a slight tic of his jaw the only change in his expression, so Sam clarified, “Steve. Uh, Captain America. He isn’t here. That is why you came here, isn’t it? To find him?”
The Soldier’s gaze shifted around the room again, like he was stalling for time. “No,” he said at length, and didn’t elaborate.
Sam… had no idea what to do with that. The Winter Soldier had come to him, not to Steve, he wasn’t looking for the only person left alive who knew who he had originally been; but he hadn’t gone back to HYDRA either. Some of his surprise must have shown on Sam’s face, because the Winter Soldier ducked his head slightly, his gaze sliding away. He shifted, one booted foot scuffing in the puddle of rainwater that had formed at his feet. Sam had to remind himself, again, that before he’d been the Winter Soldier, he’d been a person, a man good enough to earn Captain America’s love.
“Let me, uh, let me get you a towel,” Sam said, because they couldn’t keep standing in the kitchen staring at each other all night long, and no matter how fantastically bizarre this situation was, he couldn’t ignore such a blatant cry for help. The Winter Soldier didn’t move, but he didn’t refuse either, so Sam pushed himself away from the counter.
In the time it took him to retreat down the hallway to his laundry room he’d come up with twelve reasons to convince the Winter Soldier to leave, six ways that he could, probably, get out of the house without the Winter Soldier realizing, but only one truly viable course of action. He started talking as he headed back toward the kitchen with a couple of clean towels, before he could lose his nerve. “You know, the weather report said that this storm is supposed to last through the night, at least.” He spoke loud enough to be sure that he could be heard in the kitchen, but he worked to keep his tone casual and offhand. “I don’t know if you really have, you know, a plan, but my guest room is-”
He stopped when he reached the kitchen. It was empty. The undrunk beer sat on the counter next to the fridge set with careful precision next to the knife and Sam’s own barely touched beer. That, and the puddle on the floor where the only tangible signs that the Winter Soldier had been there at all. Sam checked the entire house, just to be sure, even, stupidly, poking under the beds and in the backs of all the closets, like the ninety year old super assassin might have decided to play and impromptu game of hide-and-go-seek.
Finally, Sam had no choice but to accept that he was truly alone in his house again. He should have been relieved to not be playing host to a mentally unstable super assassin.
Except, he wasn’t.
The next morning Sam got up and preceded with his usual routine with surprising ease, considering how unsettling his late night visitor the night before had been. He considered, briefly, the idea that maybe that wasn’t actually a good thing. But then he set that thought aside; he didn’t really expect the Winter Soldier to show up again, so what did it matter? At least, that was the lie he told himself. It was a thin lie too, because the visit had affected him, almost as much, if not, surprisingly, more than helping to take down HYDRA had.
He’d kept a gun in the glove compartment of his car since he’d returned to civilian life. But when he started to carry it inside with him when he got home each night, he told himself that it was smarter anyway; more responsible to keep his weapons close. He didn’t have as good of an excuse for why he started to check all the way around the house, just to check, before going inside, though, or for why he started checking every room in the house before he did anything else. Admittedly, it was a little paranoid, but he just couldn’t shake the pervading sense of presence in his house, as though the Winter Soldier had never truly left. Eventually, he just stopped trying to justify it. Things got easier, once he just accepted it.
“Momma I’m depending on you,” Sam sang, his voice echoing only slightly off key in the steam logged bathroom as he dried himself off, “to tell me the truth. Momma just hung her head and said, son.” He bopped his head a few times, humming the beats to himself. He sang louder as he left the bathroom, shaking his hips on his way to his closet. “Papa was a rolling stone, my son, wherever he laid his hat was his home-” He dropped his towel on the floor, yanking on his jeans, and raised his voice a few octaves, “And when he died! All he left us was alone.”
He reached for his belt with one hand, absently swiping the screen of his phone with the other. He’d left it on the dresser while he shower, and he’d thought he’d heard the distant strains of it ringing. Sure enough, he had one missed call and a new voicemail; number unknown.
He continued to hum to himself as he patiently waited through the automated voice message, but he stopped at the sound of the voice that followed it.
“Hey Sam,” came the tiny recorded voice through his phone’s speaker. “This is Steve, um, Steve Rogers.” Sam’s fingers tightened around the phone, and he couldn’t help thinking that meatball, as if he actually wouldn’t recognize Steve’s voice. “I just… wanted to let you know that I’m in New York still, well, again, technically, I left for a while. But I think I’m going to be staying in New York for a while. I just wanted you to hear it from me before you saw it on the news or something. And I wanted to give you my new number, it’s this one, that’s going to be pretty permanent too. You can probably get the number off of your phone or something, but just in case it’s 212-863-7696. You don’t have to call me back or anything, I just thought you should have it. I’ll, uh, I’ll talk to you some time. I hope you’re doing well.” There was a long pause, like Steve was considering saying something else, but the message simply ended with a soft, “Bye.” The automated voice came back, and Sam stared at his phone for a long minute before he pressed nine to save the message to his archive. He didn’t call Steve back, but he did save Steve’s new number to his address book.
Sam may have been dreaming about tap dancing. There was certainly a persistent, rhythmic tapping resounding in his head. Except, when he cracked his eyes and squinted at his bedside clock to discover that it was barely five thirty in the morning, the tapping didn’t stop.
Sam spent a full three minutes laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wondering muzzily where the hell that infernal tapping was coming from. Eventually, two revelations came close on each others heels; firstly, that the persistent tapping was someone knocking on his door at five thirty in the morning, and secondly, that it was five thirty in the morning on a Saturday. Following on the heels of those revelations, came acceptance of the fact that no amount of wishing or swearing was going to make the knocking stop.
By the time he’d pulled on a shirt and made it to the door he was fully awake. It was dark outside, but by the time it occurred to him to wonder why the motion sensor in his security light hadn’t turned on he was already automatically opening the door… on a remarkably familiar situation.
Natasha was just as tousled and dirty as she had been the first time, but this time she was standing in front, and the man standing - sort of - behind her wasn’t nearly as tall as Steve. He was blonde and covered in blood though.
Sam leaned on the inside of the doorframe, while Natasha leaned on the outside of the doorframe, her arm around the man behind her, clearly holding him up. Neither of them said anything, until Sam sighed and stood back, holding the door open for them. “Your hair straightener is under the sink,” he told her.
She smiled at him tiredly and patted his cheek in silent thanks as she pulled her friend past him toward the guest room. A few minutes later Sam heard the shower running. He closed and locked the door again, torn between wondering who the guy was and going back to bed. He could go back to bed, it wasn’t like Natasha couldn’t find anything she needed, and she probably wouldn’t bother asking for permission anyway - which, weirdly, Sam found more comforting than rude. Unfortunately, much as he wasn’t thrilled about it, Sam was now wide awake. So instead of returning to his warm, comfortable bed, he headed to the kitchen and started pulling out ingredients for pancakes.
Sam had quite a stack warm pancakes ready by the time Natasha emerged. Her hair was still damp from the shower, and she hadn't bothered to straighten it; she also, apparently, had borrowed a pair of Sam's sweats and one of his old college sweatshirts. She looked comfortable, and it made something warm blossom in Sam's chest, something that definitely didn't belong there.
"I have some clothes that would fit you better," Sam said, forcing himself to focus on flipping the pancakes in the skillet.
"I have a policy against wearing clothes that belong to other people's ex's," Natasha said. She pulled both the carton of milk and the jug of orange juice out of Sam's fridge and set them on the table. She moved smoothly around his kitchen, easily finding cups and plates and other essentials as she set the table.
"My ex's clothes wouldn't fit you," Sam countered. "He was 6'3"." He didn't let himself look at her to gauge her reaction; he wasn't exactly closeted, and he had a feeling she wouldn't care anyway. "I was talking about some clothes that my sister left here."
Natasha shrugged. "I like these. They're comfy." Sam couldn't argue with that.
"So," Sam said, aiming for a casual tone, although considering the fact that Natasha was a professional spy, she could probably see right through it, "how is the whole going underground thing working out for you?"
"Boring," Natasha's sighed with an affected pout.
"That's why she keeps me around," said the man that Natasha had brought with her as he limped into the kitchen. Even freshly showered and wearing clean clothes he still sort of looked like death warmed over.
"He does help keep things interesting," Natasha agreed mildly. She checked out one of the chairs at the kitchen table with a pointed look before heading back to the fridge to retrieve butter and syrup.
"I didn't think that she really needed help in that area," Sam teased.
"Aw but I make it fun," the blond man insisted with a crooked grin, his tone flippant in a way that was belied by how heavily he sank into the chair Natasha had threatened him towards.
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Yes, Clint, breaking into a secure Hydra facility to rescue your sorry ass is exactly my idea of fun." A small smile pulled at the corners of her lips, though there was a tightness around her eyes as she watched the way Clint moved. It was obvious, even to Sam, that he was hurt and trying to hide just how badly, and there was an undercurrent of uncomfortable truth behind their teasing.
Sam didn't press the issue. Instead he set a large platter of pancakes down in front of them and started to fry some bacon. They ate in silence, Sam sitting down to join them once the bacon was finished. Both Natasha and eight as though they hadn't had anything to eat for days; Sam wasn't actually that hungry, but he picked his way through a couple of pancakes and slice of bacon anyway.
Sam wasn't actually surprised when Clint nearly passed out on top of his six pancake. Luckily, neither was Natasha. Calmly she caught him before he could get syrup in his hair and proceeded to manhandle him back into the guestroom. Reflexively Sam reached out to help; Natasha was strong, Sam knew that, but Clint was broad and stocky and at the moment doing very little to move his own weight. But Natasha we asked him off with a warning look this is Sam stayed behind and started to do the dishes while he waited for her to return.
"Is he going to be okay?" Sam couldn't resist asking when Natasha picked up a dish towel and stood beside him to start drying.
She nodded, though her gaze was a little bit too intense, too focused on the spatula she was drying, and there was a little pinched line between her eyebrows. "He's been through worse."
Somehow, that didn't make Sam feel better. The last thing he needed was a spy, who he didn't even know, to bleed out in his guestroom.
“We won’t be here long,” Natasha added after a moment. “He just needs a couple of hours of sleep and we’ll be moving on.”
“To New York?” Sam guessed, dumping the leftover pancakes into a ziploc bag.
“So you’ve talked to Steve.” Natasha wasn’t asking.
“He, uh, he left a message,” Sam admitted. He didn’t look at her, because Natasha was scary smart and she’d see things in his face that he wasn’t prepared to admit to himself.
“I told him it was stupid to leave you behind,” she said. Her voice was casual, conversational.
Sam snorted. “Yeah, well, he disagreed,” Sam countered.
“He’s an idiot,” Natasha insisted, a lethal seriousness to her tone.
Sam sighed, drying his hands and turning to lean his back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “He was right.” Natasha rolled her eyes, but Sam continued before she could say anything. “I’m just a guy with a jetpack, and the suit’s ruined now. I can do more good here.”
“You don’t believe that.” Natasha cocked an eyebrow at him, her lips pressed thin.
Sam shrugged. “You know, fighting aliens and super secret Nazi organizations is all well and good, Nathasha, but you need someone on the ground dealing with the fall out.”
“And that’s what you’re doing, dealing with the fallout?” There was distinct skepticism in Natasha’s voice that made Sam want to squirm, though he didn’t let himself give in to it.
When he said it out loud, it sounded stupid, and like a thin excuse. He couldn’t admit it, but the image of the Winter Soldier’s sad, rain sodden, hunched shoulders as he sat on Sam’s stoop was burned into Sam’s mind. So he pulled away, retreating from Natasha’ too-knowing gaze.
“So you’re not coming to New York with us.” Natasha hopped delicately up to sit on the counter and crossed her ankles as she watched him.
“Technically, I wasn’t invited,” Sam pointed out.
“What if this was me inviting you?” She persisted.
Sam sighed. “Then this is me… saying no.”
She studied him with narrowed eyes at him for several minutes, before rolling her eyes and sliding down off the counter. “Fine. But at least call Steve back. He’s going to get pouty.”
Sam allowed himself to make a childish face at her back as she headed back to the guest room.
“Real mature, Wilson,” she shot back, without looking.
Natasha and Clint emerged from the guest room after the sun went down. Clint was still limping, but he had regained some color and he didn’t look like he was going to keel over any more.
“Sure you won’t change your mind?” Natasha asked.
“I’m good here,” Sam confirmed. He followed them to the door, weirdly sorry to see them go. So he told her the same thing he’d told Steve. “My door is always open.”
Her lips twisted in a way that was more secrets than smile, and she leaned in to plant a light kiss on his cheek. When she pulled away there was a slip of paper in Sam’s hand. On it was a phone number written in neat, precise numbers.
Monday morning Sam woke up to find the word Avengers Initiative splashed across every headline of every newspaper, website, or televised news program. Accompanying the words were a self-congratulatory quote from Tony Stark about privatizing world peace, and a nauseating photograph of Tony Stark with his arms around the shoulders of a dark-hair man in glasses, and Steve. It was, stupidly, like a punch to the gut, though Sam did take a childish amount of comfort from the fact that both Steve and the other man looked as supremely uncomfortable as Tony Stark looked smarmy.
Sam read the article thoroughly in his morning paper over breakfast, and discovered that the former Stark Tower had been rebuilt and rebranded Avengers Tower, and that Steve had moved in. Sam proceeded to spend the rest of the day avidly attempting to avoid all mention of Tony Stark and his private superhero club, a feat which was made extremely difficult by the fact that it was all anyone wanted to talk about.
By the time he made it home at the end of the day he was frustrated and peevish. He turned on the news out of habit as he began fixing himself dinner, and was about to immediately turn it off again when he realized that it was yet another expose on the Avengers. Except just as his finger was about to punch down viciously on the off button, Steve’s face took up the entire screen and Sam froze.
“Steven Grant Rogers, better known for the history books as Captain America has officially announced his partnership with Tony Stark, and our world’s first official alien immigrant, Thor,” the newscaster declared, while the screen showed Steve standing beside Tony Stark on a press release platform. Natasha and Clint stood behind them, along with the dark haired man from the newspaper picture, and the whole lot of them were dwarfed by the massive Thor. “Our reporter Anya McIntyre has an exclusive interview with the great patriot himself.”
Sam could see the obvious work of what was most likely a fleet of PR reps in Steve’s tightly tailored suit and the slicked back styling of his hair. However, no amount of hair and makeup artists could hide Steve’s anxious fidgeting and crooked, self-deprecating smile.
“Captain Rogers,” the pretty blond reporter started, “it’s been, what, a year now since you were, uh, unfrozen? That must have been quite an adjustment.”
“Yes, uh, yeah, a lot has changed,” Steve agreed. Sam wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or hide out of second hand embarrassment. “But I think I’m managing alright.”
“Now, you’ve been working with Mr. Stark since before the invasion of New York, isn’t the correct?” the reporter continued. Her smile was a lot brighter and more genuine that Sam was used to seeing on reporter’s face, and he couldn’t entirely blame her; being that close to Steve was a little like sitting next to the sun.
“We met a few days before the invasion,” Steve confirmed, bobbing his head a little too vigorously. “He’s a… very smart man, and he does a lot of good work.”
“Do you think there’s another invasion coming? I mean, I can’t imagine what else the world would need a team of super powered vigilantes for.” Sam flinched at the pointed, and frankly uncalled for, barb, but Steve’s smile turned sharp around the edges and there was a subtle, but dangerous glint in his eyes.
“Technically,” Steve pointed out, leaning forward a little in his seat, like he was sizing up a new sparring partner, “we’re government sanctioned. Although the Avengers are under the spearhead of Stark Industries, we have a consultant contract with three branches of the military and we’re subcontracted by both the CIA and the FBI.”
The reporter opened her mouth, then promptly closed it again.
“And no, we’re not expecting another invasion,” Steve continued. His nervousness had vanished, replaced by a sharp edged, challenging smile. “But, in the wake of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collapse and with the revelation that the Nazi organization Hydra is still operational, we, the Avengers, think that it’s prudent to remain prepared.”
Sam found himself settling deeper into his couch cushions and grinning broadly as the news report switched over to a panel of men in suits discussing the possible economic ramifications of a cooperation of superheroes.
Sam stopped paying attention to the television. Instead, his gaze kept drifting toward where he’d tossed his phone down on the coffee table. Sam resisted for a full five minutes before he scooped up his phone and dialed Steve’s number. Steve answered after three rings.
“So, you’re going cooperate, huh?” Sam said, not bothering to say hello. He was reasonably sure Steve had figured out caller ID by now.
“I guess you saw the press release.” Sam could hear the charginned smile in Steve’s voice, and Sam couldn’t help grinning in response.
“More like I got smacked in the face with it. Tell me, is Stark as obnoxious as he seems in the news?” Sam let his head hang over the back of his couch as he spoke, the phone dangling loosely between his fingers.
“Tony is… a very smart and… driven man,” Steve defended stiltedly.
Sam snorted. “You can’t stand the guy, can you?”
Steve let out a slow breath through pursed lips. “He’s an… acquired taste.” Sam laughed, and after a moment Steve broke and joined him. “Okay, yes, he’s kind of obnoxious. But he is actually a genius, and he’s got a good plan for the Avengers.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay. How big of a room did he give you in that tower?” Sam kept his voice light and teasing, because he didn’t want to think about Steve, comfortable in New York, with a team.
“It’s an entire floor.” Steve’s voice was slightly muffled, as though he’d buried his face in his hands and there was a distinct groan to his tone. “It’s bigger than your house.”
“Wow, you are fitting right in.” Sam smirked.
“It’s a good idea,” Steve said, defensively. “With Hydra still out there-”
“Relax, Steve,” Sam cut him off, letting his voice go flat and serious. “It’s a good thing. Believe it or not, I’m glad you’re not running around skeevy Russian back alleys without backup.”
Steve was quiet for a long minute; long enough for Sam to wonder if Steve had hung up on him. “I’m still looking for him,” Steve said eventually. His voice was so quiet that Sam had to take a moment to make sure he’d heard Steve right. “I’m not… I haven’t given up on Bucky.”
Sam sat up, stalling for time while he tried to unclench the knot of guilt that had suddenly tightened in the pit of his stomach. “You don’t have to convince me, Steve,” he assured. “But, uh, maybe it’s a good idea to give him some time, you know, let him sort himself out.”
“Time, yeah.” All humor was gone from Steve’s voice, and Sam could imagine his shoulders slumping. “Look, I should go-”
Sam bit his lip, the confession burning in the back of his throat. But all he said was, “Yeah, me too. Don’t forget about me now that you’re rooming with the big leagues, okay?”
“I won’t.” Steve was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again there was a level of sincerity in his voice that made warmth twist uncomfortably in the pit of Sam’s stomach. “Thanks, Sam. I’m glad you called.”
“Me too, Steve.”
It wasn’t a nightmare, but the dream was deeply unsettling.
Sam found himself standing on a rickety rope bridge which spanned a seemingly bottomless chasm. On one side of the chasm stood Steve, in his full uniform, shield on his arm; on the other side stood Riley, looking just how Sam best remembered him, bright eyed and eager, dressed in his favorite civilian clothes, loose jeans and a t-shirt that Sam knew had some ridiculous pop culture reference on it, even though he couldn’t actually read the shirt from this distance.
Both men were gesturing Sam toward them emphatically, calling out to him though their words were torn away by the winds that seemed to form a force field around Sam. Sam wavered as the bridge rocked beneath him, looking from Steve to Riley and back again, torn by indecision. But the bridge suddenly pitched and twisted beneath him, and he looked down before he could stop himself.
Beneath him, the Winter Soldier was falling. Sam could see him clearly, no matter how far the Soldier fell and despite the lack of light in the deep chasm. The Soldier’s mouth was open, his eyes wide and terrified in his far too young face.
And then Sam was falling too; not falling, jumping, diving. His stomach rose to his throat and for a moment his body felt weightless as he plummeted down, until the wind caught in his wings and he wasn’t falling, he was chasing the Winter Soldier, arms outstretched to catch him-
Sam sat bolt upright in his bed. It took him several long, disoriented minutes to process the solid feeling of the mattress beneath him and the sheets crumpled around his waist. By the time his heart rate had calmed back down to normal, he’d accepted the fact that he wasn’t going to be going back to sleep any time soon.
He didn’t bother turning any lights on on his way to the kitchen, figuring he was going to stumble most of the way there whether he could see or not, so why bother burning out his retinas sooner than he needed to? He sort of regretted that decision when he flipped on the kitchen light, extremely unprepared for the sight of the Winter Soldier hunched over his kitchen counter eating leftover lasagna out of the pan.
“Jesus- fucking hell,” Sam sputtered. He rubbed a hand over his face, suddenly feeling as though he hadn’t slept in a year.
The Winter Soldier had frozen, a fork halfway to his mouth and his eyes wide in a textbook example of the deer-in-headlights cliche.
Sam recovered first, and started to implement his new life philosophy of simply proceeding as usual whenever super assassins appeared unexpectedly in his kitchen. He crossed the small room and poured himself a glass of water, then drank it at a calm, leisurely pace that was an absolute lie.
Meanwhile, the Winter Soldier slowly lowered his fork, his eyes darting around the room as he undoubtedly tried to pick which would be the fastest escape route.
“That would be better if you warmed it up,” Sam said, after he’d finished his drink of water. The lasagna pan had been full when he’d brought it home after Sunday night dinner with his mom - she knew Sam was perfectly capable of feeding himself, but she also knew that she was a better cook than Sam would ever be, so she always sent him home with extra food - but now the pan was more than half empty.
The Winter Soldier watched Sam warily, and the way he hunched over the pan reminded Sam of the recently rescued, half-starved dogs he had seen at the shelter he’d volunteered at in high school. Sam found himself wondering if the Winter Soldier had had even a halfway decent meal since the forties.
So Sam waved away his previous comment, leaning back against the counter in a clear indication that he intended to stay on his side of the kitchen, no where near the Winter Soldier’s food. “Eat as much as you want,” he said; he could always get another lasagna from his mom next week.
The Soldier didn’t continue eating. Instead, he set the fork down on the counter with careful, and silent, precision.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” Sam said eventually, to break the silence if for no other reason. He didn’t really expect a response, but once again the Winter Soldier surprised him.
“I went to New York. I saw him.” The sentences were short and choppy, and the Soldier’s voice reminded Sam of the creak of rusty hinges. Sam didn’t have to ask what ‘him’ the Soldier meant; there was only one ‘him’ between them. Except Sam had talked to Steve not more than seven hours ago. I’m still looking for him Steve had said, I haven’t given up on Bucky.
“He didn’t see me,” the Winter Soldier added after a pause. Maybe Sam was imagining it, or projecting it on the Soldier, but he thought he heard the slightest hint of guilt behind the Soldier’s words.
“He’s still looking for you,” Sam said. He hadn’t entirely meant to, but it slipped out before he could stop it.
Something flickered in the Soldier’s eyes, something that Sam couldn’t name, and he didn’t really want to try. “You didn’t tell him. About me. That I came here.” They weren’t questions, they were statements, delivered in a faintly puzzled tone that matched the tilt of the Soldier’s head and the faint crease between his eyebrows.
Sam paused, because he hadn’t told Steve, and he should have. Probably. Maybe. “If you’d wanted him to find you, you wouldn’t have come to me,” Sam said after a moment, and he hadn’t expected those words until they’d left his lips and he knew with inexplicable certainty that they were true. “I guess it’s not my secret to tell.”
The Winter Soldier looked down at his own hands braced on the counter in front of him, one metal and one broken, blood-stained flesh. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
“Sure thing,” Sam said. He had no idea how his voice managed to come out so casual and relaxed. “The guest room is all yours, if you want it. Shower too,” he added, letting his eyes linger for just a moment on the Soldier’s dirty, exhausted form as he pushed himself away from the counter and headed back toward his bedroom. He knew sleep was a lost cause for the time being, but he wanted to know if the Soldier would stay. He wouldn’t if Sam tried to pressure him into it, that was easy enough to see, so Sam left him with the option and walked away.
Sam made himself stay in bed until sunrise. He’d been listening intently for hours, but could distinguish no sounds to indicate whether the Winter Soldier was still in the house or not.
Sam peered cautiously out of his door, and down the empty hallway. The living room and the kitchen were clear, but the door to the guest room was ajar. Sam deliberated for a moment, torn, but in the end he decided it was necessary for him to know if there was still an assassin in his house or not. So cautiously Sam padded over to the door his bare feet barely whispering to the carpet until he could peek through the gap into the guestroom. There was no sign of the Winter Soldier, so he pushed way further into the room, which proved to, in fact, the empty.
The adjoining bathroom, however, was not. When Sam checked it, he found the light on, and the Winter Soldier curled up in the bathtub, fast asleep. He looked as though he had simply collapsed, though he was still fully dressed, down to his boots, and completely dry, so Sam felt it was reasonably safe to assume that he had not fallen unconscious while washing. In fact, the Soldier’s posture, and the way that he was half propped up against the edge of the tub, reminded Sam painfully of a soldier fallen asleep while on guard.
Despite his guarded posture and the tension visible in his pinched expression, the Winter Soldier didn’t so much as twitch when Sam entered the bathroom. That had to be proof that the Soldier had been all but dead on his feet.
So Sam did the only thing he could do; he went back out into the bedroom, snagged the blanket off of the bed, and, cautiously, draped it over the Winter Soldier. He paused, noting the fact that the knuckles on the Soldier’s flesh hand were split and swollen, and that there were suspiciously dark stains on his shirt, then he fetched his industrial sized first aid kit from his own bathroom and set it pointedly on the lid of the toilet - where the Soldier would definitely see it when he woke up. As an after thought he added a clean pair of sweatpants and an old t-shirt, because he might as well be thoroughly hospitable.
After that, Sam forced himself the leave the Winter Soldier alone. He pulled the guestroom door back so that it was closed to just a crack, and got dressed for his morning run. After his run, he showered - thankful that his house had two bathrooms - shaved, and read the paper over breakfast. No sound or sign of life came from the guestroom, and eventually he had no choice but to leave for the VA.
He spent the entire day thoroughly distracted, despite his best efforts. And when he stopped on his way home to pick up a pizza, extra large, he told himself that it was because he didn’t feel like cooking and he genuinely liked cold, leftover pizza.
The Winter Soldier didn’t greet him when Sam got home - not that Sam expected him to - but he heard the guest bed creak while he was setting the pizza down on the coffee table. He was both surprised and relieved at the confirmation that the Soldier hadn’t disappeared again, though that second reaction was not one he was prepared to analyze yet, if ever.
He kept himself decidedly calm as he grabbed two paper plates and two cans of soda from the kitchen. The Soldier appeared out of the guest room as Sam was setting the plates and sodas on the coffee table next to the pizza box. The Soldier had showered and changed in the clothes Sam left for him; his hair no longer a dirty mess but rather loose, slightly disheveled waves around his face. It made him look softer, younger.
Sam struggled determinedly to keep his mannerisms nonchalant. “Hey,” he greeted, casually, as though this was a totally normal situation. “You hungry?” He flopped himself onto the couch, grabbing a piece of pizza with one hand and the remote with the other. He wasn’t sure if providing the buffering distraction of the television was actually a good idea, but the Soldier hadn’t proven to be particularly chatty so far, so he figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Except that he’d left the tv on a news station, which happened to be airing a story on the war in Iraq when Sam turned it on. Sam saw the Soldier’s eyes flick to the screen at the staticky sound of mortar rounds echoed from the speakers, and yes, that had been a very bad idea. For both of them, actually, because Sam didn’t particularly want to see that either. Hastily he flipped the television to another channel - any other channel - and muted it.
Luckily, the Winter Soldier quickly lost interest in the television once he’d determined that it wasn’t a threat. He was still standing - hovering, really - half way between the guest room door and the center of the living room where Sam sat, and his eyes were fixed on the pizza box.
Sam made a gesture in the general direction of the pizza and the couch that he hoped indicated please sit and eat with me because for some reason the idea of saying the words aloud seemed horribly awkward.
The Soldier’s eyes flicked from the pizza, to Sam, to the couch and then the two arm chairs set on either side at an angle to the couch, all grouped around the coffee table and pointed toward the television - Sam hadn’t tried to be creative when he’d set up his living room. The Soldier’s face twisted slightly and his shoulders stiffened. His eyes flicked between the couch and the chairs again.
On impulse, Sam set down his pizza, stood, and started pushing the coffee table aside. He moved it so that there was a clear semi-circle of floor formed by the couch and chairs. He then grabbed the pizza, plates, and sodas, and set them down in the middle of the semicircle, before settling himself cross legged on the floor with his back resting against the base of the couch and resumed eating his pizza. Sam wasn’t entirely sure what about the change in position had worked, but a moment later the Winter Soldier delicately mirrored Sam’s position in front of the nearest arm chair - as far away from Sam as he could get and still reach the pizza.
Sam couldn’t help but grin, though he hid it by taking an excessively large bite.
The Winter Soldier ate slowly, deliberately. Sam had gone with pepperony as a safe bet on the pizza, but the Winter Soldier didn’t seem to be particularly aware of what he was eating anyway, although he did stare at his first slice intensely throughout the time it took him to eat it.
“This is the best pizza outside of New York, or Chicago,” Sam asserted when the Winter Soldier was halfway through his second slice.
The Soldier glanced at him, then back down to the pizza, his face pinched in consideration. “I’ve had it before,” he said. “Pizza, I mean.” There was a distant quality to his voice, as though the words were coming from somewhere buried deeply in his mind that he could only just access.
“It is an American staple,” Sam pointed out. He hesitated, wary of probing too much, of disrupting whatever fragile progress the Soldier might have made. “So, you know, it would be a crying shame if you hadn’t.”
The Soldier tilted his head slightly, his gaze fixed on the slice of pizza in his hand. It was only half eaten, but he dropped it back to the plate. “I don’t remember.” He said it bluntly, almost abruptly, and there was a harsh edge of frustration. “I just know things. I didn’t learn them.”
Sam set the crust of his last piece down carefully, buying himself time to consider. “You don’t remember anything?” he asked carefully. It was something he couldn’t even imagine, to have no memories, no images or sounds to ground his knowledge of things in.
The Soldier’s eyes flitted around the room without really seeing it, searching the invisible paths of his mind before eventually settling on the television, drawn to the movement on the screen like a moth to flame without actual processing any of it. “I remember…” the Soldier started, his voice far away, “Smells, sometimes. Snapshots.” He licked his lips, his face tightening as though he was trying to grasp something just out of reach. “It comes and goes,” he finished at length, his face going lax as whatever it was escaped him.
Sam nodded slowly. He supposed that was progress. He had very little experience with amnesia, the stand kind let alone the kind brought on by seven decades of brainwashing, but if anything was coming back Sam was willing to bet that more would follow, eventually.
Sam was trying to figure out how to express some encouragement that the Soldier would accept when his thought were derailed as the Soldier blurted, “I’m not him.”
Sam paused, but then he followed the Winter Soldier’s gaze to the tv screen. Not paying attention, he’d left it on the History Channel, which, apparently, was playing a documentary on Captain America and the Howling Commandos - of all things. The screen showed grainy, black and white footage of Captain America walking in the foreground, a crowd of exhausted looking soldiers behind him, and Bucky Barnes at his side. The Soldier’s eyes were fixed on the image of himself on the screen, and his comment no longer seemed sudden or out of the blue.
“I know that I am,” the Soldier continued, contradicting himself. “Was. That I was. But I’m not him… any more.” He glanced at Sam, like he was trying to explain, like he wanted Sam to understand.
And Sam could give him that at least, so he nodded. Honestly, all things considered, it would have been shocking if the Winter Soldier had been able to connect himself to his old life. “No one expects you to be,” Sam told him. The Soldier gave him a look that said they both knew that wasn’t quite true, but neither of them commented on it aloud. “Look, what matters isn’t who you were, but who you are now, and who you want to be.”
The Winter Soldier studied Sam, his eyes narrowed. His gaze was both searching and skeptical. “Really?” he asked.
Sam shrugged. “It worked for me.”
The Soldier stared at him for moment longer. Then he grunted and resumed eating his pizza.
The next day Sam tried valiantly to hide his surprise when he came home from work and found the Winter Soldier, not only still present, but sitting in his livingroom reading four books at once. He was sitting in the middle of the floor with one book propped against the leg of the coffee table, one laying on the floor in front of him, one balanced between his crossed knees, and the fourth gripped delicately in his metal hand. He had a highlighter trapped between his teeth and his hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail.
Sam stopped halfway between the kitchen and the living room, absorbing the sight. The Winter Soldier released the highlighter from between his teeth and caught it effortlessly with his free hand as he tilted his head in Sam’s direction. “Did you bring food?” the Soldier asked.
Sam blinked, almost forgetting about the shopping bags that were dangling from his fingers until he followed the Soldier’s line of sight to his hands. It snapped him into motion and he turned back to the kitchen to put away the groceries. “There is food in the kitchen already,” he said over his shoulder, “I just needed to restock on a few things.”
“I ate it,” the Soldier’s voice followed him, though the man himself remained sitting in the living room.
Sam was certain he had not heard that correctly, until he looked in the fridge and realized that the Soldier had in fact eaten… everything. “Guess I’m going to the grocery again tomorrow,” Sam muttered under his breath. Sam finished putting away the groceries and returned to the living room. He stopped in the doorway, again, because the sight of the Winter Soldier, in jeans and a tank top - Sam didn’t want to ask where he was getting these clothes, since they hadn’t come out of Sam’s closet - scribbling notes in the margins of one of his books - he reminded Sam of college, of highschool, of… of Riley. It hit him like a punch in the gut, but what hurt even worse was the realization that the man sitting in his living room was a person. This whole time Sam had been thinking of him as the Winter Soldier without even realizing what that meant, that he was mentally dehumanizing the man, just like Hydra had.
Sam forced himself to move into the living room, careful to give the Soldier - Bucky? - plenty of personal space as he gingerly stepped around the Soldier’s - no, James? - books to sink into his favorite arm chair. The Soldier - Barnes - had returned his focus to his books, three of which, Sam noticed, weren’t even in English - one was in German, and the other two looked like Russian. One of them was open to a page that was covered in a detailed drawing of a complicated machine that vaguely resembled a hydraulic pump of some sort, if Sam had to guess. They were most definitely not Sam’s books.
Sam watched over the Bucky’s shoulder as he highlighted part of the drawing. Sam had seated himself at an angle to the Bucky, purposefully not behind him, and Sam could see the crease of concentration between his eyebrows. When Bucky finished highlighting whatever had caught his attention he set the book down with careful deliberation and tucked the highlighter into the band holding his ponytail. He then turned his attention toward Sam expectantly.
“What should I call you?” Sam blurted. He hadn’t entirely meant to ask the question, but it was something they were going to have to sort out eventually if Barnes was going to continue hanging around, and he’d been looking at Sam with so much expectation that Sam felt compelled to say something.
Barnes blinked, caught off guard by the question. He opened his mouth, but closed it again without saying anything. He looked puzzled.
“You said last night that you’re not… who you used to be any more, and I get that, I do. So I don’t want to call you something that doesn’t feel right to you, you know?” Sam explained himself hurriedly, because he could be wrong. Maybe the Soldier wanted to take his old name back, and maybe he didn’t, but that was his choice to make. “So I’ll call you whatever you want, whatever you’re comfortable with. Just, you know, let me know. Think it over, I’ll start dinner.” Sam pushed himself out of the chair, because the crease between Bucky’s eyebrows was deepening, and Sam figured he might need some space.
Sam was halfway through browning some beef for tacos when Bucky came into the kitchen. “Bucky is fine,” he said, his voice harsh and abrupt over the sizzling of the meat.
Sam paused, setting down his spatula and turning to look at Bucky. “Are you sure?” he asked.
Bucky’s mouth was twisted into a crooked sort of frown and his eyebrow were still drawn together. But he nodded affirmatively. “Might as well start getting used to it,” he said, with half a shrug, and that settled the matter.
“Alright,” Sam agreed, “Bucky it is. Would you grab the salsa and sour cream out of the fridge?” Sam had turned his attention back to the skillet, but he listened as the fridge door opened and the containers he’d asked for clunked down onto the counter.
When Sam finished cooking, they sat down at the table to eat like civilized people, though Bucky perched gingerly on the edge of his chair. Sam didn’t comment on it. He didn’t comment on it when Bucky managed to fit nearly two pounds of ground beef into eight taco shells and downed the lot of in less than ten minutes.
The next day, when Sam got home from work, Bucky was gone, but the day after that Bucky was sitting stiffly on the couch watching reruns of I Love Lucy. Then he disappeared again for three days. Sam gave up on trying to predict Bucky’s movements, and he stopped being surprised when Bucky appeared suddenly in his house.
He stopped being surprised, but that didn’t mean he was okay with it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the abrupt appearances of a former assassin in his house that bothered him; it was the unpredictable and unexplained absences.
It was never knowing when, or if, Bucky would come back.
Sam flailed around blindly for his phone without bothering to open his eyes. It was ringing shrilly, and since he always kept it in the same spot on his bedside table, he didn’t even need to lift his face from the comfort of his pillow to find it. He did have to crack one eye open to make sure he was hitting the answer button correctly, but he closed it again immediately as he brought the phone up to his ear. “Hello?” he said, decidedly not caring that the word was muffled by the pillow he was pressing his face into.
“You were asleep.” Steve’s voice was laced with guilt and apology. It was two AM, and that meant that Steve was having a rough night. It wasn’t the first time in the month since he and Sam had started having regular phone conversations. It had taken a lot of prying for Sam to get Steve to admit that he still frequently had trouble sleeping, and a lot more convincing for Sam to convince Steve that he really did want Steve to call him if talking about it would help, no matter what the time.
So Sam cut Steve off before he could actually vocalize the apology and try to hang up. “I’m not any more,” he said firmly, sitting up and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with his free hand. He rested the elbow of his other arm on his knees, so that he didn’t have to fully support the weight of the phone as he held it to his ear. “So what was the movie tonight?”
The rest of the Avengers, apparently, had jumped quickly onto the catching-Steve-up-on-popular-culture train, starting with Natasha and Clint, and then once they’d released that Thor too was woefully uneducated, they’d started having regular movie nights. Steve recounted these events to Sam with a mix of embarrassment and delight. And the fact that Steve always wanted to discuss what he’d learned with Sam afterwards made the thought of Steve having fun with his new team hurt a little bit less while Sam sat alone in his empty - sometimes assassin haunted - house.
Sam could hear some of the tension draining out of Steve. “Star Wars, episode VI,” he answered.
Sam bit back a snort. The Avengers were gradually working their way through the Star Wars movies, and it was sort of refreshing to hear the opinions of someone who hadn’t grown up with it. “Alright, lay it on me,” Sam prompted, settling in for a rant.
“It was… interesting,” Steve tempered.
“No, really,” Steve insisted. “I liked it.”
“It’s just…” Steve sighed. “Tony has this big collection of Star Wars merchandise that he showed me before we started watching the movies, when he was talking them up to me, right? I get all of the merchandise that has Darth Vader on it, I mean that makes sense, the whole series is about him really. And I guess the storm trooper sort of make sense too. But why is this Boba Fett guy on everything? I kept looking for him. I’m pretty sure he’s in less than five minutes of the movie. He just shows up, stands next to Jabba, and then Luke kicks him into a hole. Natasha insists that he was in Episode V, but I don’t even remember seeing him.” There was a pinched, plaintive tone to Steve’s voice, and Sam let his head rest back against the headboard as he laughed.
“Yeah, I’ll be honest,” Sam agreed, “I never got all the hype about Boba either. Now Jango I could kind of get, since he actually has a story - he’s in the prequel trilogy - but Boba not so much. But I can tell you why he’s on all the merchandise; same reason the other two are. They all wear those big helmets that cover their faces, so the company doesn’t have to pay any of the actors for face rights.”
“Huh,” Steve admitted, “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“It’s all about the money, my friend,” Sam confirmed.
“Bruce keeps telling me that I’ll like Star Trek better,” Steve informed him, “but Tony says that’s blasphemy.”
“I’d have expected Stark to be more of Trekkie,” Sam mused. “The science in Star Trek is better.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s why he doesn’t like it,” Steve said. “He likes to complain. About everything. If the science in Star Trek is more accurate there’s less for him to complain about.”
“Fair enough.” Sam laughed, tugging his blanket back around himself. He had to admit that it was nice to lay in the dark and listen to the warm, soft tone of Steve’s voice; he did not let himself admit exactly how nice it was, or which parts of him Steve’s voice was warming. They let silence hang on the line between them for a few moments before Sam spoke again, his voice quiet and devoid of pressure. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Steve didn’t answer right away, and Sam imagined him fidgeting as he decided how to answer. “It’s too quiet,” Steve said at last. “Tony’s got some kind of high-tech soundproofing all over the tower, and my room is toward the center of the tower anyway. Back in-... when I was a kid, we had thin walls, and a lot of the time in the summer we kept the windows in to stay cool, and it wasn’t nearly as loud or as bright as the city is at night now, but still it was… not this quiet.”
Sam let Steve talk, let him get all the words out; he knew better than most that sometimes that was what was important. He didn’t always need to offer Steve a solution, just an opportunity to say what was on his mind. “Makes your thoughts seem louder, doesn’t it?” Sam said, knowingly, when Steve stopped.
“Too loud,” Steve agreed, sighing.
“You could try playing some ambient noise,” Sam suggested. Beaches and rainforests were more common, but Sam was willing to bet someone at some point had made a CD of city sounds. “Lots of people do that. It helps the brain relax, helps to turn off the startle response and everything.”
Steve considered that for a moment. “It’s worth a try,” he agreed.
“And if it’s too dark,” Sam continued, “there is absolutely nothing wrong with using a nightlight and don’t let anyone tell you different.” He exaggerated the vehemence in his voice a little, knowing it would make Steve smile, but he meant what he said.
Steve did smile; Sam could hear it. “I’ve already got that covered,” he admitted, “Natasha bought me one with a cover on it shaped like my shield. She said it was only fitting.”
“Aw man, now I’m jealous,” Sam joked.
“I’m still amazed by how much Captain America merchandise they’ve made,” Steve said, his voice more embarrassed and bemused than amazed. They’d had this conversation before.
“Hey, Captain America is cool,” Sam defended, in the same tone of voice he’d used when he was a kid and his sisters had tried to make fun of him for buying yet another Captain America t-shirt. It made Steve laugh, which had been Sam’s goal.
“Uh-huh.” Steve did not sound convinced. “Hey, have you made any progress on that soccer league you were trying to start?”
The conversation between them was easy, just the right amount of playful, and Sam barely even noticed when two AM became three AM. It was always like that when they talked, as long as they talked about inconsequential things; pop culture, hobbies, those things were easy, those things they could joke about. It was nice. Nice enough to eventually lull them both into a state of relaxed exhaustion so that Steve could finally sleep. Nice enough, until after they hung up and Sam lay in the semi-darkness of his room, remembering that only a few hours before he’d been watching a movie with Steve’s best friend, and once again, Sam had failed to tell him.
“What is that?”
Bucky glanced up from the newspaper he was reading at the sound of Sam’s voice. He was sitting on the couch, his legs curled up under him. “It’s a cat,” he explained patiently, petting the animal calmly.
“I see that it’s a cat,” Sam clarified, “what I meant was, what is that doing in my house?”
Bucky glanced down at that cat, who nipped plaintively at Bucky’s hand because it had stopped moving. The cat was nearly perfectly black except for a white cap on the tip of its tail; it was also excessively thin, missing a chunk of its left ear, and the last three inches of its twitching tail was bent at an awkward angle, as though it had been broken and never set properly. Bucky tilted his head at the cat, considering it for a moment before he shrugged. “I thought it was yours.”
“Have you seen it around here before?” Sam barely resisted the urge to throw his hands up in the air. Every time he convinced himself that he was getting used to Bucky’s comings and goings, something would throw him for a loop again. It was exhausting.
“No,” Bucky answered. He looked annoyingly unflustered, and had already returned most of his attention to the newspaper. He had also resumed petting the cat, who didn’t seem to care at all that Bucky was using his metal left hand. “But it was already inside when I got here.”
“Maybe,” Sam said, just a touch more snark in his voice than was really necessary, “someone left the window open the last time he was breaking out of the house.”
Bucky looked up from the paper, his expression vaguely offended. “I didn’t use the window this time,” he said, but he didn’t offer an alternative explanation as to how the cat got in. The cat meowed in annoyance at Bucky’s lack of attention and attempted to bite one of his metal fingers. Bucky poked it’s nose in retaliation, but resumed petting it.
Sam watched the sight with the sinking feeling that he had already lost a fight he hadn’t even started yet; that probably had something to do with the hint of a smile that was playing around the corners of Bucky’s lips, and the way he was almost sprawling on the couch, instead of perching on the edge with his back ramrod straight like usual.
Frustrating as it was to have already lost, Sam didn’t even bother trying to argue. He just grunted, turned on his heel, and retreated into the kitchen. Two minutes later he returned with the spare house key that he had dug out of his draw of spare odds and ends. He dropped it unceremoniously on the coffee table within Bucky’s easy reach. “Use it,” he demanded grumpily. “And I am damn well not cleaning any litter boxes.” He didn’t give Bucky a chance to respond, heading straight for the refuge of his shower.
The cat stayed. The next time Sam went to the grocery he ended up coming home with a litter box, a box of litter, and a giant bag of food. Within a week, an electrically powered water fountain, a handful of plush mice filled with catnip, and a mouse shaped laser pointer had also found their way into the house. But true to his word, Sam did not clean the litter box; Sam never actually saw Bucky doing it, but at least once a week the litter box was mysteriously cleaned out and filled with fresh litter. It was sort of a relief, actually, because it meant that, even if Sam didn’t always see him, Bucky was guaranteed to come back to the house at least once a week, like clockwork.
In fact, the only downside was that the cat seemed to hate Sam, or possibly the cat just hated everyone who didn’t happen to have a metal arm. Every time Sam tried to pet it, it bit him. After a few days, Sam and the cat simply learned to avoid each other; it spent most of its time outside or sleeping in the bed Bucky still wasn’t sleeping in anyway, so it wasn’t that hard.
“She needs a name,” Bucky said, apropos of nothing, one night. It was after dinner and they’d been sitting in the living room in companionable silence; Bucky was reading one of his Russian books again, while Sam played around on his tablet.
“She?” Sam asked distractedly, not looking up from the article he was reading about some of the Avengers’ most recent exploits; Steve would tell him a lot more than the press got to know later, but he still read every article on them anyway.
“The cat,” Bucky clarified. He gestured in the direction of the aforementioned creature, who had draped herself pointedly around Bucky’s neck, so that his breath ruffled her fur with every exhale.
“Hellion,” Sam suggested in a mutter, but Bucky ignored him.
Bucky had set down his book and tucked his chin in so that he could stare contemplatively at the cat. His expression was very serious, though the gravity of the moment was utterly lost on the cat, who was sound asleep.
“It’s your cat, man,” Sam told him. “Name it whatever you want.”
“I think… Natalia,” Bucky declared after considering it for a long moment.
That made Sam pause and glance up curiously. “Why?” he asked. It wasn’t exactly a common name for a cat.
Bucky paused, frowning a little - the look Sam had come to recognize as the one he wore when a memory hung just out of Bucky’s reach - then Bucky just shrugged. “It seems right,” he said simply. And that was that.
“Sam, I’ve been watching youtube videos for the past three hours,” Steve confessed. “All I wanted was to look up this new workout routine that Clint told me about and now I’m watching a video about baby goats yodeling. I don’t know how it happened.”
Sam laughed, full and loud. “That, my friend, is the power of the internet,” he assured sagely. “It happens to the best of us.” He dropped the pen he’d been using to balance his checkbook and leaned back in his seat, basking in the late afternoon sun that was streaming in through the kitchen window. “Did you see the one of teacup pigs playing the piano yet?” Sam asked. “Hold on, I’ll send you the link.”
“There are so many amazing and useful things that the internet can be used for,” Steve lamented, “and yet there are over twelve million videos of animals doing things that shouldn’t be possible.
“The future is an amazing and scary place,” Sam agreed, deadpan. “Just wait until you see instagram.”
“I don’t know what that is, and I’m not sure I want to know,” Steve said. “I’m still trying to forget the videos of Tony’s pre-Iron Man days that Natasha showed me. I never want to see that much of Tony again.”
Sam snorted. “So no communal showers at the tower, huh?”
“I didn’t mind it when I was in the army,” Steve said, “but no, thank god, not in the tower.”
Sam had a come back on the tip of his tongue, but he lost it when Natalia leapt delicately onto the table and began attempting to tunnel her way through the papers spread out in front of Sam. “Damnit, Natalia!” Sam snapped, shooing her away. “Get off the table!”
There was a pause of silence on Steve’s end of the phone. “I didn’t realize you had company,” Steve said delicately.
“It’s just the stupid cat,” Sam dismissed. He managed to nudge Natalia off of the table without earning a scratch for his efforts, and the cat stalked off with her tail in the air, probably to start tearing up the leg of Sam’s coffee table again.
“You didn’t tell me you adopted a cat,” Steve said, sounding a little hurt.
Sam paused, the guilt that never really went away clenching in the pit of his stomach. “It sort of… adopted me,” he said. He was trying hard not to outright lie to Steve, omitting was one thing, omitting he could live with, but the more he lied the deeper it felt like he was digging himself into the ground.
“I didn’t really think you were a cat person,” Steve commented, curiosity in his voice.
“I’m not,” Sam muttered, as the sound of claws on wood reached his ears.
A few hours later he received a text from Natasha. Did you name your cat after me?
That made Sam pause long enough to wonder, but he texted back cautiously, I didn’t name her. Omitting things to a spy was even more dangerous than flat out lying, but Natasha’s only response was, I want pictures.
Sam woke up to a furry toe being shoved up his nose. On the list of weird ways Sam had been woken up that month, well, the fact that he had a list of weird ways he’d been woken up that month said enough about what his life had become.
Natalia meowed insistently and continued pawing at Sam’s face. When he groans and buried his face in his pillow to escape, Natalia simply began targeting his ear instead.
“What do you want?” Sam snapped. He peered at the clock blearily; it was almost six AM and he would have been waking up within ten minutes anyway, which somehow only made it worse. “What could you possibly want at six AM?”
The cat did not give up. It meowed, chewed on Sam’s ear, poked its paw at every orifice Sam had, and flicked him repeatedly with its tail. After five minutes, Sam gave up. “Fine, you win,” he muttered, “I’m up. You act like you’re never fed or something.” He dragged himself out of bed reluctantly and got dressed for his morning jog.
Natalia leapt off the bed when he stood and sat by the door twitching her tail impatiently.
“You don’t have to wait for me, you know,” Sam pointed out. He paused to once again reevaluate his life when it occurred to him that he was attempting to hold a conversation with a cat. Natalia growled at him and twitched her tail. “Alright, fine,” Sam grumbled. “Let’s go.”
Natalia led the way down the hall, trotting purposefully with her tail in the air, but she didn’t stop in the kitchen at her food bowl like Sam expected, instead she continued on into the dark livingroom. Sam rolled his eyes and stayed in the kitchen, reaching for a water bottle, but a moment later the cat was back and meowing at him. “What?” he asked, glaring at her with the water bottle halfway to his lips.
Natalia meowed, a drawn out sound that was distinctly urgent sounding and trotted back into the living room.
“What, are we playing Lassie now? You’re a cat, not a-” Sam complained, but he stopped when he actually looked at the living room, where Bucky was sprawled on the couch, looking disturbingly pale and blood splattered. Natalia had leapt up onto the arm of the couch next to Bucky’s head and was sniffing at him cautiously. She turned to look at Sam with an expression that Sam would swear projected See? Look at this mess. Now what are you going to do about it?
“Bucky?” Sam asked cautiously, approaching the touch. Bucky’s chest was rising and falling shallowly, and there was a faintly purple bruise on the underside of his chin. It wasn’t the first time Bucky had come back bloody; Sam didn’t usually get to actually see it, but he found used first aid supplies in the trash and they seemed to run out of hydrogen peroxide suspiciously frequently. Bucky had been gone for four days this time, which had somehow become a longer than usual, though Sam refused to consider that he might have been beginning to worry.
The fingers of Bucky’s flesh hand twitched in response, but he didn’t open his eyes. His left hand, Sam noticed as he moved closer, was clamped tightly over his side, pressing down a towel that had once been white but had acquired a large, crimson stain.
Sam cursed under his breath and abandoned caution. He pushed the coffee table out of the way and dropped to his knees beside the couch, reaching reflexively for the towel to look at the wound. It was a mistake, and he knew it was a mistake, but he had moved too quickly, too impulsively, before he could stop himself.
Almost faster than the human eye could track, Bucky’s metal hand had released the towel and curled around Sam’s throat instead, holding him at arm’s length. He’d half risen up off of the couch, his eyes snapped open and his face twisted as his chest heaved.
Sam automatically tried to withdraw, the metal grip preventing him from pulling away so he clutched at the wrist, his fingers attempting to dig uselessly into the metal joints. “Bucky,” he said, grateful that Bucky had maintained enough control not to squeeze, only to hold, to immobilize. “It’s me, it’s Sam. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. You’re safe, you’re in my house, in Washington DC. It’s 2015. You’re safe here. It’s okay.” He kept going, rambling assurances and details, hoping to ground Bucky, to bring him back to the present, until finally Bucky relaxed his hand and sank back down onto the couch.
“Sorry,” Bucky mumbled. Sam hadn’t thought it was possible, but Bucky looked even more fucked up than when he’d first appeared on Sam’s doorstep.
“Let me see,” Sam urged, in a tone that left no room for argument, though Bucky didn’t look particularly up to arguing anyway. Bucky was so tense he was all but quivering with it under Sam’s hands, but he lay passively and let Sam pull away the towel and lift Bucky’s torn shirt up to look at the wound underneath. It was a bullet hole, dug deep into Bucky’s side just above his hip.
As far as wounds went, Sam had seen a lot worse. Luckily it looked like it had been a relatively small caliber bullet, and Sam knew that, like Steve, Bucky had advanced healing. But Sam still had to fight every instinct not to drag Bucky out of there and straight to the nearest hospital. He didn’t like it, but he knew he had no real choice. Even if he could manage to convince Bucky to let Sam take him to the hospital, there would be too many questions that they couldn’t answer, not when Bucky’s past record and identity were still so complex.
“What were you planning to do?” Sam complained through grit teeth. “Just lay here and bleed out all over my couch?”
“I put a towel down,” Bucky defended himself, sounding vaguely insulted. He had, but Sam’s upholstery wasn’t really the point.
The reek of gore and smoke that wafted off of Bucky was nauseating, but since Sam couldn’t take him to the hospital he did the next best thing. “Come on,” he grumbled. He wrapped his arms around Bucky, making sure that Bucky was watching him this time so that he wasn’t startled by the contact, and began bodily lifting Bucky off of the couch. “First aid kit’s in the bathroom.”
Bucky helped to lever himself up off of the couch, for which Sam was grateful, because otherwise they would not have actually been going anywhere. Bucky leaned heavily on Sam as he stumbled toward the bathroom that had become Bucky’s room. The degree to which Bucky was leaning on him, and the ragged, exhausted tension Sam could feel radiating from Bucky’s body made Sam wonder worriedly exactly how long the ex-assassin had been bleeding, and if ex was really an accurate prefix.
When they made it to the bathroom, Sam deposited Bucky down on the closed lid of the toilet, holding onto him just long enough to make sure Bucky could stay upright on his own before reaching for the first aid fit under the sink.
Bucky leaned back against the toilet tank, lifting his shirt out of the way and poking at the wound with a contemplative expression on his face. When Sam knelt back in front of him with the first aid kit he pushed Bucky’s hand away. “Did you already take out the bullet?” Sam asked.
Bucky paused, blinking at him blankly. Somehow that worried Sam more than the wound itself.
“There’s no exit wound,” Sam pointed out patiently, bending around Bucky to look at his back just to be sure. “So did you take the bullet out?”
Bucky tilted his head, then shook it. For weeks now he’d been gradually opening up. He talked more, mostly to the cat, which Sam only heard snatches of, but to Sam too. And perhaps more importantly, he’d become more expressive, slowly shaking off the eerie blank expression he’d always worn at first. Sam had taken it as a good sign, a sign that Bucky was waking up, reconnecting both with himself and with the world. Except now, his face was blank again. There was none of the pain, or anger, or perhaps fear, or anything that should be on the face of a man who’d been shot, no matter how long he’d been a soldier and dealt with this sort of thing. But it wasn’t entirely the same guarded, defensive blankness that Sam had seen at first either. Bucky’s face was empty, but there was a wideness to his eyes that reminded Sam disturbingly of a face, and as Sam gently probed the wound, Bucky went limp and placid under his touch.
“The bullet has to come out,” Sam said, his voice gentling instinctively. There was just something about the way Bucky’s wide, empty eyes followed Sam’s every movement that made Sam want to hug him protectively. “I need you to hold still for me, no matter how much it hurts.” It was stupid. Bucky was nearly three times Sam’s age; Sam should not be speaking to him as though he was a child. But at that moment Bucky looked like a child, too quiet and too trusting and it was all kinds of wrong that when Bucky was hurt, when Bucky had more reason that ever to be defensive and lash out and reject anyone that came near him, it was now that Bucky let Sam closer than ever.
Sam didn’t move, watching Bucky’s face, waiting, and after a long moment Bucky nodded slightly, just a small jerk of his head. Bucky’s breathing was carefully measured, his lips slightly parted and his hands held firmly at his sides. Only his eyes moved, tracking Sam’s every movement as Sam pulled what he would need out of the first aid kit.
“I am so not trained for this,” Sam muttered to himself as he fumbled with alcohol swabs and gauze pads and a pair of long handled tweezers.
“Let me,” Bucky said quietly. He plucked the tweezers out of Sam’s hand with his own metal one. Sam wanted to protest, but he really was not prepared for this sort of things; Sam’s hands were shaking, and Bucky’s were not. So Sam sat back, watching as Bucky manouvered the tweezers delicately with his metal hand into the hole in his side. It took much longer than Sam was comfortable with, and he winced in sympathy as Bucky dug around in the wound trying to catch a hold of the bullet, though Bucky himself hardly seemed to notice. He was precise and robotic, and when he finally managed to extract the bullet from his side, he presented it to Sam as though handing over a mission objective.
Sam swallowed and took the tweezers, dropping the bullet on the discarded towel before cleaning up the wound as much as he could and bandaging it tightly to stop the bleeding. “Want to tell me what happened?” Sam asked carefully as he finished securing the bandage. He kept his tone as neutral as possible; he didn’t want to pressure Bucky, who was already on edge, but Sam couldn’t keep silent about it any longer. He a sneaking suspicion he already knew where Bucky went when he disappeared, and Sam didn’t like it.
Bucky was still and quiet, his expression still distant and unfocused in a way that made Sam distinctly uncomfortable. “I had to stop them,” Bucky said at last, and his voice had a hollow quality to it as though it were coming from a long way away.
“Hydra?” Sam guessed carefully, and Bucky nodded, nothing more than a slight jerk of his head. Sam sighed, unsurprised. He began packing up the first aid kit, making sure his movements were slow and deliberate.
Bucky tilted his head, watching him. “Are you going to tell me to stop?” Bucky asked, and there was something almost childlike in his voice.
Sam didn’t answer right away, taking his time putting away the first aid supplies and making sure he had the right words before he spoke them. “First of all,” he pointed out levelly, “it isn’t my place to tell you what you can and can’t do. I’m not your keeper, your commander, or your mother. And secondly? Even if I had a right to, no, I wouldn’t tell you to stop. You’re right to do it.”
Bucky lifted his head, obviously surprised at that. He didn’t verbalize the question, but the confusion was evident in his face, so Sam answered anyway.
“You’re right,” he said with a shrug, “Hydra does need to be stopped, and you’ve got more right than just about anyone to go after them.” Bucky looked like he didn’t fully believe Sam, so Sam gave in and added the unspoken ‘but’. “I just… I don’t like you doing it alone, without backup.”
“You mean Steve?” Bucky asked. His voice grated slightly over the name; they never really spoke about Steve, Sam always figured Bucky would bring him up when he was ready.
“I mean someone,” Sam countered.
Bucky considered that, but he didn’t speak again so Sam let the conversation drop. He finished cleaning up and stood. He washed the blood off of his hands thoroughly, then held one out to Bucky. “Come on,” he prompted, “Let’s get you to bed.”
Bucky hesitated, his eyes flicking toward the bathtub.
“You can’t sleep in there, not today,” Sam headed Bucky off before he could say anything, “Curled up like that your wound will never close.”
Bucky deliberated unhappily, then reluctantly shoved himself to his feet. He hadn’t accepted Sam’s hand, but when he stumbled as he turned toward the door Sam reached out to catch him automatically, and Bucky didn’t push him away. Together they made it to the bed and Sam eased Bucky down onto it. Sam helped ease off the remains of Bucky’s shirt, and pulled off his boots for him; Bucky looked worn out and half dead on his feet, so Sam figured they’d worry about cleaning up the rest of him and getting him into clean pants later.
Despite his obvious exhaustion, Bucky remained sitting on the edge of the bed, looking tense and uncomfortable.
“Why the bathtub?” Sam asked, hoping that the answer would lead him to a way to make the bed more acceptable to Bucky.
Bucky considered for a moment, running his right hand over the fabric of the old blanket he was sitting on. “It’s too… open,” he said eventually, nodding toward the bed.
“Exposed?” Sam guessed. That was pretty common.
Bucky inclined his head, but then shook it. “Yes, and no,” he said. He frowning, his eyebrows drawn together in a deep crease and his lips pursed as he struggled to find the words. “I don’t… remember sleeping,” he said, the words coming out stiff and stilted. “Not normal sleep. For a while I couldn’t figure out how to-” he fumbled for a moment, looking for the word, “shut down,” he settled on eventually. “They always did it for me. They put me in a tube, and everything would go quiet and dark for a while.”
“Cryostasis,” Sam said quietly, putting together the fragments of what Bucky was saying with the pieces of the file he’d read. Bucky looked at him, his gaze distant and lost in his memories. “That’s what it’s called,” Sam explained, “when they… shut you down.” He didn’t like the term, but it was the one Bucky had used and he couldn’t think of a better one.
Bucky nodded in confirmation. “Yeah,” he said. “That.” Bucky pulled at a loose thread in the blanket. “That’s what I think about to fall asleep, being in the tube, those last few seconds before everything went dark and quiet.”
“And the bathtub reminds you of the tube,” Sam surmised. “Because it has sides?”
Bucky considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”
Sam contemplated the bed, thinking it over. “How about we build a nest?” he suggested. Bucky just looked at him in blank confusion. “With pillows,” Sam clarified. “We can sort of build walls out of pillows, so you don’t feel as exposed. It won’t be the same, but maybe it’ll help?”
Bucky’s shoulders were slumped, and he looked like he was on the verge of passing out, so Sam didn’t wait for him to answer. Quickly, Sam began gathering up every pillow and cushion in the house. When he returned to the bedroom, Bucky was laying down and had wrapped the blanket around him. Sam was pretty sure that at this point Bucky would be unconscious in a matter of minutes anyway, no matter how uncomfortable the bed made him, but Sam started building a nest around Bucky anyway. Luckily, thanks to the amount of time he’d spent babysitting his nieces and nephews, he was a pro at building pillow forts. In a matter of minutes Sam had Bucky comfortably ensconced by a ring of pillows and spare blankets, and Bucky was soundly asleep.
Once he was certain that Bucky was settled and as comfortable as possible, Sam left the room long enough to call into work, drag a chair into Bucky’s room, and grab his tablet. He felt a little stupid doing it, but Bucky’s breathing was still too shallow for his comfort, and frankly he just didn’t want to leave.
Bucky slept for twelve hours, and when he woke up he ate everything in the kitchen. By morning, the wound looked like it was a week old.
Sam was halfway through folding his laundry when his phone rang. It was also ten o’clock on a Friday night.
“I thought you were busy tonight,” Sam said, pinning the phone between his shoulder and ear.
Steve chuckled on the other end, low and embarrassed. “Yeah, well, I was,” he sighed.
“Well, at least she got you home before curfew,” Sam teased. “So Jenny was a bust, huh?”
“She prefers Jennifer.” Steve voice was tired, and lacking in his usual humor. “She was fine. We just… didn’t have much to talk about.”
“Natasha is going to be so pissed,” Sam informed Steve. He abandoned his half folded clothes in favor of sprawling across his bed, his phone held loosely to his ear. “She was so excited that she finally convinced you to take someone out.”
“Yeah, I know. I sort of had to sneak back into the tower so that she wouldn’t see.” There was a groan in Steve’s voice, and a soft noise that sounded distinctly like Steve’s broad shoulders hitting his mattress.
“Maybe you should try getting her into a new hobby?” Sam suggested.
“She and Thor have been learning tennis,” Steve said, and Sam took a moment to appreciate that thought. “But she promised not to give up on me. And it’s not… that I don’t want to date. It’s just-”
“Complicated?” Sam finished for him, and Steve sighed.
“You know, you don’t have to find your soulmate right now,” Sam pointed out. “There’s nothing wrong with just, you know, having a little fun.”
“I have fun,” Steve protested. “I am a fun guy. I just don’t see how exchanging awkward small talk with a stranger and pretending that neither of you have any expectations is fun.”
“I hate to say it, man, but that usually means you’re dating the wrong people.” Sam didn’t actually have a lot of experience with dating. He had a habit of more or less falling into relationships without meaning to, which meant he usually skipped right over the awkward first dates.
“It’s just exhausting, trying,” Steve complained.
“You’ve been on one date,” Sam snorted.
“This century,” Steve argued, but Sam could hear the smile creeping into Steve’s voice and it only made him laugh harder. “I went on… dates, before the war. Double dates, usually, with B-” Steve stopped short. The smile was gone, and Sam’s laughter died instantly.
“It’s okay,” Sam said after a long pause, “if you’re not ready to date right now. You don’t have to-” he hesitated, unsure of the right term. He’d never pried into the nature of Steve and Bucky’s relationship, after all. “- move on. There’s no rush.”
Steve was silent for so long that Sam was half convinced Steve had hung up on him. “I miss him,” Steve said at last, his voice so soft that Sam almost missed it. The pain in Steve’s voice was so raw that it made Sam’s throat close up in sympathy. He almost broke. He almost stormed out into the living room and thrust the phone into Bucky’s hand and demanded that they sort it out. But instead he stayed where he was, paralyzed on the bed and aching for Steve, and for Bucky, and, a little, selfishly for himself too.
“He’ll come back, Steve,” he said quietly. “When he’s ready. Just give him time.” It was the closest thing to the truth that Sam could offer Steve. Bucky wasn’t lacking in feelings for Steve, Sam knew that with absolute certainty from the way Bucky’s face tightened every time Steve was mentioned. Sam had to believe that they’d work it out eventually; he couldn’t stay stuck between them forever.
“Yeah.” Steve cleared his throat roughly. “It’s, uh, it’s late. I should go.”
“Yeah,” Sam agreed, forcing himself to breathe past the tightness in his chest. “I’ll talk to you later. And Steve?” He paused, reconsidering his words, but he blundered forward anyway. “Just don’t give up, okay?”
“Alright, off the couch,” Sam said as he entered the living room. Despite the fact that it was six thirty in the morning, Bucky was, in fact, seated on the couch reading; he’d apparently gotten tired of the Russian engineering manuals he’d been reading the week before and moved on to some of Sam’s old comic books. Based on the degree to which the couch cushions had been smushed out of place, Sam was willing to bet that Bucky had been there all night.
Bucky raised an eyebrow at him. “If you wanted the living room you could have just said-”
“You need to start getting back out into the world,” Sam cut him off. Ever since Bucky had come back with a bullet in his side, he’d been disappearing less and less. The wound was now nothing more than a faint pink scar that would soon disappear entirely and as far as Sam could tell, Bucky hadn’t left the house in a week.
Bucky blinked at him, his expression blank and unimpressed. “The sun is barely out in the world right now,” Bucky pointed out.
“Baby steps,” Sam shrugged. “Look, I’m glad that you’re here, I really am. But you cannot keep skulking around my house. You need to start establishing normal routines. So, I want you to come out running with me.”
“Running where?” Bucky asked dubiously.
“I usually head over to the Reflecting Pool,” Sam said. “But we can go some place quieter for the first time, if you’d prefer.”
“Running from what?” Bucky tilted his head at Sam in such a way that made it impossible to tell if Bucky was screwing with him or not.
“The calories we’ve eaten recently,” Sam shrugged. “Come on, I’ve got a pair of spare running shoes in the laundry room.”
Bucky studied him for a long minute, then shrugged and unfolded himself from the couch. By the time Sam had filled two water bottles and eaten a power bar, Bucky was back in sweats, running shoes, and a tank top. He’d even pulled his hair back into a messy ponytail.
“Alright,” Sam cheered, handing Bucky a water bottle and a power bar. He led the way outside and Bucky trailed behind him.
When they rounded their fifth block and Bucky’s breathing was still deep and easy, it occurred to Sam that he was probably going to regret this.
“Look, Natasha, all I’m saying is maybe lay off a little,” Sam said. “If Steve wants to date, he’ll date.” He held his phone pressed firmly between his ear and shoulder as he juggled the take out bags he was holding. He’d gotten stuck late at the VA and decided to pick up a late dinner from his favorite Chinese restaurant, tucked between a nightclub and a tattoo parlor. He had to concentrate to hear Natasha's reply over the throbbing beat of noise coming from the club. He'd had to park several blocks away thanks to the Friday night crowd, and he regretting getting so much food.
"He wants to date," Natasha retorted. "He just doesn't want to date any of the girls I set him up with."
"Maybe don't set him up with girls then," Sam pointed out. Steve had never said anything directly to him about it, but the way Steve talked about Bucky, he hadn't needed to.
"I tried that too." Natasha's tone was distinctly put out, and Sam laughed.
"Is this something that you do regularly?" Sam asked, out of curiosity. "Or is Steve a specially case?"
"Why?" she asked. "You looking to hire my services?"
"I don't think I could handle the types of people you're friends with," Sam refused, snorting.
"You handle Steve just fine." If Sam had been paying more attention he might have found a double entendre in that, but his attention had been drawn by a distinctly pained cry.
"If you change your mind, I might have someone-" Natasha was still talking, but Sam had completely stopped paying attention. He had left the club far enough behind that only the faintest vibrations remained in the hair, and the street was all but empty. Sam followed the sound to the mouth of an alley between a dry cleaners and a used bookstore.
Like most alleys, this one was dark and full of trash, but Sam could make out the shapes of four men grouped around another man on the ground who they were kicking repeatedly.
“I don’t have any money!” The man on the ground was crying, trying desperately to protect his head.
"Natasha, I’ll call you back," Sam said. He didn’t wait for a response as he hung up the phone and headed down the alley. “Hey!” he called as he approached the group of men. He knew it was stupid, but his pulse was speeding and he could feel the tension in his muscles uncoiling as he braced himself for a fight.
One of the men pulled away from the group to face Sam. “Keep walking, bro,” he said. Sam did exactly that, though he continued walking toward the thugs. Sam swung the bag of Chinese food he was holding at the first man he reached, using it to obscure his vision while Sam drove a punch into his gut.
After that things moved quickly; the rest of the thugs abandoned their original target to converge on Sam. Sam blocked, kicked, and punched by route. He didn’t even realize that one of the men had pulled back until the retort of a gun echoed through the air and a sharp pain burst across Sam’s side.
Sam stumbled back, his hand automatically dropping to cover the spot. Before Sam could recover, a dark shape pushed past him and barreled into the thugs. Sam’s legs went out from under him, his vision going blurry as he watched. What followed was a lot of screaming and blurry, shadowed motion, but Sam did catch sight of a distinct metal hand glinting in the faint light filtering into the alley from the distant streetlights.
Blood was covering Sam’s fingers, thick and warm. He knew the wound wasn’t too serious, but he was breathing heavily and he could feel shock beginning to set in. He was dimly aware of a cold brick wall against his back, and he blinked hard, trying to inspect the wound in his side.
“Sam.” It was Bucky’s voice, and it shouldn’t have surprised him, but he jumped all the same. Bucky was kneeling in front of him, a deep furrow between his eyebrows. He pulled Sam’s hands away from the wound, bending to inspect it himself.
Sam blinked at him. “What are you doing here?” he asked, confused. “How did you-”
“You didn’t come home,” Bucky said stiffly. That was concern in Bucky’s voice, Sam registered. Bucky was concerned for him. A crooked grin pulled at Sam’s lips.
“I had to work late,” he mumbled. Of all the things that were important at that moment, that was not among them, but the thought that Bucky had worried about him, that Bucky cared, made something warm blossom in Sam’s chest and he was having a hard time letting go. “I was bringing home dinner.”
Bucky glanced down the alley, where Sam could just make out the shapes of the four thugs laying among the remains of what had been meant to be their dinner. Absently, Sam hoped that the thugs were just unconscious, not dead. “I think dinner’s a little ruined,” Bucky said, deadpan. Sam laughed, low and rough.
Sirens echoed down the street, coming closer, and Bucky tensed automatically. “You have to go,” Sam said, trying to gently push Bucky’s hands away from his wound. “The police will be here any minute.”
Bucky nodded, reaching to pull Sam to his feet, but Sam waved him off. “You go,” he repeated. “I’m staying.” Bucky stared at him, appalled. “Look, you can’t be here when the police show up,” Sam tried to explain, again trying to push Bucky away. “I can’t heal like you; I’ll need to go to the hospital. They’ll make sure I get there. You go back to the house and wait.”
Bucky hesitated. But as the police cars came to a stop at the end of the alley Bucky reluctantly pulled away and fled.
Sam dragged himself out of the taxi with a tired sigh. By the time he’d made it through about a thousand reiterations of “I’m sorry officer, I didn’t see who beat those guys to a pulp after they shot me” and the ER doctors stitched up the deep gash in his side, it was late enough that he might as well have stayed the night in the hospital. But, frankly, he hated hospitals, and he had enough trouble sleeping in his own bed sometimes; sleeping in a lumpy hospital bed was straight up not happening.
So he paid the cabbie and trudged up to his front door. He was in the process of fumbling for his keys when the door opened and a metal arm pulled him inside. Startled, Sam very nearly fell against Bucky’s chest, but he didn’t resist.
“You’re supposed to be at the hospital,” Bucky grumbled. He pulled Sam clear so that he could shut and lock the door, and Sam leaned against the wall, blinking against the suddenly too bright light inside the house.
“I was,” he said. “I left.”
Bucky narrowed his eyes at Sam, unamused.
“I’m fine,” Sam assured, pushing himself away from the wall. “They gave me a few stitches and some pain pills. Now all I need is some sleep.” Sam headed determinedly for his bedroom, and Bucky followed him. Sam could all but feel Bucky breathing down his neck, as though Bucky expected him to fall and require catching at any moment. It both made Sam feel warm inside, and paranoid that he might in fact fall over at any moment.
They made it to the bedroom without incident, and Sam fell into his bed without bothering to undress. He could regret sleeping in his clothes later, but at that moment he was too tired to care. Sam’s entire body felt warm and heavy, and his mind went lax as he hovered on the edge of sleep. He was just about to let go when he felt one of his shoes leave his foot. He cracked his eyes open and craned his neck around to look at Bucky. “What are you doing?” he asked. His tone was distinctly accusatory, despite the thickness of sleep in it.
“Helping you to bed,” Bucky answered, narrowing his eyes as Sam as though concerned that his brain functions had been damaged.
Sam blinked at him a few times. “Why?”
Bucky shrugged, focused on untying the laces on Sam’s other shoe. “You did it for me.”
Sam considered that for a moment, then dropped his head back down onto the bed. “Whatever,” he mumbled.
Bucky finished removing Sam’s shoes and set them aside. He then lifted Sam as though he weighed nothing and set him back down so that Sam’s head was actually on top of his pillow; Sam hadn’t even realized that he’d collapsed across the bed horizontally. Sam made an undignified noise of surprise when he felt himself being lifted, but Bucky’s touch was surprisingly gentle, and laying on the pillow was much more comfortable, so he didn’t resist. However, when Bucky pulled the blanket up to Sam’s chin and literally smoothed it down over him, Sam couldn’t resist.
He forced his eyes open enough to narrow them at Bucky. “Were you worried about me?” he asked. Neither of them had bothered to turn on the bedroom light, so Sam could only see a vague outline of Bucky thanks to the sliver of the hall light that was filtering past the partially closed door. It wasn’t enough to read Bucky’s expression, but it was enough to see him pause, still hunched over the bed.
“You got shot,” Bucky said, his voice flat.
“Only a little,” Sam protested. He could hear himself as though his own voice was coming from very far off, and it sounded weirdly petulant. “You got shot way worse.”
“I also heal faster,” Bucky pointed out. He stood, moving away from the bed.
“Yeah, whatever. Show off,” Sam muttered. He tried to roll over onto his stomach, but made the mistake of rolling in the direction of his wounded side. He grunted in frustration, but didn’t bother trying again.
“They seriously drugged you up, didn’t they?” Bucky sounded faintly amused, though his voice was partially obscured by the soft drag of chair legs over the carpet. Bucky was dragging the chair that Sam kept in his room - for no real purpose, usually it ended up covered in dirty laundry - over to the bed.
“You have your own room,” Sam pointed out as he watched Bucky plop himself down in the chair.
“I’m good here,” Bucky said, ostensibly making himself comfortable.
Sam shifted, turning enough to squish his face into the pillow beneath his head. “You were so worried about me,” he mumbled, grinning dopily.
“Go to sleep, Sam.” Sam couldn’t see it, but he could have sworn he heard a smile in Bucky’s voice as he drifted off to sleep.
Rain and wind pelted Sam from all sides. He was weightless, held up by the span of his outstretched wings. The rain was like a million BB bullets, sharp and stinging.
He’d had this dream before.
Riley was somewhere to his left, laughing in the wind. He thrilled in the flight, and so did Sam, despite the wind and the rain and the dizzying height. It was like nothing else, like being in a world of their own, like the purest form of freedom.
Sam turned his head to catch a glimpse of Riley. He knew he shouldn’t; he knew how this dream ended. He thought, for just a second, that he could see the flash of Riley’s smile through the driving rain, but then there was a burst of light, bright and orange and far too sharp. And then Sam was falling. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, Riley’s horrified face hovering above him as Sam’s wings failed and he plummeted downward.
Sam was caught halfway between consciousness and the dream, only aware of the horrible falling sensation and the pain in his side. He was falling, falling and his wings were gone, and he couldn’t breathe.
Something touched his shoulder, something that Sam dimly registered as a hand and he let out a sob of relief before he could stop himself. Because he wasn’t falling. The hand was heavy and firm, grounding him, rooting him to the bed that he could now feel, too soft and suffocating beneath him. He reached out blindly, finding the arm that the hand was attached too and clinging to him, sucking in huge gasps for air. The dream had been vivid and real, and it took Sam several minutes to sort out the lingering phantom sensations of the dream and the reality of the waking world.
The whole time, Bucky didn’t move. He remained half kneeling on the bed, his hand on Sam’s shoulder while Sam clung to his arm. He waited, patiently, while Sam pulled himself together again.
“You with me?” Bucky asked at length, his voice pitched low, like he’s trying to be non-threatening.
Sam nodded, forcing himself to let go of Bucky’s arm. “Just a dream,” he mumbled. His breathing was slowly returning to normal, and he squinted in Bucky’s direction, forcing his eyes to focus. Bucky looked disheveled, and a pillow and blanket had ended up in the chair he’d been occupying, as though he’d fallen asleep there. He’d abandoned the chair, however, and he one knee on the bed as though he’d launched himself onto it in his rush to get to Sam. The whites of Bucky’s eyes were glinting in the dim light that filtered into the room, and his metal hand was clenched in the folds of the blanket. He looked as unsettled as Sam felt.
“You should go to bed,” Sam said, ignoring the desperate desire to not be alone that was curling in the pit of his stomach. He’d dealt with this before, he’d been dealing with it for a long time now, and he’d done it alone so far. There was no reason for Bucky, who still had a lot more recovering to do than Sam had ever had to face, to be sitting up in a chair all night or watching Sam fall apart.
“No,” Bucky said simply. He pulled back a little, giving Sam some space, but he didn’t get off of the bed. It seemed that as far as Bucky was concerned, that closed the matter because he changed the subject. “It helped, when I touched you.” It wasn’t a question, though there was an undercurrent of uncertainty to it.
Sam sighed, too tired to resist, and gave in. “Yeah,” Sam said. “In the dream, I was falling. The touch… grounded me.”
Bucky nodded decisively. “I’ll stay,” he said. Without any further discussion, Bucky kicked off his boots and lay down on the bed beside Sam. He lay close, within easy reach, though he was careful not to actually touch Sam.
Sam lay back against the pillows and shifted onto his side enough to see Bucky better. “Seriously?” he asked. There was something about the way they were laying, enveloped in the darkness, that made it impossible to speak at a normal volume.
“Do you want me to leave?” The question and simple and straightforward, and Sam’s reaction was all gut instinct.
“No,” he said, too quickly, before his mind could process what he was going to say.
Bucky just nodded and squished the pillow he was laying on to a more comfortable angle. After a moment, Sam offered him part of the blanket. Within moments they were settled, both comfortably cocooned under the blanket and Bucky’s right arm was extended just enough for his knuckles to brush against Sam’s arm.
Sam fell asleep again quickly, feeling like for once he was on solid ground.
Sam had no memory of waking up, or of answering the phone. It was just there, pressed to his ear while Steve’s voice, all tightly controlled anger assaulted him.
“Are you okay?”
Sam blinked groggily, squinting at the clock but his eyes didn’t want to focus enough to make out the numbers. “It is like ass o’clock in the morning, Steve,” he grumbled. Now that he was awake, he was becoming uncomfortably aware of his throbbing side and he figured that if he was due for another dose of pain pills it probably wasn’t that early, but he didn’t retract his complaint.
“Yeah, well, you want to know how my day started? Natasha ate the last of my cheerios and informed me that you were in the hospital.” If Sam had been more awake, or Steve sounded less upset, Sam would have laughed.
“I never said I was in the hospital,” Sam protested. “I told her I’d been shot.”
Steve’s appalled silence was response enough and Sam groaned, pushing himself up so that he could speak more clearly without the pillow obstructing his mouth. “I’m fine,” he said, stressing the word. “It’s just a graze. They stitched me up and sent me home.”
“Are you alone?”
Sam’s dazed mind was baffled by the question. Why wouldn’t he be alone, and why should Steve care? Except before he could answer the bed beside him shifted and a metal hand lightly touched his back, accompanied by Bucky’s sleep deepened voice mumbling Sam’s name.
Sam nearly jumped out of his skin. He remembered, hazily, the events that had lead Bucky to being in his bed, but remembering was entirely different from being reminded in an inappropriately intimate way that had no actual bearing on what had happened. But Sam was pulled forcefully away from those thoughts as Steve continued talking in his ear.
“I can be there in a couple of hours,” Steve said. There was a hesitation in his voice, but the offer was genuine. “You shouldn’t be alone.”
Sam’s mouth gaped open. Both he and Steve had been soldiers for far too long to take a minor graze that seriously, and yet Steve was willing to drop everything - probably important Avengers things - to come babysit Sam while he healed. It was ridiculously touching and for a moment Sam almost said yes, until Bucky shifted again beside him, sitting up fully. Sam turned his head automatically so his eyes could track Bucky’s movements, and in the pale morning light that filtered in around the edge of Sam’s curtains he could see how Bucky’s hair stuck up in all directions before Bucky ran a hand through it in an attempt to smooth it down; and maybe Sam didn’t need another dose of medication, because either those pills had really screwed him over or he was legitimately finding Bucky adorable at that moment and either way he was royally fucked.
“Sam?” Steve prompted, when Sam was silent too long, and Sam snapped back to attention, ignoring the quizzical look Bucky gave him.
“Uh, no, man, don’t worry about it,” Sam said quickly. “Seriously. I’m fine. This is not a big deal.”
Steve still sounded displeased, but most of his anger had dissipated. “You should at least have your mom or someone check in on you,” he said reasonably.
“Yeah, I’ll get right on telling her about this,” Sam said. He didn’t mean it, but he knew that Steve had the resources - Natasha - to track down his mom’s number and tell her himself, so he figured it was better to just agree to it. “But not until a decent hour.”
“Sam, it’s eight o’clock,” Steve pointed out, a hint of humor creeping into his voice.
“Yeah, well, I got shot last night, I think I’m entitled to sleeping in just this once,” Sam grumbled and Steve actually laughed. It was a relief to hear. “Seriously, Steve, just relax,” Sam insisted, pushing himself out of bed, because despite what he had told Steve, he was now wide awake and he was pretty sure going back to sleep wouldn’t be happening. “You can do the whole hovering and making sure I’m fine thing when I’m up there next week.” Sam had been focused on trying to find clean clothes when he said the words, but he winced as soon as they had left his mouth. Bucky was still reclining on the bed, watching him with a carefully blank expression; Bucky, who Sam had forgotten to tell he was planning to visit Steve.
Sam held Bucky’s gaze for a moment, trapped in his mistake, explanations and apologies already on his lips, when Steve’s voice pulled him back to the conversation he was already having. “You’re still planning to come?” Steve sounded dubious, and the worry was back in his voice.
“Of course I’m still coming,” Sam said. His voice was a little too bright, too enthusiastic, and he forcibly pulled his eyes away from Bucky to resume his search for non-blood stained clothes. “You promised me a personal, all access tour of Avengers Tower, no way in hell I’m passing that up.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to postpone a few weeks-” Steve tried, there was something like disappointment in his voice, and that made Sam all the more glad to cut him off.
“Nope, I’ve already got the tickets,” he said firmly. “Don’t back out on me now, Rogers.”
Steve chuckled a little, and gave in. “Fine. Now go back to sleep,” Steve told him.
“Yes sir,” Sam answered with a crooked grin. The grin faded, however, as he let the phone drop onto the foot of the bed. Natalia, who was sleeping there, glowered at him and tucked her tail over her nose.
Bucky didn’t move. “You’re going to New York?” Bucky’s voice was as bland as his face. There was something wrong about the way he lay in the bed, propped up on his right arm with the blanket pooling around his waist that was sending very confused signals to Sam’s brain.
“It wasn’t really a concrete thing, until I bought the tickets yesterday.” It was a weak explanation and Sam knew it. “I was going to tell you over dinner.”
“I don’t care,” Bucky said, too casual to be the truth.
“You could come,” Sam offered. “You can’t keep avoiding him forever.”
Bucky’s face twitched and he sat up, turning his back to Sam as he sat on the edge of the bed and reached for his boots. “No,” he said. Sam wasn’t sure which part Bucky was saying no to exactly, but his tone made it clear that he would not be vacationing in New York with Sam.
Sam sighed; he was tired in a way that had nothing to do with the throbbing in his side. “I’m taking a shower,” he declared, snatching the nearest available clothes and turning on his heel.
Bucky just grunted and let him go.
Bucky went back to haunting the house. Sam knew he was around, but Bucky avoided him. Bucky didn’t show up at dinner time, or join Sam on the couch to read or watch tv after dinner. Sam woke up at the time that they would normally go on their run together, hoping to at least catch sight of Bucky, but Bucky had already left. After two days, Sam went back to work, unable to bear sitting around the house any longer. It was frustrating, but Bucky had been professionally trained in how to be a ghost for a long time, and as badly as they needed to talk, as long as Bucky wanted to avoid him, Sam could not pin him down.
In fact, the only thing that could draw Bucky out was the nightmares. They hit every night, leaving Sam drenched in sweat, adrenalin surging through his veins. And every night, Bucky was there to ground him. Sam didn’t know if Bucky heard his distress and came into his room, or if he hovered in the room waiting for the nightmare to wake Sam up, or, hell, if Bucky waited until Sam fell asleep to just crawl into Sam’s bed and stay the night, nightmares or no. But every time, without fail, when Sam woke up shaking and gasping for air, Bucky’s hand would land gingerly on his shoulder.
At first it was just a hand, brushing against Sam’s arm, reminding him of where he was and that he wasn’t alone. But then it was Bucky’s arm around his waist, and then Bucky’s legs tangled up with his, and Bucky’s breath tickling the hairs at the nape of his neck.
Sam wanted to talk about it, he needed them to talk about it, but in the moment, with the dream still fresh in his mind, he could never resist Bucky’s gentle pull back into the warmth and comfort of the bed. He couldn’t bring himself to say a word as he lay with Bucky pressed up against his back, and by the time the dream had faded back to the back of his mind, sleep always pulled him away again. In the morning, when Sam woke up, Bucky was always gone.
A week passed, and then it was the last day before Sam’s flight to New York. He decided to take the afternoon off after getting his stitches taken out. He told himself it was because he still needed to pack and make sure the house was in order before he left; it wasn’t at all because he hoped to catch Bucky unaware by the change in routine.
When Sam got home, there was a half eaten sandwich on the table, still warm from the toaster. “You’re acting like a child,” Sam informed the house at large, knowing Bucky could hear him. “Get your ass back in here.”
It took several minutes, but Bucky reluctantly emerged from his room. He held Natalia to his chest protectively, as though she could ward Sam off, and there was a distinctly petulant tilt to his lips.
Sam leaned back against the counter and crossed his arm. Bucky just stood there, staring at him, waiting expectantly. Sam was forcefully reminded of the first night Bucky had appeared on his stoop, when they’d staged a similar standoff. Except, this time Sam wasn’t intimidated, and he wasn’t going to wait for Bucky to speak.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Sam said, starting with the easy part. “I’ll only be gone for the weekend, so I’ll be back Monday.”
Bucky nodded stiffly. His face was carefully blank, but his arms tightened around the cat, until she meowed at him in protested and escaped the circle of his arms to sit regally on Bucky’s shoulder instead.
After a long silent, Sam sighed. “What is this, Bucky?” he asked with a helpless shrug. “I thought things were going good. But you have to talk to me, you have to tell me what you’re thinking.”
Bucky stared at him, his face not quite blank as a thousand microexpressions flitted across it too fast for Sam to read. Then Bucky carefully and deliberately lifted the cat off of his shoulder and set her down on the floor. “Have fun in New York,” he said, and turned away.
Sam reacted before he could think it through, a hot burst of anger exploding in his chest. He pushed away from the counter to follow Bucky. “Don’t walk away from me,” he called after Bucky, much louder than was necessary, though he wasn’t quite shouting. “We’re having a discussion here.”
Neither of them had made it more than a few steps, but those words made Bucky stop and whirled back around so fast it would have given a lesser man whiplash. “You’re not Steve!” Bucky snapped. His hands, metal and flesh, had clenched into tight fists and Sam could see a muscle in his jaw twitching as Bucky grit his teeth.
Sam blinked, the anger gone as soon as it had come. “No, I’m not,” he answered carefully. He kept moving, one slow step at a time, gradually closing the distance between them. “You didn’t go to Steve for help, you came to me. You came here. And I’m trying to help you. So tell me, what do you want?”
Bucky glared at him, his eyes hard and cold.
Sam knew it was stupid to push; he could see the defensive tension in Bucky’s shoulders, the subtle threat in Bucky’s tightened fists. But maybe he’d been giving Bucky too much space, maybe that was the problem. So he kept moving closer anyway. “What do you want from me, Bucky?” he asked. He kept his voice low, calm and nonthreatening, but he didn’t back off. “What do you want from us, from this? What do you want from life?”
“I don’t know!” Bucky snapped, the words bitten out like nails over gravel.
“Well you need to decide,” Sam insisted. “Because you can’t keep doing this to yourself, and you can’t keep doing it to me.”
“I don’t know,” Bucky said again, verging on a shout.
“You can’t keep haunting my house. You’re not a ghost anymore, you’re not Hydra’s any more. You need to-” Sam was almost close enough to touch Bucky; he wasn’t sure if he should, but he wanted to. He didn’t get the chance.
Before Sam could finish his sentence, a metal fist twisted in the front of his t-shirt and slammed him back against the wall. Then Bucky crowded in close, and for a second Sam was certain Bucky was about to rip out his throat. But Bucky’s hand stayed clenched in his shirt, keeping him pinned to the wall, while Bucky leaned in and kissed him.
The kiss was rough and hard and just this edge of violence. Bucky’s lips were surprisingly soft, and he’d missed, hitting Sam’s lips off center and from the wrong angle. But there was feeling there, anger and frustration and fear that had been pent up for god only knew how long, but also hunger and need and something almost hopeful.
Sam responded automatically. One of his hands lifted to cover Bucky’s metal one where it held on to him, while the other pushed back some of Bucky’s hair, cupping his face and pulling him closer all at once.
The kiss was short and burning, suffocating and not enough. It ended as abruptly as it began. Bucky pulled back, a furrow between his eyebrows and his lips twisted in a way that spoke of confusion and uncertainty that didn’t match the obvious want Sam could feel between his legs. And then Bucky was gone, leaving so fast he failed to close the front door completely behind him.
Sam was left staring after him, breathless and more frustrated than ever.
Bucky didn’t come back. It was the first time in a week that Sam woke up in the middle of the night alone. Sam waited for him as long as he could the next morning, but eventually he couldn’t wait any longer or he would miss his flight.
So he sighed, and left a note on the table.
Stop disappearing on me.
At least let me know you’re alive.
We are going to talk about this when I get back.
He placed a phone on the paper next to the second part of his message; it was about time Bucky started communicating better.
When Sam turned on his phone as he was getting off of the plane at JFK, he had a text message. It read simply I’m alive. Sam snorted and texted back, Smartass.
“Alright, so where’s the bowling alley and the gift shop?” Sam teased.
“Bowling alley is on the third floor, gift shop on the first by the exit,” Steve answered, totally deadpan. He held it for all of fifteen seconds before they both broke out laughing.
Steve typed his passcode into the keypad to access the private elevator that would take them to the upper level of Avengers tower, where the private residences were. Steve had already shown Sam around the lower levels, which were populated by offices and labs utilized by Stark industries and the new private reboot of SHIELD that Stark was putting together.
“My floor, please, JARVIS,” Steve said politely as they entered the elevator.
“Of course, Captain Rogers.” The equally polite, British voice came from the ceiling, though Sam couldn’t see any speakers. Sam jumped and swore at the voice, though Steve had told him about JARVIS before, so he really shouldn’t have been surprised.
Steve grinned, patting Sam’s shoulder in consolation. “You’ll get used to him,” Steve assured.
“Well, if your crusty ass did-” Sam muttered in response, which only made Steve laugh harder. “Seriously though, this place is-”
“Overwhelming?” Steve supplied.
“Kind of a let down,” Sam countered. “I mean, seriously, you’re still using elevators? No like short range teleporters?”
“Tony’s been busy,” Steve shrugged.
“And you do not want to see what happened when he tested the prototype,” Natasha added. Sam had hardly noticed that the elevator had spotted, but Natasha and Clint joined them, holding water bottles and wearing exercise clothes. Sam caught a glimpse of the floor they’d just left before the doors closed; it was the biggest gym he’d ever seen.
Clint shuddered. “I’m still traumatized from that,” he agreed.
Natasha gave Sam a high five by way of greeting and leaned against the wall next to him. “Did Steve tell you about the bowling alley?” she asked.
“I’ve heard rumors. Why, you want to play a game?”
“I do,” Clint piped up.
“No,” Natasha and Steve said together.
“Bowl a perfect game one time,” Clint muttered.
“You cheated,” Natasha said blandly.
“He cheated so badly that he shorted out the power to the entire floor,” Steve explained. “We still have no idea how he did it.”
“I’m feeling so attacked right now,” Clint complained, but before the conversation could devolve any further the elevator door opened again and Steve lead Sam off. They waved farewell to Clint and Natasha, promising to see them later.
Overall, it was a great night. Steve gave Sam some time to settle into his guestroom. Then they ended up ordering pizza and playing video games on Steve’s massive flat screen for most of the night.
Steve was embarrassed by the television, and by the fact that he had an entire floor of the tower for his apartment. He explained quickly that Stark had had the apartment decorated and furnished before Steve had moved. However, Steve was surprisingly good at Mario Kart, which he admitted was his favorite of the games that the rest of the team had introduced him to.
After several hours of pizza, beer, and smack talk, Sam sank back against the couch cushions, warm and aching from so much laughter. Steve slumped next to him, just close enough for their shoulders to touch. Sam watched Steve, who looked more relaxed than Sam had ever seen him, all loose limbed and smiling.
“You look good, Steve,” Sam said. Sam was entirely willing to blame the beers and the ridiculously comfortable couch for his lack of control over his tongue. “Happy, I mean,” he clarified.
Steve tilted his head at Sam, his smile turning bemused. “I am… I’m good,” Steve said, though he paused before completing the sentence.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Sam assured him, nudging Steve’s shoulder. “You’re allowed to be happy. But that doesn’t have to mean everything’s fixed,” Sam added, because the smile was fading from Steve’s eyes, and Sam knew that feeling all too well.
“You always know just what to say,” Steve teased, but his eyes were serious. “How do you do that?”
Sam snorted and shook his head. “Dumb luck,” he dismissed.
Steve let his head roll on the back of the couch to watch Sam, his eyes lazy and half lidded, worn out. “I’m glad I met you, Sam,” he murmured.
Sam blinked at him. Unlike Sam, Steve could not blame the beer, and Sam was very much distracted by the line of heat running up his body from where Steve’s body brushed against him from knee to shoulder.
“Well,” Steve said after a minute, breaking the contact as he heaved himself off of the couch. “I’m going to turn in. You good?”
“Yeah,” Sam confirmed, trying to ignore the ache that the lost contact caused. “I’m good. Night.”
Steve responded in kind, collecting their empty beer bottles and depositing them in the kitchen on his way to his room.
Sam stayed where he was for several more minutes, listening to Steve checking the locks on the door and windows, even though they were electrically controlled by JARVIS, and summoning the energy to head toward his own waiting bed.
When he finally did crawl between the sheets, he checked his phone absently before setting it on the bedside table. He had a text message that read, If you have a nightmare, call me.
The next morning, Sam and Steve toured New York. They went for a jog in Central Park, visited Steve’s favorite diner, and then Steve took Sam for a tour of his old neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Come on,” Sam wheedled as he and Steve crossed the lobby of Avengers tower, on their way back to Steve’s floor for lunch. “You’ve got to let me see some of your sketches. It’s not like I haven’t already seen your work, they had some on display at the Smithsonian.”
“So you don’t need to see my sketchbook,” Steve argued, a distinctive pink tint to his cheeks.
“Oh no, it’s not the same. I want to see your current stuff,” Sam insisted.
“Hey Cap.” It was a voice that Sam knew well from the news and various celebrity gossip shows. Tony Stark was strolling across the lobby toward them, a tall man in Air Force Blues at his side.
“Tony,” Steve greeted, stopping to allow the other men to reach them. “How was Burma?”
“Wet, and boring,” Tony said, waving a hand dismissively. “Hey, look, the new guy.” Tony grinned at Sam in a way that made Sam feel vaguely as though he was missing out on something.
“Sam, you know who Tony Stark is,” Steve said, his tone polite but filled with an over abundance of patience, “and this is-”
“Colonel Rhodes,” Sam interrupted, grinning as he stepped forward to shake the Colonel’s hand.
“Wilson,” Rhodey greeted, matching Sam’s grin. “Good to see you. I heard about what you did in DC, good job.”
“Thank you, sir.” It had been a few years since Sam had seen Colonel Rhodes; he looked a little more tired, a little grayer around the edges.
Tony had his eyes narrowed at Rhodey. “You’ve been holding out on me,” he accused.
Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Tony, you knew I worked on the EXO-Falcon project. You did too, remember?”
“Yes, Rhodey, I’m aware of that. What I didn’t know is that you’re all best buds with Cap’s new side kick.”
“Hey, wait a minute-”
Steve, Rhodey, and Sam all protested at once.
Tony raised an eyebrow at them, and Rhodey turned back to Sam, pointedly ignoring Tony. “So how long are you in town for? I still owe you a drink,” Rhodey said.
“No way, it’s my turn,” Sam protested. “I’m here until Sunday.”
“Great,” Rhodey nodded, shaking Sam’s hand again. “We’ll set something up. Tony, we’re two hours late for a meeting.” Rhodey nodded politely to Steve as he dragged Tony off.
“So, you know Colonel Rhodes,” Steve said, as they resumed heading for the elevators.
“Yeah, he oversaw all of our flight tests. He’s a great guy,” Sam agreed. Sam spent the entire ride to the upper floors telling Steve stories from his training days, about the time he’d almost crashed the first time he’d taken the Falcon suit up and how Colonel Rhodes had caught him in the War Machine armor, and the time Riley had almost convinced Rhodes to let him try out the War Machine armor when they’d had a few too many drinks after they got off duty.
Steve took them to one of the common floors instead of his private one, claiming that the common kitchen was better, and the adjacent entertainment room had a better selection of games to play.
While Steve and Sam were fixing themselves lunch, Thor, who was somehow even more impressive in real life than on tv, wandered in. After they finished eating, Thor challenged Steve to a ping pong match, which went disastrously. Natasha arrived just in time to see Steve accidentally put a ping pong ball through the wall, and she suggested they try a quieter activity. After some enthusiastic debate, they pulled up Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix. Halfway through the pilot, Bruce Banner peeked in. Steve motioned for Bruce to join them, and he did, settling himself in a plush armchair. After that it was only a matter of time until Clint appeared to plop himself in Natasha’s lap, and finally Tony too arrived. By the time they started the fourth episode, Clint and Natasha were tangled up together in one of the armchair while Clint braided Natasha’s hair; Thor was sprawled out, taking up the entire couch; Tony was sitting on the floor, leaning against Bruce’s chair while they passed a tablet between them; meanwhile, Sam and Steve were at the center of it all, settled comfortably on the loveseat.
It was nice. It was really nice. At some point massive bowls of popcorn had appeared, and no one was sitting quietly; Clint and Tony especially were fond of yelling at the television, while Thor laughed uproariously at every joke, and no one could resist commenting on various aspects of the plots.
When it came down to it, it was too good to last. Half way through the fifth episode, everyone’s phones started to go off at once, and Sam was left watching as they all snapped into action around him.
“Robots tearing up Park Avenue,” Bruce read aloud, frowning at his tablet. “Looks like they’re heading this way.”
“At least thirty of them. Unknown origin,” Natasha added, already standing, her movements dumping Clint unceremoniously off of her lap.
“No reported casualties yet, but they’re doing a lot of property damage,” Steve said, frowning unhappily.
“Suit up,” Clint muttered, turning off the television with a resigned sigh.
“Sorry,” Steve said apologetically to Sam as he stood. “Make yourself at home. Hopefully this won’t take too long.” And then they scattered, heading in different directions, presumably to gear up.
Sam sat on the couch twiddling his thumbs for a full three seconds. “Fuck this,” he muttered, pushing himself up and heading in the direction Natasha had gone. He didn’t have to go far to catch up with her. “Hey, Natasha, do you have some extra guns I can borrow?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, assessing him for a moment, then grinned, but before she could say anything Tony interrupted. “I can do you one better,” Tony said. “This way.” He made an imperious gesture, and didn’t wait to see if Sam was following them.
Tony led the way do the center of the tower and down a narrow flight of stairs. Sam followed him; Steve had left this part of the tower out of his tour. The landing at the bottom of the stairs led through a glass door into a massive and ridiculously cluttered lab. Wires and pieces of circuitry littered every flat surface and three, massive, one-armed robots buzzed around. It was a lot to take in, but Tony was walking quickly and there was no time to slow down.
“Here we go,” Tony announced. They’d reached a section of the lab that was relatively clear, and circled by glass display cases. Several of the cases were empty, but the rest housed a variety of Iron Man suits. Tony bypassed the cases to what looked like a closet set in the wall beside them.
“No way,” Sam exclaimed when he saw what Tony pulled out of the closet. “I thought the last one got destroyed in D.C.” He just barely restrained the urge to make actual grabby hands for the wings that Tony held out to him.
“Yeah, well, I have a problem with letting things go, ask my girlfriend,” Tony waved it off. He handed over the wings and moved away into the open space in front of the display cases. “I kept tinkering with it even after they shut down the project. That one’s a little more powerful than the one you’re used to, but the controls are still basically the same. Come back later and I’ll let you play with the real toys.”
Sam was so busy strapping himself into the wings that he almost missed the pieces of armor flying across the room to attach themselves to Tony. “Don’t forget this,” Tony said, tossing Sam an ear piece. Moments later they were both suited up and Tony led the way out into the open sky.
No matter how many times Sam flew, it still twisted his stomach into knots. It was terrifying and elating all at once. He drew in his wings, corkscrewing until he was high above the tower and he let out an elated whoop.
“Play time’s over, Wilson,” Tony reminded him wryly through the earpiece. “Time to go to work.”
In seconds they were hovering over Park Avenue, where no less than thirty twenty-foot-tall robots appeared to be methodically stepping on every car they came across.
“Now that’s just insulting,” Tony complained.
“Any idea where they came from, Tony?” Steve’s voice came over the earpiece. When Sam flew lower to the ground he could see that the rest of the team had arrived, along with a squad of defected SHIELD agents that Tony had brought in as Avenger’s backup.
“They’re too high quality to be Hammer tech,” Tony said. “But I’ll need a closer look to narrow it down any more than that.
“We’ll try to leave one in more or less one piece for you,” Steve promised. The SHIELD squad were barricading the street on both ends to contain the robots. Thor carried Clint to the top of a nearby building while Steve and Natasha approached the robots at the ground level. Most of the civilians on the street had already run for cover, leaving their empty cars behind.
“Well, this is going to be fun,” Natasha said dryly. She leapt on top of one of the abandoned cars, shooting her stingers at the nearest robot.
Thor began swinging his hammer at every robot that came within reach. “The noble widow speaks truly,” Thor agreed with enthusiasm.
“We are trying to keep the damage to a minimum,” Tony reminded. “Otherwise we’d just be siccing the Hulk on them.”
“I prefer the minimum damage plan,” Bruce said. He was hanging back with the line of ex-SHIELD agents, just in case.
“By the way, guys,” Clint interrupted, “the robots have flamethrowers.” He was shooting at the robots from his rooftop perch, though his arrows seemed to be having little effect on the thick metal casing that cover the robots, other than to make them mad. One of the robots made a blind swipe at Clint, though Clint was several stories out of reach. The robot’s metal fist instead dragged through the glass front of the office building Clint was perched on, leaving a massive hole in the side of the building. The workers inside, who had been all but pressing their noses against the glass to watch the fight going on inside, screamed and ran for cover.
“I could short them out, if I could just find an opening,” Clint muttered in frustration.
“Working on it,” Steve answered, using his shield to wrench a hole in one of the robot’s casings.
Sam swooped in, catching the attention of the robot that had gone after Clint and leading it away from the already damaged building and right into one of Tony’s repulsor blasts. Before Sam could pick his next target, a woman’s scream caught his attention. The floor was tilting dangerously where the robot had smashed into the side of the building, threatening to collapse onto the floor below it. A woman was clinging desperately to a wall support as the floor beneath her tilted and groaned ominously.
“I’ve got the civilian,” Sam announced, banking and heading back toward the building.
“Sam? What are you doing?” Steve asked, as though he’d only just realized Sam was present; which, to be fair, Sam was flying above the battle while Steve was in the thick of it.
“Getting the civilian,” Natasha said, “he literally just said that. Someone needs to get that building fully evacuated.” She had her legs wrapped around the neck joints of one of the robots as she dug a knife into it, and her voice was distinctly impatient.
Sam caught the woman just as her grip began to slip and set her down safely on the other side of the barricade. From there the battle went relatively quickly. Tony applied his repulsor blasts, while Thor went to town with his hammer. Steve and Natasha and Sam worked together to break through the robots’ outer casing, so that Clint could shoot electrified arrows into their mechanics, effectively frying them.
The clean up took longer than the fight itself had, and by the time they headed back to the tower the sun was setting. Steve avoided looking at Sam, even as they got into the elevator together, heading for Steve’s floor to clean themselves up. The strained silence between them lasted until the elevator doors finally opened and the two of them stepped out into Steve’s apartment.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Steve demanded, stopping and crossing his arms over his chest.
“I was thinking, if I’m going to hang out with the Avengers-,” Sam started, not even dignifying Steve with a look as he unharnessed himself from the wings and set them carefully down on the table.
“Sam!” Steve’s voice bordered on a shout, cutting Sam off.
“Okay, what the hell is your problem?” Sam’s patience snapped and he turned to face Steve, his arms crossed over his chest. “What exactly did I do to make you think that you couldn’t trust me to have your back in a fight? Because that’s what you’re saying right now.”
Steve froze, looking dumbfounded. “I’m not,” he protested, but the fight was draining out of him and his shoulders slumped, and the protest was weak at best. “That’s not what I meant,” he corrected.
“What then?” Sam uncrossed his arms, spreading them in a come-at-me gesture. The words hurt as they left Sam’s throat, because this was about more than what had happened with the robots. “Why don’t you want me here?”
“I invited you here.” Steve eyebrows came together in offended confusion.
Sam made a frustrated gesture. “Yeah, you’re fine with me here, in the tower, playing games and goofing off. And you’re fine with me when I’m in D.C. listening to all your problems over the phone-” Sam was working himself up into a full steam, finally letting himself acknowledge all the hurt that he’d been hiding - even from himself - since Steve had left him behind in D.C. But before he could get any further, Steve cut him off.
Steve closed the distance between them in three steps until he was suddenly standing in Sam’s personal space, his head ducked just a little so that they were eye level. Steve’s mouth was pressed into a thin line and there was an intensity that burned so brightly in his eyes that it was difficult to meet his gaze. “I want you here,” Steve said, very softly and very seriously.
It literally stole Sam’s breath. For a moment, Sam forgot everything except Steve and his ridiculously earnest eyes. Sam wasn’t entirely sure which of them did the moving, but the space between them had been negligible to begin with and as soon as their lips touched it didn’t really matter anyway.
All too quickly Steve pulled back, looking apologetic and it was all Sam could do to resist the urge to chase Steve’s lips. Steve still had his cowl on, the cowl that did basically nothing to protect his identity with its stupid little wings on the sides, and there was basically no blood left in Sam’s head because he had the nearly hysterical urge to laugh. He reached out and pushed back the cowl, revealing the rest of Steve’s dirty, sweat streaked face. “You’re a mess,” Sam teased, leaning in close enough to taste Steve’s air. “What do you say we get out of these dirty clothes?” Sam suggested, wiggling an eyebrow. It was worth it to see Steve blush to the roots of his hair. It was even more worth it when Steve bodily picked Sam up and headed for his bedroom.
“Wow,” Sam said, laughing as he sprawled across the bed. “That was-” Words failed him and he just laughed again, filled with the euphoria a great orgasm. Steve lay quietly beside him, staring at the ceiling, and Sam frowned, leaning up on his elbow so that he could get a better look at Steve’s face. “I mean, it was for me,” he added.
Steve glanced at Sam, and his mouth twisted into something that looked like a smile, but didn’t quite work. “No, it was… nice,” Steve assured.
“Nice,” Sam repeated. He narrowed his eyes at Steve. He definitely remembered Steve making noises that had implied a lot more than ‘nice’. “I don’t know if you were just in the same bed I was, but ‘nice’ is not the word I’d use right now.”
Steve sat up, running a distracted hand through his ruffled hair. “It’s just… been a while,” he said, not looking at Sam, and the bottom of Sam’s stomach dropped out. “I should go check in with Tony.” Steve sat on the edge of the bed, his shoulders slumping for a moment before he pushed himself up and started getting dressed.
“Steve-” Sam tired, sitting up. He wanted to reach out to Steve, wanted to pull him back into bed and comfort him somehow. But he didn’t, he couldn’t. Because Sam wasn’t the one Steve needed comfort from.
“We still don’t know who was behind the attack earlier,” Steve said, keeping his back to Sam as he dressed and headed for the door. “We’ll have lunch or something before you leave,” Steve promised. He paused in the doorway, glancing back at Sam; there was something sad and guilty in Steve’s eyes.
Sam didn’t stop him, he just stared after Steve before heading for the shower.
When Sam got out of the shower he dug his phone out of his discarded clothes and heading for the kitchen. Pouring himself a glass of water, and not knowing what else to do, he sank into one of the chairs sitting at haphazard angles around Steve’s small kitchen table.
He had a text message. It read, The cat misses you.
Sam sat there for a long time, twiddling the phone in his hands, his gaze running over the words of the text message again and again as he absorbed them until his eyes began to film over. He shook his head, blinking sharply, because he was not going to fucking cry.
“Hey JARVIS?” he said, clearing his throat. It was weird, talking the empty room and knowing it would answer back, but if Steve could get used to it, so could Sam. “Is Steve in the tower?”
“He is in the gymnasium, sir,” JARVIS answered crisply. “Shall I summon him for you?”
“No,” Sam said, a little too quickly. “Thank you.”
“Of course, sir.” Sam was imagining things, projecting onto the robotic voice, because no robot, not even one built by Tony Stark was capable of emotions, and therefore there was no way that there was a note of pity in JARVIS’ voice.
Sam sat there for a moment longer, tired and aching, and tired of being tired and aching. Then he pushed himself decisively away from the table; it was time to go home.
It took him a matter of minutes to pack up his stuff and then he was ready to go. He took one last look around to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, and his eyes caught on the wings he’d left on the table, folded up neatly into their closed, jetpack shape. He paused, reaching out to run a reverent finger over the smooth casing. For about half of a wild second, he considered trying to take them with him, but he forced himself to turn away and head for the elevator.
When the elevator came to a stop on the ground floor, Natasha was there waiting for it. She raised an eyebrow when she saw Sam, and then wiggled it. “Need a break already?” she said, in a tone that implied she knew exactly what Steve and Sam had ended up doing when they got back to the tower. Sam didn’t want to think about that, or anything else she was implying; luckily he was saved from answering when she caught sight of the bag in his hand. “You’re leaving?”
“I’m going home,” Sam said shortly. He liked Natasha, but he had never been less in the mood to talk before. “If Steve ever pulls his head out of his ass, tell him he can call me.”
He hoped that would be enough for her, and judging from the way her mouth pinched into a thin line and her eyes went hard, it was. “I’ll get right on that,” she promised, stepping purposefully into the elevator.
Sam kept walking.
By the time Sam made it back to his house he could barely keep his eyes open and it seemed like one of the most beautiful sights he’d ever seen. There were a few books spread out on the kitchen table, and blanket crumpled up on the couch, but otherwise it looked the same, and Sam let out an unconscious breath of relief.
A part of him was desperate to talk to Bucky, but he was far too tired for the conversation that they really needed to have, to he decided to wait and headed for his bedroom instead. As it turned out, Sam could both go to bed and see Bucky at the same time. He found Bucky sprawled out across what had somehow become Bucky’s side of Sam’s bed. Bucky was curled up on his side, one arm tucked under his pillow, the other stretching out across the empty half of the bed. The sight might the knot of tension and misery in Sam’s chest loosen a little. Sam wasn’t sure how or when it had happened, but seeing Bucky fast asleep in his bed felt like truly coming home.
The cat, who had been sleeping on Sam’s pillow, noticed his presence first. She stood, stretching her whole body from toes to tail as she yawned, then leapt delicately off of the bed. She meowed, winding herself around Sam’s legs a few times before trotting off toward the kitchen.
Bucky jerked up, though he stopped just short of pulling the gun that Sam was pretty sure he was holding under the pillow. “Sam?” he asked, squinting at him in the near darkness. “I thought you weren’t coming back until tomorrow.”
“Technically,” Sam said, dropping his bag carelessly in the middle of the floor, “it is tomorrow.”
“You know what I mean,” Bucky said. He’d relaxed again, but he was still half sitting up in bed, watching Sam.
Sam stripped down to his boxers unceremoniously; he’d started wearing a shirt and shorts at least to bed since he’d been sharing it with Bucky, but right then he was just too tired to care. Besides, Bucky wasn’t wearing a shirt either, so it was only fair. “I missed the cat,” Sam said, deadpan as he crawled between the sheets and flopped down on his pillow, careless of the cat hair.
Bucky smiled a little, but it didn’t last. “Did something happen?” he asked, and as nice as it was to hear the concern in Bucky’s voice, Sam flinched a little from the question.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Sam announced, evading the question with an exhausted lack of finesse. Sam could feel Bucky’s gaze prickling against the back of his neck, but thankfully Bucky didn’t press the issue.
“Okay,” Bucky said after a moment. He settled himself back down on the pillow and pulled the blanket around himself.
They lay there in silence while Sam hid himself in his pillow and took several deep breaths. Reluctantly, he rolled onto his side so that he could face Bucky. “We’ll talk about it, about everything, in the morning,” Sam promised quietly.
Bucky rolled his head to look at Sam, studying Sam’s face in the darkness. “Technically, it is morning,” Bucky reminded him, his lips twitching a little. Sam swatted at him with a spare pillow.
Once Sam had settled down again, Bucky rolled onto his side, reaching out and draping an arm over Sam’s waist. “I won’t disappear again,” Bucky promised, his voice nothing more than a whisper in the space between their pillows.
Sam swallowed against the lump in his throat, and impulsively shifted closer to rest his forehead against Bucky’s shoulder. They were asleep within minutes.
When Sam woke up, it was to Bucky pressed up against his back and Bucky’s flesh arm draped over his waist. It was a position that Sam was getting used to all too quickly, and liked a little too much.
“Something did happen,” Sam said quietly, once he was awake enough to speak. He knew that Bucky was awake, and somehow it was easier to talk about it like this, almost naked and tangled up in Bucky’s arms, without needing to look at him. “Between me and Steve.”
“You had sex,” Bucky said. His voice was pitched low, but matter of fact. It wasn’t a question.
“Sort of,” Sam admitted. He felt guilty all of a sudden, like he’d cheated.
“Why did you come home early?” Bucky’s arm tightened around Sam and Sam felt the tip of Bucky’s nose brushing against the nape of his neck. Sam couldn’t be sure, but it felt like absolution.
It took Sam minute to answer. He could still see Steve’s expression as he walked away, the one that had said you’re not him. “He still loves you,” Sam answered at last. He hated how his voice cracked, just a little on the last word.
Sam wasn’t sure how he’d expected Bucky to react, but he certainly hadn’t expected Bucky to press a kiss to the juncture of Sam’s neck and shoulder. “Steve can love more than one person at once,” Bucky murmured. “He’s done it before.”
That made Sam pull away enough to turn around; he needed to see Bucky, to know if Bucky really was as calm as he sounded.
“And he does love you,” Bucky continued. He let Sam pull away, withdrawing his arm from around Sam’s waist and shifting to prop himself up on his elbow. “I can hear it in his voice when he’s talking to you.”
“I knew you were eavesdropping on our conversations,” Sam accused, because he needed time to process what Bucky was actually saying.
Bucky ignored him. Bucky’s gaze was fixed on the blanket pooled between them, and picked at a loose thread as he spoke words that seemed to come slowly, from somewhere deep within him; words that he’d been waiting to speak for a while. “I still don’t remember everything,” Bucky muttered. “But I remember most of it. The important stuff, I guess. Mostly it’s… jumbled and out of order. But I know him, I know, or at least who he used to be.”
Sam let Bucky talk, afraid to interrupt him, afraid to break the flow of words that had been bottled up for so long.
“It’s in his laugh,” Bucky continued after a moment, licking his lips as he searched for the next words. “He has different laughs for different people. And how he laughs when he talks to you? He doesn’t laugh like that very often.”
Sam opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He wondered if the last person Steve had laughed like that with had been Bucky; probably, Sam was willing to bet. He wondered if it hurt Bucky to hear that laugh aimed at someone else. Impulsively, Sam reached out and covered Bucky’s hand with his own, stilling its motions before Bucky could tear a hole in the blanket. “Can you love more than one person at once?” Sam asked quietly.
Bucky’s hand twitched under Sam’s, and though he didn’t pull away he did studiously avoid looking at Sam. He didn’t answer for long enough that Sam started to worry that he had pushed too hard, that Bucky would run away from him again.
“I don’t know if I can love any one any more,” Bucky said at last, his voice very quiet. He hesitated, his jaw working as he struggled with himself. “But, I think…” he started again. “I think I’m ready to try.” He looked up then, meeting Sam’s eyes. There was something almost hopeful in Bucky’s eyes, and it struck Sam down to his core.
“I think,” Sam said, his lips twitching a little, “that I’m going to need you to kiss me now.”
Bucky’s lips curled and he complied. The kiss was nothing like the last one, which had been all anger and desperation. This one was sweet and slow, tentative and exploratory all at once. The tension went out of Bucky as he sank into the kiss, and Sam pulled him closer, curling his fingers in the soft hairs at the nape of Bucky’s neck.
It was nice, to forget about everything for a while, to just lay in bed with Bucky’s body warm and solid beside him. They exchanged lazy kisses and soft touches with no real purpose or urgency to them. They didn’t break apart until Natalia leapt onto the bed and climbed over Sam to sit purposefully between them and stare at them both expectantly.
Bucky raised an eyebrow at her. “I think someone is hungry,” Bucky observed, as Natalia watched him unblinkingly.
“That makes two of us,” Sam admitted, though he pulled back reluctantly.
“Time for breakfast, then,” Bucky said. He scooped Natalia up, uncaring that he was wearing nothing but a pair of - Sam’s - sweatpants, and stood.
“It’s twelve-thirty in the afternoon,” Sam pointed out, checking the clock as he too rolled out of bed.
“Have you eaten yet today? No. Time for breakfast,” Bucky threw back over his shoulder as he headed for the kitchen.
Sam laughed, reaching for the nearest pair of sweatpants and shirt that he could find before following Bucky. Giving in, Sam pulled out the ingredients for pancakes while Bucky fed the cat. Sam was in the process of ladling the first pancake into the griddle with a sharp and persistent knock on the door interrupted them. Sam set down the pitcher of batter carefully, exchanging a confused look with Bucky before going to answer it. The knocking didn’t stop, but remained a consistent, energetic tattoo against the wooden screen all the way until Sam opened the door.
There stood Steve, his hair wide and his eyes tired, his whole body seeming to vibrate with built up tension as he braced his hands on either side of the door. “I’m sorry,” Steve blurted, before Sam had even finished fully opening the door. “I’m not really good at this, at… at needing people, or wanting them. And I’m really not good at accepting that maybe they want me to around too. And I… I panicked. I was unfair to you, I’ve been being unfair to you for a long time now, and I-”
Sam just stood there, holding the door open and staring at Steve, dumbfounded, while Steve rambled. Steve didn’t even stopping for breath until he stopped entirely, his whole body going deathly still as his eyes fixed on a point somewhere over Sam’s shoulder. Sam turned to look at what Steve had made Steve stop, though, with the dawning horror of a nightmare, he had a feeling he already knew.
Bucky stood in the hallway behind Sam, his face pale and his eyes wide as he stared back at Steve. Neither of the two moved while Sam stood, stuck between them. “Steve-” Sam started, unsure what he could actually say, but knowing that nothing could be fixed while they remained in this standoff.
Steve’s eyes snapped to Sam. “How long?” Steve asked, his voice very quiet.
Sam opened his mouth, but nothing came out. To both of their surprise it was Bucky who spoke. “He didn’t tell you because I asked him not to,” Bucky said. He was closing the distance between them slowly, each movement stiff and deliberate.
Steve glanced between them a few times, then deliberately turned on his heel and walked away. Sam moved automatically to go after Steve, but Bucky’s metal hand landed on Sam’s shoulder, stopping him. “I’ll go,” Bucky said, heading through the door. He didn’t chase Steve, like Sam would have, he just walked stubbornly in the direction Steve had gone.
Sam was left behind, standing in the doorway and staring after them like an idiot for an embarrassingly long time. Eventually, he returned to the kitchen, turned off the stove, and dumped the burnt crisp of a pancake into the trash.
And then something inside of him snapped. He found his phone, completely unsurprised when he found that a number labeled Tony Stark had been programmed into it.
“So, about those fun toys you mentioned,” Sam said, without bothering with a greeting, as soon as the call was picked up.
“So you and Cap did do it,” Tony said. “Congrats. Clint owes me fifty bucks.”
Sam grit his teeth. “This has nothing to do with Steve,” Sam said firmly. “This has to do with me, and what I have to offer. So what do you say, do you have room for me?”
“It’ll take a little while to get your floor decorated-” Tony said, and his voice was somehow triumphant.
“That won’t be necessary,” Sam cut him off. “I won’t be living in the tower.”
Tony paused for a moment. “Fair enough. But you are going to have to be living in New York.”
“I’m aware of that. So I’m in?” Sam absolutely did not hold his breath while he waited for Tony’s answer.
“Welcome to the team, Wilson. You’ve got a week; training starts next Monday.”
After they hung up, Sam texted Natasha. Then he dug some cardboard boxes out of his garage and started packing.
He was in the living room, packing his books when the front door opened and closed, then a few seconds later, opened and closed again. “Sam?” Steve’s voice was tentative and uncertain.
“Living room,” Sam answered, neutrally.
Steve came into the room slowly, pausing when he saw what Sam was doing. Bucky was just a few steps behind him. Sam forced himself to remain focused on his task. After a moment Bucky gradually moved into the room and sat down on the couch, watching Sam. Steve continued to stand awkwardly in the doorway.
“Are we going somewhere?” Bucky asked, his voice casual, as though he didn’t care, as though nothing major and life altering was happening.
“New York,” Sam answered. He closed the box he’d been filling and stood, turning to face them both. “You’re looking at the newest Avenger.”
Steve blinked. “You’re moving into the Tower?”
“No, I’m moving into an apartment near the Tower.” Sam paused, glancing at Bucky. “It’s up to you, Bucky, if you want to join me.”
Bucky shrugged. “I’ve got nowhere better to be,” he said.
“Sam,” Steve started, frowning, “if this is about-”
“This is about me,” Sam cut him off. “This is what I want.”
Steve studied Sam for a moment, then nodded. “What about…” Steve paused, glancing between the two of them uncertainly. Steve licked his lips uncomfortably and cleared his throat before he finally finished with, “us?”
“I can’t speak for Bucky,” Sam said, glancing at Bucky, who remained seated on the couch, watching the two of them calculatingly. “But I think we have a lot of talking to do, the three of us.” Steve looked a little like he was expecting to be hit, and Sam’s response caught him by surprise. “But for the record?” Sam added. Slowly he crossed the room, closing the space between himself and Steve. “I want you, Steve, a lot. I get that that’s not an easy thing for you, and that you’re scared as hell, because I am too. But you don’t get to call all the shots, from here on out, we’re in this together. So I’m coming to New York. And you, Bucky, and I are going to have a lot of very difficult conversations in the coming months, and we’re going to work something out. Deal?” Sam glanced pointedly at both Steve and Bucky.
Bucky stood, coming over to join them. Carefully, he reached out and took Sam’s hand. “I’m in,” Bucky said, giving Sam a small smile.
They both turned to look at Steve expectantly. Steve fidgeted, glancing between them. Bucky held his free hand out to Steve, a silent offer, and slowly, after a long minute, Steve took it. “We’ll work something out,” Steve agreed quietly. “Together.”